86 – 18 – A Bat Into Hell

There was no new episode of 86 last week, nor will a new episode air next week. Instead, this eighteenth episode whets our appetite for the final desperate struggle of an alliance of human nations to defeat the apocalyptic Legion the Empire of Giad created. It starts out pretty subdued, with a pair of conversations, once again underscoring the unfortunate production issues apparently plaguing the show just as it nears the home stretch.

Ernst wants the commander’s promise he’s not sending the Eighty-Six to their potential deaths simply because he said they were too dangerous to keep around to begin with. In this particular case, it’s more that they have no one better for a mission that must succeed, or everyone dies. We also learn that Wenzel, who lost someone dear in the war (a spouse, perhaps), isn’t ready to give up on the kids living normal lives after surviving this.

Part of surviving means having the best equipment available, and both Wenzel and her boss know the slow military helicopters won’t get the job done. Instead, she requests and is granted access to an old prototype ground-effect vehicle or ekranoplan, one of the strangest and most nerdy of aerospace inventions.

I believe this is the first time I’ve seen one of these contraptions depicted in anime (if anyone knows of another, shout it out in the comments), but the long, foreboding journey through darkness into its hangar feels like Wenzel and the Nordlicht are descending into a dungeon to wake a dragon that may either help or kill them. It’s also named after a Giadian legend of yore: Nachzehrer, a vampire that drags its shadow along the ground.

Ekranoplan or no ekranoplan, Frederica wants to know what the plan is for getting out of enemy territory if and when they destroy Morpho. Everyone loos around until Shin says getting home alive is secondary to destroying the target and saving human civilization as they know it.

That’s not enough for Frederica, who refuses to return to the rear lines and has a “tantrum” in her room. Shin visits her, and is not particularly sympathetic, saying he’s not her knight, and even expressing doubt she wants him to kill her old one. Frederica hits back that she simply doesn’t want Shin going down the same path as Kiri. She doesn’t want to lose another brother.

But Frederica doesn’t convince Shin not to go, and probably never would have succeeded. He and the other four Eighty-Six might only be doing this for their own pride and because they known nothing else but being bloody swords on the battlefield, but in this case there is literally no alternative; the enemy isn’t someone that can be surrendered to or asked for quarter.

Ernst, donning his army uniform and taking command of the operation, gives the Eighty-Six a pep talk, telling them no one in Giad wants them to die, and that their most important mission is to come back alive. It’s at this point I was almost ready to say “Hey, he’s not such a bad guy after all”…but then the lighting changes, his smile vanishes, and he adds that if they don’t come back alive, he’lls “destroy this world.” So yeah…still evil.

Regardless, Ernst gives a stirring speech to rally the troops as the clock counts down to zero. The always-on point Sawano Hiroyuki score swells, the diversionary forces successfully clear a path,  Wenzel hits the throttle, and the bat-shaped Nachzehrer blasts out of its hanger like, well, a bat out of hell.

Only they’re actually heading into hell. Regal Lily’s “Alchemila” hits different when the sounds of weaponry the diversionary units holding their ground and being massacred mixed in. This heartens the Eighty-Six, as the soldiers of their adopted nation aren’t turning tail and fleeing like the drunk and arrogant San Magnolians almost certainly would. They’re not giving up, so they can’t let them down.

Ernst’s under-his-breath threat aside (does the blue light hint that he’s somehow secretly controlling the Legion?) this battle really is for all the marbles. As the voices of the damned fill Shin’s head and a smirk grows on his face, will he be able to keep his and lead Raiden, Anju, Kurena, Theo, and Giad to victory?

Unfortunately we’ll have to wait at least two weeks to find out. But I’m not bitter over the lack of an episode last week or next. I’m just happy we got this one, and all things considered, it ruled pretty damn hard.

86 – 17 – A Certain Apocalyptic Railgun

The episode begins at San Magnolia’s darkest and most desperate hour. While most of the military forces are presumably turning tail along with the civilians, Lena is standing her ground and commanding what forces she can bring to bear against an overwhelmingly superior Legion force.

