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AICN Anime - First Squad: Moment of Truth, Live Action Kenshin, Berserk Golden Age Arc II: The Battle for Doldrey and More!



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Column by Scott Green



"Macross: Do You Remember Love?" Director Noboru Ishiguro Passes Away at Age 73

Japan's Asahi Shimbum newspaper has posted an obituary for anime industry veteran Noboru Ishiguro, who passed away at age 73. In 1963, while still a student, Ishiguro started in the business working on the original mecha series, Tetsujin 28. In the 70s he graduated into directing the Space Battleship Yamato series and went on to helm landmarks of the 80s, including the anime movie retelling of Macross, Do You Remember Love?, in addition to Megazone 23 and the 1980 remake of Astro Boy. American watchers of Nickelodeon at the time might remember his children's show Noozles, created in response to Japan's mid-80s koala craze.

In the late 80s and into the 90s, he oversaw the sprawling 110-episode sci-fi war OVA Legend of the Galactic Heroes, and remained active in the field with works such as 2008's Tytania.

Anime Spotlight: First Squad: Moment of Truth
Released by MAnga Entertainment

Strip first Squad of its particulars and its teen warriors fighting undead Nazis, which sounds like anime on autopilot: something that a non-anime devotee assumes is entirely routine; in 2012, not really what's getting produced every season, but still what anime watchers would consider in the realm of "oh, ok... that again."

Its impressive trailer promises a throwback horror action anime OVA spectacle, moved from Ninja Scroll chambara and Wicked City urban supernatural to someplace far different. Set on World War II's Eastern Front, with the Soviet Army desperately fighting off the German invasion, each side latches onto something supernatural in hopes of ceasing the crucial, mystical Moment of Truth - the remnants of a group of teenage ESPers trained as the crack First Squad are call into the central office, then sent out to stop an ancestor worship cult within the SS from resurrecting a villainous 12th century Teutonic Knight. Maybe not so much in the modern moe days, but back when Ninja Scroll or Cowboy Bebop were hallmark titles, pitched, distinctive experiences were what drew international audiences to anime. Backed by an animation studio with a track record of both unique and internationally minded productions, notes of propaganda complementing the bloody total war playing out on falling snow seemed like it would do what anime did when it asserted itself as a special medium, worth taking note of.

They don't need to be set to rock bottom levels, but set your expectations somewhere between the extremes and you can find something better than merely watchable in this anime.

First Squad is the other 20th Anniversary Manga Entertainment release, justifiably obscured by the wildly ambitious Redline. Where as Redline was a last hurrah for hand drawn animation that lived up to its go for broke throttle, both onscreen and as far as its production history went, First Squad has a great trailer that promises plenty, a few moments that live up to that, and a lot of cause for disappointment. As far from terrible as it is from excellent, if you were a fan of anime from the Ninja Scroll days who'd like a feature that pushes the game buttons, it's worth watching. That said, the opportunities that this anime miss to be, if not excellent, than at least significantly better are amazing. It proves to be another call to wonder what happened with the once exciting Studio 4°C.

Look at the creative talent behind First Squad and you see a recipe for energetic but haphazard anime, with problems beyond those of a simply spectacle driven anime production, in which coherent scripting is an afterthought. Those Kawajiri classics like Ninja Scroll had plots, but never really seemed to mind doing little more than stringing together the set pieces. That's not the whole story here. Nor are First Squad's issue those of adaptation. This is its own type of original mess. It goes into territory that doesn't demand much precision and still misses the mark.

First Squad is a collaboration between Studio 4°C and Molot Entertainment, a Russian studio founded for the project. Yoshiharu Ashino, an animator with impressive work in Princess Mononoke, the X movie and Mind Game directs the feature (also director of four episodes of the new, 4°C animated Thundercats) based on a story/planning by Misha Shprits and Aljosha Klimov - a painter/graphic artist and user experience designer who knew each other from art school and who were animation enthusiasts without prior experience.

