This classic OVA series features some really nice action and a really interesting look at the effects of war on an unwilling participant.
What They Say
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.
Contains both Area 88 OVA features.
For this viewing, I took in the English 2.0 dub. The Japanese track is also offered in 2.0. While the mix is solid, and everything comes through clearly, it is also a fairly basic audio track. Directionality is limited, which is a shame due to the amount of high flying combat. What is offered works fine for the low-key moments, but the combat would have benefitted from a more diverse mix.
For such an old release, the video here looks astoundingly good. Originally released in 1985-86, this master looks to be free from many of the typical flaws that appear with age. The colors are clear and bright with no bleeding, and there are no appearances of dirt or scratches. The transfer was done well too, as it did not have any flaws that might crop up in digitization such as pixelization or cross coloring. I have no quibbles with the video on this release at all as, aside from art style, it does not show its age at all.
The packaging for this release is decent, but nothing special. Both discs come in a standard sized amaray case, with a spot on each side for one disc. The front has an image of Shin posing with his helmet set against a background of his plane in combat. The back has a close-up of Mickey in the cockpit watching Shin’s plane, with a summary under that. A few screenshots and the technical details are placed along the bottom. The packaging does a good job of presenting some of the main themes from the OVAs.
The menus are some of the most basic I have ever seen for an anime title. Each disc just has a static image of Shin’s plane flying in the sky. On the first disc, it is nighttime, whereas it is sunrise/sunset on the second. While the background is technically sky, it is basically just a solid color, as there are no other distinguishing features. The selections are to the right in basic white with an arrow signifying the selections. They are easy to follow, but incredibly simple in design.
There are two extras, one for each disc. The extra on the first disc is the “Introduction of the Fighters,” which is static pages of technical information on all of the different types of planes found in Area 88. There are roughly 40 of these, and each selection is preceded by a quick animation of the fighter in action. It is fairly detailed, and a nice addition. On the second disc is a 20 minute interview with Kaoru Shintani, the creator of the original Area 88 manga. In this, he delves into his methods and ideas. It is all fairly interesting.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
This collection brings together the original three OVAs of the Area 88 series, originally released in 1985. As was the case from previous releases, the first two episodes have been merged to create one feature length title, while the third OVA stands alone as its own feature length title. Through the years, Area 88 has proven to be a popular franchise, as was evidenced by the fact that they revisited it in 2004 as a full TV series. From these two movies, it is obvious to see why it is as well liked as it is.
Shin Kazama is the most promising pilot in the Yamato Airlines (YAL) training program. He and his friend, Satoru Kanzaki, have just graduated with the highest of honors and poised to take well paying jobs with the YAL as passenger pilots. Shin is even getting himself ready to marry the daughter of the YAL president, Ryoko.
On their last night at the training facility, Kanzaki convinces Shin to go out drinking and partying one last time for old time’s sake. When Shin becomes falling-down-drunk, Kanzaki tricks Shin into signing a contract that resigns his position with YAL and enrolls him in the foreign legion in the country of Aslan, helping with a Civil War. Kanzaki betrays his friend due to his ambitions at both YAL and with Ryoko.
Shin is assigned to Area 88, a secret air force base in Aslan that carries out the most dangerous air missions necessary to win the war. As a mercenary, Shin earns money for each mission he completes and for each enemy plane he shoots down. There are only three ways to get away from Area 88: survive for three years, earn $1.5 million and buy the contract out, or desert, though that last option carries the penalty of death.
Despite killing being against every fiber of his being, Shin throws himself into his missions, reasoning that he would rather earn a buyout quickly than wait the three years. Quickly, he establishes himself as the best pilot at Area 88, but each time he gets close to the buyout rate, something goes wrong, causing him to spend a large portion of his earnings (pilots are responsible for their own aircraft and weaponry).
Back at home, Kanzaki pushes his suit with Ryoko, though she spurns all of his advances, preferring to wait for Shin, whom she has no news from. Behind the scenes, Kanzaki also starts making deals with other companies with the ultimate goal to eventually take over YAL. Nothing is beyond his scheming.
