Area 88: Vol.1 - Treacherous Skies
I put the shiny new anime disc into my player, eager to get a load of cel-shaded fighter pilot goodness, and upon seeing the main character, Shin Kazama, I had such a strong attack of déjà vu, that I had to stop the disc, and retire to the Internet to see what was causing it. The Area 88 television show, made in 2004 is an updating of an earlier OVA series made in 1985 (available from region 1 if you're interested), although I certainly wasn't watching as much anime at that age. Then I read that there had been an arcade game spin off, one of those 2D sideways scrolling shoot-em-ups where you blow stuff up, and collect power ups, then face increasingly powerful end of level bosses. I don't recall a shoot-em-up called Area 88, but it was when I read that it had been renamed for Western audiences that the penny dropped. Long, long ago, in a lounge not too far away, I had carefully loaded up the Spectrum conversion of U.N. Squadron. I'd shelled out my hard-saved pocket money for one of the worst games ever made on the humble speccy, taking advantage of all that micro's drawbacks. It was a monochrome mess, where I died twenty seconds into every game, as I just couldn't make out what was going on. The thing was, the game's protagonist was Shin Kazama. Anyway, that itch finally scratched, I could return to the anime.
There's something ineffably cool about fighter planes, especially to a young teenaged male. That's despite the fact that the closest we'll ever get to such machinery is probably in the Imperial War Museum, and the chance of us being anywhere near a working fighter are either slim or fat. It didn't stop me from borrowing coffee table books from the library, perusing through Jane's Guide to Fighter Jets, playing computer games, swapping top trumps cards, and indulging in movies like Wings of the Apache and Top Gun. It's why I will still watch Firefox despite it being the worst movie that Clint Eastwood ever made. But fighter planes in animation are another matter. There is little satisfaction to be had in Dastardly and Muttley; it may be entertaining but it won't appeal to the plane-spotter in all of us, and it's hard to envisage a cartoon coming up with the level of detail, consistency, accuracy and sense of speed that a decent depiction requires. It's jet porn basically, but two things make it feasible. One is the adult outlook of anime, where attention to detail and accuracy are commonplace, and the other is CGI. When you have realistic aircraft, modelled with digital accuracy, it makes a show like Area 88 possible.
The Kingdom of Aslan is embroiled in a bitter civil war, but rather than recruit and train its own standing air force, it has instead opted for a mercenary squadron operating from its Area 88 base, flying sorties against insurrectionist forces, fighting one of the most bitter conflicts in the Middle East. The pilots who fly from Area 88 sign up to tough contracts. There are only three ways to leave, serve the full 3-year tour, amass $1.5 million and buy your way out, or in a body bag. Earning the money would seem easy, when you're making tens of thousands of dollars for each target, but pilots also have to pay for maintenance, spare parts, repairs, armaments, ammunition, and even the food they eat and the roof over their heads, and if they get shot down, their coffins. It's fine if you sign up for it, but for the base's sole Japanese pilot, Shin Kazama, it's a deal he never made. He was on the fast track to success as a commercial airline pilot, he'd just passed his final tests, and was engaged to be married to a girl named Ryoko, when his ex-best friend Kanzaki signed him up for Aslan's merc pilots. He needs to buy his way out of the contract so he can get back to his fiancé, and that means flying, fighting and killing as many enemy targets as quickly as possible.
The first three episodes are presented on this first volume of four from ADV.
1. Sky Blue - Wings of the Desert
Freelance photographer Makoto Shinjo is heading to the Aslan Area 88 airbase like many other such photographers who head into war-zones, to capture some memorable and thrilling imagery in the bloody heat of war. He finds a motley collection of pilots who are all in it for one thing, money, or at least that's the way it seems. A teenaged Harrier pilot gives him pause for thought, and then he learns that the base's sole Japanese pilot, Shin Kazama never chose to be there in the first place. It also turns out that the actual reason that Shinjo is there is that sole Japanese pilot, and that someone is paying him to get a photo of his dead face.
2. Boris - The Setting Sun as a Grave Marker
There's only one survivor of an attack on a ground installation, and Shinjo learns that it isn't a rare occurrence. Boris has something of a jinx to him. He's called the Angel of Death, and his wingmen invariably end up dying. In fact, he always returns from a mission alone. There's more to this man than just a jinx though. When base commander Saki Vashtar announces the next target, an installation that just wiped out three planes, it has an unexpectedly high reward. The pilots are all eager until Boris volunteers. After that, among the only people brave enough to fly with him are Shin Kazama, and Kim Aba, that teenaged Harrier pilot.
3. Shin & Makoto - Viewfinder in the Blue Sky
It looks like a gift from the Gods when a lumbering transport plane escorted by four MIGs falls into Shin and Kim's gunsights. But that transport has teeth, and Shin's plane is hit. Rattled by the near miss, the Harrier and Crusader break off. But the damage they inflicted on the transport was terminal, and when another pilot overhears an S&R transmission mentioning gold on the transport, it unleashes an airborne gold rush, as the mercenaries compete to make a hefty bonus. Meanwhile, Shin is getting suspicious of photographer Shinjo, and decides to take him for a joyride in a Phantom.
