Area 88 TV Vol. #1 (also w/box) (of 4) (Mania.com)

By:Chris Beveridge
Review Date: Thursday, July 28, 2005
Release Date: Tuesday, July 19, 2005



What They Say
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 Review!
Returning to one rather enjoyable manga series for far too many years ago, Area 88 is given a new lease on life with a twelve episode TV series.

Audio:
For our primary viewing session, we listened to this show in its original language of Japanese. The shows included stereo mix does a solid job overall of providing a good full soundstage for the battle sequences in the air and when the bombs drop and hit the ground targets while also doing a good job at handling the various levels of dialogue and placement. This is a fairly busy mix in general though it does have it's quiet moments which helps everything else stand out more. My only real disappointment, and I know I'm in the minority, is that lack of inclusion of the Japanese DTS 5.1 track that was available on the commercial release and not just the rental version. Otherwise, dialogue is clean and clear throughout and we had no problem with dropouts or distortions.

Video:
Originally airing in 2004, the transfer for this TV series is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and is enhanced for anamorphic playback. With little time between its original airing and release, the materials here look really good and the show overall had a decent budget, though it looks like a good chunk went into the CG design and modeling which pays off nicely throughout. The series has something of a distinct look to it since a lot of it takes place either in the sky or around the base so there's lots of blues and yellows which translate nice and solid here. There are a few areas of some noticeable breakup in some of the tans but this amounts to a few seconds out of three full episodes. A couple of scenes showed off some edge enhancement, which was very much visible with the characters against the blue sky, but it wasn't something that was showing up consistently throughout the release.

Packaging:
The series kicks off with a fairly decent cover that highlights the fighter plane aspect of things with Shin's aircraft taking up a good chunk of the cover with a ghost-like image of Shin off to the side. It's a decent looking cover though with the scanline style that's used it looks a little rough. I do wish that the original Japanese cover was used but at least that was included as the insert front page. The back cover goes with a quasi military color palette and has the top quarter with the summary of the premise, though it gives away numerous plot points not revealed in this volume. Lots of shots from the show are included as is a listing of the discs extras. The full production credits and technical grid round out the bottom of the cover. The insert features the artwork from the Japanese cover of Shin walking to his aircraft while the reverse side has a pair of translated comments about the series from the two lead voice actors.

Menu:
The menu layout is done up in a very in-theme manner with the interior panel shot of one of the aircraft with all its dials and buttons and knobs. The selections are laid out fairly wide and with the episode numbers for starting to play it may not be easy to find all that quickly but it looks good and access times are fast in general. The disc did however read our players' language presets properly and we had no problems with navigation or setup.

Extras:
The extras for the release look a little slim at first but it's surprisingly full – sort of. A good selection of sketches are included as well as a section of aircraft specs for those really wanting some detail. The character bios section is fairly standard fluff and we get the usual in the clean opening and closing sequences. The real surprise here is the interview piece with the series director and screenwriter. It runs just about fifty-five minutes in total and covers just about every aspect of the series – and was done after the show was completed. It's not something that's really meant for the first volume since it contains numerous spoilers for the rest of the show. I'm certainly glad it's included but putting it here means I can't watch it yet and hope to remember it when I finish the fourth volume.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Area 88 hasn't had one of the best histories when it comes to its releases here. Viz attempted the manga series many years ago and only made it through three volumes before dropping it, leaving the other twenty unreleased. CPM fared a bit better by having the show come out on VHS in full with the OVA series that was done in 1985 and even managed to get it out on laserdisc in full. Their attempts at a DVD release was less than spectacular however when only the first episode was released back in 1998 at the dawn of DVD. So when a new TV series was announced and came out in 2004, I certainly had strong hopes for it but the weight of history was seemingly against it.

Having the first three episodes on this volume, it's something that brings back a lot of the really good memories and feelings retained from those previous releases. The show is nicely updated in the visuals department but is kept firmly in its original time and style, which means we get things like Shin with a near 70's hairstyle, the simpler clothes and the more varied designs for the characters. On the insert, lead voice actor Takehito Koyasu talks about being a fan of this show when it was first a manga and mentions how the focus has shifted slightly in this version to that of the photographer who sees the world of Area 88 through different eyes than the manga which saw things through Shin's eyes. Each of these complements each other nicely and still keeps the story focused on what we've seen before. What's most interesting is that the real plot behind things, which is introduced fairly early on in the other versions, barely surfaces in these three episodes.

