Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, May 9th 2008
Ru Pou's cult blindsides the SDC team while they're busy fine-tuning Lt. Ichiyanagi's replacement HWVC by landing its own bipedal weapon in the UN base's perimeter. After identifying the intruding vehicle as a secret Chinese-made robot, the team repels the attack. Saeko, in need of some R&R after witnessing her second battle in nearly as many days, takes a day off to accompany a native doctor as he attends to the local nomads. Refreshed and more resolute than ever, she returns to the base just as an official inquiry into the Metazone temple raid is making a scapegoat of Lt. Nikkanen in order to deflect blame for the failed operation away from the higher-ups. Before she or anyone else can really act on their anger however, the Flag is spotted behind Ru Pou in a television broadcast from his fortress. Forbidden by their superiors to reply to Ru Pou's obvious declaration of war, the SDC team risks court-martial by executing a reconnaissance mission of their own accord. But it may be too little, too late. Flag or no flag, the country around them is moving, preparing once again to burn.
Like much of Ryousuke Takahashi's work, Flag is a slow-burner. He's a director that often eschews the immediate hook in favor of the deliberate, incremental construction of what ultimately becomes an exhilarating climax. This isn't the climax—that's held in reserve for the next volume—but as Takahashi draws Saeko and Ak>agi's disparate stories ever closer together and sets into motion the machinations of Ru Pou's truly frightening sect, it's here that anticipation for that climax reaches its giddy peak.
The realism—bipedal robots notwithstanding—of the series serves it in good stead here. The clinical objectivity with which the battles are shot actually makes them more harrowing than a more visceral approach would have. The premise remains relevant and intelligent, addressing issues of cultural and religious strife with uncomfortable honesty. The sight of eerily masked cultists taking to the streets is made all the more powerful by its similarity to unrest seen the world over, and the oppressive weight of a violent history is tangible in nearly every shot of the unnaturally still capital. And when the native doctor, using medicine as a metaphor for the greater differences between his and Saeko's worlds, says that physical death is preferable to the slow death of the soul, it's all too easy to understand exactly what he means. However, the true advantage of Flag's ripped-from-the-headlines realism is something far less subtle, and in truth, far less profound: when a series uses real events rather than familiar narrative tropes as the basis for a story, it's impossible to tell where it's going—to tell who will live, who will die, and whether success or crushing failure awaits their efforts.
And contrary to all expectations given how coldly distant the series can be and how little time its leads spend on screen, those questions have become quite pressing. Saeko carries her episode with surprising ease, showcasing an endearingly childlike wonder and vulnerability. The moment—after an old woman asks her where she's from—in which she, in a single word, allows her aching loneliness to show is worth any dozen lesser such moments from other series. As for the SDC members, they each get their own brief moment to shine. While some of their direct-address discussions of ideals are doubtless a tad corny, anyone who can listen to Hakan's description of the agony of watching helplessly as citizens are led off to be slaughtered without sympathizing with her need to stop it from happening again not only should bone up on modern history (UN peacekeepers in Rwanda faced exactly this situation) but also needs to examine their social conscience. The end result of it all—as the SDC team and Saeko decide, each for reasons of their own, that action is necessary regardless of the consequences—is uplifting in a way that would be shameless if it weren't so firmly rooted in the realities of the characters and the world at large.
Raising the stakes of the series by building the cast and their goals before forcing both into a dangerously deteriorating political situation places a serious burden on the cast. It's dub fans' good fortune that Bandai's English cast takes on the extra weight with only the slightest signs of strain. The performances as a whole are pitched at a low key, natural and easy on the emoting, the tenor easily matching the mood and intent of the series. The quality of the performances is a little rougher in English, but not to the extent that it greatly affects the series' subtle sentimentality or slowly building tension. And any real weaknesses are balanced by equal strengths elsewhere. When replying to the old woman, longtime veteran Dorothy Elias-Fahn's Saeko doesn't fill the word “Tokyo” with the weight of longing that anime newbie Rena Tanaka's Saeko does, reducing the scene's quietly devastating power, but as counterbalance Alison James' Hakan describes the tragedy she witnessed with a force of emotion that loses none of its chilling power in English.
A fairly pedestrian interview with Saeko's voice actress Rena Tanaka, whose beauty betrays her primary occupation as a live-action actress, is the volume's only extra.
As Takahashi's documentary style proves less a gimmick or a way to make money-saving stills integral to the story and more a tool for injecting realism and uncertainty into what otherwise might have become a mere mecha fantasy with political ambitions, Flag seals itself tight, becoming almost impregnable to criticism. The mecha themselves are still a conceit that the story could have done without, but other than that, the excellent score's tendency to get a smidge too forceful, and Takahashi's habit of letting his visual instincts undercut his documentary approach (no cameraman in the world is capable of capturing a missile fragmenting on the fly), this is an airtight series. Even the interlude where Saeko befriends the peaceful natives is handled with taste and tact, warding off the kind of unintentional racism that marred the similarly-intentioned scenes in Yugo the Negotiator. This is smart, surprisingly heartfelt military suspense with a conscience and enough sense to respect the issues it explores without letting their complexities overwhelm its ability to engage and entertain. In other words: wow.
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A
Story : A
Animation : A-
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Provides a peaceful interlude and some quiet character-building before the situation explodes and everything changes.
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