Sunday, August 12, 2012

First Squad: The Moment of Truth - Fantastic Idea, Mediocre Execution

When I first heard about First Squad: The Moment of Truth, I was elated. A joint Russian/Japanese anime set in World War II, featuring Soviet kids with superpowers fighting the Nazi occult menace? It sounded like it was being made specifically for me. As I heard more about it, my excitement continued to grow. But then the film ran into distribution trouble, and it was several years before the DVD made it to America. By the time it appeared on Amazon, I had seen several lackluster reviews that somewhat dampened my spirits. Still, the idea behind it was so relevant to my interests that I had to watch it, so we got the DVD from Netflix and gave it a watch. After such a long wait and so much anticipation, the movie wasn't bad, just sort of underdone.

First Squad started out as a music video to a rap song by the Russian artist Legalize (Лигалайз). The music video features a group of Pioneers (the Soviet version of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts) who fight Nazis during World War II. The video is a stylish example of the Weird War genre: shots of soldiers, tanks, and planes are interspersed with supernatural knights, Eastern Orthodox icons, sword fights against Nazi sorcerers, and even 'mechs. It was the first time I had seen an anime use World War II as a setting, and I was desperate to learn more.

I discovered that there was an anime in the works that told the full story hinted at in the music video. The movie would be called First Squad: the Moment of Truth, and I was excited to learn that a Japanese studio would be handling the animation, while the story was written by some Russian-Canadians. There would also be a Russian audio track, which was essential in my mind.

The first trailer showed more stuff to get excited about. It began with a sort of World War II newsreel showing the spread of the Axis powers over mainland Europe. Though I couldn't understand the Russian, I got a sense of the patriotic pride at the way Russia was shown as the sole power standing between the Nazis and the total takeover of Europe. What really grabbed me about the trailer was the way that it mixed Nazi occult rituals with gritty scenes of wartime Russia, showing both civilians and soldiers caught up in the war.

A while later, they released a second trailer, and now I knew that I was in trouble. For the first time, there were English subtitles, and the plot seemed simultaneously cliche and and custom built for me. There was a secret war between the German and Russian occult agencies. While the Germans tried to raise dead Crusaders to fight for the Reich, the Russians had to contact the spirits of fallen Pioneers to stop them.

At the height of my enthusiasm, I started to learn some things that made me start to doubt. For one thing, the anime would be interspersed with live action scenes. These would show modern-day interviews with actors pretending to be historians or veterans of World War II, who would give context and background to the events of the anime. Essentially, it seemed like the action would stop to show some old guys saying there really was a German society dedicated to the occult, and for all we know, they really could have been trying to raise the dead.

When the first reviews started coming in, the reaction was decidedly lukewarm. Some reviews praised the novel setting, but the live action scenes were universally dismissed as intrusive and unnecessary. I also learned that the anime was less than an hour long, and as a result the story felt rushed and ended suddenly.

How could they go wrong?

Months passed and my enthusiasm, which had once been at a fever pitch, waned. Finally, Netflix got the DVD, and I decided that I had to check it out. As it turned out, when I had finally seen the movie, there was very little in the film that wasn't in the trailers. One thing that was missing, though, was the inclusion of live action interviews. I don't know if it was because of rights, or because of the universal disdain for those parts, but the DVD cut those out. They weren't even available as deleted scenes.

The animation, as you can see in the trailers, is excellent. The characters are all standard anime tropes: the cool guy, the kid, the fiery woman, the big guy, and the protagonist girl. The movie even starts with an interesting scene where the protagonist, Nadya, is part of a traveling circus. While the circus is performing for some soldiers, she is brought out blindfolded to tell the soldiers' fortunes. What begins harmlessly as she guesses the soldiers' names and hometowns soon becomes darker. She takes off her blindfold and sees that all of the soldiers are dripping blood and covered in ghastly wounds. Moments later, her vision comes true as the Luftwaffe starts dive-bombing them.

There is nothing really wrong with the rest of the film, except that there's not enough of it. Too much time is spent setting up the conflict, and then when it's time to do something about it, the film is almost over. I was disappointed to see that some of the coolest scenes in the music video, like Nadya sword fighting a Nazi sorcerer, or the German 'mechs attacking a formation of Soviet tanks, never takes place. In fact, the final scene in the second trailer is pretty much the final scene in the movie.

I hope that the mediocre reception to the film doesn't discourage more studios from setting anime in World War II, hopefully with supernatural elements. While First Squad: The Moment of Truth didn't work as a runty feature film, it would have done much better as a TV series with more room to explore the characters and the setting. Molot Entertainment, the Russian-Canadian company put together specifically for the film, had a great idea here, and I am a little worried that they won't try again. But if they learn from their first attempt and try to build something fans can really get into, I can almost guarantee First Squad: the Series would become my new favorite show.


  1. I was looking forward to this too. I haven't seen it yet; not sure if I want to now.

  2. It's worth checking out if you can get to it easily and have an hour to spare. Unfortunately, Netflix doesn't have it streaming, so you're probably just better off watching the trailers, and maybe checking out Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis.

  3. I'll probably get around to it eventually. Who knows, maybe there will be a remake. Outpost was remade with Outpost: Black Sun; there is hope for First Squad.

  4. I just saw it last night. I agree with your assessment.