Reviewby Theron Martin, Nov 13th 2007
The central Asian country of Uddiyana has for years been wracked by civil war and strife, problems which U.N. military intervention has had difficulty curtailing. A fragile cease fire which could lead to a peace treaty between the government and insurgent groups becomes embodied in an internationally-renown photograph of a flag taken by Saeko Shirasu, an up-and-coming Japanese photojournalist, which leads the people of Uddiyana to take the flag as a symbol of hope. That complicates matters when the featured flag, which was to be displayed at the treaty signing, gets stolen by an insurgent group determined to scuttle the peace process. To recover the flag before word of its theft spreads, the U.N. establishes the secret military unit dubbed SDC, which is to use cutting-edge HAVWC technology (i.e. a bipedal mobile platform) to do the job, and because she took the famous photo, Saeko is called upon to document the effort. Meanwhile, her mentor photographer Keiichi Akagi, who is not involved with the SDC or even aware of what's going on, tries to investigate events in Subasci, Uddiyana's capital.
Even in this day and age of rampant multimedia overload, a well-framed photograph still packs power. The old adage “a picture is worth a thousand words” sometimes underestimates the ability of photos to capture the mood and spirit of a moment, or to evoke reactions in its viewers. In the right circumstances, a single photo can become a symbol, a rallying cry that inspires people and urges them to action. In the wrong circumstances, a single photo can be a dangerous weapon, one that stirs up trouble or complicates a delicate situation.
Such are the ideas which form the essence of Flag, a mature, politically charged series which strongly echoes real-world events in Iraq and Afghanistan while also taking one of the most dramatically different artistic and storytelling approaches of any anime series in recent memory. It resembles nothing else in current circulation in spinning the stories of two photographers forced by circumstances to approach the same issue – the prospects for peace in Uddiyana – from entirely different angles. While Saeko watches and experiences the actions of the Special Forces mission, Keiichi explores matters of religion, military action, and official news briefings in Subasci. Left unspoken but inherent in their actions and observations are the practical realities of military life, news manipulation, and cultural impact on the situation.
The content sets the series apart far less than its approach, however. Most of this volume alternates between a secret forward military base and the streets of Subasci, but wherever its focus lies, that focus is always seen through the lens of a camera, usually one wielded by either Saeko or Keiichi. Thus the story gets told through a series of narrated photos, first-person-perspective video snippets, automated mission recordings, and examinations of computer files, with clicks of camera shutters, selections on a computer screen, and fades to static used to transition between scenes; the shift to the closer is even marked by a computer powering down. While this may sound like a choppy method for telling a story, it actually works incredibly well. Events flow along smoothly as the camera concentrates only on selected moments and relies on context and narration to link them together. Even mundane scenes like jogging and walking through a cafeteria get included, so viewers never feel like they are missing anything. Scenes like the perspective flipping around suddenly when the camera's user gets knocked down contribute to the occasional feeling of watching a documentary, albeit an animated one that includes mild mecha elements.
Because of its documentary-style approach, characters who would normally be the central figures instead function mostly as observers. Saeko and Keiichi only rarely appear in a shot or directly participate in events, so attention always remains on who and what they photograph rather than on them. In Saeko's case that includes a reasonable cross-section of military-minded personalities devoid of the extremist personas typical of normal mecha-using series. Sometimes they talk directly to the camera, while other times the camera merely eavesdrops. Keiichi deals with fewer different people but does all the narration, usually speaking from his own perspective but sometimes commenting on what Saeko thinks and feels.
Flag marks the Animation Production debut for Ansa Studio, which has previously only done some in-between work but fully collaborates with the much better-known Aniplex on this project. Drawn snapshots, sometimes patterned off of real photos, mix with actual live-action photographs, animation still shots, generally brief fully-animated clips, and computer screen displays to create a unique visual look. All of the camera shots have a slightly grainy texture to them not evident in the closing visuals, perhaps as a deliberate effort to heighten the impression of looking through a camera, and those pictures taken in adverse lighting conditions reflect that in the toning and coloration. Military equipment purely gets CG treatment, while character designs, which occasionally exaggerate features but usually favor a more realistic look, are drawn in the traditional manner. Diverse background artistry provides lots of detailed and pretty or earthy settings, and what animation there is pays particular attention to detailed renditions of characters talking, but the true visual highlight is unquestionably the flag photo at the center of the series, which shows the silhouette of praying figures through a blue flag being flown by celebrating soldiers and Uddayids. Given the emphasis placed on the impact this photo makes in the story, the series' greatest triumph may be convincing the viewer that the flag photo does, in fact, warrant the attention it gets.
The musical score takes a minimalist approach, allowing most scenes to pass without any musical backing. When present, it uses understated themes with vaguely Asian tones reminiscent of musical selections from some of the slower moments in Ghost in the Shell, and invariably uses them effectively. The uncredited (in English) opener starts slow before swelling into a powerhouse number juiced up with wordless vocals, while the closer “Lights” starts slow and melodic before infusing in a disco-influenced dance beat. Special kudos also go to the incredibly realistic use of sound effects, especially in military vehicle operations and ammunition fire. Few audio tricks convey a sense of danger more effectively than the convincing sound of bullets zipping by.
Bang Zoom! Entertainment provides the English dub for this one, with Taylor Henry called upon for the dialog-intensive role of Keiichi and Dorothy Fahn inexplicably using her more raspy voice for the occasional line Saeko actually gets to voice. Other supporting characters don't always sound like you might expect in English given their designs, but nothing is wrong with their performances. Since so much of the dialog comes in the form of narration, the script usually stays very tight to the subtitles, although occasional significant discrepancies (sometimes in the dub's favor, such as one case where the subtitles incorrectly use “full moon” instead of “new moon”) do crop up. The translation does play some games with U.N. vs. U.N.F. designations, but does not remain consistent at it.
The only Extra available on the regular version is a clean opener, though it does retain the original Japanese opening and closing credits. An art box is also available.
Flag is a mature, thought-provoking series aimed squarely at adults. Those looking for light, spectacularly colorful, or action-packed, entertainment should definitely look elsewhere, although you might find yourself sucked in if you give this one a try. If you are jaded by all the cookie-cutter series out there, and want something utterly different, this one is certainly worth a look.
Overall (dub) : A-
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A
Animation : A-
Art : B+
Music : A-
+ Unique visual and storytelling approach, impressive sound effects.
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