Norn9 is a series of two halves, belying its otome game source material where, under any plot contrivances, the point is to woo males and form romantic relations. So often, these series act as straight-up adaptations, making for badly structured and poor plotted anime.
The core conceit of 2016’s Norn9 is a compelling one. Set in Shanghai 1919, the titular Norn floats above the city, suspended like a clockwork planetoid. If from the outside it looked like a less doomy Death Star, the inside is pure Miyazaki with its cascading water, sakura trees and magic realism. And here’s the show’s key failing in action. The inside of Norn was a striking environment, one in which I was only ever a passive participant.
Hovering above the world like a second sun, the Norn ship was provided for by The World, a mysterious organisation who protest peacekeeping intentions. It selected a group of teenage ability users to tend both to the lush garden inside and their interpersonal relationships. The arrival of newcomer Koharu is the catalyst for the entire series, coinciding with an attack on the ship and everybody getting all hot and bothered under the collar. Despite future revelations and heartbreak ahead, the Norn lot have kind of got it made, living in a paradise with strange chibi chicks preparing their food and cleaning up after them. It’s little surprise that those living on the surface would view Norn with suspicion, believing The World to be an autocratic organisation and using the powered people as weapons.
If nothing else, otome games have the strength of character on their side, with reams of dialogue options making for more three-dimensional protagonists. Led by an ensemble class – including the dulcet tones of Daisuke Ono and the ubiquitous Yuki Kaji – I found myself drawn to the inhabitants of Norn and their plights, if not to begin with then certainly by the series’ end. This same strength also works against it, with a character such as Sorata, whose appearance and endgame serve only to drop exposition. The dating aspect also eclipses the main plot, leaving it on pause while characters flirt and titter. So when the main story gets back on track, we’re left wondering what’s going on and trying to figure out the jargon. Its climax is a convoluted mess, playing poorly with the concepts of time and trying to connect it to its protagonists’ personal lives.
Yet for all that, it’s in the animation department the series really excels. It’s mesmerising, evoking the inner struggles of its cast, and the natural beauty of a cherry tree or ocean presented with a clarity and exuberance. Episode nine, with its departure from the plot and focus on fairy tales and dreams, really offered a chance for the animators to show off their chops. The sweeping scope of this startling beauty was further elevated with the gorgeous score, by turns operatic and orchestral. Character beats become moments of beauty, the score swelling, the colours popping, until a first kiss is a reverie and fist-pump moment.
It’s a sincere series that wears its heart on its sleeve, and that can be quite potent in this cynical age. I found myself hoping for more episodes, just to spend longer in this setting. Given young studio Kinema Citrus were behind this year’s hit Made in Abyss, it’s fair to say that Kyoto Animation, Bones and Production I.G have got some competition. I’m calling it; a few years from now Kinema will be a household name.
Clean opening/closing animation