Saturday 4 October 2014

First Squad (2009) - Anime Review

First Squad is the first Russian anime, and was produced in Japan by STUDIO 4ºC. The movie takes place in Soviet Russia during the Second World War, and tells the story of a teenager named Nadya, a girl who possesses psychic powers.

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What's it about?

Nazi Germany have occupied much of Europe, but Russia continues to resist. After much fighting and heavy losses on both sides, it remains a stalemate. An occult group of Nazi astrologers have determined that a "moment of truth" (a critical point in time, when a certain person's actions will determine the outcome) is drawing near. In this case, that certain person is a Russian soldier, and the "moment of truth" occurs when he decides to attack the German forces.

The chairman of the Nazi group then orders his men to put in motion "Operation: Sword of Vengeance"; a plan which involves using a magic sword to summon its owner grandmaster Baron Von Wolff from the underworld, in order for them to kill the soldier, crush the Russian opposition, and conquer the world.

In order to stop this, the Russians have their own secret occult branch to call upon, namely "the 6th division", and it's up to Nadya, last surviving member of a special unit from this division, known as "First Squad" to take care of it.


From what I understand, there are two versions of this film; a 73 minute version (released I believe in the US, and other territories), and the UK version that I watched which was only 59 minutes long. The former containing live-action talking head interviews that are interspersed within the animated storyline, and the latter with all of these scenes edited out. Seeing as I watched the 59 minute version, I can't really comment on those interview segments, but from what I hear, they seem to be regarded as detrimental to the general appreciation of the film.

The plot is fairly simple, in that our heroine Nadya must stop the villainous Baron Von Wolff, by travelling to the underworld to find her fallen comrades from First Squad and get them to help her in her quest to stop him from killing a particular Russian soldier.

All of this revolves around something called a "moment of truth", and for such a pivotal event, I don't think it was explained well enough, and actually took me two viewings of the movie to understand the significance of this anonymous soldier.

Early on, the film introduces Nadya as a stage performer, and quickly demonstrates her psychic abilities in her stage show, with some great scenes, for instance showing quite a gruesome vision of her audience, followed by a Nazi attack. These scenes were pretty well drawn and animated, as was the rest of the film, with drab, muted colours, giving a slightly darker tone to the movie.

After these scenes, Nadya wakes up, unable to remember anything, and through varous flashbacks and visions, she tries to piece together her past.

First Squad is very much Nadya's story, as most of the running time is devoted to her character, and unfortunately, because of this and the fact that the running time is pretty short, we don't get much development of any of the other characters in the story. The bond she has with her fellow First Squad members are briefly explored, but not nearly enough to really show how strong their relationships were, or to help us root for them and their success in their mission.

Even so, there's still enough to keep the story moving along at a fair pace, with some good action set pieces, so if that's your cup of tea, then there's still enough to keep interest.

It would have been nice if the psychic powers of the First Squad were explored in greater detail, as we hardly find anything out about them, or how they were used in the war effort.

Also, I would have like the film to focus a little more on Baron Von Wolff too, as again, his character's role as the story's villain seems somewhat underdeveloped.

I watched the English dub of the film, and while the dialogue was adequately written, and did what it needed to do to tell the story, it wasn't exactly the most memorable of scripts.

The soundtrack was composed by DJ Krush, which, while not necessarily the most memorable of scores, was effective enough to support the on screen drama.

On a more positive note, the artwork and animation were pleasing to look at, with some decent action, and well rendered scenes. The combination of traditional-looking 2D animation and the CG vehicles looked fine, and made for what appeared to be an authentic recreation of World War Two era Soviet Union.


All in all, I enjoyed the film, although there was plenty of room for improvement. Apart from the protagonist Nadya, the characters seemed under-developed, as too were their special powers, and with the short running time, there was little opportunity to explore the finer details of the plot. If this feature was a given an extra half hour or so, so that the film could take more time over its characters and explain a few plot points a little more clearly, then this could well have been a very interesting watch.

As it stands, it's plot is fairly straightforward, and perhaps lacks somewhat in it's telling; a truly engaging story, with richer detail, and greater background information on the other characters, could have made for a more captivating feature.

The sound was decent, as was the soundtrack, and the animation was well done.

Overall, I would recommend this, even though it's perhaps not going to blow you away. There's enough here to keep most interested, but I can't help but think it could have been a whole lot better.

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