ADV Films // 2004 // 75 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Mitchell Hattaway (Retired) // September 8th, 2005
The only way out is to kill or be killed.
The Kingdom of Aslan (don't laugh) is being torn apart by civil war. The government has taken to hiring mercenary pilots in hopes of defeating the rebel forces. Pilots from all over the world have signed three-year contracts with the Aslan government. Earning money for each kill, the pilots are contractually required to put in three years of service; barring death, the only way out of the contract is to pay a fee of 1.5 million dollars. Area 88 is an airbase located in the middle of Aslan's desert region. All of the pilots at Area 88 have volunteered for service, with the exception of Shin Kazama, the base's one Japanese pilot. Betrayed by one of his closest friends and having lost the woman he loved in the process, Shin was forced into service. Thing is, Shin may be skilled enough to earn the money he needs to buy his way out of his contract and return to his former life.
The first three episodes of this series are presented on this release:
* Episode 1: "Wings of the Desert"
Combat photographer Makoto Shinjou arrives at Area 88. Ostensibly there to cover the war for a Japanese newspaper, he has actually come to the base in hopes of snapping a photo of Shin Kazama's corpse. Shin returns from a sortie during which he single-handedly downed three enemy MiGs; Makoto introduces himself, but Shin wants nothing to do with the other man. Makoto later takes photos of damaged planes and injured pilots, which angers Shin's friend Mickey (he considers Makoto to be an opportunistic coward), who begins to beat the living hell out of Makoto. The Area 88 pilots are later ordered to attack an enemy surface-to-air missile base. Shin and Mickey decline to go; they are each fined 5,000 dollars for refusing to obey orders. Believing the base to be undefended, rebel planes target Area 88; Shin and Mickey are sent up to engage the enemy.
* Episode 2: "The Setting Sun as Grave Marker"
Boris, a pilot known to his Area 88 comrades as the Angel of Death, is leading an attack on a rebel base; as is usually the case, Boris's wingmen are killed, leaving him to return to Area 88 alone. The mercenary pilots are later assigned to bomb an enemy stronghold; the mission comes with a completion bonus of 30,000 dollars. Many of the pilots jump at the opportunity, but they change their minds when they realize Boris will also be participating. Shin agrees to go, as does Kim, a teenaged pilot who also happens to be a member of an African nation's royal family.
* Episode 3: "Viewfinder in the Sky"
Kim and Shin shoot down a large enemy transport. Enemy radio chatter seems to indicate the plane was carrying a large shipment of gold. The Area 88 pilots scramble to locate the downed aircraft; Mickey and Shin stay behind. With Mickey flying wingman, Shin later takes Makoto up for a flight; Shin jinks his plane around like a madman, doing his best to make the photographer lose his lunch. Two enemy planes interrupt the fun; although he is unarmed, Shin still manages to down one of the rebel craft. The other Area 88 pilots return, and the true nature of the transport plane's cargo is revealed.
Area 88 is based on a long-running, classic manga by Kaoru Shintani. I read a few issues when the series hit the States back in the mid '80s, and I remember being particularly impressed by Shintani's depiction of aerial combat; the flight scenes were incredibly fluid and dynamic. That being the case, the series seemed tailor-made for the transition to anime. A three episode original video animation (OVA) was made back in 1985 (I believe the first volume is available on DVD), and now we have this new, updated version. Shintani's series eventually filled thirteen manga volumes, so what we have here is a streamlined version of the story. Many of the characters from the manga have been ported over more or less intact, with the exception of Makoto, who was created specifically for this anime. While the plot isn't an exact adaptation, it's certainly in the spirit of Shintani's work.
As can be expected, truncating thirteen volumes of a manga down to enough plot to fill twelve anime half-hours results in a very episodic show; other than Shin's desire to return home to Japan and Makoto's quest to get his prized photo, there really isn't much connective tissue to be found in these episodes, nor is there much in the way of character development. That being said, the dogfight scenes seem to be the primary focus here, and these scenes, which employ a melding of cel and CG animation, are spectacular. From the first battle (in which Shin battles four old MiGs) to the last (in which Shin outmaneuvers a missile in a two-seater Phantom), I was hooked.
The fine folks at ADV have done a wonderful job on the technical end. The anamorphic transfer is impeccable. You also get two smashing audio options. The 5.1 English dub is loud and booming, with excellent surround action and immersion. The voice over work is a bit of a mixed bag; some of it works, some of it doesn't. The Japanese stereo track features excellent channel separation and some great low-end activity. It would have been nice had a full surround mix of the original language track been included, but you can work wonders on the stereo track by applying Pro Logic II decoding, which will put you right in the middle of the explosions, shrieking missiles, and jet wash. Extras include a gallery of production sketches, along with the standard clean opening/closing sequences and previews. Also included are text bios for Shin, Kim, and Makoto, along with technical specs for two of the aircraft featured in the series (Shin's F-8 Corsair and Kim's Harrier). The meatiest extra is an interview with director Isamu Imakake and writer Hiroshi Ohnogi, which runs 55 minutes and will spoil the plot for anyone who hasn't seen the entire series (five minutes in they started talking about the ending, so I immediately bailed).
The plotting of Area 88 is a bit thin and a little too episodic, but the truly amazing combat scenes more than make up for these faults. Definitely recommended.
Review content copyright © 2005 Mitchell Hattaway; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: ADV Films
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Japanese)
Running Time: 75 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Production Sketches
* Aircraft Specs
* Character Bios
* Writer/Director Interview
* Clean Opening/Closing Animation
* Volume 2 Preview
* ADV Previews
* Official Site
* Anime News Network Page