Just to be perfectly clear from the outset, Noir is excellent animé and the DVD treatment it has received at the hands of ADV Films is nothing short of top-notch. Which is why I had a bit of a dilemma before me when I set out to review the 7 discs across which this 26-part series sprawls. You see, to date ADV has not released Noir as a box set (although a slipcase is available, more on which later), but if I were to review each volume individually I'd soon come to a place – probably 3 or 4 discs in – where each write-up would consist mostly of the episode summaries and a handful of 'as I mentioned earlier' comments. No one wants to be told the entire premise of the show over and over 7 times. Or read that the menus are the same as on the previous 6 DVDs. Or that the picture quality is comparable to what was seen in the first 20 episodes. Or that the same voice actors played the same parts throughout, and that they didn't lose the plot halfway through and start talking in Klingon. (Although that would certainly be worth a listen for the amusement value alone.)
So rather than have a sequence of 7 write-ups, each featuring progressively less new content than the one that went before (which would do this TV series a grave injustice), I've decided to review the entire lot in one go. The information that is common to all 7 volumes of Noir (which – with only one exception – does include the technical aspects, as I didn't encounter much variance in production quality from one disc to the next) will go first, and then towards the end I'll switch over into 'disc-by-disc mode', giving you a run-down not just of the episodes but of the special features on each DVD as well.
At first blush, Noir seems almost simple in premise: a pair of female assassins temporarily join forces to resolve a mystery which binds their fates together. However, you have but to scratch the surface to reveal a palimpsest of alternate interpretations. After all, it's an uneasy alliance between the two women, and one sealed with the promise that one will kill the other as soon as their investigation reveals the truth. Furthermore, while the two of them appear to be self-trained – and indeed believe themselves to be – it gradually becomes evident over the course of the series that this is not at all the case; there is a shadowy organisation manipulating them, and in ways so subtle as to escape their own notice. (And no, before you start thinking La Femme Nikita or The Manuchurian Candidate, it's not like that. In fact, there's rather more of Léon: The Professional to be found in the in-between lives of the protagonists here.)
But I'm getting ahead of myself. To begin where the show does, we must ask who these women are... not a trivial question as they don't really know the answer themselves. In the case of Mireille Bouquet, a Parisian living in mafia-imposed exile from her native Corsica, we have someone who has established a reputation as a first-class killer-for-hire and considers herself cool, calculating and composed. More enigmatic is the dark-haired Kirika Yuumura, who has no memory of her life before waking up one morning with a fabricated identity (as a Japanese schoolgirl) she knows in her heart to be false... not to mention a group of people who seem to want her dead. Really, really dead.
When Kirika sends Mireille an email asking her to 'make a pilgrimage to the past with me', the latter plans to ignore this plea... until the sound file attached to the message begins to play, and a haunting melody opens Mireille's emotional floodgates by reminding her of the night on which her family was murdered so long ago. After conducting a thorough background check which merely reveals that the person known as Kirika Yuumura is but an elaborately-constructed fiction, Mireille flies out to meet with this inscrutable Japanese girl and force some answers from her.
But it's not the hoped-for answers but instead even darker questions which are triggered by their first meeting. What is this antique pocket watch that Kirika possesses, the cover embossed with a relief of two sword-wielding maidens facing one another... and why is the music it plays at once so familiar and disturbing to Mireille? Why does Kirika choose this moment to adopt the name 'Noir'... only moments before the two of them find themselves under attack by hitmen who have abruptly appeared on the scene? And, equally important, how is it that Kirika neither petitions nor requires any help from Mireille in defending herself?
Watching her younger counterpart despatch a score of trained killers with near-effortless precision and poise, Mireille recognises in her a fellow assassin (and an almost perfect one at that) and once the battle is done, the two make a pact to explore the mystery of their respective pasts together. However, while Mireille does bring Kirika back to Paris and renames the (now-joint) operation 'Noir', she also warns the girl that this is but a arrangement of convenience (the usual 'you know too much about me to be set free' argument), and that the moment she has all of the answers she needs, the other's life will be forfeit.
Naturally it's almost impossible to resist the lure of a strong opening like this, but where Noir truly excels is in its ability to maintain rising dramatic tension in concert with a carefully-metered revelation of What's Really Going On™. While it's true that things a trifle slow to get started – presumably because the writers wanted to give Mireille and Kirika enough time to create a believable emotional bond before distracting the viewer with all of the show's deeper mysteries – it's only the first third of this series that pursues so gradual a pace, with what can be described as an 'assassination of the week' format.
