The Real World – Kabul: FLAG

Few journalists worth their mettle ever want to become the main character in any of their stories. Even many of the icons of New Journalism, Tom Wolfe, Thompson, who inserted themselves into their own articles with controversial use of a certain first-person pronoun, rarely stole a scene for themselves. The lens of observation and analysis always landed on the people and places they ran into on the job. This, I hazard to assert, is as it should be.

Director Ryosuke Takahashi and the creative staff behind Aniplex and Answer Studio’s 13-episode Flag seems to understand this. With the exception of the very first episode’s exposition and the last few episodes’ denouement, the show’s two photojournalist characters are rarely seen. They always maintain a physical presence for reasons that are rather ingenious, but, true to journalistic roots, their primary role is as ciphers through which the people and places they report upon can have a momentary voice.

Rough premise outline: The United Nations stage the liberation of a less developed Central Asian nation. The country is devoutly religious, formerly ruled over by an absolutist Buddhist theocracy and tribal allegiances. Subsequent reconciliation, reconstruction and nation-building efforts are hampered by a plague of violent sectarian squabbling and seemingly random bomb attacks by insurgent parties. A largely unhindered and pervasive press presence documents the fraying of the peace process.

So it is with gusto that the UN pounces upon a single photograph of a flag-raising celebration taken by a Japanese photojournalist to push as an ultimate symbol of the peace process. They push the photographer into minor celebrity. The flag itself takes on a life of its own, the UN’s sacred cow.

So it is with great, panicked haste that the UN throws together a Special Forces detachment to retrieve the flag when it is stolen by parties unknown. The same photographer is offered a slot as an embedded journalist to the operation. Eager to utilize their newfound media asset, the UN’s goals are twofold: to have a extravagant multimedia documentation of the flag rescue when it goes public, and to have a proper coming out party for their new weapon, the High Agility Versatile Weapons Carrier.

The series uses what I’ll call a “diagetic camera,” a big word for cameras that exist within the fictional world they’re “filming.” There’s no scene in any of the thirteen episodes that is not shot through a camera mounted on or in the hands of some character present. It’s a gimmick for sure, a postmodern story-telling technique commenting on the ubiquity of cameras and the journalistic eye in 20th and 21st Century warzones. So it comes as something of a surprise that it actually works.

Remember the first episode of Gasaraki, all the promise of an animated show portraying the mechanized fluidity of motion and dream-like quality of well-documented Post-Cold War warfare? The Gulf War with mecha. Flag is as close to a formal apology for how Gasaraki ended up as director Takahashi is ever likely to give.

Take the series OP for example. I’m a massive stickler for openers, they’re your most immediate sales pitch for a show, and this is one of the best I’ve seen. It’s extremely simple: a sequential history of war photography contrasted with candid photographs detailing the privileged, First World upbringing of main character and photojournalist Saeko Shirasu. It’s an eerie encapsulation of the show’s approach within a minute and thirty seconds.

It’s hard to tell who the bigger red herring of the series is, the photojournalist characters Shirasu and Akagi or the HAVWCs. This is a “real robots” series in every sense of the term, perhaps the truest to the subgenre ever. The HAVWCs fit seamlessly into the setting, what is in essence Tibet with overtones of Afghanistan, once a Central Asian Buddhist hotbed itself, now primarily known as being bombed into the Stone Age. The HAVWCs fit in so well that at times they seem fit to disappear from the story altogether with the viewer being none the wiser. The premise of Flag could easily have been centered on a team of commandos with little alteration to the plot.

That said, the mecha themselves are great. Unorthodox, but not ridiculous. Granted there was little leeway for the design staff to slip up—if you thought Armored Trooper Votoms, another Ryosuke Takahashi project, had a relatively small amount of mecha designs, then Flag will stun with its grand total. Ornamentation is minimal, they’re quite compact and squat with low centers of gravity. True to a Takahashi production, the HAVWC looks like a piece of equipment designed to absorb bullets and deliver payloads.

An entire Colony Drop feature article could be written on Ryosuke Takahashi. Suffice it to say he is one of, if not the, godfather of the “Real Robots” sub-genre through the series of mecha titles he directed for Sunrise in the earlier half of the 80s. Does Flag live up to the standards set by such landmark Takahashi series as Fang of the Sun Dougram and Votoms?

Main character Shirasu is no Chirico Cuvie. Where Votoms’ plot nestles itself within the structure of Chirico’s internal and external conflicts, Shirasu is, true to her job description, an observer.

