Can a warrior ever leave the war? Once soldiers has seen the face of battle, can they return home and forget the fields of slaughter? Forget the shadow of death as they resume their old lives far away from battle? That is some of the question posed by a rather unique military manga title that was exported to the West and published by Eclipse Comics during the second wave of Anime/Manga in the late 1970’s-1980’s that went by the odd name of “Area 88”. Little did we know back in 1987 that Area 88 was one of the most iconic military manga titles in Japan and would go on to be developed into an OVA that was also sold in the West via US Manga Corps. However, unlike many other anime/manga titles that were imported to the western market, most know of Area 88’s existence due to an SNES video game. In this installment of Future War Stories of the East, FWS will be exploring the story of Shin, a Shanghaied mercenary fighter pilot serving in a North African war in the 1980’s at the airbase of Area 88!
What is “Area 88”?
This noted military manga series that became an icon of its time and something unique during the sci-fi dominated Japan told the sad story of mercenary pilots fighting at a secret air base, called Area 88, in a foreign desert during a civil war. The creator of Area 88 was manga artist Kaoru Shintani, who had worked with the great Leiji Matsumoto on some of his most noted works. First published in 1979 by Shogakukan Inc, it would run for 23 volumes until 1986. Speaking to its popularity, Area 88 is still a known and celebrated property around the world. Given the success of the manga, Area 88 was transformed into an a three-part OVA in 1985-1986 by Studio Pierrot , with dozens of model kits of the real-world combat aircraft, and even a video game in 1989 to follow. What drew people to this military manga was the unique story of mercenary pilots fighting in a fictional North African nation with the plight of Shin being the focus, but he was surrounded by a cast of characters that enriched the story. There was also realism paid to the air combat and the hardware used in the some of the early stories. Adding to this realism was the price paid by the characters going out on missions on a physical and emotional level. Much like Game of Thrones, core characters died that were not just red shirt security officers. There is also discussion of how former soldiers transformed into mercenary pilots due to their own inability to adjust to normal society. Some have grown to love death and killing, some cannot make a living any other way. Is Shin going to become one of them? All of this adds nice layers to a solid premise that as endured.
The Plot and Setting of Area 88
In the original manga, the story is set around 1979 with real-world history and events mixed with the fictional hardcore reality of Area 88. In the story, the North African nation of Asran is in the middle of a civil war over who will be the successor to the dead king. To protect and reunite the Kingdom via win this bloody internal conflict, Ling Zek of Asran had to go outside of the Kingdom to find soldiers and pilots due to the Soviet Union supporting the dead king’s other brother for access to the throne and the massive oil reserves of Asran. These private military contractors (called the Asran Foreign Legion) sign a three-year contract with the Kingdom that can make these freelancer pilots rich, if they keep their costs down. Pilots earn money for their missions and kills, but they have to pay the ammunition and repairs out of their own pockets…more or else, assuring these pilots are there at Area 88 for all three years. This even includes replacement aircraft as well. To get out of the contract early, one has to pay $1.5 million in 1979 money ($4.9 million today), go AWOL (which will get you hunted down), or die in the cockpit. While the majority of pilots at Area 88 are there of their own free will, that is not true of our main character.
The young Japanese airline pilot Shin Kazama was tricked into his service in the Kingdom by a “friend” that wanted him out of the way, so he could climb the ladder of Yamato Airlines and this the main focus of the story. In addition, there is a motley crew of mercenary pilots wanting to make a fortune in the bloody battlefields of the Arsan civil war causing them to . Some join the ranks as veterans of Area 88 and others die in the endless conflict. When the manga opens, Shin is still over two years away from fulfilling his contract, and he kills to survive, but at the price of his soul. In the OVA, the character arch of Shin and the end of his time at Area 88 are presented in a three-part series that does take place between 1979-1982.
The Combat Aircraft of Area 88
One of the most frequent praises leveled at Area 88 is that animation associated with the fighters is peerless along with the attention to detail on air combat and mechanics of these fighters. The seasoning that enriches the world of Area 88 is really the lavish attention paid to the combat aircraft of the OVA. Some beautiful and expensive animation went into getting the planes correct and there a wider variety of fighters presented in the OVA. It is amazing to me how Area 88 bridges the gap between the combat aircraft of the Vietnam War era and the new generation of fighters rolling of the assembly lines in the very late 1970’s and early 1980’s.