We're introduced to a photographer named Makoto who through various connections and some press credentials has come out to the Kingdom of Aslan which is undergoing a civil war. Ostensibly, he's there to find the perfect shot that every battlefield photographer looks for in order to cement what they see and their vision of their works. When there though, the reality of what's going on slowly starts to get to him and we do see some threads of another purpose but it's kept mostly to a few minor lines and certain expressions. What attracts Makoto even more to this place called Area 88 that he arrives in is that one of the pilots there is a Japanese man named Shin Kazama.

In order to fight the civil war, the Kingdom of Aslan has decided that to do so require the use of mercenaries. These pilots are brought in from all sources and sign three year contracts that they will fight for the Kingdom on missions that they are assigned to. The mercenaries are generally used for the more dangerous missions and to handle softening up the enemy before the Kingdom's own forces swoop in and deal with the rest later. The coordination of all of this is done by a man named Saki who commands the Area 88 airstrip and base out in the desert. The pilots there are a varied breed and each of them has their own motivations both for being there and in how they fight.

A pilot can get out of their contract early though but it requires paying a 1.5 million dollar fine. The pilots do earn money from their work here as each target it assigned a monetary value and some missions are worth more than others, such as enemy aircraft being worth more than ground targets. The downside is that the pilots have to pay for practically everything along the way, from their planes, fuel, weapons, food, cigarettes and so forth. It's easy to make money if you've got some skill but the maintenance and upkeep of the aircraft requires that you put a lot of it back into flying. This is what leads to some of the pilots doing more daring and reckless endeavors in order to get more money in order to get free if they've been swindled into the contract.

The series focuses heavily on Shin as it is his series, even though the angle has changed a bit, and we get to see battles from various peoples perspectives but it's all the more focused when Shin takes to the air. The cast of mercenaries is nicely wide enough and changing fairly frequently due to various deaths and their designs reflect their different origins as well as can be expected. Just as varied is the aircraft used by the pilots and a lot of energy went into making them as right as possible, which only makes the numerous air battles all the more engaging to watch. This series really is just an expanded and better animated version of the OVA series with some tweaks done to the plot, so the first volume had plenty of expected material in terms of the battles and events. But even with the familiarity, it was intriguing to see the changes, such as the "desert fangs" being updated in their design from the original works. Based on what's come so far, I can't wait to see the rest of it to see what they can flesh out more since there's more time to cover new material.

In Summary:
Area 88 survives on nostalgia in some ways for me since it's something from when I was learning the ropes for both manga and anime and they made a huge impression on me. This updated version retains much of what made the original so much fun and does a good job of using more modern story telling methods and animation to smooth out things. Much of the designs for the characters is retained as well and this helps it to really stand out against many of the bland designs of male characters today. For the most part, this is s very male-centric show and the first volume has barely an image of women in general but there are some key interactions still to come. I've been anticipating this release since it was first announced as in production and the opening volume is all I've hoped for and more.

Features
Japanese 2.0 Language,English 5.1 Language,English Subtitles, Clean Opening and Closing Animation, Production Sketches, Interviews with Isamu Imakake and Hiroshi Ohnogi

Review Equipment
Panasonic PT50LC13 50" LCD RP HDTV, Zenith DVB-318 Progressive Scan codefree DVD player via DVI, Sony STR-DE835 DD/DTS receiver, Monster component cable and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.



Mania Grade: A-
Audio Rating: B+
Video Rating: A-
Packaging Rating: B+
Menus Rating: B
Extras Rating: A
Age Rating: TV PG
Region: 1 - North America
Released By: ADV Films
MSRP: 29.98/39.98
Running time: 75
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Disc Resolution: 480i/p (mixed/unknown)
Disc Encoding: MPEG-2
Series: Area 88