First Squad

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“The first Russian anime mockumentary, I presume.”

firstsquadA strong concept here. Indeed, perhaps too strong for a feature which runs not much over an hour, credits to credits. It’s set in 1942 Russian, when Soviet forces are struggling to beat back the Nazi invasion. Behind the mundane warfare is a supernatural struggle, with both sides using occult methods to their advantage. The German Ahnenerbe group [which was a real thing] seek to revive the spirit of Baron von Wolff, a knight from the Middle Ages and his ghost army, while Section Six of Russian intelligence, put together a team of psychics as a counter-measure. The Soviet squad is wiped out, safe for 14-year-old Nadya (Chebaturkina), but the Russians have created a machine which allows her to enter the afterlife, and contact her late colleagues. With a battle looming which both sides know will be a “moment of truth” – a tipping point in history – the lines are drawn for a confrontation in both the real and paranormal fields of conflict.

Animated in Japan, but with a Russian cast and crew, the film also includes live-action interviews with “historians” and “veterans” designed to give the impression this is based on actual events, beginning with historically plausible stories and gradually moving into the occult. It’s an interesting idea, though some viewers may find these interludes take them out of the story, and you wonder if the time would have been better spent progressing things – some elements just end without resolution, such as the Nazi twins sent to assassinate Nadya. It feels almost like a pilot for a series, doing a good job of building characters or setting, and pointing the way forward; it’s better at asking  questions than answering them, as part of a complete story. The final fight between Nadya and the Baron is disappointingly short, despite the heroine’s apparent skill with a sword, though I did appreciate her colleague Zena’s enthusiastic use of a flame-thrower.

It’s a rich universe, with potential that is undeniable, and its share of effective sequences, such as when Nadya is being pursued through the streets of Moscow by the Nazi twins, or skeletal “zombie knights,” riding into battle, in a way which reminded me of Amando de Ossorio’s Blind Dead movies. On the other hand, the apparently unfinished nature of the storyline is a shame, with an excess of loose ends and ideas that are set-up and never executed. After seven years, I think the chances are sadly slim of ever getting a sequel that will address this problem, and what you’re left with is a somewhat frustrating exercise in impressive imagination. The entire film has been made available by the distributor on YouTube, if you are interested in seeing more, after watching the trailer below.

Dir: Yoshiharu Ashino
Star (voice): Elena Chebaturkina, Michael Tikhonov, Ludmila Shuvalova, Damir Eldarov

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