Creator: A Group TAC Production
Director: Isamu Imagake
Length: 12 Episodes
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+ Realistic flight and aerial combat
+ Well written, realistic characters
Cartoon-like drawing of characters
It has been said that it is impossible to make an anti-war film because the audience will always be excited by the depiction of battle. Area 88's depictions of aerial combat are exciting and beautiful. However, the creators of the series balance the beauty of the aerial scenes with the horrors and confusion of war. A common motif of the series is a shot of a squadron of fighters returning to base with fewer planes than they left with.
4 out of 5 · Highly Recommended
Area 88 Anime Review
Written by: Frank B. Chavez III on 5/3/2009
In 1987, Area 88 by Kaoru Shintani became one of the first three manga series to be translated into English and published in the United States. Set during a war in Aslan, a fictional Middle Eastern country, Area 88 is the story of Shin Kazama a young hot shot pilot duped into becoming a mercenary fighter pilot by an unscrupulous and jealous friend. Like many other war stories from the 1980s, Area 88 reflects many of the concerns about the nature of war that arose during the Vietnam War era. Desperate to earn the $1.5 million that will buy his freedom from his contract, Shin quickly becomes a cold and methodical but self-loathing killer. As the story progresses we watch with fascination and horror as Shin gradually loses touch with his humanity and begin to wonder if he kills for survival or the excitement and camaraderie of battle.
We are introduced to Area 88's world of mercenary fighter pilots through the eyes and camera of Makoto Shinjo, a Japanese photojournalist sent to cover the rumor that foreign mercenaries are fighting in the Aslanian civil war. Although he comes across as streetwise, tough, and cynical, Shinjo is shocked by the seeming disregard the mercenaries have for life and limb. There are no heroes at the base. Paid $20'000 bounties for each kill, the mercenaries spend as much time as possible in the air, often landing just long enough to refuel or make repairs before returning to combat. Among the mercenaries Shinjo meets is sad-eyed, soulful Shin Kazama, Area 88's lone Japanese pilot. Shinjo has been paid by one of Shin's rivals back home in Japan to take a picture of Shin's dead face but at the same time he can't help but be fascinated by him. While the mercenaries represent nearly every ethnicity on Earth, Shin is the only Japanese. The names Shin and Shinjo are written with the same characters but with different pronunciations. Shinjo philosophically muses that the differences in pronunciation may have lead to their taking different paths in life.
Originally written just a few years after the defeat of American forces in Vietnam and the fall of Saigon, Area 88 addresses many issues raised by the Vietnam War such as the psychological effects of contemporary mechanized warfare. Unlike American movies such as Top Gun which tend to glamorize and romanticize fighter pilots, Area 88 depicts them as emotionally trouble, hardened professionals. Among the pilots we meet are Mickey Simon, an American Vietnam veteran, now pushing 40, who became a mercenary because he couldn't adjust to civilian life and Boris a RAF pilot haunted by memories of his dead comrades. The other pilots at Area 88 are widely varied and include an African prince, other Vietnam War veterans, a disgraced pilot trainer from Germany, and even a woman. Much like those who were drafted to fight in Vietnam many of the mercenaries fighting in Aslan's civil war are there against their will, such as Shin. However, others are there of their own free will for reasons as varied as their backgrounds; some exclusively for money, some to escape shameful pasts, some for glory, and some for the shear excitement of combat.
Show More Much like the burned out doctors and nurses on MASH, the pilots of Area 88 deal with their situation with a mixture of melancholy philosophy, bravado, and grim humor. Betting on who will get the most kills during a mission is common. Things that civilians take for granted have special significance to the mercenaries. Sunsets have special meaning for the pilots as grave markers for lost comrades. Laughs, like money, are had when they can be found. For example, in one early scene, Shinjo is amazed when a Danish pilot named Greg brings his smoking plane in for a landing, jumps out, demands Bourbon and then proceeds to pour it over his head in order to kill bugs that have gotten trapped in his helmet. It's both a practical solution and amusing one which takes everyone's mind off their troubles for a moment.
The pilots and ground crew at Area 88 take the term mercenary to heart, pilots get paid for each kill but they also pay for parts and labor on their planes, the food that they eat, and any sundry items they require. The sense of greed that permeates the base is exemplified by McCoy, the operator of the base PX, in a pinch he can scrounge up any item that may be required but it will cost you a fortune, may not be exactly what you're looking for, and if it is what you need, it may not work the way it's supposed to. He even makes money selling coffins for dead pilots. These coffins are often sent back home empty because the pilot has been lost in the desert.
Pilots serve three year contracts and the only ways out are to die, desert, or earn $1.5 million in bounties. The pilots accept as many missions as possible in hopes of reaching that goal but as Shinjo soon learns, Shin Kazama is the only one who even comes close. It is only gradually that we learn the true horror of Shin's situation; much of his past is revealed in a mind bending episode in which Shin is shot down and spends hours wandering the desert, hallucinating under a relentless sun. His is tale of woe and betrayal at the hands of a jealous friend. Shin wasn't supposed to be a fighter pilot, he originally trained to fly commercial airplanes and was engaged to be married to an airline CEO's daughter. Tricked into signing a contract by a childhood friend, it was either go to war or be shot as a deserter. Driven by his desire to return to his former life in Japan and the woman he loves, Shin has the clearest goal of any the pilots; with the exception of Kim, the young African prince, most of the others seem to have given up on any other life besides flying and combat. However, Shin's years of combat experience have left him wondering whether he fights for survival or for the exhilaration of combat and the camaraderie it brings.
Show More Visually, the series is a mixture of cartoony manga style character designs, stunning landscapes and realistic depictions of flight and aerial combat. In keeping with the manga, the character designs reflect the sensibilities of the early '80s with characters easily fitting into recognizable archetypes. Although Japanese, Shin is depicted with blonde hair and blue eyes and looks like an anime version of Luke Skywalker. If Shin is Luke Skywalker then Shinjo is the Han Solo-esque rogue and we know it from his perpetual five o'clock shadow and constant smirk. Other characters fit it easily recognizable types as well such as the fat comic relief, the taciturn commander, and the fresh faced kid.
The animators do better in depicting the harsh, unforgiving landscape of the Aslan desert. The base itself is nestled in a canyon surrounded by vast mesas and majestic mountains. When the planes fly it is over windswept sand the color of caramel and under azure skies marbled by white streaks of cloud. The colorists working on the background paintings manage to capture the nature of light and color as it can only be seen in the desert.
Where the animation really shines is in the depiction of flight and aerial combat. Unlike anime such as the films of Hayao Miyazaki which often depict flight in a fanciful way, Area 88 depicts real planes performing real maneuvers. The animation is so accurate and detailed it could almost pass as documentary footage on Wings or the History Channel. Watching the series is often an exhilarating experience. However, the series' creators temper the beauty of the aerial sequence with occasional reminder that the planes are guided by human pilots and when the planes are destroyed a life is lost by often showing fewer planes returning to base than went out.
With its mixture of action, comedy, and philosophy, Area 88 is a thoughtful and entertaining exploration of contemporary warfare and the experiences of the soldiers we send off to fight and die for us. While telling us the story of Shin Kazama's transformation into a hardened killer, it explores the psychological and emotional toll warfare has on the human psyche and spirit.
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