Review: Noein–Let’s Do the Time Warp Again? (70%)

The title character finally reveals himself to be...
The title character finally reveals himself to be...

Some shows suffer from a lack of original ideas and bad stories. Others, like Noein, suffer from an excess of admirable ambition and the need to cram ideas into one series, ideas that weigh so heavily on the foundation of the story that it simply collapses by the end, leaving only some of its virtues intact in the rubble.

The director seemed like a promising choice, at first: it was Kazuki Akane, the man who helmed Escaflowne–one of the finest fantasy series ever created. There was clearly much homework done on the science of quantum mechanics, albeit heavily, heavily filtered through an even greater amount of pseudo-science and stretched analogies to various psychological and philosophical propositions. It was, in short, trying to be a work of genuine science fiction, where the scientific concepts play a big role in the outcome of the story. (One must be expansive when talking about scientific accuracy and anime, of course. Very expansive.) It also clearly wanted to be charming with is pre-pubescent cast, particularly Haruka, a winsome, independent-thinking, and cheerful protagonist. (The age of the cast members also rules out most fan service.) The setup of the show promised something huge, epic, and filled with both wonder and grandeur as well as intelligence.

“Remember when atmospheric contaminants were romantically called stardust?”
“Remember when atmospheric contaminants were romantically called stardust?”

It got there, some of the time. I’ve noted in my early review some of the highlights: some examples of believable character psychology, the interesting use of the parallel universe and time travel ideas, and great background work, at least at first. (The character designs are another matter; I can see why many find it ugly. Those eyes just look weird sometimes.) The melodrama is piled on thick at times, especially as more and more future selves are revealed and the suggestions of torrid romantic rivalries in the future read their heads. But at its best, the drama was earnest and even plaintive. Some of the “future selves” were interesting, if only because it kept the viewer guessing in trying to see how the child version and adult version connected. And there was beauty in that ominous ring that appears whenever battles are about to commence, and in the blue snow sparkling in the wake of a disappearance. I must also add, too, that several elements of the score were especially memorable, particularly the theme that plays in the “Next Episode” previews.

The problems begin with the central sci-fi conceit of the show: the multiple universes theory as it relates to quantum mechanics, combined with time travel. Time travel stories are notoriously difficult to do right without falling into gross inconsistency and shredding whatever logic was in the plot. Star Trek did it sparingly for that reason. Noein wants to criss cross not only times, but dimensions, and on a regular basis. And it wants to explain it all, which filled entire episodes with half-correct technobabble that uses scraps of genuine science in order to justify what was, in the end…

The tunnel of anime metaphysical endings
The tunnel of anime metaphysical endings

…just another story about a lonely person who has the choice either to dissolve the whole universe (collapsing all universes in this case), or to allow everyone to live on in his or her own time and space, in spite of pain. It is, in short, the Evangelion ending rehashed once more, just as it was in Rahxephon and Lain and far too many shows to count. Let’s be blunt: this is now a cliche which needs to be retired. (I wonder if Anno will do it again in the final installment of the Eva movies. He helped start it; he may help bury it. One can only hope.)

And this is not all. The entire plot hinges on accepting a rather wild variation on the Schrodinger’s Cat theory that it is by observing that one determines either life or death, and that observing a living version of a self in a dimension is enough to ensure he or she will be alive in others. When, at the end, Noein is finally defeated by all the other “Yuus” from the other universes by them ceasing to acknowledge him (how, exactly?), one gets the sense that the way this came about was largely because someone thought the whole “recognition” and “acknowledgment” idea was a great analogy about being loved and accepted. There’s a name for this kind of thing in my profession: a cheesy sermon illustration. It sounds great on paper, like many elements of this show, and might even have worked if it was used sparingly.

He was made of seahorses in the end
He was made of seahorses in the end

By the end of the show, I was either confused or frustrated that Haruka in particular was prevented from having a more active role in accomplishing the end. It began promisingly as she reminded Noein that he had, in fact, actually forgotten her in an existential way, remembering mainly the pain of her death and not her. In itself, this sounds like an interesting twist, but it doesn’t quite feel climactic or earthshattering enough to justify the complete undoing of Noein and the rejection of all the alternate Yuus that compose him. With a bit of sleight of hand, and after having been beaten over the head as to the “point” of the whole story, we see the last bit of “recognition” and “unrecognition,” which seemed calculated mainly to lead up to this twist of an ending. The end thus felt perfunctory and largely unsatisfying, because it was expected–otherwise, the “point” wouldn’t have been made. It didn’t quite feel motivated out of the deepest part of the characters. Part of it is because the characters weren’t developed enough; part of it was because it rested atop the tottering pseudo-scientific Tower of Babel to justify itself.