While the usual blue lights of her sterile remote command station have been replaced by red flames and burning embers, Lena does not shrink from her duty. There’s an explosion quite close to her position, but scene ends without irrefutable proof she comes out of this either alive, dead…or turned into a Legion.

Meanwhlie, four large Federacy bases were attacked in sequence, resulting in the loss of 20,000 troops, or over a quarter of their forces. The culprit is an ultra-long-range (over 400km) train-mounted railgun code-named Morpho (presumably after the butterfly genus). Shin & Co. are lucky; their base takes an indirect hit.

Morpho is damaged by a concerted attack by three nations whose names don’t rhyme with Man Sagnolia, and it’s believed that repairs will take eight weeks. That’s how long humanity has to take Morpho out, because once it’s back online it can use the continental high speed rail system to hit any capital it wants.

Ergo, in eight weeks, It’s All Over. Giad, Roa Gracia, and Wald all commit to doing whatever it takes to destroy Morpho before that happens. But with the losses they’ve sustained and the multiple battle fronts they must maintain, and untouched Legion factories working at full capacity, eight or eighty weeks might not make any difference.

Additionally, even the combined air forces of the three nations simply don’t have the firepower or range to do anything about Morpho, which means the only possible way to take it out is with a ground assault…over 100km into Legion territory.

Suddenly backed into a wall, Giad no longer has the luxury of keeping the Eighty-Six out of the fighting (if they wanted out; they of course don’t). I doubt any of the five of them are the slightest bit surprised it’s come to this. Could Giad have had more options now had they taken Shin’s warnings about the Legion seriously?

Perhaps, but the sheer scale and scope of their utter hosedness means any positive benefit probably wouldn’t have been enough. The Eighty-Six remark how Giad has a well-trained military, who are holding together in spite of the dire situation—unlike San Magnolia, which they imagine would fold like a bad poker hand).

But Giad has no one in their military as good at doing This Kind of Thing as the Eighty-Six and Lt. Shinei Nouzen. When brought before the general and told to point out where the Legion currently are on a map, Shin obeys, officially confirming his psychic powers. Lt. Col. Wenzel goes to bat for Shin and his comrades, yelling on his behalf about how unfair this is.

But the general, and indeed the entire Federacy’s hands are tied. In this situation, the Eighty-Six are all they’ve got. Were they to send their own forces into such a mission, not only would it definitely be suicide, but it would undermine what little morale remains in the military. They can’t afford that kind of storm of resentment that could lead to widespread mutiny and chaos, even in a force as disciplined as Giad’s.

On the ride back to base, Wenzel tells Shin that it’s not too late to back out of this, and even if he does participate and emerge victorious, he should quit the military immediately after. Shin doesn’t want to hear it. The one thing he and no other Eighty-Six wants is anyone’s pity, especially if that pity and vanity is being used to dictate how they should live their lives.

If Shin and the others are monsters, they’d rather remain monsters than become something else, for as young as they are, it’s too late to be anything else. They learned that well enough during their “honeymoon” period in the Giad capital, trying to live “normal” lives.

With the voices of all the Eighty-Six he mercy-killed as well as the Major always in his head, Shin will never, ever let someone fight or die in his place, they way the Republic did with him and his friends. Oh, and did I mention lil’ Lena has been sending Shin searing hate mail with her cutesy kid stationary for killing her brother? Yeah…that’s happening too.

Not surprisingly, Raiden, Anju, Theo and Kurena feel the same way as Shin: If they run, they’ll be no different from the white pigs. While the rest of Nordlicht squadron skulks out of the ready room after the briefing, the five Eighty-Six basically shrug it off as Just Another Job, and then laugh and joke on their way to dinner.

This newest development is simply nothing new for them. They’ve been sent on suicide missions their whole lives. Nothing to be done here but wait for zero hour, strap into their Juggernauts, and get to work. Only this time, at least, it’s for the sake of a country that might just be worth saving.

