HK and Cult Film News's Fan Box

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


A Russian-Japanese co-production, FIRST SQUAD: THE MOMENT OF TRUTH (2009) is a deliriously atmospheric WWII anime about how supernatural intervention threatens to turn the tide in a crucial battle between Soviet and German troops.

The year is 1942, seven centuries after the evil Baron von Wolff and his Teutonic Knights were defeated and sent to the bottom of an icy lake.  Now, with the help of a group of Nazi mystics known as the "Ahnenerbe", von Wolff and his minions will re-enter the world of the living at the titular "moment of truth" and cause a major Russian defeat on the Eastern front, while at the same time opening up a rift between the two worlds which may be catastrophic to every living being.

To prevent this, Division Six of the Soviet Military Intelligence has enlisted a group of young people with special abilities.  During a bombing raid on their training camp, four members of the First Squad are killed, with only a young clairvoyant girl named Nadya surviving.  Stricken with amnesia, the orphan girl is recovered by the Kremlin in time to send her back into action against the Teutonic Knights, with the help of her dead comrades whose spirits gain entrance into our world through Nadya's subconscious.

A mix of traditional animation and CGI, FIRST SQUAD: THE MOMENT OF TRUTH is brimming with exquisite artwork that can be savored as one would the pages of a meticulously drawn graphic novel.  With colors that are rich yet muted, much of it has an aged effect that contributes to the sumptuous period atmosphere. 

Digital enhancements augment the somewhat limited animation with varying degrees of subtlety and help to breathe life into the drawings.  Desolate Russian landscapes alternate with scenes that radiate nostalgic warmth, as in Nadya's flashbacks to her earlier life in the circus with her deceased parents.

There's a satisfying retro look to everything from the settings and costumes to some of the gadgets used, such as an "astro-radar" for pinpointing supernatural activity and the "Sputnik 01" machine (like a 40s version of the "Rekall" device from TOTAL RECALL) which transports Nadya into the netherworld.  While in the Gloomy Valley, she witnesses the spirits of dead soldiers still fighting their various wars and first encounters von Wolff as he readies his men for battle in the real world before being reunited with the rest of the First Squad. 

We don't get to know Leo, Monk, Valya, and Zena very well this time around--the story, which concentrates solely on Nadya, is left partially open-ended and plays like the first installment of a larger saga.  Not light entertainment by any means (although there are the occasional fanciful elements), it's a sober tale with several haunting passages, as when Nadya performs her clairvoyant act for Russian soldiers and suddenly visualizes most of them in the death state they'll assume during an imminent air attack.

Hovering between life and death after a bomb blast, Nadya relives events from her past by viewing them on a screen in an empty movie theater, while later the spirits of the First Squad will return to the world of the living by passing through a carnival spookhouse ride filled with surreal images from Nadya's subconscious mind.  Action and suspense are further provided by a pair of murderous blonde Nazi babes who pursue Nadya at various points in the story.

The final battle takes place as supernatural opponents First Squad and the Teutonic Knights clash amidst the Russian and German troops who stand frozen in the instant of their "moment of truth."  Punctuated by machine guns, flamethrowers, and swordplay, it's an exciting sequence that's imaginatively directed and, like the rest of the movie, is augmented by a dynamic and suitably baroque musical score by DJ Krush. 

The DVD on Anchor Bay's "Manga" label is in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen with Dolby 5.1 and 2.0 soundtracks in English, Russian, and Japanese.  Subtitles are in English.  No extras besides trailers for BATTLE ROYALE and REDLINE.  The original longer version of the film (approx. 75 minutes) contains live-action interview footage with WWII veterans and historians intercut throughout, which is missing from this shorter (approx. 60 minutes) version.  Judging from some of the fan reactions I've read online, the film would seem to be better off without this added material, but I'd have to see both versions to make a fair judgement.

Definitely one of the more unusual films of its kind that I've seen in quite a while, FIRST SQUAD: THE MOMENT OF TRUTH is an impressive achievement that should provide solid entertainment for animation fans.

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