The results of the Japanese/Russian teaming moves great and looks great. Even after the problems have set in, the settings from the snow covered battled field trenches to an art deco subway station are new, interesting contexts to place anime action in. However, plenty of veteran anime directors outside the Hayao Miyazaki/Isao Takahata/Satoshi Kon/Mamoru Hosoda pantheon have shown a mixed to weak track record overseeing well structured, narratively effective movies. Yoshiharu Ashino and Molot Entertainment step up/step into the lead roles of anime movie making without displaying solid natural aptitude. Maybe with more experience, they'd refine their talent, but, unfortunately, the anime business doesn't afford the opportunity for much of that these days.

While not wildly ambitious, First Squad doesn't take the easy route either, in that it's not simply a blitz of action. It tries a show, not tell approach to covering the protagonist back story and the effect that experiences of loss and war have had on her. At the same time, it's prone to being very chatty about its mythology, with authoritive generals and holy men talking up the "Moment of Truth" and significance of the on screen action.
Whether it's considering the heroine or being impressed by its overlay of the supernatural onto World War II history, the net of this is First Squad invites you to think. And, that's where First Squad goes wrong. Scrutiny does this production few favors.

After a eye catching propaganda motif title credit sequence, the movie introduces its context via grainy filtered animation suggesting newsreels as it shows occupations, Nazi bombing and Soviet mobilization. This half resolves into a scene clouded by the fog of war, with survivors in scorched Russian trenches coming face to face will the movie's central nightmare threat. The scene cuts again to reveal that the battlefield was a vision coming to a girl huddled in the back of a shaking truck. More well off travelers eye her suspiciously.
The movie zooms out for a look at the lonely, icy road that the truck is travel. It zooms in, and the vagabond girl is part of a group of refugee performers entertaining an army unit. After a heavy set woman sings for the troops, the girl puts on a blind fold and climbs the make shift stage to give the soldiers a psychic reading. After answering some trivial questions, such as names and home towns, and providing disconcertingly accurate answers, the girl is asked to predict the future. As a vision of the men's terrible fate comes to her, as a pair of strange blonde twin women prepare to make their move, the supernatural is shattered by more conventional warfare, with planes coming in to strafe and bomb the Soviet army.

This early bit is mystifying, and that benefits the feature. The production puts together evocative settings and does tableaus well. It shows the teens of the titular First Squad in the opening credits, but other than the protagonist, is very unclear about where they are. It projects a supernatural threat bearing down while hitting hard with the mortal danger of warfare all around.
However, as soon as it slows, starts implicitly or explicitly explaining itself, and begins to allow itself to be pinned down, it falls apart. It's not just that the plot is thin. As strong as many visual elements are, the actual story telling is flimsy, or at least structurally unsound. When it fails to blow you away or mystify you, what First Squad hopes is strange becomes stupid.

When it strikes fast or out of nowhere, the movie can get away with its silliness. The blonde agents going after a staff wielding Russian Orthodox monk with the equivalent of Gundam's jet stream attack is a forceful enough slap at good sense to work. A cartoon pig masked "Butcher" seems to step out of a completely different horror movie, and is so out of place, and so briefly addressed that the movie can get away with his cameo too.

When it makes a big production out the Russian heroine retrieving her katana and her Paul Stanley-esque teddy bear, the viewer is asked to buy in, in which case, really doesn't sell why the out of time and culture artifacts make sense, matter, or belong to a world that is so strange, that credibility is unimportant.

For example, in the chatter to talk up the supernatural events of the movie, presumably to put it on the same level of importance as the real horrors of World War II, one of the feature's authority figures says that its heroine is the first living person to return from the land of the dead. The trouble with that statement is that it is neither interestingly inexplicable nor is it as interesting as it might have been if were tied to some larger, intelligible framework. Compare her to a figure like Odysseus and the line doesn't have huge impact, but it would support what the scene is illustrating. Saying she's the first ever, provokes an incredulous "why?" It's the equivalent of hearing John Lennon saying that the Beatles are more popular than Jesus after just being introduced to the Beatles. The feature doesn't go too long before it starts crumbling under the negative responses.

