How would you rate episode 1 of
What is this?
The Republic of San Magnolia has been attacked by its neighbor, the Empire. Outside the 85 districts of the Republic there is the 'non-existent 86th district,' where young men and women continue to fight. Sheen directs the actions of young suicide bombers, while Lena is a “curator” who commands a detachment from a remote rear.
How was the first episode?
The thing 86 EIGHTY SIX (sidenote: why is it named that? Does this actually take place in the year 8686?) most reminds me of is the now somewhat faded trend of dystopian Young Adult novels. The obvious influence would be something like Ender's Game, but there are shades of all kinds of similar stories throughout this episode. Mainly though it's in the tone. Eighty Six is about as subtle as a car crash when telling you what it wants to be about, and while overall compelling, is more than a little awkward in getting there.
Mostly that comes thanks to a perhaps poorly considered opening scene. The major twist meant to undercut the show's early moments is supposed to be the reveal that the unmanned military drones doing all the fighting at the edge of the central empire are, in fact, very much manned. But we learn that 15 seconds in because of the cold open that shows Undertaker in his mech fighting off another army of mechs. So instead of creeping horror, it becomes a somewhat tedious waiting game for the audience, as with that information you can piece together every machination and secret being ever so thinly veiled behind the obvious government propaganda. So it falls to female lead Vladilena to carry us through awkward exposition for the first 15-odd minutes of the show.
Vladilena herself is alright, but definitely needs more to work with to be compelling on her own. The idea of a member of the ruling military class bucking against the inhumane system she's been raised in is a solid premise, but so far that's largely manifested with her sternly glaring at news television and being generally unhappy with her military peers. It's not bad, per se, but her character so far lacks the personality or pathos necessary to fully carry the screentime she's been given. There's also some awkward humor in the mix here that chafes against the otherwise serious tone of it all – and I'm usually somebody who likes serious wartime shows to be goofy. But having our heroine take a break from the moral burden of commanding dehumanized soldiers to their death so she can eat a cream puff is uh, perhaps not the best way to build character.
Thankfully, things pick up immediately when we switch to the perspective of Undertaker and the other members of Spearhead. We don't get a ton of dialogue from them, but just the tiny snippets of day-to-day life we see of the whole unit works wonders to make them feel human and relatable. I don't even know most of these characters' names or codenames, but they already feel more realized than Vladilena did with 2/3rds of the premiere dedicated to her. The actual battles are also really well utilized. They're short, visceral, chaotic, and work to hammer home that this anonymous war is neither glorious or important. It's a bloody, meaningless waste of life that the people on the ground have been forced to suffer by their rulers. There's still a few hiccups that feel like a first time writer trying to be too clever – the soldier writing down how long he has left on his tour of duty was asking to die tragically, I swear – but on the whole this does a much better job of selling me on 86 than the rest of the debut.
Ending on that note is also definitely a good choice, as it leaves me genuinely curious to see where we go from here. Vladilena is no doubt sympathetic to her new unit, but she's also a distant voice in their ears who's working as a cog in the infernal machine that's constantly pushing them into a meat grinder. There's a lot of potential for tension, intrigue, and even some interesting commentary on the nature of societal hierarchy and privilege. I have no idea if the show will deliver on any of that – it certainly wouldn't be the first anime to fail in that regard – but for now I have at least some reason to hope.
You gotta hand it to A-1 Pictures: 86 is one of the anime this season, along with Vivy and Megalobox 2, that really gives off the vibe of “prestige anime.” It's glossy, big-budget animation is a feast for the eyes, and the world of this story clearly has had a lot of effort put into making it feel lived in, and tactile. The writing is very much within the wheelhouse of a light-novel/anime sci-fi war story, given that most of this first episode is a straight exposition dump, but 86 manages to make all of the jargon and proper nouns go down smoother with its focus on the two protagonists that we meet in this premiere: Vladilena "Lena" Miizè, a Major in the Military of San Magnolia, and Shin, a lowly soldier from the 86th District.
The gist is this: The silver-haired people of San Magnolia are at war with the Giadian Empire, and their forces are comprised of “autonomous” spider-mech looking things called the Juggernaut, which everyone in San Magnolia is happy with since it means that there are “zero casualties”. Lena, being one of the Juggernaut Handlers, knows the truth about the war, how real humans that are referred to as Processors are the ones fighting and dying in those mechs. Using the Para-RAID technology, Lena forms a sensory link with the Processors, and she has come to empathize with their plight. One such Processor is Shin, and at the end of the episode we get just enough of a glimpse of the life of his Spearhead Squadron to make it all the more tragic when we see his comrades suffer and die on the battlefield.
So, as you can see, 86 isn't doing anything remarkably original so far as war stories go: We've got the same themes about how the people on power are able to dehumanize and exploit their fellow man that series like Attack on Titan have explored, and many a Gundam series before that, and so on. The particular gimmick that 86 seems to be using is how the Processors only seem to differ from the “real humans” on account of having different colored hair and whatnot which is only a notch below the Star-Bellied Sneetches when it comes to making a nuanced point about bigotry.
Still, even if the broad strokes aren't anything special, 86 looks to have the finer details honed in just right. Lena makes for a likeable heroine, and Shin seems like he will offer an appropriately grim and disillusioned counterpoint. The Juggernaut action scenes, though heavy on the CGI, are also snappy and exciting. I don't expect 86 to change the world or anything, but I'm always down for a competently made science-fiction show where we get to chew on a little social commentary in between all of the robot explosions. Consider me intrigued enough to see where this story will go next, and whether it may have anything truly surprising to offer along the way.