MILD SPOILERS AHEAD
WebToon Anime only ever made sense in hindsight. Back when "Tower of God" was airing I expressed my excitement for what could have been a landmark turning point for both the WebToon and anime markets. I stand by everything I said, and there are undoubtedly good results achieved with this venture. A quick search on Google Trends would reveal that interest in WebToons and Manhwa skyrocketed with the release of ToG. If the goal was to create commercially successful products that brought WebToons mainstream prevalence, the production committees at Crunchyroll certainly succeeded. But despite the corporate success, it's difficult to view this partnership without some degree of cynicism; the flagship adaptations themselves have left a weak first impression. At best, they were middling half-measures that somewhat managed to hint at greater things to come; at worst, they did disgraceful disservice to the source material being promoted. And that brings us to where we are today. ToG was a flawed, but promising, adaptation that oozed with potential. But "God of High School" was all style with no substance, and today's case study, "Noblesse," possesses neither. At the very least the sheer lunacy of GoHS was capable at provoking a vitriolic response from me. But soulless unambition confines this husk of a show to an arguably worse fate - indifference. Here's how. This review contains mild spoilers, but skip ahead to my Tl;Dr if you're short on time.
Noblesse is built around a powerful entity living amongst men. After an 820-year slumber, the mysterious Raizel awakens, à la Rip Van Winkle. He is a member of the Nobles, a secluded race charged with protecting mankind from afar. Finding himself far from home, Raizel decides to live a peaceful life in modern-day South Korea. The show is split into two arcs, both of which are concerned with factions alerted to his "Awakening." His incredible abilities are rarely put on display, instead serving as the impetus for power struggles and internal politics. These conflicts and Raizel's new way of life are what the show utilises to explore certain ideas. But before we take that deep dive, there is something that needs to be addressed. For those of you who don't know, Noblesse the Anime does not share the same chronological beginning as the original webcomic. A 2016 prequel, titled "Noblesse: Awakening," is the canonical start of our story, and the anime decided to continue where that OVA left off. Personally I didn't see a need to catch that prequel, given that the anime was never advertised as a follow-up. Way I see it, the existence of the source material or other adaptations doesn't absolve this individual instalment of meeting fundamental story objectives. My beliefs aside, I'm not one to tell you whether the OVA is necessary viewing or not, but I believe there is merit in making observations off the anime alone. And the show does attempt to make the best out of its 13 episodes, isolating a specific time period in order to deliver a narrative and thematic context one could understand as an entry point into the franchise. It's all just not very good.
The anime's message carries noble intentions, but lacks meaning. Noblesse emphasizes the importance of setting aside our differences. All of us may come from various backgrounds, or possess unique traits. But no single member of mankind holds greater value than any other individual, nor is anyone entitled to unjustly take that value from someone else for personal gain. You and I are different, but you and I are the same, and should be treated as such. Throughout the series, there's this healthy lifestyle being promoted, showing how wonderful it is to live in peace and harmony with those around us. This is contrasted with the true enemy of Noblesse: systemically-corrupt organizations which represent dehumanization at its ugliest extreme. Be it greedy, soulless monsters or authority figures driven to irrationality, the antagonists of Noblesse abuse their powers at the expense of others. It's up to our boy Raizel and his crew to stand up for the little guy and maintain the balance. It's a solid message, and one that is certainly welcome in our politically-charged landscape. Let's not draw lines in the sand or discriminate, but go the distance to understand and love others instead. Let's join forces against systemic oppression, let's band together against the evils threatening to break us. The Noblesse OP sums up this idea through an emotionally-stirring refrain: "So why does everybody hurt each other?" These sweet sentiments sound an awful lot like propaganda, but there's no need to worry about things getting too preachy. Because while being thematically framed as propaganda, Noblesse undermines its own points by not saying much of anything at all.
