Noir, an anime series that ran in 2001, begs for comparison with the American live-action extravaganza The Boondock Saints. Both series and movie use large amounts of violence to talk about Catholic and moral themes. But while The Boondock Saints cheerfully opined that what this society really needs is a few more crusaders and warrior saints on a mission from God, Noir seems to doubt that even killing in self-defense is entirely moral. (Yes, it’s that perennial Japanese staple — a pacifist show with a high body count!)
Mireille Bouquet is a reliable assassin-for-hire who lives in Paris and works under the nom du guerre “Noir”. She is emailed by schoolgirl Kirika Yumura, who asks Mireille to go on “a pilgrimage to the past with me.” Kirika can remember nothing before she found herself in an empty house with a gun and a musical pocketwatch — and the urge to contact Mireille. When both are attacked, Kirika demonstrates that she is frighteningly proficient with that gun. After much consideration, Mireille decides that she will help Kirika to find the truth about both of them, and the shadowy organization now after them both. But she warns the girl that noone who knows Noir’s real name can be allowed to live. Kirika says that she looks forward to being killed.
(For those of you who aren’t anime fans, Japanese shows really do tend to have a high percentage of suicidal characters. I don’t really remember seeing anyone commit suicide onscreen, but there are a lot of folks who find peace only through conveniently being forced to go out in a blaze of glory while opposing unbeatable forces. However, Kirika is unusually upfront about not minding death, and without the usual gung-ho justifications. Still, the pattern remains; to convince a Japanese audience that a character is really serious, the character seems to have to be openly ready to die.)(Or really old and smarter than that.)
So Noir becomes two people — the “maidens with black hands who protect the peace” of the introduction. Shadowy forces keep setting traps for them while Mireille tries to keep her business going.
There are a lot of anime shows which include a bit of Catholic flavor here and there: the orphanages run by a priest and a nun in Cyborg 009 and Cowboy Bebop, the priest who gets monster-fied in Sailor Moon, the odd church wedding, and so on. But this is the most Catholicism I’ve seen in a series since St. Tail or Ten Pound Gospel — and both of those were set in Catholic parishes.
The flavor starts with the opening song, “Coppelia’s Casket”. Coppelia, the windup android heroine of the eponymous ballet (and,as Olympie, of the opera Tales of Hoffman) is dead and nobody mourns for her. She is juxtaposed to “the Lamb on the altar”. The song goes on to talk about the dark modern city, in which the POV character of the song “cannot meet you”. The singer calls on “God the Savior”, warns that people are dolls who are tired of dancing for the rulers of this world, and asks how this clockwork dream will end.
The Catholic theme is continued in a Latin chant set to a techno beat, “Salva Nos”. This is used as the background music for many action scenes. As you can see below, it’s a duet (thus representing Mireille and Kirika) that is a sort of symbolic prayer for the women’s safety and requiem for their victims.
In the second episode, we see a police officer’s interment in a churchyard, with three priests in attendance as well as many of his fellow police. One character hopes that they will catch the killer; the other says that he will also pray for it. This character turns out to be saying this hypocritically. Perhaps it’s not surprising that the episode doesn’t turn out well for him.
This episode is called “Daily Bread”, and in it we see Mireille and Kirika bringing home and eating a long loaf of it. Mireille admonishes Kirika for not taking more open pleasure in her “daily bread — God’s blessing”. But at the end of the episode, Kirika points out that their daily bread is killing people. Despite the fact that their targets in this episode were terrorists and a traitor, Kirika takes no pleasure in it.
The third episode begins in a cemetery, as Mireille visits a grave only to find another mourner already there. This episode again presents the assassins with deserving targets, but Mireille finds herself forced to kill another assassin who is a kindred spirit. They agree that people like them should never visit graveyards, because the dead call them, and that they will never be buried in a named grave. But defiantly, Mireille brings flowers to the assassin at the cemetery, even though the assassin isn’t actually buried there.
The fourth episode goes overseas. Noir’s target is a man whose corporation arranges coups. This certainly seems like a worthy cause. But Mireille and Kirika are forced to confront the fact that evil men are people, too, when his friendly daughter comes to spend her birthday with her workaholic dad.
In the fifth episode, the symbolism really hits as Mireille and Kirika confront their shadowy enemies at St. Galen’s Church. A friend of Mireille, now dead, leaves information for her among the bones in the crypt. They capture an enemy trying to steal the information. Mireille ends up confronting him alone inside the candle-lit church. He taunts her by saying she can’t kill him without losing what he knows, but Mireille kills him anyway. (Thereby deconsecrating the church. Bad Mireille!) The information turns out to be a vaguely Gnostic-sounding medieval prophecy which reveals the name of their enemies’ organization.
The sixth episode is perhaps the most morally problematic one. Noir is hired, by members of a minority ethnic group, to assassinate a KGB man who did his best to commit genocide. But Yuri Nazarov disappeared from the KGB years ago, and has spent his time since then living in poverty and feeding everyone around him who is poor. Mireille says that it seems he’s trying to atone, but the victims obviously don’t think it’s enough since they want him dead. Kirika adopts a lost kitten and finds, to her consternation, that it’s Nazarov’s. (And named “Prince Myshkin”.) Nazarov collapses and Kirika saves him. She is filled with guilt and returns to Nazarov’s house to try to kill him, but the house is full of grateful people. She returns to the hotel room, where Mireille figures out Nazarov’s reasons for the killing and offers to let him off, especially since he’s old and will die soon anyway. But Kirika insists on killing him, and does, despite the cat’s accusing gaze. Nazarov does not resist.
This is essentially an episode about a genocidal killer who becomes a saint and dies a martyr’s death. This is clearly good for him but not so good for our heroines, who now have a saint’s blood on their black hands. I really don’t understand why Kirika went ahead and killed him, unless it was an attempt to feel sad about doing it, or because she envied him and the kitten for having names and known pasts. The episode as a whole does seem to be an argument that if you don’t kill killers, some will repent and change their ways.
The next episode is pure action set in a beautifully drawn Middle Eastern country. A dying imam declares to evil revolutionaries that Noir, in killing their leader, acted as a servant of God. But the main question is whether or not Mireille will kill or leave behind the severely wounded Kirika. Mireille passes this test, and both are airlifted to freedom as Mireille concludes that they are bound together by Fate. (Not love or friendship or respect, of course. Suuuuuure, Mireille.)
The eighth and ninth episodes are a story about the Mafia princess called the Intoccabile. Of course we visit a church. But as three mafiosi “with saints’ names” swear fealty to her while we hear a choir sing “Of the Father’s Love Begotten” in Latin, it was startling to me to see her standing in front of a picture of Our Lady of Good Counsel. (Anime studios often seem to use their artists’ travel photos to get really authentic location shots.) We also meet a priest when the Intoccabile visits a church in Sicily. He is persuaded to share what he knows when the Intoccabile reminds him that God loves truth. But the final battle between Mireille and the Intoccabile takes place in the ruins of a pagan temple and ends appropriately for someone who lived by fear.
It is hard to tell what the rest of the show will be like. The shadowy enemy does seem to be some sort of bizarre little Gnostic sect with Illuminati-like ambitions. I’m certainly okay with that. But I’m uncomfortable with Mireille and Kirika being simultaneously presented as angels of death and creepy sinners, and I’d like to be more certain that the show won’t end in some sort of murder/suicide or Gnostic power fantasy. *sigh*
It’s a good show, but definitely not recommended for kids too young to have their brains twisted. Violence with classical music and thought behind it is still violence.