When I sat down to watch Area 88 I thought to myself how funny it was that out of the countless shows I have watched over the years, I have never seen one about a group of pilots. However, to simply write this series off and say that it's little more than an animated Top Gun would do it no justice. This is an anime that pushes the boundaries of what you'd expect and in many ways makes an impression on you that you won't be able to shake.
Originally a manga by Kaoru Shintani Area 88 began publication in 1979 and ran until 1986 with a total of 23 volumes (VIZ tried releasing the manga on this side of the ocean but didn't have any luck). The book also went on to be a three episode OVA produced by Studio Pierrot in 1985. Since then the title has slipped into obscurity and it wasn't until 2005 when the aviation superstar was back in the Japanese spotlight. This time around the program was produced by Group TAC, rounded out nicely to twelve episodes, and has been published here in the States by the good folks at ADV.
Area 88 takes place in the middle of the desert in an unfamiliar location known as the Kingdom of Asran (somewhere in the Middle East). There is a major civil war brewing in the scorching sands and the factions have taken to contracting mercenary pilots to fight their battles. With money and glory being promised at every turn it's no wonder that some foolhardy warriors sign up for the spoils. What if you didn't actually sign up though? What if you were thrust upon this messed up situation against your will, betrayed by someone you thought was a friend? That's exactly the spot of trouble that Shin Kazama finds himself in.
When we first meet Shin he is the center of some form of idol worship by a wartime photographic journalist named Makoto Shinjou. Makoto arrives on the scene of Area 88 (the base of these mercenary pilots) hoping to take that one picture that he has always dreamed about. Considering that Shin is the only other fellow at the Asranian base from Japan he goes out of his way to buddy up to him. At first Shin gives him the cold shoulder but it's better than the fist that Mickey Simon (Shin's American friend) gives him.
Makoto rubs a lot of the pilots the wrong way considering he is basically photographing their deaths or those of their colleagues. You're naturally bound to run into some friction from your subject matter when you're doing something like that in the middle of a war. It doesn't help matters that Makoto goes out of his way to provoke a reaction from someone or stand in the thick of things in order to get the best shot possible. He has an ulterior motive behind his being at Area 88 that is revealed later in the show but let's just say it's a twist that I wasn't expecting.
Most of the screen time is eaten up by Shin despite the fact that there are many characters to get to know as the show progresses through its twelve episode arc. His development and rich history are more than a driving point of interest they are quite literally the backbone of the plot. Early on in the show it is revealed to us through a near death flashback that Shin is actually not the mercenary he is portrayed as. Instead he's in Area 88 purely against his will.
Despite the fact that each of the pilots fighting in the war had to willingly sign a contract of obligation to fight, Shin was tricked into doing so. There is a girl named Ryoko back home in Japan and Shin's best friend pulled the wool over his eyes in order to send him away to his death so that Ryoko would be his. Nice guy, huh? To make a long story short Shin tries his hardest to become the deadliest man in the sky so that he can rack up enough money to buy his freedom (to the tune of $1.5 million). Each kill counts as a monetary gain and each mission nets a bonus, but Shin soon discovers a little bit of himself dying with each pull of the trigger.
Area 88 weaves a complex and intriguing tale of deception, betrayal, and deep personal struggle. With every episode I found myself glued to the TV itching to find out what happened next. Admittedly I had never seen the other versions of this series (manga or the OVA) so I can't compare this rendition to those. All I know is that each of the twelve episodes here comes together to tell a smart, memorable story that stayed with me for quite a while after watching. This is a show that is hard to ignore and with this complete collection from ADV there is no reason to do so. Check it out now if you like anime with solid story and character development.
With its fairly recent production date it's not surprise that Area 88 is quite sharp looking. It's not uncommon to see show's this day and age incorporate CGI effects into the animation. In most cases it's easily identifiable that vehicles are the main source of this technical achievement and in the case of this show, the planes are noticeably handled just so. The blending of animation styles works well with the look of the show and overall things are very polished here.
On the technical side of things the image quality holds up very well. The compression that sometimes arises from condensing a series to a few discs is not a problem. The only beefs I had were a few instances where grain was noticeable and even fewer spots where there was some aliasing. The 1.78:1 anamorphic picture looks very well indeed and definitely does this show justice.
English 5.1 surround and Japanese stereo are the two tracks that you'll find on this collection. The dubbing quality for both was very good with the English taking the prize after the draw mostly due to the technical presence. Music and sound effects trickle into the rear channels at all the right times and the experience can be quite immersive. It's not the most impressive track that I have experience but in the world of anime this presentation was very good. I had no problems with this track as far as technical flaws are concerned.
Just like most other ADV collections there are no special features to be found on any of the three discs. The closest that you'll get is a smattering of previews available on the first disc.
I didn't quite know what to expect from Area 88 when I first started watching the show. My prior exposure and knowledge was rather limited so I approached it with blinders on and an open mind. I was absolutely blown away! All twelve episodes come together to weave a complex story that satisfies in the end and will leave a lasting impression. This is a powerful tale worth checking out and definitely something that should be on your "to watch list" no matter what genre you deem to be your favorite.
Check out more of my reviews here. Head on over to my anime blog as well for random musings and reviews of anime, manga, and stuff from Japan!