While these one-off hit jobs don't do much in and of themselves to advance the storyline, they do establish several intriguing facts about the universe of Noir, not the least of which being: 1, that Mireille and Kirika aren't merely incredibly skilled assassins, but possess nearly superhuman abilities in this regard; and 2, the outfit which is pursuing them is not only capable of controlling them (indirectly or otherwise), but also isn't above manipulating third parties solely for the purposes of testing the two women's prowess. Observing Kirika and Mireille in action is like watching a ballet of death; there is a sublime grace to every movement and an almost-surreal quality to the overall carnage. Unlike many shows (animé or otherwise) which would justifiably use these scenes as an excuse for splashing out with the blood and gore, Noir is a universe where the girls' opponents practically seem to crumble under the onslaught of their combined will as much as from their beautiful killing techniques.
That said, I don't wish to give the impression that episodes 2 through 9 are a drag on the rest of the series. After all, as early as episode 5 we see Kirika and Mireille coming across the first vital clue in their search for the truth (well, OK, second if you count the pocket watch): a page photocopied from a centuries-old book which mentions a sinister organisation called the Soldats. While this means nothing to them at the outset, it aptly sets the stage for the avalanche of information and events which is to follow. Also, there is much to be said for the handful of early episodes dedicated primarily to character development, such as 'Lost Kitten' and 'The Black Thread of Fate', which explore the relationship of Kirika (who, if you haven't guessed yet, is the pivotal character of Noir) both to herself and to Mireille.
However, Noir really begins to hit its stride come episode 10 (rather conveniently, the first one on the third DVD volume), which marks the appearance of another young woman named Chloe who calls herself 'the true Noir'. Simultaneously an agent of the Soldats and the personal representative of a powerful – and unassailable – personage (Altena), the character of Chloe is intriguing in that she bridges multiple worlds for Mireille and Kirika. The fact that Chloe's own skills as assassin are only rivalled by Kirika's suggests a shared background between the two girls, an implication the former strives hard to reinforce at every opportunity... while her service to the Soldats leads Mireille and Kirika to the inescapable conclusion that either they or their families must have been directly involved with that same secret society at some point.
In truth, Chloe is a fascinating character on many levels. While it's hard to discuss all the facets of her role without giving away serious plot spoilers, there are a few things I can safely divulge without ruining the show for you. The most obvious is how she serves as foil – albeit for different reasons – to both of the protagonists. For instance, a central question in Kirika's life is 'How is it that I can kill without remorse?' and this is something that troubles her far more than her generalised amnesia. While Kirika exhibits fleeting moments of happiness over the course of the series, in general she is plagued by a persistent melancholia that is the direct result of her inability to reconcile her gifts as an assassin with the consequences thereof. (Note, it's not that she feels sad because she kills people... she feels sad because killing people doesn't in itself make her feel sad.) On the contrary, Chloe has an unnervingly cheerful and upbeat demeanour for a murderer, and isn't perturbed at all that her killing is remorseless.
Setting this aside for the moment, there's also the matter of the show's mysticism. It has to be said that Noir deals with its own mythology in a much more responsible way than some other animé series that dabble in questions of life and death. Unlike other productions which seem to pursue weirdness for its own sake and/or have a desire to grapple pretentiously with Big Existential Questions™ (Revolutionary Girl Utena springs instantly to mind), Noir's writers never allow the philosophical underpinnings of the show to get completely out of control. In short, there's just enough introspection and mystery to make things interesting without becoming self-aggrandising. Sprinkled strategically throughout the series are mysterious passages in French which serve to reinforce both setting (unlike the bulk of animé which appears set in some version of Tokyo, Noir concentrates on Paris and exotic locations throughout Europe) and theme. For example, during the OP sequence the following is quoted:
Le noir, ce mot désigne depuis une époque lointaine le nom du destin.
Les deux vierges règnent sur la mort.
Les mains noires protègent la paix dex nouveaux-nés.
Roughly translated into English, this can be rendered as:
Noir – since ancient times this word has designated the name of Fate.
The two maidens reign over death.
The black hands protect the peace of the newly-born.
While another show might have used this text as a springboard into metaphysics and outlandish supernatural events, Noir remains grounded in something very close to modern reality. Nor does this resemblance come by chance; the original concept and subsequent screenplay are the brainchild of Ryouei Tsukimura (whose other work includes the popular El Hazard: The Wanderers and Shrine of the Morning Mist, as well as less-well-received work like UFO Princess Walküre), who envisioned an animé series which drew upon film noir sensibilities without being restricted by them. And indeed, true to its name, this show is very dark and unrelieved by any hint of comedy. As is common to the genre, neither Mireille nor Kirika is happy (it can even be argued that Chloe isn't actually happy, and that her devotion to Altena grants her only a veneer of contentment); they both lead lives of unresolved disillusionment and moral ambiguity. Confronted by a nebulous organisation with an inscrutable agenda, their only choice is to move forward together towards an uncertain future.
