Reviewby Theron Martin,
DVD - Complete Collection (Classic Line)
“Make a pilgrimage for the past with me.”
With those words, a picture of a high school girl named Kirika Yumara, and a tune which evokes her worst memory from childhood, assassin Mireille Bouquet, a true Daughter of Corsica, gets drawn into a mystery more deadly even than her usual line of work. Kirika, as Mireille soon discovers, lies at the heart of multiple enigmas: a girl who remembers that she is Noir (although not what that means), who Mireille is and what she does for a profession, and nothing else, and yet possesses a watch intrinsically linked to that awful event in Mireille's past. Kirika also quickly proves to be a monstrously skilled killer, one who can act so emotionlessly that her lack of feeling distresses her. To get to the bottom of the mysteries, Mireille teams up with Kirika under the code name Noir, with the promise that Mireille will kill Kirika once the truths behind the mysteries have been uncovered. As the duo works regular assassination jobs and struggles for their lives against the machinations of a secretive enemy they come to know as Les Soldats, Mireille and Kirika gradually come to understand that their destinies are inextricably intertwined by a black thread of fate and that the code name they chose carries deeper and broader meaning than they could have possibly imagined.
The “girls with guns” subgenre of action anime was already well-established when this 26-episode series first aired in Japan in 2001, but Noir is still recognized as one of the preeminent titles of its type because it redefined what a “girls with guns” title could be. Instead of a fun-loving tale about wild girls committing random mayhem, this was a sleek, elegant story about cold-blooded killers whose tone, emphasis on secretive manipulations, and general pessimism about human nature make it anime's most pronounced homage to classic film noir (doubtlessly not a coincidence, given the series' name). Instead of blatant fan service appeal, it delivered a subtler degree of sexiness. And instead of just using one-off stories or mini-arcs, it has an overarching plot deeply anchored into its characters' backstories.
Part of the series' appeal lays with its central duo, which has joined Yuri and Kei, the eponymous Dirty Pair, as one of anime's most iconic female teams. Except for hair color, the Noir ladies' appearances generally conform to the anime standard: one is curvaceous, feminine, and sports longer hair (Mireille), while the other has short hair and a more tomboyish look (Kirika). Their personality distribution decidedly breaks the mold, however. Mireille is a consummate professional, one who certainly allows herself the simpler pleasures like sunbathing and a casual break at a café but nonetheless carries out her tasks in a cold, businesslike fashion and prefers to keep people at a distance, as if to prevent them from interfering with her mindset. She is not above getting emotional, but neither is she in any way nurturing, caring, or kind. Kirika is instead cut more from Rei Ayanami cloth: soft-spoken, emotionally stunted, and rather nihilistic, with amnesia thrown in for good measure. Unlike Rei, though, Kirika does not know who she is or what her purpose should be, and the intense vulnerability and fragility that she radiates outside of action scenes make her a precursor of the moe craze that came along later in the decade. The contrast between that vulnerability and her phenomenal capabilities in a fight (even a plastic student ID card becomes a deadly weapon in her hand) makes her a perfect fit with Mireille, as she presents a compelling but non-threatening mystery while still being able to equal and even upstage Mireille in action mode, and how well they fit together is what make them such an intriguing match. Indeed, that even becomes a crucial plot point late in the series, once Chloe – the third girl in the equation of what Noir really is – enters the picture.
Although the first third of the series does feature a couple of stand-alone episodes and one two-episode arc, most of Noir's jobs figure into the bigger picture involving the Soldats either directly, through exploring the mysteries inherent to Noir, or as a trial engineered by an unknown enemy which turns out to be the Soldats. Even episodes that do not involve being tested by the Soldats or learning the truth about them can be revealing, as they feed into the series' recurring themes about sin and how forcibly combating it can require one to become awash in it. In terms of story content, the best episode is the one with the least action and Soldats connection: episode 6, “The Lost Kitten,” which involves an assassination mission against a former KGB officer who once directed one of Stalin's pogroms but has since anonymously devoted his life to humanitarian causes. It raises powerful questions about whether or not one can truly achieve atonement in this world for past heinous acts even if one does seek it. The weakest, contrarily, is probably the two-part “The Intoccabile” story, which takes a hackneyed look into the Cosa Nostra and struggles to present a case where Mireille might be genuinely intimidated. The rest average more towards the high side, helped along by the vast array of locations that the series visits; Mireille may base her activities out of a loft in Paris, and its environs do pop up in several episodes, but part or all of some episodes take place in Taiwan, Japan, the Middle East, New York City, Russia, Germany, Corsica, the Pyrenees, and a fictional country implied to be in Africa.
The action component is, of course, also a key part of the series. Although Chloe specializes in throwing knives, Kirika occasionally flashes some nifty acrobatics, and Mireille, Kirika, and Chloe all demonstrate hand-to-hand capabilities at various points, the vast bulk of the action focuses on gunplay, especially the various cool stunts Kirika can perform, like shooting people in a darkened room based on the sound of them stepping on popcorn. Shooting up faceless bad guys does get repetitive after a while, but enough of the action scenes are slickly-executed to get and keep a viewer's attention and new twists do occasionally pop up, such as the Taiwanese assassin who specializes in poisoned fingernails. Although the heroines do improbably escape harm on a few occasions, they are not shown as invulnerable; in fact, a serious injury to one is a major plot point in one episode.
