Studio: A-1 Pictures
Director: Toshimasa Ishii
Streaming on: Crunchyroll
If you are mourning the end of Attack on Titan Season 4, I think I found an adequate replacement to tide you over until its return later this year. Attack on Titan changed the landscape of anime with its world building and the way its narrative was used to tackle themes of prejudice, class differences, and genocide, as well as simply delivering quality action sequences with enjoyable characters. It isn’t easy to find a show that fills that specific void, but so far, 86 – Eighty-Six is managing.
86 grabbed my attention with its opening battle, using slick computer imagery and compositing, but the longer it runs, the more I become interested in this world, its history, and how this story came to be. It doesn’t hurt that the production values are generous and the general aesthetics are strong. However, while it might scratch the itch for a compelling war drama that AOT left behind, it’s much too soon and much too eager to call it a true successor.
It’s not a fair comparison to raise a new show against the most popular anime of the last decade, but it remains present in the back of my mind as I dig deeper into 86’s world and characters. The standard might be too high to meet, but I don’t think any story or its creators would object to one so lofty. Today I am here to see whether or not 86 can live up to the military anime that defined a niche genre for the past nine years.
86 derives its title from the 85 districts of the San Magnolia, one of two forces in a great war in the year 2148 against their rivals in the Giad Empire. The Empire has had the upper hand in the war through their technologically advanced unmanned drones, carrying on their entire part of the war without losing a life. The Republic counters with their own drones, and while they report no casualties, that’s because they deem the pilots of these robots to be not human. The members of the 86th district are conscripted into the army and forced to work in a highly lethal battlefield, all while the regime denies their humanity.
Major Vladilena Mirize is a prodigy of a Handler, or someone who organizes and commands the 86 in battle from a remote position and behind a monitor, akin to a strategy game on a computer. She’s been noted for her compassionate treatment of the 86, and made into a social pariah because of it. She’s been reassigned to the Spearhead Squadron, made up of 86 veterans and led by Shinei, also known as the Undertaker. The Spearhead Squadron and specifically Undertaker have a track record of driving each of their Handlers to madness, suicide, or both.
While the 86 are hesitant to their new and surprisingly sympathetic commander, both parties realize that they have a fair amount to learn from the other if they go about it cordially. that’s pretty much all that’s happened so far, as I started writing this after watching the first two episodes, and I’ll only directly reference those as to keep this spoiler-safe.
At this point, the series has been focused in building the world and establishing its leads’ personalities, rather than throwing us headfirst into the action. Despite that, the action scenes in both episodes were more than competently done, but it’s just not the recipient of their attention. 86’s story and premise are intriguing, as well as the quiet melancholy aura surrounding Shinei. I can already tell how many fancams and stan accounts are going to launch following this kid. Just imagine if Levi had the looks of an idol and was the male protagonist in a romance anime. Yikes.
Across the board I have nothing but praise for 86’s presentation. I’m often willing to criticize A-1 Pictures because most of their projects have the same generic ‘anime’ aesthetic. It drains the individuality from their manga adaptations especially, though 86 seems faithful enough to the light novels’ illustrations. For now, I’ll bite my tongue.
The character designs are lovely, even if I find Lena’s military uniform stockings to be a bit silly in what is ostensibly a gritty military drama. Other than that, though, the character designs aren’t just well done, they tell a story. The residents of San Magnolia are marked by their silver hair and eyes, while the heterogeneous 86 are diverse in their cultural backgrounds and ethnicity. However, I’ll get back to that later.
86 impresses me most in its CGI, particularly for the spider-like mechs that the 86 operate. I could have forgiven the CG if it was bland or jarring, as they have to produce dozens if not hundreds of these fast-moving vehicles with lots of fire, fluid, and smoke particle effects to composite, but that’s not the case here. Each machine is excellently composited, and the use of CG actually helps them stand out in the cluttered and dusty battlefields.
The movement of these robots is frantic and believably weighty, they move with deliverance and purpose. These contraptions are grounded; they don’t aim for the action figure type of humanoid robots, rather insect-like tanks that can adapt to a variety of battlefields. 86’s visuals lend themselves to a fascinating hard science fiction take on real governments’ increasing reliance on drone warfare, and the ethical ramifications of that lead into our next topic, 86’s story and themes.
Governments historically have forced oppressed people in their military, whether that’s through force or by deception, allowing a religious or ethnic minority to believe that admirable performance on the battlefield can advance both their personal station and that of their people. As an avid reader of history and watcher of anime, it rarely goes so well for the marginalized.
The Confederate Army used both free and enslaved black soldiers alike in a war that was fought to protect their right to keep those people enslaved. The British-American War of 1812 began partly because British privateers seized American ships and impressed those sailors into the British navy. If you tuned out as soon as I said history, Attack on Titan is a great example. Only ethnic Eldians are capable of becoming one of the nine titan shifters, so Eldians in the Marleyan Army are given a chance to elevate their social status by becoming a Warrior, and move their family out of the Eldian ghettos.
One of anime’s strengths is its ability to tell allegorical stories that tackle complex and unpleasant social issues in a way that is immediately more digestible than other forms of media, especially to younger audiences. You’re going to have a hard time selling a story exploring themes of oppression and systemic discrimination to a lot of people watching anime, but a science fiction romance anime with crazy mech army fights? Yeah, good luck keeping them from watching it.
My only complaint with how 86 deals with this sensitive content is that it can be heavy-handed, especially its protagonist. Lena is clearly the recipient of nepotism; she’s a Major at the tender age of 16, which is the anime equivalent of 30, but she gets away with preaching ideas that are a clear threat to this oppressive government. It’s one thing for her to be polite to her charges, but she uses a guest lecture spot at a military academy to try and convince recruits that the 86 are humans too. This is an academy and education system that teaches these same recruits that the 86 are evolved from pigs, so as to more easily erase their humanity.
By allowing Lena to do this without immediate consequences, the writers are neutering this dictatorial government, and presenting two incongruous sides of this regime. They conscript children into their army and categorize them as inhuman animals, and yet they allow one of their Majors to teach impressionable youths things that contradict their propaganda. It doesn’t just mitigate the power they apparently possess, it makes Lena out to be a Mary Sue who can’t be touched by the powers that be. I hope this comes back into play later one, but I have to make my judgement as of writing this, and right now it feels like an inconsistent element in an otherwise solid experience.
Other than a few nitpicks here and there, 86 – Eighty-Six is an ideologically charged and action-oriented series that has the potential to become a new great. unfortunately, I seem to hold that opinion for many of the anime airing right now and I don’t know how many essays I’m going to have to write if they make good on that potential. Even if they don’t, I’ll still have to write Lessons in Disappointment about how they flopped. A wise man once said, “God has cursed me for my hubris and my work is never finished.”
86 has managed to set itself apart in a crowded field with a promising premise, resonant themes, and slick action choreography. Of all the shows airing right now, this is the one I’m most interested in seeing how it turns out. Worst case scenario, it falters and comes out as another trashy light novel adaptation, but if it succeeds? Well, needless to say, I’m an optimist.
I hope to enjoy this more once Shinei and Lena start building a relationship beyond detached com conversations. The genre tags on Wikipedia tell me this is a romance, so I think they need to make eye contact at some point. Maybe not, though, Your Name got around that until the very last second, so they have time.
With that said, I feel comfortable putting 86 – Eighty-Six as Entertaining Pleasing. If you disagree with that point, you can debate it in the comments, and follow the Otaku Exhibition on WordPress so you can hear all my terrible takes as they come. If you prefer a middle man with more irrelevant commentary, you can follow my Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku for updates there. Until next time, thanks for reading.