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"Area 88": Dying for a Living

Although violent action anime is in no short supply, there is a curious shortage of titles depicting real-world warfare. After all, what could be more topical than a volatile Middle Eastern insurgency? Yes, probably not one set in the early 1980s. But, chronology aside, Kaoru Shintani’s classic aerial combat manga Area 88 has returned in a strong new TV series ready to kick the tires and light the fires. “Target 01: Treacherous Skies” contains the first three episodes.

Some may remember Area 88 as one of the first translated manga or as the fun video game UN Squadron. In the event that you don’t, it is the tale of mercenary fighter pilots serving in the fictional Middle Eastern kingdom of Aslan, which has been caught up in a brutal civil war. It was brought to life once before in a respectable but insanely condensed OVA series. This time the writer has opted for a mix of adapted and original episodic stories that loosely cover the first half of the manga. The result is a collection of rousing, action-filled adventures set against a sobering backdrop of death and destruction. The main storyline is also heavy with romance and intrigue, but this first volume only hints at them.

Indeed, viewers who have never read the manga will be at a disadvantage early on, since exposition is slow in coming. For their benefit I will now divulge a few spoilers critical to understanding lead character Shin Kazama, so skip the next paragraph if you wish to remain in the dark.

Shin and his friend Kanzaki dreamed of becoming airline pilots together, but the two ended up embroiled in a love triangle when they both fell for Ryoko, the lovely daughter of an airline president. Determined to remove this obstacle from his career path, the ruthlessly ambitious Kanzaki had Shin secretly pressed into service in the Aslan air force. Now Shin and his fellow mercenary pilots must either pay a $1.5 million fee or serve out a three-year contract to gain their freedom—if they live that long. Shin is sick of war but determined to return to Ryoko, so he tirelessly takes on all sorts of dangerous missions to earn the necessary money.

As Episode 1, “Wings of the Desert,” begins Japanese photojournalist Makoto Shinjou has arrived at the Area 88 airbase by following the curious rumors he’s heard of a Japanese pilot fighting for Aslan. The intense Shin, his gregarious American friend Mickey, and the stern Aslanian base commander Saki are all less than thrilled to see him, contemptuous of what they see as an attempt to make entertainment out of their life and death struggle. However Shinjou is given a chance to prove his mettle when the base comes under attack.

“The Setting Sun as Grave Marker” introduces veteran pilot Boris, who has earned a reputation as the Angel of Death because all who fly alongside him perish while he remains unscathed. Consequently, other pilots are terrified of him; haunted by the ghosts of his fallen comrades, he tries to sleep with the lights on. In this episode, the fearless Shin and the cash-strapped young African pilot Kim accompany Boris on a bombing mission that sounds much easier than it turns out to be.

Finally, in “Viewfinder in the Blue Sky,” when Shin shoots down an enemy transport plane rumored to have been carrying gold, everyone rushes out to look for the crash site. Meanwhile, Shinjou requests that Shin take him up in a fighter so he can understand the pilot’s perspective and learns more than he bargained for when they run into enemy planes.

Although this series aired in 2004, it has no connection with the current “war on terror.” In focuses solely on the epic clash for control of Aslan, which is vaguely similar to Saudi Arabia. There is also little to be learned about the Middle East, since the motley crew of foreign fighter pilots dominates screen time. If only the world could work together as smoothly as the multinational Area 88 crowd. Preferably not for the purpose of killing people, though.

Like many anime heroes, Shin is sickened by the ongoing carnage but doesn’t hesitate to participate. He seems burdened by some great weight, but so far he is too busy quietly brooding to reveal much. Much more open is Shinjou, who by making observations about the pilots and events serves as a narrator-by-proxy. He seems honorable and brave, but he too has a secret agenda not yet explained. Also remaining mysterious is the slightly Machiavellian Saki, who both respects and manipulates his pilots, and Shin’s pals, the hotheaded Mickey and naïve Kim. Much easier to read is the Scrooge McDuck-like weapons dealer McCoy, who simply wants as much money as possible, although he is not completely without compassion. For a change, most of the English dub performances are fairly good.

Unlike the OVA, the dogfights are tightly choreographed and do justice to the realism pursued by the manga. In my favorite moment Shin faces enemy fighters unarmed and escapes a heat-seeking missile by leading it right up to an attacker’s exhaust and breaking away at the last second.

Perhaps the biggest departure from the OVA is the heavy use of cel-shaded CGI for flight scenes. In other shows this often results in horribly mismatched footage, but here it’s quite convincing. Occasionally there’s a video game moment in which the planes look a bit like models tugged by strings. Aircraft fans will enjoy the wide variety of photorealistic fighters on display. The 2D character animation is also attractive, although the mouth flaps could be fine-tuned just a little.

If the CGI is the biggest step up from the OVA, the soundtrack is surely the biggest step down. The opening theme is a wildly incongruous techno dance track, and the closer is a horrid cool jazz yawner called “Dance of the Battlefield” (!). I don’t know what the producers were thinking. Everyone knows fighter jets require either a pounding orchestral score or Kenny Loggins.

The extras begin with a deep, spoiler-heavy discussion between director Isamu Imakake (Cowboy Bebop) and writer Hiroshi Onogi (Gundam SEED) that covers the series’ themes and characters and the challenges of adapting a classic older work. (At one point, Onogi remarks that in today’s anime “there has to be half-naked babe in every fighter plane.”) Next is a small gallery of character models but, frustratingly, no aircraft. Somewhat ameliorating this omission are technical specs on Shin’s F-8E Corsair and Kim’s Sea Harrier. The usually worthless character bios provide some helpful background but also contain a spoiler or two. Finally, the insert contains Shin and Shinjou’s Japanese voice actors’ brief thoughts on the series. The only real disappointment is the lack of commentary on the aircraft and tactics of Area 88 for us laymen, despite the listing of a U.S. Air Force consultant in the credits.

If you enjoyed the frantic aerial action of Top Gun or Stealth but were hoping for a compelling story to go with it, Area 88 should be just the ticket. If you also demand deep characterization, then I recommend hunting down the excellent manga, since this series only skims the surface. If you are looking for nudity, well, the cast is 99% male, so you’re out of luck. There might be a camel in there somewhere, though. [Wrong "hump," Dess. -Ed]

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