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Linus de Paoli [Film Festival 08.13.09] Japan Russia movie review animation

Year: 2009
Directors: Yoshiharu Ashino
Writers: Aljosha Klimov & Misha Sprits
IMDB: link
Trailer: link
Review by: Linus de Paoli
Rating: 6 out of 10

I was looking forward to seeing this unusual co-production from Russia, Japan and Canada! Everything about this project sounds like a lot of fun. It has a wild soundtrack by DJ Krush, beautiful artwork by 4C (the company that also did the animation for “Tekkonkinkreet” and “The Animatrix”) and a crazy story with occult Nazis and Russian soldiers. What more can you ask for? It had its international premiere as part of the big Manga Night on the Piazza Grande, that started off with Yoshiyuki Tomino’s “Mobil Suit Gundam 1” from 1981. After 2 ½ hours of old school animation, I was pretty anxious to finally see Yoshiharu Ashino’s debut as a director.

The story is simple, though it consists of many elements: World War 2 has reached its peak and Russia is under heavy attack by the Nazis. A final battle will decide the future of the country, maybe even the entire world. An occult Nazi brotherhood successfully tries to evoke the spirit of Baron von Wolff, who died 700 years ago in battle against the Russians. With his supernatural army, the Germans will have no trouble winning the war! But the Russians still have an ace up their sleeve: Nadya, a young girl who can see the future, is the only survivor of an elite squad of Russian teenagers with extraordinary abilities. With the help of a new machine called Sputnik1, she must go to the land of the dead in order to find her former squad members and bring them back to life for the big battle!

The first minutes say: “I’m gonna blow your head!” – And my biggest problem with First Squad is, that it doesn’t keep this promise. The action sequences are fine but too short. the first german airstrike takes place in a snowcapped forest and I was hoping for a nail-biting battle in the style of “Enemy At The Gates”, but it doesn’t even take one minute.

Since Nadya has lost her memory, everything has to be explained to her. Instead of action you get long dialogues that often just repeat information that we’ve already understood. Even worse than that are the “documentary” passages where real human actors that pretend to be authentic contemporary witnesses talk about the war and the secret projects of the Russian military. These sequences interrupt the flow of the animation every couple of minutes and made me really angry after a while. After the film has been building up to “the moment of truth” for 70minutes, the showdown is way too short: Von Wolff and the First Squad meet on the battlefield – and after a couple of moves it’s over.

I didn’t even try to get deeper into the characters. Nadya is a purely functional protagonist. Her background and emotions are irrelevant. Her personal objective is unclear since she does everything she is told be the Russians. The same applies for all other characters in the script: Baron von Wolff is just some evil old ghost that has always hated the russians, the Germans are just some anonymous mass of soldiers, except for a couple of sexy Aryan twin sisters that try to assassinate Nadya. Even the “squad” members (Leo, Zena, Valva and Marat) and the general Below, the father of first squad, just remain roughly outlined stereotypes.

This might sound worse than it is. Despite all that, it is still quite possible to enjoy this film – if you don’t expect it to be perfect. I was generally very fond of the animation style. The graphical style is very massive, often reduced to the red, black and white. Nazi and Communistic aesthetics are exploited to create a rough look beyond all political correctness – a guilty pleasure especially for me as a German. So the art direction might be the best reason to see First Squad, but even on this field it’s just solid but far from genius. The backgrounds are very powerful though: cities with rock-solid buildings, battlefields in endless winter landscapes – almost like Russian propaganda, just a little bit too cool. And last but not least the lavender craterfields of the land of the dead! Good work.

The Russian producers said, that it was not certain that this would become a feature film. At first it was developed to be a TV series – and I often thought that the film could actually be pretty cool if it was a pilot episode. Since there is an enormous back story and an open end, there is a lot of room for prequals and sequals.

After First Squad, the Manga Night ended with the crystal clear projection of a film that really did blow my head off and left no doubt about what a real classic looks like – Katsuhiro Ôtomo’s AKIRA.

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