"Mistakes out here can kill you."
I've been devouring just about any worthy piece of old school anime I can find of late even if it falls outside the loosest boundaries of science fiction. Studio Perrot's Area 88 (1985-1986) OVA (Original Video Animation) is a fine example of the early era craft of hand drawn animation celebrated long before the advent of digital cel animation. Area 88 is yet another soaring representative of a by gone era.
I'm relatively picky with my selections. I've been reading Brian Ruh's Stray Dog of Anime: The Films Of Mamoru Oshii (2004) and Oshii is one of the standard-bearers of quality animation for me. He is indeed the stray dog in a wildly assorted pack of anime creators and anime that is available out there. But if you put Mamoru Oshii's (Ghost In The Shell, Patlabor) stamp on it or the likes of Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira) and Hideaki Anno (Gunbuster) to name just a few of the true masters then further investigation is always warranted. Generally speaking artists of that caliber simply don't let me down by the sheer will of their vision and/or their interests in a given subject matter which seem to generally align with my own. Directors like these take anime into cinematic worlds and leave the high school girls with bouncing boobs and anime conventions behind usually for something much more challenging. By the way, not that there is anything wrong with the latter. There's a place and even much larger fan base for those productions too.
But there are also a number of anime classics out there with lesser known names attached that are equally impressive and demonstrate a real love of the craft of anime. Not that Oshii or Anno register as household names but generally speaking anime fans are well aware of their output. Others create works that just don't have the name recognition. Area 88 is one of them.
Area 88 was directed by Hisayuki Toriumi, not exactly a household name, but Toriumi's work is notable. A further investigation on the man revealed a number of reasons why his work here on Area 88 proved so surprising. Prepare yourself. Writer/ director Toriumi first came to prominence with his involvement on Speed Racer (1967) becoming an alum of Tatsunoko Productions when he joined that company in 1966. He would later work for Sunrise as well. He rose up the ranks of Tatsunoko quickly and became director of our beloved Science Ninja Team Gatachaman (1972; a.k.a. Battle Of The Planets). He continued to direct the franchise with Gatchaman II (1978) and Gatchaman Fighter (1979; a.k.a. Gatchaman F). Eventually Toriumi moved on and became a founding member of Studio Pierrot. And when we speak of the masters, well Toriumi worked with his then protégé Mamoru Oshii on Dallos (1983; the first OVA ever released). Dallos was written by Toriumi and Oshii and directed by Oshii. Oshii followed up with Maroko (1990) for Studio Pierrot. Toriumi's expert hand at direction and animation even had unknowingly influenced my love for anime all these years. I never knew it. Any who have visited here know to expound upon my love for Gatchaman and all things related to the series knows absolutely no boundaries. So Toriumi is one of those professional journeyman with a real eye for detail and crafted some of the early era classics of which we love. Sadly, Toriumi passed away in January 2009.
So while it came as a bit of a surprise to me initially, the fact Area 88 appealed to me should not come as a shock given Toriumi's background and the fact his hands were all over this unique production.
So with an interest in aerial combat animation I wanted to give Area 88 a review. I managed to snag a copy of the generally rare Area 88. The OVA was based on a manga (1979-1985). The manga even alluded to some weaponized science fiction elements. Samples of the original manga were covered quite extensively in early issues of the now defunct Animerica magazine. You can find the first act, of three acts, for a song on Amazon, but the full three act DVD version (including Act III: Burning Mirage and Act II: The Requirement Of Wolves) was released by ADV Films in 2000 and is becoming increasingly hard to find and pricey and that's really the film to see and own in its entirety. It's worth noting the ADV film treats the OVA not as three parts but as one massive film on two discs. No doubt You Tube has it to be sure but ADV's release is something special. The print of that release was cleaned considerably from the US Manga Corps release reviewed here. ADV even scooped up a remake of Area 88 (2004) under the same name that was also fairly impressive implementing a good degree of digital animation.
Nevertheless, I have a huge love for aerial combat science fiction like that which is found in Macross (1982-present; pick your version), Robotech (1985; the Americanized version of Macross and other Japan anime), Yukikaze (2002-2005) and Last Exile (2003) and wanted to check out Area 88: The Blue Skies Of Betrayal (Act I) of which this post is based. A full ADV review be examined at a later date.
Today they certainly don't animate explosions like they did in the old days. Force Five (1979), Battle Of The Planets (1978), Star Blazers (1979)and here, Area 88, hand craft explosions with an artistic grace and detail computers perfect in a different way. Japanese artists love explosions too. Look no further than the DVD menu for Area 88 whereby you can actually select an option called Blow This Up and it will take you directly to one of four major action set pieces in the animation. That's what I'm talking about. They really should provide options like this on all action films more often. Comical - push button to see things blow up.
So we present just a mere first act of this lovingly crafted, Top Gun-like anime.
The general story surrounds key protagonist and reluctant combat pilot Shin Kazama tricked into serving a three year contract for a mercenary squadron assigned to a fictitious Middle Eastern nation called the Kingdom of Asran. Though Shin is the key to the entire series other characters are given solid development throughout. Area 88 takes place somewhere circa 1979-1983. Conflicting bits of information provided in the series from dates of service on aircraft to other visual cues confuse the actual date. Actual combat aircraft and other aircraft are on full display throughout the series and gloriously animated too.
Area 88 is impressively detailed in its craft and character design work and fleshing out those characters too. It takes time to layer in bits of romance and drama (much of which is achieved through flashback) between all of the military combat and action pieces and that assessment is based on just the first 50 minutes of this terrific little OVA. Though not overly complex, Area 88 is still a fully involving story apart from its stellar hand drawn animation. Unlike a lot of anime with its science fiction and fantasy trappings that surround aerial combat stories, Area 88 is grounded solidly in real world military-style accoutrements. If you can find it Area 88 comes Recommended.