5 out of 5

Directed by: Toshimasa Ishii

covers season 1

Very dense; very heavy. Even amongst “smart” TV nowadays – shows that respect their audience with engaging dialogue and stories, and aren’t structured to be throwaway, look-at-your-phone-while-watching weekly experiences – there’s a fair bit of padding. Edges that have been shorn off so you don’t necessarily have to catch every detail, or signposting that helps to fill in gaps in story that were maybe subtly spoken to elsewhere. The rarity is the show that sets a bar of asking you to pay attention, and then doesn’t dip below that, while at the same time, playing fair: as long as you are paying attention, the story is there. This requires a true marriage of writing and visuals, working together to form something that has to be experienced altogether.

When initially tuning in to 86-Eighty-Six, I saw some wild action sequences with mechs; some short skirts; some shonen-esque battle rage. Yeah, maybe its war-torn setting was a bit more “gritty” than the norm, but I figured the show to be cut from something of a predictable mold, and maybe I’d lose interest after a couple of episodes. Its parable premise of a privileged society using robot proxies to fight their war was promising, but surely limited – the show will likely parrot some obvious points and then harp on them repeatedly.

…The structure of even that first episode made it difficult for me to commit to my cynicism, though. The use of some repeated images, and the concise sense of editing, and the way the dialogue seemed layered – hiding things beneath its surface – drew me in. The emotive, but tamed, character animation, and the sense of world-building – careful world building, rolled out organically – further caught me out. And then the narration rewinds: episodes end up often giving us two points of view of the same scene, connected by conversations that come across drastically different, depending on that POV. While this would often just be a cute, structural “hook” in a lesser show, 86-Eighty-Six wields it precisely, as with all of its attributes; we don’t rewind every single time, but it happens when it needs to, and it hits hard every time it does.

The utopic Republic of San Magnolia is at war with “the Legion,” a once-manned, now automated army that the Republic is expecting will, essentially, wear down its batteries in the near future, and so they use their “handlers” to dial in to their own robots in the field, keeping the Legion at bay until that expiry event. But there’s more to it than that: the “robots” are actually piloted crafts; when our San Magnolia main character, handler Lena (voiced by Ikumi Hasegawa), shows dismay at the various names of the fighters she’s tracking disappearing off the board as they’re wiped out, it’s clear she’s a bit different from her fellow handlers, who tend to just complain when their army – the so-called 86 – don’t do as they’re told. And there’s more to that, as this whole operation is considered moralistically sound because the 86 aren’t considered human by the Republic. All blue / white haired and blue-eyed, the privileged class are taught and preach that the 86 are a mongrel race, and being put to work as fighters is what best suits them. And besides, they can earn their way out of service after five years, right?

Lena starts to connect with the 86ers to which she’s been assigned: a crew that’s at the edge of the advance, and has survived the longest in the field, led by “Undertaker” – Shin (Shōya Chiba). This crew has heard these handlers-with-hearts before, and are just waiting for Lena to bail when listening in to their operations becomes too taxing. …Which it is. 86-Eighty-Six excels at not making war very exciting, but rather quite haunting, and horrible, with this life-of-servitude rather guaranteeing death. There are certainly further details about this world, and the Legion, that make this even more frightening. To her credit, Lena sticks with it, and tries to be a voice for her 86ers amongst her friends, and fellow workers, but this is not a show of happy endings or underdog-winners – the Republic is structured the way it is because it “works” – for now – and that’s how it is likely to remain.

Every episode of the show peels this back more and more, adding to the cyclical tragedies of the world, and certainly allowing plenty of room for thought as to how it reflects on human behavior in our world. But you can surely watch the show as escapist sci-fi action if desired, and it satisfies at that level as well, though I very much appreciated that not every episode tried to check an “action” checkbox: often we are just caught up in the daily dramas of the characters.

To that action, though, I’ve left off how well its handled: the mash-up between digital and hand-drawn animation in anime can always be a bit jarring, but the show has the fortune of having a logical way to divvy it up: the 86 fight in mechanical “juggernauts” – lithe, spider-like things with gun cannons and grappling hooks – and the Legion are all automatons. This is prime stuff for doing through CG, with all of the downtime done by hand. This very thematically works with the show, and seems to have given both styles great focus: the juggernauts flit around incredibly fast, but its all very readable and immersive; the characters and world, meanwhile, have an immense amount of detail, creating “real” spaces populated by characters you very much come to know.

So yeah, it’s heavy stuff, but the payoff of that is how goddamned impactful it is; how rewarding it can be to have something that actually engages the heart and mind consistently. Brilliant stuff.