This might just be the best £4.99 I’ve spent so far in my life. I’ve got to thank Kevin “Zuzutoo” Diamond for it as well. For less than the cost of a lunch out, I bought a wonderful Japanese television series, which I will now proceed to discuss.
The twelve 23-minute episodes of Area 88, set in the late 70s/early 80s, are the second television adaptation of a manga of the same name – which I can’t seem to find to buy… There are plot differences between the three versions, but the gist is such: Shin Kazama, Japanese pilot gets himself shanghaied into a mercenary air force by a man who wants to steal his girlfriend (now that’s a plot that goes back a while – all the way back to 2 Samuel, Chapter 11 in fact). He can only get out three ways – complete three years’ service, raise $1.5 million dollars via the missions (he has to pay for his fuel, weapons and aircraft…) to buy himself out – or desert with all that entails. So, Shin has to fight to survive, flying his F-8 Crusader and later an F-5E Tiger II against the MiGs of the rebels. At the same time, war photographer Shinjo (also Japanese) arrives at the secret Area 88 base, on a mission to take one particular photo…
The DVD comes with Japanese (with subtitles) and English audio – I went with the latter.
The anime has an array of wonderful characters – many of them putting Shin into their shadow. From arms and information dealer McCoy to short-tempered Greg to woman in a man’s world Kitri (whose introduction is up there with that of Merlin’s Morgause in the “how to make an entrance” category), they’re all memorable and distinctive. This includes the “one-shot” characters. I think watching this in English was the better choice as the characters came out more easily for me – I’d have had to focus on the actual dialogue on the screen otherwise.
From the opening shot of either of the title sequences (it changes from episode 4 onwards), you’re in for a visual treat. The jet combat alone is worth the price of admission, but there’s other wonderful imagery and the animation is superb, even if it does contain the most unusual location I’ve seen the words “Isle of Wight” on screen.
I mentioned the jet combat and I’m going to do so in more depth now. There is a veritable smorgasbord of turn of the 80s aircraft, from A-4 Skyhawks to MiG-23s to Saab Drakens – even a Blackburn Buccaneer of the sort that graces the banner of the Phoenix Roleplaying blog, all wonderfully drawn. If I was a squeeing man… The combat is within visual range (clearly McCoy can’t get Sparrows) and certainly spectacular – got to mention the use of Harrier as SAM platform in one episode.
The music is superb. The opening theme tune is certainly hummable and complements the title sequence perfectly, although after several re-watches it gets a bit too long.
While certainly a high-octane jet on jet action series, the twelve episodes of Area 88 are also a deep explanation of war and its effect on a person. Shin gradually gets sickened by the death he sees and causes. There’s one episode that has a wonderful discussion on snipers and the loss of pilots is fairly frequent. There’s another episode where a pilot is reluctant to pull the trigger on a former comrade who is now flying for the rebels, although it’s arguably the weakest of the twelve.
The overall plot arc of the twelve episodes isn’t that fully integrated into the story, but where it emerges it does well – particularly in the final dénouement, where the whole story is partly, not entirely resolved.
It’s by no means perfect, but I’d say it was one of the best air combat stories I’ve ever seen, certainly on the small screen. I aim to get another Japanese series in the next few months – recommendations can go in the comments. Well worth getting hold of – even for more than I paid for it.
It’s also given me some ideas for Fighter Ops…
Which I initially mistook for an A-7 Corsair II…
 Speaking of Scandinavia – yes, I’m planning a Grand Review of Borgen.