[Anime Review] Bee Train’s “girls-with-guns” trilogy

So I’ve been working through Bee Train’s “girls-with-guns” trilogy in reverse order recently, and I apparently have a lot of Mashimo thoughts, so here’s a review of both the trilogy as a whole and each series independently.

For those who are unaware, the “girls-with-guns” trilogy are Noir (2001), Madlax (2004), and El Cazador de la Bruja (2007), all directed by Bee Train’s Mashimo Kouichi and featuring a soundtrack by Kajiura Yuki. None of the series are related to each other, but they all feature two girls as dual protagonists, lots of fancy gun-wielding, and a western setting. Enjoyment of the series varies, mainly due to the infamous “Bee Train pacing”, though Noir is probably the most famous one, being a cult classic that people still remember today.

I, for one, enjoyed them all, though in completely different ways. They all earned a fairly solid 8/10 on my MAL.

The Trilogy

As a whole, the trilogy all have the same basic premise in that they center on two girls, both with mysterious pasts, and there are guns involved. Generally, one of the girls works as a professional gun-for-hire (assassin, bodyguard, bounty hunter), while the second one is more “innocent” (though still wields a gun at some point). At least one of the girls also suffers from some sort of amnesia in each of the trilogy, and the story is always, in part, about recovering the lost bits of their memories. There’s also usually some mysticism involved, though the degree varies depending on the series. (Noir is predominantly grounded in “reality”, while Madlax and El Cazador de la Bruja are firmly in supernatural territory.) Oh, and a secret, shadowy organization is in there too.

All of the above is just window dressing, though, and each of the series is actually quite different. And unless you’re a Bee Train/Mashimo fan (like I am), you’ll probably prefer a specific one from the trilogy over the others.

Noir is probably the most consistent in terms of tone and animation. It’s predominantly known for its slick action sequences and choreography.

Madlax has the most complex plot, full of red herrings and surprising plot twists. Its earlier episodes are slow, but they’re necessary for its payoff, which wraps up the central mystery, but also leaves some loose threads.

El Cazador de la Bruja is an episodic travel story. The plot is just window-dressing which gets resolved but never explained in real depth. The two main characters are the highlights here and their relationship dynamic is the most well-developed of the three.

I’m going to cover them in reverse order, because that was the way I watched them.

El Cazador de la Bruja

El Cazador de la Bruja‘s title card.

El Cazador is probably the odd one out in terms of style compared to Madlax and Noir. Unlike the gritty Noir or the suspenseful Madlax, El Cazador is basically a slice-of-life with an occasional mystery or action sequence thrown in.

The show follows bounty hunter Nadie and bounty Ellis as they travel south, to a place known only as Wiñay Marka, in order to find out why Ellis has supernatural powers. (And if Ellis actually murdered her guardian.) It takes place somewhere vaguely resembling Mexico. And there are a lot of tacos.

Our two heroines. Ellis (left) and Nadie (right).

Of the three, El Cazador has the lowest production values, which is still fairly good (because it’s Bee Train) but there are some perceptible dips in the animation during certain action sequences. (And said action sequences are few and far between, in the first place.) Nothing that a casual fan would notice, probably, but it’s there.

The biggest low-point of El Cazador is the character L.A. who functions as a sort-of minor antagonist for Ellis and Nadie. The other two series had male characters who ranged from forgettable to vaguely sympathetic to annoying but necessary. However, L.A. in El Cazador is annoying and unnecessary. He basically just stalks Ellis throughout their journey, sexually assaults (kisses) her once in her sleep, and has several mental breakdowns over how Ellis hates him. I guess at one point he tells Ellis a bit about their shared history? But this information is reiterated by first Nadie and then Blue Eyes, so L.A. is wholly unnecessary to this. Basically the sole reason for his existence is to bring Ellis and Nadie closer together, and while I can appreciate that it’s the creepy straight dude being the third wheel and helping close the gap between the lesbians instead of the other way around, his every appearance on screen still feels like a chore to sit through. Every episode with L.A. in it is one more episode I wish that L.A. would just die and put me out of my misery.

Otherwise,  the central Big Bad is all right, I guess? Vaguely interesting and menacing enough to keep the audience engaged, but also a complete potato that the final confrontation felt more like a small detour in the Ellis-Nadie roadtrip than the actual ending. His backstory is explained in as rote a way as possible, and while he doesn’t become a maniacally cackling villain, he does break his mysterious shadowy figure vibe in the end when he goes on his (bland) monologue.  It’s like Mashimo just shrugged and went, “I guess he’ll do?” In a word, the villain is serviceable, but nothing beyond that. (I don’t even remember his name and I watched this show a week ago.)

The first appearance of our Big Bad. You know he’s the Big Bad because he just spent the last scene playing darts with a picture of Ellis’s face. Talk about on-the-nose.