And it is not only the script that evokes film noir in this TV series, as director Koichi Mashimo took pains to realise these themes visually as well, and in fact storyboarded the entire show himself to make use of precisely the sort of slightly-skewed scene compositions and oblique lighting witnessed in examples of the genre from early classics like The Maltese Falcon to more modern fare such as Dark City or Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita. In fact, the dark stylings exhibited by Noir may come as something of a surprise to those who are familiar with Mashimo's usual directorial fare, which is often comedic and predominantly light-hearted in tone (his most famous work being Irresponsible Captain Tylor, with Dominion Tank Police and Sorcerer Hunters vying for second place).
Likewise, the character designs in Noir (by a team led by Yoko Kikuchi) are quite pleasing to the eye and aim for a slightly more realistic approach. (Here is a series which never resorts to the standard animé elements of comic relief such as chibi or SD [super-deformed] animation styles.) Even more impressive, however, is the incredible attention to factual accuracy lavished on this production by mechanical designer Kenji Teraoka. While most of us have been trained by Hollywood to turn our brains off when the guns come out and the shooting begins, Teraoka not only depicted each weapon in exquisite detail (and not just Mireille's Walther P-99 and Kirika's Beretta M1934, but every gun used by their attackers as well) but also kept track of the number of rounds each held and therefore how often each weapon would run out of ammo and need to be reloaded. This only reinforces the eerie believability of the gunfights which pepper Noir, as each combat has its own natural ebb and flow. (Which is not to say that this doesn't have its limits; the fact is, even when Kirika and Mireille are wounded, the audience is rarely in doubt that their current assignment will succeed in the end. Nevertheless, the choreography of the battle sequences is lovely to watch.)
But above all else, the one thing Noir has in abundance is style; here is a series that simply oozes 'cool' and for many animé aficionados that will be enough to get their vote in and of itself. (Who am I kidding? For the average otaku, hearing that the story's about a pair of beautiful female assassins will probably send them scurrying to the shops for a copy.) However, the nice thing about this show is that the style isn't artificial or tacked on as an afterthought... it's a natural consequence of the way Noir was conceived and executed. And being able to watch such a stylish and sophisticated series that also leaves you with food for thought after each episode is a rare treat.
A 2001 production by Bee Train, you'd naturally expect this show to look gorgeous... and you wouldn't be wrong at that. The same studio that has given us the gritty, futuristic Cowboy Bebop: Knockin' on Heaven's Door, the hauntingly-ethereal Haibane Renmei, and – most recently – the on-going sensation that is .hack, Bee Train pulls off an amazing coup with Noir, handing us a series produced on a TV budget that somehow more closely resembles OVA [original video animation] quality.
Clearly this is partly a result of the show being filmed in 1.78:1 widescreen, which gives it a nice cinematic feel, and really offers the series many opportunities to explore its film noir cinematography in a way that standard 4:3 format simply does not. Nor has ADV Films dropped the ball when it comes to authoring these DVDs, opting as it did for a full anamorphic widescreen presentation with a generous bitrate that ensures neither macroblocking nor artefacting will rear its ugly head. (All 7 volumes of Noir, even the ones that only contain 3 episodes, come on dual-layer DVD9 discs, which provides a lot of elbow room for a smooth encode. And, be it through good planning or simply good luck, I never once spotted a layer transition while watching any of the 26 episodes.)
Even more impressive to me is the lack of any low-level noise or the usual faint background grain which so many animé – even modern productions such as this – tend to exhibit. Areas of solid colour in the animation show no mottling whatsoever, and the night scenes (of which there are, of course, many) all benefit from 'true black' tones rather than suffering from dark greys being mixed in. Speaking of colour, the palette for Noir is quite expressive without being garish. Excepting the intro sequence – which somewhat strangely opts for pseudo-negative photo effects (green blood, pink shadows, etc.) – and the obnoxious eye-catch that divides each episode into two halves, this is a show that chooses to run with more realistic hues than your average 'cartoony' animé.
Oddly, on the set of review copies I received, only the last 6 DVD volumes of Noir feature the much-vaunted Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround soundtracks. The five episodes on the first disc, Shades of Darkness, are all recorded in Dolby Digital 2.0 (something confirmed both by my DVD player as well as the DVD packaging itself). In the course of researching this anomaly, the issue only got murkier the further along I read. However, two facts are clear: the American R1 version of volume 1 features DD 5.1 and the Australian R4 disc (by Madman Entertainment), while accidentally released initially with DD 2.0, was then remastered promptly to DD 5.1. I have not been able to turn up a definitive answer regarding the British R2 version of Shades of Darkness... while the ADV Films UK official website lists this DVD as a DD 5.1 disc, Amazon UK (and other online retailers) show it as DD 2.0. Perhaps it has since been remastered and re-released here as it was in Australia, but I cannot guarantee this.