Now, I'm going to be demonstrating how this series is lacking in the execution of its intended message. The following three points covered here aren't necessary to every story of this nature. Rather, they're here to highlight how the thematic storytelling fails to be convincing. Firstly, let's address Raizel and others of his kind. Noblesse implies countless differences between Nobles and humans, but doesn't give much for the audience to work with. For a show featuring Nobles for a significant chunk of the runtime, we sure know next-to-nothing about them, aside from their incredible powers and boomer mannerisms. Why is their society so secluded from the outside world? Why are they supposedly incompatible with the humans they once protected? How does their society, ideologies and way of life differ from ours? Are there negative repercussions should our worlds collide? I'd like to think there are answers to these fascinating questions, but I just can't find them within this adaptation. The difference matters to the message, showing that anybody can see eye-to-eye and seek common ground. But there is no context, and as a result there's no real conflict between either party, rendering any commentary on this subject meaningless. Granted, it may not be fair to look from this perspective; even though the script seems like it would tackle this topic, neither of the show's two arcs really attempt to address this issue. So let's go ahead and talk about those instead; specifically, how they fail to portray moral ambiguity. Good and Evil are two ends of a spectrum, with the show's cast clumped together on either end. Bad people are capable of doing good things, and they can't simply abandon their flawed nature at the drop of a hat. But very rarely does the show burden itself with positioning our characters in the middle; there is no moral grey area. Noblesse chooses to play these concepts as straight as possible, watering-down the conversation to its most basic principles. For example, take the villains from the Union, some of whom are cold-blooded murderers who ingest pills that turn them into literal monsters, horrifyingly disfigured and dehumanized. There's no doubt in everyone's mind that Raizel would obliterate such cruel killers without a second thought. But the very moment one of the antagonists reveals some sign of humanity, their lives are immediately spared, and they suddenly become capable of doing no wrong. These moral questions are made to be as simple as possible, offering no substance in stating the obvious. What happens if you're on the bad end of the spectrum, and are finding it hard to work towards that harmonious middle ground? Well, Noblesse just throws up its hands in the air and adds nothing else to the subject. Those reformed characters from the Union are magically OK with their new social standings and doing good deeds, because that's how rehabilitation and life works, apparently. The third example I'd like to point out is the show's assessment of what unity means. Raizel and his growing group of besties enjoy a quaint suburban life, but rarely do we see them make connections with normal human folk. Within Raizel's household, peeps from various backgrounds do interact with each other. But there's no real attempt at understanding each other, nor is there an apparent need to. There's no difficulty faced, nor adjustments made, nor compromises agreed upon. Similar to my first point, there is no conflict, and it's hard to care. Everyone's just happy chilling at home and at their workplace, instantly bonding without putting in any effort. Two teenage students who had grown acquainted with Raizel's crew almost served as the human core of the group, only to unceremoniously disappear entirely from the narrative, because Noblesse decided that it was a good time to throw in exposition about random in-world politics. Closest we get to mutual understanding between different groups of people is one line of exposition, which I believe embodies a lot of the issues I have with Noblesse's thematic half-measures. Raizel's butler, Frankenstein, clues one of the main characters in on a brief history of Nobles and humans, back in Episode 2. In describing the relationship between both races, Frankie claimed that humans were weak and solely dependent on the Nobles to survive. Now that Raizel has opened his horizons to see human life up-close, he clearly knows that hypothesis isn't true and realises how his native society's misconceptions are false. But that's just it, there was never any intention to convince the audience otherwise. Of course humans are not helpless, how could they be anything but? Noblesse prides itself in making digestible, weak arguments, expecting a pat on the back and thunderous applause. It hints at a greater conversation, but drains all nuance from it, to the point where most potential meaning is lost. I must apologize if you felt that you didn't really gain anything from this long-ass paragraph, because I know that feeling too. It's the experience I had with this show; Noblesse is ultimately a show about nothing.
