Rating: 4.5 (of 5)
After yet another week off, 86 is back to remind us once again why it is, at worst, one of the year’s best series. And it does so despite dodging the one opportunity it had for an action scene by only showing the aftermath.
Avoiding animating the skirmish was not a cost-cutting measure, however. The writing had enough other territory to cover here, so it does not need what would have amounted to a filler battle at this point. (Still, seeing a little more action here would have been cool.) Besides, this episode is a very direct adaptation of pages 131-164 of the third novel, down even to exactly duplicating a lot of the dialog, and a description of the skirmish was skipped in the novel, too. Really, a more faithful adaptation of the source material could not possibly be expected at this point.
And it’s not like the episode is just killing time. Shin’s behavior has been reckless in battle of late, and he absolutely needs to be called out for it. Raiden – who is his longest-standing companion – gets the first opportunity, but his “we’re in this together” tack is simply not resonating with Shin at this point. Though he leads the 86s, and though they look to him as a companion and put their faith in him as their personal Reaper, he is not on the same mental track at them, a reality that the visuals reinforce with the background images first of a track behind Shin which curves away from the straight track behind Raiden and then with an image of parallel straight tracks when Raiden tries to insist that they should not separate. The visuals further the metaphor by showing a track behind Shin with a stop marker on it, while Raiden’s track doesn’t have one; this is a not-so-subtle indicator of what each sees as possibilities ahead of them. The way the focus on the tracks shifts in and out also serves to emphasize these metaphors.
The person who can most get through to Shin is, perhaps not surprisingly, Frederica, and she gets her chance during a night camp towards the end of the episode. Her special vision has given her an understanding of things far beyond her years, enough to know that her sense of not having a future – of the world probably being better off without her (and that isn’t just depression talking, given the potential her existence offers as a rallying point for remaining imperialists) – is closer to Shin’s own lack of purpose than any of the others can manage. Each of the other 86s would probably function fine in civilian life if they had to, but what place is there for Shin? What goal does he have to pursue? Even dealing with Kiriya is just a substitute, as he admits himself. He can get manic in battle because he has nothing else, and as Frederica so indelicately puts it in the episode’s one light-hearted sequence, even romantic interest from a comrade like Kurena isn’t enough since he doesn’t see her that way. In another stark visual metaphor, he is even shown standing apart from the others as they all look out over the “sea.” Unlike the others, Frederica fully understands this, both from her own circumstances and from what she saw happen to Kiriya, and her presence in the story allows him to articulate it.
But even though Frederica understands Shin and can get him to talk about the heart of the matter, she cannot save him. Only one person can do that, and all signs are pointing to that person not being alive anymore, a reality that the 86s themselves are well aware of.
The characters in the backfield have not been entirely forgotten about in all of this. They get enough screen time to explain the strategy being used to set up the 86s’ final push at the Morpho and the back-up that will be in place for them should the opportunity for support arrive. In other words, those scenes are a reinforcement of something that Raiden later points out: as dire a situation as they are heading into, at least this time they do have people working with them, instead of just wanting to see them disposed of. The visual metaphor of the downed butterfly being swarmed by ants is also an interesting choice here; if the butterfly is meant to be a reference to the Morpho, then the ants are the Reginleifs, perhaps?
With more stable and consistent visuals supporting the writing and the full array of symbolism at hand, this episode serves well as the final downtime before the season’s climax. I am very interested to see where the penultimate episode ends, as I feel that what’s left would play out best as a double-episode. Regardless of how that’s handled, however, I cannot imagine anime-only viewers being disappointed by their upcoming Christmas treat.