Flag illustrates how imperfect but ambitious anime tend to be infinitely more interesting to write about than unambitious series that “succeed.” This series, in spite of arguably irredeemable flaws, is challenging and memorable. Even though the show is dull in some spots and downright tedious in others, the undeniable power of other scenes redeems it as a whole.
Anime tends to focus on the imaginative and fantastic rather than a realistic "you are there" sense of immersion. Despite this, Flag tries for the latter, and deserves praise for even attempting to do so.
In some cases, the anime succeeds impressively at immersion. Flag takes place in the fictional failed state of Uddiyana, and the series creates a wonderfully detailed and complete culture to go with the country. Indeed, Uddiyana is perhaps the most compelling "character" of the entire series. Moments of quiet, rural life are set against the backdrop of a brutal civil war, and the result is not only interesting in an intellectual sense, but emotionally compelling as well.
There are also several excellent scenes that involve the narrator, a camera-man named Akagi, reflecting on the nature of journalism. These somber monologues outline not only the highs and lows of journalism, but also the invisible force that can drive a journalist to risk their life to find the next big story.
These two parts of Flag reflect two corresponding themes that drive the show. Aside from the obvious message that peace is worth fighting for, Flag is about the importance of journalism in an age where modern society is becoming increasingly insulated from reality. Especially near the end, these themes are presented powerfully.
Unfortunately, Flag is not with out its faults. The anime wants to be both a mecha action show and a hyper-realistic account of civil war in a poverty stricken nation. This awkward marriage, in my mind, is perhaps the series' greatest weakness. After going to such great lengths to immerse the audience with a realistic setting and an innovative visual presentation, the series basically throws suspension of disbelief out the window by including mechas, which are absurd in a real-world setting. Not only this, but the show seems absolutely convinced that the mechas are a prime selling point of the series; a majority of Flag’s running time shows its characters maintaining, explaining and of course piloting the show’s mechas.
There are those that are going to argue that the presentation of the mecha is just as realistic as the rest of the show, and that's true to an extent. However, I'd argue that this does little to actually help the problem; no matter how "realistic," large, bipedal mecha will always be unfeasible from an engineering standpoint. The concept becomes even more ridiculous when placed in a supposedly thought-provoking series because mecha do not stand up well to rational thought; why, for instance, do the mecha have 5-digit hands when they're just going to be shooting everything with a giant gun anyway? Additionally, because of the “realistic” presentation, the mecha combat tends to be slow, tedious and (dare I say it?) mechanical.
For that matter, the fight scenes aren’t the only parts that are robotic. Some parts of Flag just don’t have a lot of life to them, and seem to be there more to fill the viewer in on various plot details than to actually entertain. While these scenes are perhaps a necessary evil, I question the validity of a narrative that needs so much dry exposition just to be told.
At the end of the day, the story’s hyperrealism works well in some cases, but is monotonous in others. The result is a definite mixed bag of amazing highs and disappointing lows.
Probably the most noticeable aspect of the entire work is the extremely unique visual presentation. Everything except for the ED is either a recorded video or a photograph, and the idea is that the entire series is a documentary playing on a character’s computer. Every scene has digital noise added to look like low-quality video, and a camera HUD is usually placed on top of the animation. At first, the approach is jarring and even obtrusive, but around episode three I began to appreciate it. In many ways, this is an anime interpretation of the Blair Witch Project, not in genre, but in the shaky, granulated camera footage that takes the "show, don't tell" rule of thumb to its logical extreme.
The approach isn't perfect. For some scenes, the requirement to have everything recorded by a camera impedes the ability for the creators to tell its story. The gimmick also results in minor absurdities, such as when the narrator and the protagonist meet and constantly film each other throughout every single one of their conversations.
Still, for the most part, the creators are able to construct a coherent plot around the visual restrictions, and the result works wonders at weaving a sense of realism and urgency into the entire affair.
The melancholy, reflective monologues given by the narrator are nuanced and powerful, and a lot of credit should be given to the character’s seiyuu. However, while every voice actor is at least serviceable, none of the others are particularly impressive or memorable. Part of the problem is probably due to the fact that the narrator is the only character that talks through a direct feed; every other character is heard indirectly through the mic of a camera.
Though limited, the use of music is effective at enhancing the more emotional parts of the story. I enjoyed both the OP and the ED, and in particular thought the OP did a nice job of setting the tone of the story.
Another major weakness of the series is the characterization. Perhaps the only character with a true dynamic arc is the narrator, and he is not a large enough part of the series to carry the show alone. For the most part, the characters (including the actual protagonist) have little, if any, depth to them. The problem is compounded somewhat by the fact that we only hear what they say through a low-quality mic, which serves to distance them from the audience even further. The result is that while oftentimes I could intellectually appreciate a scene for how innovative and well-crafted it was, I would have little emotional investment in what was happening.
So, is this show something I would recommend? I think enjoyment will largely depend on the person, and how much he or she values innovation over sheer quality of execution. While Flag is ambitious and impressive in several spots, the series' weaknesses make it uneven at best. As a result, Flag may be a tough sell, especially to those that do not enjoy "realistic" mecha. Nonetheless, it's hard to discount how different Flag is from any anime that's come before it. This originality, coupled with the strength of certain scenes, made the show worthwhile as a whole.
