First Squad is set during the opening days of World War II on the Eastern Front. Its main cast are a group of Soviet teenagers with extraordinary abilities; the teenagers have been drafted to form a special unit to fight the invading German army. They are opposed by a Schutzstaffel (SS) officer who is attempting to raise from the dead a supernatural army of crusaders from the 12th-century Order of the Sacred Cross and enlist them in the Nazi cause.
Ok, there are many reasons why this isn't a good movie, but it being a WW2-inspired fantasy flick isn't one of them. The problem is that it aspires to do things well, takes itself very seriously (have you seen the official site?), announces that boldly… and proceeds failing in nearly every single respect. It's by all means a schlock feature masquerading as something it isn't.
Perhaps the most dreadful offender is the documentary shots that *interrupt* the brief moments of action whenever they end up happening. They attempt to explain some of the surreal and nonsensical things, but do a
piss-poor job at doing so. The most unintentionally ironic comment comes from one of the psychoanalysts who says that human brain is capable of producing hallucinogenic substances by itself under certain conditions, which is technically correct but completely invalidates the testimonies of the veterans who spoke about mystical events allegedly taking place there. These contradictions are never resolved. Neither is the need to explain schlock with something with a degree of scientific or historic accuracy.
The attempt to build up the atmosphere of war by sharing impressions of the veterans who fought in it is misguided in principle. It looks extremely clunky and breaks the immersion and flow of the movie while robbing it of valuable runtime that could be used to develop the story and characters to make the non-documentary parts worth watching. By this point people should know what WW2 was. Even if they don't, they would have been able to *see* it in the movie if it did a better job at following the "show, don't tell" principle. Grave of the Fireflies is an anime that masterfully relayed the horrors of war without quoting a single veteran testimony. Elem Klimov's Come and See (Иди и смотри / Idi i smotri) is a live-action movie where most of the action happens off-screen, yet it instills more primordial dread than most war movies combined. This is how to do it right; interrupting cartoony action with documentaries is some next level of idiocy. The thing that annoyed me the most was that the movie started abruptly, hopped and skipped throughout its runtime, and ended just as abruptly, suggesting the need for a sequel that will never come—instead of using this time to tell a less ambitious but more coherent story. There's barely any significance in any scene. It's almost as if the whole thing was storyboarded and edited together overnight. It's painful to see an initially workable idea ruined by inept writing and direction. Assuming there even was any writing, of course. It sure looked like the studio crew knew how to put some anime into a movie but had no idea how to put movie in an anime.
I had suspected the movie wasn't going to be close to the teaser music video that preceded it—but the extent of difference was truly shocking. All of the First Squad members except the protagonist only appear in the movie for a few minutes, which came as a complete surprise. Obviously, none of them are anywhere close to being developed as characters—the protagonist is not an exception, sadly. Naturally, most of them don't even resemble people living in USSR in the 30s/40s. The portrayal of Soviet culture and style of life was given an undeservedly superficial treatment (I chuckled at the wooden toys—I still remember those) culminating in laughable anachronisms such as Zina's tank top below a winter coat. Nadya wielding, of all things, a *Japanese* sword using *Japanese* fencing techniques is not any less ridiculous. After all, Russians had a war with Japan at the beginning of the century, and were allied against them again in WW2—that's not to mention that fencing styles such as iaido are completely useless against armored enemy—which constitutes pretty much everyone Nadya fights with her katana. At that point one shouldn't be surprised by a fragile girl parrying a huge blade wielded by a muscular man in heavy armor while fighting in deep snow—it's just par for the course, and I borderline expected them to find a veteran who would talk about that as well. I mean, we've already brought up cliché occultism scenarios, complete disregard for chronological accuracy in design and logic in writing, so why not abolish laws of physics while we are at it? Meh, I could poke holes in this failure of a movie all day long, but its blunders are all so painfully obvious it's hardly needed.
I'll touch upon the subject of art and sound quality briefly because there's not much to say about it. I've seen most of Studio 4°C's output, and I know they can do much better. But it's not bad by any means, it's just… average. Action scenes, where we actually get to see them, are acceptable if you don't count the amount of extremely unlikely scenarios, deus ex machina moments, and other tropes so typical of mediocre anime.
