86 episode 1
Rating: 4.5 (of 5)
86 is my most-anticipated new series of the Spring 2021 season, as I am current on the American release of the source novels (and have previously reviewed the first four volumes for ANN) and have felt ever since reading the first novel that the first story arc, at least, would adapt well into anime form. The first episode does not disappoint; in fact, I think it would have solidly hooked me, and compelled me to do episode reviews for it, even if I wasn’t familiar with the source material.
One thing should be understood up front: while this, on paper, a story about a pretty girl commanding a ragtag bunch in fighting off a mechanized invading Legion, the true focus of the story is racism, and – as the first episode amply shows – it takes this to such a severe degree that racism pervades just about every aspect of the first episode. It can be seen in the suspiciously homogenous look of the population of the Republic of San Magnolia, and how anyone who isn’t silver-haired and silver-eyed lives in a base every bit as decrepit as the capital city is seemingly-flawless. It can be heard in the news reports of no casualties suffered by supposedly-autonomous Juggernauts or how co-protagonist Lena is told not to report fatalities among the 86s (as minorities are collectively called) since they’re not counted as human. Lena also witnesses it in her lackadaisical fellow Handlers, who regard the 86s as “pigs” and beneath contempt, or the way the Handler featured in the opening scene laughs while commenting that he doesn’t expect his assigned squadron to survive. It even shows in the fact that the minorities live in the 86th district (hence their name) when we hear the Republic only has 85 districts. The 86s likewise regard the predominant race as “white pigs;” the picture of a pig in a dress that one of them draws upon first hearing Lena is a nice touch. And this isn’t even the worst of it; the Republic’s treatment of minorities is based at least in part on Nazi Germany’s treatment of minorities, so those sensitive about the Holocaust might want to avoid this one because of some upcoming content.
In this environment, Vladilena Milize is the youngest-ever Major in the Republic’s military, which directs combat units from afar using a device called Para-RAID. They are fighting off an invasion by autonomous Legion units, and based on the level of destruction shown in the later scenes, this has been going on for a while. (A later scene where Lena comments about eating mostly synthetic food also suggests that this has been a longer and more problematic war than the capital’s condition lets on, as is the fact that she is an officer at such a young age; no, this isn’t just an anime/LN affectation.) The belief exists that, for some reason, the Legion’s attacks will end in no more than two years, so the Republic’s military officers are not taking this seriously since it’s not their people (or really, people at all) dying. Lena is the exception; she cares about the 86s and doesn’t proscribe to the racism. How much the 86s care about that is another story; the tone of voice in the one she spoke to from her previous assigned squadron suggested her sympathy may be regarded derisively.
Meanwhile, at the 86’s forward base, everything is lively and more colorful, even it if is worn. However, that only stands as a stark contrast to the reality of the brutal combat situation they face. What little is shown of the action is active and savage, and having to put a badly-wounded soldier out of his misery, and then making a nameplate from the dead soldier’s machine to take along, hints at why the young man Shin is known as Undertaker. A mystery also remains at this point as to why he has been so difficult to work with that some previous Handlers have even committed suicide. What is Lena in for here as she takes her new assignment for the elite Spearhead Squadron?
Even if they are CG-heavy, the action scenes look sharp and suitably intense so far, and character designs (especially for Lena) are a further visual highlight. I also liked how they worked in a little bit of humor for Lena now, because opportunities for it are not going to be frequent going forward. There is a lot that the first episode does not explain which is explained in the novel by this point, but the adaptation so far is still doing an excellent job of conveying the look, feel, and intensity that this story will carry, including the dead expression on Shin’s face at the end. Frankly, I’m not sure how this first episode could have been done much better, and I eagerly anticipate seeing how the rest of this (most novel fans are assuming that the first story arc, which covers the first three volumes, will be animated for this season) will play out.