We’ve had enough of these essay-length titles! Let’s just use a random number for a title!

I guess it’s a random number. If there’s significance to the “86” itself, I didn’t find it in this show. What I did find was an interesting take on mecha, really good artwork, fairly ordinary characters and story, and lots of feels. And one very prominent overarching theme that’s unfortunately become the entire focal point of this anime.

This is one of those shows where I really like a few things about it, but I also really don’t care for certain parts, so on average it gets a middling rating. I like this show for the artwork. I like the heartfelt moments. Otherwise I find it bland. And the bland—the controversial—is so prominent it has a lot of impact. Or rather, I should say what’s prominent is so bland that it has a lot of negative impact on my opinion. 

So I’m on the fence, as it were, about this one. And I know S2 is on its way at some point, though I don’t quite know how that’s going to work. As always, there’s spoilers in here, so don’t read this (or any of my reviews) if you haven’t seen this show. So further down I’ll mention why a S2 seems difficult to imagine. Nevertheless, the word is that there will be a S2, therefore I’ll keep this review as succinct as possible to allow for material in S2 that I will add later.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Characters

Rating: 4

Problem Ichiban—you know it’s coming: there’s too many characters!!! Within the city there’s just Lena and her buddy (their dynamic kind of works for me actually) and a superior officer or two that appears every now and then, but the Spearhead Squadron has a lot of members, and we hear from every one of them. I couldn’t tell who was who for the longest time, apart from Shinei (the Undertaker, a pun on his name and the familiar word “shinigami”). Of course, this improved with the passage of every episode, but not because I simply became more familiar with them. They kept dying.

That’s one way to deal with a vast multitude of characters! I don’t mean to make light of it. The deaths of these characters are very difficult on the heart, even though I hardly knew who they were before they died. Because I knew very well once they were killed, and it made me very sad that they were gone. Anju suppressing her tears in front of her comrades at one point really highlighted this part of the show to me. My estimation of this show and its characters and how the authors handled them went up a lot through the middle episodes as more and more members of Spearhead Squadron fell to the enemy and/or Shinei’s pistol.

Still, they were a lot to keep up with, so I won’t go into detail of every 86 solider here. I’ll simply say I liked some of them more than others. Some of them were a little typical, others a little more unique, but none of them were substantially developed. Even Shin and his story was a little weak, if it did have some emotional appeal. Though it didn’t really to me, but perhaps his situation was somewhat foreign to me and I simply couldn’t relate. Or I’ve become a coldhearted bastard somewhere along the way! Seriously though, nobody had enough backstory to help us connect with them. The number one problem with my number one problem in anime, too many characters, is the resulting lack of development in individual characters. Unless you do a One Piece 1000+ episode thing, each character’s individual development will suffer.

Saori Hayami (Kakegurui, Demon Slayer, A Silent Voice, Tower of God, so many great titles) voices the beautiful Anju Emma.

I don’t like Lena. I heard people throwing the Esdeath comparison out there, but the comparison is superficial only. There’s little similar about these two characters. Lena is diminutive, unimpressive inside and out, and weak of will, mind, and body, where the great one herself is the exact opposite in every respect. I won’t turn this into another effusion of loving words lavished on the great General, I promise, so I will simply say the two are not comparable beyond their hair and faces, and only a little there. Everything that makes Esdeath great is absent in Lena, which is exactly why I don’t like her. 

On one hand, I get it. She’s a powerless, pampered little philosophizer. Her motives are right, but they prompt no action. She’s truly powerless in that sense, but that powerlessness comes from her affluence and her culture’s disconnect from the 86. I get how powerlessness in a character can play a role in a story like this. And it almost does. But in the end it just makes me annoyed with her for doing nothing and letting everyone die before she actually goes to see them in person. Exactly, she finally got over all the paper barriers and went to see them physically, but not until they were all gone. That was the final straw for me. She still hadn’t accomplished anything. It was just a gesture, like everything else she’d “tried.” I know her heart was in the right place, but in this case that simply wasn’t enough. And it wasn’t enough to redeem her as a character either.

And, like the 86, she was underdeveloped. Which is the common theme with all these characters, and where I’ll wrap up my commentary in this section. Underdeveloped and therefore not very interesting overall, the characters leave the viewer confused, frustrated, sad at times, but mostly just feeling underwhelmed. We’ll see what S2 does for them. We’ll need a lot of new ones!

