Japanese Title: 86 – Eighty-Six –
Related: 86 2nd Season (TBR)
Watched in: Japanese & English
Length: 11 episodes
- Visually nice
- More focus on non-combat side of war is interesting
- Good music
- Most characters are nothing
- World building needs work
- Lacks nuance
“Ethically sourced warfare.” This is the creed of the Republic of San Magnolia, for in the war with the Empire there are no casualties on their side. Only AI drones die for this conflict. Or so they say. In truth, the zero casualty count refers to the Alba, a silver-haired race that lives in luxury and without worry in the Republic’s eighty-five districts. The others – those of the wrong race – are the front line soldiers. These drones aren’t unmanned. These outcasts are known as the Eighty-Six and when they die, they aren’t human casualties because they aren’t human in the eyes of the Republic.
Vladilena is a rising star in the Republic military, recently assigned to take over as Handler for the “drones” of squadron Spearhead, a unit infamous for driving its Handlers mad. Leading Spearhead is Shinei, a.k.a. Undertaker, a repeat lone survivor of many battles with a special connection to the dead. Vladilena knows the truth of this war, working to keep her unit alive and to spread the message about the atrocities facing the Eighty-Six.
With a premise like that, I’m in from episode one. I like that we see military “service” for the Alba as a cushy desk job. Regulations are whatever as long as you don’t go against the grain. Looking at this city, you wouldn’t imagine there is a bloody war happening not far away. I am also surprised that the “drones aren’t unmanned” fact wasn’t kept as a twist. Generally, the protagonist would get this new job guiding a bunch of AI drones, many of which die in the war – doesn’t matter because they’re just machines, of course – until the mid-point turn that forces her out into the world and she sees the truth. All those drones she sacrificed for the sake of winning a skirmish? Real people, dead, because of her. Now she would work to make up for her ignorance. That’s the normal structure. Interesting to see 86 reveal the information upfront.
This change allows the story to be less action focused, which may put some people off. Instead, more time goes towards conversation between Vladilena in the city and Shinei on the frontline, sometimes bringing in the rest of Spearhead. 86 is about the effects of war rather than the war itself. For the first season anyway. I haven’t read the source material, but I wouldn’t be surprised for action to take up a larger and larger share as the story progresses.
Early conflict for Vladilena is her approach to dealing with these outsiders. She takes that classic well-meaning but actually condescending approach that we see between rich philanthropists and the poor in the real world. She’s so certain of being in the right amongst her peers, is so much more progressive than them that she doesn’t consider perhaps she doesn’t know as much about the Eighty-Six as she thinks. Just because she knows more than the others, it doesn’t mean she can swoop in and tell the Eighty-Six who they should be and how to fix everything. I like that. It’s a good seasonal arc for her.
However, 86 isn’t as good as I had hoped it would be on initial impression. Cutting back on action in a war story is a bit of a risk. Action is much easier to pull off than dialogue is in keeping an audience engaged. When dialogue is the centre, characters become of utmost importance as the driving force of the narrative.
The cast of characters is a problem in 86. When examined, there are only three real characters: the protagonist, her scientist friend, and Undertaker. Everyone else is nothing. The series dedicates two episodes to characterising the rest of the Spearhead crew, as they remind Vladilena that even with her kind words she is still an upper class citizen safe in her palace. She cannot relate to them nor be one of them. In fact, she hasn’t bothered to ask for their real names. And so, she gets to know them better until they let her into their lives – remotely – and grow closer. Despite this, each of these side characters are little more than one line bios in the series’ archive. There are too many of them, for one, that they end up as this singular entity of hive-minded thought. I can’t truly distinguish them in any meaningful way. Those important names arrive in a rapid-fire sequence, many of which are sci-fi names that take effort to remember. But who will bother to remember when they are so boring?
Add to this Shinei the Undertaker. He is of the quiet reserved type, a favourite archetype of mine, which is one of the most difficult to pull off without coming across as bland. Shinei isn’t as strong of a character as he needs to be for such a story. Lean 90% action and he would do fine. The audience wouldn’t particularly care when they attend for the action. His backstory and reason for driving handlers insane is interesting for the future. Right now, there’s not enough to him to make me think, “I care about this guy. I care about all he’s been through. I want him to have better.”
Another disappointment relates to the world building. After a strong establishing episode, the world barely builds. We end up see and knowing almost nothing of this world, which is a problem in a completely fictional setting. Even the social world building amounts to little when, in one episode, Vladilena gives a lecture and announces to a whole class of cadets the truth about the drones. She suffers zero consequences. I get that she is a bit of a prodigy and related to people of high rank but this should be high treason. Isn’t the whole point that everyone is blissfully ignorant and to break that ignorance could undo the fabric of societal order? Even if everyone is aware but chooses to feign ignorance because it gives them easy lives, it should still have consequences. When a story does things like this, it renders the rules of this world meaningless. When everything is meaningless (and your characters aren’t good enough), why should I care?
What started out as promising has end up being an average anime that neither offends nor excites. There is room for improvement though I am not hopeful. I probably won’t be watching season 2, which is all you need to know, I suppose.
Overall Quality – Medium
Recommendation: Try it. If you’re up for a war story by way of anime, 86 is a decent watch.
Awards: (hover over each award to see descriptions; click award for more recipients)