To summarize, this is an ambitious, but ultimately amateurish fantasy flick that builds up a lot of hype and ends up with absolutely nothing to show for it. 3/10, not enjoyable and not recommended to anyone. Those who are into war movies, historic events, or action in general, and most of all fellow former USSR residents should avoid it at all costs.
I'll admit, I was sort of excited when I found this when I was randomly searching for some good Original Anime Music Videos. Russian rap and Studio 4°C (S4C) animating the video was perfect mix. But as an avid music video watcher in my hey day (when MTV actually showed music videos), one should know that you don't ever take a music video literally or you will lose the game.
Enter, First Squad: The Moment of Truth. I have seen many of S4C's animated shorts recently and have been a fan of most of their work. So to find a full length movie by
them got me excited. And to realize its all in its 'native' language got me even more hyped up because, how often do you get to watch anime (or even movies) in native languages? It also adds to the level of detail this story tries to tell.
If you have ever watched any type of war documentary, the stories the people being interviewed tell are usually somber tales of death or explanations of why things happen. Some people, don't mind telling their war stories but for most people, their experiences are kept so secret that revealing their story for the first time may be hard to tell. Such is the case for some of the war vets (and scientists) in the 'inserts' of this movie. Most of the inserts felt like they contributed to the story well, sometimes explaining what the next scene is. If you think too hard during these segments your head will explode considering it is all fantastical. If you have experienced any S4C anime shorts you already know that most of the time the story is just plain confusing. This is completely an anime story at heart.
Which is why the viewer needs to watch this with an open mind. The story is more of an alternate universe WWII where magic is real. Many anime and movies have taken this approach and met great success (Valkyria Chronicles and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade?). Taking this anime serious should be thrown out the window from the moment you realize who is a clairvoyant or during the meeting with 'Gandalf'. The story is a very typical David and Goliath type with the frail looking Nadya Ruslanova taking on insurmountable odds. Almost kind of sounds like a shounen anime right? Well it is :)
Don't let the MAL database fool you, the only main character of this movie is Nadya and you follow her from her early beginnings all the way to the end credits. The other characters are mainly support characters and are not shown enough to matter. As for Nadya, you'll either love or hate her. I grew attached to her because she just looks so frail that you just want to protect her. With all the war and bloodshed and overall grittiness, seeing a little girl barely weighing 100lbs (45kg) walk across the Russian tundra will definitely create some sort of empathy for the protagonist.
I'll say this about S4C, they are definitely not the best when it comes to animating but they are better than most. What they truly do shine in is the amount of detail they put in every scene. Backgrounds and any other inanimate objects gets the largest amount of detail. Varying ink blots from the pressures of a typewriter, all the trails routes and tracks on the battle map, Moscow's skyline and even Moscow's unique Subway/bomb shelter, is all great eye candy. Lets not forget that this is a war anime. There will be blood and lots of it. I did find it weird that there was more blood than action but that didn't hinder the experience.
This movie isn't all that bad at all. It's no different than any other anime in terms of plot holes and inconsistency. It's major selling point for me was the whole visual and audio package. If a movie/anime setting is in Russia, LET THEM SPEAK RUSSIAN ^_^ It adds so much in terms of immersing yourself in the movie. And the overall art quality of this show is just amazing. I'd place S4C just below Studio Ghibli and Makoto Shinkai. I think that's a pretty elite list.
Anyone who is a fan of WWII fiction, Studio 4C fan, or even wants to see something truly unique. should at least give this anime a shot or two. If you truly hate the mockumentary inserts nothings stopping you from fast forwarding them. The whole concept of this anime makes me want another movie of this type. Not a sequel per se but something with this idea.
This is my first review, but I feel like it needs to be written because no other review has highlighted how much of a let down this movie is.
Story (3/10): The premise is not terribly deep and can be summed up quite quickly; basically the Nazi's want to summon this ghost to kill all of the Soviets, so the Soviets send this clairvoyant teenage girl fight the ghost. The premise isn't amazing, but the movie could have still been good despite that. Where the story really goes bad are during these documentary-esque live action scenes with 'war veterans' and 'historians' (who are not actually war
veterans or historians). The scenes do very little to help advance the plot and don't help add to the back story. The movie without the live action scenes would have been just as good, if not better, as they really interrupt the flow at some points. Also the climax was disappointingly short and the movie ended with a 'cliff hanger' that didn't leave me wanting more.
