They are few and far between to be sure, but once in a great while an anime series comes along that combines excellent storytelling with just enough fantastical technology to make animation practices from just about everywhere else in the world seem contrived.
FLAG tells the tale of a central Asian country (Uddiyana) that has been locked in civil war between two rival religious factions to the point of U.N. military intervention.
The potential for a fragile cease-fire suddenly becomes a possibility thanks to an internationally-renown photograph of a flag taken by young female photographer Saeko Shirasu. Clinging to the hope the photograph inspires, a lasting peace treaty between the government and insurgent groups is scheduled. Trouble is the flag is stolen by an insurgent group determined to foil the peace process just prior to the treaty signing.
In effort to recover the flag before word of the theft spreads, the U.N. establishes a secret military unit dubbed SDC, who just so happened to be trained to use bipedal, heavily armed robots called HAVWCs (High Agility Versatile Weapon Carriers—pronounced "havocs").
Because she took the famous photo that got the peace process underway, Saeko is granted permission to document the SDC’s top-secret efforts to recover the artifact.
In essence FLAG is the telling of a massive scale civil war through the camera lenses of two individuals on the outside looking in (Saeko Shirasu & her mentor Keiichi Akagi). The presentation of the material works on the format of Akagi narrating events while he reviews video clips taken during the war on his laptop.
FLAG is a beautifully (if tragic) mature, politically laced series that strongly echoes real-world events in the Middle East. Because of its documentary-style approach, the idea of lead characters instead become observers to the destruction and distribution of power at hand. Suffice to say, it is very easy to forget that this is in fact animation and not a live-action drama (and in some moments, actual documentary of real world affairs).
Further adding to the realistic feel of the presentation is a musical score that makes use of a minimalist approach, allowing many segments to play without any musical backing. When soaring themes are integrated to enhance the emotion, it is never distracting or overpowering.
Additionally the artwork is a very interesting blend of near photo-quality textures and backgrounds against deliberately washed out (almost cell shaded) character models. The end result is surprisingly realistic, fans of massive glassy anime eyes and non-existent mouths/ chins need not apply. A grainy effect seems to have been added to many of the “live footage” sequences (as well as camera viewfinder gauges) to further complete the illusion of realism.
The single-season series (13 half-hour episodes) originally ran on Japanese television from June 6, 2006 to March 2, 2007 and at present, never earned an official US release (although Bandai did have plans for a stateside DVD released back in 2008 that was, forever reason, cancelled). This is especially puzzling considering a complete English dub does exist of the material.
The mecha elements are never so overpowering as to detract from the realistic political and dangers of combat aspects. In fact the HAVWCs themselves are so scientifically rendered as to inspire questions as to why we don’t have weapons such as these on the battlefield already by even the most grounded of intellects.
There’s no sense sugarcoating it, a series this ambitious and realistic isn’t short on tragedy or heartbreak, perhaps arguably only further aiding in its charm. In my mecha-obsessed opinion, this is the first robot-involving anime franchise to capture the heart and emotion Mobile Suit Gundam 0080: War in the Pocket hinted toward all those years ago (back in 1989).
About the only flaw I can report surrounding the entire experience lies in the fact that Bandai never did bother with an official domestic release of the franchise. Locating the original Japanese DVD releases (or an English dubbed import) can be a bit tricky. However the material within certainly makes any such efforts to do so worthwhile.
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