Area 88 takes place between the late 1970s to early 1980s and is largely set in a war-embroiled Middle Eastern country called the Kingdom of Arslan. The war uses mercenary fighter pilots, with its headquarters at a secret desert air force base called Area 88. Up-and-coming airline pilot Shin Kazama gets tricked into signing up by his "friend" Satoru Kanzaki. Facing execution for deserting from Area 88, Shin reluctantly turns into a fighter pilot and attempts to serve his three-year contract.
Area 88 attracts all kinds of people with all kinds of assorted and often sordid pasts. Among the other mercenaries are Mickey Simon, an American who previously served as a fighter pilot in the United States Navy and couldn't adjust to normal life after his tour of duty in the Vietnam War. Mickey becomes Shin's best friend at Area 88. Another familiar sight at Area 88 is McCoy, a greedy weapons dealer who sells everything the mercenaries need from toilet paper to their planes. The commander of Area 88 is Arslanian Prince Saki Vashutal, though his royal heritage means nothing there. Also prominent on the base are war photographer Go "Rocky" Mutsugi (presented as Makoto Shinjou in the 2004 anime), Danish pilot Greg Gates (later featured in the video game adaptation), and the numerous pilots with whom Shin flies (most of them die over the course of the series, often in the issue in which they were introduced). Though the series focuses mostly on Shin, other characters (notably Rocky and Mickey) did have their own individual storylines.
There are only three ways to leave Area 88: Survive three years, pay off a USD 1.5-million contract in bounties, or desertion, which is a capital offense. With each enemy plane brought down, Shin faces his shifting acceptance of the violence and killing that fills every day, as well as suppressing his feelings of wrongdoing.
Area 88 is usually placed during the late 1970s, or early 1980s, although evidence points towards the latter in the OVA's case. First, during Act 1 of the OVA when the calendar in Shin's room is first seen, Shin marks off the date Wednesday, April 11. Then, during the flashback where Shin unknowingly signs the contract from Kanzaki, the date reads on the contract 'le 29 avril 1979' or April 29, 1979. Based on the calendar marking, it is some point past 1979 and the nearest year where April 11 falls on a Wednesday is 1984. Secondly, the OVA featured the F/A-18 Hornet, which entered service in 1983. From the OVA's conclusion it's reasonable to suggest the end date is sometime in early 1986 given Shin's term in Arslan (2 years 5 months). Note, however, this is directly contradicted by a scene in the third part of the OVA in which we see a calendar in Shin's room during his discharge, the date being Monday, Sept. 22, 1982. It's more likely that the animators in fact were in error, both about the days of the week, and about the date of service of the F/A-18 (although its predecessor, the YF-17 could explain the date inconsistency considering the similarity of design), as they had made a similar error with the F-14 Tomcat in the second part of the OVA, depicting the F-14 in a bombing run over Vietnam, when the plane did not see actual combat action (however, it did participate in the American withdrawal from Saigon by providing fighter escort to the helicopters carrying fleeing refugees).
Each version of the Area 88 told slightly different variations on the same basic premise, and often shared individual story arcs. However, there are several key differences between each version, especially in the endings.
The original manga ending had Shin returning to Japan, but having lost all memory of Area 88. The English-language version published by Eclipse Comics was left unfinished and incomplete: Shin does not return to Japan. The rebels, operating unmanned fighter jets from a giant, mobile base - a "land-carrier" - have targeted Area-88 with a nuclear-armed, computer controlled drilling machine. Saki, meanwhile, has acquired an American B-1B bomber armed with nuclear weapons.
The first three-episode OVA adaptation from 1985 had Shin return to Area 88 in his F-20 fighter while the Area was being overrun by a devastating massive force of anti-government Mig-21 jets. His fate and those of Saki, Mickey, Greg and some other pilots is left uncertain.
The 2004 anime series truncated the story to just after Shin lost his F-5E, but in that continuity Shinjou, the photographer, manages to return to Japan just in time to derail Kanzaki's plot to marry Ryoko. The series also introduced the permanent characters of Kim, from the manga, and Saki's cousin Kitori, who appeared in the manga as Seilane Balnock.
