Noir means black in French. It is also used to describe a style of film making with cynicism, moral ambiguity and pessimism. Characters in noir are typically hard boiled, unsentimental and Machiavellian. Heroes have more than a bit of the antihero about them. Some ill defined and difficult to see moral compass keeps them from falling in with the villain or becoming a villain but they have no problem pretending to be a villain for a bit if it gives them some advantage.
For my money the greatest Noir hero of all time is Sam Spade (Philip Marlowe a close second) and the greatest film is The Maltese Falcon. The greatest author is Raymond Chandler and Orson Welles the best director. With the exception of Chinatown and L.A. Confidential, all the the really great American film noir were done in black and white in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Movies like The Maltese Falcon, Kiss Me Deadly, The Big Sleep, A Touch of Evil, and Double Indemnity defined my early love for the genre. Kite is probably the most “noir” offering in anime. Perfect Blue is another.
Please do not watch colorized versions of B&W film noir. They are not set in a world of cheery color, they are set in a world of grey that matches the moral ambiguity of the subject matter. The lighting effects are specifically designed for maximal impact without color. In the darkness of night (either real or moral) we do not have color vision. Red is grey and yellow, white. But we decide which is right and which is an illusion.
There isn’t a lot of noir in film today, either anime or live action. IMHO, Noir reflects reality and we don’t like being rudely reminded of it. We want our heroes to be purely heroic and our villains to be thoroughly bad. We fear moral ambiguity even though this is where real life takes place. When I saw an anime entitled “Noir“, how could I resist it?
We start out with an assassin. Her name is Mireille Bouquet and she is very good at
what she does. She is working under the trade name “Noir”. The assassins known as “Noir” and their associated organization, Les Soldats, goes back many centuries and many people have occupied the slot. Les Soldats wielded immense power and Noir has always had the reputation of being the deadliest assassin in the world.
There’s only one problem – she isn’t the “real” Noir. She grabbed the name because nobody had heard from Noir for a long time. She assumed it was just a legend and has no clue about Les Soldats. The name was just a way to drum up business. If people thought she really was this legendary Noir, she could charge top dollar as well as inspiring fear in the competition.
Mireille is based in Paris but her jobs take her to all parts of the world. The jobs she takes on always involve killing people who are either profoundly evil or have done evil things in the past. Repenting and trying to atone gains you nothing. Turning into a saint gains you nothing. A job is a job.
Our assassin is a beautiful, fully adult, woman. A woman of ruthless power and consummate skill – but not an Ice Queen. Nicely rounded figure, long gorgeous blonde hair, blue eyes and a lovely face. Well educated and now wealthy. Pure Kireina Josei.
And yes, I am pushing that term. I would love for it or the equivalent to become commonplace in anime land. It is a concept that needs to be promoted in a world full of bishoujos and lolis.
Our heroine receives an email inviting her to take a trip down memory lane. She becomes embroiled in a gun battle between our other main character and a couple dozen men. Quite a body count is racked up before all is done. The new girl has no memory of her past, just that she escaped from somewhere.
Her fake ID reads Kirika Yuumura. She knows that isn’t her name but we’ll run with it for now. But she is good at killing, possibly even better than Mireille.
Kirika’s ID says she is a teenage schoolgirl. She is distinctly less mature than Mireille, shorter, and with a less developed body. She even looks like a teenage girl. Her hair is short and dark brown, often messy. I think they are going for a bit of moe here.
Ordinarily Mireille would have killed her and been on her way. It is not her way to leave witnesses who might identify her after her gun battles. However, she intrigued by Kirika’s story. Ever since her escape from she knows not where, she’s been relentlessly pursued by hordes of hired guns and she doesn’t know why. They have one connection.
Mireille is a daughter of a once great Corsican Mafia family who now lives in exile. One day she came home to find them murdered. On the floor next to their corpses lay a pocket watch with a peculiar design and that plays a particular song. After they meet, she discovers that Kirika is carrying the same watch.
Kirika also suffers emotionally. As tears begin down her face she says, “It would seem that killing is something I do so easily. But why can’t I feel sorrow for what I have done?”
They go on together taking jobs to assassinate people as a team, always looking for the secret to both their pasts. Mireille indicates that as soon as the mystery is unraveled she will kill Kiriku. Kiriku seems unphased by this and almost welcomes the finality of it. This is not as far fetched as it sounds, as the anime features fratricide, parricides and the murder of the occasional sympathetic old man with a past he deeply regrets. The jobs get tougher and more dangerous when it appears there in a contract on both of them as well as their targets being warned in advance.
They learn of Les Soldats but the organization seems in conflict with itself. They
encounter another highly skilled female assassin (Chloe) claiming to be the true Noir. Her specialty is the blade rather than the gun. Instead of a fight, they have tea by moonlight. Chloe seems to be making their jobs more difficult while at the same time helping them out when they need it most.
Manipulating things from afar is yet another female character, Altena. She is high priestess of Les Soldats and lives in a ruined Church in a vineyard. Chloe treats her like a mother and she acts like one, speaking to her of watering saplings to make them grow.
This show has a surfeit of powerful women. The greatest assassins and leader are all female. Some of the men are competent but most are mere cannon fodder. They couldn’t
hit a target if it were stuck onto the end of their gun barrel. We wander thru labyrinthine corridors seeking answers to who we are and why we do what we do. And like good noir, the answer is never what you think and the outcome not what you expected.
The art is not the greatest. On occasion, the drawings of Paris remind me of a good impressionist painting but mostly it is serviceable. A couple of places I recognized from the old Highlander TV series. If great art is your criteria for whether a show is worth watching then this is probably not your cup of tea. For 2001, it is pretty good.
The English dub is not a good choice here. Everyone speaks in a monotone. An angry monotone, a sad monotone but still minimal vocal range. The subbed version is much better!
Director Kōichi Mashimo considered this one part of a three part trilogy with the other two parts being “spiritual successors”. (Madlax and El Cazador de la Bruja are the other two.) The common theme is “girls with guns”. Great care was given to accurately representing handgun in use at the time and different firearms were selected to match the personalities of the characters.
I personally enjoyed this anime, even developing a bit of feelings for our assassins, fighting the good fight as they murder their way to answers to the mystery that their lives are. Very little in terms of fan service and the potential for wallowing in yuri was never realized. (Doesn’t mean there isn’t a touch of it, though.) No external relationships either – they tend to die in the crossfire or have to be killed.
Still it wasn’t as dark as I could have wished. Needed to take the evil more seriously, more pessimism and more internal conflict. More bad behavior. They might have followed the lead of Fritz Lang or Orson Welles to accomplish that. Not as moving as Violet Evergarden nor the raw beauty of a The Garden of Words but it was fun to watch. I wouldn’t have stuck with it otherwise. Like any good work of noir, the ending isn’t what anyone planned.
Brownie points if you caught the musical reference I made in the first few paragraphs above.