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 feature was created as a partnership between a Japanese company and a Russian one which creates an extra language option that most anime titles don’t have as the feature has English, Japanese and Russian dubs with 2.0 and 5.1 mixes being available for all three. For the purpose of this review the Japanese 5.1 track was used and there were a couple of things that stood out. First, upon starting the feature the open theme begins and it starts at a lower volume level than the version that is used on the main menu. For the most part it is a solid track that makes use of the various speakers to create depth and help sell the action. For the most part the dialogue is delivered cleanly with no distortions or traditional dropouts noticed but there are a few places where the dialogue volume can drop noticeable in a different cut, possibly mimicking some more traditional motion picture soundtracks.
Also of note- The Japanese track does feature a rather disappointing performance by the female lead whose performance as Nadya is rather underwhelming in this role. I was unable to see if this might have been her first role as neither the DVD nor either of the two internet sites that compile such information has any Japanese cast credits at all.
Originally released in 2009 the feature is presented here in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio and is encoded with an anamorphic encode. The first thing that one will notice about the film is that the creators decided to use a decent amount of grain to mimic a slightly older look in film, though some of the parts that look like they are recreating old World War II footage use a bit of a heavier amount as well as some lines and pops that tended to show up in old film stock. Also appearing in the encode and most likely not due to creative decisions is some rainbowing, banding, a lack of solidness in many colors, noise, minor aliasing, moiré, occasional jittering in motion, dot crawl, though blacks are rich and solid. For the most part the film uses some rather subdued colors to help set the mood and in a few places the CGI animation stands out a bit.
The DVD comes packaged in a standard single eco DVD case. The front of the cover features a large image the lead Nadya, standing feet together with her dress and long overcoat whipping in the wind, as she holds her sword in its sheath in her left hand and a she has very determined look on her face. Behind her is a black and white image of a 1942 European manufacturing city that has a collection of bombers over it which is presented in a way that is reminiscent of old World War II film footage. A bit over half way down the cover is a red banner that is placed behind Nadya with the feature’s title written in a black font in Russian at the top of the banner and in a white font for the English on the lower part and the bottom of the cover has small images of four of the members of the 6th Division. The spine uses a black background with a small image of Nadya at the top, the title in white below that before the red banner carries over with the features subtitle inside that.
The back cover features a collage of the 6th Division in fighting poses against a red back ground on the left. To the right of this is the copy with an image of tow of the opponents and a machine from the feature under that and just above the copyright and technical information. The DVD itself uses an incredibly simple approach as it is just a standard silver color with the title in black above the hub and the involved companies logos bellow. Oddly the release seems to be at war with the eco nature of the case as it comes with a slip cover. To the release’s credit, it is one of the most gorgeous slip covers I have seen in a long time as it copies the case’s cover sleeve but the figure of Nadya is embossed so she looks like she is stepping off the art with the English title being embossed as well.
The main menu uses some of the action scenes from the feature as background color in a cycle of decent length with the right corner being taken up by a red triangle that contains both the English and Russian title with the selectable options being written in white and appearing in a grey, semi transparent banner along the bottom 1/5 or so of the screen. As the menu cycles the high powered instrumental piece that serves as the main theme for the feature theme is used in the background. The Chapter screen uses a large image of one of the other members of 6th Division on the right against a red backdrop with stills from the feature serving for chapter stops while a white and black diagonal line in the upper left corner has “Chapter” written in large black letters.
The Set Up screen has a close up of another 6th Division figure on the left with a large white triangle running in the upper left corner. The selectable items are in the center, over an image of one of the characters carrying a large weapon. The selectable options appear in white and have a yellow dotted line underneath the currently highlighted option and the options themselves change yellow when selected. The menu options are quick to respond to changes in selection and the DVD loads the options that are selected with minimal delay.
This feature contains no extras.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
First Squad has an interesting story behind its history in that the title is a joint production between Japanese animation company Studio 4°C and the Russian publishing company Molot Entertainment who teamed together to bring this novel adaption to life as a movie. In some ways this feels like a return to an older age in anime as the short movie/OVA productions used to line the shelves at the few retailers who stocked anime.
The feature itself is a bit of historical fiction that uses the backdrop of the Second World War and combines this with the (now almost legendary thanks to media representations) obsession Nazi Germany is said to have had with the occult. The tale uses the year 1942 as its primary setting and Germany has launched an assault on the Soviet Union which they had formally had an agreement with. The battle was a costly one for both sides as the cost for trying to posses the land the Soviet Union stood on was incredibly high in terms of human loses.
The movie opens with a black and white montage of events which look like they were taken from old theater news reels of the day. This little piece sets up some of the horrors of war as the devastation of cities and some of the repression of the citizens is shown. From here the title fades into a scene showing some Russian soldiers in a foxhole as their leader jumps up to spur his men forward just as an impossibly dressed medieval looking knight storms through the fog to take the man’s head. The absurd scene ends as a blue eyed girl darts to consciousness showing that the scene was a dream, but events that will unfold will take away any comfort that might be temporarily had in that knowledge.
