I’ve often said that Japanese anime have always had the guts to do what other animated works are often reluctant to do. Yes, sometimes, anime may go over the top; but if you are a fan of the medium, you would know exactly what I am talking about. A joint production between Japan’s Studio C and Russia’s Molot Entertainment, I believe that this may be the first time that the Japanese had collaborated with Russian writers and voice actors. It may also be the first production that a Japanese anime had been shot with the Russian language in mind to maintain its authenticity. It is also the first anime that I have seen that experiments with a documentary style footages with real people blended with the animated sequences. On these alone, I have to commend its efforts.
The film is set in the backdrop of World War II, as we meet a young woman named Nadya (Elena Chebaturkina) who is a clairvoyant performing what we can call a propaganda to uplift the spirits of the Soviet troops. After the show, the gathering has been interrupted by a Nazi bombing and Nadya is recovered by an old monk (Rudolf Pankov). We now learn that Nadya is in fact an agent, the last of a squad of teenagers with extraordinary mental abilities who had been drafted in the Soviet army. General Belov (Aleksandr Gruzdev) had informed Nadya that she has to take part of an experiment that processes thoughts to access the afterlife. She needs to get the old squad together and recruit her dead friends to oppose the efforts of the SS to resurrect a supernatural army of the 12th century in the Order of the sacred Cross led by Baron Von Wolff (Sergei Aisman). This zombie army because of its anger towards their Russian ancestors can be bent to serve the Nazi cause and will turn the tide of war….
The film is shot in the Russian and German languages, and the animation sequences are interspersed with what we can call as interviews of real Russian people to give the film’s premise a feeling of a documentary. Soviet war veterans, historians and psychologists are cast to comment on the sequences as if they were based on real events and lore. On this, I am not sure, since I am unfamiliar with Russian legend. I do know that the Nazis did have an obsession with the supernatural and for a time there were rumors of a race to develop weapons with telepathic abilities between Russia, Germany and America. Director Yoshiharu Ashino along with Alijosha Klimov and Misha Shprits (he co-directed the film with the Russian writers) obviously had this mind in creating a tale of fantasy, horror and the occult.
The film does take some time to get going as it develops the elements to allow the viewer to get to know Nadya. It relies on flashbacks and dream sequences, as Nadya struggles to see what is real or not. The live action interviews gives the viewer a feeling of doubt, as the film appeared to make the viewer see what is either evidence or something that is mere legend. There are some testimonies while some interviewees deny what is being talked about. Yoshiharu did as he intended, he gave me a feeling of a supernatural tale that may or may have not happened. The structure of the screenplay was convoluted and intentionally episodic as if someone is telling me the story. In some ways, this may frustrate some viewers, but I liked its structure. I know the film is fictional, but I did feel as if I was being educated in the tales of Russian lore.
After everything is settled in, the direction takes the viewer into a world that may be the afterlife as seen through the eyes of Nadya. Zombies, demons and occult practices are all part of the screenplay. The story is credibly rendered, and it does give off an aura of mystery. There is also a very creepy duo of blonde twins that looked rather ghost-like, as parts of the film were a chase sequence. There is action in the film, some occur in the physical world and some in the afterlife. They are bloody and quite intense in their own way. Harrowing sequences of war were visible to give the viewer a much more detailed vision of what was at stake. I suppose while I could easily read the lines between the plot’s details and it was easy to follow, some may feel (particularly those not used to anime writing) that several details were superficial and may see such details as minor filler to mask the shortcomings of the script.
I was very impressed with the visuals. The CGI work in the background really gave me a feeling of atmosphere that would right for Russia. The character designs looked very Russian even when the main characters have the look of anime style, I really could buy that they were Russian with their expressions and gestures. The voice acting by the Russian cast were real good and I barely saw synching issues. I really enjoyed the anime touches of the squad and I enjoyed the aura of mysticism as represented by the Hunchback (Michael Beskorovainy) and the Butcher (Damir Eldarov).
“First Squad: the Moment of Truth” is highly original and I have to admit that it took me by surprise. I was stunned to see an anime creation with a foreign language. I mean, I know several meant to be in English, but I have to say, it is impressive how Japanese filmmakers were able to collaborate with a very different point of view. The final product may seem like a small chapter, and the beginning of a new series as it appears a little too short at 76 minutes. If this is so, then I may well be in since this new film had really aroused my curiosity.
Recommended! [3 ½ Out of 5 Stars] However, it may seem a little too short for an anime film that I would advise that one rents it before a purchase.
Summary: Set during the opening days of World War II on the Eastern Front. Its main cast is 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. - Amazon.com More specifically … more
Set during the opening days of World War II on the Eastern Front. Its main cast is 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.