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.
In the civil war-torn country of Uddiyana, the photographer Saeko Shirasu took an image of a flag which captured the hearts of people around the world. With the help of a planned and UN-backed peace agreement, this symbol of peace was to usher in a new era for the people of Uddiyana - until it was stolen just before the historic day. Now, Saeko has been sent to cover the activities of SDAC - a group who has been charged with retrieving the flag and combating armed factions throughout the country. With the help of her camera, Saeko will document the struggles of the SDAC and its secret robotic weapon, the HAVWC.
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