Artwork

Rating: 10

I don’t give out my 10s readily. Nor am I particularly biased to mecha artwork. But there’s two things in this show that really, really get my attention, and I feel the superlative rating is therefore in order.

The first is the mecha sequences. Number one, this show was a different take on mecha. I hesitate to say it was unique, and certainly it wasn’t groundbreaking, but the creepy-crawly tank thing is certainly a mech, and therefore it rightly belongs in this genre. Number two, the battle sequences were extraordinarily impressive. The flashing cannons and the crazy movements of the Juggernauts were very good. It attempted to capture the power of tank-like vehicles, and while I’ve never been in a tank battle and therefore can’t compare it, I feel like they succeeded on a relative scale at least. When I consider other tank sequences in anime, I don’t find them nearly as impressive. I almost have to stray outside the world of anime to find something as comparably visually impressive, and that’s the live-action Hollywood film Fury. There’s lots of wow moments (and even full sequences) in the battles in that movie, and the effect on me was very similar in this anime. And the animation itself—it was next level. Normally I cringe at CGI, inanimate objects or not, but it was seriously impressive here. Even the still shots of the Juggernauts, and of the Legion, were impressive. This is the number one reason I continued watching this show. It started right away with one of these battles, and I was immediately wowed.

The second is some of the still shots on the 86 characters. The drawing in general was very glossy and pretty. But when applied to some of the closeups for the 86 characters, they’d melt your heart just looking at them. These still shots added more depth to these characters than any attempt at character development or storyline did. Of course the limited character development was all there, plus the rather sad circumstances the characters found themselves in, but add some of these amazing frames to it, and suddenly the characters touched your heart where they might have felt ordinary before. It’s not often that artwork can have that kind of impact.

It’s all visually very pretty. Even though we see some ugly stuff here and there (mostly just outside the Spearhead garrison itself), mostly the characters and the machines and the buildings and the landscape are really beautiful. I can’t think of a moment in this show where I thought the artwork could’ve been better. There are more beautiful shows out there, so this is a kind of 10 among 10s, but its quality and effect are undeniable. The artists hit it on the head with this one. And it’s rather unexpected at that. We associate beautiful artwork mostly with romance or slice-of-life or even fantasy, genres more synonymous with the most common notions of “beauty.” War and mecha genre? That’s good stuff if the artists pull it off. And they did here in 86.

Story

Rating: 3

The good is this: it all works together well enough. But that basically just qualifies it as a story. So I can confirm there is a story. And within that story, several heartfelt moments have their impact. The deaths of the squad members become increasing more difficult to bear. It’s very similar to Akame ga Kill! in that sense. Perhaps this is another reason for the Esdeath-Lena comparison. Anyway, there’s some nice moments and some decent dialogue here and there to go with a workable story overall.

The bad: there’s a lot. For one, the Spearhead Squadron has a history of injuring its Alban “handlers.” Not physically, since they never see each other, but mentally. Something to do with the psychic-mechanical communication and whatnot. But once Lena arrives, this plot element evaporates. Why was it present in the first place? To highlight some point about Lena? That point was lost on me if there was such a point. I thought this had potential in the plot, but it disappeared and was never seen again. It ended up seeming like a completely unnecessary plot element, adding only confusion and zero interest in the end. 

Why’s a kid commanding a military unit? Never mind, I forgot this is anime. But we still like it, don’t we?

I mentioned the psychic-mechanical communication. Part of the reason the Albans can afford to keep such distance between themselves and the battlefield is because they can communicate with the 86 via these devices that hook into their necks. But if I’m not mistaken, the 86 have a somewhat innate ability to communicate telepathically. The Albans use this to enable them to remain in communication with them, and apparently in a fairly deep psychic kind of way given the effects on some of the handlers. As a plot element, I like this. But it’s just kind of there. As I’ve said before, I don’t require an explanation for every sci-fi element that appears in a show. But this was a weird one to neglect. “Oh they wear these things in their necks so they can communicate with their naturally telepathic soliders.” What? I’m gonna need a bit more than that.

Oh yeah, Lena had been on the battlefield once before when she was a little girl. This also played a minimal and confusing role in the show.

