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.