The very first trailer, which hit the Internet sometime in 2005, was a profoundly bizarre viewing experience. Set to a hokey Russian-language rap over a remixed Polish tango from the 1930s, an increasingly surreal medley of footage featuring classic Sovietica and medieval horror made it clear that First Squad would be a highly unorthodox production. After successfully building up intrigue with the promise of swordfights and battles between T-34s and bipedal mecha in the same package, Studio 4°C and Canadian outfit Molot Entertainment provided very little follow-up information for about two years. By that time, even those few that were aware that this “weird AMV” was actually promotional material for a full-length feature wrote it off as yet another ambitious anime that failed to secure funding, much like the incredible Amazing Nuts!!, a similarly experimental 4°C effort. The titular moment of truth did not arrive until 2008, when anime media started regularly reporting about a joint Russian and Japanese effort to create a World War II-themed cartoon.
For the Russian-bred artists behind First Squad, Brooklynite Mikhail Sprits and Munich-based Alexey Klimov, the initial inspiration came from purchasing a handful of storybooks about teenage war heroes at a flea market. Such works were the USSR’s closest equivalent to the superhero genre, summoning their childhood fascination with the notion of kids with guns fighting in a bloody war of survival. Long-time anime fans who listed Jin-Roh, Kemonozume and Blood: The Last Vampire as personal favorites, Sprits and Klimov wanted to infuse the traditions of famous Soviet cinematographers like Tarkovsky and Eisenstein into a genre of storytelling that is organically suited for portraying melodramatic hero stories to young audiences.
Getting through to anime production shops wasn’t easy – aside from the prospect of having to work with foreign creators, the proposal came off as too ideological, unusual and, ultimately, risky to ever be considered (an unspecified major studio’s maximally laconic reply was, “Mikhail and Alexey, we do not this project”). Some that didn’t outright reject the proposal sought to exploit the setting for a Grave of the Fireflies -type story, with the “kids with guns” concept presented as tragic rather than cool. In the end, it wasn’t producers, but artists who truly connected with the vision in the pitch, recognizing the “Soviet Imperial” architectural and artistic style as fertile, completely untapped (by anime) grounds for weaving a fantasy world that would be at the same time modern and exotic.
The young warriors at the focus of the anime and the pamphlets that inspired it come from the pantheon of Heroic Young Pioneers, a staple of teen-oriented propaganda in the USSR. As alluded in this article’s predecessor, Communist indoctrination permeated every stratum of Soviet society, with a particular focus on the young people. Following the Children of October in age range, the Pioneers were a de jure voluntary, de facto mandatory scouts movement structured as part of the secondary school system, and a stepping stone to the 14-and-up Communist Youth Union, which in turn served as a feeder organization for the Communist Party proper. Accordingly, any presentation of a youth in media or literature as a positive role model would frame him foremost as a good Pioneer.
With the Russian Civil War and World War II as the primary backdrops, stories featuring pre-adolescent fighters served to foster patriotic sentiment in schoolchildren. Though some were embellished (or outright manufactured, e.g. to cater to an ethnic group), these narratives mainly related real events, in a graphic style designed to arouse a disgusted indignation at the horrors of the German occupation. Seeking to instill a readiness to sacrifice oneself in the defense of the Red Fatherland, such publications successfully cultivated a martyr complex in several generations of schoolyard cosmonauts. It was completely typical for a little kid to dream of receiving a posthumous medal for blocking a machine gun embrasure with his body, while his parents cried, regretful that they ever made him eat broccoli and drink cod-liver oil. In an example of dissonance typical to didactic materials of its sort, these gritty tales of wartime hardship and suffering inevitably sported a fresh-faced Pioneer, with a bright red neckerchief adorning a crisp, pressed school uniform, on the cover – the very image that Sprits and Klimov seized upon as the model for their show’s characters.
The Pioneers that formed the (very loose) basis for First Squad’s protagonists were, in the words of Sprits, the megastars, each a Hero of The Soviet Union. Leonid Golikov, Marat Kazey and Valentin Kotik performed guerilla operations as part of resistance squads, while Zina Portnova conducted undercover missions working as cook for a German military facility. In addition to scores of “routine” diversionary actions like blowing up bridges, cutting radio cables and destroying train tracks, all of these kids had performed uncommonly courageous acts, such as Lenya having crippled a major-general’s car with a grenade, and then gunning down its passengers and capturing the secret documents within. Together with Nadezhda Bogdanova, a lesser-known Hero Pioneer, these individuals, who had never met in real life, were re-imagined as members of “First Squad”, a commando team maintained by KGB’s Sixth Department, which specialized in paranormal warfare. A leitmotif in the show is the intersection of the real and the otherwordly, and Nadya’s primary task is to bring her fallen comrades back from the dead to fight an army of Teutonic knights resurrected by Nazi occultists.
