What’s it about? M-21 is a failed bioweapon, the only survivor of his group of guinea pigs. Now he’s attempting to lay low as a security guard presided over by a mysterious immortal named Raizel and his devoted servant Frankenstein (yes, really). But the organization connected with M-21’s past isn’t about to let him retire so easily.
I’m beginning to feel slighted on behalf of Webtoon’s readers and creators. Between Tower of God, The God of High School, and now Noblesse, it’s beginning to seem as if Crunchyroll is surveying the manhwa service looking exclusively for titles that mimic the top spots on MAL ratings boards. My experience with manhwa is admittedly limited—I read a few of the major titles licensed during the 2000s like Demon Diary and The Tarot Cafe, dabble in Lezhin, and have dipped my toe into a few of Webtoon’s queer offerings—that’s more than enough to know that there’s plenty of quality stuff on the market besides Shonen Jump also-rans.
But apparently the market for adaptations is considered unreliable enough that we are now here, staring down the barrel of a 2020 anime based on a series that began running in 2007 (and was in fact, the first Webtoon title translated into English) and feels every inch its age.
It doesn’t help that this first episode seems unsure what to do with itself. The Wikipedia summary for the manhwa describes a story about Raizel, a
vampire immortal from whom we stole the Sexy Vampire Aesthetic but none of the actual rules, befriending a trio of teenagers and marveling at the inventions of the modern world while uncovering secrets related to his past. Given that this was 2007, that’s a novel enough premise and seems like a fun time. After all, I got a lot of enjoyment out of Ms. Vampire Who Lives in My Neighborhood.
What Noblesse the anime decides to open with instead is a scene out of a war movie, where we are introduced to our team of villainous assassins: Fat Guy Who Eats, Sadist Wearing Lipstick, Foot Fetish Shot, Too Much Hair, and Butch Leader Man. It’s the same cold open they decided to rearrange The God of High School to start on, and here it’s an even worse opening gambit. Not only am I not impressed by the visual antics (hold that thought), but the outdated shorthand for its amoral bloodthirsty bad guys made me wary of the writing before I could even begin to invest in it.
This first episode does technically contain scenes of Raizel marveling at the modern world (or at least, getting a smartphone), but the jokes land with all the grace of a dead dove. Raizel is permanently deadpan, which is fine, but the show never ratchets up anything else to draw attention to his underreactions: no bright and energetic visuals, no over-the-top reactions from other cast members, no sight gags. It’s like having a stand-up set recited to you by rote—you can see where the laugh was meant to happen, but it’s not translating to your experience.
All of the animation looks stiff, in fact, which would be less of a problem if the designs weren’t also flat and unappealing. Plenty of shows have worked around limited animation with creative composition, but Noblesse struggles at being both an action series and a bishounen-fest—Raizel is clearly meant to be an unearthly beauty, but in some shots any seasonal Potato-kun could beat him handily.
I spent the whole episode waiting for Suh Yuna, allegedly the female lead of the series, to make an appearance to no avail. The only women we see here are background characters who exist to swoon over Raizel or be used as hostages, as well as one strikingly Fujiko-esque woman who is also making a guest appearance from the OVA. If she had lines in that series, they did not bother to call her actress back for this one. We do get a glimpse of a cool-looking assassin lady right before the credits (you can tell because her jumpsuit is partially unzipped), but it’s too soon to call her a character.
The episode’s biggest problem, though, is that it’s technically a sequel to a 30-minute OVA called Noblesse: Awakening from 2016. What’s it about? I don’t know, because I didn’t watch it. The trailers for this show purported to stand on their own, with nary a mention of this required pre-viewing. And while you can at least watch the OVA on Crunchyroll with no extra fuss, we’re halfway through premieres and I’m looking for any excuse not to watch more anime than I already have.
The first episode of Noblesse proper does function if you haven’t seen the OVA, in that it inserts a long and clunky flashback to Frankenstein inviting M-21 to work at the school after what was presumably a punch-filled meeting. The students Raizel hangs out with were injured in the Great Before, but their memories have been wiped, and the Squad of Stereotypes appears to be making their debut in the show. What’s missing is any sense of emotional investment, which might be the smartest trick Noblesse has to play.
“Do I not care about these characters because they’re boring,” I was forced to wonder, “or because I didn’t watch the separate show where they hid all the characterization? Is this how mainline-only Kingdom Hearts players felt?”
There are a lot of things that could make Noblesse more watchable: it could lean into its jokes, or embrace self-serious goth camp, or start feeling less like a relic of Tokyopop’s first bankruptcy. I want that for it, because anything would be better for it to go on being this painfully forgettable.