Area 88 TV Vol. 1

Although resurrecting and remaking popular franchises is nothing new, it's pretty rare to see a remake of a series that hasn't been touched in nearly 20 years. Area 88 came into existence as a long-running manga in the late-70s, producing 23 collections before it finished. In 1985, we saw an animated version in three separate OVAs. But since then, it's pretty much been a dead topic. Although full of aerial fighter combat and military hardware, the series never really got off the ground in the US. The manga never got past fifty issues in its comic book run, and Central Park Media only ever made the first OVA available on DVD, presumably due to poor sales.

However, there was no denying that Area 88 was a great story, well told. In 2004, a twelve-episode television remake of Area 88 hit Japanese television screens, and ADV Films is now releasing it stateside. I give them kudos for bringing a shaky prospect back to us, as Area 88 has always been one of my favorite properties. The TV series, in its first three episodes presented on the first volume called Treacherous Skies, isn't quite the powerhouse that the OVAs were, but it has a strong setup that will work particularly well for those who've never experienced this story.

Makoto Shinjou is a photographer, on assignment to shoot the civil war brewing in the country of Aslan. He lands at Area 88, a military base near the front lines where mercenary pilots fly missions on a regular basis. The only other Japanese person on the base, Shin Kazama, immediately intrigues him. From all reports, Shin is making sizable amounts of money on his sorties and has a reputation as one of Area 88's best pilots. But why is he stuck out here in the middle of the desert fighting someone else's war? At least in the first few episodes, we aren't quite sure. But what we do know is that despite his skill, he'll be lucky to survive: on the average mission, one of five pilots doesn't make it back.

Makoto starts making the rounds of Area 88, talking to Shin's comrades, rivals, and commander to try and find out his story. Area 88 is full of unique characters like McCoy, the parts dealer who can get you anything you want for a price, the young and naive Kim, and the cocky but loyal Mickey. Everyone has their own tales, but the one that remains a secret is Shin's. And as the credits fade on the third episode, we realize that there is an even bigger mystery surrounding Makoto's real loyalties.

Area 88 TV is not a bad looking show for 2004. Its character designs are thankfully very much like their early counterparts. Fans of "hip" modern anime may find them lacking, but it's like revisiting a bunch of friends. The aerial combat sequences are still a highlight, and some computer assistance makes them look quite nice without giving them that overly CGI look. Unfortunately, the planes aren't quite as detailed as they should be, which made getting a screenshot that looked decent harder than I expected. Since the fighter planes whiz across the screen at breakneck speeds, perhaps the artists expected that detail wasn't a necessity, which is too bad. Still, overall, the look is fine. The music, which was actually quite superb in the OVA incarnation, is just OK. A lot of it is quite dramatic, featuring strings and appropriate instrumentation, but many scenes feature a techno beat under it all. It's a concession to try and reach a younger audience, I'm sure, but it receives as thumbs down from me in comparison to the moving score of the original.

But where the TV series really differs from its earlier counterparts is in its sense of mystery. Someone unfamiliar with the material would, throughout the first volume, still be clueless as to Shin Kazama's motivations -- as well as those of Makoto. (And if memory serves, the photographer in the original was quite different, so there are some surprises for the old viewer up ahead too.) Does this work? Maybe and maybe not. I think if I weren't so familiar with the franchise, I would probably be intrigued, but that's a perspective I can't exactly share. The new mystery is unnecessary for those familiar with the story, and there's the question of whether or not the show is going to get all that far in only twelve episodes. Even some older stories seem a little shorter in this retelling than they should be. But I do like the way that the plot is unfolding. The story is no longer from Shin's perspective, and this makes him more of an enigma. It also opens up the rest of the world of Area 88 a bit more than the original.

The first narratives told in the TV program are actually quite familiar to fans. Without Shin's backstory front and center, there's a little less angst and pathos to them, but the details are still much the same. In fact, looking at the preview for the second DVD, it appears that this pattern continues into the second fourth of the series. They are great stories, in my opinion, and if you've not seen or read any of Area 88, they'll be fresh. After years of pining for more Area 88, though, I can't say that I'm not a little disappointed to see some new bits. Perhaps they will yet come, but they aren't here yet. The only truly new material involves characters, such as Kim, that were introduced late in the manga but have been thrown into the mix early in this incarnation.

All of this makes me sound a little negative about this new version of an old favorite, but I'm actually not feeling that way at all. I really enjoyed these three episodes, and if the next disc were in my mailbox already, I'd be watching it right now. This really is a nice update to a classic title, and my discontent stems from my unfulfilled desire to read the whole of the manga and to gain some closure on this epic. But I'd forgotten just how much these characters moved me the first time I was introduced to them. There's plenty here for the purist to enjoy while being quite welcoming to newcomers. And if you like Top Gun or Stealth, this one's got all the action with a lot more believable human drama.

I will give some props to ADV Films for including a number of extras on their DVD release, including a 54-minute interview with the director and writer on the TV show. Although it seems a little odd to have placed it on the first disc, seeing as it includes significant spoilers, any inclusion like this is always appreciated. (Frankly, I'm not going to watch it until I've gotten the chance to watch all twelve episodes, but I know it's there for later.) The presentation is nice overall, and I admit I will be chomping on the bit to see the later discs.

If you've never experienced Area 88, then I recommend you try out this disc. It's an action-oriented piece, but with lots of human drama that feels strangely real. If you're tired of the same old same old, Area 88 is a great cure.

Area 88 TV Vol. 1 -- violence, brief language -- A-