Howdy people, have you heard about a Russian/Japenese anime from 2009 about Soviet teenagers in WW2 fighting Nazis and ghosts of German medieval knights? Well, strap in for a weird ride.
I’m from Ukraine, so back in the day when I heard about an anime kind of related to our history, I was super excited. Back then I was pretty new to the anime scene and never heard of an anime on this kind of topic. I mean how does something like this even happen?
How This Happened
Once upon a time in 2005, pretty much out of nowhere a certain music video was released. A song of a Russian rapper about WW2 was played over a pretty cool animated video featuring some of my favorite parts of WW2 history - soviet tanks fighting german walkers and pioneers (members of a communist youth organization) fighting against Nazi officers and ghosts.
It’s a pretty cool video, just be careful Russian rap can be dangerous to an unprepared mind.
And it turned out that this was just a concept which gained some financial support from a couple of Canadian companies (created by Russian immigrants) and in 2007 people behind the idea announced that they’ll be making a whole anime movie. It would be a collaboration between Studio 4°C - best known to me for Detroit Metal City OVA and later Berserk The Golden Age movies - and Russian Molot Entertainment, which was created for this project. And in two years, in 2009 the movie by the title First Squad - The Moment Of Truth came out. So how it turned out?
How It Turned Out
Well, there’s a reason most people never heard about this thing - it’s not very good. First of all - the length. It’s 13 seconds short of being an hour, that’s including the end credits. There’s actually a “director’s cut” which is about 10 minutes longer, but that’s because it includes absolutely weird pseudo-documental live action interviews with actors posing as historians and veterans. They don’t actually add anything significant to the story, just talk nonsense and sometimes break the pacing and interrupt action scenes, which is a weird choice. It’s almost as weird as the fact that Russian and English dubs sometimes have completely different lines when I think they didn’t know how to translate Russian phrases into English. Or the fact that pretty much no scenes from the music video are in the movie. Walking tanks are completely gone for example. So what is there?
Spoilers start here
First, we’re given the historical frame of the story - it’s 1942, German Blitzkrieg - plan of “lightning war” on the Soviet Union by rapidly rushing it with tanks and finishing the war before it becomes long and arduous - managed to get them deep into Soviet territory, but finally failed thanks to the combination of desperate defence of Soviet soldiers and monstrous winter Wermaht was not fully prepared for. Lightning War is about to turn into the war of attrition, which would favor the Soviet Union because of how damn big it was.
We then switch to a scene of German and Soviet forces in trenches, lying in weight. Seems like there’s going to be a charge - a Soviet soldier stands up to lead it and then, this happens:
Poor bastard gets decapitated by a knight out of nowhere. And it’s a pretty graphic scene with the head flying off and blood everywhere.
But it turns out to be just a dream of our protagonist, Nadya (get ready for the names btw). She’s traveling with a frontline theater - a kind of troupe that performed for the soldiers to raise morale. Nadya is shown to be psychic - she reads minds and sees the future.
She sees that the regiment they’re performing for will die, which happens in seconds - out of place looking 3D modeled planes bomb them all and Nadya is knocked out. And thus, just 6 minutes in we get a flashback.
The scenes change rapidly, so you could miss all the exposition there: Nadya is a daughter of circus acrobats, she befriends your typical white-haired soviet pioneer named Lyonya - who was localized as Leo to spare you from the pronunciation. And there are also their other friends - red-haired girl Zina, a short boy Valya and a big boy Marat. They were all characters from the original music video.
Oh, and they were also apparently a part of a special boarding school that trained psychic commandoes but then the war happened and all the other kids got killed. Yup, most of the characters from the original idea were killed in a flashback. Now that’s a bold creative choice.
Unconscious Nadya was saved by a weird monk. She has partial amnesia, which doesn’t really matter because the Monk (he really doesn’t have a name) knows everything and tells her to get on a horse, ride to Moskov and meet general Belov. They’re then attacked by blond twin spied, whom the Monk holds back while Nadya flees to find the general.
And she does just that - I mean, she tries to get into Kremlin but gets herself locked in a mental institution, where we have to wonder whether this whole story about the general was real or just the result of her concussion - but you better wonder quick, because this mystery lasts for 2 minutes of screentime. Then general Belov just walks into the room.
And then General delivers a huge lore dump. Not even a flashback - they’re just sitting in a car, or walking, or sitting in an office while general explains everything. And that effectively makes the whole amnesia point completely irrelevant.
To keep things short - he’s from the Soviet paranormal agency which fights Nazi paranormal agency Ahnenerbe (which was a real thing btw). Nadya and friends were trained to be psychic commandoes, and after friends got smoked Nadya was serving under Belov. Also Nazi’s want to win the war by summoning ghosts of ancient knights that tried to invade ancient Russia but were defeated when a frozen lake broke under them.