The girl’s name is Nadya and she is part of a group of performers traveling to the front to entertain the troops and she possesses an incredibly sharp gift when it comes to seeing things that are just outside the realm most people accept as reality. As she is going through her part of the show where she names people in the crowd while blindfolded one of the soldiers ask how long he is going to live. When she takes off her blindfold what greets her is a vision where all the men are already dead.
This prophecy is fulfilled almost immediately as a swarm of German fighters pierces the clouds and rains death upon the camp. Nadya herself barely escapes though she suffers a head wound in the process and while she is unconscious she has a dream where her life is laid out in front of her in the form of a theatrical showing. The film covers her life from her time in the circus with her parents to the point where she meets some friends who will share a fate with her and they train together. It turns out that the state recognizes she possesses a special gift which is beyond the human norm and she is trained with other gifted children as a member of the 6th Division. As she gets to the point where her friends are killed as she hears the voice of one of them who warns her to run for the exit and return to the land of the living.
When she awakens Nadya finds herself in the company of a strange old man who comes off as almost a type of wizard. He warns Nadya that there is a prophecy that an ancient order of knights will return to the land of the living after 700 years and unless stopped their reign of terror will overrun the land. Meanwhile the viewer is shown that members of a secret order in the Nazi Party have indeed made a pact with a powerful dead leader, Baron von Wolff, who has a grudge against Russia. As Nadya attempts to get back to inform her superiors she finds that Germany has dispatched a pair of spies to stop her as they feel that her abilities and position as the last member of the 6th Division is the only thing that can stand in their path.
As Nadya tries to dodge those out to get her she has to return to headquarters, a task not made any easier by the concussion she suffered during the German raid. The road to Moscow may turn out to be a walk in the park compared to the task Nadya will be asked to undertake- She will need to assemble her former team from the 6th Division. To do this she will use an experimental device to try to travel to the land of the dead in the hope that she can find her friends in the world beyond and have them assemble on the correct field at the needed time to keep the supernatural forces of Baron von Wolf from turning the tide of the war in the favor of the German army. But will even a small force of those from beyond the grave be able to withstand the hoard commanded by a legendary figure that has the dream of conquest once again sparkling in his cold eyes?
First Strike is a title that I was curious about when I first heard of it as the idea of a secret supernatural war being fought in the shadows of a great conflict is one that has been used with varying degrees of success over the years. What was discovered here is a title that decided to play the fight as a rather serious one and which is helped by the backdrop which was set with some careful use of some very well designed images. To add another touch of realism, the film also incorporates a number of key pieces from the time such as well the old propaganda posters which are adapted in the opening credits and the old war film trailers look that is established at the start.
Another really clever move was giving the lead character a concussion and jumbling her memories so that the exposition can be given to the audience in a way that doesn’t make the feature look like as blatantly giving exposition to draw the viewer in. Often this is done in other pieces by creating a special, dense character that needs to be caught up on events they already should know but the concussion and Nadya’s jumbled memories lets this part flow far more freely.
From here the title then mixes some brilliant usage of both the bizarre world of the dead and a more realistic world of the living to draw the viewer in as they watch this impossible fight start to take shape in a way that has been crafted to get the viewer to suspend their sense of disbelief. The title also does a remarkable job of recognizing how to use Nadya as the anchor for events and introducing characters for the most part who seem to get some depth thanks to her reactions to them more than in the limited screen time most get to establish themselves in this truncated feature.
In this the writers manage to craft a tale that balance intrigue and action with the danger of this undead force while still leaving room for Nadya to be human in the face of the danger and the attempt to once again see her fallen friends.
One last note- Comparing the stated run time to the actual shows a 15 minute discrepancy which looks to have occurred when some materials were removed. Originally the feature was interspersed with “testimony” from purported survivors and historians to try to make it feel a bit more real and like a documentary. In an odd move these pieces were removed which lead to some odd seeming cuts but the live action actors are still credited in the credit roll on the disc.
First Squad is a rather fascinating blend of real world history mixed with the occult which blends together to leave a rather breathtaking alternate history tale of a hidden war that happened in the shadows of the last War to End All Wars. The mix of some rather skillfully researched weapons, armor and clothing of the time helps ease one into the more fantastical elements as one girl and her departed friends may be the only ones capable of holding the line against an undead invading force which will open the door for more horrors in their wake. The presentation is created by one of Japan’s premier animation studios in tandem with a Russian publishing company which brings this unique story to an audience who may never have heard of the original source material and which is a sizable treat for viewers at large.
Russian Language, English Language, Japanese Language, English Subtitles
Content Grade: B+
Audio Grade: B
Video Grade: B
Packaging Grade: B+
Menu Grade: B-
Extras Grade: N/A
Released By: Manga Entertainment
Release Date: January 17th, 2012
Running Time: 75 Minutes
Video Encoding: 480i/p MPEG-2
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Samsung 50″ Plasma HDTV, Denon AVR-790 Receiver with 5.1 Sony Surround Sound Speakers, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080.