It's a shame there's uncertainty surrounding the audio on that first volume, because the sound quality on Noir is frankly superb. There were many points during my viewing of the series where I heard footsteps running, gunshots echoing, or doors slamming behind me, strong evidence that the rear soundstage was getting a decent workout. As we've come to expect from modern animé DVDs, all 7 discs are bilingual so you can tune into the original Japanese dialogue or the English dub, as you prefer. Stereo directionality and separation are good across the board (yes, even in the DD 2.0 of that first disc), and a reasonable balance was found between the music and the dialogue (which can be sparse at points).
Speaking of the music, the series composer was Yuki Kajiura, who had not worked on too many 'big name' projects prior to Noir. Her beautiful arrangements for this show – spanning a broad spectrum from soft piano solos to choral pieces and sweeping orchestral movements – have clearly caught the attention of the industry, however, and now she's leading the sound team for all of the .hack programmes. For the curious, the extremely addictive OP (opening credits) theme, 'Kopperia no Hitsugi' ['Coppelia's Casket'], was performed by Ali Project while the considerably calmer ED (closing credits) theme, 'Kirei na Kanjou' ['Beautiful Feelings'], was sung by Akino Arai.
Of course, most of the meaning of a series like Noir is conveyed by dialogue, not music, and a small-cast production like this could falter if the voice actors weren't up to the challenge. Fortunately this is not the case with leads Houko Kuwashima (Kirika) and Kotono Mitsuishi (Mireille), who both voice their roles wonderfully. And this isn't the first time the two of them have worked together, either. They played (respectively) Sai and Shouko in Angelic Layer, Nako and Misaki in Steel Angel Kurumi 2, and lesser roles in a handful of smaller shows. Kuwashima is probably most famous as Minoru from Chobits, Sango throughout Inu Yasha, and Quon in RahXephon... while Mitsuishi is perhaps lesser-known as the voice of Mink in Dragon Half, Kagero in Flame of Recca, and Usagi throughout Sailor Moon. Last but not least, the part of Chloe is performed by Aya Hisakawa, who fans may recall as Ami throughout Sailor Moon, Miki in Revolutionary Girl Utena, Becky Farrah from Gunsmith Cats (another show with brilliant mechanical design, by the way), and my fave, Skuld in Ah My Goddess!.
It's also fair to say that the American VAs acquit themselves well enough on the English dub. Monica Rial (Hyatt in Excel Saga, Miharu in Gasaraki, Haruka in RahXephon) manages to infuse Kirika's voice with the same pervasive sadness as is found in the original Japanese. Shelley Calene-Black's performance of Mireille is a bit more run-of-the-mill and doesn't exhibit as much flair as, say, her voicing of Mayune in Prétear... but then again, that may not be such a bad thing after all. Probably better-known amongst the English dub cast is Hilary Haag, who plays Chloe here and who has voiced a string of major roles in recent years (Nene on Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040, Menchi in Excel Saga, Dortin in Orphen, Megumi in RahXephon, and Hajime in – again – Prétear).
One unexpectedly nice aspect of the dub is that an attempt was made by the supporting cast to give secondary characters appropriate regional accents, and for once this effort doesn't come across as laughably bad (unlike, say, Demon City Shinjuku). Spot checking episodes revealed French, German, and Russian accents that were good enough to make it into your average Hollywood film (which is to say, not perfect, but not awful either) applied sensibly. In fact, my only gripe with the English dub is a petty one... since when is the name Mireille pronounced 'Miriel'? Even if the American VAs had never heard the name before (and apparently couldn't work out that it should rhyme with 'Marseille'), all they had to do was listen to any one episode in the original Japanese to realise where they were going wrong. But it seems they didn't. Argh.
Menus & Packaging
The menus on these DVDs show plainly that the design team had a fair amount of love (or perhaps I should say 'respect') for the TV series. They are, without exception, all animated in interesting ways and accompanied by appropriate music clips which loop seamlessly (unlike some hack jobs I've seen). There's also a nice transition involving Kirika that bridges between the main menu and the special features section on each disc.
The packaging, while based around your standard black Amaray cases, is also rather striking from an artistic standpoint, featuring a stark contrast between the bright white covers and the jet black spines with – if you look carefully – blood-red silhouettes at the top. While I'm sure it will come as no surprise to people that the central image on most of the 7 covers focuses on Kirika and Mireille, it's worth noting that Chloe also manages to sneak onto 3 covers herself... and even the two-shot pieces all feature the pair in interesting poses.
