If there's one adjective I can use to kill interest in a show more thoroughly than any other, it's the word slow. Audiences, it seems, have far more patience for something they might find offensive or obnoxious than they would for something boring. I'm not sure I blame them: if you're offended or repelled by a show, you're at the very least feeling something.
I don't say any of this as a way to scare people away from Noir, only to outline how tough it is for me to recommend a show that's certain to stick in many a craw by being so deliberately laid-back. It might not matter how much I bang on Noir being gripping and emotional and loaded with tragic power — not if people watch three episodes and bail because they can't keep their eyes propped open. More the fools they, I say, knowing full well that is no excuse.
It's always difficult to review something where you know you're at an unfair advantage. I'm patient enough that I count titles like Texhnolyze among my favorites, that being a show which unfolds at a pace outstripped by paint drying and yet still remains riveting. Noir, I was no less patient for, but again I worried less about my own impatience and more about the impatience of someone recommended the show on the basis of it being about a pair of gun-wielding girls. Looks, and ingredients, can and do deceive — and in this case, it might help to not let our own first impressions deceive us if we can look past them.
Blasts from the past
The plot for Noir could scarcely be simpler; it's the implications of the storyline that get milked for all they're worth. Assassin Mireille Bouquet, who lives and works in Paris, one day receives a note from a girl named Kirika Yuumura: "Make a pilgrimage to the past with me." Normally Mireille would dismiss something like that out of hand, if it weren't for the haunting melody that plays when she opens Kirika's email.
Kirika has no memory, no real past save for an ID card that she's convinced is fake, but can kill at least as dexterously as Mireille. This they discover when the two of them are cornered in a construction site by gunmen; the two of them make such short work of their attackers, you soon wonder why anyone ever bothers drawing a gun on them at all. Such talent is not natural; it had to have been drilled into Kirika. What her former masters could not drill out of her, however, is her humanity: unlike Mireille, she is horrified at her lack of feeling when she kills. Kirika is one of the first modern incarnations of the "waif with a gun" trope in anime — an early enough version of the idea that she manifests mainly as a person, not as a piece of fanservice.
Kirika's demands are simple: help her find out who she is, based on the few clues she has to spare — among them a pocket watch that plays the same melody that set Mireille's hairs on end. In exchange for embarking with Kirika on that quest, Mireille demands only one form of payment: Kirika's life. That watch, it seems, is intimately connected with Mireille's own past — specifically, the murder of her parents and brother when she was a girl.
It takes less effort than they realize to present themselves as a pair of assassins-for-hire under the codename "Noir". Either of them alone could have done it; together, they are all but unbeatable. The real obstacles, though, lie within themselves — the way Kirika tries to keep hope alive within herself, and the way Mireille attemps to talk her out of such hope (as in one episode involving both a stray cat and a war criminal, and another involving a soldier-turned-painter). They are doomed to not only be denizens of the underworld they inhabit but also victims of it.
Over time, clues and details come together about Kirika's origins, Mireille's past traumas, and their mutual future. Kirika was once a member of an Illuminati-esque secret society, the "Soldats", who have spread themselves across the face of the earth since the Middle Ages. One of them, Chloe, is an assassin as accomplished and deadly as they are -- although her job is not to kill Kirika, but rather to have the girl take her rightful place within the Soldats at the right hand of the group's priestess Altena.
A view to a kill
There's a good deal more plot in Noir than what I've outlined above — the various assassination missions, the intrigues involving other members of the Soldats (and a schism of sorts being spearheaded by Altena), the pieces of Mireille's own past that bubble to the surface and turn out all to be tied back into the Soldats and Kirika's fate. That material is all worth leaving unspoiled for those who choose to take the plunge with this show, but another reason I leave it out is because of how little I found myself thinking about all that when trying to assess the show's impact. Instead, I found myself preoccupied with the show's deliberate pacing, its unrelenting repetition — not because I disliked those things, but because I knew they would give others pause.
It's not that those things are mistakes, either. They are as important to the construction and meaning of the show as anything else in it. Throughout the show, Mireille returns time and again to the scene of her parent's death, with the circumstances of whatever plot she's currently engaged with providing a justification to reveal that much more about that mournful day. It's not a device I'm fond of, if only because in the wrong hands it can seem like shameless manipulation — and I admit there were times when I was prepared to label it as such, if only for the sake of keeping prospective audiences forewarned.
Is it unwise to presume most people today won't sit still for this? Most shows with some kind of action premise (girls with guns! intrigue!) imply wall-to-wall action, and Noir confines most of its action to bursts, or stretches, where most of the action is more perfunctory than stylized. I can't count the number of scenes where Kirika and Mireille just pop out of nowhere and shoot people before they can even respond. It feels routine to them, and so the show's strategy is to also make it feel routine to us -- at least until Kirika and Mireille come up against someone like Chloe or one of the other higher-ranking Soldats.
Shots in the dark
I'm calling attention to this strategy at least in part to legitimize it, to say that the show has a good reason for being so laid-back and elegiac. The real point of the show is not the violence or even the expertise the main characters have in doling it out, but the way they are defined almost entirely by what they have lost. For Kirika, it's her memory; for Mireille, it's her family and the possibility of having lived another, very different life — albeit one where she would most likely never have been aware of the full cost of living that life.
All this is heartbreaking, if you let it affect you. The more this material sinks in under the skin, the more it stays there, and the more weight it accumulates even when it's not doing much of anything. In fact, the slower the show got, the more I slowed down to pay attention as well, and savored things a less pensive show might never have bothered to include. Among them are the subtle visual metaphors littered throughout, as when Kirika finds a pair of railorad tracks where one ends abruptly and the other continues, or — best of all — one where Mireille sees Kirika's body casting multiple shadows in lamplight. The show was created around the time hand-painted cels were being phased out of use in the animation industry in Japan, meaning the Blu-ray Disc reissue allows that craftmanship to show up all the more completely.
That said, there are times when such a sense of purpose doesn't compensate for when the show, er, shoots itself in the foot on a small scale. Example: when Kirika scatters popcorn to suss out enemy movements in a darkened room, but then inexplicably doesn't bother to take their night-vision gear after shooting one of them. Why? To prove she's a badass who doesn't need it? Instead, it has the opposite effect: it makes her look like a fathead who doesn't take a tactical advantage when she sees one. But I digress.
I suspect at least some part of why Noir would land now for most people with a thud rather than a bang lies in how the ways anime is watched have changed so drastically since the show's first appearance some fifteen years ago. Back then, the only way to binge-watch something was after the whole thing had already been released, or if you had been lucky and diligent enough to tape the whole thing if it showed up on TV. If it took twenty-six weeks for a show to unfurl to its full length, so be it. That only meant a show that took its sweet time like Noir registered all the more impact with each episode. Contrasts between quick and slow could be felt all the more completely, especially if you were interleaving the show with other entertainments. Today, though, most shows run thirteen episodes if they're lucky, and the audience's attention span seems to have contracted correspondingly. Slower projects like Wandering Son or The Flowers of Evil are a tougher sell — although the latter was a tougher sell for many reasons apart from its pacing.
But then again, that's the whole point of taking the time to consider a case like Noir's at length. It's not the easy sell or the obvious win that the critic is drawn to, because everyone knows about them. Noir has been returned to print at a time when the general flavor of anime seems very far removed from the sensibilities of a show like this, when most shows exist to flatter fans' prejudices or feed them some minor variation on an existing theme. Noir has the nerve to be its own self, even if sometimes a little too stubbornly so for its own good. All the more a reason to try and meet it halfway, I say.