Area 88, directed by Hisayuki Toriumi. Two 67-minute episodes and one 97-minute episode. February 5, 1985 to August 15, 1986.
From about 1985 to 1987, Area 88 was arguably the most prestigious manga and anime title in Japan or America. The serialized military-adventure manga by Kaoru Shintani began in 1979 and by 1985 was reaching its climax. (It ended in 1986, and was collected into 23 tankubon volumes.) It was one of the first three Japanese manga to be translated into English and published as an American comic book, by Eclipse Comics beginning in May 1987.
The anime was in three dramatic OAVs from Studio Pierrot, each over an hour long, in 1985-’86. Shintani’s manga, and the anime that followed it, was famous for mixing standard manga-style cartoony humans with painstakingly detailed modern weaponry and jet fighter aircraft, and many authentic incidentals such as soft drink cans, cigarette packages, and news magazines – not as product placements but for verisimilitude. Shintani’s manga won the 1985 Shogakukan Manga Award for Best Shōnen (boys’) Comic. Central Park Media released the OAVs subtitled on its U.S. Manga Corps label on August 4, September 1, and October 6, 1993, which is the version that I “forgot”. Area 88 was later made into a 12-episode CGI anime TV series, broadcast from January 8 to March 5, 2004, but that was long after the videotape OAV days.
Act I, “The Blue Skies of Betrayal” opens with a platoon of tanks advancing across an arid Middle Eastern landscape. A fighter jet, specifically a F/A-18 Hornet, appears overhead and shoots the tanks into scrap metal, with closeups of the Hornet’s automatic machine guns pouring out empty shell casings. After the tanks are destroyed, the fighter’s helmeted pilot radios that he is returning to base. The anime shows in detail the Hornet’s approach to an airstrip, its lowering its landing gear, and the landing at the airstrip marked A 88. Cut to the opening credits and the theme song, “How Far to Paradise”.
As the pilot climbs out of the Hornet, a news photographer runs up and begins snapping pictures. He introduces himself as Goh “Rocky” Mutsugi, a Japanese news reporter. He got himself assigned to cover this Middle Eastern civil war because he heard that a Japanese had become one of its deadliest fighter pilots. The pilot admits that’s him, Shin Kazama, but he doesn’t really want to talk about it. They are interrupted by the return of other fighter jets to the Area 88 landing strip, all different warplanes flown by an international team of mercenary pilots. First is Greg Gates, a bearded Danish pilot whose A-10 Skyhawk is on fire. He laughingly tells the Area 88 ground crew to put out the fire and get the plane to take off again right away. Next is Bucksey, whose plane is totaled; the others (except Shin) laugh at his frustration at having to buy a new one. By this time, the whole Area 88 team has gathered around. The only one to stand out is old McCoy, the base’s civilian “entrepreneur” who sells the others everything they need, from toilet paper and medical supplies to bullets and even their military airplanes. While Rocky marvels at this fighter mercenary “foreign legion”, Shin walks off alone.
As Shin wallows in self-pity in his barracks, the background is presented: Shin Kazama was the top student pilot in Tokyo in the Nippon Air Lines’ (an obvious fictionalization of Japan Air Lines) passenger-plane air fleet. He was personally favored by NAL’s CEO (or President) Tsugumi to be the company’s top pilot, and probably Tsugumi’s successor when he retired. What’s more, Shin and the CEO’s beautiful daughter, Ryoko Tsugumi, were deeply in love and planned to get married.
Shin and his childhood best friend, Satoru Kanzaki, go to Paris together for pilot training. Shin is again the top student. Just before they return to Tokyo, they go out together to celebrate. Kanzaki gets Shin thoroughly drunk. When Shin sobers up the next morning, he finds out that Kanzaki has tricked him into signing an ironclad contract with the military of the Middle Eastern Kingdom of Asran/Aslan to serve a three-year enlistment in its air force as a fighter pilot, in its civil war. The only way to freedom is to serve out his three years, to pay a $1,500,000 penalty that he can’t afford, or to desert – a capital offense, and one that would ruin his position at YAL. Shin reluctantly uses his piloting skills to become the Aslan Air Force’s top “killer”, but hopes to go unnoticed back in Japan; and does not participate in the other mercenary fighter pilots’ camaraderie. He is worried about using his flying skills to become a death-dealer; and is fearful that he has come to enjoy the thrill of the aerial battles, and that he is no longer worthy of the gentle Ryoko.