That same day, September 2, we see the aftermath of the Legion assault on the capital of San Magnolia, which is a smoking, crumbling ruin devoid of life, as well as one big obvious metaphor for the cost of hubris. The final gut-wrenching shot is one we’ve seen dozens of times throughout 86’s run: that of Lena’s bedchamber.

The glass box containing the little drawings of the Eighty-Six lost under her command remains on the windowsill, but that’s not necessarily a sure sign that she’s dead somewhere in the city. More concerning is the fact Shin had a brief encounter with her in his visions.

Still, the show is officially being coy about her fate, and I for one am holding out hope that she and her sciencey frenemy are still breathing out there somewhere…and maybe, just maybe she and Shin will finally meet in person someday, when all this Legion unpleasantness is over.

86 – 16 – A Child’s Right to Dream

Hours before Giad’s command structure realizes the full extent of the Legion assault not just on the Federacy, but on the three other major powers, and fully mobilizes its forces, Shinei snatches Raiden’s pillow. It’s time to go to work. He gave Giad all the warnings he could to make their situation more tenable, but now it’s up to Nordlicht squadron to shore up the front lines.

Giad’s woefully inadequate defenses fold like a cheap plug suit before the sheer volume of Legion hardware brought to bear against them. The fleeting beauty of their glittering forms rising over the horizon gives way to carnage, fire, twisted metal, and blood. In other words, where Shin, Raiden, Kurena and Anju feel most at home…as awful as that is.

Despite being outnumbered hundreds-to-one, the four of them do what they do best and lay waste to the Legion, who don’t really have any tactics beyond “run straight at the enemy and kill”. They’re mechanized zombies, after all. Back at base, Frederica wishes she could be with Shin and the others, then wishes even more when she detects Shin…starting to lose it.

Shin wears an unsettling smirk in his eerily-lit cockpit as he goes totally bonkers berserk against any and all Legion in his path. He resembles more a ravenous beast killing for sport, not an elite soldier carrying out his duty. This is exactly what happened to Frederica’s knight, Kiri: he went too far, in his case trying to protect her, and completely lost himself.

Fortunately, apocalypse is postponed, as the Giad lines behind Nordlicht get their shit together, and the Legion withdraw. Immediately upon Shin’s return to base, Frederica is knocking on his cockpit, demanding he come out so she can berate him for being so foolish, then cry into his chest. This battle was a little too much for this child who carries such a heavy weight.

Meanwhile, in San Magnolia, three days earlier, apocalypse is looking a little more imminent, as military HQ is still an utterly ineffectual bacchanalian. Only Lena knows and cares about their impending doom, and prepares to mobilize all Processors, even pull them into the forbidden 85 Districts. General Karlstahl tries to stop her, saying if the Eighty-Six won’t fight the Legion for the Republic, and if they enter the districts, it will only hasten the rebellion that’s been a longg time coming.

Lena convinces Karlstahl to let her have her way, as he tells her the time has finally come for her childish, naïve dreams to shatter against hard, cold reality. He also intends to do what he wants, taking up a rifle and resolving to have her back until that shattering time comes. Lena, AKA Bloody Regina, rouses all Eighty-Six troops at once and orders them to battle. Like her Spearhead friends she’s convinced are dead, she’s going to go out fighting—for herself, and for them.

Roll credits and that sad, beautiful ending theme, and 86isn’t done torturing its characters, or us. Frederica reports to Shin & Co. that her Kiri, whom she can sense just as Shin could sense Kiriya, attacked the republic and entered the 85 Districts. As for his present whereabouts, that’s quickly answered when we see a flash of him saying he’ll kill Shin, and then the room where they’re in filling with a terrible light…perhaps the light of that dream-shattering reality Karlstahl mentioned.

86 – 15 – Tines Falling from a Comb

Shinei’s cordial, by-the-book adjutant is giving him a  report in the hallway of their base when a half-dressed Frederica half-sleepwalks right into Shin and calls him “Kiri”, short for Kiriya, her knight who she believes became a Legion because of her. Once she’s fully awake she’s mortified; a proper lady should never find herself in such a situation.

