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“First Squad” – An Epic of the Post-Soviet Era

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“First Squad” – An Epic of the Post-Soviet Era

26.10.2009

The debut Russian anime “First Squad” is like two films in one in the sense that different audiences will see in it completely different things. There is the hope that someday the two will merge into a unified whole, although in order for that to take place the project needs to be profitable. Whether this will happen still remains to be seen, although the film did turn out quite well.

“First Squad” follows a screenplay written by two Russian emigres – Misha Shprits and Alyosha Klimov (named as such in the credits), but the director, animator and composer are all Japanese. The project adds the mystique of the Great Patriotic War: the events on the front involve Livonians resurrected from the dead to take revenge on the Russians 700 years after the Battle on the Ice. Four pioneers from that world and a living pioneer with supernatural abilities, Nadia, are charged with stopping them.

To date, the Russian public has viewed “First Squad” as a “film about the war.” The fact that it is a cartoon makes no difference – what is most important is that it attempts to portray the events of 1941-1945 through a new artistic means. The classical moves of the Soviet era have already worn out, and new attempts to make war movies, such as “Bastards,” predictably end up as trash. Animation and fantasy here are an attempt to move away from cliches, and the inserts of mockumentary (i.e., a certain pseudo-documentation involving interviews with living “experts” and “veterans”) in “First Squad” only reinforce the feeling that the cartoon should be on a par with “The Cranes Are Flying” and “They Fought for the Motherland” – if not in terms of quality, then at least in terms of theme.

In some ways, this all looks like “The Matrix.” In its time, the Wachowski brothers’ film  made waves not only among the masses, but also among more highbrow audiences. The sequel, however, proved that the directors were not interested so much in arthouse allegory as in cyberpunk action. A similar situation could prove to be the case with “First Squad,” which will also have a sequel – three in fact.

“First Squad” is not a war movie; rather, it is the first Russian anime. For us, the Great Patriotic War is always about ideology, a reflection on the themes of patriotism, heroism, and perhaps (unfortunately less often) totalitarianism. But “First Squad” is is not an ideological statement about the war; it is the development of Japanese animation by local screenwriters. It is a purely artistic work produced according to a certain genre.

Any spectator familiar with the tradition of Japanese animation (there are already quite a few around the world) will see in “First Squad” a set of classic anime techniques, moves and characters, beginning with the main character. The baroque fantasy plot sometimes gives rise to “giggling”in the theatre, and although this would be out of place for war movies, it seems quite natural for the anime with its eclecticism. Classics of the genre, “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” for example, turn Christian symbols into a psychotic madness with aliens and fighting robots. The world's favorite, Hayao Miyazaki, has come up with numerous giant slugs, walking houses and flying pigs.

As an anime, “First Squad” is not perfect, although it is a bold undertaking. It feels as though the story was concocted by enthusiasts rather than seasoned professionals. “Transporting the dead” is something that the Japanese could have come up with, but killing almost all the main characters before the film’s end (this is not a spoiler) is something no experienced writer would have done. The bits of mockumentary are convincing now and then and are obviously used in order to save on drawing frames. On the other hand, in Japan, professionals are made from fans with glowing eyes, so by the same token, allowances need to be made for the format. “First Squad” was originally conceived as a series of thirteen episodes. Shprits and Klimov clearly lacked timing, although the understatements did help to make the film more layered.

The most important thing about “First Squad” is that it is simply a living movie. Russian cinema has stolen from Hollywood over the last ten years, but it does so mechanically. Shprits and Klimov genuinely love anime, and their transfer of the genre onto Soviet reality therefore works. In “First Squad” there is no ideology – the action would not be difficult to imagine in outer space or Meiji Japan, but the heroic archetypes and humanism are enough to make a powerful and moving film.

How Russian audiences will assess “First Squad” is still difficult to say. As a war movie, it is still strange, to put it mildly. And it will become even more strange: the creators promise to make the second part into a horror film. But should we perceive the subject of resurrected knights and Japanese swords in the Moscow subway as a movie about the war? “First Squad” is good, first of all, simply as an adventure film, and secondly, as an attempt to introduce a sensible foreign genre in Russia. The attempt is successful: our realities, lovingly inscribed in anime-ish entourage, still arouse quite extraordinary feelings.

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