86 – Eighty-Six Season Two Review: Back to the Battlefield

Studio: A-1 Pictures

Director: Toshimasa Ishi

Streaming on: Crunchyroll

2021 has been a bizarre year for anime, and not just because we’re expecting JoJo before long. Winter came in like a lion, with a dozen sequels that were delayed thanks to the world coming down with a bad case of hangnails, a handful of high-profile adaptations, and even some promising originals. Spring wasn’t as loud as winter, but it still offered heavy hitters like My Hero Academia, Tokyo Revengers, and of course, 86.

Summer was the first time an anime reviewer could breathe all year. Once you got past Slime Isekai, Vanitas, Remake Our Life, and Sunny Boy, it felt like there was nothing going on. It was certainly nowhere near the level of our earth-shattering winter and spring’s respectable follow-up.

However, 86 saw that the wells of anime had dried up in the hottest months, and decided to return almost immediately for a second season. Or cour. I’ll be honest, the distinction between the two is basically nonexistent at this point. I’ve mostly seen this labeled as a season, so I’ll be referring to it as such.

86 barely gave us a moment to rest from its gut-wrenching story and emotional climax, and now it’s here to do it all again. The remnants of the Spearhead Squadron have finally escaped the war that claimed their friends, family, and childhoods, and now they’re free to…immediately go back into that war. Oh boy.

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Lena, rocking a new red streak and a black uniform in celebration of getting demoted.

I’ve already reviewed the first season and wrote about 86’s slow, deliberate style of adaptation, so you’re probably sick of me recapping the plot. Let’s breeze through, this shall we? The Republic of San Magnolia drafted the 86, an ethnic minority, to pilot spider-mecha in a war against the Giad Empire, all while their deaths went unreported as casualties. We follow Lena Milize, a young Handler who directs the 86 in combat, and learns a greater appreciation for her charges, particularly their captain, Shinei Nouzen.

Shin, and his friends Kurena, Anju, Theo, and Raiden made a daring escape from the battle intended to eradicate the last of their unit, and wound up in the Giad Federacy. It turns out that the empire is no more, having been overthrown years prior, while their Legion of autonomous drones still run rogue on the battlefield. They even have a less maniacal government that balks at the thought of sending children to die in battle. Upgrades, people, upgrades!

So Shin and his friends spend their first month in Giad living easily, getting part-time jobs, going to the library, drawing pictures of your friends who died in the war whose faces you can’t help but see every time you close your eyes. By this point, they’re already petitioning to join Giad’s military to free the 86 who weren’t so lucky to escape.

They’re permitted, on the condition they join the officers’ academy first. Our battle-tested 86 distinguish themselves, both in the academy and once they return to the fight.

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Shiden, the captain of Lena’s new unit.

I can get used to anime that already look good taking a break in the middle of their season, because between 86 and Re: Zero, it’s paying off. 86 looks better than ever; the compositing work that allows its CG mecha to flawlessly integrate surpasses its previous iteration, while the characters are just as fluid and expressive as before. And gosh, that opening.

I’m not much for analyzing openings, but 86 makes me wish I was. I almost wish it had changed places with the first. The second season’s opening masterfully captures the juxtaposition of the ostentatious wealth and ease of the Republic, paid for by the deaths and suffering of its most vulnerable citizens. The first opening, in comparison, is heavy on action and energy, which is strange; the first season was concerned more with the humans in the war, rather than the war itself.

The obvious takeaway is that more anime need to be given more time for animators to do their best work. If you can, avoid giving your series a 25-episode season, and split it up between every other calendar season. If the anime industry learns anything from the global hangnail pandemic, it should be that their schedule is the biggest determinant of success.

And this level of visual fidelity elevates the moody, poignant storytelling that made 86 such a compelling watch in the first place. And on that note…

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Frederica is just the worst. But also the best. But also worst.

86 is still interested in exploring how war affects its participants, particularly in its adolescent characters, but it has shifted directions. The first season was punctuated by moments of levity cutting through the despair. The characters were all children, and nothing hurt quite like being reminded of their youth and immaturity in the moments leading up to and following their deaths.

The second season is much lighter, actually. Take it from Frederica, the squadron’s self-proclaimed mascot. As a precocious child used to getting her way, she has a knack for wringing laughs out of the audience, even if Shin is stone-faced to her charms.

However, this only deepens the contrast between 86’s jovial moments, and its blackest. Character deaths are infrequent, especially now that we’ve focused on the survivors of Spearhead, but they’re no less devastating. I shouldn’t be as upset as I am, considering the kind of death flags these characters are waving, but the writers know their tricks to make even the most minor characters appealing.

I hope we continue to explore Shin and his friends’ inability to escape the war. They’ve managed to return to the battlefield, but they’re ignoring the trauma that drove them to do so. Theo sketches the friends they’ve lost. Shin destroyed the Legion drone that masqueraded as his brother, but it failed to give him any peace.

86 is defined by its thorough analysis of war’s consequences, so it will be fascinating to see how each step continues to affect its characters. I still haven’t gotten around to reading the light novels, but I hope there’s significant time devoted to them after the war, for the sake of capturing the entire experience.

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A shot of Lena from one of the anime’s PVs.

86 is back, and it’s just as good as it was this spring, if not better. The story has grown more interesting, certainly, as there are no more guarantees. The first season often felt like a foregone conclusion, considering supporting characters died in nearly every episode. The only time I was uncertain where the plot might go was when Spearhead Squadron actually made their escape.

Now, though, they have to contend with both the Legion and the Republic, and I’m intrigued on how they’ll handle fighting their fellow 86. We’ve seen Lena command her new squadron, though she’s been mostly absent from the proceedings. I doubt Spearhead was put back onto the battlefield on the opposing side unless we will see them grapple with having to fight the 86 who weren’t brave or lucky enough to escape.

I’m also pining away, waiting for Lena to actually meet up with her former charges, but we’re on episode three of writing this, and there’s no sign of it. Oh well, 86 is still a must-watch and has upgraded since this spring with a rating of Fantastic. Until next time, thanks for reading.

PleasingTakt Op. Destiny
Fantastic86 – Eighty-Six

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