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.
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.
If there is one thing that should be immediately praised about the anime FLAG is its daring approach to the animated medium. The entire story, revolving around two photo-journalists in a fictional war zone that resembles the middle east/south-east Asia, is seen through either their camera lens, cameras of vehicles, or sometimes someone else's camera. This approach while certainly unique requires a certain level of suspension of disbelief though. You have to believe that every living moment of this series that they have their cameras opened and pointing at people, but nonetheless, for those interested this suspension of disbelief should be trivial and come rather
easily to the audience.
This stylistic approach really lends the anime itself to being very gritty, pulling you into the world in a manner that a 3rd person point of view could never do. The way the battles are animated earns a unique flavor as you see everything from the perspective of the pilots fighting. Aiding all of this are its outstanding visuals. The quality of art and character designs is off the charts good. All of these visual elements combine to form a rather incredible feeling of what it feels like to watch a war documentary.
Of course, style isn't everything, and a gimmick with nice visuals can only take one so far into the anime before one must scrutinize the plot. One can say that FLAG is the story of two halves, one being that of the Saeko Shirasu and the other being that of the Keiichi Akagi. Both of these photo-journalists friends (A mentor to student relationship to be precise), the beginning of the story starts off with them parting ways from each other in the story. While Akagi is seen trying to dig up information on the events of the war from the grounds of the city where the war zone is centered, Shirasu is shown following a group of soldiers by request of the UN. The journey that both these journalists take is very different, and gives a very holistic picture of the war in question. It becomes a very interesting tale about the people involved, their motivations and goals, as well as a suspenseful mystery, as more and more details of this shady war are revealed through the lenses of our photo-journalists.
The story's strength is not about showing the obvious horrors of war. If one wants to see blood, guts, and screaming children, they would be better served watching live action war dramas or documentaries. It's about showing a gritty perspective of war, where one doesn't understand the forces at play, why certain things happen, how injustices are played out but are never talked about, all the meanwhile shady political movements are abound. It really delves into the roll of the journalist, and how they seek to unravel the mysteries and details before them. Furthermore, one of its greatest strengths is its depiction of people involved in the war, whether it's the common civilians or the soldiers, or even just the other journalists and informants around the grounds of the city. The characters feel very genuine, the emotions and feelings feel very genuine. That's part of what makes this anime so incredible.
Despite everything I said and the rating I gave in the enjoyment category ("9"), I will say that this anime is not for everyone. Without an intellectual curiosity and intrigue for such material, this anime will grow old quite fast. It is something that one must strain their mind to enjoy at times because the great nuances at play and intellectual satisfaction will not come without much concentration put into the anime. It's definitely not easy-bake entertainment.
Overall, I have to give credit to this anime. It delivers a nice intellectual satisfaction, and was definitely a pleasure to watch. If anything, the unique style of the anime is something that makes this anime worth watching.