[Excerpted from the December 2007 issue of Otaku USA Magazine.]
This right here is everyone’s worst nightmare, so try not to get too scared! You hit up the local comic shop one day; it’s a fine, breezy afternoon. The sun is out, kids are playing at the park down the road, and you smile cheerfully as the entrance ring-rings your arrival. The comforting air of cartoon paper wafts past as you pick up some manga, or perhaps a magazine, and head to the counter. Just then, the faint rumble of thunder sounds in the distance. This is the part where the narrator holds a flashlight below his horrifying grimace. This is the twist.
The shopkeep looms over you, cracking crusted knuckles while scanning your barcodes. An acne-scarred face pops and fizzes at each mocking guffaw as he … she … no, it scrutinizes your purchases. As its grubby paw reaches for your money, you snap. “Hey, pal, just who do you think you are!?•bCrLf A fair question. “Who am I?•bCrLf The older, disheveled clerk moans before a dramatic pause. “I’m YOU!•bCrLf The beast points, cackling like a mad jackal as you flee in terror.
Therein lies a bone-chilling twist to the premise of Noein, a time-shifting show that brings the past, present, and future crashing together with a devastating blow of apocalyptic urgency.
I Against I
Unfortunately, there aren’t any portly comic peddlers in this show, but the connection between our time and that of a ruined dimension 15 years in the future is the crux of this 24-episode series helmed by Kazuki Akane (Vision of Escaflowne, Heat Guy J). Noein follows Haruka Kaminogi and Yuu Gato and their ragtag group of friends as they do what most 12-year-olds do: have fun. They galavant around scenic Hakodate, plan tests of courage that involve ghost-hunting at night, and generally behave like, well, children.
Yuu is a bit different, though. He’d love to spend all of his time with his buddies, especially the cute and precocious Haruka, but his mother has him on a tight leash. She overbearingly demands his attention be centered squarely on his studies, with most, if not all, of the fading summer devoted to cram school. Boring! What a perfect excuse to sneak out and have a good time with his friends.
That night, consisting of the aforementioned “test of courage,•bCrLf was never meant to go quite the way they planned. One might be tempted to say that they got what they asked for when it seems like they’ve found an honest to goodness ghost, but this isn’t anything like the graveyard apparition they were expecting. What they find in the darkness is a cloaked man with flowing white hair, and when Yuu asks him who he is he makes like the comic guy and says “I’m you!•bCrLf
The strange thing is, he just might be! The man that claims to be Yuu from 15 years in the future introduces himself as Karasu (Crow) and insists that Haruka possesses something that he seeks called the Dragon Torque. From there, we meet more members of the Dragon Cavalry that Karasu is a part of, and slowly learn of the importance of Haruka’s supposed power and its ability to make or break this strange world from the far reaches of time and space known as La’cryma.
Feel My Cosmos
These warriors from beyond our time remain tethered to their world via a cable system not unlike something an old-time deep-sea diver would use. Imagine the surface of the ocean as a separator of two entirely unique worlds and it paints a clear enough picture of their dimension-hopping survival mechanics. Much more ambiguous is the power held by Haruka’s Dragon Torque, which occasionally appears as a golden choker around her neck. The only thing that’s apparent about it for a good portion of the series is that the strangers from La’cryma want it badly enough to fight amongst themselves plenty, skirmishes that chiefly take place between Karasu and the brash and wicked Atori.
It’s not pretty when they clash, either. Okay, scratch that; it’s pretty, but it’s also insanely destructive and intense. A brief and curious onlooker might assume a fan of this show was watching a fighting anime if they timed their stroll-by perfectly. Karasu and the other knights tend to take to the skies when engaging in battle, zipping through the atmosphere while filling it with blue and white bolts and streams that could slice through a skyscraper. Time stops and the world goes all wacky for a few moments as they pummel one another with everything from bursts of energy to contorted steel blades that spring out from their forearms. The animation, an impressively consistent quality of the show, hits some high notes here and, stylistically, gets creative with a mixture of no-foolin’ fluidity and a jagged sketchy aesthetic that comes and goes as it pleases.
When the dust is settled, however, it’s clear that this is not Dragon Ball Z by any stretch of the imagination, but a cleverly balanced drama that knows when to lighten up and when to burrow deeper into itself. Many of the complications that arise in Noein are a result of the entire reality of the situation being viewed from the perspectives of certain characters. A lot of questions surface as to the validity of the future that La’cryma represents-one that’s technologically potent but hopelessly bleak. Can some of these fighters really be future forms of these innocent and carefree kids? The general consensus early on is that our world that they’ve come into is one of an infinite number of dimensions, and likely doesn’t reflect their exact past. Still, whether or not these connections are illusory, they make for a series that drips with sentiment and nostalgia.
Two and a Half Worlds
There is a wide gulf of disparity between La’cryma and our dimension. The future is red, hot, and nasty; something that Haruka finds out for herself when she’s first taken there by Karasu. It’s like that scene in Total Recall when Arnold’s eyes are bugging out on the surface of Mars, but twice as desolate and not nearly as funny. One of the great mysteries here is how. If this is really our future, what could have gone so terribly wrong in a 15-year time span?
Taking the crumbling characteristics of La’cryma into account, Akane’s decision to set Noein‘s central locale in the city of Hakodate makes even more sense. Hakodate is gorgeous, hilly, and serene. The care and attention to detail that went into recreating every square mile covered within is impressive. From the cable car’s ascending the mountain to the busy workings of the wharf, most of the backgrounds might as well be photographs. This location is just as crucial to the story as any of the other contributing factors.
Then there’s the wild card, a mysterious world called Shangri-la, whose apparent representative—the masked, transparent-bodied Noein— wants to keep the Dragon Torque out of La’cryma’s hands at any cost. This curious civilization is doing much more than launching misty, back-alley-magician preventative measures, though. Their goal involves slowly eroding La’cryma and all of space and time along with it. The imminent threat they pose serves as an understandable impetus to the in-house violence of the Dragon Cavalry. We can’t rule out the possibility of “double agents,•bCrLf right? Either way, Haruka is stuck in the middle and both Karasu and Yuu want to protect her.
The Road Ahead
Noein is, without a doubt, a very rewarding anime experience. This means you shouldn’t feel bad if you’re not really jiving with it after the first couple of episodes. The meat of the story is unraveled slowly, and the first volume or two deals out a fair amount of head and chin scratching. Once the hook sinks in, though, it latches on fiercely. Seeing it through to the bitter end quickly becomes top priority, and along the way you can look forward to epic battles, wonderfully fleshed-out characters that evoke a surprising amount of emotion, and a compelling narrative that’s sealed with a bow and a kiss underneath some of the best 2-D/3-D hybrid animation out there.
As for the ol’ comic book clerk back there, well, that’s sure to haunt you for the rest of your life. Sorry!
Noein is available now on DVD from Manga Video.