What would you usually expect to find in an anime starring beautiful young women and guns? If your answer is gratuitous violence and risqué close-ups, then this particular show won’t exactly be your cup of tea.
Produced in 2001 by Bee Train (they made the “Homecoming” episode of “Halo: Legends”, just so you know) and directed by Koichi Mashimo, “Noir” isn’t your regular exponent of the “Girls with Guns” sub-genre by a long shot. It doesn’t contain any intended form of fan service whatsoever or even blood, for that matter – although it has a ridiculously high body-count in terms of nameless sunglasses-wearing assassins receiving the hurtful end of a gun on their physical beings. This show is a dramatic, psychological, slow-paced and emotionally subtle story that takes itself very seriously; perhaps too seriously.
The plot revolves around two young contract killers (the blonde veteran Mireille Bouquet and the obligatory mysterious-and-amnesiac girl by the pseudonym of Kirika Yuumura) brought together by a common past, which is somehow linked to one another by a certain pocket watch and the soft music it emits once it opens. As the first episode unfolds, I’m already experiencing the best moments from a Sergio Leone’s film, with complex backgrounds being hinted by the various fragments of a flashback and a musical item serving as the catalyst for such memories to emerge – similarly to what happens in “For A Few Dollars More”, so to speak. This early comparison between “Noir” and Leone’s legendary second act of the “Dollar Trilogy” might be more appropriate than I initially thought. Not only does the aforementioned pocket watch symbolize a heavily-implied shared origin, but after both Mireille and Kirika meet each other and the former witnesses first hand the unique abilities (and seeming lack of self-consciousness) of the latter, she takes a vow to kill her off once her memory returns… and the other one agrees to it.
The pilot of the series is quite thought-provoking indeed. It manages to create a solid suspense by playing with the most basic rules of visual storytelling: tragic pasts get hinted, psychological traumas are whispered and foreboding outcomes become expected. All is skilfully accomplished through an introverted narrative approach mostly determined by sudden flashbacks and the eyebrow-raising exchanges between the main characters, thus making them instantly gripping and fascinating from the very beginning. It’s a rock-solid premise that chooses rather boldly to sacrifice the otherwise typical use of hyper-stylized action sequences for the sake of a slowly-paced delivery that, admittedly, won’t be favoured by everybody. The two protagonists join forces under the name of Noir, which was the codename of Kiriko and also the name of “An Ancient Fate” – as the series reminded me at the beginning of every single episode to the point it made my nipples figuratively explode. In between several jobs (as in, “jobs”), they embark in a journey to uncover the secret behind that word and how it is linked to Les Soldats, a millennium-old organization that basically governs the world from the shadows (because shut up). I honestly thought at some point that this show was going to be the next “Cowboy Bebop”, only with no humour and eye-striking visuals and with a more grounded narrative instead. Ironically enough, the series’ greatest strength also ended up being its most noticeable weakness. For most of its length, the pacing never really evolves from its primal grounds, instead it grows a bit dull overtime, hugely afflicting that sense of mystery and suspense that it was able to conjure in the beginning, ultimately hindering the plot itself and downplaying the most important twists and the sheer weight of the emotions involved in said moments – which is a pity considering all that initial hype.
The occasional action scenes also get repetitive after a while, with Mireille and Kirika always killing off uncounted generic male assassins with Stormtrooper-levels of aiming accuracy and reminding us all the little plot points over and over again, episode after episode. One way or another, guns are always pointed at something or someone in this anime.
On that note, the magnificent soundtrack (indubitably the most memorable aspect of the show) does a superb job in filling most of the sequences with a satisfying sense of dramatic endearment. It’s too bad the same tracks have a tendency, as in a straight up vice, to be repeated ad nauseaum at almost every turn, thus diminishing their impact.
As for the characters themselves, they tend to be memorable, from the main cast to the occasional one-episode-only guest stars – and potential victims. Kirika, which is obviously not her real name, is a sweet and fragile being that hides an immense darkness in her subconscious mind, which manifests itself in her uncanny ability to murder people with a certain amount of grace and skill. As her lost memory crawls back from the deepest abyss of her brain, her gentle looks eventually revert back into the ones of a cold-blooded snake – her original form, if you will. One can tell it was put a lot of effort into the depiction of this girl in all of her soul-crashing and fascinating dichotomies. Too bad all that work was almost ruined by the aforementioned pacing problems of the show, which turned potentially heart-wrecking moments into half-baked so-so angles with possible lesbian undertones thrown into the mix for good measure. Same reasoning goes for Mireille, whom is probably the best character in terms of progressive development. She starts off as both indifferent and diffident over the younger colleague’s fate brought upon her, she then slowly grows accustomed to her presence to the point of acting like an older sister in her regards – or perhaps something more than that? Hint hint.
Lesbian connotations between the two heroines are often implied but never actually exposed. What instead is openly regarded as a pure love attraction is the one-sided relationship between Kiriko and a character that’s later introduced in the show.
Surname-less Chloe, the so-called “True Noir”, is by far the most intriguing personality in the equation: her design was conceived to be instantly recognizable cosplay material, I can tell you that much. She knows about both Kiriko and Mireille’s past and she’s madly in love with the former, being the very reason why she became an assassin – it’s Facebook-status complicated. Every scene with Chloe in it was pure gold, from her centric-episode to the various unsettling meetings with her two “colleagues” – including a most awkward tea-party. Despite her cool appearance, Chloe is really like a child who wants to be loved by everybody, and she sports those traits when she’s around her mentor and venerated “mother” figure, Altena.
Altena is a living mystery. Her involvement with Les Soldats and Noir is so intricate that openly talking about it on this review would correspond to a massive spoiler. Let’s just say that her personal background is not a happy one, not in the slightest. Her true goal, much like most of the subtext, is never quite revealed, only implied through pseudo-religious babbles – because yes, this show features a satirical portrait of Christianity that, for the most part, is never overplayed.
For all the issues one could pinpoint rather accurately in this anime’s narrative exploits (increasingly alienating pace, down-toned plot-points, repetitive action sequences), there are other elements that served as its saving grace, specifically the outstanding and compelling characters, the alluring beginning (at least for me), the mildly thrilling final five episodes that featured killer nuns and, of course, the great, albeit abused, soundtrack! I think these are all valuable reasons as to why Sam Raimi wanted to make a live-action TV adaptation out of this particular animated franchise at some point in time.
I said too much.