Desert Dogfight

The Area 88 TV Series’ Story of Survival
by Punch Rockgroin

The household of my youth provided me with easy access to plenty of books on information concerning the jets of the Cold War. My dad used these for research purposes, both out of interest and the need to make sure he was staying ahead of his wargaming buddies. A steady diet of perusing the pictures of aircraft in these tomes, plus watching shows like “Wings of the Red Star” and so forth only heightened my interest in jet aircraft. The first airshow I remember was with the Thunderbirds; I could not believe how loud the jets were, but their garish paint scheme and feats of daring entranced me. I purchased Area 88 by chance back when I was in high school, having seen the jets on the cover and recently played through the “Ace Combat” games on the PlayStation 2. Surely, this was up my alley…my MiG Alley.

Area 88 takes place some time in the late 70s to early 80s and follows the unfortunate tale of Shin Kazama, once an up-and-coming airline pilot, who was backstabbed by his “friend” Satoru Kanzaki. Satoru knows Shin is engaged to the daughter of Yamato Air, so Satoru gets Shin drunk and has him sign what Shin thinks is a form to confirm he “spent the night”; in reality, it’s a contract signing him up as a mercenary for the Kingdom of Aslan. Shin then must fight for Aslan for 3 years, or earn $1.5 million in bounties to pay off the contract. Since desertion means capital punishment, Shin goes for option 2.

Cold War feelin’

The eponymous Area 88 is staffed by a number of shady characters. The local merchant is McCoy, who sells everything from planes and armament, to film and information. Shin’s best friend at Area 88 is Mickey Simon, a former US Navy pilot and Vietnam veteran who was unable to adjust to civilian life. Another staple of the base is Shinjou Makoto, a war photographer who documents the exploits of the pilots, though has an ulterior motive for being there. The base is run by Prince Saki Vashutal, who constantly sports a set of aviators and a X-shaped scar from when X delivered it to him.

The series is mostly focused on air combat, with some drama on the side. The drama provides us with the story elements, but the animation studio seemed to figure that the more interesting parts were the dogfights. Given that the aircraft are all 3D renders, this probably saved on the budget as well. When I was in high school, this was what I was primarily interested in, and the series certainly delivers. The combat is much more “Ace Combat” than “Digital Combat Simulator”, so expect a distinct lack of BVR engagements and Sidewinders that miss when they lose sight of the plot. Still, there’s plenty of explosions and high-G maneuvers to keep you entertained, and is generally not a crash-and-burn affair. The series only really strays from the combat-centric formula in the last couple episodes.

Other than Shin’s plight of knowing a former friend has stolen both his career and his girl, some background is provided on the other characters, but these are just for an episode. Some more information is provided on Mickey’s days in Vietnam, or on Shinjou’s true mission at Area 88. Many more characters seem to exist for story, as they tend to appear and die in the same episode.

I’m thinking Mickey didn’t go home for… other reasons

The fanservice is in the jets themselves. Shin pilots both an F-8 Crusader and an F-5E, while Mickey has an F-14 (possibly stolen from Iran?). Their opponents are all variety of MiGs, primarily the MiG-21 and MiG-23. The 3D models are relatively detailed, though given that this show is from 2004, the animation feels a little stiff at times.

Before this series, there was also a 3-episode OVA released in 1985. The plot is more or less the same, but is more focused on Shin dealing with killing people in order to survive, as well as some of the horrors he witnesses. The series and OVA deviate most greatly in the ending: The TV series gives the viewer a sense of hope at the end, while the OVA is far less certain. In the TV series, Shin suffers a setback that prevents him from leaving when he initially planned, but is convinced to fight on after hearing word on his girlfriend. In the OVA, Shin actually makes it home, but has become addicted to the adrenaline rush of combat, and finds that civilian life no longer suits him; as a result he returns to Area 88, and the OVA ends with him going into combat against ferocious odds.

The OVA’s ending, though depressing, had more of an impact on me. Shin didn’t even want to be there in the first place, but his will to get back home morphed into a desire to fight. I have to pause a bit and think about what it means to be a soldier, and how hard it can be to adjust to normal life after something as bracing as war. The TV series’ ending isn’t bad, and in some respects is still uncertain. It has a brighter outlook, with Shin’s vigor to survive and get out of Area 88 renewed, yet he must practically start over. It’s a coin toss for me as to preference.

Overall, the series is a relatively quick run at 12 episodes, and can be watched in an afternoon if so desired. If you’re a jet jockey looking for some animated fighter combat, this is one of the few gigs in town. In some ways the OVA is the better watch, since the story has more weight to it. But if you watch the OVA and want more combat, then I would recommend the TV series. As someone who loves the feeling I get in my chest when a fighter roars by with its afterburner on, I will recommend the series to any fighter jockey, virtual or otherwise.

Fuck yeah, look it up!
Area 88 (2012)
Directed by Isamu Imakake
Produced by Ryosuke Takahashi and Group TAC
Licenced in North America by ADV Films

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