I first became a fan of Area 88 back when it was released in comic book form in the late 1980s by Viz. One of four manga offerings sent to the USA to test the waters along with Zenon, Mai the Psychic Girl, and The Dagger of Kamui, Area 88 surprised many with its cartoonish-looking cast struggling with moral dilemmas against the backdrop of war in the Middle East. Sadly, sales (or the lack thereof) caused Viz to drop the run after 40 or so issues, right in the middle of a cliffhanger. Although this was one of several factors why Viz got its reputation as being less than fan-friendly, Area 88 is no stranger to cliffhangers in its multiple forms. If you pick up the anime version, you'll find an absolutely great show--if you don't mind ambiguous endings.
The story is set in a nebulous time, likely right around 1980 or so. Shin Kazama, an ace pilot, is ready to start a promising career in aviation when his best friend, insanely jealous of Shin's girl Ryoko, gets him drunk and tricks him into signing up to fly as a mercenary fighter pilot for a fictional country named Aslaan. Stationed at an airbase called Area 88, the pilots who have signed themselves away to the war effort have only three ways to get out: to finish out the three-year contract, to buy out the contract at a price of $1.5 million dollars earned through enemy kills, or to escape, risking execution if caught. Shin only thinks of returning home to his love, but he is plagued by the all-too-real nightmare of death and destruction that surrounds him. If he is able to finally leave the horror of Area 88, Shin is haunted by the thought that he may never be able to live a normal life again.
There is a rich and proud tradition of reluctant heroes in the world of anime, but Shin Kazama is one of the most realistically realized. Although many thrust into action dislike the violence they create, like Haruku Ichijo of Macross or Amuro Ray of Gundam, Shin actively abhors it. His conscience is shattered by the deaths on his hands and the psychological damage from having his best friend betray him. Despite having great action sequences and interesting scenarios, it is Shin's moral dilemma that provides the centerpiece of the show and makes it so uniquely interesting to watch.
There's plenty more to watch than existential angst, however. Realistic aerial combat is unusual in anime, which usually prefers to take the route of mecha blazing into firefights. Area 88 is intense in that the details of real-world weaponry and machinery are often painstakingly recreated, giving the show an authentic flair. Although not action-packed, per se, the flight sequences are smartly done, even watching it today. Besides the quality of the animation, which (save for spots in the third act) is excellent given its background as an OVA series, the score is superb. The opening theme is in English (even in the Japanese version), and it captures the whole essence of the show while remaining catchy enough to remember weeks later. The rest of the music is orchestrated with the show's dramatic sequences in a powerful way that most recent anime have forgotten.
If there are any caveats to the praises, they are faint but important. There are a few points where racial stereotypes come into play--though they aren't strong, in our "politically correct" culture they are worth mentioning. The only other big thing that comes to mind is that Act 3 is a bit too long and a bit shabbier on the budget than the first two. However, whereas Acts 1 and 2 mirror what was released in the US comic book, Act 3 extends the story far past that point and provides a conclusion (of sorts) to the story. That ending is not one I want to spoil, but suffice it to say that many people hate it. It's completely appropriate and the right way for the story to end, but it isn't Hollywood.
Area 88 is a fine story that brings forward moral and ethical questions rare to find in any entertainment medium. Although it doesn't garner my highest ratings because it's a little dated in spots and not a classic in the broad sense, it is a personal favorite that I strongly recommend.
Area 88 Act 1 -- violence -- A-
Area 88 Act 2 -- violence -- A
Area 88 Act 3 -- violence, brief nudity -- B+