In 20xx, a civil war broke out in a small country in Asia in spite of the dispatch of UN forces. But a picture taken by accident in the battlefield accelerates the peace process: a photograph of a flag, which became the symbol of peace. However, just before the peace agreement is finalized, the flag is stolen by an armed extremist group in order to obstruct the truce. To rescue the flag, the UN sends the Special Development Command (SDC, which is armed with the High Agility Versatile Weapon Carrier (HAVWC)), along with an embedded photojournalist to record their activities. That photojournalist is Saeko Shirasu—the young camerawoman who took the picture of the flag.
Plumes of smoke rise out of the city skyline of New York, three firefighters covered in soot, the American flag hoisted out of the rubble left behind by the World Trade Center. Political tension permeates at Tiananmen Square, the audience looks on with bated breath as a man stands in front of a line of tanks in direct opposition, a human blockade. Pedestrians look on in the busy streets of Saigon, a devoted monk sits in a meditative position, as a raging fire consuming his body in silent protest. The end of World War II, a sailor’s arms wrapped around a woman, lips locked in
the middle of Times Square, a moment of celebratory relief as civilians and sworn-in officers intermix.
These are all instances captured on film for everyone to witness. Images that could convey meaning, even for those without firsthand experience.
"A picture is worth a thousand words."
It's amazing what one picture can do. With just one image, our attention can be purchased back from the chaotic shuffling of everyday life. Something that could temporarily snap us out of our daily stupor; our focus readjusted. It could be something simple that resonates with us on a personal level or perhaps a quick glimpse into a truth that we abandon simply out of its inconvenience to our day-to-day lives. Confined within its framed border, a picture could tell a tale, capture an emotion, embody the essence of the period it was taken. It could be all that's needed to encapsulate a fleeting moment in time, preserving it for posterity, where it can live on in the memory of the next pair of eyes to gaze upon it. Whether on celluloid or pixelated, what matters, in the end, is its ability to grab the viewer's attention. And perhaps no better example of that are moments that are captured amidst human conflict.
For at the heart of the matter lies a common understanding that we can all share. Something that supersedes religion, race, ethnicity or any sociopolitical borders set in place to keep us apart. Through it all, the right image has the power to stir up an emotional response that takes far more than words to express. They become calling cards for truths. A way of giving tangible form to complex, and often nebulous, ideas. It’s for that reason that we continue to rely on them. Their ability to speak to us is timeless, even if the world around it continues to march forward.
And when it all boils down to it, it’s this rare phenomenon, this occurrence, that Flag attempts to capture. But perhaps more important than that is the way in which it goes about capturing it. A way that’s surprisingly underutilized, both in its presentation decisions and subject matter.
Documenting the civil war of a fictional country named Uddiyana, the show centers around a mission to retrieve a flag that’s become a symbol of peace, not only for the country’s residence but also the international community at large, after a photo was taken of it that immortalized its status as such. And while this retrieval mission is carried out by a small military unit in accompaniment with the same photographer responsible for giving the flag its fame, being brought onboard to help chronicle the mission’s success; the bigger truth for the mission’s significance gets unearthed in the process. As the agenda of all sides involved in the conflict, both domestically and on an international stage, slowly makes itself known to the people involved, what started off as a straightforward mission for an idealistic cause has effectively been turned into a labyrinth maze of political shuffleboarding. A maze that our characters find themselves becoming involuntary pawns in, as it slowly divulges into an elaborate zero-sum game.
By using the framework of this image phenomenon as its central premise, Flag crafts a narrative around a point of view that's usually gone unaccounted for, yet plays the most vital role in the reason these powerful images come into existence, in the first place. Here, we follow the brave men and women that are constantly seeking out the fringe to capture that perfect shot — the kind of picture that finds its place in the pages of historical texts. Whether the journalists in question are using this as a means of income or have a genuine desire to reveal the truth, Flag uses this kind of occurrence as an opportunity to view concepts far less nebulous than the sentimentality behind what they come to represent. A tale that takes on broad implications, yet, surprisingly enough, remains intimate. A type of intimacy that can only be birthed from the cold cynicism of politics once we discuss the presentation being used to contain it all.
What should be understood right up front is that the intended countries being emulated to create this fictional land is of little relevance, as the true importance here is how it will come to represent attributes of everyday conflict seen whenever bigger governing bodies meddle in the dispute of domestic issues. Flag slowly unveils all the chess pieces involved by situating its focus with people who find themselves being designated as the middlemen of public awareness and what occurs at ground zero.