You may enjoy Flag because: It's different. There is always something interesting about watching an anime that makes an effort to step outside the box, even in cases where it's not 100% successful at what it's trying to do, and Flag is definitely worth checking out on that basis. Firstly, it's a title grounded in a real-world feel, which is uncommon enough in anime to be worthy of note for that alone. Everything from the character designs to the color palette to the presentation of the military heirarchy is very naturalistic and modern-day. Even the obligatory mechs are presented more like advanced tanks than the gravity-defying super-weapons that are the norm.
Beyond that, there is the show's most notable feature: the way in which the entire story is delivered as seen through a camera lens, supplemented with still snapshots and computer graphics, as though being put together as a documentary after-the-fact. This could easily have been an irritating gimmick, but I found it to be one of the series' biggest strengths. It is fascinating how they manage to give a sense of getting to know the woman "holding" the camera through the moments she captures - the way the camera always lingers on a particular person, the moments she chooses to focus on, etc. It's really quite impressive how immersive it all becomes. There are some shots where something about the colors of a sunset, or the sharpness of a helicopter lifting off against a cloudless blue sky had me blinking a bit at how it had managed to convince my brain that it was seeing a live-action moment, not something animated. Very impressive.
You may dislike Flag because: It's... kinda boring, unfortunately. This is especially true in segments where the story shifts from following the camerawoman described above to a second journalist following rising tensions in a metropolitan area. The entire purpose of his plotline seems to be to give the viewer a primer on the religious and political backdrop of this fictional Middle Eastern country... and there were long stretches of time where his droning on and on made me feel like I was watching a fifth-grade filmstrip presentation, rather than anything meant to entertain. The information was necessary to give weight to the rest of the story, but the info-dump-y nature of the delivery did nothing to make the viewer really *care* about the fate of this nation.
Bottom Line: If you're a viewer who likes anime that tries something a little different, or takes on weightier issues, Flag is worth a look... but be prepared for it to be a bit of a slog at times.
Flag is basically an attempt to create a realistic war documentary and as far as presentation goes, it is a very special and unique show. At the same time it is not something that has replay value or even something that stands as an equal next to real war documentaries or even various biopic movies.
The production values are definitely high caliber, both in detail and aesthetics. Most of the plot is presented through the photograph lance of a news reporter, while she interviews people revolved in a war, or commenting herself on the social-political status of the area. The level of realism is thus pretty high, as the characters are drawn and made to sound realistic, while the shaky camera and the night vision filter really make you think all that happened for real.
The story is basically watching the reporters living and filming the war that takes place on a third world country that resembles India. There are no protagonists that affect the story in any way. Even the woman photographer, who took the photo of the flag in the beginning and turned it into the icon of the rebellion that takes place in the country, is still nothing but a passive observer and at best a critic. So you are basically watching a story about people who try to do the best they can in the war, without someone being more important than the others because he has some broken power. Superior weaponry does play a vital part and we are given analytical descriptions of how everything works, but again you are not let to think this way the few soldiers using these weapons do a better job that everybody else.
That is in effect what makes this anime work and fail at the same time. On one hand it is indeed very unique in its presentation with the camera and the passive characters. On the other hand, it is not something the average viewer would want to watch in an animated show. It is too realistic for its own good and on top of that it has no prevailing characters for you to sympathize and care for. As for the actual idea of the war, haven’t there already been over a thousand war documentaries? Real ones, about real wars, real people, and real tragedies? Why would someone enjoy a fictional war in an anime when there is also the real thing? Going further, there are several movies such as The City of God, or Enemy At The Gates, which are full of social commentary around wars or dystopias and yet they have characters for you to care about. Active ones, which talk, feel, act and die. Flag has no such thing; everybody is very distant from you. Furthermore, a story told through the camera has already been done before with a far greater effect. Famous works include The Blairwitch Project or Rec (not the anime; the Spanish zombie horror film).
Of course none of that are anime and thus Flag is one of a kind in the medium. That still doesn’t escape the fact that it lasts far more than it should. A lot of the duration is spent on monologues around how weapons and mechas work (yes, there are mechas too) as well as chatting with soldiers and politicians about various subjects. None of that help you to like them more but they do provide more context to the setting. Other than that, half the duration of this show felt like it wasn’t even important to tell the story. Ok, it was supposed to show how in wars things go slow but that does not make it entertaining. Remember that it is a fictional war and it is supposed to be good to watch. Heck, most real war documentaries I have watched were more interesting to this.
The anime ends in a rather sad way that wants to tell us that the observers are not immune to the war. Well ok, it felt like last moment drama to me. It also felt like the whole show was some sort of anti-war propaganda work. Again, I wasn’t interested in its messages because I wasn’t interested in its characters. The coolest thing in this series is the flag photograph and the robotic tank; none of which have to do with people.
Flag is indeed a special anime, unlike any other. It is also distant from you, with nothing to feel bad about other than some impersonal war around people you don’t know or care about. In effect, it wasn’t even needed to be made since the real thing is far more interesting than it. I could say something similar about every single work director Takahashi Ryosuke iever made, except perhaps Votoms, which is cult. His style is simply too moody and dull and alienates you fast.
It is good to watch just in order to see something out of the ordinary but other than that, I recommend the far less realistic but far more personal and enjoyable Speed Grapher.