Unfortunately, First Squad runs into just as much trouble when it does try to make a point. The thrust of the movie's threat is that it's the the world of the dead affecting the world of the living. That's supposed to get us to the point that we believe that a knight on horseback can break World War II armies. The feature needs and attempts to make sure that it's not literally a guy in plate mail charging tanks. Through a long, convoluted argument, the movie loops back and snares itself by engaging this in a fight that, stripped of that fact that it's happening on the Eastern Front, despite the fact that its theoretically on a supernatural plane, within a instant of time, is essentially teens fighting zombies. There are a few cuts to what looks like Predator thermal vision, but the movie essentially decides to play its climactic fights straight. The trouble is, when it needs to be creative, it's familiar. When it needs to nail the familiar, it's flawed.

The failure to be on top of anticipating the audience's reaction undercuts the movie's sensationalism as well. For example, after the feature gets into a conventional firefight rather than anything mystical or supernatural, a character with heavy machine gun makes their valiant last stand. It's obvious that the gun will jam or run out of ammunition when the character is surrounded. The movie catches a glimpse of this moment of truth and cuts to the next bit of action, not punctuating any element of the action is a way to emphasize that it matters.

While First Squad is subject to cumulative nitpicky issues, there are also problems that make a good case that this wasn't a better idea that slipped up on the way to the screen. An extended cut of the movie, available on the Blu-ray release, had live action talking head segments, in which old men, presented as historians, veterans and government officials discuss the titular First Squad and the Moment of Truth. These bits are superfluous. The men aren't offering more information than what the animated feature says, just that there's evidence of secret psychic Russian units and Nazi mystics. More than that, it's a completely mixed metaphor. While there are a few scenes in which the heroine sees her life playing out on a movie theater screen or a puppet show, the story from her perspective and the faux-documentary only relate to each other in terms of subject. Since the rest of the movie is not presented as an animated recreation, the air of veracity that the live action segments try to add to a clearly fantastic story is pointless.

Fortunately, there was a cut that was able to excise that purposeless 15 minutes. However, the movie can't dump off an ending that nails the impression of sloppy storytelling to an extent that ultimately betrays the audience. It's difficult to be sure of whether it's trying to be a horror movie that undercuts any sense of safety its climax suggests, by reminding you that it's dealing with an unstoppable evil, or of its setting up a sequel. In either case, the abrupt incompleteness isn't eerie, and a sequel seems like a very remote possibility given the troubles of the anime business. Even if was attempting to establish demand for a sequel, the problem seems not so much the function of a cynical production as it is a bad idea. Maybe the movie could get away with this if the audience was transfixed, but it seems to be either underestimating the audience or failing to factor in that they might actually be thinking about what they're watching.

For an anime fan, the problems with First Squad go beyond simple underachievement. They encapsulates why Studio 4°C, one of the 2000's most promising production houses stopped being an exciting name in anime.

Formed in 1986 by Eiko Tanaka (producer on My Neighbor Totoro), Koji Morimoto (animator in Animatrix: Beyond, with a history going back to Ashita no Joe) and Yoshiharu Sato (animation director on My Neighbor Totoro, key animator on Kiki's Delivery Service) the Ghibli comparison was unavoidable.

Roland Kelt's Japanamerica quotes Tanaka as going into the 2000's saying "five years from now, we would like to have accomplished as much as Miyazaki and Ghibli have, and reach to the rest of the world as he does," and, in a decade which I maintain was one of the most interesting for anime movies, they produced some real landmarks with Princess Arete, Mind Game and Tekkon Kinkreet. These may not have gotten the notice of Ghibli's Spirited Away, but each was unique and spoke to a different audience with different artistic approach, which makes each a significant gem worth seeking out. In other words, in the 2000's, they made some of the most interesting anime movies in what I contend was one of the best decades for interesting, adult anime movies. They also contributed to Katsuhoro Otomo's ambitious, if not entirely well received Steamboy. They made the remarkably unconventional magic girl TV series Tweeny Witches, and host of brilliantly fun and unusual shorts, including the creatively unrestrained Genius Party series.