Moreover, if you do plan to pick up the entire set of Noir DVDs (which I highly recommend, if your budget permits it), be advised that ADV Films does offer a slipcase specially designed to hold all 7 Amarays. But as far as I can tell, the only way to get it is to purchase the 'Special Edition' of volume 1 (Shades of Darkness), which is thus far only available as R1. This actually falls out quite well for collectors, because – as I mentioned earlier – the R1 volume 1 is deffo Dolby Digital 5.1, so you can sidestep the whole audio uncertainty issue, grab yourself a stylish black slipcase for friends to admire on your DVD shelf, and get a free Noir T-shirt into the bargain. (For your convenience, I've routed both of the US affiliate links – Amazon & DVDSoon – in the left sidebar directly to the 'Special Edition' pages on those sites so you can have a gander at the slipcase art... but you can also obtain it from Amazon UK if you do a quick search.)
VOLUME 1: SHADES OF DARKNESS
In a smart move, ADV Films squeezes the first 5 episodes of Noir onto this starter disc, ensuring that despite the slightly slower pace of the early development arc, there's enough material to hook the viewer. Equally important, this volume is capped at either end with two key episodes... the essential pilot, 'Maidens with Black Hands' and 'Les Soldats', which is our first introduction to the secret society pulling the strings behind Mireille and Kirika's lives. In between we have three 'assignment du jour' missions that illustrate how well Kirika and Mireille work as a team.
1: 'Maidens with Black Hands'
2: 'Daily Bread'
3: 'The Assassination Play'
4: 'The Sound of Waves'
5: 'Les Soldats'
In the extras department, things get off to a quiet but respectable start with a trio of special features that will form the core offering across all 7 discs. First is the production sketches gallery, which on many animé DVDs consists of whatever scraps of line art the distributor could get its hands on, but here is an impressive resource for fans of the show, even carrying a friendly warning that viewing the sketches before watching the episodes might entail spoilers. This section on the first disc has over 85 images broken down by episode! (Also, you can use the ANGLE button on your DVD remote to toggle optional English subtitles on/off over the original Japanese notes on each sketch.) Second, ADV saw fit to include the ever-popular clean opening and closing animations for those of you who want to enjoy them without any obscuring text. (Note: the original Japanese OP and ED are not available. It's either English credits or no credits at all.) Third, in something of a stealth manoeuvre, you really mustn't forget to check the liner notes, which are easy to miss as they take the form of slim booklet that resembles a standard case insert if you don't look closely. But if you pull it out and open it up, you'll find a wealth of information courtesy of the original Japanese production team. This first booklet contains an interview with producer Shigeru Kitayama and two production notes, 'A Tiny Challenge' and 'Aspirations Towards "Film Noir"'.
In addition, this volume includes a selection of original Japanese promos for the DVD, VHS, and OST [original soundtrack] CD releases clocking in at just under two and half minutes in length (and whew, the price of animé merchandise in Japan is terrifying). Also, there's the usual pseudo-extra of brief trailers for other ADV releases.
VOLUME 2: THE HIT LIST
While at first appearing to be a 'more of the same' disc, volume 2 ups the ante with a selection of 4 episodes of slightly higher quality than what went before. By this point the writers were confident that the audience would accept the relationship between Kirika and Mireille and clearly wanted to move on to additional character development before delving into the thick of the über-plot. This disc also marks the first appearance of a two-part story arc in Noir, with the tale of a fellow assassin known only as the 'Intoccabile'... but the best episodes are actually the first ones on the DVD, with 'Lost Kitten' not being quite as sentimental as it sounds, and 'The Black Thread of Fate' showing what happens when one of Noir's missions goes very wrong.
6: 'Lost Kitten'
7: 'The Black Thread of Fate'
8: 'Intoccabile Acte I'
9: 'Intoccabile Acte II'
As for special features, the list here is identical to that provided on volume 1, with production sketches (the gallery containing almost 50 images this time around), the clean opening and closing, more original Japanese promos, and the trailers section for other ADV releases. The liner notes booklet offers three production notes once again, including some amusing comments by character designer Yoko Kikuchi and discussion both of Kirika and Mireille's weapons (in case you were wondering how I knew which models they used – I'm no gun expert!) and of the question of fan service in Noir.
VOLUME 3: THE FIRING CHAMBER
Ah, here's where Noir really gets into its stride, with the introduction of the fascinating character of Chloe and her mentor, the enigmatic Altena. Even though this disc only has 3 episodes to offer the viewer, they represent absolutely must-see content and will likely cause anyone who doubted the format of the first 9 episodes to sit up and pay attention. 'Moonlight Tea Party' in particular is steeped in a film noir atmosphere and Chloe's behaviour will leave you wondering just what could possibly be going through her head... and just what her fixation on Kirika might portend. Lastly, 'Assassination Mission' is unique in being a story where neither Mireille nor Kirika make much of an appearance; it's essentially a 'let's get to know Chloe better' episode!
