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Area 88 - Original OVA Series
Movie: Area 88 has recently been re-released in an updated form by the nice folks at ADV Films and was one of our reviewing team's favorite titles of the past year. What never came up as a topic of conversation though was the three part OVA series that was made into two feature films (the first part having been released years ago on DVD by Central Park Media). Well, all that is about to change as a couple of us reviewers give you a look at what we saw with this new version of a classic tale of deceit, romance, and high flying attitude over a desert wasteland during a civil war. Fans of the Manga created by Kaoru Shintani decades ago will likely find little to fault with the manner in which this release so closely mirrors the original Shonen Big paperbacks as pilot Shin Kazama is put to the test of a life time in combat that literally means life or death depending on the daily outcome of his flying abilities.
Area 88 is described like this on the back DVD cover: "A classic tale of love, war and tragedy comes to life in the original fast-paced, emotionally charged thrill ride, Area 88. In a cruel twist of fate, talented young pilot Shin Kazama is tricked into serving as a mercenary for Area 88: a hell on earth where men survive by gunning down anyone who stands in their way. To return home, Shin must sell his soul to the battlefield and pave the road back to Japan with the corpses of his fallen opponents. Two feature length films, full of dizzying dogfights and heart wrenching drama that make Area 88 one of the most memorable anime classics of all time. Get ready for the ride of your life!" In essence, the story follows Shin from his training days for a corporate airline in Japan to his being tricked by a friend into signing away his freedom as part of an elaborate plot. Shin is carted off to Aslam, a Middle Eastern nation at war with itself as two brothers vie for the throne, with the penalty of death if he tries to escape before his three year hitch is up. The only means he has of getting away faster is to excel at air combat and raise $1.5 million dollars by shooting down various targets (balanced off by his expenses), all of whom are shooting back at him.
Area 88 is the airbase to which Shin is attached, led by Saki, a merciless prince that instills order through discipline, yet recognizes Shin as his top pilot in no time. Unlike the newer series, this OVA has no conspiracies outside of what was presented in the original Manga (and the American version of it released back in the 1980's) but has more of Shin's affair with Ryoko Tsugumo (the daughter of the wealthy airline magnate that Shin previously worked for) in it as well as her attempts to find him when she happens across his picture in a magazine.
Of note too, is the cast of characters from the manga that all contributed to Shin's growing desperation, from blood thirsty killers who point out that Shin is rapidly becoming like they are, to friends that fall in combat due to the fates of war, to the opportunists who seek to profiteer off the circumstances as best they can. The subplot about Satoru Kanzaki, Shin's rival in the civilian world who seeks all the trappings of wealth and power by any means necessary are more dominant here too. In all then, while not updated in any major fashion, the OVA stands the relative test of time much like the manga does (I was a fan of the American release and bought it until they stopped publishing it years ago).
I'm not going to add any more spoilers and ruin the ending for you but I will say that this was a substantially better version of the first half of the show than the previous release in just about every way and proved to be well worth the price of admission. I admit to being a fan but it goes to show you that an anime series can tackle real life subjects without resorting to fan service (though it had a little bit of that too), high tech effects, or show a need to show super effects to keep our attention. It was even better considering how old the show was (over twenty years old) and fans of the classics can now rest assured that their laserdiscs are finally able to be put to pasture given the manner in which this one was handled by ADV Films. I suggest it as Recommended for anime fans and even more so for those of you who enjoyed the manga as much as I did so many years ago.
Picture: Area 88: Original OVA Series was presented in the original 1.33:1 ratio full frame color it was shot in by director Hisayuki Toriumi for release in Japan over two decades ago. The picture looked remastered compared to the previous release of the material and will serve as a solid companion piece to the recent Area 88 released by ADV Films. The colors were sharp, the grain and artifacting minimal and the amount of debris on the print better than the tape or previous DVD version by a wide margin. The animation style is limited to the time it was made but still managed to show some solid care going into it by the production staff, including character designs by Toshiyasu Okada. The plane designs also seemed to show more care than usual with some of the liberties taken discussed during the bonus interview as part of the charm of the show.
Sound: The audio was presented in a choice of two 2.0 Dolby Digital offerings; the original vocal track and a new dub that sounded worlds better than the Central Park Media version that I've clung to as part of my collection. I favored the original language track over the dub as produced by Scott McClennen at ADV but he appears to have used several of the same voices as the recent series and that did lend some continuity to the releases. The music and special effects sounded better on the dub with extra punch to them than the original track but neither version suffered from poor treatment and the resulting tracks were good in both cases (so dub fans should also be satisfied). The subtitles and dub track had some differences too, including the adlibbed swearing on the dub track that stood out as somewhat glaring a difference but it didn't bother me too much to know that the dub cast wasn't held hostage to an exact script either.
Extras: With older material, most anime companies blow off providing decent extras but I credit ADV Films for their work here to provide a lengthy interview with series creator Kaoru Shintani as he discussed not only where the idea came from but his own desire in his youth to fly planes (thwarted by mother nature and his poor eyesight). He humanized some aspects of the series and it was interesting hearing how the project came about with the sprinkling of anecdotes he came up with as he talked. Looking back on the series as he did here was probably as interesting (maybe more so) than if he had made a commentary track when it first came out to me and it added some value for this long time fan of the story. The other main extra was a section that detailed the aircraft flown in the series with some text information about the planes and their limitations. There were also trailers but in general, the interview was the best extra they could have offered up.
Final Thoughts: Area 88: Original OVA Series will be a nice companion piece to the recent Area 88 series by ADV Films but stands alone as it has for over twenty years. I think many of you that typically write off older releases as being somehow lame (I admit to having thought this way more than a few times myself) will enjoy this one though it did have a few rough moments in terms of telling the story. Still, I would suggest Area 88: Original OVA Series as an example of how to do things right for all of the care that went into restoring it for a domestic audience and ADV's part in the new dub. High flying combat was never so enjoyable as the suspense was captured in a manner that was rivaled only by the newer release and rarely by outside interests so check it out.
If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVD Talk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003, Best Of Anime 2004, and Best of Anime 2005 articles or their regular column Anime Talk.