Noein is a bold mash-up of opposites, a cute kids’ drama slammed with gusto into an apocalypse epic. There are summer games and child’s-eye nostalgia. There are time-travelling warriors and weird Dali-esque giants. There’s a ferociously complex plot, featuring colliding universes and Schrodinger’s Cat.
Most of Noein is set in the real-life port city of Hakodate, on the north Japanese island of Hokkaido. Perky 12-year-old girl Haruki frets about her troubled friend, a boy called Yu, who’s being pushed towards breakdown by his domineering mum. As in other fantasies, Noein’s supernatural invaders seem conjured by the youngster’s paranoid psyche. They’re flying warriors in billowing black cloaks, casting lightning fire from trees and mountaintops. The most fearsome of them taunts Yu, saying that he’s Yu too. Meanwhile, Haruka starts manifesting her own powers, seeing into other times and realities, as some of those realities seek her.
On the face of it, Noein was surely made to hit multiple bases, to appeal to fans of fighting supermen from other worlds and fans of cheery tales of intrepid kids. Yet the show seems too bonkers to have been put together by a marketing department, and too wholehearted. The kids of Hakodate are presented with real charm; if Yu has some of the neuroses of Shinji in Evangelion, then Haruka and her other friends are healthy and life-affirming. As for the SF elements, they become central slowly. The later episodes have long lectures on quantum physics and emotional fables about how we cope with the future and past as we grow up.
Noein’s look is an acquired taste. It’s a mix of rough, cartoony animation and breathtaking, hurtling battles that values dynamism over any fidelity to character model sheets. Its worst animation feels blunt and crude, but Noein can outdo Kill la Kill for vitalised energy. It also does the city of Hakodate proud, making full use of its hillsides, storehouses and genteel buildings. The CGI is obvious but not ugly; for example, Haruka’s house is a CG model, which spins like a top while travelling to another world.
The reality-hopping story, with cheery children in one scene and grim warriors in the next, is indigestible in places. It doesn’t resolve into a clear arc like, for example, Steins;Gate. Rather it feels shapeless and meandering in patches, though in retrospect it always builds on its themes and relationships. For all the detailed quantum lectures, Noein’s multiverse scenario is waved away in the manner of Doctor Who, never really making sense.
The show’s second half is marred by a boring boor villain who’s out to profit from quantum theory (and how could that go wrong?!), while a cheapo episode uses time travel as an excuse to recycle most of its footage from previous stories.
Yet Noein surpasses all that. It’s about the characters, whose journeys are strong, surprising and even uplifting. Noein also has a bells-and-whistles spectacle of a final episode, bringing the show to a satisfying end, with the maddest clash of realities since Marvel’s Crisis On Infinite Earths.
Review by Tom Arden