Actually, the entire “plot”/central mystery feels just like this: window dressing. There’s a shadowy organization unrelated to the main villain who operate as observers of Ellis. Its role is explained and the members do things for like an episode or two and then nothing else. Ellis’s true nature is explained, and then she learns to control her powers, and that’s it! Ricardo and Lirio, two major side characters, show up to help the protagonists occasionally, but nothing about them is actually explained. (I think Ricardo mentioned he had a wife once? And that Lirio isn’t his actual daughter. And that’s it.) And while the beginning of the series seem to hint at some exploration of Nadie’s backstory, this idea is unceremoniously dropped and never mentioned again. (Apparently she was a waitress at one point before she became a bounty hunter, but that’s literally all you learn about her.)

(Note that the above is actually a common Mashimo “quirk” in which Mashimo will unceremoniously drop or neglect explaining things that don’t contribute to the central plot/themes. I actually find it usually makes for a tighter narrative, though of course your mileage may vary on that. El Cazador just takes this quirk to the nth level and literally drops everything that doesn’t relate to furthering the central Ellis-Nadie relationship.)

Now I know I’m making this show sound terrible. And I do agree that it’s probably the most uneven/inconsistent of the trilogy. However, I still enjoyed it immensely.

Unlike either Madlax or Noir, El Cazador is not a “big” show. It’s not a globe-trotting adventure to find secrets like Noir or a wartime story like Madlax. It’s a show about two girls on an endless roadtrip. That’s it. Wiñay Marka is a McGuffin! The destination actually doesn’t matter at all! It’s all about the journey! And, yes, in that sense, El Cazador can be disappointing if you were looking for a story with an actual, uh, plot. But if you enjoy travelogues and episodic adventures of two really likable main characters (as well as some really likable side characters, sans L.A.), then you’ll probably enjoy El Cazador. This series has the best character dynamic between the two leads of the trilogy, and you can really feel how much these two love each other at the end. It’s a show I would recommend to people who enjoyed something like Kino’s Journey, not those who want more Noir or Madlax.

Nadie and Ellis are totally girlfriends.

Music-wise, El Cazador has my favorite opening of the trilogy, in terms of both song and visuals. The overall soundtrack is good too, as expected of Kajiura, but I found it a bit more repetitive in comparison to Madlax or Noir. Standout songs are Emily Bindiger’s “forest” and “I reach for the sun” as well as the main theme “el cazador”, Nadie’s theme, and “Maxwell’s witch” (which is basically Ellis’s theme).

In terms of queer content, El Cazador is often said to be the most explicit with its central relationship, and I (mostly) agree. There’s no kissing, but there is a lot of intimacy between the characters in the latter half, and Ellis does “confess” her “love” (大好き) to Nadie, and Nadie clearly reciprocates.


Madlax‘s title card.

Madlax is the odd one out in terms of character relationships of the trilogy. Unlike Noir or El Cazador, the two female leads take a long time to meet up in Madlax. They’re definitely still dual protagonists, but in a much different vein than the series before and after it.

The show follows two girls, both seventeen. The first is Margaret Burton, a typical high school student living in the country of Nafrece with her maid Elenore. The other is Madlax, a gun-for-hire (whether as a bodyguard, or an assassin, or what have you) in the country of Gazth-Sonika, which has been in the throes of civil war for the past twelve years. These two girls have a mysterious connection to each other that is revealed as the show goes on.

Our dual protagonists. Margaret (left) and Madlax (right). Literally the only shot of them together in the first half of the show is from the opening sequence.

As a show, Madlax is most often compared to its predecessor Noir, and for good reason. It actually takes a lot of tropes and ideas from Noir and twists them, playing with viewer expectations and delivering a completely different outcome. Its plotting is meticulous and even its slow-moving first half becomes pivotal to later developments. Madlax is a series that begs rewatching because it introduces so much brilliant misdirection and foreshadowing right at the outset, and a lot of moments won’t be fully understood or appreciated until the ending is reached. It’s a show in which every moment matters, and that is a rare, rare thing nowadays.

Madlax also has a significantly larger main cast than either Noir or El Cazador, and the careful writing also extends to these characters. Of the trilogy, Madlax probably has the best character writing and development. Even side characters I never expected to like (I’m looking at you, Carrossea), I ended up feeling sympathetic towards because of how the show writes them. The only character I felt was really annoying was the main villain — he’s a fairly basic cackling megalomaniac archetype, though, granted, still better written than others like him. I’ll admit he was a pretty menacing antagonist, at least, much more than either El Cazador‘s or Noir‘s.

The only real blip in Madlax is that Mashimo has a tendency to privilege atmosphere over coherency. While I personally enjoyed the ending, it definitely relies on the audience suspending their disbelief, even moreso than they already had to for previous supernatural occurrences. There’s also several small plot tidbits that are never really explained. (For instance, in flashbacks, Margaret’s picture book is shown as having lost several pages in an accident, but in present day, it’s missing only one page. Why? I know we can explain it with a, “It’s because magic!” reason, but it still lowkey bothers me, especially because the missing page is such a huge plot point.) Madlax also has one of the more bittersweet endings of the trilogy, though a much happier one than I expected from the climax.