Given that the OVA series was set in 1979-1982, the majority of the aircraft seen in the OVA were mostly from the correct time period, however, there were errors. The F-14 Tomcat is shown in a flashback in Act II being using during the Vietnam War by former Navy pilot Mickey in a bombing run. The then new Tomcat was only used as escort during the Fall of Saigon in 1975, but it was in active service during the time period of the film. The F/A-18 Hornet seen in the OVA is anachronist, due to the first Hornets being tested in 1978 and only entering into service around 1983. It is highly unlikely that a foreign military could gain brand new Hornets for use in a warzone before the USMC and USN got theirs.
Then that brings us to Shin’s F-20 Tigershark. At the time of the writing of the OVA and the original manga, Northrop was undertaking the privately funded light fighter project for US military use and the export market, especially the Middle East, which made it prefect for the Area 88 setting. For years, the F-20 project moved forward with four prototypes being constructed and tested. However, the popularity of the F-16, Northrop wanting to preserve their futuristic B-2 stealth bomber program causing the cancellation of the F-20 in 1986. Only four planes were produced, and three of them crashed. The last one is hanging in a museum. For younger generations that mostly known the current fighter planes of the world, Area 88 is a nice introduction to the warhorses of the tail end of the Cold War like the F-8 Crusader, the F-5 Tiger II, A-4M Skyhawk, the F-4 Phantom, F-111, MiG-21, the French Mirage, Yak-36, and the F-100 Super Sabre.
The Historical Context of the Area 88 OVA
The late 1970’s were a translation period for anime and manga with the market expanding along with secondary products tied to the original work. Like all things, it seems, the global firestorm that was Star Wars altered the world of manga/anime as well, magnifying some the groundwork laid by works like Space Cruiser Yamato. While giant piloted robots, space fighters, and star soldiers were fine topics, the Japanese had an uneasy history with more realistic military themes and elements, due to the shameful Imperial Japan past. Military mangas and animes were rare and publishers were considered that military titles would be poor sellers. Science fiction and fantasy being mixed with military themes was more accepted…then comes Area 88 in 1979. Area 88, both the manga and the OVA came at interesting points in the respective histories of their media form. When the serialized Area 88 manga was released in 1979 in the manga magazine Shōnen Big Comics, it was firmly aimed at the male audience and was titled a “Shōnen” manga. Speaking to the concept of Area 88 being thought highly by the publisher, despite the post-Vietnam War era, Shōnen Big Comics was the most popular manga magazine in Japan at the time. The political climate was prefect for Area 88, with a number of pocket wars fought during the Cold War like the Rhodesian Bush War, the Ethiopian Civil War, Western Sahara War, Soviet-Afghan War, and Angolan Civil War; along with the rise in veterans entering into private military service and the founding of Soldier of Fortune magazine in 1975.
In addition, Area 88 came as the next generation of military fighter jets were being developed and released as the Cold War entered into a high-tech R&D phase. In the mid-1980’s, the Japanese anime changed due to the rise of home media and the extreme popularity of anime in Japan, studios pumped out anime directly to the consumer via direct-to-store releases on VCR tapes and laserdiscs. While direct-to-video products are mostly looking down upon in America, the demand for anime was so strong in Japan that this what the market dictated to fulfill the demand that could not be met by airing anime TV series.
The market wanted new anime and they wanted it now, and so, the OVA (original Video Animation) were born to meet demand. The OVAs were sold in episodes, normally over three tapes or discs, which was the same in America, or as a box set. In addition, OVAs were a great way to be experimental or test the waters if a full TV series was warranted. While it would seem that Area 88 would be prefect for a TV series, the core story of the manga was condensed into a three 65 minute episodes. OVAs also made it easier on the export market, especially in the old VHS media days. Complete series of any TV show on VHS were very expensive, often costing hundreds of dollars of a complete collection and these eat up shelf place in the store. These multi-tape OVAs were often sold individual or packed in a boxset, like the original Bubblegum Crisis, but I never Area 88 in a boxset nor the LaserDisc.
