Modern warfare has changed our perception of armed combat. Conflicts like WWII were still personal affairs. Yes, you could still say that whoever had the best weapons and steel would win, I suppose. But up until recently, war meant going onto a battlefield, looking another man in the eye, and killing him. It was bloody, it was gruesome, and nobody ever forgot it. Guns may have made the distance to the other guy longer, and tanks and airplanes (and the atom bomb) made it easier to kill without seeing the faces of those about to die. But war wasn't entered into lightly because it was clear that many men (and, increasingly, women) would pay the ultimate price in service to their cause.
But now, it's not so personal. Troops are triangles on a screen, not soldiers of flesh and blood. Nightvision and heat-sensing equipment make targets into glowing blobs of energy that don't resemble human beings. Millions, perhaps billions around the world saw the bombing of Iraq in shades of green and black, looking like the footage could have been taken on Mars. It makes for a casual attitude about warfare that seeps into the subconcious. Sadly, the recent war has been made real to many of us when friends and loved ones lost those precious to them...it was what made us realize that war is not a video game. Nor is it what we've been sold by Hollywood (and much of anime), a bunch of thrilling action sequences where the only characters who die are the supporting cast who spur the leads on to greater deeds of violence.
Flag is, in some respects, a remarkable anime because it uses the dehumanization of combat to make warfare seem more harrowing rather than less. It understands that people of flesh and blood run the machines. It also knows that pictures humanize things, that a simple photograph can change people's hearts. Who can forget photos like the ones out of the Tiananmen Square protests 20 years ago? They make situations a world away seem far more real. Flag is a mature anime, not in the way that most people think of "mature" in terms of language or violence or whatever, but mature in the way it thinks. While it has a couple of problems that keep it from the top tier of anime, I am glad somebody is ambitious enough to make something like Flag.
The country of Uddiyana is in the midst of upheaval. Civil unrest is spreading even as UN forces litter the landscape trying to recover some sense of tranquility. It appears that war and genocide may be next...and then, a cry for peace and a united Uddiyana comes from its citizens, embodied in a new national flag. Shirasu Saeko, a young photographer, gets a picture of the flag at a perfect moment as women in prayer shine through the material in the sunlight. It becomes an international sensation and a symbol for the upcoming peace accords between two major factions in the country. So when the flag is stolen, the UN is determined to get it back, afraid that its destruction or misuse might send the whole nation over the edge. Saeko is invited to become an embedded reporter with the SDC, a special team assigned to recover the missing flag, and her photos and footage document not only the lives of the soldiers she follows but also her own. As Saeko's mentor Akagi uncovers the secrets of the flag's disappearance, Saeko herself sees both devastation and hope in the landscape of Uddiyana.
Flag's visual style is all its own. About 95% of it is a mix of camera footage, photography, and computer screens. We're constantly reminded that we are looking at the world through someone else's perspective. And yet, that grounds the show in a real-world environment. It also means that the show looks great...not because there's a whole lot of animation going on, but that the sections that are animated look really nice. There's a bit of obvious computer animation here too on the couple pieces of mecha that the SDC uses in their missions, but they blend in nicely. The character design is a bit different and takes a little getting used to, but it's certainly more realistic than the uber-pretty designs coming out of most animation studios. This is not a show that will wow you as a gorgeous piece of work, but the significant creativity in the visuals impressed me.
How far Flag will fly for you will depend on your ability to get over two important issues that bothered me during the series. The first is the weight given to the flag itself. The importance of the flag to the peace talks is stated within the show over and over again, and that's because nobody -- not even the Japanese, who themselves are a highly symbolic culture -- can easily believe that a culture's life or death would be tied to a piece of cloth that could be easily re-created. I never bought the premise thoroughly. Thankfully, you don't have to do so to enjoy the show; you just have to accept it as a weak plot device and move on. The show itself acknowledges near the conclusion that the flag isn't as important as the UN once thought it was, but they are willing to risk much danger and cost to retreive it. There might have been a point to be made about how following orders blindly can be unethical in the grand scheme of things, but Flag really doesn't make it.
The other issue that made me frustrated with the show has to do with its inability to really relate to us its secondary characters. Nobody seems to have a past, not even Saeko, or if they do, it's at most cursory. While there are different personality types within the SDC team, I didn't get the sense that these were fully rounded characters. Frankly, many of them are too smiley. Saeko is eventually accepted by the team, but it's because of her brave willingness to join them in combat rather than her work to get to know them personally. Had more of the characters been given full backgrounds and story arcs, I would have felt closer to them. (The same is true in Akagi's story arc as he works with a gaggle of reporters trying to Uddiyana's story from the inside.) As such, this show that wants to get to the personal side of modern warfare doesn't quite connect fully at an emotional level. The show could have had more heft if it did. That said, it would have been difficult to accomplish in only thirteen episodes.
Those things said, I thought Flag was a really nice piece of work. There was obviously a lot of thought and care put into its development and structure. While its pace is slow at times, it accentuates the truth of life during wartime being long stretches of boredom punctuates by short bursts of terror. Its action sequences aren't thrilling in the conventional sense, but they are tense. A sequence will flash from mechanical readouts to nightvision views to footage from a helicopter's own camera to Shirasu's pictures and back and forth. G.I. Joe it is not, and thank goodness. Somehow, the format ratches up the feeling that somehow the viewer is a part of it all. Because of the way they operate and are used, even the mecha are believable.
And if the secondary characters aren't quite three-dimentional enough, I was always taken with Saeko and Akagi. While the two of them rarely met, they were strongly compelling figures. Their arcs are strong because the show was clearly mapped out from beginning to end, which means that its ending is particularly poignant. The program also gives itself time for a true ending. Anime after anime end when the central storyline is done, even though there are loose ends blowing around in the breeze. Flag knows that Shirasu's story is its heart, and it follows it through beyond where many shows would have stopped. I daresay that the final volume gives the entire run its true perspective, not just an ending.
Flag obviously isn't for everyone, and it didn't sell all that well -- Bandai recently cancelled its "Anime Legends" collection of Flag that would have put all four volumes in one package. That's a shame, since this show is best watched as a collective rather than an episode here and there. I'm afraid that the average anime viewer stateside won't sit through a show with twice the brain and half the action, and if they are willing, they might not get through the problems I mentioned. But despite my reservations, it's a worthwhile series, and one that deserves more of an audience.
P.S. If you do pick up the discs, make sure to watch them soon after purchase to make sure they are OK. Volume 2 had manufacturing defects, and the copies of Volume 1 and Volume 4 I saw (both used) had a couple of spots that were unwatchable even after significant cleaning. I think the QA department may have been on coffee break while these discs were pressed...
Flag -- violence -- B+