86 Eighty-Six vol. 1 – Asato Asato

4 out of 5

I really like the idea of Japanese light novels – novellas with spot illustrations – especially as additions to / source of the animes by which I’m generally introduced to the material, but I’ve yet to find success with them. Just as some manga “translates” better to screen for my tastes, the tone and quality of the light novels I’ve tried have been more youth-geared than I prefer, or, perhaps owing to cultural differences, maybe just not paced as I’d expect.

I approached the 86 Eighty-Six light novels with some trepidation: the anime was excellent, and the books wouldn’t ruin that, but I was fearful that it would add details that perhaps undermined some of what I took away from the between-the-lines of the show. That is, things that I felt worked because of their lack of exposition would then be explained, and maybe mystique dissipated as a result.

Asato Asato’s books do add those details, but they did the opposite: they enhanced the world. They made it deeper, and more affecting. This is what I want from a light novel.

The basic concept of the series is simple, immediately relatable to – unfortunately – almost any era, in some way or another – but is nonetheless haunting as hell, with its sci-fi tweaks a perfect way to represent class disparity: in the at-war world presented in 86, the Republic tells of its victories and technological superiority over the Legion, celebrating its cultural open-arms; meanwhile, they’ve been bleeding resources over the past 9 years, their science behind that of their enemies, and their diversity is non-existent, the culture narrowed down to an Aryan-esque clan of “Albas” – silver hair, blue eyes – who’ve subjugated the “Colorata” races as potential traitors, sequestered outside the gleaming capital, which is awash in positive public addresses that let the populace ignore the ongoing war. A victimless war: by declaring the Colorata as non-humans, they can send them off to battle (in insectoid battle-bots called “Juggernauts,” facing the Legion’s machines of larger and more durable build) and not consider their losses as diminishing the population.

Lena, one of our POV characters, is a “Handler,” on contact with the “pigs” of the fighting forces through Resonance tech, which allows them to link consciousnesses across distances. The role of a Handler is to organize forces in the war, but most blow off the duties. Lena, however, was granted some awareness of matters by her father, and tries to remain dutiful, despite her new charges – Spearhead squadron, led by Shin – assuming she’ll bail on them, as every Handler does. And besides, whether or not she has a good heart, she’s an Alba; she’ll never understand what it means to be born simply for the purpose of slaughter on the battlefield.

Yes, this is the story of Lena slowly gaining Shin’s trust, but it’s not solely that, and that is the story’s maturity: 86 vol. 1 is marked by some early shonen simplicity and fan service, which was a little alarming, but Asato slowly and surely rolls this in to a study of the culture – and not a simplistic one – that would allow for this divide to perpetuate, as well as the toll it takes on the willfully ignorant Republic, and the downtrodden squadron. In both cases, humanity is sought out: while the Republic have their background figures who are happy to ignore what’s going on, all of the primaries we meet are given dimension; similarly, the squadron isn’t just case as tsundere or badass battle protags – they have their human elements as well, and ebb and flow with emotional highs and lows. Everyone adapts, for better or worse.

Adding to this is the Legion itself, the mystery of which – how they operate – is part of the story’s revelations. It is, again, haunting, even already knowing the details from the anime.

The initial shonen elements I mention don’t necessarily seem purposeful; meaning that it does seem like Asato adjusted the tone naturally as they got further into the text, but it happens to work well for the evolution of the story. At the same time, nothing would be lost by removing these initial beats, so anyone who tends to roll their eyes at such stuff – like myself – I’d just say to hang in there for another chapter, because all youthful affectations disappear pretty quickly. Additionally, while the character and world descriptions do, as suggested, add to the world of 86 Eighty-Six, there’s some extra background on the Resonance here which feels a bit too magical in the gritty world. It’s weird, I guess, that it feels more “logical” without any explanations, but it’s the kind of device that works better when you don’t think about it too much.

Minor beats, though. Volume 1 is immensely rewarding, and it doesn’t “cheat” – there are no easy victories, or happy-go-lucky morals. It’s a tough world, and we weave between Lena’s and Shin’s navigations of that, through terse dialogue exchanges and exciting battles, and fantastic world building.