Region: 2 - UK
Length: 60 minutes
Subtitles: English, English [For Hard Of Hearing], French
English 5.1 Surround
French 5.1 Surround
Nadya is a very special 14-year-old girl. With amazing psychic powers and trained as an assassin, she is recruited by the Russian army during World War II to become a member of First Squad, a special fighting unit specialising in combating paranormal forces. When she is the last member left standing in a brutal attack, she is returned to the unit for a special project--to bring her comrades back from the dead to fight Von Wolff, a 700-year-old spirit brought back to life to help the Nazis take over the world.
First Squad is a compelling and action-packed animated film filled with drama and suspense, containing stunning, atmospheric visuals from Studio 4°C, the acclaimed animation studio behind The Animatrix and Halo: Legends.
I love the Second World War. I think it's the idea that people just girdered themselves to accept the fact that nowhere was safe. That a battlefield could sprout anywhere. It made people live in the moment since they didn't know if they'd live or die. In the Russian campaign, the combatants were the German and Russian armies, respectfully. And never, outside of the Pacific campaigns, were there two foes who hated each other so much. Apart from the fact that the Fascist Germans and Communist Russians were ideologically worlds apart, the Russians felt betrayed by the Germans after they had signed a non-aggression pact with Berlin. So, since the Germans felt that all Russian people were meat for the master plan's cogs, the Russians didn't have to give, and indeed gave, no quarter. Millions of Germans and Russians lost their lives in the hellish frozen wastes of the Eastern Front. So, now that history has moved on, the fact that there is an anime based on this particular war shouldn't be surprising. Urda The Third Reich is one such example but for the most part the conflict is usually seen from a Japanese perspective. First Squad is a curious hybrid and the brainchild of Aljosha Klimov and Misha Sprits. Originating as an animated clip posted online, it has evolved into a sixty minute OVA made by Molot Entertainment, the company set up by the creators and Studio 4°C, the minds behind segments from the Animatrix, Mind Game and Genius Party. So it has a Japanese aesthetic with a decidedly Russian story telling viewpoint.
Teenager Nadya, a Russian Pioneer (think of a Soviet version of the Scouts and you're not half wrong), is travelling along the Russian front when she comes across a squad of Russian soldiers. After entertaining the troops with her clairvoyant skills in some kind of Soviet USO show, she notices that all of the troops have the parlour of death around them. Sure enough a German Luftwaffe attack, moments later, massacres the entire area. So, Nadya wakes in the care of a Russian monk, holy man or something. The monk explains that the visions Nayda's been having are real events and that a terrible demon has been released by the German High Command. Baron Von Wolff was a famous German warrior who is supposed to have made a Faustian pact with the underworld and destroyed whole tracts of Russia with this power. When the Russian villagers rose up against him, he and all his warriors were lost on the frozen wastes of a lake on the German/Russian border. Now, the Germans have resurrected Von Wolff and are planning to use him to destroy the stalemate on the Eastern Front. Von Wolff gets to kill more Ruskies so he's happy. Hitler will win the war in the East and gain lebensraum so he's happy. The monk-dude sends Nadya to Moscow to her superior, General Below (no, I'm not making that up). She turns up at the headquarters in the city, only to be told that General Below doesn't exist. Long story short, he does exist, he retrieves her from the nuthouse the soldiers put her in and informs her of the Truth. Turns out the German High Command's Psychic division (!?!) have been searching for a way to bring Von Wolff back by means of something called the Moment of Truth where men's fates can be decided by the demon world. Yeah, it's a bit Deus Ex Machina for me but for now, I'll buy it. But the Russians have their own special paranormal division: the 6th Divison that Nadya and her friends (called the First Squad) were a part of. Unfortunately, Nadya's comrades were all killed in the attack on the training camp, leaving Nadya the sole survivor with a case of amnesia. So, in order to fight a ghost and his army, the general will send Nadya to bring back the ghosts of her squad-mates, from the astral plane(!?!) where all warriors go after they die, to fight the Baron alongside Nadya. While the Germans and the Russians bash the snot out of one another. Oh, boy.
