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

If there’s significance to the “86” itself, other than the Americanism meaning “eliminate” or “remove,” 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 prominent overarching theme that, unfortunately, has almost very nearly 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. But overall, it could be better. The controversial elements threaten to overwhelm everything else. It has a pretty negative impact on my opinion. 

Through two seasons now however, I feel that there’s enough good that I have an overall positive impression of this series. The action sequences are astounding, especially in S1. The feels are strong, even if they are a little overused at times, and don’t do it quite as well as some other military tragedy style anime. But I feel pretty good about this one. I ended up enjoying it after all, and looked forward to it every week during S2.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.


Rating: 6

Problem Ichiban—you know it’s coming: there are too many characters!!! Within the capital city of the Republic of San Magnolia 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 (at least in S1) 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 significantly 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 didn’t like S1 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. 

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.

That was S1 Lena. Because S2 Lena–oh S2 Lena!

The red undertone in her hair said it all. She’d snapped, in a good way. She was epic now. I was glad to see Lena grow some balls. Not only did she totally switch off her concerns about her own status, she became a badass. She stared down that general near the beginning of S2 with a smiling professional contempt that made me grin like Shinei during battle. She looked like she didn’t give a f**k anymore about anything except these poor 86 people. She unlocked her heart and unleashed her potential. When the Legion invaded into the surrounding civilizations and San Magnolia was basically overrun, it was Lena’s newfound leap-before-you-look, I-don’t-have-time-for-this-bullshit mentality that kept it from being erased from the map. She led her loyal 86 legions like a madwoman, using all her experience, sadness, and rage to propel them to just barely hold off an overwhelming force from totally destroying their country. I fell a little in love with her at this point, even after all the frustration of S1. It was very rewarding to see her blossom so.

I couldn’t have been any happier when she and Shinei finally met. It was handled very strangely in the story–I thought that, even though they were right there together, somehow they were going to not realize who each other was! I almost screamed at the screen. But then they did finally meet, and it was as satisfying as I could ever hope it to be. The world of anime cried a tear of joy for these young people who had been through so much.

Oh she bad. She’s out for blood.

S2 tried to repeat the thing with Shinei’s brother from S1, just with a new character. Neither the brother nor this new iteration did much for me. I thought each of them gave us a little insight into the Giad or the Legion, but that whole backstory remains mostly unexplained. It was a little weak, part of the slight miss on the feels I mentioned in the introduction. It also introduced us to the highly sympathetic character Ernst Zimmerman, the president in the Giad Federacy (formerly the Empire…long story). He’s a nice guy. We also met the impressive Grethe Wenzel, a scientist, heiress, and officer for the Giadian Army. I loved her devices (the scientist who creates all the new toys–that kind of character), especially the Nachzehrer, a giant flying device that she uses with Shinei and his unit to penetrate deep into Legion territory. It, like she, was very impressive. Oh, and speaking of badass females, Lena’s new 86 commander was a monster, Iida Shiden. She wasn’t around long because S2 ended, but I liked her a lot.

S2 also added the professional annoyance, the loli princess Augusta Frederica Adel-Adler. I do not like her character. For one thing, she didn’t clear up anything about the situation with Giad. Rather she added to the confusion. I still can’t tell you how she got here or what all happened in her past. Just something about her brother and her and all that. Now her brother was a mind controlling a mega-Legion called a Morpho, and she was a “mascot” for the all-86 commando unit working for the Giad Federacy. But more than that, she was just annoying. I do not like the little girl with all the answers character type. Say what you will about her 6th-sense capabilities, it doesn’t justify her having all the wisdom of the collective multiverse trapped in a little girl’s emotionally immature mind. Her bossiness and voice pitch were both very annoying. Her connection with Shinei seemed very forced and contrived.

As mentioned, the problem with too many characters is either lack of individual development, or the author is faced with the alternative choice of only developing a few characters and letting the rest kind of disappear along the way. That mostly happens as this series progresses. Of course most of the 86 go away, solving part of the problem, but even those that remain get somewhat lost as the focus of the series narrows to Shinei and the annoying Augusta Frederica and eventually Lena once she reappears. And even that development suffers a little, since so much ground had to be made up that was lost when we had twenty 86 characters to deal with. So overall, these characters all feel a bit lacking. I was pleased with the way S2 worked out, but the characters still felt like they could have been better.


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’re 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.

I can’t add anything to this.

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.

S2 got a little artsy on me at times. By that I mean some of the cinematography and screen effects were a little unusual, and it wasn’t clear why. There was a frame where we were looking at Shinei upside down, even though he was supposed to be seated normally. There was semi-transparent matchboxing on a few frames at one point (that might have been some kind of glimpse into the future for one of the characters, probably Shinei, if I recall). I don’t know what the intent was behind these effects, but they were oddly remarkable.

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.


