Noir (both classic or neo-noir) is not exactly well known as a genre in anime. There are no database sites (like MAL or IMDB) that list noir as a genre in anime. Despite that, some influential anime can actually be considered belong to the noir genre.
Neo-noir, though could be a problematic term, refers to a genre that evolves from classic noir that ended in the 1950s. Both deals with dark theme and style, such as criminals, detective-mystery, cynicism, pessimism, ambivalence of norms, feeling of paranoia and being alienated that ends with the protagonist’s downfall (not always through death per se, for it could be, say, descent into immorality), mostly through femme fatale (tainted seductive woman), past karma, or the mix of both. Although film theorists and cinematographers have debates on whether noir is a genre or style (or whether it is at all), I won’t get into the details of the debates here and simply assume that there is indeed a category of fiction called ‘noir’, and it is problematic not to name it as such.
What differentiates neo-noir and classic noir is that neo-noir deals with more contemporary issues and concerns. It rises from themes such as gender and environment (like in Noir or Cowboy Bebop as it will be explained later). It’s also not merely set in a dark, lonely city. Instead, neo-noir could have been set in futuristic city, in space, or even involving supernatural things. Lastly, the protagonists are not always a detective chasing a murderer. He/she could also be a bounty hunter chasing criminals, an assassin targeting political figures, a negotiator, or even a doctor. They are not merely in search of their adversaries, but more importantly, they are in search of themselves.
Why should noir anime be considered to be watched? Franz Kafka once said that “we need the books that affect us like a disaster.” Because noir deals with the ambivalence of morality, good protagonist does succumb to evil. Every hero has their own devil. Audiences are made to see a naked, unperverted and indifferent reality, be it good or bad. “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us”, Kafka said.
This is a list of seven neo-noir anime that readers can consider to check out.
Psycho Pass (2013)
Urobuchi Gen may have written many tragedies, but Psycho Pass was his very first and only attempt in neo-noir—and it was not disappointing. It’s a solid and action-packed, yet clever, neo-noir anime. It balances out the mystery and misery of neo-noir with its futuristic logic (where men’s actions is determined by machine). This anime evokes the theme of humanity and freedom, rather than simple cat-and-mouse game between the duet of Akane Tsunemori-Shinya Kogami with Makishima Shogo.
As both protagonists try to stop Makishima, viewers would be stunned by the conclusion of this anime, in which the three main characters chose their path. Could ending the machine’s tyranny be a good thing? Could humanity be protected by letting the machine controls us?
But, the draw of this anime does not stop there. In every nook and cranny of this show, there are literary easter eggs, cleverly hidden, to be found. Viewers could find classic literatures, such as Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Richard Connell’s short story The Most Dangerous Game and Nietzche’s Beyond Good and Evil, among others. This is anime can be a good introduction to the neo-noir genre in anime.
The Big O (1999)
This is another good introduction to neo-noir anime, that also pays homage to other works like Batman, Flash Gordon, Blade Runner, and any of those kaiju and tokusatsu movies. Filled with every noir elements you could find, from the low-lighting and weird camera angles, voice-over narration, dark cityscape, a cynic protagonist, a femme fatale and, of course, the crime itself. A jazzy anime that will entertain with its smooth, almost sublime, ways to uncover each characters’ natures and their relationship to each other.
The anime tells the story of Roger Smith, The Negotiator. He is a billionaire whose alter ego is a vigilante, chasing out bad guys with the aid of his butler and beautiful female companion. The setup is pretty much like Batman. The setting is a futuristic city of Amnesia City (so named because its citizens had a sudden mass-amnesia forty years ago). Consisted of interesting episodic story, the anime will slowly immerses viewers in the strangeness of Amnesia City as it carefully uncover, bits by bits through little hints, its dark secret.
As Roger deals with his clients, he is forced to face his darkest fear of remembering his forgotten past and loose his current self. An anime that cleverly tries to ask “who are we?” without sounding like preaching. An anime that also asks questions about humanity, as Roger Smith gradually feels affection towards his female android companion, R. Dorothy Wayneright. A fine craft of existentialist anime.
Despite its confusing ending, The Big O is an anime that really shows what a neo-noir anime can do.
It is challenging to create a feminine female character who is also strong. Revy from Black Lagoon and Erza from Fairy Tail may seem like so, but both characters tend to be more heavy on either side (Levi being too masculine than she is feminine, while Erza being too feminine than she is masculine). However, Koichi Mashimo did a fine job directing a show with the premise: what if two beautiful, cute and tender ladies skillfully hold guns? Noir is its name.
