Area 88: The Original OVA Series
© Dai Pro/OB Planning
Emru Townsend · July 24, 2006 | The 1980s and early 1990s were a great time for the OAV format. The medium was new enough that there was a lot of experimentation; budgets were relatively high as Japan enjoyed a surging economy; and with a fairly strong feature animation market providing competition, studios had to work harder to produce compelling material.

It was under these circumstances that the three-part Area 88 OAV series was created, based on Kaoru Shintani's then-current manga of the same name. (This new DVD release combines the three parts and then bisects them into two features.) The Area 88 story focuses on Shin Kazama, a talented and hard-working young pilot who is well on his way to a career as a pilot for Yamato Airlines—and it doesn't hurt that he and the company president's beautiful daughter are deeply in love with each other. When his best friend Satoru Kanzaki betrays him, he finds himself in North Africa, signed on as a mercenary fighter pilot for the war-torn country of Asran. Shin has three ways to get out of the airbase named Area 88 alive: serve out his three-year contract; desert, under penalty of death; or take on enough missions to earn the $1,500,000 required to buy out his contract.

Area 88: The Original OVA Series
Directed by Hisayuki Toriumi
Produced by Project 88 and Studio Pierrot, 1985
Distributed by ADV Films, 2006
Originally aired in 1985
195 minutes

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Opting for the latter course, the desperate Shin becomes a demon of the skies, efficiently dispatching planes, tanks and enemy bases, all the while agonizingly aware that his path to freedom is bathed in blood.

Area 88's appeal has always been the way it plays with contradictions. The manga originally appeared in Shonen Big Comic, and as such the planes, tanks and other machines of war were drawn and discussed with particular attention to detail. However, Shintani drew most of his characters in the shojo style, featuring big heads, slender, effeminate bodies and delicate features. Shin himself is gentle and sensitive, but his talent for killing is second to none—a fact that horrifies him, but which he's forced to accept. By virtue of being animated, the OAV series is able to go one step further. The aerial combat scenes are accompanied by a heroic symphonic score that's heavy on the brass, but the scenes themselves are anything but heroic. Pilots die, randomly and horribly, and just about every dogfight ends in tragedy, anger or bitterness.

Visually, Area 88 does better during high dramatic moments. As expected, there are the aerial dogfights, marvels of hand-drawn work in which the camera is almost as acrobatic as the planes themselves. It's both more and less realistic than the fairly literal computer-animated combat of the later Area 88 TV series; in some cases real flight dynamics are sacrificed for dramatic license, but there are also many moments of lethal grace. The horrible fact is that there can be beauty in war, and the OAV series captures that repeatedly.

However, not all the drama is tied to death and destruction. Considerable attention is paid to lighting and atmosphere, smoky bars, hotel ballrooms, winter skies and nighttime missions are all coloured differently, heightening the sense of place during those moments when Shin's life is about to take an unexpected turn. Even during more less ambitious scenes, the backgrounds provide a grounding verisimilitude. The scene where Ryoko meets with a military analyst—who provides her first concrete lead as to Shin's whereabouts—feels like it was rushed through production, but tiny background details, like the six or seven crumpled bits of paper that are near the garbage can, which is itself surrounded by piles of books, quickly tell us as much about the analyst as any involved (and more time-consuming) animation would. Fans have long praised the superior backgrounds found in anime, and while that has never been as universal truth as many would like, Area 88 provides many fine examples.

Perfectionist anime skeptics—the ones that turn their nose up at the lack of Disney-style full animation—will no doubt sniff at the scenes, especially those back in the civilian world, with stiff character movement and noticeable cel jitter. That's their loss. Area 88 has aged well over the last 21 years, providing the kind of mature story and storytelling that is still lacking in most of the world's animation, combined with a level of craftsmanship that more animation directors should emulate.

DVD Features: 4:3 aspect ratio; English and Japanese audio tracks; English subtitles; Region 1.
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