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First Squad: The Moment of Truth Blu-ray Anime Review

8 min read

Russian writers, Japanese animators and a fascinating alternate reality World War II storyline makes First Squad an intriguing release.

What They Say:
During the opening days of World War II on the Eastern Front, a group of Soviet teenagers, each with an extraordinary ability, are drafted to form a special unit to fight the invading German army. They are opposed by a Schutzstaffel (SS) officer who is attempting to raise from the dead a supernatural army of crusaders from the 12th Century Order of the Sacred Cross and enlist them in the Nazi cause.

The Review:
Audio:
The audio presentation for this release piles it on in a good way for those that want some variety to it. The main piece that we get is that the three languages are all presented in a Dolby TrueHD 5.1 lossless format so you get a good mix regardless of your language of choice which is a huge plus. They also included all three languages in Dolby Digital stereo at 192kbps which, when you compare, makes you realize how much of a joke the non-lossless track is. We listened to this in the Japanese 5.1 mix and it really shines throughout. The opening sequence in particular is strong but it works dialogue very well, music comes across with the right kind of rich feeling and a lot of the sounds of the moment, from shuffling feet to clapping hands, has that “being there” kind of feeling to it that lets it stand out. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout and we had no problems with dropouts or distortions during regular playback.

Video:
Originally released in 2009, the transfer for this release is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 in 1080p using the AVC codec. The show is presented in both long and short versions where the short version excises the live action material from it and runs for just an hour. The bitrate is all over the map as is the norm but it hits some strong highs and the presentation itself never really falters. It’s not a bright and outgoing piece but it has its moments. The softer palette used here is very appropriate for the show and that gives it a different kind of richness and the high definition transfer lets the quality of it all and the details really come through clearly. It’s definitely a solid looking piece that looked great during regular playback outside of some very minor noise in a few scenes, some of which was likely intentional for mood.

Packaging:
The release comes in a standard sized Blu-ray case and the whole thing has a strong, dark and ominous feel that works very well for it. With the central character there set against a dark gray background with just a touch of color, it gives a distinct feeling, especially when paired with the Russian logo beneath it and then the shots of the other main characters along the bottom.The back cover has a lot of character artwork to it both along the side and the bottom which wraps around a brief but decent summary of what the show is about. The production credits are a bit hard to read with the black text on red background but the technical information along the very bottom is clean and clear with the white text on black. I do wish they made a distinction somewhere of the difference between the two versions included, beyond one being 12 minutes long, so that you could be a bit more informed going in. No show related inserts are included nor is there a reversible cover.

Menu:
The menu design for this release is fairly standard with the navigation along the bottom with the logo cutting along the right using a few different angles while including both Russian and English for it. The bulk of the menu is made up of clips from the show which are almost entirely action based and fits well with the instrumental music selected, giving it a solid mood just before you kick things off. When you work through the setup menu, and you want to with the options here, you first select if you want the long or short version and then the actual language options itself. It defaults to English 5.1 which makes the most sense considering the intended audience. Menus load quickly and access times are fast, but in coming out of the extras (which is just trailers), the navigation itself disappeared along the bottom.

Extras:
None.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Joint productions can be fascinating things and one between a popular and distinct anime studio like Studio 4C and a pair of Russian writers, Aljosha Klimov and Misha Sprits, resulted in this sixty minute OVA called First Squad. Originally released in 2009 after a few years of different interpretations in Russia, it’s a curious piece as World War II related anime productions have generally but not always been about the Japanese point of view when treated this way and given such attention to detail. And while we have a lot of German iconography coming out of various anime series over the years, it’s not that often that you really see the Nazi’s actually included in an anime show, OVA or feature film.

Taking place in 1942, with flashbacks to earlier aspects of the war and Germany’s rise to power, it focuses on a group of young Soviets who have powers that make them quite special. We see that in the opening with Nadya, a young woman who has the ability to see truths and answer surprising questions when blindfolded. When she removes the blindfold and one of the soldiers on the Eastern front asks her when he’ll die, all she can see is their bloodied and torn bodies all around her. It’s a disturbing moment, but that it’s just a portent of what’s about to happen makes it all the more intense as the area is bombed. We get a goo d look at the supernatural side of the series quickly through her and how it’ll go to that other level.

But we also get a look at it through what the German’s are doing as in the midst of a different battle we see something that looks like it’s out of the Crusades riding on a horse, striking down soldiers. While the Soviets are trying to put together their own (dead) team to deal with threats beyond the norm, the Germans are gathering their own forces through wizardry to try and revive those that made huge incursions in these lands nearly seven hundred years earlier. It’s an interesting angle to play, one that’s been done before to be sure, but it’s given a good grounding here with a sense of evil and power amongst those that are trying to cause all of this to happen. The OVA establishes quickly the larger elements of the two sides, but it takes its time in weaving those forces together into something coherent.

While there’s certainly interest in following what the Germans are doing in trying to revive fallen heroes through the occult, the focus on Nadya as she’s drafted by the military for the special group to defend against this is quite intriguing to watch unfold. There’s a rich history of material to work with here, a different side of the war even if we’re dealing with supernatural elements, that makes it engaging because while there are predictable moments, it has that air of uncertainty and unfamiliarity about it that helps it a lot. There’s some good layers and mysteries here as it unfolds, especially as Nadya doesn’t even remember being a part of the division that’s been using her since her parents died. It has some neat little twists like this when added to the Russian style of storytelling and the leaps it uses to flow well.

Studio 4C has long had a solid reputation when it comes to its productions and they’re definitely ideal for handling the animation duties on this feature. The colors alone are spot on in that you feel like it’s a very cold, depressing and dark time for the country with the way it looks and that’s even before taking the snowy scenes into account. The character designs are very engaging and the technology aspects really are a treat to watch since it goes old school but with a modern twist in a really fun way. The action is very strong, especially considering the variety of situations that has to be dealt with, from the supernatural angle to bombers swooping in and even basic hand to hand combat. While it’s entirely new and slickly modern in its animation, it also has a very old school approach to it all that reminded me of some of the great 80’s anime movies that made their way overseas with tone and design.

In Summary:
In a way, First Squad is one of those few shows where it really does help to say that the less you know going into it outside of the few basics, the more you’ll enjoy it. It has a distinct voice of its own and plays to a different tune than anime usually does due to the writers and the adaptation overall. But it works very well because of this as it does avoid some of the usual cliches we get in anime while clutching others closely to very good effect. This particular time period has been touched on over the years in different ways but it’s not dealt with it from the Russian side when it comes to anime. Blending the supernatural into it with some great animation and designs and a wonderful sense of the surreal makes it thoroughly engaging. I had no idea what to expect going into it, but getting caught up in it was surprisingly easy and it engages right out of the gate, drawing you into this alternate reality storyline revolving around World War II, psychics and revivals of ancient heroes.

Features:
Russian Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Language, English Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Language, Japanese Dolby TrueHD 5.1 Language, Russian 2.0 Language, English 2.0 Language, Japanese 2.0 Language, English Subtitles, Trailers

Content Grade: B+
Audio Grade: A-
Video Grade: A-
Packaging Grade: B+
Menu Grade: B
Extras Grade: N/A

Readers Rating: [ratings]

Released By: Manga Entertainment
Release Date: January 17th, 2012
MSRP: $29.99
Running Time: 73 Minutes
Video Encoding: 1080p AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Widescreen

Review Equipment:
Sony KDS-R70XBR2 70″ LCoS 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.

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