Area 88 is refreshing as, unlike most anime with pilots, the pilots in this OVA fly real jets - you're not dealing with anything sci-fi here, just '80s jet dogfighting, though I doubt the realism of the opening scene where tanks are ripped apart by a machine-gun...
If you like jets and dogfighting, you'll like Area 88's battle scenes. Will you like its story and its characters?
Story, probably not. Characters, maybe.
From here on out, I'm going to be delving into spoilers. So:
Be warned. (This spacing is so you have to click "view more" to see spoilers on my review.)
Area 88's premise is absurd and convoluted. The
main character is tricked into mercenary work as a fighter pilot. He has to survive for 3 years, pay $1.5 million, or desert to escape. If we can get over the initial hump where he's tricked and forced into it, the first OVA will still make your eyes roll. The guy is 1 kill away from $1.5 million, but runs out of ammo and takes nasty hits to his plane. From what I gathered, a kill is like $1000 or something. You're telling me one of his friends (he has a few at the base) won't loan him an extra $1000 so he can go home? What about the hand-rubbing merchant? There's some interest to be earned. Come on...
Area 88 is pulled down EXCESSIVELY by this convoluted emotional hook. Our main guy, Shin, wants to go home so he can be with his girl, Ryoko, who is avoiding the advances of the guy who tricked Shin into becoming a killer fighter pilot or whatever. This cheap technique isn't always predictable, but it's still boring, empty, and obnoxious.
Watching this with a friend, we both couldn't stand the scenes reminding us of the Ryoko subplot. Kanzaki, who betrayed Shin, ends up getting arrested by the Japanese police for being a big bad corporate guy and taking over an airline company belonging to Ryoko's father. His fate is totally detached from Shin. This is nuts, and while it might be 'realistic,' the rest of the subplot and story is far from realistic.
Viewers are bound to be waiting for Kanzaki and Shin to encounter each other, and Shin to get his vengeance - even if its an empty one - against Kanzaki. We are also waiting for Shin to finally meet with Ryoko again because it's the main emotional hook of his captivity.
Yet neither happens. While in the manga I've heard Shin kills Kanzaki (better!) but has to suffer an amnesia copout for Ryoko (lame!) in this OVA, Shin never even learns Kanzaki was arrested, hangs up on Ryoko at a payphone and then flies off to die with his comrades.
Don't get me wrong. The ending, in theory, is badass. But Shin should have had some catharsis regarding Kanzaki, some time with Ryoko - and then he should have decided to go back and join the final, suicidal battle.
It should have been a mirror of Mickey's experience. Shin comes back from Area 88. Gets to experience Ryoko again; learns or is the reason for Kanzaki's demise; and then decides he can't handle civilian life, so he flies back to Aslan and fights with his comrades to the death.
Instead, we get a very frustrating, eyerolling ending, that seems to glance over a subplot that the first two OVA's used excessively. And I mean excessively.
All in all, someone should edit together all of Area 88's combat sequences, cut out the Ryoko / Kanzaki subplot, and have Shin be another pilot without a past fighting ruthlessly in an anime stand-in for Iran or whatever. Then this OVA would be great. But it's pulled down by the cheap tragic romantic hook that never pays off.
The pay off would have been predictable. But you can't avoid the pay off if you're playing into it so much. There's a reason feedback here is divisive. Some acknowledge its flaws but still like this OVA, while others have such a negative reaction to this poor, cheap emotional technique with zero pay-off that the OVA becomes a permanent 0, 1, 2, 3, or 4 for them.