If it sounded like I didn't like watching First Squad, you're wrong. I loved every moment of it. From the fact that the monk who helps Nadya being bulletproof to the fact that nobody noticed the two large breasted female soldiers trying to kill Nadya all the time. The story itself plays out like a Russian tragedy. Nadya could have had a decent life if not for the war, she could have had her friends and boyfriend around if not for the war. Nadya herself gets kicked from pillar to post. She just gets back up with her samurai sword and kicks ass. Other than the fast moving action and Nadya's affection for a blade of Japanese origin, nothing in this film feels Japanese. The story is Russian, the characters act like Russians do and the Germans/Nazis are portrayed as being batpoop insane. So nothing Japanese at all here, then. If I'm coming across as critical of Japanese creators then in this case, I've got good cause to do so. I've always felt that since the 1970's Japanese anime and manga talent have treated Nazism as either a joke (Go Nagai) or that the Germans were just misunderstood (Hetalia). While Nagai could be forgiven for using the most horrific names in modern history as fodder for where his villains went to school, no amount of convincing will get me to think that German expansion into Europe in the 1940's and the atrocities that went with them can be glossed over by making Germany a handsome bishonen boy. Not going to happen. And before you think I'm coming down hard on the Germans, the creators of First Squad have me covered. When Nadya reaches the Eastern Front, we overhear a Russian Commissar (Soviet political officer, meant to keep troops in line, ideologically) shouting at the troops at the train station, saying that traitors or deserters will be shot on sight. You don't fight, we kill you. Simple as that.
As to the actual storyline, I'm in two minds about it. I like that some things don't get explained. Why can't Nadya know (and by extension we, the audience) what happened to her parents? If Baron Von Wolff's sword is used to bring him back and we last saw the sword falling into the depths of the lake (in Russian territory, I might add) that he himself fell into, where the hell did the Nazi's get the sword from? Why does no one notice the female twin soldiers trying to kill Nadya all the time? We're not told and within the context of the story's run-time, I'm glad we're not. It would slow the pace of the story down and at a only a sixty minute run-time, you need every second in this movie. The thing that annoys me most about the movie is that while it has a resolution that works for the film, it leaves you wondering what happens next? So far, no word has come out of Molot Entertainment about continuing the story. Acting wise, I stuck with the original Russian language track and loved the actors throwing themselves into the whole affair. It's amazing to hear a Russian voice come out of a Japanese designed character. Just amazing. Sony's presentation of the film on blu ray is the way to go, with thundering audio and brilliant visual quality. The Manga US version of this release will also have the Studio 4°C sourced Japanese language track so I'd be interested in how the Japanese interpret the voice of a girl who just watched an entire battalion of Soviet troops get wiped out. Not going to sound too cute, I'd imagine. But I could be wrong.
Character designs by Hirofumi Nakata are brilliant, perfectly capturing the look and fashions of Russia in the 1940's. Plus it's easy to screw up Nazis. All you have to do is overdose on the amount of leather. But Nakata holds that in check too. Directing wise, as I've said, with a sixty minute run-time, director, and storyboarder, Yoshiharu Ashino keeps things going at a nice pace, starting slowly and building to an decent fight on the ice at the story's denouement.
If I could find fault it's that there is not enough story here. The film could have used another thirty minutes. Not because there's anything lacking in the story. I'm just greedy and wanted to see more of Nadya and her friends as they had a great chemistry and I was sad that Nadya only had a few moments with them before the story necessitated they get back to work. Music wise, DJ Krush (are they Russian or Japanese?) keeps the music to a minimum or at least low enough that I couldn't notice it.
First Squad won't light the world on fire. In fact, I'd hazard a guess that this will find it's audience in places like Netflix and Amazon Instant Video. Some fans might even be bored with the relaxed pace of the first half. But there is a different kind of story going on here. A story set in the middle of two gigantic forces clashing with each other, with people fighting for country, power or love, where simple loyalty is enough to bridge any divide. I like it but I want more of it. Christmas might be over, but please sir, can I have some more?