Of all the animes I am likely to talk about, this one will no doubt be the most famous. Even people who know very little of anime have heard of Noir. It so well known, and so highly regarded, that Starz has long been working to create a live action series of it, with frequent delays being caused by the desire for it to actually be a proper adaptation.
When an American network puts off making an adaptation of an anime because they want it to be as good as the anime, you know that anime is a success. Hell, Ghost in the Shell, Deathnote, and Akira didn’t get that kind of respect from the American adaptations being developed.
So what makes Noir so special, anyway? Well, a whole mess of things, really. Probably more things than I’m even going to mention here.
Released in 2001 by studio Bee Train, Noir was the beginning of a grand experiment in storytelling. The concept itself is simple enough, but insanely hard to actually pull off. What Bee Train wanted to do was create three series, all with the same basic elements, but have them be as different as possible.
The first element is a woman skilled with a gun. The second is a woman with amnesia. The third is a secret society messing with their lives. While it might seem that you can only do so much with those elements, Bee Train ended up producing what is now called the Girls With Guns trilogy. Three incredibly distinct series that share those common elements, but are otherwise nothing alike.
The first of them was Noir, though, and while that should have made it easy for the series, Bee Train took great care in making the show. To this day, it is still widely regarded as the best of the trilogy, though personal taste may differ. I’ll get more into that another time, for now, let’s catch everyone up on Noir.
The series follows professional assassin Mireille Bouquet, who lives in France, as she receives a mysterious email that leads her to the amnesiac Kirika Yuumura, a high school student in Japan. Despite not knowing who she is, Kirika is an extremely skilled assassin as well, and has reached out to Mireille in the hopes she can help solve the mystery of her past.
The two are quickly beset by armed men, and after making short work of them, Mireille reluctantly agrees to help Kirika, since Kirika has a pocket watch that once belonged to Mireilla’s father, a powerful Corsican crime lord. How Kirika came into possession of it is also a mystery, but one that ties the two women together, and makes the targets for the manipulation of a powerful secret society known as Les Soldats.
Soon, the two are caught up in a terrifying game of cat and mouse with agents of Les Soldats, and the only clue they have is the word Noir. What it means, and how it will change their lives, is something they can only discover if they can stay alive.
Probably the greatest thing about Noir as a series is the relationship between Mireille and Kirika. While Mireille makes it clear she intends to kill Kirika once they have answers, something Kirika herself is fine with Mireille trying, this is only how things begin. As their past unravels, and Les Soldats makes their moves against the two, they slowly begin to trust one another, care for one another, and by the end, develop a powerful friendship that defines them both in ways they never thought possible.
The series hints at their relationship being more than friendship, but never strongly enough to make a case that it was anything more than, to quote Matt Mercer, really good friends. Of course, folks said that about Korra and Asami, too, and we all know how that worked out, so maybe there is more to their relationship.
Another aspect of Noir that makes it work so well is the level of realism the show was dedicated to. Set in our world in the year 2001, when the anime was released, every location is a real place, recreated in animated form with painstaking detail. The sound effects were treated with the same care, with every gun sound effect being an actual recording of that specific weapon being fired. It’s an incredibly immersive series, and very easy to get drawn into, as even the various real world cultures are shown as complex, rather than a quick stereotype or caricature.
There’s only two things I could maybe say about this show that would be a negative. The first is that the animation is dated, considered it’s now fifteen years old. Yet, in a weird way, with the film noir sensibilities, it still works for the series in a strange way. So, while dated, the animation holds up in other ways that only serve to enhance the theme and atmosphere. Which is weird, but there ya go.
The second thing is a purely personal issue, but due to the closed off nature of both Mireille and Kirika, I found it hard to connect with them as well as I wanted to. Both are extremely well written characters, mind you, and given a wide range of character traits that make them fleshed out, dynamic and real, but both are also very closed off emotionally. While this does get better as the story progresses, and is actually an aspect of the story itself, it is still my only real peeve with the show. I like being able to connect and care for the characters I meet, and these two made it a real struggle for about half the series run.
Still, when they do begin to open up, it’s a real treat, so most likely, I’m just an asshole that wants things I don’t always need.
Directed by Koichi Mashimo, who was also the founder of studio Bee Train, and already a highly respected anime director that had been working since the 70’s, he brought a unique style and visual appeal to the series. His use of camera angles, lighting and action is masterful, and gives the world of Noir not only a believable feel, but draws you in with subtle ease.
You should check out his other works, such as Arc the lad, .hack//Sign, and Murder Princess. The dude is freaking good at making anime.
The real stare of the series, though, would have to be the music. Oh, dear God, that music. Seriously, it’s freaking amazing. Like, one of the best soundtracks ever. A must own, if you can get your hands on it.
Composed and arranged by the legendary Yuki Kajiura, it is a feast for the ears. From the soul hauntingly beautiful ‘Canta Per Me’, to the background scores, every note helps tell the story in ways that are probably as close to perfect as will ever exist. In fact, using ‘Canta Per Me’ as the centerpiece, Yuki Kajiura builds the entire rest of the soundtrack out from that, repeating themes and motifs that tie the entire soundtrack together in a mirror of how Mireille and Kirika’s pasts are tied together.
Seriously, the soundtrack is almost more amazing than the show. Yuki Kajiura should be a damn Japanese national treasure if she isn’t already. Just go listen to ‘Canta Per Me‘ and tell me she doesn’t deserve every word of praise she’s ever gotten.
I tend to get carried away where she’s concerned. I’m a massive fan boy.
Finally, the very best part of Noir is the plot. Not content to just have well crafted characters, stunning music, and killer sound effects, series writer Ryoe Tsukimura, under the direction of Koichi Mashimo, crafts enough character development, plot twists, action, and heart into the 25 episode run to make just about every other television series ever created weep with shame at their failings.
From the growing affection of Mireille and Kirika, to the horrible designs Les Soldats has on them, every episode of Noir is fast paced, and keeps you guessing as to what will happen next. It’s an amazingly well written series, with a grounded plot that never dips into grimdark, but does use tragedy the way it was meant to be used. The French and the Greeks would be so proud.
Ultimately, Noir set the bar very high for the two Girls With Guns follow ups. How did they do, you may ask? Well, next week, we’ll take a look at the second part of the trilogy, Madlax, and the week after, the final entry, El Cazador de la Brujah.
Spoiler warning: They are both damn good. See ya next week!