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Area 88 - Target 01 - Treacherous Skies

ADV Films // Unrated // July 19, 2005
List Price: $29.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Don Houston | posted July 23, 2005 | E-mail the Author
Movie: I have long been a fan of Manga releases from Japan (to some, this would be an oxymoron, believing all Manga are Japanese by definition, but like animation/anime itself, I take a more expansive view). The bulky comic books typically from Japan cover a lot of ground and appeal to a great many people these days. One of my favorites that was brought over by a comic book company in the mid-eighties (has it really been twenty years?!?) was a little title called Area 88, a story about a young pilot tricked into becoming a mercenary in a Middle Eastern country, using his skills to protect a kingdom he cares little about. Written in a very pleasing style, the story continued long after I went off to make my mark and the next time I saw the title was when I purchased a used videogame from a little store in Houston, Texas called Gametronix. For those of you unfamiliar with the name, it was the precursor to a little company now known as ADV Films, led by the same man, John Ledford. Aside from a very minor single volume on DVD near the beginning of the DVD revolution in the late 1990's, this worthy story has sat on dusty shelves until now, with the release by that same ADV Films, of Area 88: Target 01: Treacherous Skies. Here's what the box cover said about it:

"Welcome to Area 88, a desolate outpost in the sun-blasted desert where mercenary fighter pilots risk their lives in service to the Kingdom of Alsam. Any skilled pilot will do - no questions asked. They literally kill for cash as they fight for the government of a country torn apart by a bloody civil war. The catch? Once you're in, the only way out is to serve your three year commitment, pay $1.5 million for breach of contract, or... face death as a deserter."

"Who are these pilots and why do they suffer the pains of the desert to serve a country that isn't their own? Some fight because it's all they know. Some have nowhere else to go. Some fly for the thrill of the game. Shin Kazama, the only Japanese pilot on the base, is different from the rest. He may be the only pilot capable of earning enough money to buy out his contract... if he lives long enough. But Shin fights only to return to Japan, to a life and a love that was stolen from him in cruel act of betrayal."

"Stunningly realistic animation and sound transport you into the soul of Area 88 where you can almost feel the jet wash on the desert wind. Once you're in, there's no going back. This is Area 88. In the desert the souls of men are either consumed by the fire or reborn from the ashes."

The characters in this new anime series were almost all taken verbatim from the pages of the Manga and related American comic book translation with the sole exception of a news photographer called Makoto Shinjo (whose name, in Japanese, looks almost identical to lead pilot Shin Kazama, in a twist of fate). Shinjo's real motivation is to get a picture of Shin's dead face for his employer but he keeps that secret as he gets a lot of great shots of the pilots before, during, and after their varied missions. With intrigue found much like that in the famed LFN, the series is a twelve episode exercise in high quality presentation, on a topic not far from modern day circumstances (given the War in Iraq and other activity over there these days).

The idea behind the characters is that they get paid a certain amount for each mission they fly, each aircraft they down, or each ground target they destroy, with the money commensurate with the threat level each activity provides. The pilots have to pay for their own fuel, repairs, and weapon upgrades, hoping to balance out the books in their favor over time. Unlike Shin, most of them appear to be there on a voluntary basis, making his dilemma of "killed or be killed" all the more touching as he uses his impressive skills to routinely come back regardless of the odds that end the lives of his many comrades. In an effort to survive, Shin becomes increasingly colder as he determines to get back to his true love, possibly lost forever to the man who sold his soul while pretending to be his friend.

As a fan of the series, I was hesitant to review this one on two grounds. I could end up giving it a glowing review based more on my memories of the paperback series than the show itself or I could tear into it based on my preconceived notions of what it "should" look and sound like (the former seeming to be the status quo for most review websites and published reviewers, sadly enough). Thankfully, upon watching it for the first couple of times, I felt that director Isamu Imakake did a great job with the original Japanese and the dub was also nicely handled by ADV's staff of professionals. From the varied technical aspects to the extras and dub itself, I found a lot to like in both versions of this show, leading me to believe that everyone involved cared for the series as much as I did.

The three episodes this time were 1) Wings of the Desert: Sky Blue, 2) The Setting Sun as Grave Marker: Boris, and 3) Viewfinder in the Blue Sky: Sin & Makoto. Each provided some quality entertainment very much in the spirit of the original Manga in this updated (new!) series. Starting off with the obligatory origin episode that gave some minimal detail about Shin (more about Shinjo), moving on to a story about the so-called "Angel of Death", a pilot as talented as any other but the stigma of always coming home alone after a mission (with his comrades dying), and ending with a story that showed the futility of war against Shin's desire to face all odds not for glory, country, or some noble ideal but to simply get back to his home alive. In all, the DVD, even with only three episodes, was worth a rating of Highly Recommended for everything it had to offer.

Picture: Area 88: Target 01: Treacherous Skies was presented in its original 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen color as originally presented in Japan not long ago. The colors were accurate, the anime style perfectly suited for the material of the stories, and the combination of more traditional anime and CGI melded for a solid picture in all ways. It wasn't the most detailed and didn't look as though it was hand rendered but it worked great here and I think fans of anime would do well to check this one out. I saw no compression artifacts or grain here, perhaps owing as much to the limited number of episodes as anything else.

Sound: The audio was presented with the usual choice of the original 2.0 Dolby Digital Japanese soundtrack with English language subtitles or the newly created English language dub sporting a 5.1 Dolby Digital track. In terms of voices, it was strictly a toss up as to which was best since both worked very nicely for me. In terms of the music track and special effects, the English dub was superior in most ways, owing a lot to the team at ADV Films that has been getting increasingly talented in recent years, probably knowing that such a track was needed to compliment the very expensive rights to the show (this was one of their more expensive titles from what I understand so they pulled out all stops).

Extras: The best extra by far was a great interview with the Japanese director, Isamu Imakake and screen writer Hiroshi Ohnogi. It lasted the better part of an hour (around 55 minutes) and went into great detail about all aspects of the show. I caution fans to wait to watch it until after they see each of the four volumes that'll be released (I bit the bullet for you) since it had a lot of spoilers. There were also sketches, aircraft and character biographies, some trailers, clean opening and closing, and a paper insert that gave some information from the Japanese voice actors that played Shin (Takehito Koyasu) and Shinjo (Shinichiro Miki).

Final Thoughts: Area 88: Target 01: Treacherous Skies played up to the strengths of the original Manga series that I enjoyed so much and it should come as no surprise that ADV spent so much time and energy on it. I applaud their diligence since it isn't all that common for a domestic release to include a dubbed English track as good as the original (I'm no subtitle snob, nor do I prefer dubs as a general rule). The story itself is timeless and the combination of the great technical aspects of the show, the very interesting interviews, and the rest of the package made this a title you should seriously consider picking up. If later volumes are as high in quality as this one, I suspect ADV Films will find it a big hit among fans (new and old alike).

If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVDTalk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003 and Best Of Anime 2004 article or regular column Anime Talk

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