Here’s a little story about the term “86” that I looked up after the title of this series piqued my interest: back in the 30s during prohibition there was a speakeasy on 86 Bedford Street in NYC, and when the cops arrived, its patrons would “86”—quickly flee—from the premises using various hidden exits. Since then, 86ing has also developed as a term to reject, discard, or cancel—86ing an idea, and such.
The second and now more common definition applies to the eponymous military unit of discarded humans in the 86th District of the Republic of San Magnolia. Despite national propaganda in the other districts that assures the public that war is now fought by bloodless drones, that’s just a lie: the 86 are very much flesh-and-blood, and they’re dying for a nation that doesn’t know they exist.
The 86 units are led by Processors, who answer to Handlers operating from the safety of San Magnolia’s luxurious military HQ. Major Vladilena Mirizé is one such Handler—and also one of the only ones with a conscience and who feels the weight of the lives at her fingertips. Much of HQ is a den of hedonism, with drunk and carousing Handlers either unaware their decisions cost human lives, or worse: they’re well aware and don’t care.
Lena cares, however. She tries to keep an open and cordial dialogue with her Processors on the battlefield, who thank her sarcastically. In between operations, she hangs out with her researcher friend Annette, who like Lena is following in her late father’s footsteps. One day, Lena is reassigned by her commanding general, who is also her uncle, to command of Defense Line 1 in Eastern Defense Line Combat District 1, AKA the Spearhead Squadron.
Warning his niece—the youngest person ever to rise to the rank of Major—that feigning modesty will make unwanted enemies, the General also informs her that the Processor who leads Spearhead is called Undertaker, AKA Reaper, which is notorious for destroying Handlers, either by forcing them to retire or change units or, in some cases, commit suicide. Lena, insistent she’s no coward, takes the assignment, but not without a generous helping of dread.
From there the perspective shifts to Processor Shin and the 86, of whom we caught a brief glimpse prior to the title card, fighting a battle that was a chaotic storm of smoke, metal, fire, and blood. But during their downtime, the unit of “grizzled veterans” is nothing more than a bunch of kids. Iron-blooded orphans, if you will, seeking fun and joy and love where they can, but also carrying the scars of their ordeal and their lot in life on their sleeves.
The 86 are mustered for a sortie, and one of them ends up seriously injured inside his spider-like mecha. There are no medics, but Shin the “Reaper” puts his comrade out of his misery with a single bullet, cutting a scrap of metal out of the mecha and later carving his name on it—a grim ritual for a leader tortured by loss and the futility of their shared struggle.
That night after dinner when the 86ers are cleaning up and preparing to go down for the night, Shin and the others receive a message in their ears from their new Handler, Major Vladilena Mirizé, cheerfully introducing herself and looking forward to working with them. Shin answers cordially, while one of his soldiers sketches a caricature of the woman he hears: an aristocratic pig in a frilly dress.
It is in this horrifically unbalanced world of haves, have-nots, and One Big Lie that a young man and young woman from different sides are introduced. Will the rumored “voices of the dead” that caused Lena’s predecessors to go mad have a different effect on her, due to her commitment to regarding the 86 as actual living, breathing people?
Will Lena, in turn, show the perennially abused and oppressed child soldiers that not all Handlers are sadistic scum who deserve a fate worse than death? Follow the visually impressive and thematically compelling 86 along with me, and ye shall find out.