To traverse this story, we follow Saeko Shirasu, a young photojournalist whom, unlike her peers, isn't interested in publicizing truths of some country’s conflict, but rather, uses this opportunity as a chance to carve out a purpose for herself through the photos she captures. Despite gaining recognition amongst her colleagues and media outlets for the famous image she captured regarding the civil war, there’s far more fueling her to undergo the mission to help retrieve the flag than anything described as “noble.” For Saeko, this is a task meant to help her find who she truly is. In many ways, the story is every bit about Saeko as it is about the political climate she finds herself navigating across. Something that the show wastes no time in establishing with what’s arguably its biggest draw.
The anime shows everything in a POV (point of view) perspective. Well, to be more accurate, all the events are documented through recording devices located throughout the series. Daily diary vlogs that Saeko makes entries into; the accumulated recordings from her camera; photographs and videos taken from colleagues; security camera footage implanted in vehicles and buildings; every other method of data capturing in-between – Flag changes how we perceive this world by essentially turning it into moments stockpiled and fine-tuned through our very own viewfinder. There’s no cheating with elaborate aerial shots intended to enhance the action. Nor are there moments that make you question “Who’s filming this right now?” No, the creative minds behind this series treat their subject matter with respect, never giving into the temptation of excessive theatrics to heighten its drama. If it can’t be realistically captured, it does not get occupied space in this screenplay. This is what grants the show that coveted intimacy that many other creators would kill for. That feeling of isolation and immersion with the people we follow. The viewer isn’t granted a chance to become omnipresent, to shift through scene transitions or have everything laid at their feet through verbal narration. No, the only knowledge we acquire comes from events we see happen at real-time with the people we follow or come in the form of visual archives stored by multimedia devices that are offered to us to dissect whatever we will from it.
By doing this, the show can keep everything up close and personal, something that’s made all the more impressive given the all-encompassing nature of the civil war set on center-stage.
POV shots in storytelling isn’t a novel idea, but despite that, the way Flag goes about repurposing it to tell its story feels entirely fresh. This is something that could be attributed to the obsessive nature of Ryosuke Takahashi, one of the anime industry’s most overlooked auteurs. A man whose insistence for detail and distinct vision of warfare can be seen from his more commercial works (Blue Gender / Armored Trooper Votoms), to his pet projects (Gasaraki / Panzer World Galient). There’s always a general sense that the functionality of his works is something he keeps to the forefront of his mind whenever he’s constructing it. Nothing just happens for the sake of creating a great moment. Instead, great moments are created because what is happening onscreen doesn’t feel that far-off from whatever future-reality it might be channeling. And it’s this commitment towards plausibility that makes following Saeko and the military unit she partnered up with feel every bit as real as any journalist special that may be found time-slotted in CNN’s regular broadcastings.
There’s an understated cinematic fervor to the way the camera locks in its characters in this tumultuous experience. It has the biting grit of a TV series commissioned in the same stylistic vision of Oscar winners like Syriana, Black Hawk Down or The Last King of Scotland. This is seen with the key mechanics of the characters, as we track their involvement within the story. The way events play out in the absence of our protagonist’s view of it. The grainy shot of surveillance footage that’s juxtaposed to the crisp rendering of an expensive hand-held camera. Camera panning that constantly leaves the audience anticipating what will be shown next. These things that might be interpreted as minor flourishings to the untrained eye is ultimately the secret ingredient that helps this anime piece together a cinematic blueprint of its own. Giving a “bigger than the frame can contain” feeling to everything presented. A kind of cinematic engulfment that gives a feeling of involvement to everyone, even those living on the outskirts of the events taking place. It’s a show that gives a platform for those directly caught up in the conflict as well as the civilian bystanders that simply wish to maintain their way of life.
It doesn't just stop at seeing life through the lens but follows the men and women that directly and indirectly help in orchestrating the type of environment that will give birth to the type of photographs our protagonist just so happen to capture. An idea in documenting what goes towards the photo’s origins, both for the viewer and in this rare case, the taker of the image, creating with it a new way of soul-searching that comes as a direct result of these two worlds intermixing.
