Everyone's talking about 86, a recent light novel anime that tackles racism head on. While initially it seemed to be handling its moral quandary in a very basic way, 86 has since broke away for something deeper and even more horrific.
This series is streaming on Crunchyroll
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Spoiler Warning for discussion of the movie ahead.
Hey Nick, it's a sunny day in the Republic, and I just wanna say, my daily news broadcast about our highly advanced and very ethically responsible combat drones sure does seem to be raising a lot of questions already answered by the news broadcast.
Tsk tsk. So many people trying to stir trouble when there is Absolutely Nothing Wrong. Everyone should stop worrying and just check out these anime girl garters. Please pay no attention to that table.
I'll buy that for a dollar! Or for 86 of them.
So yes, this week we're covering the redundantly titled 86 -Eighty Six- or as I like to call it, Thigh Highs And War Crimes. The latest big deal light novel adaptation that is, mercifully, not a god damn isekai story for once.
Yeah, it's easy for me to forget sometimes that light novels don't exist purely for Truck-kun fodder. Instead, 86 is just straight-up fantasy with robot fights and absolutely no obvious parallels to any real-world regimes or atrocities.
No commentary to see here folks. Keep it moving.
Okay yeah there is that. And the whole ethnically "pure" population achieved by stripping all human rights away from other races and forcing them to die on the frontlines so you and all your silver-haired friends can keep living the high life within the city walls.
Alright I think we've joked enough. Something that's obvious from the first five minutes of 86 is that it has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer being thrown through the window of a building labeled "Military Industrial Complex" like a New Yorker cartoon.
Pretty much! And I've seen plenty of shows with anime nazis (not the kind that throw slurs around on Twitter), but 86's take on them seems especially blatant. Just swap out the Aryan traits for those of Subaru Natsuki's ideal waifu, and you've got the gist of it.
Not necessarily dragging the show for its lack of subtlety either! But the premiere definitely had my eyes rolling more than once.
Oh it's at least a little trite to anyone who's read anything even slightly Ender's Game adjacent in their life, but considering how often we get LN adaptations dipping their whole foot into slavery apologia I will happily take a show that has the wherewithal to spell out "Racism is Bad" on its theater marquee.
And that's why I did decide to stick with it ultimately, but it definitely had an uphill battle ahead of it based on the premiere alone. Not helping matters much was its choice of protagonist, the fresh-faced and idealistic young major Lena, who absolutely wants you to know that she knows that racism is bad. Don't worry though, she's going to change the system from the inside! That always works, right?
I actually think Lena works well as this show's protagonist as time goes on, but yeah she definitely has some strong Suzaku Kururugi energy to her. Also because you gotta hook otaku in somehow to sit through your 11-episode lecture on systemic discrimination, she dresses in military uniform that "tastefully" makes sure to include both a cleavage window and zettai ryouiki.
Hey, if it works, it works. To quickly summarize: the crux of the show is that Lena is a Handler who commands a squad of Republic combat drones fighting the enemy combat drones created by the invading Empire. The difference being, the Empire's drones are fully autonomous, while the Republic's drones are piloted by citizens of the 86th district, who are no longer considered citizens, or even humans, but expendable Processors. This has been going on for some time, and lots of 86ers have died, while the Alba people like Lena still live in relative comfort away from the horrors of war. Cue social commentary here.
It's fairly well-trod ground, all-told. I mentioned Ender's Game but there's a whole host of YA novels you could compare 86's general style to that would fit. The key difference that makes it work for me, however, is when the show steps out of the confines of Lena's world and sits us right down with the kids - and yes these are almost entirely kids - on the front lines.
Agreed! I don't know if I would've given 86 its fair shake if the first episode hadn't ended by pivoting away from Lena and towards the members of her new assignment, the Spearhead squadron. Not only are the kids colorful and likable, but they feel like a genuinely rowdy group of soldiers who have, to some degree, learned to cope with the awful nihilism of their situation. That shit really hit me.
Being able to imbue these characters with personality and identity is key to 86 making anything it's trying to say land. Like I said, Lena does eventually start to work as a protagonist, but the initial setup just wouldn't work if we didn't get to know the actual people she's trying to be an ally to. Plus, they have a cat. Look at that adorable tragedy waiting to happen!