When a reporter shows up to Area 88 to expose the realities of the Aslan civil war to the world, Shin’s photo is published worldwide. Ryoko sees the photo and begins plotting to free Shin from Area 88. When Kanzaki finds out about this, he blocks her path every step of the way, and even sets an assassin on Shin’s trail. Even when Shin foils a terrorist plot to destroy a passenger plane, one that Kanzaki just happens to be piloting, Kanzaki still does what he can to keep Shin down and away from Ryoko.
While the second disc is technically a separate OVA from the first, it follows on from pretty much where the first leaves off and finishes of the plotline. By the second disc, Shin is starting to get used to the constant war atmosphere at Area 88, and though he is still technically against the killing, he finds that it does not bother him any longer. And though he still longs to return to Japan and Ryoko, he is numb to the possibility that might never happen.
At first, I struggled to get into Area 88. I was interested in what was going on at the base, but I really did not care for the subplot with Ryoko and Kanzaki. The fight scenes in Aslan were really well done, and I found the concept of Shin being a reluctant participant in the war to be fascinating.
In particular, I really enjoyed how he changes the more time he is stationed at Area 88. At first, he approaches battle as a necessity—a means to an end, and he never lets himself get too attached to the people around him. They all die to quickly anyway. Soon, though, he cannot help but find himself drawn to Mickey Simon, another ace pilot with a tremendous strike rate, and Saki Vashtal, an Aslanian royal and the Area 88 commander. As he builds camaraderie with them, he begins to unwittingly get used to life at Area 88. And as many pilots and war-vets try to warn him, when he is granted his release, readjusting to normal life is not as easy as he thinks, no matter how much he yearns for it.
In comparison, I initially found Kanzaki’s schemes to be boring, and found Ryoko’s actions, past the point of being a dream for Shin to chase, to be rather unnecessary. Corporate scandals and lost love are just no comparison to Shin’s experiences in Aslan. As the series progressed, however, I began to take a bit more of an interest in them, as it became harder not to respect Ryoko’s sheer determination and Kanzaki’s increasingly overt dickishness.
Unfortunately, I find this is where the series dropped the ball the most, in particular with Kanzaki. While Ryoko tries to work hard to bring Shin home, she continually falls into the unfortunate problem of being a powerless woman, and therefore her character loses some of its impact. It is great that she keeps trying, but it becomes obvious very quickly that she is doomed for repeated failure.
With Kanzaki, they do a really good job setting up his drive to succeed no matter how many toes he has to step on, but they also introduce a really nice twist of an underlying sense of guilt over having to screw over his former friend to get there. This comes to fruition when Shin unknowingly saves Kanzaki’s life while foiling the terrorist plot. However, this is quickly left by the wayside, ultimately leaving Kanzaki’s story to come to a somewhat unsatisfying conclusion. Kanzaki’s schemes and Ryoko’s struggles just cannot match up to the psychological nightmare that Shin is enduring.
With all three of these struggles going on at once, it is easy to see that Area 88 is not exactly a pick-me-up. While the aerial combat gets the pulse pounding, the true story happens on the ground. It explores the emotional impact of war and the baser sides of human nature, and none of that is ever pretty. Area 88 does a great job of initially presenting Shin as a man of high morals before slowly breaking him down, bringing the viewer along for the ride. While not necessarily a joyful ride, it certainly is thought provoking.
For me, Area 88 is a title with a split personality. When focused on Shin, Area 88 is a terrific exploration of the human psyche in less than ideal situations. When the focus shifts away to Kanzaki and/or Ryoko, I found my interest shift away too. While not necessarily bad, their storyline just did not interest me anywhere near as much as what was going on with Shin. Still, Shin’s plot arc more than made up for their inadequacies, so I cannot complain too much. Area 88 will never be confused as a happy story, but it has some excellent aerial combat and will certainly stir emotions and thoughts. Recommended.
Japanese 2.0 Language, English 2.0 Language, English Subtitles, Introduction of the Fighters, Interview with Kaoru Shintani
Magnavox 37MF337B 37” LCD HDTV, Memorex MVD2042 Progressive Scan w/ DD/DTS (Component Connection), Durabrand HT3916 5.1 Surround Sound System