All of which starts off with the iconic image that carries the narrative from its beginning to its inevitable end. An image that is every bit as iconic as any real-life examples I’ve given at the beginning of this review:
A blue flag waves across the sunburnt landscape of this far-off country, as the armed resistance of the people raise their hands and weapons in triumph. War-torn pieces of a homeland ravaged by violence. Ancient Greco-Roman pillars of a forgotten time positioned firmly in the ground, light cascading through its columns. The silhouette of women praying amidst this small celebration, forever immortalized with their figures embedded in the sunlight and the iconic fabric in mid-wave.
It’s a powerful photo that manages to invoke both the strength of the people united and the hopes they have for peace going forward.
A photograph that will go on to become the calling card of the people, as well as a political asset for those operating with hidden agendas. Pretenses are forged behind it to justify political subterfuge, and while talks of peace are held in the open with smiling faces, bureaucrats and fanatics alike are busy thumbing away at the chance to set their plans into motion, as they masquerade behind falsehoods conjured up to win the trust of the people.
But where other shows would treat this as an opportunity to take a stab at the political system at large, here, it doesn't chastise the men and women of the army that fight blindly to the political agenda of those in charge. Nor does it make it its agenda to oversell the ugliness of these high-ranking figures' actions. Instead, Flag chooses to stand at the wayside, taking in all facets of the ongoing conflict and designating the characters in it as mere vehicles to see how each person chooses to deal with the situation at large. This gives us an angle that’s rarely explored in stories, well, at least never in this exact light.
In most forms of storytelling media, reporters and journalists are usually just there to fill in the role of expository footnotes to the audience. Very rarely do these shows stop to get these people’s perspective, let alone follow them for the duration of its story, which is fascinating in and of itself when you stop to think about it. Here are people whose job it is to project a decorum of professionalism regardless of personal bias or situation. An act that’s all the more alarming when you get behind the lens, where the ones that capture random acts of violence towards others don’t even intervene, and in fact, are encouraged not to. People responsible for bringing humanity closest to the truth yet never get involved in it. A level of emotional withdrawal not only from oneself but humanity as a whole, yet at the same time, it’s these very same people that are expected to practice transparency once the greater powers at be decided what angle they will choose to approach the entire situation with.
And for a young woman who is still piecing together who exactly she is in this big, crazy world, that kind of responsibility – no – that kind of willingness to participate must take a mental toll on her, whether she’s fully aware of it or not. She may be cheerful, flashing a smile to all those gathered around her, but when no one's around, we see the full picture. We see the pensive expression of someone searching for answers and only finding more questions. And it’s this very mental battle of uncertainty that’s captured with pinpoint accuracy as she literally and figuratively look in the mirror, snapping a picture of herself, yet unable to recognize the person looking back in the cold, unfeeling reflection.
It’s powerful moments like these that truly elevate Flag to a place beyond boilerplate fiction, here, this title manages to obtain sticky instances of pathos that finds itself slowly taking ahold of you the more you let the content settle in. And personally, for me, it’s these kinds of moments that keep me constantly returning to the anime medium. It’s one thing to give birth to this phenomenon with real-life actors and actresses in a live-action feature, but it’s a complete other when the already thin membrane of suspension of disbelief for watching an animated title still manages to dupe the audience into forgetting that realization. By effectively obtaining that same level of human intimacy, despite the fact that it’s animated, even if the illusion only happens for a split second, Flag proves that there’s more here than simply mimicking documentary-style storytelling. And this is something the show manages to do on more than one occasion, crossing this threshold into realism effortlessly. This makes it a feature deserving of far more appraisal than its meager existence as a mecha variant to the higher-budget alternatives. With everything considered, Flag is one of the medium’s more realistic utilization of mecha, politics, and human conflict in a not-too-far-off future, and it’s high-time it gets the proper recognition for that.
Admittedly, the show has its faults. Like anything else made around a specific time, what may once have been considered suitable, or in some cases, expected for certain features, can later run the risk of being viewed as an antiquated element, even going as far as being scorned in retrospect. And in the case of Flag, that aspect was easily its musical selection. Taken as a whole, the soundtrack of Flag demonstrates its fair share of musical highlights, but equally so, a noticeable number of pitfalls for those well-versed in warfare-focused stories. The opening song, to put it lightly, is very clichéd. The over-emphasized yodeling of a middle-eastern woman accompanied by grand orchestral gestures and tribal drum renditions, at this point in the world of storytelling, has been done ad nauseam in war movies and TV series alike. It’s the equivalency to every depiction of High School containing the popular girl with her two lesser-attractive sidekicks cat walking down the hallway as the main protagonist looks on in admiration. A kind of cliché that runs the risk of parody for anyone seriously thinking of incorporating it today.
