The Mike Toole Show
by Michael Toole,
It's kind of morbid of me to frame it like this, but a few weeks ago, I made my last visit to what I'd started referring to as the Corpse of Borders. The bookstore chain had thrown in the towel, the liquidators had taken over, more than ten thousand jobs were quietly vanishing, and a business that had once been a major fulcrum of the North American manga supply chain wasn't quite dead yet... but it was starting to smell funny. When the chain was still healthy, I'd occasionally visit, and behold the gargantuan aisle of manga and related books. It was astonishing, for a time - as a kid newly discovering manga, I dreamed of all of the undoubtedly amazing stuff that hung tantalizingly out of reach, and here it all was. Usually, I'd gaze on it and think, "My god, I don't want any of this crap!" But I took the time to root through the embers of Borders and select a few books (a Yotsuba&! here, a House of Five Leaves there...) from the hundreds and hundreds that still remained.
I speak of hundreds, because of course there's hundreds of English-language manga books available. But back in 1987, there were three. This column's about one of them. This column's about Area 88.
I didn't see Area 88 myself until 1988, when my brother and I made a trip to our local New England Comics and discovered the title amongst the week's new offerings. He brought it home and I bogarted it soon afterwards; we were still a bit fuzzy on the whole idea of special Japanese comics, but to us, Kaoru Shintani's war epic appeared to have the grimly valiant heroes of Star Blazers and the sleek planes of Robotech. We had to have it. We'd each eventually drift away from both Area 88 and monthly comics in general, but the cool thing about living in the future year of 2011 is that this shit is remarkably easy to track down. A few weeks back, I was ranting at our own Jason Thompson on Twitter. "You need to write about Area 88," I said. "The comic came out here, and so did the anime, and there's all these different dub casts, and I should probably write this myself, huh?" Here we are. Jason told me that he'd love to cover Area 88 for House of 1000 Manga, but didn't own any of Viz/Eclipse's original run. Huh, you know what? Neither did I. One eBay trip later, I was the proud owner of about two thirds of the unfinished, 42-issue run. The cost: eight dollars. But hey, check out this beaut:
Here's one of the first fruits of a trip that Viz chairman Seiji Horibuchi took to Japan in 1985, where he was able to convince Shogakukan to give him $200,000 to take a stab at establishing a manga beachhead in the states. "What you now hold in your hands is the first whoelsale attempt to bring the unique and novel world of Japanese comics to English readers in a popular and familiar format," begins the statement on the inside front cover. Maybe it's not 100% accurate - several years earlier, educational publisher Leonard Rifas would colorize and print some of Keiji Nakazawa's A-bomb survivor tales in comic book format - but it's still a compelling product. The jarringly up-close portrait of mercenary pilot Shin Kazama taking off from an aircraft carrier in his F8E Crusader would sell enough to keep the show going for years. But hey, I'm several paragraphs in, and I've barely even talked about what Area 88 is and why it's so awesome. Let's fix that.
