A Sci-Fi War Story That Really Makes You Think
If you’re looking for an anime to really challenge you on tough subjects like systemic oppression, the cruelty of war, and the ease with which people willfully ignore these issues, Spring 2021’s sci-fi action epic 86 is here to serve. It just finished its first season, so let’s take a closer look at how it weaves its tale of ordinary humans swept up in a constant flow of senseless violence.
Minor Spoilers Ahead!
War Isn’t Black and White
The Republic of San Magnolia, populated exclusively by fair-skinned people with silver hair and eyes, has long been at war with the robotic Legion army that threatens to invade their territory. Luckily, the country is protected by autonomous mechs of its own, sacrificing no human lives in the process... or so the public believes. In reality, the worn-out mechs are piloted by the “86” – people from conquered nations who don’t fit the Republic’s aesthetic and therefore aren’t legally counted as human. San Magnolian generals direct the 86 through remote communications from behind the safety of the country’s walls, and even though they know the truth, they either buy into the propaganda and treat the soldiers like cattle or don’t challenge the system because their whole society (and the comfort that comes with it) is built on the suffering of these pariahs they never see.
The young and idealistic Major Vladilena Milizé (usually called Lena) discovers the plight of the 86 when she’s chosen to lead the elite Spearhead Squadron, but runs into opposition from all sides when she tries to make things better for them. Her higher-ups and friends warn her that sticking out her neck isn’t worth it and the soldiers she commands call her out on patronizing them when she doesn’t even fight on the battlefield herself. It goes to show that this isn’t your average shounen where speeches about friendship can solve everything—sometimes, good intentions just aren’t enough to dismantle centuries of oppression. Real change takes real effort from many people over a long period of time and the pain of the past will never fully fade away.
Masterful at Pulling Heartstrings
As Lena and the audience get to know the Spearhead Squadron members over time, they begin to feel like a realistic group of kids who try to live fulfilling lives despite their horrific circumstances. They decorate their barracks with cardboard stand-ups and trashed figurines, care for a stray cat whose name is a subject of constant debate, and love each other like family. However, the unavoidable reality is that most of them will die before they’re allowed to retire, and this anime is masterful at showing how quickly their lives can be snuffed out and how deeply this affects the remaining soldiers. Cryptic final messages heard only through Lena’s communicator, quick flashes of fun times interspersed with mechs exploding, the slowly dwindling crowd of people at the Spearhead base during the OP... even though we don’t get to know every character on a personal level, we still understand the weight of their loss. And yet, even though real humans have died, the Republic computer monitors just refer to their mechs as “destroyed”.
86 is a roller coaster of emotion every single episode—it’s certainly not for the faint of heart, but if you’re up for some emotional gut punches that will have you questioning whether you’re being a good enough ally to your friends in minority groups, you’ll appreciate what it has to say. Hopefully, next season is just as powerful as this one was!
What did you think of our review? How did you interpret the themes of 86? Let us know in the comments, and thanks so much for reading!