Thankfully, the intent behind these musical embellishments felt like it came from a place of earnestness and not a result of corporate mandate. Anyone familiar with Takahashi’s directorial style or Yoshihiro Ike’s musical output would find it easy to forgive this treatment, and what I’m assuming would be the majority case, wouldn’t even have registered any of this as a problem at all. Given music’s subjectivity to the ear of the listener, this can simply be chalked up as a personal gripe derived from perceived oversaturation of a musical fallback for anything depicting a third world country.
But regardless of this personal gripe, Flag has become a title I find myself wholeheartedly cherishing for everything it brought to the table. Not only does it stand as a unique entry for anime in general, but beyond that point, it stands as a pillar of legitimacy that naysayers unfairly attempt to rob from the medium. An animated emulation of real-world conflict can stir up an emotional response with the best of them. It can still stand for something bigger than itself. It can still drive its message home with the same level of poignancy. But most of all, it’s deserving of the same level of respect allotted to features that occupy the big screen. And for that, Flag is an anime that earns its keep as one of the medium’s best-hidden gems.
Flag is a pretty unique venture. It's researched reasonably well, and is set in our world. The world with the laws of physics and politics. More interesting than the reality-based content though, is the form. This show is set entirely within the eye of the camera.
When we're not watching the narrative through a lens; we're seeing photos or computer displays. There is no scene set outside of the camera, and that in itself is a bold creative choice, although it is stretched very thin, in that we have to assume these people are such camera junkies they take them everywhere
and never turn them off, no matter what they're doing or where they are. It's a bit too much to accept, but the directorial concept is so cool that you just shrug off any unrealistic scenarios and run with it.
The story follows the main protagonist, and her friend's reflections of her actions at the same time. The pacing between their stories as a result is well balanced, as just when one avenue of narrative is reaching its end or becoming stale, another picks up the slack. The story's focus on the UN's 'peacekeeping' of a war-torn country is more developed than it has any right to be. We see bureaucracy, politicking, soldiers dealing with killing, and more importantly the feelings of photographers capturing war and their place in it all. I don’t think this anime raises anything more powerful than the case of Kevin Carter's infamous photo in Sudan, but it does try.
The animation for the show is very well done, it always looks good and the whips and pans from the camera P.O.V are very smooth and natural-looking. But this anime is a sad case of so much effort put into research and attention to detail that they forgot about the importance of narrative. But more about that below.
Flag always runs the risk of wallowing in self-importance; the music being a major fault here. Full of bombastic cinematic score in the vein of Lisa Gerrard, with Middle-Eastern lady wailing in pain, it's all very trite. Just like the majority of photos. Yeah, for a show revolving around photography, having it populated by generic and clichéd-as-hell photos really doesn’t do it any favours. You've seen them all before: soldiers and kids, animals and destruction, and you could say that the anime is just using the clichés of the medium to tell its own story, to give it context, but cliché is cliché, unless you're commenting on the cliché itself, then just don’t use it. There are some photos that are good though, mainly the infamous photo the entire show is about.
Ultimately though, is this show entertaining? Does it maintain your interest? Does it captivate you? It didn’t for me. Maybe others will love it, but I have to admit I was bored a lot of the time by the constant 3D maps of digital terrain and preparation for military assaults. Hardly what I call entertaining. Michael Mann's The Insider is about a tobacco whistleblower; there's a lot of talking and meetings in that film, but it’s engrossing, you're on the edge of your seat; you're captivated by what's happening to the characters. In Flag there's a whole bunch of talking and meetings but the narrative is like an afterthought, it’s like the script has been fitted around the concept, instead of the concept decorating the script. There's no drive, no momentum, even though the first half is building up to an assault, there's no sense of urgency, not when every scene transition is via a computer desktop mouse cursor clicking on random files. (which gets old very quickly)
If the anime's purpose was to be like a documentary, it fails even more, as this isn’t a documentary about anything actually occurring in the real world. We have a quasi-Tibetan like scenario here, but its all fiction. If the anime-makers were bold enough to actually focus on a real event, Iraq, Afghanistan, take your pick, and provide their own view on it, then I would find it engaging, but otherwise the anime takes the safe route and doesn’t stick its neck out on anything. Just universal themes of war and media, which isn’t bad of itself, but when it consists mostly of dry lifeless dialogue and 3D maps, it’s hard to find anything compelling to latch on to.
