A giant robot series aiming for a Pulitzer Prize, if such a thing were possible.
A war photography anime by Ryosuke Takahashi (he of Armored Trooper VOTOMS, Gasaraki, etc), and if those names mean anything to you then you already know if you want to watch this show. Indeed, perhaps you already have. Among the realist of Real Robot folks in the anime industry, he is consistent in presenting some of the most legitimate and plausible depictions of how mecha would function as tools of war.
In Flag, the lead characters are not even the pilots but conflict zone journalists, one embedded in a forward combat unit and another an investigative one in the capital city. The only triggers they are pulling are on their cameras. To the point where the series maintains a rock solid commitment to present almost everything from the viewpoint of a photography lens.
Before I go any further, I need to be upfront about some things:
I am in one of the most exact kinds of target demographics for this show. I went to graduate school for international peace and conflict resolution, focusing in technology matters. The series raises by name the spectre of events like what happened in recent history to the people of Rwanda and Kosovo. I went to both of those countries in my studies, among many others. I saw a lot of things and met a lot of their people, at all kinds of levels, including some very high ranking government officials. I have sat within spitting distance of individuals who in my heart I would like to see brought up on serious charges in front of the likes of the International Criminal Court, yet knowing that will never happen and needing to maintain full civility and conversational respect. I have had to examine my own picture taking in those travels, if I am looking through my lens with enough complexity. I know folks who are far more involved than that, and do this kind of dangerous photography work for a living.
When I say I found the series enjoyable, I am on the one hand of course quite biased toward the subject matter. Yet, I am also giving it a rather high recommendation and praise. It would have been easy for me to walk away disappointed.
As mentioned, Flag makes uses of an intriguing presentation style where we are looking through camera lenses of all types.
Webcams, the high grade digital SLR’s of the journalists, military vehicle cameras, among some others. Any of their associated readings also come into play: battery life, auto or manual focus, bootup and shutdown sequences, that sort of thing. We see what the camera sees, and in a sense within our minds eye also what it is not seeing. While in some cases quite literal (a camera placed to the side while a scene occurs outside of its view range), a person holding a camera has a lot of power.
Photo and video recording is a strange kind of magic, how people may act around it or how the one in control chooses to use it. That we see sides from Saeko Shirasu, the more frontline photojournalist, and Keiichi Akagi, the more investigative one, provides contrast in goals and situations. Saeko’s side in particular was the more fascinating one to me. Embedded reporting in a military unit brings a whole array of interesting questions when it comes to their developing camaraderie. She records with everyone from the meal hall chef on up, so it makes the matter of lenses and how folks open up or shown to us from this position of a conflict zone a rather intriguing mix.
Now, there are also the giant robots – the HAVWC (High Agility Versatile Weapon Carrier) machines employed by the forward base are akin to a ground tank capable of standing up into a bipedal form.
That may make them sound rather small for mecha, and you would be right (Saeko is even kind of disappointed the first time she sees one). But, they come to us with a bevy of applied research into how a realistic deployment of equipment like this could look like in a near future reality. An entire episode of this show boils down to various base personnel doing the maintenance for and testing of an armament on one of the units. On the instances where combat does occur, it is in a fire and movement multispectrum approach of full unit cohesion, ground, air, and command, with ample synchronization attempts and consistent radio orders. These are professional military soldiers and staff, with the understanding they can get each other killed if they are not in alignment. Firefights have weight by the raw amount of data and team precision that needs application.
This gets into the narrative of Flag itself, much of it revolving around the United Nations force attempting to recover a banner that became a symbol of hope and peace for the divided people of a battered nation before a looming treaty event.
What becomes a recognizable issue for some is that they can find this hard to buy into. That can even seem almost ludicrous, taken at its most baseline face value. However, I would say there are large implications to consider. This is a series of symbols of representations, what is seen and what is not. Serial numbers and friend or foe communications, religious leaders who are visible on television and others more secluded, etc.
It is important to remember when watching this show that a flag is not just a banner expressing a group or idea. A flag is also a term used in photography for prop equipment designed to block and redirect light and shadows. Combined with how what we do not see is often just as if not more important than what we do, and the entire physical nature of the camera lens aspect, there are large elements of the narrative that require processing the events in a different way than a traditional series. I would say the top level plot of the series may only come to the viewer long after Flag has finished.
This approach works because the series makes such extensive use of characters and themes to carry itself over direct narrative.