Enter the orphaned Mireille Bouquet and the amnesiac Yuumura Kirika, as they’re attracted to each other due to their past. As they work as assassins, they found a secret organization Les Soldats to be behind their past karma. Their mutual goals intersected, and so are their growing fondness and affection towards each other, as shown by Mireille when she starts calling Kirika by her name nearing the end of the show.
The story manages to convince that women are capable of doing what men can do—even better. Noir is a code-name for the best two female assassins in the underworld. Beautifully coregraphed, its action scenes are very impressive and thrilling. The music was composed by Yuki Kajiura, which adds to the dark, alienated feeling to this series. Women are not the femme fatale this time, they are the driving force of this dark, neo-noir anime.
If you like Noir, but think that it is too brutal, you might like this one. From the same director, studio and the also featuring Kajiura’s music, it has the same theme as Noir, two girls bound by their intersecting past looking for the same ground. This show, however, is a little bit more humane. In order to enjoy it, however, some patience may be required, as the early episodes are slow-paced.
Meet two skilled assassins, Madlax and the amnesiac Margaret Bourton, as they try to track down yet another secret criminal organization, Enfant, to tie up loose ends from their pasts . Be ready to spend almost half of the series waiting the two different worlds would meet, before the show presents its marvels that puts femininity and humanity as its theme.
Unlike Noir, Madlax’s protagonists are often consumed by compassion and sympathy. Unlike Mireille and Kirika, who does their job out of duty regardless of their feelings, Madlax is often compelled by her compassion, and she would took unnecessary missions out of contract. The worlds of Madlax and Margaret are also contrasted, as the former seems more peaceful than the later. A state of both peace and war, filled with supernatural elements, made this anime worth watching.
An adaptation of a manga with the same title by Naoki Urasawa, this anime was directed by Masayuki Kojima and is the darkest among the seven titles on this list. A master of dark thriller and suspense, Urasawa’s tale would drive viewers on edge as it shows its focus not on who is the murderer, but most importantly, why he murders.
Meet Doctor Tenma, a kind doctor driven outlaw when he found that Johan, a kid he once saved, committed a cold-blooded murder spree.Tenma and other characters he met on his journey try to investigate, find and stop Johan’s serial killings.
A master piece that sublimely deals with the problem of evil. While the main protagonist is Tenma, this anime’s actual focus is on Johan’s acts of killing. A cold-blooded killer who murders on whims, as well as on rational decisions. A conflicted killer who always have a clouded and gloomy smile on his face. His killings are not only cruel, but also tragic—for himself.
Perfect Blue (1997)
If Noir tries to portray women who could be as strong as men, Perfect Blue portrayed women in a different light. The only neo-noir anime with no guns and actions on this list—but, there’s still crime and death all the same.
The film is really a contemporary neo-noir, in that it tells the story of Mima Kirigoe, a rising idol turned into pop star, who has to deal with her fanatic fans and her own inner self. From the get-go, the film shows the disturbance, a rift, in her world, as it goes back-and-forth with flashbacks, making both the audience and Mima alienated. Quitting as an idol, she began a career as an actress, as she was constantly thrown into the distorted reality of pop business. Sexually harassed, being forced into playing a rape scene, doing a gravure photo model, Mima has lost her sense of self when she no longer knows what she really wants. To top it off, her fanatic fan is trying to harass her.
Weak as she maybe, fragile as she maybe, this is a story about a troubled woman facing up a harsh reality of pop business dominated by male stars and male fans.
Cowboy Bebop (1997)
If you had guessed that this anime will be in the list, then you guessed it right. Cowboy Bebop can be classed as a neo-noir, and a fine one at that. The mastery of Shinichiro Watanabe to orchestrate a bunch of genres into one, unique, and jazzy show is hard to go unnoticed.
Set up in the space, Cowboy Bebop is an animated series about the tragic misadventures of four misfit bounty hunters crew of the spaceship Bebop. It brings the neo-noir’s spirit of post-modernism, as this anime blurs the boundaries between genres—neo-noir, western, action, and space adventures, among others. A tragedy driven by each characters’ past karma, each deals with their own to cope up with reality. Faye decides to forget it, Ed decides to pursue it, while Jet decides to bring his past to the present, and Spike decides to live and stay in his past.
Dealing with contemporary issues in episodic stories, Bebop it raises the concerns of environment, poverty and economic gaps, among others, without being preachy. As with other titles on this list, Bebop deals with existentialist question of self. Living with high tech environment often makes it more difficult, as often shown in the series where machinery makes people alienated from other people as well as from themselves.
A well-crafted anime that shows its full-power not only in its neo-noir craftmanship, but also in filmography in general.
So, do you agree with the list? What other anime do you think should be included in the list? Let us know in the comment!
The Indonesian Anime Times | by Paksi Pradipta