There's only one moment where all the aspects of this show come together and work properly, and it’s very late in the series in the 12th episode where a conflict is being filmed by the main two characters, and it feels alive, full of purpose and direction, emotion and drama.
No matter the faults of the show, it’s different and I always applaud that. There is the chance that it will inspire kids and teens to pick up a camera and find a career out of it. A shame the brilliant animation was wasted on a muddled tale with no backbone.
To us foreigners, it perhaps can't get any more Japanese than Flag: in essence, this series is about two Japanese and their cameras.
Set in the near future, in a fictional nation that very strongly looks as if it should be positioned on the India-China border, somewhere in the Kashmir region, Flag recounts the story of the civil conflict that crippled said nation and of the UN sponsored peace talks following a photograph (containing the Flag the series is named after) that became a powerful symbol of cooperation between the parties involved. It follows the photographer of said photo, who is officially installed as reporter of
a special UN strike force created to recapture the flag in question after it was stolen by insurgents in order to damage the peace talks, while at the same time following that photographer's mentor, who has arrived as a journalist in the fictional nation's capital.
The story remains firmly focused on what the main characters, the two photographers, see, one at the UN strike force base, and one mostly in a bar in the capital. In fact, what we get to see is mostly what they see through the lenses of their cameras.
This should be taken quite literally. Almost every shot is as if viewed through the lens of a camera, meaning that what we get to see is what is shown to the camera's front. Both reporters showcase the life that goes on around them. The female reporter attached to the UN base films the goings-on with the crew, takes shots of the landscape from a helicopter, and is witness to a few battles. Her mentor in the capital shows how people live their lifes in the uneasy cease-fire, showcasing often their religious believes, and taking not a few shots of the journalistic community that preys on new scoops. Though there is some action to be seen, and quite nicely done at that, Flag focuses as much on showing the lifes of the different groups of people in the fictional nation, and on interviewing people about their believes concering all that is going on.
And what it shows, it shows very nicely indeed. Flag is, without a doubt, endowed with very good graphics. While the scenes themselves are crisp and especially the equipment looks very good (this is one of very few shows where a bit of 3D doesn't hurt, especially when employed on the military materiel), this quality is mostly apparent in design. For one, all the different cameras through which the series is viewed show different images: some images are more grainy than others, some show heat-vision, some even are in black and white. What they show is mostly quite well researched, as it is apparent that a lot of time and effort has gone into making the military materiel, surroundings of the cities, general apparel, and even the fictional OS showcased on computer screens look realistic (in the sense that it could be real, not that it is). Moreover, the series clearly differentiates between ethnicities, again opting for a somewhat realistic look, even if faces in particular are not very detailed. The result is that persons are highly recognisable, sometimes even delightfully so: especially the main female reporter, Shirasu, is utterly, and charmingly, Japanese in looks as well as actions and phrasing.
Characters are generally outlined in pretty broad strokes, each occupying their very own niche within the characterisation spectrum. This becomes readily apparent in the quicker interviews with the UN strike force personnel in the earlier episodes. It is not a let-down, though, as Flag uses most of these characters, not very well developed in more than a few aspects, mostly to portray different views or opinions on a situation. To ask more for a plethora of characters would not only mean having to use far more time, but would also mean that the effect of having each person only appear as portrayed through a camera lens within specific situations would be destroyed. In fact, quite a few characters are memorable even though they aren't very well developed: often it is enough to see them smiling to the camera and voicing their beliefs very strongly.
Considering voicing, voice acting also is generally very well done, as a lot of effort is made to use just the slightest touch of accent without ridiculing. Also, the 'natives' are consistently speaking their own language (I think I can recognise Tibeto-Burman roots, though this might be effected by the surroundings; I'd be very happy if anyone could actually understand or name the language and mention it to me). On a less positive note, the music in general aims towards the dramatical. Though, personally, I like this Hollywoodesque touch in a series such as these, I readily acknowledge that it is somewhat over-the-top and can be off-putting, or even be enough to raise a scene from the somewhat dramatic into the pompous and self-important, thus effectively destroying the effect aimed for.