Despite the consistent use of existing aircraft, the manga - unlike the anime adaptations - introduced, as the series progressed, a number of elements that may have been considered science fiction at the time but at least used existing technology. Such devices include a land-based aircraft carrier with its fleet of AI-controlled F/A-18 fighters. A rebel weapon called the Grand Slam is basically a ballistic missile modified with a drill machine. There was also other exotic weaponry, none of which appeared in either anime adaptation.
The themes in Area 88 mostly revolve on the Vietnam War and those who have participated in it. The psychological state of the base's mercenaries are also noted, showing that most soldiers who have fought in conflicts from the early 20th century have reported difficulties in getting their lives back to normal.
Area 88 also depicts the use of freelancers in fighting wars as mercenaries have fought for various countries during the 20th century, with the attention of their field work in Africa for most of the time back then.
Notable combat aircraft to have been featured in the series include:
Attack Aircraft :A-1 Skyraider
A-10A Thunderbolt II
Sea Harrier FRS Mk.1
AV-8A Harrier II
Cargo Aircraft:C-130 Hercules
Fighter and Interceptor Aircraft:Blackburn Buccaneer
Dassault Mirage F1
English Electric Lightning
F-4J/E Phantom II
F-5E Tiger II
F-16A Fighting Falcon
F-100 Super Sabre
Trainer Aircraft:T-6 Texan
Experimental and Research Aircraft:X-29
The original Japanese manga of Area 88 was serialized in 23 volumes between 1979 and 1986 by Shogakukan. Each volume was black and white with a painted color cover and contained several short stories called "missions." In all, there were 172 such missions across the 23 volumes. Shōnen Sunday later repackaged the 23 volumes into ten thick books under its Wide Volume product line.
Area 88, along with Mai, the Psychic Girl and The Legend of Kamui, was one of the first three manga to be translated to English and published in North America by Eclipse Comics and VIZ Media in May 1987. It was published bi-weekly with each issue containing a single mission, of which the editors had planned to release all 172. The first 28 issues featured covers from the original manga plus some original artwork by Shintani, but as these resources were limited, the covers of issues #29-36 featured stills from the OVA film. With issue #37 in December 1988, VIZ Media took over the series, and in addition to featuring photographs of actual fighter jets on the cover, the publication went from bi-weekly to monthly and the price from $1.50 to $1.75. The series did not adjust well to the dramatic change, and with issue #42 in May 1989, without resolving the storyline, it was canceled. It was later run as a feature in Viz's Animerica Magazine, but only lasted until January 1995 without the series being completed.
Between February 5, 1985 and August 15, 1986, Studio Pierrot produced a direct-to-video animated film trilogy for VHS and laserdisc. In 1992, Central Park Media's U.S. Manga Corps released the OVA series, subtitled in English, in North America for VHS and laserdisc, and re-released the first volume for DVD on 14 July 2000.
After Central Park Media's films license lapsed, ADV Films published Act I and Act III of the trilogy for DVD on 25 July 2006. Although Act II is missing from the ADV collection, Act II can be sourced via streaming media, torrents, or second-hand VHS and Laserdisk copies. The 2006 ADV collection is a two-DVD set, and features the original Japanese soundtrack as well as the dubbed English track, performed by the same cast who voiced the English dub of the TV series. The DVD content also includes an interview with Kaoru Shintani, and an introduction to the fighter jets portrayed in the series.Area 88: Act I: Blue Skies of Betrayal (1985, VHS/LD; 1992, VHS; July 14, 2000, DVD)
Area 88: Act II: The Requirements of Wolves (1985, VHS/LD; 1992, VHS)
Area 88: Act III: Burning Mirage (1986, VHS/LD; 1992, VHS)
Area 88: Original OVA Series (July 25, 2006, DVD)
An updated 12-episode anime television series with CG graphics, produced by Animax, Group TAC and Media Factory, began production in 2003 and premiered across Japan on the anime satellite television network, Animax from 8 January 2004 – 5 March 2004, who later aired the series across its other respective networks worldwide, including Hong Kong, Southeast Asia, South Asia, South Korea, Taiwan and other regions. ADV Films licensed the series for North American distribution, releasing the series across the region, with the first DVD volume release being published on June 22, 2005 and the last volume being released on January 17, 2006.