For all of its positive merits, the series does have a few nagging problems. Flashbacks play a big role in the series, as the progressive revelation of how the watch fits into Mireille's past is critical to the sense of mystery, but both flashbacks and scene repetitions get heavily overused early on, to the point that they sometimes feel more like budget-cutting tricks. The artistry also has a startling lack of blood to go with its high body count; in fact, blood is only shown at all when it serves as a plot device. Character rending quality is erratic in places, use of shadowing effects (especially on faces and necks) is below normal anime standards, and dramatic pans and face-offs are used heavily to minimize animation.
In general, though, this is still a good-looking (if only adequately animated) series. The artistry does show its age some but also splendidly recreates the wide array of environs the series uses, whether it be the cheerier and more colorful streets of Paris, the distinctively Asian style of a Taiwanese temple, or the worn and ruined Manor which figures so prominently into the final few episodes. Like any good gun show, it devotes loving attention to its firearms and blades. Amongst major character designs, Mireille strikes a model-caliber look with her generous figure and stylish, oft-cosplayed clothing, while Kirika is more typical as the petite waif and Chloe is an unappealing mix of European and Asian features topped with purple hair. Limited-run character designs also vary widely, from the sleek, dangerously sexy Shaoli (the fingernail assassin) to the laughable Intoccabile at any age. True fan service is restricted to one scene with Mireille in a bikini, a couple of ill-defined nude scenes towards the end that don't really show anything, and one kiss that could reasonably be interpreted as having lesbian overtones. (Another girl-girl kiss earlier on is instead a clear intimidation tactic.)
No other “girls with guns” series before or since this one has been as thoroughly defined by its music as Noir is, and few series of any type use their music to cover their flaws better than Noir does, but one would expect nothing less from a fine Yuki Kajiura effort. Two of its numbers stand among the all-time great anime themes: the rapidly pulsing, jazzy beat and ethereal vocals of “Solva Nos,” which back many of the action scenes and the Next Episode previews, and the string instruments and haunting vocals of “Canta Per Me,” which set the tone for many of the key dramatic scenes. The other major theme, which is used in several variations, is the melancholy watch melody, which embodies the series' mysteries and most tragic elements. The soundtrack features many other great numbers, too, with the only real flaw being a tendency for repetitiveness in the first half. This vanishes in the second half, though, which infuses in some newer sounds (including a very nice lullaby sung in Engrish) and mixes things up a little better. Opener “Coppelia's Casket” (an opera reference, of all things) uses visuals suggestive of a spy show paired with one of the more unusual-sounding songs to serve as an anime opener, while closer “Beautiful Emotions” is a pleasant but more forgettable song.
The dubs are heavy on major-name vocal talent in both languages, with Shelley Calene-Black replacing Kotono Mitsuishi as Mireille and Monica Rial replacing Houko Kuwashima as Kirika. Both English casting choices fit and match up well against the original performances in these generally soft-spoken roles. Tiffany Grant is a more iffy choice for Altena, as she gives the character a more distinctive speaking cadence that may not please everyone, while Hilary Haag is sufficient as Chloe. The English dub plays around with accents quite a bit, using them both in places where they would be expected (at least some effort is made to make Russian characters sound Russian and German characters sound German) and in a few places where they are clearly just added color, but nowhere is this problematic. The English script stays tight enough to avoid garnering any accuracy complaints, even including giving Kirika's name in traditional Japanese order – and no, this is something that ADV dubs almost never did, even back in 2003.
Funimation's Classic Line rerelease spreads the 26 episodes across four disks, with English staff/cast commentaries for episodes 15 and 16 included on the third disk and clean opener and closer included on the fourth. Also present is a fifth disk composed entirely of Extras, including original Japanese promos, interviews with each of the four main seiyuu, interviews with the main English voice actresses, a Kirika-focused music video, and “Noir – the Unsoled Story,” a hilarious eight-minute send-up of the series featuring prominent characters as sock puppets attempting to carry out an assassination of a prominent ADV-regular voice actor at ADV's now-former headquarters. Some of these were actually Easter Eggs on the original ADV volumes, but apparently Funimation didn't get all of them; missing are the bonus production sketches from the first original disk and the extra music videos hidden on the seventh original disk. Also completely absent are the copious set of production sketches spread across all seven of the original disks, the Staff Talk and Production Notes found in the liner notes for each volume, and the paper glasses for reading the hidden messages on each volume's liner notes. This release is certainly more space-efficient and readily-available, but if you want all of the Extras then you'll have to hunt down the original volumes.
Noir was a big enough success for Studio Bee Train that they did two later “girls with guns” series – Madlax and El Cazador de la Bruja – which borrowed heavily from it. Elements from Noir can also be seen in a few other series released in the decade since it first aired, so it was at least to some degree an influential title. Most importantly, though, the series works in the ways that it is supposed to work and should keep viewers thoroughly involved through to the end.
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B+
Animation : C+
Art : B
Music : A-
+ Excellent musical score, some great action scenes, convincing lead duo relationship development.
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