All in all, I was somewhat impressed with how the story was handled, both graphically and epistemologically (as concerns the cameramen). It looks good and sounds fine, and is simply quite interesting to watch, both design-wise and not so much story-wise as concept-wise. This was only the less difficult part of reviewing Flag, however. The far more tricky question is what this series is or aims to be. As has been commented upon, almost all scenes are portrayed as if viewed through a camera lens or some equivalent thereof. This has two results that are almost antithetical. On the one hand, many scenes, especially those viewed from the on-board camera of armoured vehicles when in action, can be described as, for lack of a better word, intense: the first person view seems intended to throw the viewer in the midst of the situation.
On the other hand it seems, and I feel very strongly that this is the case, that the use of looking at the portrayed situations through a lens creates a sense of distance. The very literal spectator's role you are taking distances you from the situation. The fact that all scenes are introduced by the opening of a file containing the piece of film in question on a computer screen indicates that you are looking at a record that stands further from you in time. This suggestion is strengthened by the jumps in time and place when a film snippet ends and another piece is opened, as well as in jumps in intensity, quite often having the newly started piece of film have a different pacing than the preceding. Moreover, the few scenes which are not portrayed as if viewed through a lens are deliberately grainy or even blurry, to indicate that you are still viewing a piece of film or looking at a photograph.
It is visible that the makers have gone to great lengths to create this distance. While this may have been done for its own sake, a move to show a type of anime series different from others, perhaps one is allowed to search a bit for further reasons.
One of the main effects of this distance is that it gives the impression of impartiality: the camera records whatever is going on, regardless of who is doing or saying something or of what is done or said. Switching between the cameras of a multiple reporters and other persons gives the series the chance to display multiple takes on the same situation. As in a documentary format, most people speak directly into the camera, giving their personal views, while the recorder in the main stays quiet. Quite a few times, when said reporter is reacting or expressing his or her views, the view switches to another camera, thus once more distancing what is said from who records.
Having the main story involve a military conflict in which the UN gets involved, and focusing on the issues of the justifiability of said involvement and actions taken during its course, and on the role of the media in such situations, is, of course, not the pinnacle of innovation. Many pieces of film (though not animated film, as far as I know) show a reporter's view on war, official intervention, the reaction of the media, and, of course, official censure, often in a documentary format. However, it is quite seldom that what is seen is portrayed through more cameras than one, and is thus portrayed, quite literally, from different angles.
This might be the main difference between the method of 'filming' that makes up Flag and a documentary, which is usually directed from one perspective. It does not seem as if Flag wants to convey a message: it seems as if it wants to stay neutral, and it does play it safe. It has been noted in another review on this site that it would have been more bold if Flag would have portrayed an actual conflict, and though it might be bold, I don't believe if would have been for the better. By keeping the setting, and thus the story, fictional, Flag can maintain a more or less neutral disposition. If a real situation would have been portrayed, there would have been no room for errors of research or animation without it being possibly considered a view on the situation. Quotations and portrayals of actual persons would of necessity be selective, which may very well lead to misrepresentation. The very choice of what to portray within the frame of time would immediately convey a certain bias - which is the major fault of most, if not all, real-life documentaries. The above goes for a fictional situation as well, but at least it would prove impossible to find any true misrepresentations or factual errors, thus maintaining at least the illusion of factuality and impartiality.
I get the impression the makers were aiming at quite simply showing a situation through the eyes of the camera, focusing on the act of recording and the presence of the recorder and keeping, as much as possible, the portrayed situation itself value-free. If this were to be indeed the case, I'd say they managed to do this to quite a decent degree.
What this means, in the end, is that I got the impression that we should view this series as it is presented: as a collection of footage. That is to say, I think, and I actually hope that this is what the makers intended, that we should take every scene at face value. What the manifold cameras shoot is just what it seems to be: films and photographs. Therefore, we should not be surprised that we get to see a lot of different scenes, and, within those scenes, a lot of different opinions, voiced by different people speaking from different positions in the conflict that forms the background story. If anything is meant to be conveyed through this series, I'd say it is wonderfully portrayed in the final episode, when in the background, in a nearly deserted bar, a singer seems to sing with all her heart put into it, regardless of whether many people have come to listen: Flag is about the photographer and his love for his art.
