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First Squad is a short anime movie revolving around Russia's battles with Nazi Germany during the Second World War. The cartoon was put together via a collaboration between Russian writers and a Japanese animation studio. An unusual pairing especially when you consider that both parties were on opposite sides of the fence during the conflict in question. I'm not familiar with either Aljosha Klimov or Misha Shprits, who penned the script, but Studio 4°C, who are responsible for the visuals, should be a company western anime fans recognize. Back in 1998 they gave us the animated feature film Spriggan and they are presently putting together a series of movies based on the successful Berserk manga.
Set during 1942, the movie introduces us to Nadya a fourteen year old girl blessed with extrasensory perception (ESP.) When the film begins we see her showcasing her talents to a group of Russian soldiers who are awed by her mindreading abilities. The display is cut short when the battalion is decimated in a surprise-bombing raid that Nadya is unable to avert, despite getting a disturbing premonition of the strike seconds earlier. The sole survivor of the attack, Nadya finds herself having to travel back to the Kremlin, to meet up with her superiors, whilst being pursued by a twin pairing of blonde female assassins.
The antagonists of the piece are Germans, specifically a section of the Schutzstaffel specializing in the supernatural. Their goal is to summon Baron von Wolff, a deceased crusader excommunicated by the church for dabbling in the occult, by using an ancient artifact. The Schutzstaffel hope that recruiting Wolff and his spirit army will help break the deadlock between the warring Russian and German forces by having him execute a distinguished Soviet commander. Wolff is only too happy to oblige seeing as how the Ruskies were responsible for his demise back when he was alive.
Only Nadya can stop Wolff given that her psychic skills permit her to see ghosts. The mystic sword she wields, by itself, will however not be sufficient to take down the crazed crusader. Before challenging him to a duel she will first have to get aid from her former comrades in the First Squad - a telepathic combat team trained by the Russian military. It's a case of fighting fire with fire as most of the First Squad perished during a raid on their camp a few years earlier. Clearly dying isn't much of a handicap in the anime world (as many a Dragonball fan will testify to.) With the clock ticking can Nadya travel to the afterlife, find her friends and return in time to stop Wolff? You'll have to pick up the DVD to find out.
Although the movie itself is decent, my enjoyment of the film was severely hampered by the weak characters. The supporting cast including the main villain and Nadya's buddies are all lacking in personality. Nadya, a softly spoken amnesiac, isn't much better either. Through flashbacks we learn that she used to perform as an acrobat with her parents and of a possible crush she has for one of her former First Squad teammates. This could have been a touching foundation to build her character from, but I couldn't feel much for her given that the story telling is guilty of telling the audience things rather than showing them. A short running time also doesn't help matters, as things have to be condensed which limits opportunities for character development.
In terms of DVD features this is a bare bones release. Sony Pictures didn't even try to pad things out, like some companies do, by including trailers and labeling them as an extra. When the disc loads up you get a still picture with a paltry selection of options. You can play the film, pick subtitles, tweak the audio or use the scene selection to jump to a certain point in the movie. That's it. Reminds me of early DVD titles as opposed to a 2011 release. On the plus side you get a plethora of language options. By default the audio is set to Russian, which makes sense given the nationality of the main cast. There are also English, French, Italian and Spanish dubs of the flick to listen to. In addition to English there's also a ton of subtitle options to pick from. I counted twelve different subtitle languages including Arabic, Danish, Hindi and Swedish (in case Ulrika Jonsson is in the mood to watch some cartoons.)
As far as ratings go I would give First Squad a low three stars. I think giving it anything less would be harsh as it was entertaining despite its failings. Although I wasn't bored at any point I cannot say it's a film I have the urge to rewatch anytime soon. If you strip away the opening and closing credits the running time clocks in at around fifty minutes. I was thankful that HMV was only charging £5 for the DVD given that there is a lack of extras to compensate for the short running time. If you look around online you may be able to snap up a copy for a few pennies cheaper. I wouldn't mark the movie down for its duration, but a few more scenes could have helped inject character growth or some more flashy action to disguise the lack of depth (something that works wonders for Michael Bay.)
It's a shame that the writers failed to deliver on an interesting concept as we don't get many animes set during World War 2 and even less told through the perspective of the Russians (most movies focus on America or its Western allies.) Instead of exploring unique ideas First Squad falls back on anime troupes and other clichés we have seen in the entertainment world. Nazis mixed with the paranormal have already been seen in Hellboy and Indiana Jones whilst a barely clothed female lead brandishing a sword is a dime a dozen in the world of Japanese animation. I cannot understand why Nadya doesn't change from a torn dress to more suitable attire given the arctic weather she is forced to travel in. Then again I spotted many cosplayers in skimpy outfits during a chilly London convention so perhaps her choice of wardrobe isn't as absurd as it initially seems.
Although the Russian writers can be accused of slacking (which includes a needless open ended finale that is fishing for a sequel) their Japanese counterparts at Studio 4°C can hold their heads up high after doing a good job with the artwork. Top quality animation is intertwined with realistic visuals which boast authentic looking weapons, costumes and backdrops consistent with the period/setting of the story. It's a shame then that the effort put into the pictorial quality of the piece was not equaled by the plot it was telling.