What’s with the backstory with Shinei’s brother? I’m guessing we’re not finished with that saga despite the physical resolution it’s brought to at the end of Shinei’s gun barrel. But I don’t get it. It’s backstory for Shinei and nothing else. It feels like it should be more important.

Then there’s this ridiculous situation with the war. One territorial state is fighting another…why? I get it that often there aren’t reasons behind any given war, but we’re just plopped down in the middle of a war here and no one’s going to tell us how we got there? If they told us, it was so unmemorable I didn’t remember it. And why have just one section of your society fight it for you? Why then separate those people from everyone else and hide the fact that they even exist, saying the war is being waged via robots? I mean, I know why (more on that in just a moment), but it’s very contrived. This situation doesn’t feel like it evolved for any particular reason, and it’s certainly never effectively explained to the viewer.

Which brings me to the ugly: racial hatred. This is the biggest element in this anime and the single most discussed aspect of this show. And I don’t like that. It’s simply contrived for the show, aforementioned. Sure, any plot element could be called “contrived” in that sense, but in this case, it feels very forced. It feels like the authors are intentionally depending on this element in the story to build their story off of. And I have a problem with this.

I will listen all day to those who believe art can be used to shed light on issues in the contemporary world. I usually find such art less appealing, not the least because artists are simply not the most qualified people to comment on such issues. But more I just find it frustrating because I see it every day already. Artists often feel like they’re shining a light on an issue to expose it to view where previously it was hidden, but more often than not they’re simply echoing some common sentiment that’s already fairly prevalent. If an artist does this at his or her peril, that’s a whole different situation. Suddenly courage and self-sacrifice are in play, and the motive behind it is much more admirable. But if that’s not the case, it seems like the artist is simply trying to convey their opinion on a real-world matter through their art. Whether you agree with that opinion or not is almost irrelevant. If an artist is simply trying to appeal to like-minded people…that’s hardly art in my opinion. But even if I agree with the artist’s opinion, the subject matter still speaks more than the art itself, and the art loses something. It feels like the “art” is in second place behind the artist’s opinion. 

The halls of the Alban command center.

Without getting down into the weeds here too much—this is very large academic chasm—art should be beautiful in some sense. The fact that people don’t individually agree on what’s beautiful is a big part of that actually, adding to the world of art in a very positive way. And at times that will overlap with contemporary societal issues. But usually it doesn’t. Usually, the ugliness of the societal issue detracts from the art. Again, I will listen to all arguments why this is permissible in art, and likely I would agree with most of them. But I react negatively to it regardless of my opinion on the matter. I think it is a good general rule to keep popular contemporary sentiment out of art. 

In 86, this popular sentiment is racial discrimination. The Alba are the overlords, and they give numbers to the “inferior race” they lord over in place of actual names. Again, while this is a relevant issue in the modern world depending on where you live, it’s discussed ad nauseam, and particularly so by people who are the least qualified to discuss it. It’s extremely divisive and fraught with all manner of logical errors regardless of the actual facts of any given situation. Do you see what’s happening here? No matter what your opinion on this subject is, suddenly we find ourselves in an emotionally-charged discussion about a real-world topic while we’re trying to experience an anime. And this detracts from art. Argue that it’s permissible or even desirable, and I’ll listen. But it detracts from the art, and I will argue that case forever. 

In anime’s case, part of the appeal of this art form is its separation from the real world. Bring up 86, and people immediately start to divide into diametrically opposed camps on this issue. Should real-world issues be prominent in anime?

I will not attempt to answer that, nor will I aid in furthering that debate. I will simply reiterate what I’ve already said: art loses something when these kinds of issues are brought into play, regardless of the issue, how the individual viewer reacts to it, or the era in which it is produced.

Eventually, she became aware of her own powerlessness. It was truly sad.