Rating: 4

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, even through the end of S2. 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 felt like we were in for more of this backstory, but we’ve seen nothing of it since its resolution. You have the thing with Frederica’s brother in S2 that’s basically a repeat of the Shinei brother thing, but that doesn’t tie into Shinei’s brother’s situation. 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? Through two seasons we have no explanation for why the Legion exist or who’s behind them. 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 a big 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. Then she decided to do something about it.

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. 

Lena breaks down in the solitude of her room as she never forgets her fallen friends and her quest to find the survivors, which she hopes against hope that there are any of.

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.

Fortunately, a lot of this disappeared in S2. It was still kind of there, but it was heavily in the background. The story seemed a little directionless as a result: so much of the story had been based around this element in S1. You basically had our four surviving 86 friends who made the long journey adapting to their new lives in Giad. You had the slightly weak plot element of “we can’t do anything but fight,” but not much came of this, other than the fact that they kept fighting, which of course allowed the military nature of the show to continue instead of it devolving into some weird slice-of-life fantasy.

But most happily–spoiler, definitely stop here if you haven’t seen the show–we got to see Lena and and the four survivors finally meet. Every bad thing that had happened, every thing I could complain about in this show, evaporated in an instant, as I got to see Shinei and Lena look each other in the eye and feel hope for their world. It was great to see these two young people who’d been through so much, and taken such different paths through it all, who’d made so many difficult decisions, to finally be rewarded with finally meeting each other. It was a beautiful moment.

The final episode. Shin finally smiles.

I had a couple of problems with this however, little problems, but still notable. First was that Lena actually met Shinei on the battlefield the episode before the two actually met in person. Shinei knew it, but he was inside his mech, so Lena couldn’t see who she was talking to. When that episode ended and Lena was still intent on her search, not knowing she’d actually accomplished what she was seeking, audiences went nuts. Popcorn was hurled at the ceiling amidst loudly voiced exclamations of frustration! There was a delay in the production of the final episode, so I had a lot of time to wonder if this was how the writers were going to leave the series: somewhat open-ended, maybe hoping for a continuation of this storyline into another season. Which brings me to the other little problem I had with this: a rather contrived plot element was conceived to actually get all of them to finally meet. With the Republic of San Magnolia in shambles, Lena leaves for Giad to command their commando squads as part of an alliance between the remnants of the two nations. What? Why would Giad be interested in this, and how would they randomly pick Lena? Perhaps because the two interacted on the battlefield there once, but I wonder. It feels very contrived, too convenient to be feasible.

Still, those two things aren’t enough to overcome the sheer happiness audiences felt at seeing Lena finally meet Shinei and company. It was pretty much everything you could’ve hoped for. And given all that had transpired in this series, it was a great moment. Suddenly the controversial elements in this series were a distant memory, and it wasn’t all we were talking about this series anymore. Where the story did not serve the work of art itself well before because of the controversy getting in the way, now we had a very happy ending to a very difficult and sad tale. We didn’t have to think solely about the horrors of these poor characters’ lives anymore. There were tears once more, but tears of joy, finally, in the end. Where I had been displeased with this story at the end of S1, now I was happy.

Overall: 7

Through it all, I ended up really enjoying this series. It has lots of issues, particularly in the story area, between the controversial elements threatening to overshadow everything and the often contrived or weak plot elements. But between the magnificent artwork, the nice characters and their development, and the happy resolution at the end, the positive outweighs the negative.

S2 did a lot to lift this show in my estimation. With so many characters gone from S1, we were going to need a lot of new characters, and it worked out about as I expected, with Shinei and Anju and all making it to Giad and bridging the gap between the two nations. But even if it all was a bit convenient, and at times a little hard to follow–even a little annoying with Frederica–the big happy moment we’d all been waiting for at the end made up for a lot. That’s the power of great moments in anime. They have the power to define, redefine, an entire series. For all the issues large and small in this series, the writers managed to create a moment that overshadows all those issues and drives them from our perception. This series will now be most remembered not for the controversial elements, but for the beautiful moments at the end of S2. That’s a wonderful thing.

I doubt there will be another season. I wouldn’t mind it if there were–it’d be heartwarming to see Lena work with her squad again, even if their work is warfare. Even though the war continues and there are still lots of questions about the Legion and all that, finishing this series on such a high note seems like a perfect ending. Lots of stories wrap up open-ended like this, with the war continuing and lots of unanswered questions, and they’re still good regardless. I think this one fits in that category. So if the writers wanted to continue it, I’d be happy to see the new badass Lena again, and I can’t get enough of the magnificent artwork and animation, but I also think that if no one ever made another episode, I’d be left with a satisfying and happy memory of this show. For such a difficult start, that’s saying a lot. For a show that gave me a mostly negative impression initially, I now see no negative possibilities for it in the future, whether it remains as it is or continues on. That’s a big turnaround, and is highly satisfactory.


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