noircoverStylish and evocative, Noir has one of the best openings in recent anime. The character designs are beautiful, and the shot composition is too. As far as anime tropes go, Noir‘s primary focus is ingenious. Like girls, guns, and international assassins? Well, all three are rolled into one here. The most obvious precursor is Cowboy Bebop, and Noir borrows several elements from it – particularly the beautiful music, which often forms a semi-classical counterpoint to the action rather than just reflecting it.

Were I deep into positivity, my review would stop here. Indeed, the good things about Noir are packed in the first paragraph, so if you like the show, you can stop here and pretend this is a fun and self-affirming critique.

To everyone else: Noir is bad. Not just bad – wrongheaded. And it has almost half the elements needed to be excellent, but stays decidedly half-baked. It’s like a person saying Cowboy Bebop is good because of its camera angles and music, and nothing else.

Mireille Bouquet is a hot chick and an international assassin. Kirika Yuumura, also a hot chick, doesn’t remember anything about herself, but she knows she can kill with compunction and skill. They join forces, ostensibly to determine the secrets of Kirika’s past, and they kill lots and lots of people.

While there is the pretense of a plot in these first five episodes on DVD, the heart of the show is the multitude of action scenes where the girls dress up and go out to kill. Surprisingly, all the action scenes are limp, languid and literally bloodless.

The problem is twofold. First, the pacing and rhythm are off. Because it has no believable pace, the action scenes have no real impact. Shots that should be filled with action are still, and when the show should pick up, it slows down. Furthermore, it does not help that there is literally no staging for any of these scenes. They don’t seem to exist in any sort of space – and the omnipotence of the assassins drains tension from the action. They can shoot blind, around corners, and on rooftops with no cover, but they never get scratched or even threatened.

The second problem, and this may be less apparent, is the lack of blood. Death after death is wholly clean – no bullet holes, leaking lungs, dripping wounds, or skulls blown open. The bloodlessness drains the action of reality, and without reality there can be no moral context. These aren’t real people being killed, so who cares about them? There is no excitement to the action, and no pathos. Therefore, the action has no interest.

Terrific characters would save Noir from being a complete waste. But the show only has empty shells with a backstory that is supposed to take the place of character. The backstory is quite piecemeal – by the fifth episode, we’ve seen twenty seconds of a flashback of Mireille’s Big Event1. And we see the same flashback in at least three of the first five episodes.

I don’t know if Noir has a clip show in its run, but it doesn’t need one. Each episode serves as its own clip show, replaying events we saw a few minutes ago and making sure we get the deep significance of each. No fooling, entire scenes are played out from old episodes, and not even interesting ones at that. They are the sort that, with the proper context, are pregnant with meaning, but instead are merely confusing.

The narrative seems to be based on the premise that enigma is inherently interesting. Enigma can be interesting, but only as a spice. Noir wants it to be the whole meal, giving us flashbacks and events and pregnant looks and conversations that don’t mean anything NOW, but
shall when the series concludes. (Right.)

Noir is less than the sum of its parts, and those parts don’t add up to much. If somebody took the music and character designs, gave them characters and plots that go beyond the logically ludicrous shoot-em-up, as well as a narrative arc that’s a little less gothic2 (for a show that’s geared to the immediate), we’d have something. But right now, Noir, pretty though it is, amounts to nothing. Nothing at all.

1Big Events are part of the philosophy of anime: everything in a character’s life can be explained by a huge significant event in the past that determines all future action. Papa died in the Arctic? That’s your big event. Papa shot you out of a spaceship before Space Pirates killed him? That’s your big event. At least in a show like Trigun, Vash the Stampede’s Big Event really IS a Big Event. And in Cowboy Bebop, characters’ pasts aren’t trotted out as facile explanations of current irrational action – they are showed as determinants, and never as sole determinants either. Every once in a while I get the feeling that writers of anime should read a damned book or two, just to see what a fictional character can be like. Or they should watch Cowboy Bebop over and over until they see it is more than just good music and nifty direction.

2By “gothic” I mean the literary kind, like Melmoth The Wanderer or The Monk or Peter Straub’s Ghost Story – NOT Bauhaus and Current 93. Stories where the past is more important than the present, and indeed dictates the entire actions of the present.
Rating: C-


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