Back when I first got into manga, after a decade or so of being a pretty heavy comic book fan, one of those first things that I had come across was Area 88 – in single issue form no less. The story of a group of mercenary characters trapped in a job that had them putting their lives on the line was very different from what a lot of the 80’s offered with comics from the Big Two. There was a big boom of black and white independents to be sure that pushed the envelope, but a series about pilots flying in some Middle Eastern country with an array of different fighter planes and personalities from around the world was unlike anything else at the time. And honestly, even now. The series came from Kaoru Shitani, who started it in 1979 and it definitely has all the elements that you’d expect from a title of this time. Over the next seven years, he told a dark, dangerous and oppressive tale across twenty-three volumes that was filled with characters that could easily die at any time, both in the air and on the ground.
Area 88 hasn’t had one of the best histories when it comes to its releases here. Viz attempted the manga series many years ago and only made it through three volumes before dropping it, leaving the other twenty unreleased. CPM fared a bit better by having the show come out on VHS in full with the OVA series that was done in 1985 just as the manga itself was ending and even managed to get it out on laserdisc in full. Their attempts at a DVD release was less than spectacular however when only the first episode was released back in 1998 at the dawn of DVD. That bad history of releases finally changed with the 2004 series that ran for twelve episodes and gave us a bigger look at the show and was able to spend more of its time with the characters. Sadly, in the years since, it’s fallen out of print and is a bit harder to find overall, but it managed a complete run with some solid promotion behind it.
The show did things right even though the source material came out twenty-five years earlier. When it comes to the visuals, it’s kept firmly in its original time and style, which means we get things like Shin with a near 70′s hairstyle, the simpler clothes and the more varied designs for the characters. Even the people behind it have some good things to say about its origins, such as lead voice actor Takehito Koyasu talking before about being a fan of this show when it was first a manga and mentioning how the focus has shifted slightly in this version to that of the photographer who sees the world of Area 88 through different eyes than the manga which saw things through Shin’s eyes. Each of these complements each other nicely and still keeps the story focused on what we’ve seen before. What’s most interesting is that the real plot behind things, which is introduced fairly early on in the other versions, barely surfaces in these three episodes.
The focus on the photographer named Makoto who through various connections and some press credentials has come out to the Kingdom of Aslan which is undergoing a civil war brings us a nice perspective to work with, one that’s fairly accessible. Ostensibly, he’s there to find the perfect shot that every battlefield photographer looks for in order to cement what they see and their vision of their works. When there though, the reality of what’s going on slowly starts to get to him and we do see some threads of another purpose but it’s kept mostly to a few minor lines and certain expressions. What attracts Makoto even more to this place called Area 88 that he arrives in is that one of the pilots there is a Japanese man named Shin Kazama.
In order to fight the civil war, the Kingdom of Aslan has decided that to do so require the use of mercenaries. These pilots are brought in from all sources and sign three year contracts that they will fight for the Kingdom on missions that they are assigned to. The mercenaries are generally used for the more dangerous missions and to handle softening up the enemy before the Kingdom’s own forces swoop in and deal with the rest later. The coordination of all of this is done by a man named Saki who commands the Area 88 airstrip and base out in the desert. The pilots there are a varied breed and each of them has their own motivations both for being there and in how they fight.
A pilot can get out of their contract early though but it requires paying a 1.5 million dollar fine. The pilots do earn money from their work here as each target it assigned a monetary value and some missions are worth more than others, such as enemy aircraft being worth more than ground targets. The downside is that the pilots have to pay for practically everything along the way, from their planes, fuel, weapons, food, cigarettes and so forth. It’s easy to make money if you’ve got some skill but the maintenance and upkeep of the aircraft requires that you put a lot of it back into flying. This is what leads to some of the pilots doing more daring and reckless endeavors in order to get more money in order to get free if they’ve been swindled into the contract.
The series focuses heavily on Shin as it is his series, even though the angle has changed a bit, and we get to see battles from various peoples perspectives but it’s all the more focused when Shin takes to the air. The cast of mercenaries is nicely wide enough and changing fairly frequently due to various deaths and their designs reflect their different origins as well as can be expected. Just as varied is the aircraft used by the pilots and a lot of energy went into making them as right as possible, which only makes the numerous air battles all the more engaging to watch. This series really is just an expanded and better animated version of the OVA series with some tweaks done to the plot, so the first volume had plenty of expected material in terms of the battles and events. But even with the familiarity, it was intriguing to see the changes, such as the “desert fangs” being updated in their design from the original works.
American comics about fighter pilots are rare, even with the way independent authors and artists can pretty much do anything they want to some degree. Most of what we get are things like Blackhawks or Enemy Ace, material that delves back into World War I or World War II. Occasionally something else will come up, but it’s tied to either science fiction or just a background character trait. With Area 88, what we got here is a manga series about the drama and emotion of being trapped in this situation as a normal person that must fight to live to get back to what means the most to him.
With its origins in the late 70’s and early eighties, the chances of it getting a modern anime adaptation was always slim, especially since it did get a good treatment in Japan during the end of its run with the three part OVA series. This twenty-fifth anniversary series, which came out ten years ago and that’s just mindblowing, does the original work proud since so many involved in it are fans of it themselves from when they were growing up. While some of the CG from the series obviously feels dated today with what they can do, the core of it is the characters themselves and well complemented by the action. There’s pretty much nothing else out there that does what this series does even to this day and it stands tall and on its own. Though there’s some dated bits to it to be sure, Area 88 is a show I wish we had more of out there.