Length: 13 x 24 minute episodes
Genre: War, Drama, Slice of life, Mecha
Year of release: 2006 – 2007
In the wake of Netflix showing that they really care about adapting Cowboy Bepop, I got wondering what other anime would actually work with American actors. While Ghost in the Shell’s movie wasn’t a success, it’s actually a property I’d have trusted to be made in Hollywood. Certain sci-fi anime just seem to gel more with the less deeply personal characterisation and more plot-heavy interests of American producers in comparison to anime productions.
But this anime, Flag, is probably my easiest pick for American producers to choose to adapt. It would not only be straightforward – the anime already brings the best of Asian and American moviemaking together. It reminds me of Body of Lies, Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty – you know, the good ones, but with more hopeful, inspiring character arcs.
And that makes Flag a real oddity in the anime realm. Then again, it’s coming from writer/director Ryousuke Takahashi – most well known for the… questionable VOTOMS.
Now, it’s fair to say that I thought VOTOMS was a bad anime. But, even those in agreement with peeled eyes would see it was only a bad anime on the surface. Underneath its juvenile plot beats ripped from B Tier Vietnam movies, behind its bland main character voiced by an actor who clearly couldn’t understand the weak lines they were given, there were actually some genius ideas poorly communicated. Its world-building appeared phenomenal in that the world existed in such a natural way, but it was never utilised or delved into beyond surface levels. Likewise, the mech designs were brilliantly thought out and were some of the most interesting mech designs at the time, and in fact, VOTOMS was a key stepping-stone in the realism of the real robot mech genre.
VOTOMS propelled the realism of the real robot mech genre, but Flag took it even further with extermely detailed designs. It put them into a real war setting, using their advanced technology and camera systems to pair with the anime’s unique filming style. To put it simply, Flag easily overcomes the absurdity of anthropomorphic tanks.
And Flag, coming some 20 years later, was, in every way, a development upon the writer I saw in VOTOMS – except, this time, he understood how to write intimate, charming characters, and wrote a more grown up story in the process. And, of course, naturally integrating mecha designs realistically into modern warfare tech.
But to go back to the top, Flag is an anime about a conflict in a fictional middle eastern country called Uddiyana, where the UN attempt to broker peace between the religious-political factions. Terrorists strike back at the peace talks, the flag symbolising new peace is stolen, and the anime begins with Shirasu, a key photographer, being chosen to follow the Special Development Command group at their secret base, a team armed with a prototype mech, who attempt to retrieve that very flag.
It’s a war anime, yes. Kind of. Shot entirely through Shirasu’s lens. Made up of her on-sight recordings as found by her Senpai, Keiichi, a video journalist also covering the war in Uddiyana’s tension-high city, Flag is much like the excellent Blair Witch Project (and its not-so-excellent copycats) – a ‘found footage’ film.
The ‘found footage’ style of filming creates these awkwardly filmed scenes where characters can literally take control of the camera and shake the focus amongst blurs. The head mechanic’s charismatic attitude was matched with his love of the lens. You’ll come to love him or hate him, but you can’t deny his effect on the way this anime was filmed.
Its genre choices already make it a rarity in the anime realm, but because of that filming style, it has to double-down on the minute details and find the not-very-film-friendly humanity that this genre exposes so well.
That is to take the long way to say that, while this is a ‘war anime’, it is not a ‘battle anime’ first and foremost. It is one that indulges in multiple episodes of setup before showing brutally efficient soldiers carrying out the culmination of all that setup in tense, tactical operations.
Which means… it’s more of a strategy, politics anime.
But it’s more of a slice of life than that.
See, Shirasu and Keiichi aren’t capturing war in their lenses. They aren’t filming battles and they aren’t filming politics. They want to use their journalistic craft to bring an end to the bloodshed, and Flag shows how they can do that – by capturing life, humanity and peace. A theme setup from episode one is that Shirasu’s photograph of the flag was a symbol of peace and the end of war, and that theme is masterfully extrapolated throughout the show, up until its finale.
One of my favourite arcs throughout the series was when Keiichi attempts to meet the religious leaders, Ru Pou and the current Kufura (a child believed to be a constantly reincarnated Goddess). Struggling to meet the Kufura, he spends a day with the former Kufura, who, as is tradition, surrendered her status as the Kufura when she became a teenager, and it was at this juncture that the series’ beautiful portrayals of ordinary life spoke volumes. The culture of the city was respectfully demonstrated, and despite the threat of civil war, Uddiyana was a beautiful locale that grabs the heart. There was something nostalgic for Keiichi, spending time with this young woman, as he learned something about the kind of peaceful Uddiyana that the normal folk want.
The episode with the previous Kufura was really special. Keiichi may be a fictional photographer, but his lens’ choice cinematography really described his growing feelings for the local woman – he filmed her with love.
Shirasu, while not exposing the series’ world-building, cultures and areas, instead focuses on the lives of the UN forces. Seeing the family feel of the unit, particularly of the service staff (I adored the head chef and his words of wisdom!), made the series feel whole, and the moral dilemma of the war far more complex. But, again, my favourite episode was when she went down to cover a nearby mountain settlement who lived in traditional, naturalistic conditions, and she took a few days to enjoy their way of life. The peaceful reprise came before the show’s final descent into chaos.
Ru Pou is one of my favourite anime villains of all time. Don’t take that sentence with too much credit – after all, I seldom watch action and superhero stuff, so rarely ever see many and see fewer still within those genres worth any merit. Where Ru Pou succeeds as a villain is the shadowy spectre he casts over the show. Every move that Keiichi makes to get closer to the mystery of the underlying international politics dictating the location of the flag is blocked by his presence, and it feels like he has fingers in every single pie. Despite so few moments of screen presence – and he never actually holds a conversation on screen – his calculating schemes were surprisingly cunning and potent.
Admittedly, the cast are not the most developed bunch. A handful of characters get suggestions of backstory but few are delved into in detail. In fact, some of the background characters, like the travelling doctor or the previously mentioned Kufura, end up being the most developed – alongside Keiichi and his complicated feelings on war and filming it, of course. He learns all too well how his career is made on it.
And for all the praise I’ve given Flag’s setup, this style of film production is not easy on 2d animators, with awkward moving-camera setups regularly found. The animation was surprisingly consistent and could demonstrate some impressive animation sequences, but keen eyes will notice that there were many stills or reused footage, and blurry or pixelated footage prevents the CGI mech model from jarring with the scenery and also makes the background art difficult to comment upon.
Between a strong cast chemistry, a mature political thriller plot and some impressive world-building, Flag exceeds Takahashi’s VOTOMS. When you consider the visual direction, a homage to the popular ‘found footage’ style and shot with Disney-like character designs who are free of character sexuality and school children, all in all, you have an easy-to-lap-up anime for American audiences. I don’t see any need for Hollywood to need to reproduce this anime, it’s already great and accessible to their target audiences, overflowing with more humanity than they’d be used to from its American soil contemporaries. Perhaps, instead of a reproduction, I should just ask for some international streaming opportunities for this underground and sadly forgotten series, because it’s well worth a watch for new anime fans finding their feet, and old ones tired of cliches.