In 2012, this is looking like a creative high point that crested and fell about the same time as the North American/global anime boom and "Cool Japan."

I recently Twittered "what have you done for me lately Studio 4°C?" One suggestion was their work on Ani*Kuri15, a series of fifteen 1-minute shorts that aired on the Japanese TV station, NHK between May 2007 and 2008, featuring works from folks like Satoshi Kon, Mamoru Oshii and Makoto Shinkai. The same year, they produced an effective, often hilarious adaptation of over the line comedy manga Detroit Metal City.

In more recent years, they've contributed animated segment in games such as Catherine, the excellent introduction to .hack//Link and disappointingly dull work on Street Fighter IV. And, they've worked on North American IPs such as Batman: Gotham Knight, with the great "Have I Got A Story For You" and merely alright "Working Through Pain," and Halo Legends, with the less than impressive "Babysitter" and "Origin." The occasionally wonky, but generally well made new Thundercats is theirs too. Unfortunately, while their work on Kid Icarus: Uprising anthology is reporting fairly strong, these contributions to haven't generally been profile-raising masterpieces.

Besides First Squad, there were no Studio 4°C movies between 2006's Tekkon Kinkreet and their new adaptation of Berserk, which was greeted with as much concern about its CG as it was excitment. Beyond Transformers Anime and Thundercats, there have been no Studio 4°C TV series since 2004's Tweeny Witches and Kimagure Robot. Beyond Halo: Legends and The JESUS Film Project's My Last Day, there have been no short films since 2008's Genius Party Beyond.

Anime is a brutal business, but regardless of if the cause is the industry and not entirely just the studio forgoing its early ambitions, "Studio 4°C" does not have the cache that it did when Mind Game and Tekkon Kinkreet were making them look like a potential Ghibli for adults. Maybe its not fair to compare them to the larger, older Madhouse, but you can point the Madhouse as a studio that is still actively struggling to balance the commercial with the artistically ambitious -releasing Trigun: Badland Rumble, Black Lagoon, Hunter x hunter and Highschool of the Dead, but also Redline, Summer Wars and Mai Mai Miracle. Perhaps tellingly, Mind Game director Masaaki Yuasa's post Genius Party, 2008 Kaiba and 2010 Tatami Galaxy were at Madhouse.

Underscoring this, studio co-founder Koji Morimoto is still working with 4C on projects like a recent Toyota promotion, but has left Studio 4°C in favor of "embracing new challenges" as Executive Art Director for new creative group Phy.

First Squad: Moment of Truth is certainly watchable, and has its moments, but that's doesn't seem like a convincing victory for what was one of anime's most exciting studios, working on an intriguing, cross cultural production. Like I said in the Redline review, anime loves a good apocalypse, and an merely ok/flawed First Squad looks a bit like another sign of one for the struggle anime business.

Upcoming in North America

via a domain restristation, it turns out that Sentai Filmsworks has licensed Makoto Shinkai's latest film, Children Who Chase Lost Voices from Deep Below

Shout! Factory and Saban Brands announced a multi-year, multi-property alliance to bring Saban's live-action pop culture series, including more than 700 episodes of Power Rangers, to DVD in North America. The deal will also see the 92 episodes of VR Troopers and 88 episodes of Beetleborgs brought to DVD for the first time.

Power Rangers used footage from the Japanese tokusatsu Super Sentai franchise, while VR Troopers used material from Metal Hero Series Superhuman Machine Metalder, Dimensional Warrior Spielban, and Space Sheriff Shaider. Beetleborgs used material from Metal Hero tokusatsu series Juukou B-Fighter (first season) and B-Fighter Kabuto (second season).

