Reviewed by: Spike
Released by: ADV Films
Age Rating: PG
Region: 1 - North America
Volume 1 of 4
Length: 75 minutes
English 5.1 Surround
Japanese 2.0 Stereo
Area 88, the fighter plane base in the Middle Eastern state of Aslan is the home of a group of mercenary pilots and their support team. New to this bloody, war torn arena, is the Japanese photographic journalist Makoto Shinjou, there to provide photos for an unknown buyer. Here he finds fellow Japanese citizen and pilot Shin Kazama, a pilot who uses his superior skill and intuition to act as a cold-blooded killer, but what is his motivation and how did he get there? Now, unbeknownst to any of them, Makoto is going to be the catalyst that shakes up the violent but linear existence of the pilots of Area 88 and make them confront their pasts and possibly decide their futures.
The pilots of Area 88 have a problem, and the problem is that they are locked into a three year contract to fight in the war and there are only a few ways out of this little problem: you can either complete your contract and not renew it, you can desert although this will incur a 1.5 million dollar penalty, or you can get shot down and die. With a payment given for each mission completed and every enemy plane being shot down but a fee required for fuel, parts and ammo as well as refusing a mission, only the best will be able to accrue the 1.5 million necessary to leave the base before their contract is up.
Watching the first episode of Area 88, the first thing that you’ll notice is the awesome aerial battles that are reminiscent of Macross Plus or even the live action film Top Gun, this coupled with a level of detail in the aircraft and their weapons that’s almost too accurate, leaves an overall sense of realism as yet unseen in most anime series out there. The sound on the 5.1 surround English dub is fantastic when coupled with an accompanying surround sound system, and if properly configured, will have the viewer ducking and covering as a jet zooms past. While the Japanese language track at only stereo 2.0 doesn’t have the same "wow" factor as its surround cousin, hearing the original language and reading the subtitles can make the dialogue seem a little more believable for some viewers.
While on the ground in the airbase everything is seen through the perspective and internal monologue of Makoto, the photographer, who uses his camera to capture images and emotions while attempting to unravel the mysteries behind each of the pilot’s stories. Conversely in the air, the combat is seen through the eyes of Shin who has a bleak and slightly sad outlook on combat as well as the other pilots and his old life in Japan. The other pilots are a broad spectrum of personalities, from the young and naive through the brash and bawdy, to the quiet and contemplative, much like Shin himself, and are explored at various points either though their own perspective or though interaction with the main characters and can often provide a reflective insight into the protagonists themselves.
Many would write off Area 88 as a male centric testosterone-fest with big planes and big explosions, however it is much more than that. The series is more about the exploration of the characters involved by placing them in a situation that they cannot escape from and must fight although all that most of them want is to leave. In the end Area 88 comes from the same theoretical vein as Gundam Wing as an interesting, character-centric series with some truly epic aerial combat thrown in for good measure, and can be recommended for fans of either, or ideally, both.