A recent anime gets a nice 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer. Aside from the NTSC-PAL conversion issues prevalent with every other anime show available in the UK, the only real annoyance is a degree of moiré on fine detail, and almost imperceptible aliasing. It's not a deal breaker, but is a disappointment in such a visual show. The character designs are pleasant enough if a little old-fashioned, reflecting their mid-eighties origins. The real joy is in the hardware. The planes here are depicted with a degree of accuracy and attention to detail that is unprecedented for an animation. That anime budget does show though, although oddly enough it's in slower moments of animation. When you see a jet taxiing or during take-off or landing, something doesn't feel quite right, as if the plane lacks weight. But when the action heats up, during a dogfight or while performing aerobatic sequences, the visuals are amazing. It's almost as if they've taken sequences from Top Gun and just cel-shaded them.
You have a choice between DD 5.1 English and DD 2.0 Japanese, along with optional translated subtitles and signs. I was happy enough with the original language as always, and the stereo provides some nice whooshy plane noises when required. But for the full jet porn aficionado, the 5.1 Surround will be the audio track of choice, and while it isn't as full-blown as a multi-million dollar effects movie, it does throw some planes, missiles, cannon and AA fire around your speakers. It's enough to put a grin on your face during the actions scenes. Unfortunately when they start talking, that grin will ebb, as the English language dub is decidedly average. It's a show that desperately needs a 5.1 Japanese track.
There may be a low episode count on this disc, but the extras compensate.
The clear Amaray case has a reversible sleeve you can make use of, and the inside has character guides for Shin Kazama and Makoto Shinjo, with interviews with their voice actors as well.
On the disc you'll find trailers for Yugo The Negotiator, Samurai Gun, Gilgamesh, Madlax and Peacemaker. There is a 1½-minute slideshow of production sketches, the clean credit sequences (2 opening, 1 closing), aircraft specs for the F-8 Crusader and the Sea Harrier, and character bios for Shin Kazama, Kim Aba and Makoto Shinjo (there's a bit of repetition in the last from the sleeve notes).
The major offering is the Interview with Director Isamu Imakake and Screenwriter Hiroshi Ohnogi. This lasts 54 minutes, and is immediately preceded by a spoiler warning, recommending you save it until after watching the entire series. It's basically the two men, sat at a coffee table, having a chat about the show, about adapting if from the manga, compressing it into 12 episodes, the new characters and the changes made to the story. It's pretty dry stuff, and it could have used some clips from the show to break things up. It also didn't help that I watched it at around midnight, which meant that I dozed through much of the latter half.
There is also a preview for volume 2.
If you still have that teenage fascination with fighter jets, then this anime is for you, and you may as well put the order in right now. I never would have expected jets to be depicted in animation with such accuracy, while still conveying the thrills and sense of speed. The animated dogfights in this show are amazing, while the sheer variety of hardware on offer for viewers will keep plane-spotters sated for hours. It also harks back to those cold war brinkmanship movies of old, with good guys versus bad guys, heroic US fighters versus evil MIGs, although in this case, there's no need to dress up an F86 to look like a MIG 15 when you can have the (animated) real thing.
The story on the other hand may give you pause. Area 88 is a short series, just 12 episodes in length, but with these first three episodes we're just scratching the surface. It looks at first glance to be an updating of the Count of Monte Cristo story, with Shin Kazama betrayed by his friend Kanzaki, and sentenced to certain death fighting in a bitterly contested civil war, hoping to earn enough money to eventually escape. He's had to leave his fiancé behind, and it appears that Kanzaki hasn't finished with him yet. Makoto Shinjo has been hired to take a photograph of Shin's dead face, although whether that means Shinjo is to personally affect Shin's demise is unclear at this point. That he's a war photographer with a keen eye for a story is, and that means that he serves as our eyes into this brutal world, and despite his ambiguous nature, his reactions serve to inform ours as the series unfolds.
These three episodes really are more about set up, about explaining the situation in the Kingdom of Aslan, and introducing the characters, while also conveying the lethal seriousness of the conflict, just so we quickly understand how precariously poised the lives of these mercenaries are. The second episode is a little clichéd to be frank, a jinxed pilot with a death wish, haunted by his failures and his successes, while the third episode is a little more interesting, showing Shin Kazama to be very human, and certainly vulnerable when he comes too close to enemy fire. The transport plane incident is also useful in showing the best and worst sides of the mercenaries, while also adding to the general picture of the conflict. All the while as part of the overall story, we're learning more and more about Shin's situation, and the part that the photographer Shinjo will have to play in it. Already it looks as if Shinjo is reluctant to fulfil his contract, and it's interesting to see in which way it will develop.
If there is an annoyance for me, it's the character of Kim Aba, the teenaged Harrier pilot. The story is that he's an African prince (with an Indian accent in the English dub), although the reason why he's playing this very grown up and lethal game isn't clear. Area 88 impressed me with its very adult and realistic outlook, and then it goes and throws a kid into the mix. I think it's a cliché in anime that you wind up with teenagers doing jobs that only older and wiser heads should do, but this is pushing it a little too far, as everyone else in the ranks is an adult. They laugh him off as a mascot, a lucky charm of sorts, but when you're aiming for realism and then throw in a child flying one of the hardest planes in the world to fly, you're really shooting yourself in the foot. It isn't a fatal wound though.
I liked this show, but then again I was that kid who kept borrowing Jane's Book of Fighter Aircraft from the library week after week. It's early days as yet with regards to the story, and it could go either way. Onwards and upwards to volume 2. Nyeeooowwwnn… Dakka Dakka Dakka Dakka!