Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Noir: How Girls-with-Guns Began

A blond girl who kills for a living. An amnesiac brunette whose forgotten memories are the key to unlocking a horrible past. Together they embark on a journey, riddled with danger and intrigue, to find something that they thought both of them had lost only to discover something neither one of them expected.

Hmm, sounds like Madlax. Oh, wait a minute! It is Madlax -- with slightly older art style and better plot logic.

As a matter of fact, Noir is the precursor of BeeTrain's girls-with-guns genre. The famous animation studio has released, to date, three series belonging to the same category of little girls with big guns anime: (in order of date of release) Noir, Madlax and El Cazador de la Bruja. All three have virtually the same premise and characters that somehow echo each other's personality traits. All three deal with lethal female assassins whose convoluted pasts are topped only by the madness of the present. Of the three, Noir is the superior series, story-wise, though I must admit I didn't watch El Cazador de la Bruja.
The entire story of Noir revolves around its two female leads. Mirielle Boquet is long-legged, blond and lethal, lives in a lush Parisian apartment by day and works as a high-paid assassin by night. Her other half is Yumura Kirika, a 12-year-old school girl who wakes up one day to discover that all her life is a lie and that the only clue she has to the truth of her past is a pocketwatch and the name "Noir."

The pocketwatch turns out to be an object from Mirielle's past and by virtue of this, the two are connected. But what is "Noir?" Who really is Kirika? Why can she kill with the flawless skill of a trained assassin without moral regrets? And how is she connected to Mirielle? These are the more important questions posed at the series' first turning point when the two leads from different parts of the world meet each other for the first time. The other questions are: Who are the Soldats? And why are they after Mirielle and Kirika?

The series main draw for me is its premise. It reminded me of some of the better stylish assassin movies I've seen, foremost among them are The Professional and La Femme Nikita by French director Luc Besson. Incidentally, these two films provide the inspiration for Noir. Indeed, you can see a great many common elements between the live-action films and their anime counterpart: exotic locales, deadly assassins, forgotten memories and secret organizations overshadowing everything that they do. And that isn't where the comparison ends.

Ironically, what drew me in to Noir is the very thing that keeps it from being a great series: too many borrowed concepts. While admittedly stylish and quite groundbreaking for an anime, the fact that most of it is borrowed from other films makes Noir less of a standout and more of a tribute to that brand of flicks. Then again, maybe that's the whole point.

Noir Trailer
Noir OP Clip
Noir ED Clip
True to its name, Noir does brilliant using many of the traditional techniques that make up the "film noir" genre. The series is resplendent with shadow and lighting techniques, elongated silhouettes, and unconventional camera angles. The whole thing lends uncertainty and suspense to many of the scenes. Even the dialogue is sparse, focusing instead on unspoken emotions and atmosphere as characters deal death to each other while the BGM rises up crazily and bloodless bodies fall down.

Some people might take exception to this, but I myself find it fitting. Indeed, what sort of conversation can you really expect from a film about taciturn assassins? In Noir, what conversation there is -- or at least, what ought to be there -- is taken over by Kajiura Yuuki's strange accordion music that is as thickly dense and heavy as the entire series itself. Make no mistake, humor is an alien concept in Noir, so if you are used to Japanese cartoons where characters do silly stuff in between saving the world, expect the unexpected with this one.

Now for the visuals. I suppose when this series first aired in 2001, the animation art and style was not revolutionary but contemporary at least. Unfortunately, I watched Noir only recently, and between then and now, a great many improvement has been made on how animes are done. Seen from the eyes of someone who's watched 5cm Per Second and even BeeTrain's latest, Blade of the Immortal, Noir looks horribly old.

But, trying not to misjudge it now, it's a great-looking series. I think what I like best about Noir's art is its character designs. They are stylish and classic at the same time, sexy without going overboard, and you just know, despite the big doe-like eyes and innocent faces, absolutely, completely lethal. Another plus is its attention to details. The series is set in many exotic locales, mostly in Europe, from Paris' cobbled streets to the dreamlike Corsican countryside, and the background art brings out these places to life. It's all rather authentic. Now add to that the entirely stylish fight scenes that occur nearly every episode.

Noir: The Complete Collection (2005) @ Amazon
Noir: The Complete Collection (2008) @ Amazon
Noir Collector's Box (Limited Edition) @ Play-Asia
Noir Complete Collection @ RightStuf
Noir: The Complete Collection (7-Disc Set) (US Version) @ Yes Asia
Noir, of course, is an attempt at a genre film so focus is less on the plot but more on what happens visually. By that, I mean the "action" scenes. Noir has plenty of that and more. Many of these are rather graphic (think: a fork stuck in somebody's neck) and yet there's hardly any blood involved. As a matter of fact, for all the series' display of violence, blood is the only element that is in short supply.

Guns? Mirielle and Kirika spend half an episode cleaning them and the other half shooting people with them. Bombs? The series has entire buildings collapsing. Knives and what-nots? Kirika is the master of resourcefulness, using anything and everything within her grasp as a weapon, including a toy car. But blood? Other than a thin splash of red dribbling from a dying characters' lips, you won't see any. And that, more than anything about Noir, speaks of its sophistication. Go overboard with the violence, just don't use blood. The absence of it serves only to highlight.

Yet for all its sophisticated style and an entirely promising premise, the series does not nearly deliver enough with its plot and its characters. Because Mirielle and Kirika's backgrounds are hidden from the viewers up to the end and because their past is the whole point of the series, something had to be done to make them emotionally connect with the viewers. That almost never happens and even as it did, it was too late because by then the overarching plot has gained full momentum and we just don't care anymore other than to see how it all ends. In other words, we don't feel for the characters. And this is significant because as you over-analyze, the plot does not even hold up too well.
Overall, Noir is a brilliant series for its concept (heavily borrowed though it is) for its stylish art, for its music (Kajiura Yuki has set a standard for herself that she has not been able to outdo until the OSTs for Kara no Kyoukai), and for its use of the traditional "film noir" elements. But for people who like their character sketches and highbrow entertainment, this series comes up short.

p.s. Then again, compare this with Madlax and you'll know why this title is infinitely better.

"Noir" @ Anime News Network
"Noir" @ Wikipedia
More Screencaps from "Noir"