Area 88, first published in 1979, wasn't Kaoru Shintani's breakout hit - that would be the previous year's Phantom Burai, a marginally more lighthearted affair about Tetsuro Kanda, the bad boy of the Japan Air Self Defense Force, and his sweet F4EJ Phantom. Already, you can see military air combat as a theme in Shintani's works; this is no accident. Prior to striking out on his own, Shintani worked for Leiji Matsumoto, who's no stranger to war comics, as an assistant. The artist wasn't just employed to help draw backgrounds and secondary characters, either - he actually built scale models, both prefab and kit-bashed, so that Matsumoto and the rest of the team would have visual references for the legendary Captain Harlock creator's intricate mecha designs. Matsumoto paid the guy back for his hard work by inserting him into Harlock thusly:
Yep, that's Kaoru Shintani, alright! Anyway, back to Area 88. The series takes place in a fictional Middle Eastern country (probably based largely on Iran, given the country's contemporaneous revolution) where a royal exile uses his immense wealth to fund a band of mercenary pilots who fight against revolutionary forces plotting to sell the country's oil reserves to foreign interests. Shin Kazama starts off half a world away in Tokyo; he's beaten the odds, rising above his past as a poor orphan to be a gifted graduate of Japan's top aviation school, and engaged to the daughter of the president of Yamato Airlines. His future father in law admires his skills as a pilot and plans on grooming him as an executive. All of this really pisses off Kanzaki, Shin's best friend from the orphanage, who's followed a similar career path and can only see his old friend stealing all of the accomplishments he wants for himself. So he answers one of those ads in the back of Soldier of Fortune magazine, and one night, he gets Shin good and drunk, and hands him a piece of paper to sign. One dodgy contract and late-night flight later, Kanzaki's in pole position to take over Yamato Airlines, and Shin is in the country of Asran, sequestered at the remote Area 88 airfield, where he has to suit up and dogfight his way towards a $1.5 million purse, which he can then use to buy out his contract.
Shin's got the right stuff, but he's a civilian pilot, so he's horrified at the prospect of having to kill and face death every day. But his commanding officer, Saki Vashtal, is oddly persuasive, even when he isn't simply threatening to shoot Shin if he tries to desert. Shin tries desperately to remain emotionally distant from the carnage of the skies above Area 88, but against his intentions, he starts to make friends with the other pilots at the base - there's Vietnam war vet Micky Simon, who, just like John Rambo, couldn't make himself hop out of the cockpit of a million-dollar combat jet and get a day job. Simon eventually earns enough money to escape, but instead ends up spending it all on a state of the art F-14 Tomcat so he can keep fighting. There's RAF veteran Boris, who suffers terribly from nightmares of his dead war buddies. There's Greg Gates, a burly Dane who's made so many improbable escapes from desperate situations that he's oddly (and sometimes hilariously) indifferent to danger. A war photographer, Rocky Mutsugi, provides Shin with a faint conduit to his old life; his fiancee Ryoko spies him in the background of one of Mutsugi's photos in TIME magazine and refuses to give up on him, ratcheting the drama sky-high and keeping Kanzaki good and mad.
You can see where it all leads, right? After months and months at Area 88 (and not without setbacks - Shin soon replaces his Crusader with an F5E Tiger II, an unintended and expensive move), Shin starts to enjoy the icy thrill of kill-or-be-killed aerial combat, not to mention the heady cameraderie he enjoys with his squadmates. This depiction of Shin's internal and external struggles is where Area 88 really shines - Shintani is a much more refined character artist than his mentor Matsumoto; as you can see in the picture, he can actually draw characters who don't look like walking potatoes or Marianne Hold. Shintani also takes special and obvious delight in painstakingly drawing military hardware - dozens of awesome warplanes from around the world appear in Area 88's pages, from the elderly Texan I prop plane to 60s and 70s stalwarts like the MiG-23 and Mirage F1, to exciting new planes like the AV-8 Harrier II. Area 88 would become a 23-volume hit, so of course, it got turned into anime twice.
Happily, both of these animated versions - 1985's 3-part OVA and 2004's short TV series - are pretty easy to grab on DVD. The OVA was actually a fairly early US Manga Corps release here in the states - though it arrived on these shores several years after the comic's cancellation in 1989, it had to have been recognizable enough to fans. Directed by Studio Pierrot co-founder Hisayuki Toriumi, the show's animation is unexpectedly brilliant - even for a high-budget OVA, it looks absolutely amazing, with meticulously rendered missile blasts and swoops and canyon chases and Immelmann turns. The strong animation is brought together wonderfully by the voice of the late, great Kaneto Shiozawa as Shin; the dubbed version would be one of those schizophrenic deals where the initial Manga UK cast was replaced by an American cast for the final volume. Neither versions are particularly memorable. American fans who'd been waiting for years from closure after the manga's abrupt disappearance would get their due, as the series wraps up with a remarkably grim, fatalistic turn. I first watched this OVA adaptation at UMJAMS, my old anime club; after that point, for more than a year, the club's seal was a caricature of Shin Kazama despondently holding a gun to his head. Draw your own conclusions, kids!
