86 was the best anime to come out last spring, and considering the caliber of its competition, that’s no easy feat. In a world that’s leaving mecha behind, 86 managed to not completely Darling in the Franxx itself. I say that, but the first season was only eleven episodes, so if I’m being honest, it still has plenty of time to do that. By episode eleven, I would have called Darling in the Franxx brilliant, so I’ll refrain from being hasty.
Still, 86 has proven in its short runtime that it wants to strike off on a different path from its predecessors. For one thing, it’s based off a light novel, and most mecha anime are original. The only ones based off light novels I can recall off the top of my head are Date a Live and Full Metal Panic.
If you read my review of 86, you’ll know I compared it to Attack on Titan, which isn’t fair to either of them. Both have themes of war, oppression, and of course they have child soldiers, but they’re radically different kinds of stories. Attack on Titan is a hype train, built perfectly to hit each crescendo of excitement. 86 isn’t a rollercoaster, its a slow rowboat down a lazy river while you casually come to terms with the fact that you and everyone you love will one day die.
But what surprised me most about 86 wasn’t its slow pace, or that it’s based off a light novel, but it is sort of about both of those things. I was startled to find out that the first season of 86 only adapts the first volume of the light novels. Is that surprising? It is to me, and the success of 86 could mean we see a shift in the way anime is made.
This is also a great time to get refreshed on 86 before it returns this fall, so if it wasn’t obvious, spoiler warning.
The Republic of San Magnolia has been at war with the Giad Empire for years, though the conflict seems to be approaching its end. The Empire has devised an autonomous army of drones to avoid bloodshed, and the relatively primitive Republic was forced to respond with cruder forces. To officially report no casualties, the Republic drafted the ethnic minorities of the eighty-sixth district and classified them as non-human combatants.
Major Vladilena Milize, or just Lena, is an up and coming Handler, who directs the 86 in battle as they use spider-like mecha to fight the Empire’s Legion. She’s noted and often mocked for her compassion towards her charges after her life was saved by an 86 in the accident that killed her father. She is assigned to the Spearhead Squadron, the long-surviving elite unit led by Shinei Nozen, the Undertaker, who has driven all of his Handlers to madness or suicide.
The secret of the 86 unravels as Lena grows closer to her soldiers. The first is that the Legion usurp the consciousness of the 86 who die in battle, becoming the CPU of their drones, and that Shin can hear the voices of the dead crying out from the Legion. Thanks to the telepathic communication devices the Handlers wear, Shin’s ability bleeds over to the psychologically fragile Handlers.
The second is that the Spearhead Squadron isn’t the elite crack team they’re made out to be; it’s a dumping ground for the 86 who have survived for too long. If left alone, they would finish their service term and become full citizens of the Republic again. To avoid that, the military forces them to continue fighting with no reinforcements or resupplies until every member has died. Rinse, and repeat.
The majority of the first season is dedicated to Lena getting to know the members of Spearhead, uncovering their fate, and eventually helping them escape. Only five survive, but Lena’s interference allows Shin to kill the Legion that utilized his brother’s remains, the same 86 that once saved Lena’s life, and go off the grid.
86 is incredibly slow-paced, which comes as a result of having to make one light novel’s worth of content fit eleven anime episodes. That’s a tall order, considering light novel adaptations run two to three volumes for a similar 12 episode season. Slow pacing isn’t unprecedented for mecha, obviously Evangelion exists, but its hardly the rule.
You might get frustrated if you go into this expecting a high octane thrill ride, whether you get that idea from the hype opening or that the series is initially framed as spider-tanks jumping around fighting ghost robots. Once you take a step back and appreciate 86 for what it is, a thoughtful, somber look at lives forced into war and cut short, it becomes a much different experience.
That isn’t to say the fights aren’t good, there’s usually one per episode, and A-1 Picture’s CG and compositing work is immaculate. The skittering of the 86’s mecha is wonderfully realized, and I’m grateful to receive some mecha that seem built for battle. Humanoid robots are cool, but they’re not exactly practical. I can easily see why the Republic would adopt these designs for battle.
The main appeal of 86 is not the battles. We spend much more time with Lena and Shin talking on the phone discussing the logistical aspect of the war, or watching the antics of the squadron. There’s plenty of goofing around, because it isn’t just about killing off characters, it’s emphasizing the humanity of the 86. They’re people, and the light-hearted moments serve to drive the emotional gut punches home.
This kind of pondering war drama feels refreshing compared to the usual mecha we get. I rolled my eyes when they said Lena was promoted to Major at sixteen and that all the 86 are teenagers, because it’s anime and of course they are. How else is it supposed to be a blatant power fantasy? It only sinks in later that the 86 are all teenagers because the adults died in the war years prior as part of an orchestrated genocide.
And the theme of children fighting an adult’s war is heavily emphasized in every moment the 86 aren’t in battle. When they’re home at base, they’re playing games and teasing the cat whose name no one can agree on. They play pranks and and silly because they’re children, and just because they have to forget that fact when they march to war doesn’t mean that you should.
86 maintains a careful balance between the grim war and the humanizing and often comedic moments in between. That is how you develop a large cat in a short amount of time. It never feels like they don’t commit to a scene or a storyline, even though most of the characters involved are going to die in the next episode.
Intelligent and empathetic character writing is crucial to this kind of story. This world and these people have to be believable, but more than that, they have to strike a chord. In the course of watching 86, you aren’t permitted to forget that every war ever fought has been done by people who lived once and desperately fought to continue living. That might not be groundbreaking in itself, but that the production went to such lengths to maintain that consistent message certainly is.
I am glad that this story was adapted in such a way that serves the themes and messages it is trying to communicate to the audience. Maybe the worst thing they could have done is skip over this vital first step in the story by reducing it to four or five episodes in a 25 episode season. No, this way, every step forward in the story is deliberate and methodical, and given the time to rest on impactful moments before moving forward.
When I say 86 could change how anime is made, I mean specifically that there are ways to create popular action anime without resorting to fast pacing, burning through source material, and prioritizing spectacle over characterization. I’ve written extensively on how anime uses its source material, and of all the ones I’ve talked about, 86 is the smartest.
86 is actually the latest in a long line of thoughtful, satirical light novel adaptations, in the same vein as Oregairu and Bunny Girl Senpai. It’s just that the latter poke fun at tropes popularized by romcom and slice of life anime, while 86 attacks real-world atrocities like discrimination, compulsory conscription, and child soldiers. I could have written at length about that, but I already shared most of my thoughts about it in my review, which you can read here.
Luckily, the second season is beginning in a few weeks, and you can follow the Otaku Exhibition on WordPress or Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku to get notified when my review of that goes up, because it will be one of the first.
You can also check out an original web novel from the Otaku Exhibition, The Hands of Time, on Honeyfeed. Read the first chapter here. If you like it, why not download the My Anime List app for Android and iOS and vote for The Hands of Time in the My Anime List x Honeyfeed web novel competition? Until next time, thanks for reading.