1997's Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation is also included in the deal... that's the one with the female turtle, Venus De Milo.

Te agreement didn't go up to the latest, 18th entry in the series, Power Rangers Samurai, a localized version of Samurai Sentai Shinkenger.

The deal includes DVD, Blu-ray and digital rights to Power Rangers Samurai, Power Rangers Super Samurai, as well as Christmas, Halloween, and movie specials.

Power Rangers Samurai Vol. 1: The Team Unites and Power Rangers Samurai Vol. 2: A New Enemy have been scheduled for DVD and digital download June 19th.

Power Rangers Super Samurai is currently running on Nickelodeon.

Cinema Asia Releasing (CAR) has acquired the North American rights to the live-action adaptation of Smuggler, a one-volume manga that had been localized by Tokyopop. The 2011 movie brought together Katsuhito Ishii, maker of the remarkably warped comedy Funky Forest, with an equally strange story by Shohei Manabe.

From the description of its Toronto Film Festival world premiere:

After his dreams of becoming an actor go nowhere, 25-year-old Kinuta does nothing but gamble every day. Broke, framed and now neck-deep in debt, he is recruited as a smuggler – an underground mover of everything from dead bodies to illegal goods – but one cargo triggers the rage of a psychotic gangster hellbent on revenge. By acclaimed cult director Katsuhito Ishii of Shark Skin Man and Peach Hip Girl and Funky Forest fame.

Starship Troopers: Invasion, Shinji Aramaki's (the CG Appleseed) sequel

Distributor Discotek has announced a slew of licenses including mecha fan favorite Shin Getter Robo VS Neo Getter Robo, Casshan: Robot Hunter and the much requested Samurai Pizza Cats

An early look at FUNimation and Production I.G's Mass Effect: Paragon Lost out of SxSW

From The Floor: SXSW 12 - Mass Effect Teaser... by DM-Exclusives

Upcoming in Japan

The latest look at live action Rurouni Kenshin, opening in Japan on August 25.

After almost a quarter century, Toei is bringing Saint Seiya back to TV with an original cast of warriors on April 1st with Saint Seiya Omega. PreCure episode director Morio Hatano steps up to helm the series, written by Reiko Yoshida (Digimon, K-on!).

If you like your anime tacky, risque fantasy series Queen's Blade is back in April with Rebellions.
Meet a few of its characters

Macross co-creator Shoji Kawamori has signed on to direct a series sci-fi series based on pop group AKB48

Anime producer Studio 4°C (Halo: Legends, TekkonKinkreet) has teamed up with car maker Toyoto on a series of animated shorts called PES: Peace Eco Smile. A

Gainax, the folks that brought us Evangelion, are adaptating NisiOisin and Akira Akatsuki's Shonen Jump action comedy Medaka Box

The latest promo for the anime adaptation of Keitarou Takahashi's arms merchant manga Jormungand might be short, but what it lacks in length it more than makes up for in action. Besides the gun blazing violence, it offers a sample of a theme song that evokes the feeling of its Sunday GX anthology sibling, Black Lagoon.

It turns out the anime adaptation isn't just coming on April 10th. The series' official website has revealed that the action anime has been split into two blocks, with a second half planned for October 2012.

The template for Gundam series is that they often go from the orbiting colonies down to Earth, then return to space for their climaxes. If the new trailer is any indication, Gundam UC's fifth episode isn't quite ready for decisive zero G engagement, but it has at least escalated to the upper atmosphere.

The trailer also showcases Boom Boom Satellites' (Xam'd) theme "Broken Mirrors."


Berserk Golden Age Arc II: The Battle for Doldrey hits Japanese theaters June 23rd.

