Title: 86 (Season 1)
Length: 11 x 24 minute episodes
Genre: Sci-fi, thriller
Year of release: 2021
While it’s true that a great concept can probably only take you so far, some concepts are just better than others. Matrix became an instant talking point on the back of one, and lets be frank… Harry Potter has nothing novel or well-executed in any one of its books, but its concept sets the imagination on fire. Light novels in particular have been trying their damndest to outdo one-another in concept, to sell that first volume off of a blurb (or extended title that does double duty as the synopsis), so we’re seeing more and more attempts at anime in the high concept, and I’ll let you in on a secret: 86 has one of the best, most realised high-concept concepts of the bunch.
Welcome to the Republic of San Magnolia, the most peaceful place on earth! Its citizens live carefree, despite the ongoing war for the past nine years with the Legion of Giad’s autonomous Legion tanks, and that is because of the marvellous technological advances. Called ‘Juggernauts’, these ‘manless’ drones fight the war on our behalves, and only need be monitored by Handlers every… now and again. The Empire of Giad’s drones, meanwhile, have a lifespan that is soon to expire, so there really is no need to worry anybody! Peace! Glory to the Repub-
Yeah, there’s something up. The anime’s opening focuses shots just shy of the eye-line, with its protagonist, Lena, bitter at the peace because she knows the truth. It turns out these ‘manless drones’ aren’t at all manless. They’re piloted by the ’86’, who were citizens of San Magnolia of races other than the the white-skinned, white-haired Alba. These ‘other races’ were forced out to the titular district when the war began, and when resources became scarce they were forced to pilot these ‘drones’ to thin their numbers and leave more for the Alba. The series is blatant as it comes with its ideas on discrimination, that when push comes to shove, even the best of people fall back into racism because it’s easy to make your problems somebody else’s when you don’t treat them as humans. With Lena in the military – and thus, entirely in the ‘know’ of the ‘manlessness’ of drones – she wants to make a difference for the 86, somehow, and is loud and proud about her determination.
Now, if you’re a minority that has any sort of experience with this type fiction, I can feel you’re about to roll your eyes, but 86 isn’t ‘that’ kind of story at all. No, this isn’t giving a medal to the privileged, a pat-on-the-back for doing the bare minimum. At its best, 86 is harsh, brutal criticism of the White Saviour Complex trope. Lena talks a big game, but what can she actually do? Is she even seeing the 86 as people, or as a way to make herself feel like a better person than her peers?
As Lena is assigned Handler to the Spearhead squadron, the most brutal squadron of Juggernauts lead by a man codenamed ‘Undertaker’ who has rumours circulating for ‘ruining’ his Handlers, it quickly comes to the forefront how powerless Lena actually is. She wants to play by the rules, but what can she actually achieve by doing that? How can she show these people, utterly abandoned by her own society, that she can be a member of the Elite while only sacrificing a little bit of personal dignity?
She talks to them, and tries to treat them as people – despite all the vitriol she receives. And… that’s about all she can do. As she series progresses, she is forced to come to terms with her own powerlessness (and eventually confront the fact that she may not even be a Main Character!). It’s an extremely brutal moment after a major character death where Spearhead stop humouring her and call out her shallow attempts at humanising them. For all her big game, she doesn’t even know their real names.
Episode 4 is probably the series’ best episode, and features not a single battle, but the aftermath of Laughing Fox’s outburst at Lena. He regrets being so harsh as he grapples with her ‘good intentions’, but also knows he’s right in calling out her shallow saintliness. The latter half of the episode is Lena merely listening to Shin name and talk about all his comrades, as she quietly comes to terms with her own powerlessness and how she can actually be a good person to them, and not just for her own good conscious. That’s good stuff.
86’s impeccable direction serves its concept so well. Episodes are split into halves, with one half showing Lena’s take, with the midpoint taking us back to the perspective of Spearhead Squadron – or, sometimes, vice versa.
The difference between the two is night-and-day. Sometimes, even, literally. They are truly worlds apart.
Where Lena’s world in Sag Magnolia is cold and sterile, drenched in uncomfortable blue and white hues, with a clear dishonesty in its people and its loudmouth propaganda-like news reports, the world outside the city walls is warm and hospitable sunshine. Where Lena sits at the distant opposite end of her dining table from her mother, sharing little if any conversation, you see Spearhead Squadron all gather in the dining hall together and laughing, joking about their futures and sharing the banter. The Spearhead base is rundown and falling apart, but it’s got a sense of humour in its graffiti and a blackboard with the days counting down to the end of their service – and so many physical middle fingers to the Albas.
And as a plate is dropped, the smash transitions into a bombshell smacking down in the battlefield. Laughter in the halls turns to pained crying from the squadron bleeding to death in their tanks. 86 uses its dichotomic tonality to its full advantage, using harsh cuts from one extreme scene of joy to the ends of despair to hammer home that sinking feeling of hopelessness.
As the 86ers go out to battle the Empire’s Legion, you quickly realise how technologically behind the Republic truly is. The chrome metal tanks of the Legion are spider-like machines that look clean, smart and deadly. The brownish Juggernauts look like cheap knockoffs and are falling apart, but Undertaker pushes his as far as it can go, hastily crawling up the sides of buildings on its weak-legs to dodge enemy fire, and leaping forth onto the Legion tanks to undercut their firing range and slice them apart with a makeshift machete built into his tank. Battle scenes can sometimes veer on the confusing to watch with how fast everything moves, but the rapid animation and impressive CGI, coupled with a hype-inducing soundtrack of song-inserts and contemporary fusions from the ever impressive Hiroyuki Sawano (Kill la Kill, Re:Creators, Attack on Titan) make each brief fight scene an adrenaline rushing treat.
