[The trailer shows several animated scenes of World War II trench warfare, and of teenagers fighting demons. Russian dialogue from the film lays out some of the plot.]
While I had high hopes for it, First Squad just doesn't work.
To be fair to the anime, I didn't find out until after I watched it that it's actually part of or adapted from* an anime TV series, so watching that might fix several of my problems with the film. What it probably wouldn't fix is the lack of any real interest to the movie. Still, I'm going to write from the point of view of somebody unaware of the show, as that's the way I watched.
The film is based around World War II occultism, following one clash between the secret German and Russian military occult researchers. I don't really want to go into the details of the story - the pacing is so patchy that it'd take pages to put it back together. After a confusing first half designed around the main character, Nadja, having amnesia, we learn that she's the top occult agent for the Russian secret service. She's needed now to stop a dead sorcerer rising to help the Germans win a battle. To do so, she'll need the help of the teenaged squad she was trained with. Unfortunatly First Squad are all also dead, so Nadja goes to the land of the dead via a fancy diving suit, and re-recruits them to help in the battle, to stop the sorcerer and to save the day.
Sadly, nothing besides the battle itself is resolved in the film. Ever. The main character's amnesia is never explained beyond "you went missing while on a mission." The beginning of the film teases at relationships between the squad and the tragic death of Nadja's acrobat parents, neither of which are revealed. Later, the sorcerer escapes and the squad disappears back to the land of the dead, but the war isn't won, we've learned nothing about anyone, and yet the film is over.
Not that any of the characters has enough personality to make you want to know any more about them. Nadja's attitude can best be described as "whu?" and everyone else is pretty strictly military, aside from the squad themselves, who are kind of manic. They're supposed to have some kind of mental link to make them perform more tactically efficiently, but mostly they just shoot spear-wielding demons with guns. The final battle is really more of a massacre, and the only person at risk is Nadja herself when she fails to hold off the lead demon with her... katana? For some reason, she uses a katana. While we're told by her superior that she's very good with it, we only see her slay only one enemy with it before she's tied up, captured, and later bested in a duel and has to be rescued by the rest of the squad.
A lot of the storytelling feels rushed and hackneyed. Nadja's amnesia is thoroughly exploited by the film, as it's really there to give an excuse for why everything must be explained, and simultaneously to excuse not enough being explained, just as her clairvoyance is used to drag the plot forward. Another device, a pair of twin German secret agents are also woefully unexplored, as their assassination attempts push Nadja to flee to the next scene.
I haven't even gotten to the worst part of the film, which I understand is lifted straight from the show. Periodically, short clips of real experts (or actors?) intersperse the action either to tell us about the real history of the war, or to explain how parts of the narrative could be real. The former lend an interesting tone to the film, reminding us how real the war was, especially when the interviewees are war veterans. They also break the flow, and the suspension of disbelief (it's hard to buy into the ghost-battle when you've just heard about somebody's real horrific experience.) However, the latter type of testimonial is the real problem. Some of the experts tell us how sedatives and shell-shock could have caused hallucinations to explain anything that's not from the real histories, while others go on at length about how all the secret occult things really happened, and how Germany really had a plan to summon the souls of their ancestors. These conflicting attitudes, one vouching that the story is a fever dream while the other tells us that much of it is real, undermine each other and the credibility of the film as both an attempt to tell a real story and as fiction.
While my colleagues who I spoke to after the movie (some of whom fell asleep for much of it) found the visual style very dull, I must say that it was the one aspect of the movie I enjoyed. Aside from the cgi/drawn vehicles that pervade anime nowadays, it reminded me very strongly of Battle Angel Alita and Akira, minus the excellent settings and interesting monsters.
First Squad is an interesting idea, but bites off about three times more than it can chew. If they had dropped the whole occult aspect, the testimonials could have made it an excellent way to engage with a Russian perspective on WWII. If they'd dropped the testimonials, it could have been a good fantasy... with a bit more work on the characters.
* As of the time of this revision, I have still been unable to determine which