- Area 88 (1985-1986: Studio Pierrot) 3/3 eps.
In the canon of 80s OAVs Area 88 is a bit of a legend. Is best known for incredible animation, intense amounts of melodrama, and a kickass soundtrack. But is it really any good or are people just blinded by nostalgia, the music, and that animation?
The short answer to the above question is yes, it is really good. The story follows Shin Kazama who is a pilot in the Foreign Legion of Alsan, a fictional middle eastern country rather than the lion from the Narnia books, and is fighting in the Alsan civil war. Shin isn’t there out of choice though. He used to be an airline pilot until his friend tricked him into joining the legion in order to steal Shin’s girlfriend and his position within the company. Now Shin has to survive 3 years or pay a $1.5 million ransom in order to leave the legion. He can earn money to pay off this ransom by completing missions and shooting down enemies, which inevitably leads to much angst on Shin’s part as he wrestles with his urge to escape and his distaste for killing people. There is also a secondary parallel plot line following Shin’s girl as she tries to find Shin and avoid Shin’s ex-friend. It is a good setup for what they are trying to do thematically while also providing a solid base for plenty of drama and action. The themes are certainly quite blunt, with characters outright stating their position as war junkies or unwilling killers. Often this kind of bluntness can come off as corny but here it works because it is such a melodramatic production. Director Hisayuki Toriumi (Gatchaman, Dallos, Souryuuden, and co-founder of Studio Pierrot) really seems to have understood that if you do melodrama then you really need to go for it as any hesitation of timidness can make it feel corny an fake, though I suspect that credit should also be given to the original author (Kaoru Shintani) on this front too. Area 88 is kind of ridiculous in a lot of ways but because it doesn’t hold back it can get away with it. It has punchy themes, big emotions, crazy action scenes, and that very dramatic soundtrack. This all harmonises into a balanced piece of cinema that is very enjoyable and just flat out works. Manly man melodrama like this isn’t something we see that often, in fact outside of Ozamu Dezaki and Leiji Matsumoto it is a struggle to think of many,but when we do get it can be spectacular such as here.
Speaking of spectacular, holy fucking shit fucks does this thing look amazing. Just look at it! In these action scenes things don’t just blow up in a nice explosion; instead we see bullets tearing through metal, shrapnel flying off of planes, wings crumpling, etc. All of this is animated in exquisite detail by people who clearly really dug planes. Then there is the fact that the things move too! Not only are we getting this crazy level of detail but we are also getting amazingly choreographed action scenes full of dynamic camera movements, buttery smooth movements from the planes, and top tier effects work. This show’s action scenes look amazing for an OAV and really wouldn’t be out of place in a movie, I mean are they are on par with similar scenes from Royal Space Force for my money. It would also be a mistake to only talk about the action when we are discussing the visuals though. While we don’t get all of that amazing animation we do get some breath-taking shot composition and general cinematography. For example, there is this wonderful section towards the end of the second episode where Shin is wandering through the desert where the visual direction just provides a ton of emotion and sensation to what could have otherwise been quite a dull and generic scene.
Of course for any good melodrama you need some great acting and some great music, luckily Area 88 has both! Kaneto Shiozawa does a damn fine job as Shin with a performance full of over the top angst and emotion, just what was needed for this type of production. You’d never have thought that this is the same guy who played Oberstein from Legend of the Galactic Heroes! Then there is that absolutely fabulous soundtrack that, like everything else in this show, is packed full of emotion and drama. It certainly is 80s as hell but that particular sound really helps to ground you in the cold war setting, as if the big hair and aircraft didn’t already!
Overall this show is just great. It has big emotions, big action, and big hair. It is oh so very 80s but even if you aren’t a fan of the 80s you should still watch this as it is one of the best manly melodramas out there. If you like Osamu Dezaki, Harlock, or anything else such as that then you’ll love this. If nothing else seeing planes blow up in almost psychotic levels of detail is a joy to behold.
Final score: 9A