February 24, 2012

First Squad (Review)

First Squad: 
The Moment of Truth (2009)

Directors: Yoshiharu Ashino 
Aljosha Klimov
Misha Shprits     

3 / 5 zedheads


"A war against the living and the dead? My money's on the dead."

Released to DVD in Canada and America by Anchor Bay in January, First Squad: The Moment of Truth is a Japanese/Russian anime that pits supernatural Russian teenagers on the Eastern front of WWII against undead knights conjured up by magical Nazis. In its English cut, First Squad plays fast and loose with historical fact, which I don't mind, but it's hard to ignore the film's lack of characterization and clunky exposition as it rushes madly to squeeze a strange story into a 75-minute running time.
Nadya the Soviet Samaria

During WWII, the Soviets and Germans are waging a covert battle of the occult. In Russia, young teenagers with supernatural abilities are being trained as part of "First Squad" by an occult special operations unit called 6th Division. 14-year-old Nadya is the crown jewel of 6th Division; her psychic abilities and talent for clairvoyance help 6th Division defend against the machinations of the Ahnenerbe, a group of Nazi spiritualists and sorcerers who plan to raise the long-dead Baron von Wolff from the netherworld. After an attack leaves Nadya the only survivor of First Squad, she must venture into the netherworld to find the spirits of her friends and return them to the land of the living to stop Germany and save Russia - and the world - from destruction.

Next on ABC, "The Magical World of Nazi"
Although First Squad is not technically a zombie movie, the undead warriors who emerge after 700 years beneath the Russian ice are very much akin to the undead in Tombs of the Blind Dead. They're revenants and their ghoulish appearance certainly makes them candidates for review on The Zed Word - Zombie Blog.

They might not be zombies, but I dare you to quibble with them
700 years ago, the evil Baron von Wolff lead a troop of excommunicated crusaders who murdered their way across Europe. Like the Knights Templar in the Blind Dead series, Wolff's knights in First Squad are aided by black magic, much of which is centered around Wolff's magic sword. During an attack on Russia, Wolff and his knights were finally defeated in battle when the ice beneath their feet gave way and the knights sunk to their deaths in the frigid waters of Russia. Now, in 1943, the Nazis have raised Wolff from the dead to change the destiny of WWII by disrupting the moment of truth -- a moment where one person's individual actions change the destiny of the world. In this case, an anonymous soldier will lead a charge against the Germans. This charge will set off a chain of events that will lead to Russian victory. If Wolff and his army of corpse warriors can kill the anonymous soldier, the tide of war will turn against Russia and lead to Nazi victory.

Ice water does nothing for your complexion, apparently
The undead knights and the notion of the "moment of truth" are two of my favorite parts of First Squad, but there's simply not enough of them. The climactic scene when the knights cross the barrier between the netherworld and the living world by erupting from the ice on red-eyed horses is an impressive scene of action animation. For most of the film, however, Nadya spends her time running through the snow or fighting a duo of buxom, blond Nazi twins who seem to model themselves after Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS. For a film so heavily predicated on the paranormal, First Squad just didn't give me enough of the undead action or metaphysics I craved.

So many historical and cultural anachronisms!
In addition to the brief screen time for the undead, another point against First Squad is that there's simply too much story to tell in 73 minutes. First, the differences between real-world history and the WWII-era of First Squad is not clearly delineated in 73 minutes. In particular, the fact that Russia and Germany were partners just prior to his point of WWII seems entirely glossed over or forgotten. Is this an error in fact or a creative choice to establish an alternate world? Your guess is as good as mine. Second, the story introduces us to Nadya as a clairvoyant orphan working as part of a traveling show. Apparently, she has amnesia and remembers nothing about 6th District for First Squad. We, the audience, must learn about these things as she does during dense scenes of exposition delivered by the leader of 6th District. Since we're told rather than shown this information, the most important aspects of the plot lack the emotional impact we do get in beautiful flashback scenes earlier in the film. As a result, the characters come out feeling very thin. Despite the stakes involved, I never felt compelled by Nadya or any of her fallen-and-resurrected comrades. They move the plot along, sure enough, but offer very little in terms of character.

For a corpse, he has pretty strong teeth. He must floss everyday.
First Squad offers an intriguing premise and a neat fusion of WWII Russian design filtered through the aesthetics of Japanese animation. At the same time, First Squad is a thin and cold story lacking compelling character motivation. The sequences featuring undead knights are fabulous to behold, but the animation overall is nothing striking. If you have an hour to kill and enjoy WWII era paranormal fantasy or Japanese animation, give First Squad: The Moment of Truth a watch.

As for me, I've seen it once already and don't feel that I'll ever need to see it again. To First Squad I say good night and, "до свидания"