10: 'The True Noir'
11: 'Moonlit Tea Party'
12: 'Assassination Mission'
Moving on to special features, volume 3 provides the usual core selection of production sketches (over 50 images in this gallery), clean opening and closing, original Japanese promos, and ADV trailers. The liner notes booklet is weightier this time around – a trifold containing cartoon greetings from character designers Minako Shiba and Satoko Miyachi and animation director Satoshi Ohsawa, a quick gun-happy comment by mechanical designer Kenji Teraoka, and two more production notes, 'The Female Animators Behind "Noir"' and 'Depiction of Firearms in "Noir"'. Really interesting content here; ADV should be commended for these nice liner notes, which rival AnimEigo's for useful supplementary material.
Probably the extra of greatest interest to fans, however, is the enjoyable interview with Houko Kuwashima (Kirika). Clocking in at just under 5 minutes in length, this video segment was of course recorded in Japanese... but have no fear, if you turn on the English subtitles you will be able to understand both what's being asked as well as her responses. While there are no deep revelations made in this session, it is a gentle little interview and I always find it a bit sweet to hear from their own lips how Japanese voice actresses relate to the roles they play.
Finally, the Amaray case contained a completely unexpected bonus: a pair of what I at first assumed were 3-D glasses. (You know, the cardboard type you used to get for certain films.) But a cursory examination reveals that there is no difference in colour between the two lenses; they are both red. At first I thought this was merely a strange gimmick – 'Ah, viewing the world through blood-tinted glasses... very funny, I guess.' – but then I remembered something that had struck me as odd about each of the liner notes enclosed in the Noir Amaray cases. There was a small rectangle filled with a spray of coloured dots on the back of each booklet... could this be one of those 'you can't read this if you're colour-blind' tests? Putting on the provided glasses showed that this was indeed the case, huzzah! (Unfortunately, the packaging designers were a bit too overzealous in obscuring the hidden text in each of these rectangles... so much so, in fact, that even with the glasses I couldn't quite make out the words on the booklets from volumes 1 & 2. But still, an interesting idea and a lot of fun.) Of course, you won't get the glasses unless you buy volume 3, but hey, that's a small imposition, right? And no, I'm not going to spoil the surprise by telling you what's written in the boxes. Go find out for yourself!
VOLUME 4: DEATH WARRANT
With this fourth disc we cross the midpoint of Noir's storyline, and after the tautness of Chloe's appearance in volume 3, the 4 episodes on this DVD feel almost relaxed by comparison. While Chloe doesn't completely fade into the background (in point of fact, she takes a fairly active role in episodes 15 and 16), the truth is that the focus of the show once more shifts back to Kirika and Mireille. Something else I found particularly interesting was how ADV had – whether by chance or by intent – arranged the episodes on each disc so that volumes 2 and 4 share an almost identical structure. Both of these DVDs begin with two episodes dedicated (respectively) to Kirika and Mireille's character development, and end with a two-part arc that is perhaps slightly more drawn out than it needs be.
So we open with 'Season of Hell', which sees Kirika not only picking up a hobby (watercolours) but even going so far as to strike up a friendship (verging on more than that) with an 'average Joe' of Paris. Of course, considering the title you mustn't expect things will go well, but the episode does conclude with one of the Top Ten Memorable Lines of Noir™... and one which goes far towards explaining why Mireille acts the way she does. Speaking of which, 'A Bouquet of Flowers for Mireille' presents our blonde bombshell with an interesting decision to make while helping to flesh out more of her family's past. Finally, in 'The Cold-Blooded Killer', the gals are led to Taiwan and encounter yet another woman well-versed in the arts of assassination... this time care of poison.
13: 'Season of Hell'
14: 'A Bouquet of Flowers for Mireille'
15: 'The Cold-Blooded Killer Acte I'
16: 'The Cold-Blooded Killer Acte II'
Onto extras, volume 4 demonstrates that the interview segment on the previous disc wasn't just a one-off thing. But before I get ahead of myself again, let's cover the basics. The production sketches gallery is comparatively slim for this 4-episode DVD, checking in at just over 40 images total, while the clean opening and closing, original Japanese promos, and ADV trailers remain reliably steadfast. The liner notes booklet again has enough content to warrant a trifold layout, with personal messages from composer Yuki Kajiura on the show's music and from Kirika's actress (Houko Kuwashima) on having just finished her last recording session for the series, alternating with production notes on the relationship of the music to the visuals of Noir and what the recording process is really like.