There's this old saying: “You can't polish a turd.” Someone (probably a grandparent; it's hard to beat cranky old people in the “brutal honesty” department) relayed that valuable piece of information to me at some point in my young life, and I've found it to be a crude but immutable truth, in art and fiction as much as in anything else. The best way I can describe Flag is to say that it's a great example of attempted turd polishing. It boasts a unique visual presentation and some downright incredible animation, but at the end of the day a weak narrative, poor cast, and muddled
themes stick out from it like sore thumbs.
The story is this: In the near future, a civil war is erupting in a fictional country in Asia. Before the events of the series occur, photographer Saeko Shirasu takes a picture of a flag being lifted by the UN with help from citizens of the war-stricken nation. The photo becomes extremely famous; the flag itself becomes a symbol of peace. The UN steps in to mediate the civil war, and a date on which the major warring parties will sign a UN-sanctioned peace agreement overlooked by the legendary flag is approaching. However, just before the peace agreement is to be signed, the all-important flag is stolen by an unknown insurgent group. Without this symbol of peace in its possession, the UN fears that the peace agreement will ultimately fail, so they assign an elite group of special operatives to locate and retrieve the flag. Shirasu agrees to be an embedded photographer and document the group's search for the flag. While she's doing that, a friend of hers (also a photographer) is keeping an eye on the increasingly tense situation in the country's UN-occupied capital.
At this point you're probably asking questions in the vein of “if the flag is so important that they're risking lives to locate it, why wasn't it heavily guarded in the first place?” But I digress.
Flag's story is told with a film making technique called “found footage,” meaning that the series is presented to us as being raw, unedited footage of events that someone taped in the past with a handheld camera. This technique has existed for a while but was popularized in the late 90s with the success of films like “The Last Broadcast” and “The Blair Witch Project.” Flag shows everything either through the lens of a camera or the display of a computer, and goes to great lengths to maintain this illusion. Whenever the cast enters a vehicle, for example, the locations of the cameras on the vehicle are pointed out to the audience, so that we don't wonder where exactly the footage of different angles is coming from. In addition, you can tell the two main characters apart based on the differing electronic displays of their cameras, allowing the series to switch back and forth between plot threads without much of a hitch. I think that's neat. The whole setup does require a certain suspension of disbelief; I don't think a photographer would use their computer's webcam to film themselves typing, or leave their camera running while sitting around drinking coffee with a friend in a Starbucks.
The reason for using this style of filming is that it's honest. We see only what the camera sees, and hear only what the camera hears. That leaves us free to make up our minds about what we're seeing on our own. No external influences, such as a character's thoughts, affect our judgment. Depending on how it's used, this property could be seen as a strength or a weakness, and in Flag, it's definitely the latter. Dramas like Flag survive on swaying the emotions of the audience, so one might question how wise it is to use a style of presentation which creates distance between the audience and the events of the drama. In Flag, I don't think it was wise at all. There isn't a single conversation in the series that doesn't feel cold, empty, forced. And that's at least partially a result of this stylistic decision.
The other problem with the way that Flag's story is told is that, quite simply, it's boring. Flag is an endless montage of interviews, computer simulations, and narrative monologues played over still images. We're shown grainy photographs of the harsh reality of life in this country, political and religious doctrines are explained at length, and we watch the military perform long, tedious tests of its soldiers and their futuristic weapons. All of this is out of respect for realism, and I can appreciate that, but it takes over the series to the point where I almost forgot there was an actual plot buried in there somewhere. The series has strong sequences, but they're few and far between. For every genuinely rewarding moment in Flag, there are fifty that are empty and directionless. Several episodes begin with unnecessary recaps that sometimes stretch for as long as three and a half minutes. It's draining to watch this series. I have a pretty big reserve of patience, and it ran out long before I reached Flag's conclusion.
The characters aren't much better. The main character, Shirasu, is shown to be a little insecure and lonely. She's trying to figure out what exactly she wants to do with her skills as a photographer. She gains a bit of depth as she gradually becomes more comfortable with her role in the squad of soldiers she's been assigned to film, and moves from feeling like an outsider to being accepted. Unfortunately, the soldiers themselves are nowhere near as fleshed out as Shirasu. They're cardboard cutouts at best, bordering on outright stereotypes. There's a tough blonde female commanding officer, a big Russian strongman-esque pilot, an intelligent young Asian woman with glasses who does computer work...the list of seen-them-befores goes on. The show botches several opportunities to turn the cast into something more memorable. For example, in a series of interviews, Shirasu asks the soldiers about their personal reasons for choosing this line of work. Just when I thought I might get to hear them say something interesting, the responses came back, all empty one-line platitudes: “I fight for my family,” “I fight to save people,” “I fight for my country,” etc. Real nice. Apparently everyone's reasons for risking their lives come from recruitment posters they saw in their local middle school. We can eventually discern a little bit more about the cast based on how they react in discussions about military protocol and battle, but they're still too flat to be a source of any real drama or interest.