The whole “mysterious girl in an alternate dimension” deal definitely feels like a callback to Mashimo’s previous .hack//SIGN. The two series have very similar atmospheres, actually.

Music-wise, Madlax has my favorite soundtrack of the three. Kajiura said that working in a hotel helped her vary her music compositions for Madlax, and it really shows. Nothing sounds repetitious, and all of it really adds to the atmosphere of the show. Personal favorites: “Nowhere” (of course), Elenore’s theme, Margaret’s theme, Madlax’s theme, “we are one”, and “people are people”, though really all of it is great. This is quite possibly one of my favorite Kajiura soundtracks. The OP is also singularly brilliant in its really clever color composition and plot misdirection.

In terms of queer content, I came into this show expecting one thing and getting another, which is definitely not bad, but, yes, the show’s misdirection even extends to its ships. In the interest of not spoiling anything, I’ll be as vague as possible. There is a love confession (愛してる even!) but the recipient doesn’t give a definite answer. The ending is in the same vein as Noir and El Cazador, though, in that the main “ship”, so to speak, gets out of the ordeals alive and well and “together” in a sense.


Noir‘s title card.

Noir is probably the epitome of the “girls-with-guns” genre in modern anime. I’m almost positive that bits of Noir ended up influencing later girls-with-guns anime series, and even now, I think it’s the most recognizable of the trilogy.

The story follows Kirika Yuumura, an amnesiac girl who remembers only how to kill, and Mireille Bouquet, an assassin originally from Corsica, who team up as the assassination unit Noir to try and unravel the mystery of their connected pasts. While Noir’s home base is in Paris, the pair also journeys to Sicily, Russia, and even Taiwan (which seemed more like Hong Kong or Beijing, but y’know) to carry out their missions.

Our two leads. Kirika (left) and Mireille (right).

Of the three, Noir has the best and most consistent production values, and it’s also really, really stylish. Mashimo really went all out in terms of shot composition in Noir, and even when it’s clear that Noir is having some animation trouble, the really cleverly deployed camera angles and color choices keep the series looking stellar.

As a series, though, Noir pales in comparison to the elegant plotting of Madlax and its two main leads do not have nearly as much chemistry as the leads in El Cazador. What Noir does well — and really, really well — is action choreography and fight sequences. In a sense, Noir is a really “pure” girls-with-guns series. The major mystery is vaguely intriguing, but none of the revelations really surprised me. The two main leads are likable enough, but I found the main antagonist underwhelming and Chloe somewhat interesting but underutilized. Their relationship also lacked the emotional intimacy that I loved in El Cazador, and their mysterious connection isn’t as well-formulated as in Madlax. But a few standout episodes (episode six and thirteen, in particular) and the excellent action setpieces makes this series worth watching, especially if you enjoy seeing guns and girls wielding them.

Kirika waking up with amnesia in episode one. And, of course, to enhance the unsettling atmosphere, the entire scene is done with Dutch angles.

Music-wise, the OP and ED sequences have some of the best visuals I’ve seen in anime. Really creative and stylish and very neatly encompasses what Noir is all about. I vaguely enjoyed Ali Project’s “Coppelia no Hitsugi” (very fitting, though not exactly my preferred style), while I found the ending song nice but a bit too slow for my liking. The soundtrack is good, of course, though it isn’t my favorite of Kajiura’s. Personally, I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as I did Madlax‘s or even El Cazador‘s, but to each their own. (And also that year Kajiura did the soundtrack for .hack//SIGN, which incidentally is my favorite soundtrack from her, so.)

In terms of queer content, Noir is the least queer of the three. There are actually two kisses between women in the series itself. However, the first kiss is meant as a “Judas kiss”, one promising betrayal and death. (Uh, yeah.) While the second is meant to be affectionate (whether platonic or romantic is left ambiguous), it’s also meant to be a clear callback to the first. Neither kiss was fully consensual, and neither of them are between the two main characters. There are no love confessions, and while there is definitely a “bond” between Kirika and Mireille, this bond reads as far more platonic than the others in the trilogy.

In case you’re wondering about my favorite, Madlax wins by a very narrow margin, with El Cazador coming in a close second. Noir is a sort of distant third, but it’s still worth watching, especially if you’re either a Bee Train fan or a “girls-with-guns” fan.

If you’re already planning to watch all three, however, I would recommend starting with Noir and then watching either El Cazador or Madlax depending on your mood. Both of Noir‘s spiritual successors take parts of Noir and then improve upon them (Madlax, the plot, and El Cazador, the central character relationship). Noir is the most consistent tonally and visually, but it’s the least interesting of the three, I think, with less obvious highs (and lows, of course) because of its consistency.

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