Content Warnings: Depictions of war and death; discussion of suicide.
What’s it about? The Republic of San Magnolia has boasted zero human fatalities in battle ever since they switched to drone warfare, but the reality is far less rosy: the “drones” are actually piloted by soldiers called “the Eighty-Six” who have been deemed subhuman by the ruling class. When empathy-driven Major Lena Melize gets assigned as the “Handler” for Spearhead, an 86 squadron known for destroying its commanders, will she and the squadron repeat history, or find a better way forward?
Oh neat, a complex and melancholy anti-war spec-fic series with a messy approach to social commentary and diversity metaphors. And here I was worried that all my reviews were going to be easy this season!
86 is based on an ongoing light novel series by Asato Asato (although there’s nothing especially “light” about it) and adapted by series composer Ono Toshiya (Gatchaman CROWDS, tsuritama). Produced by A-1 Pictures and helmed by first-time director Ishii Toshimasa, this premiere may not be the aesthetic feast that some other shows this season have been, but it looks perfectly nice both in and out of fight scenes, with a few standout moments that use silence and lighting to poignant effect.
But my notes for this one have little to do with style. No, this is a Heavy story about Heavy things that doesn’t have time to muck about with subtlety when conveying its central message, best summarized as: “the ruling class dehumanizes military infantry and treats them like disposable pieces in a chess game.” And while the truth is perhaps more nuanced than 86 presents it… the show ain’t exactly wrong, either.
While the military critique is front-and-center throughout this episode, the premiere does a relatively organic job of introducing us to all of its Big Ideas through its characters and their world—or worlds, to be more precise. 86 basically has two protagonists, each surrounded by a very different environment and culture.
The first half of the episode is from the perspective of Major Vladilena “Lena” Melize, a young Handler who insists (much to her colleagues’ dismay) on taking her job seriously and seeing the soldiers under her command as actual human beings. Linking up with troops remotely via a device called “Para-RAID,” Handlers like Lena are free to live comfortably in the city, treating war like a game they can log in and out of at will.
Lena’s world is clean and refined, full of polished buildings, shiny computer monitors, and well-tended flowerbeds. It’s the platonic ideal of “civilization”—but it’s also artificial, indifferent, and unsettlingly homogenous. Outside of Lena’s friendship with Annette, there’s very little genuine human warmth in these early scenes, leaving us with little doubt that something is rotten in the state of San Magnolia.
Lena’s scenes contrast sharply with the second half of the premiere, told from the perspective of the Spearhead squadron and particularly their leader, Shin. Despite the violence that surrounds them, the 86’s world is immediately warmer, full of natural lighting, foods, and foliage, with characters interacting like old friends instead of stiff coworkers. Between traumatic battles, they share meals, play cards, and joke around. Subversive artwork abounds. They even have a cat! It’s a clear indication of where the real “humanity” is in this world.
Perhaps most notably (and messily), the 86 troops are both less gendered and more diverse. Everyone wears the same fatigues, as opposed to the pant/skirt gender division that exists at central command, and characters sport a variety of hair and eye colors instead of the silvery sameness of Lena’s world. I wouldn’t say that 86 is trying to make a direct statement about race or colorism, exactly, but it definitely seems to be arguing for diversity over homogeneity.
Unfortunately, 86 stumbles with its diversity message because it depicts an entirely pale-skinned cast with the exception of a single brown man who immediately dies so we can feel bad for Shin (at which point my face met my palm very, very hard). I’d bet money that the creative team didn’t consider how this implicitly feeds into colorism by promoting an extremely limited model of physical diversity, but that’s still kiiiinda what they wound up doing, undercutting a potentially potent thematic undercurrent in the process.
In a similarly worrisome fashion, there’s a slightly leery scene of Lena changing into her uniform. It’s brief and restrained, but also totally unnecessary and really tonally bizarre, given that it’s happening at the same time Annette is talking about a Handler who committed suicide. The shots are so out-of-place that I kept thinking “Is this commentary?” But if it is, I’ll be damned if I can figure out what it’s commenting on. Hopefully weird quasi-fanservice is not a continuing occurrence.
It feels like I could tug on thematic threads in this premiere for ages, honestly. I barely touched on the gamification of war; I haven’t dug into the way the troops react with frustration and scorn to Lena’s empathy, suggesting a possible critique of the “savior from the oppressing class” trope; and I didn’t even mention the potential ghost-story elements going on with Spearhead and their leader Shin (a.k.a. “The Reaper”). But then again, it’s also way too early to start drawing any conclusions about 86’s narrative goals, so maybe it’s best if we stop here before I dive too deep into any analytical rabbit holes.
Right now, 86 is somewhat clumsily juggling a lot of Big Ideas, and some of them have very sharp points, and at least one of them is on fire. I’m fully prepared for it to disappoint me, but I’m also kinda fascinated, so I’ll stick around for now. Join me if you like, but proceed with caution. I make no promises on this one, AniFam.
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