|Aerial combat at its most brutal|
In the anime portions of Gainax's OVA series Otaku No Video, there's a sequence where the main character is being shown the various types of Otaku that the members of his friend's club are part of. There's the vehicle and mecha otaku, who is a geek about engines and how things work, and so on. One of the members of the club is an animation otaku, and he demonstrates his affinity for animation by pointing out the detail in an animated sequence (taken from the DaiCon IV video). I, personally, haven't had many moments in animation where I felt compelled to freeze frame a video and stop to appreciate it – until I saw the OVA Area 88.
The main character of the series is Shin Kazama. Shin has just graduated from flight school in Paris, and has a job already awaiting him at Yamato Airlines, and he and the daughter of the president of the company are sweet on each other. Together he and his best friend from the orphanage where they were raised, Satoru Kanzaki, go on a bar crawl to celebrate their graduation. That's where Shin's life goes horribly wrong. Kanzaki tricks Shin into up for the air force of the Foreign Legion of the nation of Aslan, which is currently in the midst of a civil war. Before Shin had even had a chance to sober up, he's in Aslan, and ends up at the air base in Area 88, fighting for his life. There are only 3 ways out – survive for 3 years, earn $1.5 million dollars, or desert – which is certain death.
Shin and the rest of the pilots at the base are well realized. All of them joke around, and have their moments of humor, but they also all have their personal demons tormenting them. Many of the pilots are veterans of the Vietnam War, who after the war were unable to reintegrate into society. So, they fled their problems by going into combat. Consequently, the base's description of hell is apt. Everyone there has their problems that they can't escape, they're stuck there until their contract is up, and even if they survive their contract they're unable to adjust to society and find themselves being drawn back. Shin is the odd man out, he has no combat background, and desperately wants to leave. However, as he drives himself to become a better pilot to earn the money to buy out his contract, he risks falling into the same abyss the men around him have already gone into.
This story would be nothing though, if it doesn't look good. The dogfights in the series, particularly the epic air battles that take up most the second and third installments of the OVA are gorgeous. Everything is rendered with loving detail – planes simply don't explode when destroyed, but they are blown part. A dual-engined fighter jet will have its engines fly off in different direction. A plane gets blown in half, and we see the moving parts within the engine before the rest of it is consumed in flames. Often, planes shot down with machine guns will have the bullets rip through the cockpit, perforating the pilot. This is not the “clean” combat of Gundam or Robotech. This is air combat that is truly brutal.
The series' main problem is the ending. At the time the OVA was released the manga was practically over. However, because they didn't have the time to give the OVA the ending of the manga, they rushed things and created a new ending that doesn't quite work. In particular, Shin makes a decision at the ending of the series that doesn't seem to work with his character in earlier installments. They make an attempt to justify it that almost works, but doesn't quite. The final ending of the series is also very abrupt, with no denouement to it.
It's still a well produced series, and definitely worth ones time. Since the show is available for free instant streaming from AnimeNewsNetwork.com, you're not going to be out any money if you watch this, and the earlier DVD releases from ADV and Central Park Media were so bare-bones that you're not missing out on anything by going the streaming route. It's definitely a series that's worth your time, and may have you mashing the freeze-frame button in awe of some of the film's detail.