Critiquing Noblesse for what it attempts to do is marginally more interesting than what it actually is. A vast majority of Noblesse comes across as… a school-based SOL. That's right, this story is played straight to be a slice-of-life. This cast of powerful idiots are either commuting to school or playing House at Raizel's. Bursts of serious exposition regarding investigations or politics are often quickly interrupted by long stretches of repetitive comedy sketches. Cutting out all the times Raizel and his bros get called "hot" by every minor girl in the high school cohort would end up halving the season's episode count. Episode 7, the all-time low for the series, sees one of Raizel's fellow Noble getting crushed on by a student, followed by Raizel's chummy friends playing a basketball match. What makes these unfunny skits all the more annoying are the copy/pasted cast of characters. People might find Noblesse's non-personalities entertaining, and I'd be inclined to agree if everyone wasn't a carbon copy of one another. Noblesse's crew of genetically-superior expository devices are the literary equivalent of "Hey Man, Can I Copy Your Homework?" Eccentricity is fun in small doses, but cramming in this cast of stock characters sucks any life or chemistry to be had in the group dynamic. This means that scenes play out exactly the same, because all of the characters in them are exactly the same. The VAs soft-spoken, stoic delivery makes this issue worse, as half the damn characters sound painfully indistinguishable from one another. Every good guy's vocal inflection is equally polite and devoid of all personality. It has been annoying to hear a huge chunk of the cast members talking like they're all auditioning for roles in a fujoshi-bait butler anime. Of course, I mean no offence to those who find pleasure in those sorts of things; if those BL shows are to your fancy, you could do far better than this bland bunch of refugees in a PTSD halfway house. You could also settle for more in the visuals department; Production I.G. phoned in their work with all the brilliant aesthetic of a 2010s Man of Action cartoon. Lighting is fine, but backgrounds and character designs leave much to be desired. The show goes as far as to reskin their characters' supernatural abilities as much as possible, and the same goes for the repetitive backdrops of drab city skylines and stiff forests. The soundtrack is unmemorable, but I quite liked the opening and ending songs. The fact that the ED's K-Pop manages to be the best part of half of these anime episodes is pretty damning of the show's quality.
"The most destructive criticism is indifference." E.W. Howe. I'd like to think I've done my best to find something worth caring about in this show, but it appears that Noblesse seems less interested in its own story than I am. The series' subtext is watered-down to merely stating the obvious, with holes distracting from any positive takeaways. It's a pandering script that fails to pander effectively, and an action show that feels like it barely has any to deliver. Noblesse is at times not a show with supernatural combat, but a stiff, unfunny SOL that's one sexual awakening away from turning into BL. Visuals are unappealing, music is unmemorable. Noblesse makes mistakes in almost every regard, but it's no trainwreck. And that's a damn shame, because at least it's fun to see things go off-the-rails with trashy shows. Instead, all I'm left with after Noblesse, is sheer indifference. 3/10~
STRAY RAMBLINGS (SPOILERS):
- Out of the 12 eps we got (let's be honest, Ep 7 was a fkin OVA,) I only had a good time with one, Ep 8. Up till that point we barely had any info about who the Nobles are or where they were from, so the visit to Lukedonia was a refreshing change of scenery. We also had Young Frankenstein, who was the only fun character in the show…
- …Until he wasn't. The episode immediately following saw the novelty of the flashback wear off, and the show's only strong character along with it. YF all but disappeared between episodes, and all we were left with was boring ol' Frankie. I was disconnected from the rest of the episode, because the arc made zero sense! How does the Big Bad Bully of Lukedonia go from declaring his lifelong hatred for Nobles in one episode, to subservient servitude with zero complaints under a member of said Nobles? And what's more confusing is that the Blood Pact thing only happened at the end of Ep 9, which still leaves the question of what happened to YF during this time unanswered. This scene could have been a massive moment for the series, as Raizel and YF set aside their differences with their union. But again, the show just expects us to shut up and accept what's offered.
- So remember how the Union hacker and the schoolboy hacker had this "Aneki" relationship, only for it to disappear with the memory wipe and never addressed again? God, this show was such a waste of time.
- Rael really got his ass confined for 10 years over getting rejected. Fs in chat maybe, Idc.
- Crunchyroll, Sony, Whomever I Need to Talk to: Please give your WebToon adaptations more episodes. Each of them needed more time to tell compelling stories, and all three fell short of that. Well, maybe more eps wouldn't have saved this script, but still.
- BEST GIRL: No one really deserves this award, but I'll offer it to Young Frankenstein for being such a badass chad. Genuinely fun on-screen presence. Plus he's practically shipped with Raizel for life, and he definitely wears the pants in that relationship. YF, FTW.
And we're through with this show, good riddance. Really wasn't looking forward to covering this mess. I guess you can call me a WebToon completionist from now on, here's hoping I finally find more nice things to say about the state of these subpar adaptations. If you happen to like my verbose rants, feel free to check out my other reviews for seasons past and present. Have a Happy New Year, peace~