Of course, when we later learn she’s running around the barracks doing all the odd jobs the soldiers have no time to do, it tracks that she’d be exhausted. Meanwhile, the old Spearhead gang is back, but aside from some momentary cheeriness from Kurena, it’s a particularly dour affair. Frederica chalks it up to them getting worn down by their roles as lackeys of the army.

The start of the episode was the least interesting, with their unit commander Colonel Wenzel trying to make the strategic case for putting the 86 to “proper” use in her new prototype Reginsleifs. She seemingly gets her wish on the eve of a forecasted large-scale Legion attack that Shin knows is far, far larger than the conscientious federacy’s analysts predict.

After the briefing, Shin returns to his quarters to find Frederica there. He prepares coffee as she criticizes how empty his quarters are, comparing them unfavorably to those of Eugene, which she cleaned out after he died. Shin tells her she could have spared herself some pain by never getting to know Eugene, but Frederica doesn’t roll like that.

Some of Misaki Kuno’s best voice work is done as Frederica regales Shinei with the story of the siege that ended the empire, and Kiri’s fall as well. Even so, to her it’s always better to meet, know, love, and remember. If freeing Kiri of the Legion means losing Shinei or anyone else, she won’t have it.

Those connections are what make life living for most people, but Shinei has been living without a single thought about his future for so long, he’s never properly grasped that…until perhaps he met Lena and now Frederica. Just as the Shinei’s resemblance to Kiriya was a catalyst for her getting close to him, Frederica is like a subsitute Lena for Shinei right now, trying to keep him aware of the things in life other than war.

Frederica tells Shinei like Lena did to start thinking about his future; even if it’s just his next leave, that’s a start. As for Raiden, he’s a bit irked that Shinei unilaterally revealed to the military that he can hear the voices of the Legion, something they all agreed to keep secret lest it make things unpleasant for all of them.

Raiden and Shinei don’t feel like friends here, because they’re really more like brothers. Strained brothers, due to Shinei being his usual mostly opaque self and Raiden actually starting to think about a future himself. He’s worried for Shinei like a brother too, not due to the coming Legion threat, but becaue the Giadians are “no saints”.

The credits end with the first Lena sighting in what seems like forever. Whether this harkens a Lena-centric (or even half-Lena) episode next week obviously remains to be seen, but it’s clear the calm before the next coming storm is just about over.

86 – 14 – Northern Lights

We rejoin Shin as he’s in the midst of officer training where he’s paired with Eugene. Two of their comrades almost crash into him, so he jumps and backflips out of the way. It’s cool as hell, and it did save the mech, but the drill sergeant still gives him a zero score. It hardly matters; Shin, like the other former Eighty-Six, are shoo-ins for the next officer class.

Lt. Colonel Grethe Wenzel, commander of the 1028th Test Unit, Nordlicht (Northern Lights) squadron, introduces herself by taking them to the now silent battlefield where they were found. It had been under Legion control, but Giad won it back, and built a memorial to the fallen, including a wall of granite engraved with all 575 of the names they found in the toolbox.

Shin and the others must feel odd, seeing the wreckage of their machines of war encased in a jeweled glass and iron gazebo. They loosen up a little more when Frederica presents a resurrected and better-than-ever Fido, who immediately demonstrates that he is indeed the original Fido by recognizing Shin and running around him like a four-ton excited metal puppy.

The third and final “gift” presented to Shin is his pistol—the scythe of the proverbial grim reaper. Ernst can’t very much keep it out of Shin’s hands now that he’s officially an officer in the Giadian military. That the gun is presented by Frederica, who announces she’s officially Nordlicht’s “mascot” (an old Giadian tradition) and will be accompanying them on their tour.

Time passes, and as elite battle-hardened veterans of the war with the Legion, there is absolutely no shortage of work for Shin and the others. So much so that Nordlict has to be split up in order to answer all the calls for their tactical assistance. Eugene just happens to be in a unit that calls for their help, and he is a second or two from being obliterated by a Legion tank when Shin swoops in aboard his new state-of-the-art rig and mows the Legion down.