Someone at Group TAC wasn't satisfied with this fine adaptation, because in 2004 a twelve-episode TV version hit the airwaves. I have to hand it to the studio, actually - their version of Shin is a little less dour (and blond, for some reason), and they tweak the names and characteristics of several characters, both for modern sensibilities and to give the story another dimension for existing fans. For example, annoying side character Rocky Mutsugi is massaged into scheming yet sympathetic Makoto Shinjo, who eventually tries to intercede against Kanzaki on Shin's behalf. One very different aspect of Area 88 TV is the plane animation, which is wholly computer generated. It's not quite as warm and satisfying as the OVA's incredibly high-detail cel animation, but it works well enough anyway. ADV brought the series out in the US, providing yet another dub cast for the new production. They wisely rescued the OVA series as well, giving it a new and superior dub with the TV cast. I like ADV's dubbed version; it strives for realism in military terminology and the pilots' lingo, which wasn't obvious in earlier versions. And for some reason, Animax Asia commissioned an English dub for the pacific rim, so altogether the story's got about four or five different casts. I love weird little facts like this! I also love the fact that each version of Area 88 - manga, OVA, and TV series - has a different ending. None of them can really be called a "happy" ending, but they're all pretty interesting. There was even an Area 88 video game - a better than average shoot 'em up for Super Nintendo that was retitled UN Squadron for our shores. Like most shmups, it's pretty fun, but pretty hard.
I'm happy that Area 88 made it out in English, even though it didn't last - slowly rising prices, decreasing frequency (the comic eventually went monthly instead of biweekly) and waning interest saw Area 88 end with issue 42. The gang at Viz clearly loved the series and tried to keep it alive in the pages of their new Animerica magazine, but it wouldn't stick there, either. It's a shame! Area 88 is a special series - it's sad, exciting, romantic, and even oddly jovial at times, but overall it's a rough and unhappy story that's markedly different from beloved western war comics like Sgt. Rock and Johnny Red. I think it's a shame we can't get nice squarebound Area 88 books, but then again, Sanpei Shirato's excellent Legend of Kamui series also crashed; of Viz's three original offerings, only Kudo and Ikegami's Mai the Psychic Girl got the paperback reprint treatment.
But what else has Kaoru Shintani been up to? It can't all be war comics, right? Of course not. Shintani really excels at drawing two things - fighter planes and attractive girls. He's best remembered for Area 88, but he'd score a modest hit in the 80s with Cleopatra DC, which is all about a curvy, dreamy blonde running a BIG AMERICAN COMPANY and having adventures with her similarly buxom pals. This modestly entertaining series was adapted into a marginally entertaining OVA in 1989, notable mostly for its sleek Nobuteru Yuuki character designs. Shintani would cross over from cutesy fanservice to genuine ecchi storytelling in Buttobi CPU, an earlier, dirtier version of the same kind of story we read in CLAMP's Chobits - Buttobi CPU also got the OVA treatment, which Right Stuf retitled I Dream of Mimi for the US market. That was a good idea, Buttobi CPU is a terrible name! Shintani did the character designs for God Sigma, and even drew characters for the Wing Over series of console flight games. Many manga artists slow down as they get older, but Shintani's still cranking out a certifiable hit in Little Miss Holmes, an enjoyably odd little yarn about Sherlock Holmes' smarter, cuter niece. Seven Seas are publishing this one in English in a few months - I'll certainly be checking it out.
In the meantime, I'll paw through my newly acquired pile of Area 88 back issues, reliving the adventures of Shin and his pals at Area 88. Area 88 was the first manga series I ever read. What was the first manga you ever read? What's your favorite part of Area 88? Sound off in the comments!
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