Thematically, Flag is more than a little confused, and doesn't seem to know what it wants to say at all. Originally I thought the series was going to be about photography: The value of an iconic image, the ability of the photographer to capture the past, breaking the barrier between being an observer and a participant, risking yourself for your art. Flag brings up all these themes, but utterly fails to elaborate on them or make any sort of real statement. Which is too bad, because those are all relatively original ideas. In addition, as Flag goes on, the focus shifts from themes of photography to general antiwar sentiment. This isn't bad in and of itself, but it's nothing we haven't seen before, and Flag doesn't bring anything new to this theme. Images of children with guns, civilians killed or displaced by indiscriminate bombing, masked terrorists taking to the streets...these images can be powerful when infused with the right amount of emotion, but on their own accord, they ceased to be shocking and new to most of us a long time ago, and they're now fairly commonplace in our media, both fiction and nonfiction. Flag presents them in an emotionless manner that doesn't bring anything new to the table. They're cliches, to put it simply. The result of all of this is that it's tough to say with certainty what Flag is even supposed to be about. If it was meant to be about photography, they should have taken out the deluge of trite antiwar content. If it was meant to be a statement against warfare, they should have taken out the commentary on the nature of photography. If it was meant to be both, they should have hired some better writers.
Two elements of Flag that I can truly compliment are the art and animation. The background art is well detailed, with wide expanses of desert and mountains looking about as close to real life as possible. The city, likewise, is an appropriately drawn maze of housing. Say what you will about Flag (and I've said a lot), but it doesn't slack on creating a setting. However, it's in mechanical design and animation that the series really shines. The show, set in the near future, prominently features some military mecha in the battles, and these look unbelievably good. The series captures the motions of vehicles more realistically than any I've ever seen; every moving part seems to function with the perfectly regimented order typical of machines.
Unfortunately, the music is another downer for Flag. The first problem with the musical score is that it exists. No, seriously; since Flag is presented to us as a collection of images and raw footage found in numerous video cameras, the fact that there is any background music at all works against the original concept of the series. The second problem with the music is how typical it is. Some of it's Middle Eastern sounding, lead by traditional drums and wind instruments, sometimes with wordless vocals, sometimes without. The other half of it is more Western, spearheaded by horns and crashing drums. It's generic and not at all memorable, and if you've seen any film about war in exotic nations, you've pretty much heard this music. What's worse than that, it's sometimes so ridiculously overbearing that it's unintentionally comical. Why is there a booming, uplifting patriotic song playing while the main character huddles helplessly in the fetal position to avoid being killed by shrapnel? The mind boggles. The most tense moments of Flag are actually those accompanied by either silence, or light atmospheric noise. In one memorable sequence, we hear nothing but a pilot's shallow, unsteady breathing alternating with the roar of her vehicle's minigun as she kills a group of insurgents. This conveys both her hesitation and dislike of killing, and her determination to get her job done even if it means doing something she dislikes; it tells us far more than any patriotic music could. Flag would have been well served to rely more on the atmosphere and setting that it went to such great lengths to create, rather than on some very heavy-handed music.
When all is said and done, I cannot, in good conscience, recommend Flag to anyone but a select group of people. I actually give it a lot of points—probably way more points than I should—for its visual originality. So if you are actively searching for something that is unique in its visual style, then Flag is definitely worth a bit of your time; if nothing else, it's a good looking show. But if you're the average person, wanting to be entertained and/or informed by a series with a strong plot, and you're looking at Flag with curiosity, rest assured that your curiosity has been evoked under false pretenses. Flag's method of storytelling, and its cast, are exceedingly poor efforts. Its themes are a miasma of generic antiwar sentiment and undeveloped artistic ideas which play a dysfunctional game of tag with each other during the running time of the series. A domineering musical score that browbeats the entire concept of the show is the last nail in the coffin of mediocrity. On the outside, Flag is about as polished as you can get, but on the inside...well, refer to paragraph one.