Now, I don’t know what particular real-world instance of racial injustice the authors of 86 are motivated by. It could be a purely Japanese instance. It’s well known that, historically, Japanese society has favored those with lighter skin tones (think of the extraordinarily white makeup on geisha, maiko, etc.). They could be referring to the popular American debate over this issue—possibly in an attempt to appeal to American audiences who, they feel, might relate to the matter. They could be referring to this issue in general in the Orient, where races have warred for ages over little things like this. They could simply be hearkening back to WWII again and the Nazi regime in Germany (“Alba” meaning “white,” connoting Aryanism) But it doesn’t particularly matter what the motivation was. The further in the past an issue like this gets (as in WWII), the less people react to it, thus its impact on a show is lessened. But this particular issue is so overdiscussed in popular media all over the world these days (2021) that it affects everything about this show as a result. This entire show could be termed as a commentary on this debate. It shouldn’t be. Despite the numerous shortcomings in this story, there’s a lot of opportunity in it, and a lot the authors could have done to make this a more positive experience (apart from the artwork, which is a fully positive experience already). And I don’t even totally fault the authors for including this particular element. But put this element in there, and viewers are bound to start debating over it. And, once again, this detracts from the show overall.

As you can see, most discussion about this story ends up revolving around this element. It’s unpleasant. Anime doesn’t have to be pleasant to be great. It doesn’t have to be pleasant to be beautiful. But a distasteful element like this is tiresome at the least, and divisive at the worst. It directs everyone’s attention to something ugly instead of something beautiful. There’s a lot of beauty in this show. Why should we have to spend incomparably more time debating this little ugly thing from our mundane, worldly lives when we could instead observe such beauty? This is my point. 

So I think it was a mistake for the authors to take this route. As a plot element, yes it works. This is another of those fine points about the authors including it versus the reaction among viewers. Because people react to it by bringing up the ugly real-world situation, it detracts from the show. But if you take all that away, I can understand why the authors picked this plot device. It feels contrived yes, it’s a tired theme yes, but it works here. It sets up the distance between Lena and the 86, which she never overcomes, and all the themes and plot elements that stem from that. Hence my opening paragraph in this section that all this works well together. So I don’t mind it as a plot element. I mind it as a popular sentiment, regardless of what that sentiment is.

And that’s all we end up talking about as a result. I wish that wasn’t the case, but it cannot be ignored. Imagine if I’d written this Story section without mentioning this part of the show. One could accuse me of either incompetence in viewing and analysis or of intentionally ignoring it just to avoid a difficult topic, and could do so easily either way. So it demands attention, and must be addressed, and thus our minds are taken away from something beautiful in favor of an ugly human issue. The story, therefore, does not well serve the work of art itself.

Overall: 6

So I end up having to search for the artistic quality beneath all this controversy. But that is my calling here; that is what I will always do here at Anteiku. I do not wish to fill your lives with more controversy and mundanity on top of what the world already forces upon us. And I say, through it all, the artistic quality in this show is decent. The story is not very well done even outside of the controversial issue, but the show is very much saved with its heartfelt moments and beautiful artwork. It’s heartfelt even though it’s controversial and doesn’t have a lot going for it other than the artwork. That’s an accomplishment in and of itself.

But the controversy cannot be ignored. It is there, it will be discussed, and it is good for people to freely decide to engage in such discussion, regardless of the result. So it cannot be extricated from this show, thus the show loses a little of its quality. 

Still, even if it weren’t for the controversy, I think my rating would be similar. I can separate the noise from the relevant at this point in my life, and I think that rating is appropriate even if there wasn’t any controversy. The story isn’t very carefully crafted even if it works, and the characters are too lacking in development. The superior artwork ticks this above the average mark, but only just. There’s too much else I can complain about. And still, I find myself wondering if my opinion would change if the controversial elements were handled differently or not included at all. I figure it plays a role, perhaps even a primary role, in a lot of my negative views about this show.

We will see what happens in S2. Which should be interesting, because we’ll need an entirely new cast outside of Lena. Perhaps Shin and Anju and those handful actually make it to the enemy territory and make new lives for themselves and can help to bridge the two countries, bringing an end to the war. I haven’t read the LN, if that wasn’t obvious from that hypothesizing there (you LN readers shush). I suspect the story will take that route. But that would be highly convenient, given the suicidal nature of that final mission. Lena’s actions will prompt some reaction among the Alba too. So we’ll see. I kind of find myself looking forward to how this resolves (LN readers shush). I definitely won’t mind seeing this pretty artwork once again. So we’ll wait for S2 and I’ll add to this at that time, and we’ll see if it improves or worsens my opinion.

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