They also have eggs, which as we all know by now, only portends the most awful things.
TFW it's Egg Time
86 just does a very good job showing us as complete a slice of their lives as possible, from their downtime goofs to their constant brushes with death on the front lines. There are a lot of members of the squadron, so at five episodes in, only a handful of them have gotten the spotlight. But collectively they're a rich, well-rounded group of characters full of joy and pathos alike.
And in case there was any doubt how things are going to turn out for most of them, the OP has a handy frame dedicated solely to updating us on who's dead each episode.
Really not a fan of how much negative space is still there.
Take it from an Iron-Blooded Orphans fan: That frame's gonna be a sardine can by episode 10.
Speaking of IBO our boy Shin gives me major Mikazuki vibes and boy did that work out swimmingly last time.
Ah yes, gotta love those anime war narratives full of child corpses. And despite his projected stoicism, Shin is carrying a hell of a lot with him, including a chest full of mementos of his fallen comrades.
It's one thing to see it, but it's another to hear him talk about it.
I'll be honest, Shin was a bit too stoic for me at first. Like it makes sense for the longest-surviving soldier to be pretty jaded, but he's so nonplussed that at first it feels like a way to give Lena training wheels when she tries to befriend the Spearhead kids. He never really gets angry or frustrated or offended. Most he ever does is give her the run around about filing paperwork.
He and Lena definitely don't make the most compelling pair of deuteragonists at the start, but for wildly contrasting reasons. They do both grow on me a lot, however, especially as they mutually begin to get under each other's skin.
Just saying, it really served the show well to focus on the other characters first. Because while this is definitely a dark dystopian sci-fi work, it does take time to just be goofy when it needs to. Like Kaie tattling on her boss.
And don't worry, this might be a cautionary tale about war and dehumanization, but that doesn't mean we can't have a good old-fashioned bathing scene.
Again, gotta keep the hornier heads in the audience pointed towards the screen while you lecture them about the self-perpetuating nature of toxic hierarchy. Though at least these girls come prepared for peeping crewmates.
Seriously, though, 86 went from "well-intentioned but trite" to "oh, this actually has things to say" for me at the end of episode 3. After lots of mounting tensions, and sparked by the death of Kaie, Theo finally snaps back at Lena and calls her out—in much more colorful language—on her privilege and white saviorism. It's an angry, cathartic scene, and it's the one 86 desperately needed at that juncture.
It really is something to behold, and I have to give props to the direction of that episode in particular. The first half is all just Lena conversing over her neurolink radio with the whole crew, and much of the conversation is just a single, dead-on shot of her the whole time. It's simple, but just unusual enough for anime that it catches your attention, as is cute to boot.
Then comes the ending, and the entire time Theo is chewing her to pieces we're right back there, dead-on, as she has every bit of pleasantry and politeness stripped away to show the bloody, harsh resentment she's been hoping wasn't there.
I also really like 86's technique of recapitulating a conversation but from the other side. It sounds redundant in practice, but it's one of the ways that the show scaffolds the character of the Spearhead squadron in particular. It works especially well in this scene, where we see the whole thing from Lena's shattered and heartbroken perspective the first time, and then from Theo's righteously furious perspective at the start of the following episode. Both are tough to watch.
And while Theo does eventually regret being that harsh, the show makes sure we know he's not wrong. Lena may be well-meaning, and a damn sight more sympathetic than the rest of her military's higher-ups, but by the very nature of the system she exists within she is perpetuating and facilitating the dehumanization of them all. She can't be their ally because the society she lives in will never allow it just by its fundamental construction.
Yeah the follow-up episode really sealed the deal for me and proved that 86 actually does have a pretty darn good grasp of the system's horrible self-perpetuating nuances. It's just one scene after another of Lena seeking guidance from her friends and family members, and all of them admitting that yes, the system sucks, but since she can't do anything about it, she may as well give up caring. Even her father, it turns out, was just as blind to and complicit in the injustice as she was.
