It's no secret that many anime fans today are reluctant to try out older titles with such a wide array of newer series and movies to choose from, featuring rather high production values at that. This is something I feel is rather unfortunate as a big chunk of the earlier features hold themes that transcend time: love and war, trust and betrayal, life and death, wealth and power, etc. The Area 88: Original OVA Series is no exception; its themes are universal and hold true today perhaps more than ever, especially with the War in Iraq still going on.
Houston's ADV Films recently re-released the Area 88: Original OVA Series, spanning across two discs in what essentially turns out to be a three-episode, two-part, three-hour feature film. The series is based on the Japanese manga by Kaoru Shintani, as serialized in Shonen Big Comics, which dates back to 1985 (also the year of my birth!). Rather than giving a slightly reworded repeat lesson on the historical background of the show (of which I know next to nothing about) already covered in Don Houston's review, I will jump straight into the anime series itself.
The story follows young Shin Kazama, a would-be pilot for Japan's Yamato Airlines turned mercenary fighter pilot with a sleight of hand by his childhood friend Satoru Kanzaki. One evening, while getting Shin completely intoxicated, Satoru convinces him to sign a contract which Shin believes will allow him to stay overnight, when in all actuality, he's signing his life away to a foreign legion caught up in the midst of a bloody civil war within the Kingdom of Aslan.
Shin Kazama: Area 88's top mercenary pilot.
Being conned into said circumstances, Shin has one of two options. Either he must serve the full three years as a mercenary pilot at Area 88 (a.k.a. "the frontlines of hell"), or he must pay a $1.5 million dollar fine for his early release. Depending on how risky and dangerous the mission is determines its worth; the more likely death is to occur on the mission, the more bank it brings. However, each pilot must bear his own expenses, including (but not limited to) meals, the plane itself, repairs, weapons, as well as anything extracurricular such as cigarettes and booze. If a pilot tries to desert, his penalty will be death if he is caught, which has a much higher rate of success than his actual escape.
Seeing as how he isn't quite ready die just yet, Shin decides to go on as many missions as possible, particularly the more jeopardous ones in order to try and pay off the rather hefty fine. At first, his sole concern is survival, but after going on repeated missions where it's kill or be killed, Shin appears to be losing a piece of humanity with each passing one. The last thing he wants is to become like his fellow comrades who almost seem to take pleasure is the act of killing, but this becomes increasingly difficult as Shin quickly makes his way to the top of the mercenary totem pole at Area 88, not going unnoticed by Commanding Officer Saki Vashtal. What he wants most is to be able to return to the beautiful Ryoko Tsugumo, the love of his life and daughter to the President of Yamato Airlines. Meanwhile, back home in Tokyo, Ryoko despairs over Shin's sudden and unexplained disappearance as Satoru moves on to bigger and better things in his quest for wealth and power, among other things.
Ryoko asks Satoru for help in finding Shin.
The Area 88: Original OVA Series has much to offer both old and new fans alike. Its style of animation, while some will undoubtedly consider it dated, is really cutting-edge for its time. The animators must have put an ungodly amount of work into each intricate detail, from the interior scenes and use of color to the just outstanding aerial combat battles and movements of characters. When I think of the Original OVA Series being 21-years old, it simply blows my mind at how impressive everything looks. Aside from the animation itself, the series offers a wide array of characters from which the viewer can relate ranging anywhere from bloody-thirsty killers and power mongers to concerned friends and conflicted youth. It deals with real-life situations and circumstances that apply to us now as much as they did back then.
Will Shin be able to hold onto his humanity if and before he makes it out of the desert hell of Area 88?
ADV Films presents the Area 88: Original OVA Series across two discs, housed in a standard clear keepcase with places for a disc on each side. Convenient, but sort of a pain to remove the discs from their holders. Every time I go to take one out, I feel like I'm going to break the disc. My advice is to be as gentle as possible.
This 2-disc set offers a choice of two audio options: an English 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo track with many of the same voice actors and actresses from the recently released Area 88 TV Series, or the original Japanese 2.0 Dolby Digital stereo track with yellow English subtitles. Like usual, I alternated between the tracks and found them both equally enjoyable. Both tracks sound clear with no hissing or distortion, but the English track does offer a slightly better use of the soundstage in regards to the music and the sound effects utilized throughout the show.
The Area 88: Original OVA Series is presented in its original 4:3 or 1.33:1 full frame aspect ratio. The picture looks surprisingly very clear with only minimal dust and dirt spots, though there appears to be more at the beginning than towards the end. The colors look bright and vivid and the blacks dark and solid, offering a nice contrast in many of the scenes. The animation is classic and absolutely stunning for being as old as I am, particularly showcased in the abundant dogfights, but also in the simpler and more subtle scenes featuring everyday interaction between the characters.
Disc 1 of the Area 88: Original OVA Series contains a section titled Introduction of the Fighters in which information and a brief animation is given for various fighters displayed throughout the series, including the following: VF-8E, F-14, F-5E, F-4, F-16, Mig27, Kfir, F-5A, A-4F, F.6, Mig21, and F-100D. A cool featurette for those who want to learn more about the aircraft piloted by Shin and his fellow Area 88ers.
Also included are six ADV Previews for Full Metal Panic!, Gravion Zwei, This Ugly Yet Beautiful World, Yugo the Negotiator: Pakistan Arc, RahXephon, and Area 88 TV, standard of most ADV releases.
Disc 2 offers an Interview with Kaoru Shintani, the creator of the Area 88 manga. The interview is just about 20 minutes in length and in Japanese with yellow English subtitles. This is by far the most interesting and in-depth supplement included in the extras. Shintani answers a variety of questions such as what his favorite fighter jet is as well as technical aspects of the show itself--how realistic the machinery is portrayed, etc. We also find out that Shintani wanted to be a pilot himself, but due to his poor vision, by junior high he was already ineligible. In his youth, many household objects were sacrificed by his curiosity with aviation and mechanics in general. All of this and more led to the eventual creation of Area 88. It's nice to hear that Shintani is proud of what became of his story and the impact it has made on his life.
The Area 88: Original OVA Series finally gets its proper due, complete with not only a powerful storyline and prevalent themes of past, present, and likely future generations, but also an overall fantastic video transfer with little to complain about. Both its animation style and character designs are classic and quite stunning for being over two decades old, proving that it is possible to create something just as visually complex without the overuse of special effects. This series comes easily Recommended to all anime fans, but even moreso to those with a particular interest in aviation. Get ready for the ride of your life!