The Three Episodes of Area 88
1. Act I: “Blue Skies of Betrayal” (Released 2/5/1985)
The series opens with a bang, as spearheading armor is crushed under airstrikes, with our main character Shin Kazama pounding tanks into scrap metal with his F-8 Crusader. Over the course of the first episode, we learn about Shin being betrayed just after he and his friend got jobs at Yamato Airlines. After a night of heavy drinking in Paris, Shin was fooled by his friend and classmate Satoru to sign a contract for the Asran Foreign Service. Satoru was wanted to get Shin out of the way due to Shin being in a relationship with the president of Yamato Airlines daughter Ryoko. Satoru then steps into Shin’s place as the likely successor to the president and being Ryoko’s new man. This is told via a flashback as Shin attempts to relax after a mission and before Shin meeting a Japanese photographer that was assigned to cover the Asran civil war. The pictures that he takes allow Ryoko to finally know what became of Shin. Given the circumstances that cause Shin to find himself at Area 88, he is going on repeated missions to slay enough enemies to pay off his $1.5 million contract in the shortest amount of time. Then his Crusader is damaged by a MiG and he nearly dies going home. Given the damage, the F-8 is scrapped and Shin is forced to buy another plane, delaying his return to Japan and Ryoko by months if not another year. Shin enters into a dark place
2. Act II: “The Requirements of Wolves” (Released 08/05/1985)
Acting on pure emotions, Shin decides to take his chances and run from Area 88 late one night. But it is intercepted by the “deserter killers”, who are themselves threated by the pilots of Area 88. It is here that Shin realizes that he is here for the time being. After another air battle where the Japanese war photographer is killed, the episode switches to show the events back in Japan. Back at the front Shin is confronted by an assassin sent by Satoru in an air dual. While killing the would-be assassin, Shin’s new F-20 Tigershark severely damaged and Shin ejects into the deep deserts of Asran. Hoping that his would be ticket out of Area 88, Shin believes that he can escape as they think he was killed in the plane crash…then Shin wanders back to Area 88.
3. Act III: “Burning Mirage” (Released 6/15/1986)
Back in the cockpit, Shin and Mickey are once again back in the air as the war worsen for the Kingdom. The anti-government forces have started bombing the capitol city and seeing defeat, Shin is asked by Area 88 base commander Saki to escort King Zak’s plane out of Asran to France. For the most part, the civil war in Asran is coming to end. Saki releases Shin from his contract and informs the other pilots that they are to fly out of Asran as Area 88 will be forced to surrender. Knowing his fate, Saki is committed to buy time for the foreign legion pilots to clear out of the country by engaging the swarm of enemy MiGs rushing towards Area 88. Meanwhile, Shin is having issues adjusting to civilian life in Paris and decides to abandon civilian life and return to Area 88. It is there that Shin confronts that he is not the same man that arrived at Area 88 some 2 ½ years ago…he is a shadow of his former self and Shin worries of what that really means as he flies back to the desert.
Area 88 in the West
Area 88 has a rather interesting history in the West that is unique even among titles imported in the second wave of anime/manga. In original Japanese manga began its run in 1979, the same year the events in Area 88 occur, and the OVA was released in three parts between 1985 and 1986 just as the manga series was concluding in Japan. At this time, Japanese comics and animation was becoming more popular and more widely popular in America, causing companies to import more titles to the US shores. While anime titles were imported to the western market in the form of OVAs and TV shows, manga was far less common due to the harder translation and altering of the panel orientation. In 1987, smaller comic press Eclipse Comics, under their International brand, entered into a partnership with Viz Media to publish some of the first manga titles in the United States in a biweekly schedule on a wholesale scale. Among these three titles was Area 88. First released in May 26th, 1987, #1 of Area 88 carried a special introduction page informing the buyer of the unique status and importance of what they held in their hand. 20 days before the release of Area 88, First Comics published Lone Wolf and Cub, one of finest manga of all time (and my favorite). Viz Comics and Eclipse would jointly publish 36 issues of the translated Area 88 until Viz Communications lost faith in Eclipse due to the poor sales that conflicted with what Eclipse had forecast. That triggered shift from Eclipse to Viz with issue #37 in December 1988 and along change in the cover art art to photographs of military aircraft and pilots from the manga/anime Area 88 artwork. The changes did not help sales and on May 1st, 1989, the last issue of Area 88 was released and it was never picked up by another English language comic book company.