I also like that the show doesn't mess around with the idea that Lena is one of the "good ones." Sure, she's at least acknowledging the humanity of the people she's commanding into battle, but at the end of the day there's only so much you can do for somebody who's represented to you via a walkie-talkie and a spreadsheet entry.
And the kicker is that this whole system hasn't even been around for a full generation, but it's already treated by everyone in power as an immutable yet necessary evil. It's so wickedly insidious and easy to ignore for these people, and I think that's a very accurate portrait of how most individuals with privilege think about racism and injustice: they just don't. Consciously or not.
And even if they do think about it, when certain preconceptions are baked into your society's worldview, one can internalize those ideas even if actively trying to work against them. Lena is earnestly trying to treat Spearhead like people, but it still never occurred to her to learn their names beyond call signs. Which, to be fair, some of these are pretty cool gamer tags.
It's the world she grew up in, and it takes more than education and good intentions to deprogram herself from that. Thankfully, even though she's discouraged by literally everyone she talks to, Theo's words lodge themselves in her brain and compel her to take the difficult path. She can neither undo all of these injustices, nor can she ever stand on equal footing with Shin and the others. Those circumstances are out of any one person's control. But what she can do is learn their names and start from there, accepting her own shortcomings, apologizing for them, and recognizing the Spearhead's fundamental rights as people.
It's tough, and it doesn't really solve much of anything, but it's still better than running away as soon as she got yelled at.
It's an altogether nuanced and hopeful conclusion to that conflict, and I was almost a little disappointed by how neatly it resolved. Until she learns Shin's name and things get a whole heck of a lot more complicated. Wheeeee.
Love the idea of 86 saying that racism wasn't enough of a challenge, so they decided to add some high-concept sci-fi horror to the equation.
So it's kind of left as a mystery for the first episodes how Shin is so preternaturally good at fighting these robot drones. Turns out, dude has a literal sixth sense for when they're approaching because he can hear the dying thoughts of the dead brains the enemy robots subsume to evolve their programming. It's somehow an even more fucked version of being a Cyber Newtype.
Yeah it's A Lot. I think we've neglected to mention so far that the enemy isn't the rival Empire as much as it's the Empire's rogue robots who massacred their own country and now has their sights on the Republic. But while the Republic believes the robot AI has an expiration date, the Eighty-Sixes on the front line know firsthand that the robots have been harvesting the brains of their dead comrades and using them to supplement their army, in essence ensuring their immortality as long as they have an enemy to fight.
In other words, if you like body horror, then you're gonna love the sequel: brain horror.
Which now that I think about it, is just called horror. Still tho.
I mean we also don't even know if said Empire is actually destroyed. We're taking the Alba government's word for it and they've already been shown to be full of it. More importantly though, because of this Shin has already realized for ages that this whole war is doomed.
Which begs the question of why he's even bothering to keep fighting, and the hints we get to THAT answer are...concerning.
So in addition to Everything Else, the person who saved tiny Lena was Shin's older brother, who died shortly thereafter.
Only Shin hints with all the subtlety of a juggernaut that his brother's brain was in all likelihood uploaded into one of the Legion's commander AIs. Which will turn out fine for everyone involved, I'm sure.
In hindsight I shouldn't be surprised the emotionless, stoic boy with a gift for bloodshed turned out to be a nihilist with a very specific death wish, but usually anime paints these guys as bad asses!
What are you talking about, everyone's having a great time.
So yeah, that's where we sit with 86 so far. The garter-clad, silver-haired heroine is on step 0 of unlearning the garbage her fascist society has taught her; meanwhile the ace soldier male lead is yearning to find and be subsumed by his brother's digitized grey matter. It's a big old party!
It's super ambitious, and it super ain't perfect, but it's also a hell of a lot more thoughtful than I would've given it credit for a few weeks ago. And I hope it keeps improving and surprising me! At the very least, it's convinced me to stick around and see if it does.
It's got its issues, but 86 has managed to really grab me, and I was absolutely cackling at the end of episode 5. So consider me locked in until they inevitably kill the cat.
And worst case scenario, should its social justice ambitions blow up in its face, we'll always have the timeless and universal appeal of anime girl pouts.
That's something that'll never get 86'd!