While Haruka and maybe Yuu/Karasu/Noein are somewhat interesting characters–the former much more than the latter, as I found the latter to be frustratingly two-dimensionally in all their forms–the same can’t really be said for most of the others. Most of the other characters more or less have one significant quirk or trait and do not expand much beyond them. Glimmers of hope with Isami are just that, mostly because much of it develops in his (possible) future selves, which don’t really count because they don’t really happen. Attempts at character development for someone like Atori failed due to a less-than-convincing character arc founded upon near-total memory loss. They also failed to follow up on one of the highlights of the early part of the show–the transformation of Yuu’s mother, which after her experience in seeing the past was then cast off to the side, became wholly accomodating and cheerfully drunk. Character development, I’ve come to realize, is more than just backstory and a few interesting traits. It’s mainly about character change and growth over time. The problem is that with only a few exceptions, much of that change and growth is either not very believable or not present at all (like with Miho/Lily). I can begin to see why neither Haruka nor Yuu himself can ever quite come to believe that Karasu = Yuu, 15 years later. Most of the time, aside from Karasu’s constant declarations of devotion to Haruka, it really is hard to see the continuity. No wonder they act as if they were completely separate people.

This brings me to a final point about the show’s philosophy. These characters are given unparalleled access to their own possible futures. We are given to understand that the dimension in which the majority of the action takes place is somehow the most decisive one, the one that determines the rest of them in a way. Free will is also a major theme in the show. In most shows of this ilk, the villain is almost always the determinist, the one trying to take away choice, usually in the name of preventing suffering and pain. All this is very well and good. And yet, so much of the emotional dynamic of the show–the promise of future love and romance, the thing that keeps certain characters going, etc.–is based on the idea that, say, Yuu will turn out to be Karasu one day, even though there won’t be this cataclysmic war in that dimension anymore and so there will be no need for the awesome powers that help turn Yuu into Karasu. The future is supposedly uncertain for the characters at the end of the story, just as it should be, and yet Karasu is able to promise: I’ll be back in 15 years, kind of like the Terminator. (Which was a time travel story that worked due to its simplicity.) How do you know? Is the future still that determined, at least for Yuu? It seems like the show still wants the romantic notion of “destiny” while wanting to affirm free will. I think it would be much more effective if Haruka would come to accept that a grown Yuu is not necessarily a Karasu, but is still Yuu. That would affirm the bigger point better.

I’ve written mostly negative comments about the show, but this is mostly because the show’s ambitions called for a serious reflection on them. In the end, it bit off far more than it could chew, but it never ceased to be compelling on an elemental level and even stirring at times. The battles were often fun to watch, too, even if the animation became increasingly inconsistent as the show progressed. I always feel that shows that attempt great things should at least be commended for trying, even if they fall flat on their face. This one lasted a good while before it did that, and while it’s far too flawed to be called anything like a masterpiece, it’s worthy of some level of respect.

In an alternate universe, it would have been simpler and focused far more on character than on pseudo-science. But, after all, we have to deal with the dimension we have here.

Anime Diet Daily Recommended Allowances

Animation: 72%: at times the visuals are gorgeous, the battles fluid, and many original visual elements like the big ring stand out. The character designs leave something to be desired, though; they seem far sketchier than they need to be. Budget problems also clearly reared their head in the latter half of the show, which not only made some of the battles less detailed but the made the characters more ugly.

Music: 80%. Some fine themes, and great OP. The main melancholy theme is very memorable (as played in the previews). The problem is I can’t remember any of the other music.

Voice acting: 85%: I really like Haruka’s seiyuu. For once, a 12 year old girl isn’t voiced by a helium-voiced actress, and it helped give the impression of her being relatively level-headed and normal much more credibility. The rest, however, tend to fall into typical voice archetypes: Karasu as the badass bishounen stranger, Yuu being the angsty Shinji-like boy, etc.

Story: 68%: It was really, really promising sometimes, but it had some terrible flaws, which I’ve outlined above. The two best words to describe it are “wasted potential”; there was stuff that had so much richness in it, and so many attempts at decent character moments, that had it simply been executed better it would have been fantastic. But the story we do have is muddled and inconsistent at best, cringingly melodramatic at worst.

Overall: 70%: “worthy effort” and “valiant” might be proper words to use about this show. A fascinating entry in the annals of anime sci-fi, at least.

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