This time around the 'extra-special feature' is an interview with Kotono Mitsuishi, Mireille's VA, clocking in at just over 6 minutes in length. I really can't stress enough what a treat these little video segments are. Here I thought Houko was bubbly during her bit on the last disc, but Kotono is even more animated! Over the course of the interview she not only imparts quite a few interesting observations regarding Mireille – and indeed seems to identify with the role to an unexpected degree – but at one point actually breaks out into her own rendition of some of her favourite music from the show... and then later actually starts visualising a scene from some Japanese Edo-period film about assassins, which from the sound of it I can only assume is one of the Sure Death series. Anyway, Kotono's definitely fun to watch and listen to.
VOLUME 5: TERMINAL VELOCITY
True to its name, this volume finds the pace of events beginning to ramp up drastically, accelerating towards the series' endgame. While it's probably fair to say that this disc is concerned in equal parts with Mireille and Kirika, it is the latter upon which most of the action of these 3 episodes hinges. However, the DVD opens with Mireille – no doubt unsettled by her brush with the past in 'A Bouquet of Flowers for Mireille' – returning to her old estate on Corsica... and receiving a starkly-divided reception from those who remember what happened to her family, and why. Back in Paris, this precipitates a rift between her and Kirika as both of them begin to piece together the puzzle of their interlocking fates, tensely examined in 'The Darkness Within Me'. And matters don't improve when Chloe begins drip-feeding them some very disconcerting 'truths' regarding Noir in 'The Two Hands of the Soldats'.
17: 'Return to Corsica'
18: 'The Darkness Within Me'
19: 'The Two Hands of the Soldats'
As for special features, the production sketches gallery continues to go on a diet, offering just over 30 images this time around. We also lose the customary Japanese promos, although both the ADV trailers and the clean opening and closing are still present. The liner notes booklet seems to have decided it will stay a trifold forever, and we're graced with a personal message from both Mireille's VA (Kotono Mitsuishi) and Altena's (Tarako). When it comes to the two production notes that accompany these, well, they're kind of odd, really. One discusses fan perceptions of the four lead roles (or at least, what the production staff perceives to be the fan perceptions!) while the other is titled 'The Lives of the Hot Middle-Aged Men of Noir'... and I'll just let you make of that what you will.
Anyway, the interview with Tarako (Altena's VA) is a bit more scattershot at almost 6 minutes long than Houko or Kotono's, but does have its moments. She mentions her concerns over giving Altena a consistent voice throughout the series, and seems really chuffed to have worked with some of the guest actors who came on the show to play minor roles (for example, Goro Naya, who is the familiar voice of Lupin's arch-nemesis, Inspector Zenigata).
VOLUME 6: CLOAKS AND DAGGERS
It's rather tricky to discuss this penultimate disc of Noir without giving away massive spoilers, so I'll tread lightly in this synopsis. The essential conflict finally shifts away from the seemingly-endless trials our two protagonists have been put through by the Soldats and careers into an even deeper schism: the forcible separation of Kirika and Mireille. While at first this is but a psychological and emotional division (reinforced by Chloe pursuing what she perceives to be an agenda of 'truth'), in a scene that will again leave you wondering if these girls are entirely human this break is made physical as well and Mireille and Kirika are forced to wander their own separate paths for a while. A great deal more exposition concerning the Soldats is revealed to the viewer, and finally the overall shape of the power struggle within its own ranks becomes clear.
20: 'The Sin Within the Sin'
21: 'Morning Without Dawn'
22: 'Journey's End'
23: 'Sentiments for the Remaining Flower'
In the way of special features, we have over 40 production sketches (this time stressing more mechanical design than before), and the usual clean opening and closing and ADV trailers. The liner notes include two personal messages again, one from Chloe's VA (Aya Hisakawa) and the other from animation producers Kuninori Egawa and Meiri Kanbayashi. However, more interesting are the production notes this time around, the first of which examines the balance between artistic licence and adhering to the regulations imposed by broadcast television while the second poses a question no doubt many fans have already pondered... 'Is Noir a Yuri Animé?'
The main course is naturally the interview with Aya Hisakawa, where she goes into the sorts of decisions that she made when it came to voicing Chloe, mentions how valuable she found the director's feedback during the recording sessions, and announces cheerfully that she and Houko (Kirika's VA) – working together as they do on so many shows – have struck up a real-life friendship. It's again a kind of quiet, demure interview.
VOLUME 7: THE END OF THE MATTER
And so we come, at long last, to the bittersweet conclusion of Noir. These last 3 instalments finally open the gates to that secluded valley forgot by time, where Altena holds sway in the Manor that we've been shown glimpses of since the very first episode (believe it or not). Kirika and Mireille's separation comes to an end as the show gears up for the final confrontation between these four strong characters, and in particular 'The Depths of Hell's Fire' places Chloe in an unenviable position. To say any more would be pushing my luck.
