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Sorry this is arriving late, but I’ve had a lot on my plate lately. It’s just me for this post, which will be about the very unique anime film First Squad: The Moment of Truth.

Something Completely Different

First Squad is an anime film unlike any other that I’ve ever seen. And for that, I commend it! I think it’s great for anime to continue telling intriguing, original stories in fresh, unique ways. This film was created by Japan’s Studio 4°C in conjunction with Russian authors and Molot Entertainment. As you probably quickly realized, the characters all speak in Russian, and the film is not entirely animated. Interspersed throughout the movie are documentary-style live action clips of Russians who were involved in World War II in various ways.

While I greatly appreciated the unique tone and atmosphere of the film, I did have problems with the story’s execution. The animation was excellent, but there wasn’t much for me to get invested in for the characters, and the plot was extremely straightforward. The fact the ending felt so inconclusive only made matters worse, unfortunately. Though I think it’s definitely worth it for everyone to watch this film for how experimental it is, I sadly would not make it a strong recommendation. The premise is sound, but the story did not take it anywhere–or at least in any interesting ways.

The Largest Military Confrontation in History

(stats and chart from Wikipedia)

Perhaps the worst time in this world’s history was World War II, which I will go ahead and say up front is not something I’m an expert in. Though I like to learn history, I recognize that my high school and college courses have only scratched the surface of what this war entailed. Case in point: I never really grasped just how terrible the Eastern Front was during World War II. I learned a ton about the Holocaust and the atomic bombings, but hardly a single thing about the conflict between Germany and Russia–which, as it turns out, is apparently where more people died than anywhere else in the entire war (or at any other point in military history). Over nine million soldiers from the Soviet Union died, on top of about five million soldiers from Germany and its allies. And then between fourteen and seventeen million civilians were killed as well.

I can barely even begin to comprehend such a massive number of people killed in the space of a mere four years. Like perhaps all nations participating in this war, many of the tactics used by these countries were extraordinarily ruthless. I imagine you could read many books about all the atrocities of the Eastern Front, and the war in general–but I think it would be worth one’s time to take a good look at Russia’s viewpoint in the war a bit more, at least since it seems this was the country that (at least statistically) suffered the most. Though perhaps most people today may not think highly of the nation’s leaders at that period of time, there is (through the lens of a war setting) a lot to admire in a people who had to sacrifice so much in order to achieve victory. (Note that the Soviet Union’s perseverance on the Eastern Front may ultimately be considered the biggest factor in Nazi Germany’s defeat.)

How well did First Squad portray the atrocities of this war? To be honest I think it could have gone a lot further into what life was like for those on the front lines of this war. Though it was perhaps for the best for the film to not delve into the politics and competing ideologies of the time, I would have liked to understand more about how the characters felt as they suffered through all this madness. I did like how we got snippet’s of the protagonist life with her friends, but there was just so little of it… I really wanted to know the protagonist and her friends like ten times more than what this film accomplished. The drama could have been much more powerful than it was, had there been some time devoted in showing just how much these characters lost because of the war.

Were the Documentary Segments Necessary?

I would have to say… probably not. In general these brief segments felt more like a sort of director’s commentary providing exposition, explaining what was happening in the story, and trying to make the supernatural elements of the story sound plausible. I suppose it added an air of “legitimacy” to the film, but really… when we have a plot involving an army of zombie Crusaders leaping out of the ice, there’s no way the general audience is going to feel the story is representative of the Russian WWII experience. There were some interesting tidbits I learned, but overall I felt these documentary bits were a distraction that broke the flow of the movie.

Would I like to see this sort of thing attempted in other anime films? I’d like to think that it can work out, but there would need to be a lot more effort put in creating better transitions, and to make each documentary segment truly feel pertinent and necessary for the story’s enjoyment. It would really have to depend on the story, in the end. I wouldn’t mind seeing more anime try new things like this though, but with the warning that experimental does not equal enjoyable.

Final Thoughts

Before watching the film, I wondered how legitimate it was for young women to be fighting in the war (such as the protagonist), but as it turns out there were apparently 400,000 women who fought in the front lines for the Soviet Union. Why our protagonist fought with a katana though… Well, I guess this is an anime. x_x Perhaps what was most interesting about her though was her ability to read minds and see the fates of the people around her–but unfortunately the most powerful segment of the film that utilized this was right in the opening scene, where she answers everyone’s questions amongst a troop of soldiers. I thought it was touching when she pointed out the young man who asked if he was going to die–the big question anyone in a war will be asking–and then saw that nearly everyone in the troop was going to die. I wish the film had explored this sort of thing much more, rather than devolve into a plot that felt generic in comparison (ie scheming Nazis summoning dastardly zombie Crusaders for teh evulz).

Overall it was an interesting film to watch, and I appreciated the fact this was actually an anime taking place in World War II Russia, which is certainly a fascinating setting for all kinds of drama and conflict. While First Squad was entertaining enough to watch and had a high degree of freshness to it, in the end it left a much smaller impact on me than I hoped for. Hopefully we will get more anime that are this willing to experiment with its mode of storytelling though!