A shoot 'em up video game by Capcom was released in the arcades in 1989. It was released in the West as UN Squadron. Ports were released for the Amiga, Amstrad CPC, Atari ST, Commodore 64, Super NES and ZX Spectrum.
In the game, the player could choose either Shin, Mickey, or Greg as the pilot to play. Each came with a different plane and various advantages; for example, Mickey could handle air-to-air dogfights well while Greg excelled at air-to-ground attacks. Each pilot also had special abilities; Shin mastered normal weaponry at the highest speed, Mickey inflicted extra damage with his armaments, and Greg recovered from attacks almost before they occurred. The Super NES release offered six fighter planes, with the F-8 Crusader as the default aircraft. The game also included various elements from the series, such as the land carrier.
In 1995, Family Soft produced two Area 88 games for the PC-9801.
An October 2014 crossover update for Ace Combat: Infinity added new aircraft used by the main characters of Area 88 in the game.
Two special board games based on the franchise were released in the 1980s, but as so-called "Coterie" games, which are preordered editions and only go on limited sale at Japan's Game Market trade show. With mechanics based off the GDW board game Imperium, the Area 88 in Desert War and Peace in the Aslan Kingdom have the game counters, instructions and battle map (a fictional representation of the Sinai Peninsula) printed in standard bond paper, with players left to cut up the counters and attach them and the map in cardstock.
A line of Area 88 model kits was also produced, which are basically aircraft that are painted as they appeared in the series. Takara released a 1/100 line of aircraft kits, each with a 1/24 pilot figure in the early 1980s to coincide with the original manga stories. Kits included Shin's Crusader, F-5G Tiger II and F-20 Tigershark, Mickey's F-100 and F-14, Saki's Kfir, Greg's A-10 and two planes from the Counter-Governmental Air Force - a Yak-36 Forger and a Mig-27 Flogger-D.
The first release of 1/144 kits by Hasegawa in the early 1990s consisted of Mickey's F-14, Shin's F-8 and F-5, Seilane Balnock's Harrier, and Saki Vashtar's Kfir. Each kit had a 1/12 scale figure of the pilot in resin while the 1/144 plane kits were styrene plastic tooled up by Dragon models in Hong Kong. The third wave, released by Hasegawa in 1996, featured 1/72 kits of the same jets, but this time Hasegawa's own kit moldings were used. They comprised Saki's Kfir, Gregg's A-10, Shin's F-8, F-20, X-29 and Draken, and Mickey's F-14. Hasegawa also produced a 1/48 two-pack set in line with the 2004 TV series, consisting of Shin's F-8 and Mickey's F-14, plus a DVD.
From January 2004 to December 2005, trading figure company The Other Corp released a line of 1/144 gashapon miniatures of various modern military aircraft that are painted as according to their actual appearance in the series, despite one of the offerings - the Su-47 Berkut - never having appeared at all.Area 88 Opening Theme: Mission - Fuga
Note: The Awakening track in the main album and Cyber Trance is not the same one as heard in the TV series.
For the release of the English dub to English-speaking countries, the ADR team at ADV Films sought the assistance of Capt. Kevin "Dumpster" Divers, a USAF officer to ensure that dialogue had proper air force jargon.
Anime News Network praised Area 88's English dub released by ADV, especially with most of it done with the assistance of a consultant from the US Air Force. Freetype gave the series a 7.0 out of 10, citing "Intense, fast, adrenaline-pumping dogfight action" while criticizing it for being one-dimensional for lack of some character development, lack of emphasis on action with the morals and drama watered down.