Noein Vol. 1

After a ridiculously crazy summer, it's good to be back to writing anime reviews. Normally, I try to write up a review shortly after watching a program. It's always good to have it fresh in my mind when I start trying to sing its praises or pick it apart. That simply wasn't a possibility with Noein Vol. 1, which I watched over two months ago. In the case of many shows I've watched over the years, that would utterly disqualify me from publishing anything about it...because, sadly enough, most anime (even many entertaining titles worth a B+ or better) aren't that memorable.  It's really not an anime thing; most live-action films suffer the same problem. The human brain kicks out a lot of superfluous information every day, and entertainment is usually just that. This is perhaps a great reason, more than any other, to recommend the opening volume of Noein. Not only does it contain 5 episodes, a bargain in the current world of American releases, but it has stayed with me for that time. I review a lot of first volumes without ever gaining enough interest to see more; Noein has been begging me to return ever since I pulled the disc out of the player.

Haruka and Yuu are almost polar opposites.  Haruka's a happy, free-spirited girl who loves life. Yuu is a brooding loner with a home life from hell. Haruka is Yuu's best friend, no matter what Yuu may actually say, and she may be the only person who really wants to understand him. But Yuu's problems are just beginning. For dreams are coming into reality...apparitions have been appearing across Hokkaido. These ghosts aren't spectres at all but beings from La'cryma -- another world, or another dimension, or perhaps another time. Haruka and Yuu's band of young compatriots find themselves at the center of the search for something known as the Dragon Torque. When it turns out that the Dragon Torque is not a thing at all but a person, mysteries upon mysteries start to gel into a strange we've only just begun to explore.

Noein succeeds in being a hypnotically fascinating and slightly maddening adventure for one primary reason: it is intentionally unique. The first episode is incredibly compelling, but it also lurches forward with a plot that is at that point incomprehensible. Only through the next few episodes do we really get a sense that the show is not toying with us -- and even then, my grade for the show is slightly lower because we still know far less than we should after nearly two and a half hours. More uniqueness can be found in the character designs, which are almost (for lack of a better word) cartoonish. Yet it is their very oddness that makes the show's darkest themes all the more creepy. The characters look just different enough to be part of a dreamworld, yet familiar enough to be relatable. From my notes, I also recall the soundtrack as "interesting," which means that while I don't remember any of the tracks specifically, they established atmosphere. The components are all here for a wild ride.

And yet Noein's greatest strength so far is its interest in being a character driven story. The reason we don't exactly understand the warring factions within La'cryma by the end of the first disc is because we've spent time getting to know Haruka and her friends. As a friend of mine pointed out to me, there's a point in episode 4 where Haruka and a friend get into an argument and stop talking to one another...yet when they reconcile over a lost piece of jewelry, they search together in silence, a symbol of their restored relationship. Lots of shows have strange timelines and multiple dimensions, but few contain characters more interesting than the plots that involve them. Noein is willing to take the time to show us these children on the cusp of adolescence with all their edges exposed. Yet these feel like real kids. These are the middle schoolers that populate the youth group at the church I attend. The show has captured this age very well, down to the petty bickering and the flashing, immature thoughts of romance.

But beyond the whole character angle, anyone who enjoys stylish, creepy shows that play with your head without a ton of gore should be all kinds of excited about Noein. It's not as headscratching as Lain or as trippy as Paranoia Agent; it appears that once we understand the plot, it's going to be a little more conventional. Nevertheless, the way it goes about being unsettling is brilliant. Just as everything appears normal, whamo. And there are some great freakish little moments -- I'll leave it for you to discover, but the ending line of the first episode is killer. And what makes this show perhaps more disconcerting is that it takes its time so you can relate to the kids.  By the end of two hours, for example, you're pulling for the despondent Yuu to find his way out of his shell. Somehow, what happens to these characters makes a difference to the show, and it makes it stand out.

Noein shows great promise in its initial outing. Of course, if it decides to continue to string along the audience without explaining more of what's going on, it's going to get tiresome quickly. But I have the strange feeling it's not going to do that. As I said before, there seems to be a great deal of intentionality so far, which gives me hope. I'll keep you posted.

Noein Vol. 1 -- thematic elements, violence, too scary for kids -- A-