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Fantasia Blog: First Squad: The Moment of Truth - Rotten Circuits — LiveJournal
July 10th, 2010
10:32 pm

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Fantasia Blog: First Squad: The Moment of Truth

[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

[Wikipedia]
[IMDB]

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[User Picture]
From:rosabella
Date:July 12th, 2010 10:53 pm (UTC)
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As you've asked for feedback I thought I'd give it a go :) I wasn't sure what level of feedback you want, so I've gone with the kind of feedback I'd give if I were critiquing it in a creative writing class/forum at degree level - if that's not quite what you want, say and I can give more general feedback or whatever in future :)

From an accessibility point of view first, though, best practice is to provide a summary or a transcript of any videos or images posted, for the benefit of people with screen readers or disabilities that prevent them from viewing the video. If you don't want to do a full transcript a brief summary of what happens in the video is still helpful. Obviously it's not a big deal in your private blog, unless you know you have people it would be a problem for in your audience, but if they might be going out to a bigger audience it's something to consider. It's also helpful for people like me with crappy net connections who might have trouble loading videos :)

So, onto the actual review - overall, I like it :) It has a good tone to it, chatty without being overly colloquial or inappropriately slangy. The structure works well - summary/hook opening, introduction, brief summary of the plot, then more in-depth look at the issues/your thoughts, followed by closing paragraph summing up your review.

That said, structure-wise the meat of the review does read rather as if you're just laying down your thoughts as they come to you, rather than having any pre-planned layout or progression. The paragraph about the protagonist's amnesia, for example does not hold together as a specific point meriting a paragraph (it is introduced but not further explored), and would probably be better off incorporated into the previous paragraph, or perhaps the two paragraphs split up, one examining the two dimensional characterisation generally and one examining the use of plot devices in stead of character depth specifically; or one paragraph on the secondary characters generally and one on the protagonist more specifically, with more detailed reference to the use of plot devices. One sentence paragraphs should generally be avoided unless for specific impact.

In terms of prose and language generally, it's good, there are some nice turns of phrase ('the pacing is so patchy that it'd take pages to put it back together', 'so she goes to the land of the dead via a fancy diving suit', 'but bites off about three times more than it can chew'), but there are places when it's a little on the dry side. Your opening line is great, though, it pulls you in straight away with a snappy summary and some context that suggests questions leading you in to find the answers (why did you have high hopes? Why doesn't it work?), and the confident tone lends authority to the speaker, which is pretty essential in reviews; if the speaker has no sense of authority you won't trust their opinions, so why bother reading it?

The closing paragraph is great - except it doesn't quite feel finished. I think you need one more sentence to finish on - and I would never recommend finishing on something in parentheses. Your last words should be strongest, and a parenthesis is an aside, something not important enough to go in the main text. Generally, parentheses are best avoided full stop unless completely necessary, or used for humourous effect, as a lot of people won't really take in what's said in them as their brain has classed it as less important information.

In terms of grammar/stylistic points, the main thing I'd note is sentence length - it's best to vary your sentence length throughout a piece, dropping in shorter sentences here and there to balance out the long ones. You've got a lot of long sentences, often composed of multiple clauses, and very few short ones. It'll run a bit more smoothly and feel a bit more dynamic if you split some of them up.

[continued in next comment...]
[User Picture]
From:rosabella
Date:July 12th, 2010 10:54 pm (UTC)
(Link)
[continued from above]

A few little nitpicky points:

"actually part of, or adapted from, an anime TV series," - pick one, part of OR adapted from - there's no advantage to saying both and it feels indecisive. In short pieces - say 1000 words or less - every word counts. Doing a read-through at the end to remove any surplus is a good idea.

"following one clash between the" - tiny nitpick here, but I'd suggest either 'following one particular clash between the' or 'following a clash between the'

"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 - but after a confusing first half, designed around the main character having amnesia, we learn that she's the top occult agent for the Russians, and she's needed to stop a dead sorcerer rising to help the Germans win a battle."

- This one in particular is a long damn sentence, with a lot of clauses in it. I count 6. I'd suggest splitting it up into a couple of sentences instead, and trying to run the clauses together a little more smoothly if possible, rather than using so many commas and dashes.

"Sadly, nothing, besides the battle itself, is resolved in the film. Ever." - Great line, over-punctuated. I'd suggest cutting out two of those commas;

"Sadly, nothing besides the battle itself is resolved in the film. Ever."
or, if you really want to break it up a bit more -
"Sadly, besides the battle itself, nothing is resolved in the film. Ever.'

"beyond "you went missing while on a mission. The" - You missed the closing quotation marks :)

"The beginning of the film teases relationships between" - Is that supposed to be 'teases at'?

"nothing about anyone, and then the film is over." - In terms of impact, I'd suggest losing the 'then';
'nothing about anyone, and the film is over."

"it's hard to but into the ghost battle" - Is that supposed to be butt? Didn't feel like quite the right word there. Maybe 'butt back into' would work better?

"real experience.)" - I'd put the full stop outside the bracket there, myself.

"the credibility of the film as both an attempt to tell a real story and as fiction." - I'd avoid the word story as a contrast to fiction - even though you've got the word 'real' in front, because the word story is linked to fiction in people's heads it doesn't feel like a strong contrast - it doesn't make your point on a sub-conscious level, if that makes sense?

---

All in all, it's a good piece of writing, you have some good points to make, I'd just work on tidying it up a little - planning out what you want to say and what order you want to say it in before you start, checking your sentence structure for variation in length and style, and going through at the end to remove any unnecessary words/phrases/punctuation.

I know I've pulled it apart in a bit of depth, but I should point out that's a sign it's a good piece of writing - bad writing there's no point going through point by point 'cause there's too much to mention, you just pick a few things to mention and leave it at that.

Hope it's helpful, anyway!

I'm looking forward to reading the next one :)
[User Picture]
From:wererogue
Date:July 13th, 2010 01:52 am (UTC)
(Link)
Thanks! I've revised it, incorporating a lot of your suggestions (and fixing some other bits - I never proof read this one, as you guessed.)

I'll redraft my other reviews, and let you know when they're done - that way you don't need to make the same criticisms all over again :)
[User Picture]
From:wererogue
Date:July 13th, 2010 01:21 am (UTC)
(Link)
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 - but after a confusing first half, designed around the main character having amnesia, we learn that she's the top occult agent for the Russians, and she's needed to stop a dead sorcerer rising to help the Germans win a battle. To do so, she'll need the help of the squad she was trained with, who are all also dead, so she 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 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 relationships between the squad and the tragic death of the main character'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 then the film is over.

Not that any of the characters has enough personality to make you want to know any more about them. The main character'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 the main character, who fails to hold off the lead demon with her... katana? For some reason, she uses a katana, and we're told by her superior that she's very good with it, although we 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.

The main character'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.
[User Picture]
From:wererogue
Date:July 13th, 2010 01:21 am (UTC)
(Link)
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 do, however, also break the flow, and the suspension of disbelief (it's hard to but into the ghost battle when you've just heard about somebody's real 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.)
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