What both series share is what is perhaps the common theme of Real Robots: a ravenous attention to detail. Attention to character, human emotion and nuances of setting as well as the machine guts of the robots.

Takahashi is a keen observer of history and current events. One of Votoms’ story arcs brought Chirico to the planet of Kummen, a densely forested jungle world overrun with a low-intensity war between local Monarchist guerillas and a conventional infantry-and-ATs mercenary army contracted by the new modernized government. Visually and thematically, Kummen is a dead ringer for the Vietnam conflict. Likewise, Flag’s fictional Central Asian country of Uddiyana is essentially Tibet with aspects of Nepal. The nature of the conflict there is lifted directly from the ongoing U.S. campaign in Afghanistan. The entire situation plays out like a hypothetical liberation of said Chinese territory by a NATO-style Western army.

The from-the-headlines theme falls a bit short, though. The journalists crawling around Uddiyana, a few locals and the officers of the U.N. army are vividly fleshed out through the camera lenses of Shirasu and Akagi, especially the team assigned to the HAVWCs. Their enemy is not.

Guerilla warfare’s very nature is ambiguity—the arbitrariness of “frontlines,” questionable motives and the sense of supremacy versus futility over a conventional army trying to whack-a-mole dedicated insurgencies that possesses the moral high ground. Votoms had all of this in the Kummen arc. Flag, perhaps because of its brevity, falters.

When the force behind the insurgency is revealed, there’s little else ever made of them. The viewer never gets a clear explanation of their motives or rationale. Imagine a Tibetan Buddhist Taliban (not as unlikely as it sounds) with a military arm reminiscent of the “Assassin” cult/sect of Ismaili Islam that was most prominent after the First Crusade up until being destroyed by Hulagu Khan in 13th Century.

Akagi lands an interview with someone alleged to be associated with the insurgency and the results are ridiculous and cartoony. To put it into context, real world, Western journalists were able to interview Osama bin-Laden himself years ago and he was willing to talk. It does not inherently mean that you make them sympathetic—the insurgents in Flag are about as sympathetic to liberal democratic sensibilities as al-Qaeda, but it injects the violence with an additional fatty, insulating layer of context, putting a face on the enemy.

(Perhaps a slight spoiler here, but, hilariously, the bad guys really don’t have faces. They’re all bundled up in turbans and painted masks.)

The result is that the members of the HAVWC team, with all the asides devoted to fleshing them out, seem a little too idealistic, too sympathetic. Maybe with another 13 episodes the series could have delved into a lot of the things I felt were painfully lacking: the relationship between the insurgent groups and the common civilians, the relationships between the foreign journalists and their local fixers, a backsliding of morale in the U.N. forces, what role the conflict played in the larger geopolitics of the region (barely hinted at near the end), and the questionable effectiveness of a massively destructive weapons platform like the HAVWC against an insurgency indistinguishable from the civilian population.

None of these omissions will really matter to anyone except irredeemable history nerds like myself. I like my media overstuffed and set to explode under its own weight, but Flag is a streamlined beast and precisely the kind of anime that needed to be made at this point in history. The rest of Colony Drop can tell you that I’ve been calling this show the “final evolution of Real Robot.” Truth is, I don’t believe in teleology, but if anyone is a candidate for bringing about the godhead of realistic robot shows, it’s Ryosuke Takahashi.

5 Comments

  1. Hi! I saw bits of this series a while back and was intrigued. However, some friends told me it wasn’t so good so decided not to watch it. I may pick it up now thanks to this post.

    I have to say that the intro really impressed is me as well. The music and the photo montage blend artfully together to give it an epic feel despite its simplicity.

  2. I enjoyed Flag, but I’m with you on the faltering. It’s hard to begin addressing the idea of insurgents indistinguishable from civilians when your insurgents only ever appear wearing their clown masks. That’s pretty distinguishable, if you ask me.

    Kummen is not entirely Vietnam: Cambodia’s in the mix too, with a character named Pol Pot(aria) and modernisation being more of a key issue in the dispute between the two sides.

  3. To Mechafetish: Watch this show–you will NOT be disappointed. It was an intelligent, gritty, amazing anime, and it was certainly one of the best I had seen in a while.

    The article is spot on about the “real world” feel of the show. Granted, it has the same type of “caught on film” concept as say, THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT and CLOVERFIELD, I had never seen it brought into anime before.

    This series should have gotten more attention.

  4. I’ve never heard anyone mention this, ever, but now I feel compelled to check this out. It sounds as if it would push many of my buttons.

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