Fun-ish fact: the story of the knights is based on a real historical event called Battle on the Ice, but the part about the knights drowning is a myth, popularised by media.
Apparently, the ghost could be summoned to the world of the living during the titual Moment Of Truth - when the fates of many can be decided by actions of one - in our case, the Soviet soldier Nadya saw leading the charge in her vision. Another history fact - the commander is based on a very famous (in our parts) WW2 photo, called The Battle Commander.
But if the ghost knights kill this guy, the moment of truth will resolve in favor of the Third Reich and the war will be lost. And because they’re ghosts, regular living people can’t fight or even see them. So what can they do? Well, Nadya, it’s time to get the band back together.
After being armed with an anti-ghost katana - because of course, it’s a katana even in 1942 with Japan being part of the Axis - Nadya is sent to the Land of the Dead via a machine called Sputnik to find her dead friends and effectively get ghosts of dead Soviet teenagers to fight ghosts of ancient German knights. Don’t you just love anime?
In the land of the dead, Nadya wanders the purple woods for a bit, sees a bunch of (un)dead soldiers and almost immediately gets captured by the knights and watches most of them leave for the world of the living. And then gets saved by her friends, who were apparently raising hell in the spirit realm all this time.
At first, some of her friends are anxious about helping - they’re already dead after all, but without much trouble, they all change their opinions and promise to come help when she calls for them. As soon as that happens Nadya has to rush back to the real world - she reaches the time limit of the spirit journey, but not gets back without much trouble.
Back in the real world, it’s a race. Nadya needs to figure out who is that soldier she saw in her vision (since she saw him from the back) and rush to get to him while dodging Nazi spies - our twin blond friends from before. From here it’s an action scene after an action scene, so I’ll stop the recap here and let you watch it yourself if you’re interested. I’ll just say that it’s both pretty cool and not very good.
Spoilers end here
The Actual Review
First Squad, in my opinion, is the definition of a mixed bag. The story is nothing special, but the relatively unique setting helps it a lot (though I might be biased here). The characters might have interesting ideas behind them, but they’re given no time to show it - I’ve seen it 3 times and I’m not sure if Marat says more than one line.
Visually I wouldn’t say it’s bad. Sometimes characters look kind of basic but in other scenes, it looks great, like this shot:
Action scenes are also mixed. At points, it’s nice and fluent like with the monk fighting the spies and a few others, but at other moments it looks like characters are removed from each other with cuts between action and reaction.
But the biggest problem is the length of everything. If my recap of the story seemed choppy and abrupt, then I’ve succeeded in channeling the feeling of watching this movie. It’s clear runtime, without credits is about 53 minutes, way to little time for what they were trying to do.
And my theory of why that happened is because they’ve run out of money and possibly time. That would explain why the story is so strange - they had to string it together from the animation they had. That’s why there are nicely drawn scenes that play no role in the story - like the scene of Nadya and her parents performing - but later they reuse some animation to pad things up.
All the problems come from this. Dialogue is almost all exposition because we don’t have time for complicated stuff. Scenes have to be pretty simple as well - when we need to show that kids are happy, they’ll just laugh and play like happy kids because we have neither time nor animation to show them interacting in any complicated way. And it’s almost like every scene is missing either a beginning or the end - that’s how rapidly they move. At times there are characters that get framed for a second like they’ll be a thing, but before anything can happen with them we’re off to the next scene.
My theory would also explain the live-action “interviews” in the “director’s cut” which could only serve to get the movie over an hour long mark. It’s not that expensive to pay a lesser known actor to record a few lines in a room. Plus it can be done completely without the animation studio.
I think people behind the idea got overly ambitious. Even before releasing anything, they’ve announced this to be a trilogy of movies plus a manga. And the manga did come out. I couldn’t get my hand on any version of it, but from what I could tell it’s just telling the same story as the movie. But the sequels never happened - the movie was a commercial failure.
In a perfect world, this would be a 24 episode series, using the ideas from the music video and all of the possible threads hinted at by the movie (it even has a sequel bait ending!). And it would teach the viewers about this period and history that is largely unknown outside of the former USSR. Show something about the people of that time, besides the stereotypes of commies and Russians and it could tell about the gargantuan toll WW2 took on our nations. But we live in this timeline.
Do I recommend to watch First Squad? Sure, if you get the chance. It’s available on Amazon video officially. It has a lot of flaws but it’s still a very unique thing with culture and history different from anything usually shown in an anime. I think it’s worth viewing out of curiosity, even if it’s not ever getting a sequel ever.
Whew, finally done my first - hopefully first of many - articles. Hopefully, it’s not too big for people to at least skim through, and it’s not too late to jump on the SixTAY Days Of Writing train.