Despite singlehandedly saving dozens if not hundreds of soldiers, they still regard him with disdain and even suspicion, as with all his superiors dying he’s now the commander of an entire battalion. Despite others warning him to stay away, Eugene has lunch with Shin and Frederica, so he can toss all manner of death flags out.

This sequence could have come off as cliché, but I cared enough about Eugene and his adorable sister that when there’s a smash cut from him saying goodbye to Shin to that same hand holding the locket lying bloodied, it hits hard, in true unblinking 86 fashion. Then we learn that arm isn’t even attached to Eugene anymore.

The last two weeks were hardly all about Shin and Eugene bonding as comrades, and yet his arrival and sudden departure from Shin’s life echoes what has happened 575 times already. The grim repetition of war rears its ugly head, and Shin is already sending off Number 576.

When another soldier uses “86” as a racial slur, his commanding officer scolds him, apologizes to Shin, and tells him he still has a chance to leave the military and “live a happier life.” Giad, after all, doesn’t force children to fight.

Shin waves off the offer as if it was never given. Never mind that with the war going as badly as it is, Giad needs Shin more than he needs them. Shin has his own reasons for staying on the battlefield. Among them may be an utter visceral inability to not inhabit the battlefield as long as it exists.

Even so, there’s a distinct Hello darkness my old friend look to Shin as he hesitates for a moment after Frederica asks if he’s “okay”. It’s not that he’s lying about being “okay”. It’s that he’s never really known “okay.”

86 – 13 – Tired of Resting

In a wonderful, succinct yet detailed montage, we see that the surviving members of Spearhead have settled into normal life in the Giad Federacy.

Raiden got a job with a moving company and made some buds; Theo draws his surroundings and gains praise from passersby; Kurena frequents the shops and boutiques, Anju takes up cooking classes, and Shin studies up in the library. There he meets Eugene Rantz and his little sister Nina, who has befriended Frederica.

After their horrible ordeal getting to the Federacy, followed by the roller coaster of being confined to a facility until being adopted by Zimmerman, the five former child soldiers have certainly earned some peace and respite.

But while they’re living in peace, they’re still not at peace. There’s a restlessness lurking behind their mundane days in Giad. These are kids who never considered what their futures might be, suddenly being given the opportunity to choose whatever futures they want.

But especially for Shin, it’s a false choice. At least his immediate future seems to be returning to the battlefield, for many reasons, not the least of which is freeing all of his colleagues whose souls remain at the mercy of the Legion. They call to him in his dreams, but when he raises the pistol he used to end their lives and spare them further torment, his hand is empty; Ernst returned his scarf, but not his pistol.

Shins new friend Eugene is poor, and in order to provide for and protect Nina, he’s enlisting in the service. The military is lauded in Giad the same as San Magnolia, and Eugene is eager to see the new mechs in the Christmas Eve military parade.

In a wonderful piece of cinematography, Shin looks down at The Skull Knight book, then looks up, and we see laundry flowing behind him through the window, emulating the knight’s cape. There is no pageantry to the military for Shin or the others; only necessity, purpose, pride, and obligation.

After each of them witness the military parade and are each quite put off by the pageantry, it’s Kurena who firsts breaks the dam of complacency. She’s seen and heard enough of this “peace,” and now it’s time to return to where she belongs: the battlefield. The other four quickly concur, glad someone was able to finally vocalize that they’ve all simply spent to much time “resting.”

Ernst objects to their sudden decision, but there’s nothing sudden about it, the five have said from the beginning that this is they always intended. And we the audience can play the concerned parent figure like Ernst and say that they only feel that is all they can do because it’s all they’ve done, and because the Republic and the Legion took everything else.

It’s the precocious Frederica, exhibiting surprising maturity and clarity, who tells Ernst that if he keeps these kids from doing what they want to do he’d be no different than the Republic. She also decides to reveal that she is the last surviving Empress of Giad and carries the responsibility for unleashing the Legion in the first place.

