The anime 86 has garnered much praise, and rightfully so. It is a good series that tackles thorny topics ably and without flinching. Not only that, but the animation is stunningly beautiful, while the music is some of the best this author has heard.
On the Superversive Livestream with Anthony Marchetta, I described the series as The Hunger Games meets World War II in France. It may have been better to describe it the way a compatriot of mine described The Hunger Games to me: 86 is Gone With the Wind with mecha and drone warfare. For context, here is the description of 86’s story:
The Republic of San Magnolia has been at war with the Empire of Giad for nine years. Though it initially suffered devastating losses to the Empire's autonomous mechanized Legions, The Republic has since developed its own autonomous units, called Juggernauts, which are directed remotely by a Handler. While on the surface the public believes the war is being fought between machines, in reality, the Juggernauts are being piloted by humans, all of whom are "86"—the designation given to the Colorata minority of San Magnolia. The 86 originally had equal rights, but were persecuted and scapegoated by the dominant Alba race and the Alba-supremacist Republic government to the point where Colorata were both officially designated and popularly considered subhuman. The 86 were not permitted to have personal names and were immured in internment camps in the 86th District (their namesake); all the while being forced to fight in the Republic's war with the Empire to receive better treatment.
Major Vladilena "Lena" Milizé, an Alba noble and military officer in the San Magnolian military, is an outspoken activist against the grave mistreatment of the nation's Colorata minority, and the willful deception of the Republic government to the general public. She is assigned as the Handler of the Spearhead Squadron of the Eastern Front: an elite unit composed entirely of 86 veterans who have earned names. Led by their squad leader, Shinei "The Undertaker" Nouzen, the Spearhead Squadron is infamous among military officials. Its notoriety stems from the state in which its commanding officers are left: Handlers presiding over the squad have descended into insanity and some have gone as far as committing suicide. Lena, an avowed 86 sympathizer, gets to know the Spearhead Squadron in her time as head of the contingent. At same time, Lena and Shinei learn a dark secret: the Republic and the war with the Empire are not what they seem.
Japanese anime tends to excel at what a friend of mine calls “sweet romance.” In this type of romance, the hero and heroine do not hold hands, kiss, or otherwise become intimate during the course of the story. Additionally, the story usually takes the time to build up to a kiss, a declaration of love, or the like. Some anime actually ends with a shot of the protagonist’s future family or with a wedding – when was the last time a show or movie in Hollywood did that?
86 does not strike most viewers – this author included – as a romance at first glance. The mecha action is good, and the discussion in the series of racism, drone warfare, and humanity tends to slap a newcomer to the show across the face in a way Western entertainment cannot anymore. The presentation of the difference between the home front and the front lines is also stellar. Considering the author, Asato Asato, read All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque before writing 86, that is not a surprise. Anyone with even a passing familiarity with the novel or film will see the parallels easily.
The titular 86 are trapped in a warzone. They have no choice but to fight for their lives every time the mechanical Legion try to make an incursion into what is left of the Republic of San Magnolia. In contrast the Alba, safe behind the wall of the Gran Mur, enjoy a luxurious life of leisure and quiet. Behind the wall it is easy to ignore the war, because the war has not breached into their everyday existence.
Lena, the heroine of the story, is aware of what is being done to the 86 and works with them as a Handler – basically a drone operator – in an effort to help them regain their rights as citizens of the Republic. However, in the course of the story, she learns this is impossible: the government simply wants to slaughter the 86 and has no intention of keeping its word. As a result, she goes out of her way to save as many of the people in Spearhead Squadron – her new unit – as she can, despite the odds against them.
In this she is helped by Shinei Nouzen, the captain of the squadron who goes by the personal name “Undertaker.” A member of a race with some telepathy Shin, as his friends call him, can sense the Legion coming. He can also sense the drones’ dark secret, one which he shares with Lena during her nightly calls.
And this is where we get to the romance part of the story, which is the thread that runs through the entire series (Asato Asato originally wrote romances): In an effort to connect with and treat the 86 as people, Lena makes nightly calls to Spearhead Squadron. While she does make mistakes in her initial attempts to befriend them, the young major eventually manages to conquer her own cowardice and truly treat Shin and the others as fellow human beings.
Even so, the only member of the squadron who doesn’t think ill of her from the moment she makes contact with them is Shin. While he considers her naïve in the extreme, he does not hold it against her or join the rest of the squadron in mocking her behind her back. Ahead of his friends he seems to understand that Lena really does want to help however she can. While she can’t go to the battlefield directly and makes mistakes, the latter are not malicious and the former is a circumstance she cannot rectify easily. Especially since she might be able to do more good for the 86 behind the wall than outside of it.
Shin and Lena’s conversations and perspectives bookend one another throughout the series. After she calls him for the first time during a mission and suggests an ambush point (he has already chosen one and has to tell her that), he tells his XO, Raiden Shuga, that her idea was a good one. He never complains when she calls him privately and he warns her ahead of time to cut the radio signal that allows them to talk in battle, something he didn’t do for any of the squadron’s previous Handlers. It quickly becomes clear that, although he does not consider her an equal per se, he respects her and thinks she has potential as a leader. He also believes she is an honest, good person trying to do the right thing via the only means she has available to her.
The fact that Lena briefly met his older brother, whom he has no good memories of, only strengthens their maturing relationship. Not only does Shin find himself dealing with a Handler who genuinely cares and wants to help as best she can, she provides a link to a happier part of his past that he cannot recall. Although he might not suspect it, he is falling for her, something that is best demonstrated by the fact that he practically has to force himself to tell Lena the Republic’s dirty little plan to exterminate the 86.
It’s a masterful method of plotting a romance, as Lena and Shin drift closer to one another despite the physical distance between the two of them. The rest of the squadron’s growing respect and eventual recognition of Lena as a friend (if not an equal) follows from this, since she goes against orders to save them and, more specifically, their Reaper. Amidst the mind-numbing terror of war, genocide, and horror, 86 manages to find the humanity in all of its characters. In the process, it also provides room for love to blossom in the most unlikely of places.
So if you are looking for a good series to sink your teeth into, I highly recommend checking out Asato Asato’s 86. This is as much for the light novels as for the anime they inspired; although I have only begun reading the series, I can say it is worth picking up. Ms. Asato’s writing style carries through in the English translation and she has a very good command of language. Five stars for sure.
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