Thus, much like the painstaking reproductions of Stalin-era architecture, art and military technology, the reference to real pioneers ended up merely another decorative element – a complete turnabout from the impression established by the promotional materials and interviews. All the fanfare about wanting to break Soviet canon out of its iron-curtained ghetto had me hopeful for a powerful story engaging enough to spawn an interest in its progenitor culture, in the same way that Romance of the Three Kingdoms-themed games drew my high school friends into Chinese mythology. It was fascinating to watch dudes with no prior care for Oriental history carry heated discussions about battles and generals, with names I had trouble keeping apart – except Lu Bu, whose alleged invincibility conjured up visions of an ancient Chinese Chuck Norris (“Emperor is son of Heaven… but Heaven is son of Lu Bu!”). Reading about the authors’ painstaking background research and desire to present the insular Soviet mythos in a form palatable to modern audiences led to a hope that First Squad could do the idea justice – a hope thoroughly dashed when it was revealed that the movie would be only 50 minutes long.
Unsuprisingly, as a comment by Dane Scaysbrook put it, the show ended up an “utterly incoherent, unmitigated disaster”, with a muddled mix of flashbacks and action scenes awkwardly connected by mind-bendingly boring expository sequences. Special credit is due to the soporific droning of the voice actors, whose attempts to convey a sense of urgency varied from sounding bored and irritated to anxious but falling asleep, like ninth-graders performing a Shakespearean skit in English class with minutes before the bell rings for lunch. The background music was equally disappointing – the appearance of the magnificient Isaac Dunayevsky piece from the 1936 film “The Children of Captain Grant”, a personal childhood favorite, in the second trailer turned out to be a notorious bait-and-switch. Aside from a recurrence of that very snippet, the sparse excuse for a soundtrack consisted of minimalist violin plink-plonk loops that might as well be rejected tracks from Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works.
Neither the walking mecha nor the sword duel from the original trailer made it in, with none of the remaining fights worthy of mention. Worst of all, the lauded Pioneers themselves came off as stunt dummies spouting cliched dialog, with little more to amount as characterization than a handful of cringeworthy one-liners – the same way they appeared to Perestroika-era kids, who, after mass exposure to foreign action media, were too busy arguing about whether BRUSLI could defeat SHVARTZNEGER to dream of heroic self-sacrifice. As with the rest of their unrealistic aspirations, Sprits and Klimov’s aim to write characters that could compete with James Bond and Jason Bourne utterly failed, resulting in papier-mache creations with all the charisma of a store-brand cereal mascot.
I had once described Bonen no Xamdou as an animated Potemkin Village, but it took a Russian show to properly embody the concept. First Squad ended up blowing its entire creative load on the trailers, which contained the lion’s share of the fruits of a frenzied drive for historical accuracy (one interview boasted of recording the precise diameter of a birch tree), a process that evidently occurred at the expense of assembling a coherent narrative. An entire year was spent writing a scenario for a 26-episode show, later cut to 13 and finally scrapped and re-tooled into a four-part movie due to a conflict with the directing team. At this point, there was little to merit the plans for launching the anime as the pilot for a multimedia brand with spin-offs and tie-ins, as literally nothing in the movie might compel the viewer to find out what happens next, let alone play a thematic video game.
A Russian proverb warns against trying to sit on two chairs with one ass – this movie’s creators shot for four, completely missing all of them. Wanting to tell a genuinely Soviet story, that could expand into a franchise while also raising awareness of the USSR’s contribution to World War II and appealing to international audiences was simply too much to ask of a sub-hour feature anchored by a dismally weak script. On an especially ironic note, the show’s construction as anime massively backfired, as the medium’s extensive legacy of placing armed, uniformed schoolchildren into unfamiliar, yet recognizably European settings completely swallowed any of the meticulously-crafted stylistic flourishes, damning First Squad to being dismissed as not just bad, but generically bad anime.
I posit that the project’s spectacular failure is entirely the product of mismanagement, rather than flaws in the concept. Rather than wildly thrash between the demands of multiple overly lofty goals, the writers could’ve gradually laid down a foundation that could eventually sustain more ambitious designs. Instead of wasting a year on a fragile original script only to have it completely collapse, they should’ve opted to adapt an existing story. There are thousands of great works about World War II, in the dozens of languages spoken across the former Eastern Bloc, ready to serve as groundworks for an authentic tribute to the Soviet role in the conflict. The novelization and manga rolled out simultaneously with the movie’s release could’ve served as trial products for gauging public interest and gathering valuable feedback for making a stronger animated followup. Artist Enka Sugihara (who has the coolest website of any mangaka I’ve seen) has done a great job of preserving the show’s realistic character designs, and his comic seems a much-better fit for the barebone plot than the movie.
Unless the investors have pulled the plug, the second First Squad feature should be entering production, and, if its creators stick to their old ways, they risk completely dooming the idea of a Soviet-themed anime. That would be unfortunate, because there are tons of incredible stories just dying to be brought to a larger audience. Hell, there’s even a ready-made Lu Bu character. Sadly, there’s no real-life Sixth Department, as they could’ve resurrected the $3 million blown on this dud and used it to produce a full-length Kung Fu Love…