published in Empire No.77, Sydney
Reading Area 88 on its surface alone, one could expect it to replicate the Top Gun egotistical heroics which have shadowed the persona of Tom Cruise for the last quarter of a century. Having approached this series with trepidation, I was surprised by how holistically it avoided such trappings. A clutch of episodic snap-shots of the aerial battles undertaken by the brooding Shin for a mercenary airborne division in the Middle East, Area 88 is less boasting of fist-punching survival than it is furrowed with remorse, revenge and regret.
Shin’s back-story is glimpsed and flashed progressively throughout the series, creating a fractured capture of his drive to earn the $1.5 million to extract himself from his seemingly endless 3 year flying contract. His fiancé Ryoko awaits him back in Tokyo – at least she does in his dreams. Prising Shin’s inner mind for us is the battle photographer Makoto who has been assigned to Area 88’s desert base to document the team’s exploits. Yet Makoto himself has a hidden agenda which is simultaneously revealed and problematised by his gradual awareness of what makes Shin tick.
Leavening Area 88’s psychological mysteries are some astounding dog fight sequences. In fact the merger of action and character are deftly forwarded through the series, making it an impressive meld of visceral and reflective drama. Of note is the series’ general dramatic tone, which resembles more a live-action drama than an anime. That’s not to say Area 88 ‘looks realistic’, but that it is largely absent of the musical cues and comedic asides which are often incorporated even into dramatic anime. The extended aerial fights bearing hyper-speed CGI matched to gusts of noise and soaring jet sounds well depicts the emptied calm of the fighter pilot’s mental focus.