Art (8/10): The art was probably the only thing preventing me from giving this movie a 1/10. The animation, for the most part, was excellent. It wasn't mind blowing, but it was consistent and enjoyable. The only downside to the art was the live action scenes, which were mostly just people talking in front of a dark background, and one person was really quite ugly. I don't just mean not attractive, I mean I almost couldn't stand to watch that scene. Still the live action scenes were short so overall the animation was very good.
Sound (6/10): The voices are in Russian (with a few possible cases of German, not sure though), but I don't really hold that for or against the movie. As for the music, I didn't really notice any amazing music, but I didn't really notice any bad music either. Overall the sound didn't really affect my opinion of the movie at all.
Character (2/10): The characters were awful. The movie is only an hour long, so I can understand somewhat limited development, but there are just too many characters who are literally not introduced at all (random guy with a wooden staff, Nazi chicks with guns, General Below, etc). The only excuse for the poor characters that I could see is that everyone other than the main character doesn't exist because the main character is just a schizo (similar to "A Beautiful Mind"), but there's no big twist, and any speculation that the main character is crazy is left as speculation. There was one decent flashback, which added some actual character depth, but it wasn't enough to help the overall dreadful characters.
Enjoyment (1/10): By about 1/2 way through the movie I was just waiting for it to be over. Some people may find it more enjoyable, but I was really put off by the live action scenes, lacking story, and shallow characters. The animation was good, but it just couldn't compensate for everything it had going against it. From the synopsis I was expecting some epic 12th century sword-fighting during WW2, but there was only a minute or two of sword fighting throughout the whole movie. The movie could have really benefited from any kind of twist, but it didn't have one and it just ended up like a bad joke without a punchline.
Overall (2/10): Obviously I'm not going to stop anyone from watching this movie, but I'd have to seriously recommend against it. There's a two minute trailer on Youtube which has every bit of action and story in the movie. Just watch that and save yourself the other hour and 11 minutes of poor story and underdeveloped characters.
I'm going to be using a more freeform style for Movie reviews, as they are much smaller and I can describe my feelings for the movie in a much clearer fashion.
Studio 4°C’s anime transcends the borders of Japan. From Linkin Park's "Breaking the Habit", to the Animatrix, and even to the Gotham Knight, their portfolio is varied and extensive. First Squad, their latest effort, is a collaboration between two Russian directors and 4°C, crossing the sea once again to create international anime. I had high hopes for First Squad, as the Studio's last movie, Tekkon Kinkreet, was excellent. However, the bullets of the
collaboration were quick to puncture my hopes; after an hour and thirteen minutes they looked like swiss cheese.
The story of First Squad is told in a unique fashion: meshing live action documentary with more traditional animation. There is an interesting interplay, as Russian scholars and veterans ground the fantastical story into reality. First Squad could be commended on this approach if the story itself were not so weak. The plot is predictable; the Nazi's are beckoning vengeful spirits from the other realm, and the Russian's need to stop them. The characters don't do much to salvage the poor tale. The pacing is erratic and disjointed, jumping from scene to scene with little sense of cohesion. The movie's namesake, the First Squad, is a poorly developed cast, with only slivers of background ever filled in. Nadya, the main antagonist, is drawn from clichés –an amnesiac psychic who would give life and limb for country.
The voice acting didn't help prop up the narrative. The Russian voice actors sound deflated, their flat voices conveying plastic emotion. The music was passable, a boisterous overture in the opening that harkens to any military film. The rest of the score is appropriate, weaving melodies from low growling organs with the rhythmic hum of violins.
Studio 4°C does deliver the goods on the art. A muted palette washes over the snowy seas of the Eastern Front. Moscow’s majesty is quiet from the war-torn world, a stark contrast to the Gloom World, a twisted realm where fallen warriors continue to tear at one another. Russia is a feast to look at. Excellent CGI is threaded together with top-notch animation. Artists made a successful effort in modeling the characters, drawn to have a distinctive Caucasian look.
First Squad, to say the least, disappointed me. Despite the pretty little black dress it wears, what is inside does not satisfy. The story is forgettable, the characters are paper-thin, and the voice acting isn’t exactly inspiring. I praise Studio 4°C for attempting to blend two styles –documentary and anime. Hopefully this method of storytelling won’t be thrown to the wayside, and will be used to create a much more engaging and entertaining experience.