Can’t say I’ve ever heard of a Russo-Japanese co-production in anime before, so I’ll tip my ushanka hat and raise my sake cup to FIRST SQUAD: THE MOMENT OF TRUTH for such cosmopolitanism.
This apparently made the festival rounds in ’09, so perhaps the novelty’s worn off to those who’ve been in the know, but I didn’t know quite what to make of it at first glance and I didn’t ever get over the transnational uniqueness throughout the duration of its rather brief running time.
That uniqueness is worth stressing because the plot covers some familiar territory about super-powered special forces fighting clandestine battles against the Nazis’ occultist compartments during World War II. Such a premise carries some danger of veering too close to material already covered by the likes of HELLBOY, or even something like BLOODRAYNE, but the fact that it’s been conceived from the Russian perspective is honestly adequate enough for it to have a proper spin.
So it’s about this amnesiac clairvoyant girl, Nadia, who’s drifted from the circus to a Soviet secret project and then back to the sideshow due to one horrible tragedy after another. Her parents died in the first one, and the second one took her memories and all the other teens in her unit, the titular First Squad. She’s brought back into the fold just as a Nazi cabal’s acquired a cursed sword that’ll allow them to resurrect the dread Baron von Wolff, a brutal Teutonic knight from the 12th century who infamously bedeviled the Rus (and perished in a final battles presumably showing the other side of Alexander Nevsky’s legendary repelling of German invaders.)
Among Nadia’s many talents is the ability to touch ghosts, as it were. The mission she receives after “re-enlistment” has her stepping into a bizarre apparatus and journeying to the other side in order to rally the spirits of her fallen comrades (who’re just slumming around there, apparently) and then kill von Wolff (or double-kill him?) before he crosses the afterlife’s threshold. Throughout all of this, she's hunted by a pair of sexy, blonde twin assassins doing the cabal's bidding and actually giving up rather easily.
As odd as it sounds, the quality I appreciated most about this was its authenticity. Or, at least, its greater sense of authenticity than what’s usually found in anime about psychic, 98-pound teenage girls who wield samurai swords and dice up packs of big, bad men. Too many shows in this arena play around with subjects and settings their crews obviously haven’t bothered to research outside of quick perusals on Wikipedia. And the pendulum can actually swing just as grievously in the other direction, as well. There are plenty shows whose crews have done their homework, but then awkwardly forgotten how to weave those thick, dense facts into something smooth and entertaining.
FIRST SQUAD doesn’t achieve a perfect equilibrium between the two extremes - - there are a couple of scenes in the middle that get painfully talky in expositing this alternate history’s lore and laws - - but it holds the balance long enough that you’re never thinking about how much more entertained you could be. Instead, the theoretical you are thinking about concerns the second episode that should logically follow what’s rather obviously intended to be a series’ oversized pilot episode.
This flick clocks out just barely after an hour. While Nadia does settle her account with von Wolff in satisfying fashion without leaving any sloppy loose plot threads, you’re left feeling like this was an awful lot of hoodoo to get the First Squad gang back together (and back from the dead, no less!) for just one caper. If the intention really was just to make a lean feature of economic length, then FIRST SQUAD works well enough, even if does seemingly cut things off just as they’re getting started. Still, one needn't strain too hard to imagine Nadia venturing into the world of the dead and calling on her dead friends for help every week - - and, seriously, that’d be a fun and inventive set-up for a show.
So, c'mon… where is it? It just has to be there around the corner, right?
If a continuation isn't coming, then FIRST SQUAD remains a respectable romp (albeit a clipped one.) It won't shatter your senses, but it will show you some concepts from a perspective different enough to get excited about. And there are some impressively executed sequences throughout, like the shadowy reemergence of von Wulff and Nadia's symbolism-steeped dips into the world of the dead. It packs perfectly diverting thrills for the regular viewer, but I'd go as far as to recommend it to the seasoned aficionado for the simple appeal of seeing anime jolted with a different culture's imagination.