Noein (To Your Other Self): Volume 1 Review
There’s a curious mix of genres in Noein, combining pre-teen drama with the hard science fiction of quantum physics, and the two don’t always blend together entirely successfully – neither thematically nor in the animation art styles. The purpose of this disparity would appear to be meaningful however, and combined with some fine and innovative animation techniques, it creates a unique environment that takes the story in a new and intriguing direction.
It’s the end of the school year in Hakedate, and most kids are enjoying the summer break before they have to start middle-school, planning ghost hunts and adventures with their friends. Not Yu though, a sullen young boy who has to attend cram school and remains under the watchful eye of his strict mother. Haruka knows how he feels – her parents are divorced and she lives with her mother but misses her father. She and Yu have been planning to run away together since they were very young, but strange events have been happening in Hakedate that seem to tie them to the place and make their escape seem unlikely.
Their destiny is revealed to them on the night they go on a ghost hunt with their friends. Both Yu and Haruka have had intimations of something strange going on – premonitory visions and shadowed figured whose significance they are unable to grasp, but while walking through the old cemetery those figures take form – albeit a strange and insubstantial form - in the shape of cloaked figures. Dropping into the world from a parallel dimension 15 years in the future, the “birds” have been sent from La’cryma to try and locate the Dragon Torque, a powerful tool that will help them save their world from the threat of Shangri-la. Haruka is in possession of this powerful and much coveted gift.
The age of the children involved is quite significant, the twelve year-old children having reached an important age, about to become teenagers and move on to another stage of life. It’s an exciting and frightening time for them, still uncertain about who they are and what their lives are going to be like – but some are starting to sense their individuality and become aware of their importance in the world. The link between the discovery of special powers at the onset of adolescence or adulthood isn’t anything new in the science-fiction world, and certainly not in Japanese manga or anime, with major works like Mai, The Psychic Girl, Akira, Neon Genesis Evangeleon and X/1999 all taking this period of adolescence and pre-adolescence and tying it into an important destiny for their young protagonists.
What is so different about Noein is the amount of time that is given over to equally to the pre-teen drama as to the science-fictional elements, the director taking care to carefully depict their circumstances, their inner lives, hopes and dreams, their struggles to adapt to the changes that are taking place within them and their growing awareness of the world outside. Just as important is the choice of location in Hokkaido, far away from the big city for these children, where Tokyo would appear to be another dimension away and positively space-age in comparison to sleepy Hakedate. The sense of their own importance then takes on a huge significance for these children, and the science-fiction element is appropriately on a very big scale. Not only does the fate of the earth or even the universe lie in the balance, it’s the universes of infinite parallel dimensions. The connection between the children and the important destiny life has in store for them is also well established, since the figures who appear in their lives are not just figures who have strayed in from some space adventure, they are in some cases their equivalent selves from a parallel future.
It is a bit of a stretch to bring these elements together, and Noein isn’t always convincing – at least thus far in the five episodes that make up Volume 1. The production design clearly sets out to emphasise these differences, the soft pastels and curved lines of life in Hakedate are particular well-designed by the director Kazuki Akane, using real locations and depicting little details in the hilly streets and the public spaces, where the presence of seagulls is all around, giving the whole setting a particular sense of childhood wonder. The contrasting Twelve Monkeys science-fiction aspect with its harsh jagged-lines and 3-D graphics is a little less imaginatively rendered (the CGI sticks out like a sore thumb), all flash speed-lines with the characters throwing explosive blasts of light at each other without ever giving an impression of any real danger. The music score is suitably operatic, with big orchestral and choral arrangements that add to the portentousness of events, but there should really be a greater sense of all life as we know it – and don’t know it – being in the balance. With the sense of pace at which the storyline is travelling however and 19 episodes to go, I suspect that this will gain momentum and the remainder of the journey will no doubt continue to be an intriguing and visually stylish as these first five.
Noein: Volume 1 contains the first 5 episodes of the 24 episode series and is released in the UK by Manga Entertainment. The set is made up of two dual-layer discs. The same 5 episodes are on both discs, the second disc being given over to DTS audio mixes. The DVD is in PAL format and is encoded for Region 2.
The 2-disc format suggests that the best efforts have been made to provide the highest quality transfer. With only one minor drawback, that is certainly what is delivered. The strong visual look of the series – each episode being made up of over 6,000 animation cels (twice the average number of a normal animated TV series) - is well rendered in the video transfer, the image strong and stable, perfectly balanced in terms of colouration and tone. On most set-ups, you not see a flaw or flicker throughout the five episodes during normal playback. Any imperfections can only be noticed on closer examination or through freeze-framing, where interlaced images can be seen and some digital noise in the form of ghosting can be detected in the movement between frames, the consequence perhaps of an NTSC to PAL conversion. None of this should present any problems that can be detected during normal playback, so to all intents and purposes this is as good as perfect. The transfer is identical on both discs.
The purpose of the 2-disc set is to provide the viewer with the maximum of audio choices without compromising the bitrate of the video transfer. Consequently Disc One has English Dolby Digital 2.0 and English Dolby Digital 5.1 dubbed choices, as well as the original Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1. Disc 2 has English DTS and Japanese DTS mixes, as well, strangely, as another English Dolby Digital 2.0 option. All the options are strong and relatively clear, with the kind of differences you would expect them to exhibit. The surround mixes in particular are most effective, showing off the lavish 40-piece orchestra music score, though sounding less dynamic on the centre-channel voices. The bass is also lacking on the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix where you would expect the frequent explosive battles to have more of a punch. The DTS is an improvement in these areas, giving a rounder tone, but it’s not the major difference you might expect, and I wouldn’t think it justifies making this a 2-disc set. In terms of dubbing, I found the English voices to be very well cast, sounding very close to their Japanese counterparts and being equally strong in delivery.
English subtitles are optional and, thankfully, in a white font that doesn’t play havoc with the colour scheme. I think yellow subtitles would destroy the carefully balanced tones of the series. It should be noted however that the subtitles would appear to be dubtitles, i.e. they are identical to the English dubbed adaptation, rather than being a strictly literal translation.
Extra features are not extensive, limited mostly to the standard variations on opening and closing sequences. The Voice Actor & Director (14:31) featurette however is fascinating, Kazuki Akane and Kudo Haruka (looking not unlike the character she plays) travelling to the real Hakedate and visiting the principal locations used in the series. It really gives you an impression on how much work went into its virtual recreation in the animation. It looks like this feature will be continued on other Volumes. The other features consist of Alternative Opening 01 (1:44) which makes the credit sequence much darker and dramatic; a longer Alternative Opening 02 (3:18), which plays like a music video; a Textless Opening (1:37); a Textless Closing (1:31); and the Original Japanese Promos (2:01) – TV ads for the DVD and soundtrack narrated by the original voice actors. Disc 2 just contains Trailers for other Manga titles.
You can hardly say that the build-up has been slow in the first 5 episodes that make up Noein: Volume 1. There is no shortage of action, mystery and danger, but the series even manages to be just as effective – if not more so - in balancing these science-fiction elements with strong character development and scene setting in the trials and tribulations of smalltown life. There is undoubtedly a long way to go as the young protagonists come to accept their destinies and build up their own self-belief, but with intriguing elements like the figure of Noein – so far only briefly glimpsed – X-Files investigators Kooryiama and Uchida looking into matters and the wildcard element of parallel dimensions, I suspect that the series holds more than a few surprises in store.