The setting is extremely realistic as there are no improbable martial arts or poisonous jungles and transforming robots. It is pure drama in the battlefield and the heavens above it.
The focus of optical attention in the series are the airplanes and, of course, the aerial battles. And, damn, they are good! Highly detailed and realistic, based on authentic airplane models and real war air bases. During the battles, the camera moves around in such a way that gives a 3-dimentional feeling of the battle, as if it’s placed inside an airplane as well. Explosions are so well made that you can even see debris jettisoned and falling very realistically. Same goes for the sound effects of the shootings and the explosions. The music themes are very appropriate, being a mix of rock and hard pop (rock n’ roll seems to fit with any form of violence!).
Still, this department did not get a maximum mark because of the anthropomorphic figures. All characters lack the reality that the machines give off and that rather ruins the final feeling. But if you don’t mind having “cartoons” placed next to realistic machines, then this is not really a problem. It is still an amazing work if you think studio Pierrot made it (which is infamous for its poor production values in shounen anime).
For a small series, there is a lot of scenario and characters going around. And it’s not your typical Hollywood crap where the good and perfect Americans fight evil and stupid Arabs in the name of global justice. No sir! It’s realistic to the bone. It was further boosted by being directed by Toriyumi Hisayuki (Battle of the Planets, Ultraman), a man who has much of experiance in making grim shows with exciting action.
There is a civil war waging on, somewhere in the Middle East, between the royal family of a kingdom (There is no “good side” and “bad side”). Each side hires veteran pilots as mercenaries to fight their battles (It’s all about the money, baby!). The protagonist is Shin, a common man who is tricked, while drank, to sign up as a mercenary for the war. He was in fact framed by his best childhood friend, just to steal the woman they both loved (All are caused by a woman again!). He is thrown in the midst of war, where he is forced to continually kill and dehumanize, in order to survive long enough to gain enough money and buy his freedom back. The story is about the horrors and tragedies he experiences and his interaction with other mercenaries, who keep telling him that the war field is their true home. Towards the end, he manages to return to his beloved woman, as his immoral ex-friend is sent to jail. You expect a happy ending, right? Wrong! Feeling totally out of place, Shin gets fed up with his peaceful life and dumps everything just to return back to the place he is now accustomed with, the war field! The ending is open, as the last thing we see is Shin’s friends/mercenaries being killed by the other side and Shin piloting his plane towards them (Not to save the day like Superman. Just to kill! He loves killing!).
Again, this department did not get a maximum mark because besides Shin, no other member of the cast has any character development. Makes things seem rather stale from a point on.
Area 88 is probably the best action/war drama with airplanes of all anime, ever made. It was a smash hit when it came out and is still considered to be very good. You cannot be called an otaku if you are older than 20 and haven’t seen it yet. You cannot say you have a good taste if you saw it and didn’t at least find it good. Yes, it’s THAT good. The open ending does leave you a bit disappointed but it is otherwise a wonderful series.
There was a 2004 remake but wasn’t half as good as the original. So, it remains a one of a kind experience, even if some tried to repeat it.
Top Gun. An American militaristic propaganda movie with airplanes.
Yukikaze. It kicks ass in aerial battle realism but it is a mystery/sci-fi anime instead of a war drama.
Apocalypse Now, Platoon, Born On The 4th Of July. Classical Hollywood anti-war movies.