By Andrew Osmond.
Noein takes place in several worlds at once, and it’s several kinds of show at once. It’s a time-travel story; it’s a show about playful children and grim warriors, about first love and state conspiracies, about slice-of-life comedy and war between dimensions.
The first episode starts in sensory overload, with giant statue-like beings falling onto a post-apocalyptic landscape, fought by a fleet of flying warriors with psionic weapons. It’s like Attack on Titan done by Salvador Dali. (Fact check: Noein was broadcast in 2005, four years before the Titan manga began.) Then we’re in ordinary present-day Japan, in the daily life of a perky twelve year-old girl and her friends. Titan meets (Enid) Blyton… No, not really, but that’s the first impression.
From there, Noein crosses back and forth between the ordinary world and the war-torn fantasy, with the shifts in tone that implies. One minute we’re contemplating global devastation, the next we’re watching kids’ summer games and silly squabbles. The main girl is Haruka; she has several friends, but is particularly close to Yu, an unhappy boy her age. The characterisation quickly goes beyond Blyton. Haruka’s parents are divorced, and that’s plainly left her with issues despite her well-adjusted exterior. She’s also worried about Yu, who’s becoming increasingly bitter, obsessed with escaping his “tiger” mother who controls his life. Then the weird stuff starts. Haruka sees a frozen world of blue snow, and travellers start coming from another world…
Noein is directed by Kazuki Akane, who got his break into directing a decade before, on the fantasy Vision of Escaflowne, which Anime Limited has acquired for future release. Escaflowne, like Noein, was an exercise in changing registers. It was a show about giant fighting mecha that was also a girls’ teen romance. While Escaflowne’s main creator was Shoji Kawamori, famed co-creator of Macross, Akane worked on Noein with a different Macross alumnus. This was the writer Hiroshi Ohnogi, who’d contributed to mecha epics like Zeta Gundam, Gundam Seed and RahXephon. After helping Akane with the storylining on Noein, Ohnogi went on to a mammoth stint on Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood, as well as writing the sexy, underrated Rin – Daughters of Mnemosyne.
One interesting issue is what audience Noein’s makers had in mind. Interviewed by the magazine Anime Insider, Akane said he wanted it to be watchable by both young and old viewers. This ecumenical approach echoes Escaflowne, which was designed to bring in male and female demographics. In Japan, Noein was broadcast in a graveyard slot (1.30 to 2 a.m!) but played in better hours elsewhere. It was shown on ABC2 in Australia, and was part of the evening ‘Ani-Monday’ block on the US Sci-Fi channel, now SyFy. (You can see some tongue-in-cheek idents using Noein animation here.) In Britain, the BBFC rated Noein’s episodes from ‘PG’ to ‘12.’ One of the darkest scenes, near the end, has nothing to do with fantasy violence; instead it shows a real-world car crash.
You might argue Noein is aimed at older viewers because of its time-twisting concepts – quantum theory is heavily invoked, and there’s a very funny cameo from that turbulent moggie of thought-experiments, Schrodinger’s cat. On the other hand, most young Doctor Who fans will get the show’s main ideas, while Noein has interesting points in common with another vintage British series, Timeslip (1970-1). Though Timeslip had none of Noein’s spectacle, it has a girl and boy going into possible-future catastrophes and meeting multiple could-be versions of their adult selves – ingredients that appear in Noein. For viewers flummoxed by Noein’s ideas, they’re laid out at length halfway through the story – part 11 – by an enigmatic woman researcher, who’s among the more memorable supporting characters.
Akane mentioned to Anime Insider that he had to resist otaku trends while making Noein. “Other people in the business wanted character designs that were more in the current style of moe, with cute girls.” Noein’s characters were designed by the prolific Takahiro Kishida, whose credits include landmarks such as Serial Experiments Lain, Puella Magi Madoka Magica, Baccano! and the ongoing Durarara!! Noein’s youngsters are drawn as attractive but believable, their emotions between children and young adults. Anime News Network lists an extraordinary number of key animators on the show – more than 150 – which makes Noein a treat for “sakuga” fans who love innovative, idiosyncratic movement. The opening action scene alone has oodles of sakuga fanservice. Watch for the sketch-style linework during the hero warrior’s exertions, until he dissolves into those same sketched lines.
Parts of Noein take place in bizarre fantasy landscapes, redolent of Mamoru Oshii’s surreal Angel’s Egg, but much of it is grounded in a very real setting – the port city of Hakodate. Located in Hokkaido, its many Western-style buildings make for a strong contrast with Tokyo. Mount Hakodate, with its famous night view, plays a prominent role; the port’s brick warehouses are also explored. The fantastic is contained in the real, at least some of the time. This is a series where – to give one random example – two girls slapping each other over a misunderstanding about a boy can be given as much weight as the fate of the multiverse. That’s like anime, you could say; but Noein suggests it’s like life, too.