Area 88 TV Vol. 2 & 3

Expectations make or break everything. When I recently went to see the new Narnia movie, I was bursting at the seams. A fan of the book since early childhood, I had portions of the text memorized. On first viewing, I enjoyed the film, but I couldn't get past a few of my own beliefs about how the movie should have been made. A couple of days ago, I saw it again and just enjoyed it for the fine film it is. Without my personal expectations on it, I had an awesome time.

Such also is the case for me coming to the second and third volumes of the Area 88 television series. The first volume made some changes to the premise of the show that I wasn't quite sure I liked. The hero, Shin Kazama, was no longer front and center. Instead, some characters that I barely got to know in previous incarnations were as important as the betrayed pilot longing for home. But now that I'm comfortable with the new premise, that makes the show more of an ensemble drama with Shin's story as central but not always highlighted, I settled in and loved the next six episodes of the show. With incredible aerial firefights and strong character development, Area 88 TV has turned out to be one of the best releases of 2005.

In these two volumes, we get the rest of Shin's backstory...for the first time in this incarnation of Area 88, we learn his core story, how he fell in love with the daughter of the president of Yamato Airlines only to be tricked into fighting a war that is not his own. But this serves primarily as a backdrop, experienced during flashbacks as Shin attempts to survive a desert crossing. But once Shin makes it back, there's no guarantee of safety. Between a supplier that's quickly running out of fuel for flights, an enemy on the move, and a sniper that virtually shuts down Area 88, it's as dangerous on the ground as it is in the air.

Perhaps I've gotten used to the animation, or perhaps the show's CGI got better as they went along, but the combat sections here are really great. This show still doesn't have a huge budget; much of the character artwork is static, but it never feels as if there should be movement when there's not. In other words, they made the most of the funds they had. Besides, I'm OK with talking heads when they get the action right, which they do here. Now that I've finally gotten the original OVAs out of my head, the classical/techno hybrid soundtrack is also put to good use. (There's even some '70s styled tunes here that, surprisingly, work really well!) Maybe I'm being more forgiving, but I was fine with how these volumes looked and sounded.

But what really works best in volumes two and three of Area 88 TV is how the mystery, spread throughout the episodes on the first disc, is starting to be peeled away. Although we're spending a lot of time still with the young pilot Kim, he's not an annoying kid as many anime youngsters turn out to be. Shin is a mystery, but now we understand his impetus. He is not the Shin Kazama of the OVA series, with a head full of angst about having to kill to return home. Here, he knows he's been tricked, he knows who's responsible, and he'll do what must be done to return to Kyoko, his love. He's still enigmatic to others on the base, but the audience at least is in on what motivates him.

It also doesn't hurt that each volume ramps up the stories being told. Volume two is exciting and thoroughly enjoyable while laying a lot of groundwork; it still covers a lot of ground old fans will know. Volume three is chock full of great stories and impressive moments. I didn't want it to end! The show just keeps building and building, and by the time I'd watched all the episodes and the preview for volume four, I was truly sorry that the final disc wasn't yet available. It's rare for me to be able to watch an entire anime disc at once without getting a little bored. Here, the six episodes across the two discs just flew by (no pun intended).

If you like great aerial combat with a strong plot and characters, make no mistake -- you need to pick up Area 88 TV. It makes me happy that this is the last review of 2005...I'm glad to be ending the year on a strong note.

Area 88 TV Vol. 2 & 3 -- violence -- A