Length: 26 episodes (approx 25 mins each)
MPAA Rating: M15+
My Rating: 5/5
Mirielle Bouquet, a beautiful but deadly assassin living in Paris, receives a cryptic message from Kirika Yumura, a young amnesiac who invites her to delve into her past. Intrigued, Mirielle travels to Japan, eventually encountering Kirika in a deserted building site. Within minutes of their meeting, however, shots ring out, and both girls are fighting for their lives. Mirielle discovers that as well as being in posession of fragments of a secret forgotten from Mirielle’s own past, Kirika is a naturally skilled and remourseless killer. After dispatching the troop of shady gunmen sent to kill them, the two girls strike up an unlikely partnership to go into business as assassins for hire under the codename Noir. Together they will investigate the secret that binds them, but only on the understanding that once the mystery has been revealed, Mirielle will kill Kirika…
Noir was the series that beckoned me into the world of anime. I picked up the first disc from the shelf in my local Blockbuster video store almost on a whim, and I haven’t looked back since. Oozing with style, crammed with dark intrigue, and positively dripping with atmosphere, this show is a classic in its own right, and remains right at the top of my list of favourites. In fact I like it so much I have a hard time knowing where to begin.
Let’s start with the artwork. I fell in love with this show courtesy of the early shot of Kirika sitting on a steel I-beam thirty stories up a half-built skyscraper, backlit by the giant red ball of the setting sun. The scenes are gorgeous, and you can see that this is a labour of love by Koichi Mashimo and his Bee Train studio team. The watercolour-postcard vistas of the Paris skyline beneath a bright sun are contrasted with the underworld of crypts, catacombs and ruined cellars where much of the action takes place. Moody sunsets saturated with foreboding hues compliment the nostalgic solitude of a cloud-specked afternoon from the upstairs window of Mirielle’s Parisienne apartment. The production team reportedly went out of their way to make the scenes as real-world as possible, and the care they went to, from Corsican ruins to alpine meadows, and from the backstreets of Paris to the steps of a Taiwanese temple, really shines. It remains one of the strongest points of the show and makes re-watching it a genuine pleasure as new details stand out.
The plot centres around the two main characters of Mirielle and Kirika, and both are engaging and believable, never once irritating or tedious. Mirielle is cool and reserved, a woman who takes pride in her work as a professional killer and who has serious reservations about letting Kirika into her life. For her part, Kirika is quiet, her child-like innocence brought into sharp contrast by the ease with which she ends the lives of the unstoppable army of mooks that stalk them each episode. Their story unwinds slowly, but as their histories are gradually pieced together their relationship with one another grows both deeper and more complex, and in my opinion is one of the real draws of this show, and the momentum that kept me engaged throughout.
Noir is a thriller, but with a heavy dose of action. The gunplay in this series is some of the best around, with copious use of moody lighting, severe angles, and intense gunbattles. The show is ‘realistic’ in that neither of the girls have supernatural powers, so it is up to their combat skills and athletic ability to get them out of situations that invariably see them outmanned and outgunned. While the outcome of specific battles through most of the series are relatively predictable (I mean, there are only two main characters so we know nothing can happen to them in episode 5), they are great to watch and they’re executed with real flair.
If there’s a star of this show, though, it’s Yuki Kajiura’s soundtrack. A blend of choral, electronic beats, orchestral intensity and more than a dose of mediterranean vibes to cap it all off, the music matches and enhances every mood, whether it be the intense shootouts backed by the electric-vocal fusion of Salva Nos, the gentle trill of melancholic piano to accompany Kirika’s Solitude by the Window, or the unforgettably haunting choral/violin anthem of Cante per Me. Every piece reinforces the dark, sombre and nostalgic themes of the series, and the OST has now taken a regular place in my own playlist.
Noir is the title of the show, and it is reflected throughout with suitable resonance. The dark lighting, sinister settings and sombre, frequently poignant storylines capture a sense of tragedy and despair that is belied by the two attractive characters and their chic Parisien lifestyle. The episodes revolve around a violent underworld of power, betrayal and murder, and almost every chapter ends on a note that is decidedly bittersweet, with a brewing intensity as the storyline progresses. It’s not a ‘feelgood’ series, unless melancholic is your thing, in which case, dive on in.
