As much as everyone likes shows that blow your mind, that live up to self imposed ‘hype’ and become the next big thing. It is just as important that shows that are ‘just fine’ or ‘well polished, but done before’ exist. This is a drum I’ll keep beating, but not everything can be a genre defining hit. It puts undue pressure on shows and animators, and frankly it is just exhausting. A healthy balance between ‘greats’ and ‘goods’ is important, which brings me to the show we are talking about today. After the cut let’s take a dive into the anime series: Eighty-Six
In my previous re-review of Saga of Tanya the Evil, I said this of both that show and of Eighty-Six: “We will most likely see another version of Eighty-Six again, but we probably won’t see anything like Tanya the Evil.“
I said that, not to be flippant or dismissive of Eighty-Six, but to actually praise it. Like I said before the cut, it is important to have shows that don’t try to re-invent the wheel, but instead work within their genre to give you the best possible version, or in the cast of this show, a really polished version of familiar stories. It is what makes the harem genre land so well when it actually tries, or what has brought Jujutsu Kaisen and Demon Slayer to the heights of popularity they have been. Difference for difference sake can fail just as much as being lazy, and it is important to know that.
Eighty-Six on paper is nothing special, and as I watched the twelve episodes this season, I felt like I was watching an extremely polished version of things I had seen before. If you have watched any mecha show, or anime that was about war in the last…say…ten or fifteen years, then you will pick up a lot of what Eighty-Six is putting down here. Two countries at war, a section of people living in squalor and ignorantly racist to the other side. Secrets truths about who is actually fighting the war. A cast of likable secondary characters you shouldn’t get attached too, and the handsome loner male lead with a tragic backstory who makes girls panties drop by just giving a fifth of a smile. If anything I just said made you think of Iron-Blooded Orphans or Attack on Titan then congratulations, you’ll probably enjoy Eighty-Six. But again, what makes the show so enjoyable, and what kept me coming back, was how polished and well told this story was. While it drives over well worn roads, Eighty-Six is a master at the wheel and does a lot with what it has to make you care about the characters and the world. Even better, and probably the series most impressive feat, is making the female lead of Vladilena Milizé work.
At its core, through all of the war, fighting, and struggles of the Eighty-Six to get their freedom, this first cour of the series is about Lena, the young, beautiful but naïve handler coming to terms with her own privilege and eating a massive bowl of humble pie. Throughout the twelve episodes we see Lena realize the brutal truth of Spearhead Squadron, try and fail and try again to form a connection, and then realize if she truly wants to help these soldiers, she’ll have to go above her station, rank, friendships and even culture to make it happen. By the time the credits roll on the final episode Lena is no longer just the cheerful teenager serving as the military overseer. She is a hardened, tested and grounded young woman who takes her job seriously, and who will eventually become the woman known as Bloody Reina.
It is a story beat done before, but Eighty-Six is able to do so without making the pitfalls that often happen. Lena may be ignorant and naïve, but thankfully the show doesn’t make her do stupid things. She doesn’t rush out to the battlefield to meet her soldiers, or throw herself into harms way to make her share the pain, or make some vain vapid gesture to try and connect with them. Lena has to eat her words yes and the takedowns given to her by the Eighty-Six are well deserved, but the show wisely keeps her where she needs to be, having to see the violence unfold through a computer screen and solidifying the gap between the two worlds. Try as she might, as good as her intentions are, as kind as a person as she is. Lena will never truly understand the plight of Shin and the other members of Spearhead Squadron. It all could have gone so wrong, but by not falling into those traps, Eighty-Six is able to make the most of it. As for everything else, it is all above grade. The animation, action, music and character designs are all excellent. The story teases enough of a bigger world without getting bogged down in worldbuilding. We get just enough of the other characters without taking focus away from Lena’s story, and it delivers on all the important moments just right.
Eighty-Six is a good show, and this first cour does everything it should to not make the mistakes other anime might have done. It is nothing special, I’ll be the first to admit that. We will absolutely see another version of this show in the future, but for now, this is good science fiction and a great war anime. Probably not anime of the year, but absolutely on any ‘best of’ list for 2021. I enjoyed my time with this show, and I deeply admire at how well it works. If you are hungry for a mecha anime that handles itself well, then you should give this show a look. Perhaps you’ll end up thinking the same way I do.