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'80s Anime Review: Area 88

Updated: Jan 23, 2022

 Area 88 VHS tapes on a Data East Vapor Trail arcade cabinet.

There was a day when I would cruise eBay, thrift stores and rummage sales, looking for VHS tapes of Japanese animation, otherwise known as anime. I'm still kind of into it, but my fandom has waned considerably since my early twenties. (I'm now thirty-seven.) Back in 2002, I bought tickets to the anime convention Otakon, but couldn't attend due to a lack of transportation. I was the only one in my college anime club who didn't get to go. It was really irritating, knowing that my registration packet sat there for days, eventually being tossed out. Since getting married, Adrienne and I have attended several Comic Cons, and we just booked our New York Comic Con trip for October, which will have a large section devoted to anime. It's the biggest congregation of geeks in the country, and we'll be sure to share the memories on Retro Injection. Adrienne will be going out for the first time in her Ghostbusters uniform! (Update: Here's the trip!)

I have a few anime series and movies which I will love forever, Akira being chief among them. I don't actively seek out new stuff anymore, but I'm always open to suggestions. These days, those come mostly from Adrienne, who just discovered anime within the last couple of years. She consumes it ravenously, via Netflix and Crunchyroll. I still have a good share of my old anime tapes and DVDs, and I'm showing her some of my favorites. She's been digging them so far, but she'll be the first to tell you that I have great taste in media.

In the world of anime, OVA stands for "original video animation." Instead of premiering theatrically or on television, OVAs, also known as OAVs (original animated video), are made for direct purchase. Originally, these productions would have been sold on videocassettes and LaserDisc, and new OVAs are sold on DVD and Blu-ray. "Direct to video" carries a stigma of inferiority in the States, but not so in Japan. Classic OVAs offered a higher quality of animation than what was generally seen on Japanese TV in the '80s and '90s. This isn't so much of a factor anymore, due to the abandonment of tradition cel animation in favor of digital techniques.

One of my favorite OVAs is Area 88. Released in 1985, this three-part series is full of the areal combat action you would expect for a storyline concerning a mercenary air force in the Middle East. But it's the element of a backstabbing love triangle that solidifies its place in great drama. I was once obsessed with Area 88, and was excited years ago at a flea market to find a copy of the original comic book series. Also referred to as manga, the comic ran from 1979 to 1986. The OVA was released while its print incarnation was still hot on newsstands. I have that manga somewhere in the recesses of the basement, but despite my best efforts, it was not to be found. (This wasn't the first time.) Here's a stock photo of the same issue. Viz Comics flipped a frame from the anime for the cover, which is kind of lame.

Area 88 comic manga.

Area 88 is probably best known in America for its Capcom video game, which was renamed U.N. Squadron for the arcade and Super Nintendo releases. Thankfully, the Americanized version of the game retains all the character names and details from the anime. Here's U.N. Squadron running on my Street Fighter II: Champion Edition cabinet in my home arcade. The title is a fairly standard side-scrolling shooter, but it plays competently and looks on par with other arcade games of the era, so it doesn't tarnish the integrity of the anime.

U.N. Squadron Area 88 arcade game.
I'm getting my mileage out of the arcade in this article!

Shin Kazama and his lifelong companion Shotaro Kanzaki are at the cusp of their flight school graduation. They both have pilot positions lined up with Yamoto Airlines, but Shin has something that Kanzaki doesn't: the love of Ryoko, the company president's daughter. Kanzaki gets Shin drunk the night before they are to fly back to Japan from Paris, and suckers him into signing a contract inducting Shin into the mercenary air force of Aslan, where he will be obligated to serve for three years before he can leave. The only other ways out? Desertion, or earn 1.5 million dollars' worth of kills before the three years are up.

Stranded at Area 88, an isolated airfield in the desert, Shin kills other pilots in skirmishes as a means to earn money. He finds that he has become hardened in battle; killing comes easy and without remorse. Even so, he longs to earn his 1.5 million, to return home to Japan and his beloved Ryoko. But back in Tokyo, Kanzaki is aggressively courting her. Even Ryoko's father encourages her to marry Kanzaki, as Shin inexplicably disappeared over a year prior, and is assumed dead. Not surprisingly, Kanzaki's motives for attaining Ryoko are purely self-driven: He wants to be in line to inherit the fortune of Yamoto Airlines, in which he already owns twenty-five percent of the stock, thanks to underhanded investing. Ryoko is determined to be true to Shin, no matter how long she has to wait. She finds the advances of Kanzaki repulsive, and suspects he may have had a role to play in her lover's disappearance. As the story progresses, her plight becomes increasingly desperate, and she has to make a decision which may forever alter her life. Meanwhile, Shin faces choices of his own.

Tonight, Adrienne and I finished Area 88, which we started yesterday. She was initially reluctant to watch it, telling me, "A lot of people say old anime isn't very good." I quickly responded, "They're wrong." I gave her no backstory; I just told her to trust me. At first, she thought the series was going to be a testosterone-laden shoot 'em up, but soon she was hooked by Area 88's human elements. She remarked at some of the similarities to Top Gun, which is a valid observation, but this anime came out first. Adrienne told me she liked the series, although it wasn't what she thought it would be. Having said that, Area 88 left an emotional impact on her. At its conclusion, she was actually upset! You'll have to watch this anime for yourself.

Area 88 has fluid, beautiful animation, but what really stands out for me are the sound effects: From the roaring engines of the fighter aircraft to subtleties like office chairs creaking or doors latching shut, no detail has been overlooked. It's obvious that some serious OCD went into the sound editing, and I can appreciate that. Also, this OVA has glorious '80s music, which is often ranked by anime fans as some of the best scoring of all time. My wife had Derrick Jackson's opening theme stuck in her head for the rest of the night!

I would strongly recommend Area 88 to anyone looking for a bittersweet love story with action elements. This anime was remade in 2004, and the new interpretation received mixed reviews. I haven't seen it, and honestly didn't know about it before yesterday. If you decide to check it out, be sure to experience the 1985 Area 88 beforehand. Much like Robocop, the original premise being rehashed decades later should tell you all you need to know.


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