24: 'Dark Return'
25: 'The Depths of Hell's Fire'
This time the production sketches (of which there are just over 30) treats us to a few colour images as well, and need I really mention that this disc includes ADV trailers, the clean opening and closing, and some interesting liner notes as well? The extra that takes pride of place on this DVD, however, has to be the gigantic (about 25 minutes long!) interview with the English VAs (specifically, the ones who play Kirika, Chloe, Mireille and Altena on the dub). While from the standpoint of quantity this video segment easily trumps the shorter interviews spread over the preceding four volumes, I'm sorry to report that it also lacks much of the warmth and quirky charm the Japanese VAs imbued their chats with. Instead, here we have four women sitting lined up behind one of those ubiquitous fold-out office tables in some nondescript white-walled room, who when asked by the interviewer, 'So, what did you read into it? What's the story really about?' are visibly flustered and at first have a hard time coming up with any answer at all. (Chloe's VA even rolls her eyes a bit, as if to telegraph that it's a stupid question.)
This sort of halting uncertainty interspersed with sophomoric attempts at humour unfortunately makes the four of them come across as rather disinterested in the series. In contrast to the Japanese VAs – who had clearly not only given a great deal of thought to their characters and how they (as actors) related to them, but who also sincerely wanted to discuss such matters – whenever the American VAs veered close to the topic, one or more of them seemed to recoil a bit and derail the conversation into more jokes. It's probably just a cultural thing; maybe they were afraid that people would laugh at them if they openly talked about how playing these roles made them feel, and so chose to keep the dialogue in 'harmless but vapid' mode.
It's a bit of a shame, though, as you get the feeling that they might actually have more meaningful things to say, but that peer pressure prevented them from doing so. When interviewer Matt Greenfield (who produced the English dub) endeavours time and again to prompt them with serious, interesting questions – and time and again is thwarted by their flip responses – it suggests that this breezy superficiality is deliberate on their part. That, and the fact that they are clearly somewhat 'weirded out' by some of the in-story character relationships (and thus resort to cracking jokes, for example, about a hentai sequel to Noir with 'girl-on-girl action') means that there's not going to be a lot of deep commentary here.
The good news is, after a while the interview moves away from serious questions about the storyline and onto more standard fare regarding the casting and recording process, which they answer in a more straightforward (and informative) fashion. The bad news is, not long after this a sporadic problem with one of their microphones begins to crop up, creating this annoying 'rump-rump-rump-rump' noise that partially drowns out what they're saying. (Not sure why this wasn't caught and fixed before it went on the DVD.) Anyway, towards the end they wrap up by listing what other animé series they've been working on, and that's about it. So this segment may be of interest to some dub fans out there.
Omake (Easter Eggs)
And here I thought I was done, but in doing some last-minute fact-checking I ran across a passing reference to a 'sock puppet episode' on one of the Noir discs... and as you might imagine, the concept worried me enough that I had to look up how to get at it. As it turns out, those weird bits of hidden text I mentioned earlier are actually coded instructions on how to locate and activate omake throughout the 7 volumes. (And yes, they apparently work on both the R1 and R2 releases, but obviously I've only been able to test the R2 ones.) Credit where credit's due, ADV has provided no dearth of quirky little bonuses across this set... although it should be pointed out that they are, without exception, all created by the American team that produced the English dub. Expect to find: an audio commentary on the two-part 'The Cold-Blooded Killer' arc; four handmade music videos; a series of interview segments with the dub VAs done in the same style as the Japanese ones; some hidden sketches of Kirika and Mireille in the nude; and, yes, the infamous sock puppet episode ('The Unsoled Story')!
As I know some of you out there enjoy the challenge of hunting easter eggs on DVDs, I won't ruin the 'fun' by giving full instructions here. But just in case you do get stumped – not to suggest that the provided clues on those liner notes booklets are clear as mud or anything like that – here's a link to the relevant page at the Easter Egg Archive:
In all honesty, what more can I say? Noir is a show that hits all of its marks. (Erm, no pun intended.) It's smart without being up its own arse. It's hip and sexy without resorting to gimmicks and fan service. It borrows just enough from film noir to give it its unique look, but doesn't follow the model so slavishly that it becomes cookie-cutter. The storyline is sufficiently realistic that it's not hard to relate to the lead characters and the situations in which they find themselves, so you can reserve your suspension-of-disbelief, if you like, for some of the more extraordinary fight scenes. All of this packaged with hyper-stylish visuals and catchy (albeit sometimes slightly overused) musical themes – and in these DVD releases, accompanied by desirable special features – means you really can't go wrong. Honestly.