Zombie romcom Sankarea, coming in April

Tezuka Productions' upcoming adaptation of Kenji Miyazawa's The Life of Guskou Budori, set to hit Japanese theaters in July

The latest Japanese issue of Shonen Jump featured the announcement that Naruto creator Masashi Kishimoto will be providing the story and character designs for this summer's Naruto movie, Road to Ninja. The feature, which celebrates 10 years of Naruto anime, is scheduled to hit Japanese theaters on July 28th.

Influential manga author Go Nagai—credited with work on the first internally-piloted giant robot, combining giant robot, and transforming magical girl—will be returning to his horror superhero Devilman with Devilman Grimoire, or Devilman G for short.

Starting April 19th, Devilman G will be running in Champion Red, an anthology that has run prior Nagai-based manga Shin Mazinger and Devilman versus Getter Robo, and Mao Dante versus Getter Robo G. Go Nagai will be writing the series, with Rui Takatô (Cynthia the Mission, Soul Calibur Dojo, Tetsuman - Tekken Comic ) illustrating.

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Readers Talkback
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  • March 25, 2012, 10:13 p.m. CST

    Also, don't forget that Fate/Zero Season 2 is out next month!

    by CodeName

    Thanks, Scott. Your work is appreciated.

  • March 25, 2012, 10:14 p.m. CST

    God, is everything outta japan crap?

    by Warcraft

    The berserk movie looks awesome, but that storyline was already covered in the series. Also, what happens to Griffith is really tragic so I'm not about to watch that happen to him again just with better animation. But yeah, everything else listed looks like pretty but shallow crap with nonsensical stories, as per usual with japan.

  • March 25, 2012, 11:23 p.m. CST

    Berserk looks awesome!

    by HaterofCrap

    Why can't regular american movies have balls like that?

  • March 25, 2012, 11:35 p.m. CST

    Berserk is going past the series and through the entire manga

    by glenn_the_frog

    Yes, the first three movies are basically just recapping what the first tv series did... but that was 15 years ago! Gotta introduce it to a new audience, can't just *assume* everyone's seen the old stuff anymore. They intend to follow the rest of the manga and do that material too... and the manga is currently 4 times longer than just that segment of the series. That's a dozen movies, or a couple tv seasons or OVAs worth of material there.

  • March 26, 2012, 12:54 a.m. CST

    Ruroni Kenshin looks interesting...

    by Joe Damiani

    I hope it's good

  • I can't watch any of this stuff especially when there's an English only option and worse, the voiceovers from these series sound like it's coming from community college students. What a waste of my Netflix instant queue.

  • March 26, 2012, 5:32 a.m. CST

    Beserk: The Younger Years

    by Stalkeye

    Let's see for once a OVA/Movie about the Black Caped, Giant sword welding Guts for a change Okay? Post black sun massacre of course.

  • March 26, 2012, 1:59 p.m. CST

    "Merely alright Working Through Pain"?

    by bat725

    It was the best segment of Gotham Knight, in my opinion. Anyway, looking forward to First Squad, for sure.

  • March 26, 2012, 5:07 p.m. CST


    by CodeName

    Let's hope they show more beyond what we've already seen in the old animes. I'd also like to see the more experienced, black caped Guts in his prime.

  • It would be crazy to do more than 9 films, basically once it went beyond 9, all it's narrative & artistic resonances will become less & less meaningful no matter how well done. First trilogy is first Golden Age Arc Second trilogy is some kind of demonic world i suppose with the Gutz the cursed demon slayer berserking Griffiths's undead & tracking Griffith. Third trilogy should be some kind of magical & cosmic new Golden Age to give meaning to the second trilogy that plumed the depths i'd guess. So you get basically three different worlds in the trilogies, that could be a lot of fun & be worth investing in, each world (trilogy) enriched by the other two. Anime is diff to manga, & they should basically edit the manga as is into a self contained wrap that can be done into three anime trilogies of Gutz & Griffith's overlapping hero - hero/villian - hero journeys.