I should also point out that unlike a lot of anime series, which punctuate the intense drama or hard-hitting action with humour to lighten things up, Noir doesn’t. There’s no goofy visual gags, no running jokes, and no quick one-liners as bad-guys are blasted away. On the contrary, nobody takes their killing more seriously than Kirika and Mirielle. The humour that does exist in the show is sparse, implied, and drawn from getting to know the characters and how they interact, rather than any laugh-out-loud stunts. I like this in a series- in fact, the Japanese brand of humour that surfaces in a lot of shows I’ve found hard to adapt to- but be warned that Noir doesn’t let up with the yuks too often.
The show does have its detractors. The greatest criticism, and one which I readily acknowledge, is that the main plotline takes a long time getting going. The first eight or nine episodes really just revolve around the girls earning their Daily Bread as assassins, all the while flirting on the edge of the sinister cabal known only as Les Soldats. Even after that, the plot unrolls in small pieces episode by episode. For me this isn’t a big complaint, as I thoroughly enjoy the process of absorbing myself in the context of the show, watching the artwork and gunplay, and letting Mashimo tell the story in his own time. In fact, some of my favourite episodes are among the first ten or so, particularly The Sound of Waves, Lost Kitten and The Black String of Fate, despite having almost nothing to do with the main narrative. But if you’re a plot-driven watcher, this one will frustrate you.
The show doesn’t have many fleshed-out characters and is almost uniquely driven ahead by the interaction between Kirika and Mirielle. This is mostly because with a couple of notable exceptions later in the series, no other introduced character survives more than an episode or two (a predictable outcome once you’ve seen the first few installments). Likewise, the armies of mooks (faceless footsoldiers of canon-fodder ilk) who throw themselves before the girls’ guns are little more than shadows with faces.
Noir, for its sombre and frequently violent content, is a subtle show, and one observation is that it involves a minute amount of dialogue, with a lot of the interactions between the characters, and even certain plot points, left to the interpretation of the viewer. Moody silence and lingering face-shots as climaxes pend give Sergio Leone a run for his money in the dramatic tension stakes, while emotion is expressed as much through what isn’t said as what is. Some people complain that Kirika’s character barely speaks- and it’s true that you could number off her lines throughout the entire show and find the number didn’t match Noir’s prodigious bodycount. However it is this sort of implied storytelling that for me takes Noir above and beyond most shows, which like Hollywood insist on treating the viewer like a child and spelling everything out for them. This is a smart, intelligent production on almost every level.
I love this show, and get quite evangelical about it. It has fantastic visuals, slick animation, compelling story-arcs, great characters, smoking barrelfuls of style, and a spectacular soundtrack. I’ll temper my hyperbole by warning that if you’re bothered by the slow episodic pace of the show, you’ll probably get irritated with the way the story is told, and there is some repetition in the first few episodes. However all up, this one is in my books a must-see, and the silently conflicted Kirika remains my favourite anime character to date. If you’re new to the anime genre I’d put this one at the top of your list as a fantastic introduction to what the medium is capable of, and if you’ve been stuck in for a while and haven’t seen it yet, shame on you, and get a move on. Just be prepared for a series that is frequently and consistently sombre, and doesn’t pull many punches in dealing with its themes.
This is a show about two young women who are professional killers. It’s violent, and it deals not just with onscreen violence, but also violent themes and quite a lot of unpleasant implied violence. There are deaths in every episode- usually lots of them, and often graphic ones. The one let-up is that the studio, Bee Train, usually removes blood from its productions, so you won’t see exploding heads, great gobs of red spinning artistically through the air, or limbs strewn down the hallway. Other than that, it’s all there. It deals with the death of parents and children, with torture, implies child rape, and dispatches many of the mooks with considerable creativity. There’s no overt sexuality or offensive nudity (although there’s an ambiguous kiss in a later episode), and for its adult content there’s not a large degree of swearing either, but the violent nature of the show more than makes up for the rest of it, so if this is going to bother you, stay away. Overall, this is a show deliberately oriented towards adult audiences, and many episodes deal with unpleasant situations that parents won’t want kids watching. You’ve been warned.