The mystery of the Spearhead Squadron’s increasingly dangerous missions unfurl as the series advances, and develops a lot of character baggage from Undertaker’s (real name: Shin) past as Lena hands him the reigns after her arc challenges her into a whole new person. Sadly, the rest of the cast get largely left out, aside from the ‘develop a character just before they die’ approach, showing the lives of 86ers like candles flickering in the wind. It sometimes feels like characters die to make you feel sad.
And that can lean the series into ‘edgy’ territory.
See, Shin can hear the voices of the Legion machines, and the reason why is treated like a shocking revelation. Meanwhile, Shin also suffers from PTSD related to his brother strangling all hell out of him as a child. Anju, one of the Platoon Leaders in Spearhead, has the words ‘Whore’s Daughter’ scarred into her back from her childhood years, and everybody talks about death. Death. Death. In cold, long monologues. While it’s a much more fitting genre for it, it’s the kind of thing I called out Clannad for – and you know how I felt about that.
With dialogue like ‘would you rather hang yourself before the Legion get you?’, 86’s shock value becomes a double-edged sword. One that revels in shallow stabs at darkness and undeveloped trauma to force quick reactions. While Lena’s story was powerful, and the complexity and thorough realisation of the concept are the series’ best assets, many of the darker scenes could easily turn to teenage edginess if the direction wasn’t so impressive – that earlier line, for example, is handled almost nonchalantly, and while there’s many scenes of teenagers crying, the music respects, rather than exaggerates or draws out, its characters reactions to the many setup or slightly forced tragedies going off around them. The tight-rope of ‘edge’ to ‘nuance’ is generally well-walked, but a couple of scenes will go too hard into the kinds of things that your teenage edgelord-selves were writing in fanfiction a decade prior. Still, its the dialogue scenes that tend to be 86 at its best, but that’s because the minor stories tend to be well thought – when given the time.
The comedy of the series is light-hearted fun in the slice-of-life sequences. Jovial and sarcastic, but it often feels performative for the audience moreso than each other. It doesn’t feel genuine.
And while the handling of Lena’s story in relation to the concept’s exploration is 86’s best asset, Lena herself is probably its greatest weakness. 86 doesn’t give her enough maturity. While not a bad thing, the way it gives her immaturity is the ‘cute puppy’ approach of recent waifu-trends. We spend the series seeing her eat cake with her friend from the research department of the military, Anette,, sharing extremely shallow cutesified dialogue, and there are many scenes of her outfit’s ever-so-slightly-sexy short skirt, heels and garter-straps. I don’t have a problem with her outfit, but the camera often leered – not up her skirt (the fact I have to clarify that shows how the bar for anime as a medium is that fucking low) and not generally close, but keen eyes will notice her thighs are often centred with the focal point of frames. It’s the kind of thing you’d show to your family and friends and they probably couldn’t explain how its sexualised but they’d still be disappointed.
With scenes like this emphasising how cute she can be…
I just get the feeling that we’re supposed to view Lena as a ‘must protecc’ caricature, a little girl, more than an adult woman with agency and independence.
And, while on that topic, the dialogue of 86 is weak. Characters are just a little too knowing, or a little too unknowing, and it reeks of authorial diction rather than characterisation and fictional agency. Lena and Anette’s dialogue is cripplingly weak. They have no rapport, and the series jumps into exposition between them for the unshown audience far too quickly. ‘As you know’… she knows you know, girl! Spearhead get off a bit better, generally, with genuine chemistry, but it’s often a very ‘anime/manga’ chemistry with jokes and jabs between the group being ever so slightly cutesified. Like, I spoke about a certain ‘beach’ scene, where the boys sneak up to peak on the girls playing in the water – don’t give me that look, the girls weren’t undressing from their overalls – and that’s the kind of situation that develops the group. Again, the direction makes the most of these moments, hammering home how shallow Lena and Anette’s friendship is with choice camera angles shy of their faces or directed at objects in the room, and the rapidity of dialogue and background voices chiming in within the Spearhead Squadron slice-of-life scenes makes it feel cosy and homely, but it’s at its core that it feels shallow.
It’s actually quite easy to miss the weaknesses of 86, though. For all I just wrote, the shining brightness of the concept and intensity of craft paper over the cracks in moment-to-moment writing. And that’s fine because 86 is big. It’s humongous in scale and thought; it has poignant, nuanced messages on discrimination and deconstructs the White Saviour Complex with pinpointed aggression. The show is blunt with what it has to say, and blunt with how it says it, but it’s a very relevant sci-fi thinkpiece with cracking action, a well-executed plot, terrific music and thoughtful drama.
3 thoughts on “86 Review”
Nice to see you back space 😃!!. I have 86 on my watch list, hopefully will get around to it. Watched the first epi of super cub, looks good!! 😃.
How you been space, hope you been good
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I didn’t realise how long it had been since I last posted, but my allergies have been awful! Been spending the last month working and sleeping since antihistamines destroy me. I’m behind on sooo many anime right now.
Thank you as always Roki 🙂
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