A cadre of Soviet psychics, led by a teenaged girl, struggle against a Nazi brigade attempting to resurrect a centuries-dead malevolent spirit and turn the tide of WWII. The animation and production design are courtesy of the visionaries at Studio 4°C, with a story by writers from the Russian studio Molot. The whole package is impressive, but falls a little short especially towards the end—although it’s at the very least a wholly original creation instead of an adaptation of an existing piece of material.
- Creative, original co-production from Japan and Russia.
- Solid animation courtesy of mavericks Studio 4°C.
- Middling story which also peters out somewhat towards the end.
- Director: Yoshiharu Ashino
- Released By: Anchor Bay Entertainment
- Distributed Domestically By: Anchor Bay Entertainment
- Price: $29.99 (DB) / $24.99 (DVD)
- Age Rating: Unrated (suggested for mature audiences)
- Science Fiction
- Alternate History
The occult side of WWII
First Squad: The Moment of Truth deals with an idea that’s been explored before in Western comics and movies like Hellboy, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Captain America. WWII was fought not only by soldiers, but by experts of the occult on both sides—specifically on the Nazi side, thanks to Hitler’s obsession with mystical artifacts and powers.
First Squad’s novel in that it gives us the Russian side of the struggle—“Division Six,” a clandestine unit made up mainly of young people with powers of telepathy, precognition and other supernatural abilities. Among them was little Nadya, formerly of a family of circus performers, drafted into Six along with several cohorts her age (one of whom she has a crush on). When a German division attacks, her comrades are killed and Nadya loses her memory.
We first meet Nadya months after this incident, traveling with a shabby little troupe that goes around entertaining the soldiers on the front lines, USO-style. Her trick is to walk out blindfolded and to correctly say the names of soldiers she’s never met or seen, but it’s no gimmick: she really can do such things. Then she has horrible premonitions of everyone in the area being killed, and seconds later it comes true as German bombs rain down on them all once more.
After much struggle—which includes an encounter with a pair of sneering female German soldiers straight out of Ilsa: She-Wolf of the SS—Nadya finally returns to Moscow and the leader of her unit, a general clandestine enough that his own comrades think he’s dead. The visions Nadya’s been having point towards disaster: the German paranormal squad plans to resurrect a knight who’s been dead for several hundred years and lead him in a key charge against a Russian division, a fight that could turn the tide of the war decisively in the Nazis’ favor (the “Moment of Truth” of the title).
Division Six’s plan to fight this is no less crazy. They will use a newly-developed piece of technology to allow Nadya to make contact with the world of the dead and persuade her deceased comrades to cross the veil and help prevent history from shifting. They don’t need a whole lot of persuading, as it turns out, but there are complications all along the way—like how Nadya’s comrades have to fight their way back up into the real world through Nadya’s subconscious, which is a rather hostile place to be.
Great looks, somewhat less-than-great story
The biggest and most obvious notable thing about First Squad is that it’s a Russian-Japanese co-production—one of the first of its kind, at least on this scale. Japanese animation studios have gradually started to collaborate on a broader scale with foreign cohorts; one of the biggest and most memorable such products was (and is) Afro Samurai. Such crossovers are a source of new ideas and inspiration, even if they sometimes fall short of the mark.
First Squad does fall a little short sometimes, but one area where it doesn’t fall down badly is the animation. The actual art was produced by Studio 4°C, the folks behind everything from The Animatrix to the new Thundercats animated series. It’s a little stiff at times, but there are endless standout moments: the battle scenes, the psychic warfare sequences, or a finely-choreographed moment when Nadya jumps onto a moving train—the wrong train—and has to quickly change tracks or be shot dead. One clear tipoff you’re dealing with a production company that makes anime is in the cutesy touches—like Nadya’s sword, which is a) a katana and b) has a bear charm hanging from it.
Less effective, but still interesting, is the way the directors have interspersed talking-heads clips from historians, war veterans, researchers, etc. in an attempt to give First Squad a mockumentary flavor. I was on the fence as to whether this made the whole thing more credible (as if that mattered!), or whether it was just an attempt to add some minutes to the movie’s running time. The biggest flaw is the ending, which seems great in theory—resurrected undead knights charging Russian soldiers on a frozen lake with psychic children battling them!—but the way it plays out on screen comes off as a little ridiculous. And the whole thing ends with a hook to allow a sequel, although I doubt one will be produced anytime soon.
Complaints aside, First Squad is a striking project. It’s an original, and that automatically makes it a little more interesting than the hordes of manga adaptations and spin-offs that usually crowd the release schedules in a given year.