Anime has just about anything you can imagine -- and then some -- but elementary schoolers tackling quantum physics and a forthcoming apocalypse?
Surprisingly, it works. In fact, "Noein" succeeds in having both the kiddie storylines and the eerie other-dimensiony stuff, without seeming contrived. And the first five episodes are mostly about foreshadowing and setup, but they do that pretty brilliantly.
It opens with a strange ship blasting a city to rubble, and two strange black-cloaked men attacking the ship. One of them, Karasu, blows up the ship and vanishes. In modern Japan, Haruka looks up at a church spire to see Karasu staring at her.
Several months later, Haruka agrees to go with her friends -- including the troubled Yuu -- on a ghost hunt. But the ghost hunt goes awry when two strange men -- Karasu and the nutty Atori -- appear in the graveyard and duke it out, after identifying Haruka as the "Dragon Torc," who has the power to bend space and time. Soon the town is swarming with cloaked Dragon Knights from another dimension, along with some suspicious quantum scientists.
The psychotic Atori catches up to Yuu and Haruka on a mountaintop observatory, with Karasu just behind to rescue them. But then the Dragon Knights are attacked themseles, by a strange masked energy being named Noein. The Knights are growing increasingly desperate to capture Haruka, but Karasu -- whose past is linked to hers -- is hell-bent on protecting her, even to the point of attacking his own fellow knights... and whisking Haruka into his own world.
"Noein" is pretty dense on plot -- the first five episodes introduce the villain, heroes, future sorrows, rivalries, quantum physicists, and the kids in the middle of it all. There's plenty more to come -- lots of flashbacks, hints and foreshadowing indicate that the storyline is going to get even more complex in future.
And the writers do a pretty brilliant job interweaving all of this, revealing enough to let you draw your own conclusions rather than just TELLING viewers what is going on. And despite the dark, angsty storyline, they sprinkle it with moments of comedy like Isami babbling that a ghost is "impossible!", or Miho wearing the "aura glasses."
It also balances out action and potential romance (they are only twelve, after all) well. One episode will be concerned with Ai's hidden crush on Isami, and how it leads to a slapfight with Haruka. But it's set right right after a kinetic battle between Atori and Karasu, involving a falling lift car, giant electrical blasts, and some holes in the universe. Nice.
The main stumbling block is the animation, which isn't so much BAD as inconsistent. The creators spun up some beautiful CGI for the Dragon Torc, spaceships and so on, but the hand-drawn characters are incredibly simple-looking. And in the first few episodes, the animators seemed to be having a little trouble figuring out exactly how certain people should look -- see Atori's teeny-weeny feet and legs.
Most of the characters are given little moments to shine, but the main trio takes center stage. Haruka and Yuu make great preteen protagonists: one is upbeat and kindly, and the other is miserable because his mother's obsessions are wrecking his life. And Karasu is an absolutely stunning, angsty anti-hero, whose dark personality is even more striking when you realize that he's a future version of Yuu.
As for the dub, almost all the actors are excellent, and Crispin Freeman is nothing short of phenomenal as the tortured Karasu -- rough, anguished, and sometimes a wee bit tender. The only weak spots, really, are a hammy Bryce Papenbrook and Cindy Robinson with a Southern accent so strong you could smash cinder blocks with it.
The first volume of "Noein" hits a few stumbling blocks -- mainly animated -- but introduces a deliciously complex plot and realistic characters. And that's only the first five episodes of the series.