Anime Reviews: 801 T.T.S. Airbats
Some Info About This Obscure OVA Series
Title: 801 T.T.S. Airbats a.k.a. Airbats a.k.a. Aozora Shoujo-tai
Production: Studio Fantasia
Series Length: 7 OVA
Release Dates: 10/21/1994 to 8/21/1996
Age Rating: 15+ (mild violence, mild language, brief nudity)
Summary: Takuya Isurugi, an avid fan of both anime and the Japanese Air Force, gets his chance to make his debut in the latter when he's enlisted to join the 801st Tactical Training Squadron, where one of Japan's best aerial acrobatics teams resides. Unfortunately, reality never lives up to the ideal, and Takuya soon finds that the 801st is essentially the Defense Force's dumping ground for hopeless cases--trainees whose personalities are unfit for "proper" placement. Consisting of the good-natured but stubborn Miyuki Haneda, the standoffish ice queen Arisa Mitaka, and a whole host of military misfits, Takuya's fellows at the 801st are a comfy and casual lot, but the higher-ups in the Defense Force feel their squadron is superfluous and a waste of taxpayer money. It's up to Isurugi, Haneda, and Mitaka to work together and make the 801st a well-oiled aerial machine and prove their worth to the nation!
The Good: Charming and entertaining all the way through; artwork gets better as the series progresses...
The Bad: ...because the artwork in those early episodes is atrocious; comedy hasn't aged very well; remains incomplete
The Ugly: I'm pretty sure the "gaggle of girls falling for hapless milquetoast moron" trope was ancient even before this series debuted
So, uhh...what the hell is this?
A good friend of mine is big into the nostalgic anime TV series and OVAs of the late 80s and early 90s, and for a while now, he's been wanting me to check out a little OVA called 801 T.T.S. Airbats. That is, the title being reviewed now. He was pretty confident that I'd fall in love with the series, but I'm sorry to say that this was not the case--while I can't honestly say it's a flaw, given its age, but the series is full of too many familiar tropes and jokes for me to really sink my teeth into. Airbats is an OVA that is most appropriate for viewing early on in your anime-watching career, not 200+ titles deep into it. But again, this isn't the OVA's fault--it's a consequence of me seeing it too late. With that aside, I may not have loved Airbats, but did I at least like it? Let's start digging right in, shall we?
What does this OVA series do well?
Let's answer that last question right now: I do like Airbats, and that's because it's just plain fun to watch. It's trope-y as hell, it's simplistic, and the English voice acting is as low-budget late-90s as it gets, and while these problems might dock points from many other titles, they actually work in the series' favor here. Being a comedy, it's a lot easier to forgive a flaw if it ends up enhancing the effect a piece of media is going for, and that's certainly the case here--perfect execution and tight writing applied to Airbats would've only resulted in a bland and boring series, but the silly scenarios and the cheesy voice acting add an immense amount of charm and camp to the proceedings. This is essentially the anime version of a B-movie, where the shortcomings enhance the viewer's enjoyment rather than detracting from it. What I'm tryin' to say is, the point of a comedy is for the audience to have fun, and Airbats is fun, so mission accomplished.
Of course, it's not just wacky tropes and endearing overacting that keep this OVA afloat, because it does also know how to make its cast likable and can sometimes deliver its familiar jokes in surprising ways. Grizzled long-time anime veterans will have doubtless seen thousands of characters identical to Isurugi, Haneda, and Mitaka by now, but that doesn't stop them from being genuinely likable and sympathetic. We've seen these jokes before, but they're still funny. We've been over these episodic storylines before, but they still make for an entertaining ride. When Mitaka gets recruited by a combat squadron due to her superior skills, I knew with 100% certainty that she was just gonna come back by episode's end, but I still wanted to see it play out. I wanted to take that ride, because I wanted to be entertained. Originality is great and all, and more anime should definitely strive for it, but sometimes, pure entertainment value is just going to win out.