It was not all bad news for manga in America. Quickly following behind the Eclipse/Viz three translated manga titles was Marvel’s mature imprint, Epic, publishing Akira in 1988.That is the odd thing about Area 88, it was a comic book first that served as the introduction to the OVA VHS tapes and Laserdisc released by US Manga Corps in 1992 in three tapes (Art I, II, III). These would be sold at places like Hastings, Suncoast, specialized stores, and comic book shops. I would regularly see the Area 88 VHS tapes at Suncoast and even rentable at places like Block Buster (I miss those places!) during the 1990's as well in advertisement in the backs of various magazines. At the time the Area 88 OVA was being carried in the store and in anime catalogs, many Otaku back in the day would see the return of the Area 88 manga in another Viz property: Animerica Magazine. Once again, the series would have bad luck and Area 88 was not complete and dropped in January 1995. This would be the last appearance of the Area 88 manga in America. Then there was one more Area 88 product to come from Japan to the shores of the States: U.N. Squadron.
Originally released in 1989 as an branded Area 88 side-scrolled shooter in Japan as an arcade game by CAPCOM, it was ported to the Super Famicom system and later the Super Nintendo Entertainment System in 1991. Popular in the arcade and on the SNES, some never connected to Area 88 due to the Area 88 title being stripped from the western export release. Why? It is likely due to failure of the Eclipse comics and the limited market for the OVA. It made more sense to just invent a name and attract more buyers to a fun title rather than tap the limited Area 88 fan base in the United States. There were eagle-eyed Otakus that would have connected the OVA/Comic to this popular SNS/arcade 1991 side-scrolling shooter. I can remember my friend Gary and I discussing the connection between Area 88 and U.N. Squadron. This all adds up to making Area 88 a highly unusual Japanese import that several products from several media types were basically available all at the same timeframe which is very rare for an imported manga/anime product of the 1980’s. What happened after the 1990's? After the US Manga Corps license on Area 88 was up, ADV Films would take up the Area 88 mantle and release the OVA on DVD in 2006, but only Act I and III…not II. It was recently re-released by another company with all three episodes.
Why is Area 88 Considered Military SF?
Well….it is not…not really. For the most part, the OVA (save for that stupid metal wall that the anti-government supply base throws up to defend the base from aerial bombardment!) is a mostly realistic look at aerial combat around the early 1980’s with now vintage aircraft. The series would be now considered “alternative history fiction” given its time period of 1979-1986, which was keeping up with the actual time when the series was published. When it comes to the original manga, the series dipped into science fiction territory with some storylines and technology. Why FWS decided to discuss Area 88, which originally started off as a Forgotten Classic post many years ago, was due to it being unique in the world of anime. Area 88 is a more or less a “pure” military anime/manga that bucked the trends of the time to be something unique and it does an interesting export history.
The Impact and Legacy of Area 88
When most think of 1980s anime, they conjure up images of glorious mecha of all shapes and sizes, robots that transform, Macross missile storms, long haired heroes, noodle human forms, and something called “Dragon Ball Z”. However, the decade was a creative time for anime studios that extended beyond the realm of sci-fi and mecha. The OVA for the popular Area 88 manga capitalized on the then love for detailed mechanical art in anime, the new high-tech combat jet fighters (the Area 88 OVA was in place for the Top Gun fueled mania for military aircrafts and their pilots), and the anime standard trope of combat pilots being the central hero. From the limited sources I could find, the Area 88 OVA was popular in Japan and speaking to legacy, the Area 88 franchise would go to generated two board games, a popular SNS game, tons of model kits at the time and even a 2004 TV series.
As for its legacy, for some, including me, the three-part OVA are a much more solid Area 88 experience than the manga series or the 2004 TV series. While the manga started off mostly in the realm of reality, it veered head first into fantasy with the nuking of Area 81, the inclusion of the B-2 Spirit bombers, and the rebel land-based aircraft carrier…yeah. This makes the mid-80’s OVA of Area 88 a more pure singular experience of the extensive manga world. To me, that is true legacy of the Area 88 OVA.
Is It Worth Watching Today?
For some, 1980’s anime has a certain special place in the hearts of most fans and it was indeed a special time in the general history of the medium. I, for one, grew up on 1980’s titles and count some of them as foundational material for my life. For those into 1980’s anime, Area 88 is worth a watch for sure and it still holds up…mostly. It has enough cheese, bad anime character design, powerful wartime story, and awesome aircraft animation to keep this three-part OVA interested through the sections with rocky dialog and some melodramatic elements. I’ve never been a fan of the design of Shin, especially in the manga. While he is based on familiar male lead anime designs, he just looks out of place for a fighter pilot. It is relatively easy to find the OVA on Youtube. However, the later DVD is hit-or-miss and you to read careful to make sure you are getting the actual complete OVA collection.
Next Time on FWS…