(The fictional Middle East kingdom can be translated as either Aslan or Asran. “Aslan” is the Turkish for “lion”, and is a C. S. Lewis/Narnia reference. “Asran” doesn’t mean anything, but is favored by those who feel that the fictional country should have an original name rather than a reference. The civil war is between Aslan’s king and his brother, and the brother’s supporters. The implication at the time was that the brother was supported by the Soviet Union.)
In the rest of Act I, “The Blue Skies of Betrayal”; Act II, “The Requirements of Wolves” (which I think should have been translated more freely as “Acting Like Wolves” or “Turning Into Wolves”; and Act III, “Burning Mirage”; more of Area 88’s pilots are introduced such as the Russian Boris and especially the American Mickey Simon, who is Shin’s best friend. Area 88’s commander is Prince Saki Vashutal, the king’s nephew and the son of the rebel leader; a tough leader who puts Aslan’s needs first, but is sympathetic toward Shin’s desire to return to Japan. Shin gets close to his $1,500,000 goal, then his airplane is wrecked and he has to buy a new fighter which takes most of his money.
Back in Japan (this is mostly Act II), Ryoko is distraught by Shin’s abrupt disappearance. Her father is disappointed, but he turns to the next-best Kanzaki to become YAL’s leading pilot and his replacement-designate; and he urges Ryoko to marry him. Secretly, Kanzaki is not waiting for Mr. Tsugumi to retire. He is buying YAL’s stock under a false name to take over the company. At a gala reception to celebrate YAL’s 30th anniversary, Ryoko sees Shin’s photograph in a LIFE magazine article about Aslan’s civil war and mercenary fighter pilots. Mr. Tsugumi takes this as proof that Shin has abandoned them and he was right to turn to Kanzaki, but Ryoko remains loyal to Shin and tries to fly to Aslan to find him. Kanzaki is secretly worried that Shin has survived and may reveal Kanzaki’s betrayal if he is found. He foils Ryoko’s attempts to get to Aslan, and hires an assassin to murder Shin before Ryoko can find him. There is lots more melodrama.
Act III begins with ten minutes of aerial combat action. Kanzaki is the new CEO (or President) of YAL and no longer as worried about Shin’s returning to Japan. He no longer is interested in marrying Ryoko, but he tries to force her into sleeping with him to complete his “win” over Shin. But Kanzaki’s secret cost-cutting of YAL’s planes’ safety is resulting in government and news investigations of YAL’s sudden airline disasters. Will Kanzaki avoid jail and disgrace? Will Shin get free of Area 88? Will he and Ryoko find each other again? Who will win Aslan’s civil war? I don’t want to spoil the ending, but it’s mega-soap opera.
Shintani’s manga, this 1985-1986 OAV, and the 2004 TV serialization all had different endings. I will say that this OAV’s ending is open-ended, since Shintani’s manga (which grew less realistic by using increasing science-fictional weaponry, hinted at in the OAV) was still running at the time.
Area 88 was the earliest serious anime drama rather than children’s fantasy or boys’ s-f or fantasy adventure, taking advantage of the OAV market to tell a darker story than could then be presented in a theatrical cartoon or on TV. It was the forerunner of such later less-censored dramatic TV anime series as the 2006 Black Lagoon, the 2010 High School of the Dead, and the 2013 Attack on Titan.
But I Digress: Back in 1991, three 7th-grade fans in Waynesboro, Virginia of Tiny Toon Adventures sent Steven Spielberg their own idea for an episode. He liked it so much that WB. filmed it, with animated personas of the three 13-year-old girls. “Buster and Babs Go Hawaiian” episode #73, November 18, 1991.
Today one of those girls, Renee Carter Hall, who has become a professional author (make that an amateur author since her day job is a medical transcriptionist; but her award-winning amateur writing gets published), has posted a blog about what it was like to be a 13-year-old junior-high schooler (it sucked), and how becoming a fan of a new TV cartoon Saved Her Sanity and got her and her two friends invited to come to HOLLYWOOD! Don’t miss it if you liked Tiny Toon Adventures.
Next week: “Forgotten” OAVs #13.