The thing is, that was ten years ago when she was even wee-er than she is now, so Shin and the others don’t hold it against her. It was really the Republic that took everything from them. Ernst grudgingly agrees to allow the five to do as they please, but only if they enter officer training, so that they’ll have more options when the war is over.

Of course, none of them were thinking about that possibility, even though he says it’s a certainty that the war will end. As for Frederica, she’s determined to join them, that they might help her find and put to rest her valliant Knight Kiriya, who was taken by the Legion just like Shin’s brother.

Lena takes the week off, and that’s a boon here in terms of portraying Shin, Anju, Kurena, Raiden and Theo’s transition from acceptance of their new lives to the realization that here, for once, they can choose what to do and where to go, and a mundane peaceful life in the Giadian capital just isnt’ their scene.

Whether next week focuses solely on Lena or is another split episode of the kind the last cour did so well, I’m simultaneously happy and terribly worried for our Eighty-Six. Part of me wishes they would just stay in that capital and live quiet peaceful lives…but that’s not up to me, or anyone else but them.

86 – 12 (S2 E01) – New Home, New Hope

86 is back…and there are some changes. San Magnolia’s awful system hasn’t changed, and Lena is still stuck in it (for now), but she’s adjusted the way she operates within it. Demoted to captain, she wears a streak of blood red in her hair and wears a black uniform to set herself apart from her drunken peers. She has a new squadron of Eighty-Six led by Iida Shiden, AKA Cyclops.

She handles them as she handled Shin’s squad; with as much compassion and care as she can. She learned their names from the start and has built a good rapport with Cyclops, who calls her “My Queen”. Most importantly, Lena is doing what she promised Shin and the others she would do: live on; survive. For her, that means preparing for the massive Legion offensive she senses is coming, even if her superiors are doing nothing.

Lena is maintaining and biding her time. As for her old friends Shin, Raiden, Anju, Kurena, and Theo? Amazingly, they’re all still alive, which is tremendous news. 86 really ripped my heart out, but it went a long way towards repairing that emotional damage by bringing them back without it feeling contrived or out of left field. Shin and the others are now honored guests of Giad, which is no longer the empire that created the Legion, but a diverse inclusive federacy.

That said, they should consider themselves lucky Giad’s President Ernst Zimmerman is, at least on the surface, a man of conscience and compassion, who wants only to give these found children, cast out of their homeland after fighting so long and hard, a measure of peace. Of course, Zimmerman is also a politician, and while I don’t know what his ultimate plan for the five is, I’m certain there is a plan, and his smiles and politeness are probably hiding darker intentions.

That said, it’s hard to argue that Giad is far better adjusted nation than San Magnolia, what with there not being apartheid and battlefield slavery of non-Alba citizens. Alba and non-Alba share the same streets and have families together. Zimmerman also wants his five new guests to be as comfortable as possible, and so arranges for them to live in his presidential mansion. That mansion also happens to be occupied by a haughty little spitfire of a girl named Frederica Rosenfort (Kuno Misaki).

Her hair and eye color suggest some kind of connection to Shin, while it’s clear Zimmerman is hiding the fact she is the last surviving Giadian Empress from the general public; officially, she’s his adopted daughter, as are Shin and the others. You can tell after their ordeal the five are simply tired, but they also look uncomfortable and awkward in such plush surroundings.

Between their new situation and Lena’s maintaining, there’s going to be a lot of adjusting and adapting in store for them. The new OP also indicates it’s only a matter of time before the five are back in the cockpits of war machines, but the president is right about one thing: that’s probably where they want to be because it’s all they know.

Giad is battling the Legion the same as San Magnolia. It’s obvious that if the two nations worked together, and San Magnolia, say, was run by Lena and not opportunists and drunks, that nation would be far better off. Shin & Co. certainly seem better off, while Lena has at developed a thicker armor.  We’ll see if it all pays off.