Being able to observe the United Nations unit interact with and around Saeko as their embedded observer is an organic set of developments and conversations. Do they fill standard archetypes? In a general fashion, sure: there is the wisecracking mechanic, the more analytical intelligence officer, the big guy with a heart of gold, and so on. But rather than becoming a cliche, it helps to keep everything grounded in a sense of how we often see individuals like these in media both fictional and even on the news. We know we are not seeing all the footage Saeko captured because the series does go back to the computer a number of times to pull up different recording files for editing. It is a rather fascinating dynamic in conjunction with their actual interactions as individuals.
So too on Akagi’s front in the capital city. The various freelancers and investigative journalists hanging out in bars and tracking down contacts comes to remind us of the notion that many folks do tend to view themselves as heroes of their own stories. People like to think they are doing Important Work That Matters. Photojournalists are not immune from this fascination as well, which can be completely understandable in such a strained environment. It comes to be something the audience should keep in mind throughout the show about what they are seeing and perhaps even subconscious objectives of the one behind the camera. Akagi has some shots with extensive commentary on his perspective when one starts thinking about the how and why behind their composition and the message he may be trying to tell that may not be immediately clear even to him as a veteran in the field.
There is the story you want to capture, and the story you come to actually tell.
On a general level, there are two primary approaches to fictional worldbuilding: Top-down and bottom-up.
How much one is able to get themselves invested in Flag will at least in part hinge on their ability to engage with and extrapolate from the latter. Due to the nature of the narrative approach and camera mechanics, this is a small scale on the ground approach that over time can open up like an onion should the viewer fill in the aspects they may not see on screen with suitable progressions. Uddiyana as a constructed nation I find an intriguing amalgam of Tibet, Kashmir, and Pakistan. One can chart out where it would go on a world map of our own reality, and the number of ethnic, religious, and national strains it could have when grafting such a history to it. And it is a well realized effort, through all manner of art and architecture mixes, to the clothing, music, and geography. This is a place that does not exist, and yet blended in an effortless fashion into something that perhaps could have been.
Some would say this weakens the impact of the series, by not placing it within the confines of genuine reality and the associated sociopolitical climate.
It is a point that, while I can recognize how one would reach such a conclusion, I do think would have taken away from the series had it gone down such a route. Again, Flag is a production that wants to deal more in thematic elements to carry itself over direct narrative. By placing it within the confines of more reality focused national borders, I feel it would have to make sweeping changes to the entire structure of the series in order for it to function. Uddiyana works as well as it does because as rich a visual and cultural place as it is, the nation also functions as an abstraction. It assists in the process of freeing one’s mind to think about that larger picture and to make the jumps to the aspects of what we are not seeing. It is a synergistic part of the entire cloth of the series.
Throughout all of this, despite all of this blending and applied research, there comes one of the most solid aspects of the show: the way in which everything is assembled and presented can make it engaging at multiple levels of familiarity with the subject material it wants to deal in.
Regardless of if one has studied much on international relations and conflict zone situations, it aims to make itself quite approachable to those without that sort of knowledge base. It has the international relations picture, but it does not drown the viewer in it due to the bottom-up approach. There are solid characters with swell dialogue exchanges, made even more so with a clean art style that highly values expressive face quirks. Eyebrows, smiles, nose twitches, and all the rest assist so much in establishing things like comfort, demeanor, and posture regarding the ever present camera. Despite so much of the series occurring in dusty terrain, military bases, and the like, it never feels as drab or droll as it could. Everyone feels vibrant or alive, in their own ways, which is an important takeaway.
The series does have some blunter images or recurring documentary style B-roll stock footage use, but I think this is going in part with the applied research of Takahashi and his team.
Generally speaking, it is considered good form in extended reporting bits like this to have things that will strike a wider audience in between more technical or nuanced parts. It essentially forms a recurring beat to give pause, meditation, or transition so that even if wide swaths of material is going over a viewer’s head, they get a drip feed of “Oh, I get it” moments so they can feel they are getting something out of the material rather than feeling lost. It is a case of something being applied to a television series from a different but completely relevant kind of media background. At times it does not make for the smoothest television, but I can easily see what they were likely going for emulating and commenting on regarding such moments. They are indeed very much seen as essential in other media.
If you look for more direct approaches in your war media, with more emphasis on combat or having geopolitical brinksmanship more at the forefront and the like, Flag will have a high chance to leave you with disappointment.
Suffice it to say though, if you watch a lot of Frontline documentaries and enjoy trying to suss out elements surrounding a conflict that may not be apparent on the surface, it has plentiful options for you. If you find interest in things such as cinematography and shot composition, it is an intriguing series made all the more so by it being an animation camera.
Saeko may not have been impressed when she first laid eyes upon the giant robots in this series, but I would not let that alone scare folks away. I found them to be a crunchy visual core of a chewy conflict zone series with enduring themes that deserves far more attention than it ever received due recognition for.