One last thing I must mention is that I have to give props to the art and animation team who worked on this series. While it's not gonna blow your mind, and it wasn't even the biggest spectacle OVA of the mid-90s, I will always compliment a series that improves its visuals as it goes on. I already enjoyed the attention to detail with regards to each plane's design and interior, as well as the lighting and shading that goes into those interior shots (which I will never tire of seeing in any piece of animation involving airplanes), but watching the series' art style evolve and improve over time is really satisfying, y'know? It's the kind of thing that gives me hope--to think that I, too, could improve over time. It's a false hope, of course, but hope, nonetheless.
...And what brings it crashing down?
Of course, now that I've just gotten finished talking about how I loved the fact that the series' artwork improved with each episode, this is probably a good time to mention that this was not exactly a difficult task considering that those first two episodes look like absolute garbage. I mean, seriously, who looked at those key character frames--particularly those frames where the characters look like they have no space whatsoever between their noses and their upper lips--and decided, "Yeah that looks good"?! Who are these people, and why haven't they been destroyed yet?! I mean, there's bad character art, and then there's the first two episodes of Airbats, holy crap.
Another issue the series has is that its comedy has not aged very well in general. Sure, you've got some winners in the mix--slapstick and wacky misunderstandings are always a sure bet--but there are some things that really should just stay in the dustbin of history, like cutesy animal mascots and jokes about outright sexual harassment. The little bat mascot can just go away and nothing of value will have been lost. As for sexual harassment jokes, I feel like I should specify: One episode features the cast traveling through the mountains to a hot springs hotel during a blizzard, and naturally, wacky hot springs shenanigans ensue, sprinkled in with a plot point about the ghost of a kamikaze pilot who allegedly appears in the area. Let's examine two jokes that occur in one scene: The ghost of the pilot appears, causing the girls to run naked in a panic from their side of the hot springs to the guys' side. For the first joke, senior officers Konishi and Kengamine leer at the girls, hold out their hands in grabby positions, and try (and fail) to get some. In the second joke, the girls run right past the officers and cling onto Isurugi, who gets a face full of boob and looks much too delighted about his good fortune. The second joke, while dumb and a little skeevy, is nonetheless fine because it's just a harmless gag. The first joke, on the other hand, is just all-around uncomfortable, considering we're at least supposed to like Konishi and think he's a swell guy, and it certainly sticks out like a sore thumb especially now when people are more aware of sexual exploitation in the workplace and the military...it's not a good look, y'know?
Long story short, there are still plenty of jokes that hit the mark, but there are also way too many that just feel wrong retroactively, knowing what we know today.
And finally, the biggest complaint the series has generated even among its biggest fans is the fact that its ending leaves Airbats frustratingly incomplete. No preamble, no ceremony, no reason, not even the semblance of an ending of any kind. It's just over. While I won't sit here and claim that this was a great series, I certainly would have been happy to have more of it, but nope! Anyone who was enjoying themselves just had the carpet pulled out from under them.
So, what's the verdict?
801 T.T.S. Airbats is a decidedly mediocre anime, and one that history has promptly forgotten, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's without its merits. Sure, it's aged poorly, but that also makes it a time capsule, making it innately valuable for anyone who wants a pure 90s anime experience. Sure, it's trope-y and unoriginal, but it's also charming and campy and fun to watch. While I can't give this OVA an honest recommendation to the average anime fan, I certainly can recommend it to fans of old-school anime whose radars completely missed it. Just because it's got problems doesn't mean it's the worst thing ever, and just because I didn't fall in love with it doesn't mean you won't, either. If this looks like it might be up your alley, chances are good that it is.
Final Score: 6 out of 10. While it certainly has not aged that well, inheriting a lot of the shortcomings of its era, 801 T.T.S. Airbats is nonetheless a good-hearted comedy guaranteed to please the anime fan looking to scratch that mid-90s itch with its goofy idiosyncrasies and genuinely likable cast.