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 – 04 – Your Names.

After Theo lays into Lena for her hypocrisy, Raiden asks that she cut the connection for now. While Theo went too far, no one is in the mood for another “friendly chat” with her. Theo ends up regretting his rant for “tainting” Kaie’s death, making him no different from the white pigs.

After Anju, Kurena and Rekka grab Theo and mend his jacket button, he heads to the hangar to ask Shin what the “Fox commander” would have said to the Handler, a white pig who thinks she’s a saint for getting all buddy-buddy with them. As he secures a scrap of Kaie’s Juggernaut, Shin simply says the commander wouldn’t have said that.

While Theo’s comrades help him to process his grief and rage, all Lena’s “best friend” Annette has for her is pudding and platitudes. I’m not here to say Annette is a coward or a monster—it’s not that simple—but she is an unapologetic cog in a monstrous machine, believes there’s “nothing she can do” to change that, and strongly suggests Lena give up on the 86, and join her at the lab.

It also seems like her patience with Lena’s idealism is wearing thin. Even if she’s not a true believer and sees the injustice in their world, she resents Lena’s continued insistence the worlds can and should be bridged. “There’s pudding here, and not there” is as chillingly banal a defense of slavery ethnic cleansing as I’ve ever heard.

Not satisfied to eat away her pain, the evening light from the windows of HQ  calls to Lena’s mind a memory of riding with her father in a helicopter over the 86 concentration camps. She doesn’t remember much of what happened afterwards, but we can see the chopper was shot down and he tried to protect her from an attacking Legion mecha.

Lena tells her uncle about that memory, and how it allowed her to hold the ideals that the Republic threw away (as she says this, we see the statue of the gorgeous Wagnerian Valkyrie representing those ideals, while the fountain below is fouled with empty bottles and trash. 86’s visuals are rarely subtle, but they are damned effective!

Her uncle dispenses with the pudding analogies and tells Lena straight up that her father was a kind man and a good father, but at the end of the day he was doing nothing more than watching and talking about making it a better place. All he ended up achieving was getting himself killed and planting a potentially equally fatal seed of idealism in Lena. Her uncle probably wishes his niece wasn’t so intent on making those ideals real, as her father was, because the whole point of ideals are that they are unattainable, and trying to achieve the impossible is “foolish and cowardly.”

Still, she refuses to step down as Spearhead’s Handler. Her talks with Annette and her uncle leave her as frustrated as ever, and as she overhears another propaganda report on the public monitor, she hears Theo’s truer words over the reporter’s, reaches a breaking point, and initializes synchronization with Undertaker.

Lena runs to the War Casualties Cemetery, where not a single one of the 86 who have fallen has a grave. She begins by apologizing to Undertaker, then asking if she can learn the names of the members of Spearhead. Shin assures her that what Theo said wasn’t what they all thought, and they realize she didn’t create this world and can’t fix it on her own, so she doesn’t have to blame herself for “not doing the impossible”.

He continues by asserting that callsigns are used and Processor files locked so that Handlers won’t get too attached to them, or become overwhelmed by all the inevitable loss. But Lena doesn’t care; she doesn’t want to be a coward anymore. She asks again for their names, and writes them down as Shin gives them to her.

Then she hears him carving into the scrap of metal for Kaie, and he explains his duty of ensuring those who have been lost are remembered through the ritual, which is partly how he got the name “Undertaker”. He tells her Kaie was the 561st person for whom he’s carved a name, meaning he’s faced each and every one of the people who died beside him. Lena laments having never faced the deaths that occurred under her watch—only felt vaguely bad about them.

Lena then asks for Shin to broadcast her to everyone in the unit so she can apologize to them for not treating them as humans and not even realizing it. She learns from Theo that the previous Laughing Fox was an Alba like her. He was one of them, but as long as she’s inside the walls, they’ll never accept her as one of theirs. Raiden adds that while they’re sorry for thinking she was a “wannabie saint” and “hypocrite pig”, he still doesn’t think she’s cut out to be a Handler.

In a private chat with Shin later, Lena gets his name: Shinei Nouzen, and asks him if he knew a Shourei Nouzen, AKA Dullahan. Shin’s memories of Shourei (with his face scratched out) flood his head, leading him to crack an exceedingly rare smile as he tells her he was his brother.

Throughout all of this, we see the past structure of the series begin to break down, with far more cuts back and forth between Lena and Shin’s worlds. Now that she knows the real names of her unit, she’s rejected the cold complicity of her so-called best friend and jaded uncle.

They told her to extricate herself from this mess, but she decided to dive in deeper, and the more frequent cuts between the worlds is a sign of that fresh devotion to living a more honest life and not giving up on the ideals everyone else has. This episode lacked any battle action and was essentially a simple sequence of discussions.

Despite that, I was never once bored by the visuals that accompanied those talks, which more often than not were arresting both in the reality of the images presented and the interplay between them and the subject matter. I said last week Lena would have to do more to reconcile her ideals and actions, and she took the first steps here. A hard road lies ahead, but as her father’s daughter she’s determined to walk it. She’s had enough of pudding.

86 – 03 – The Bitter Truth

The third episode of Eighty Six begins ominously, with Lena apologizing for the loss of Kirschblüte, and another pilot looking ready to explode into a tirade. But before we hear that we’re sent back to happier times, with the female members of Spearhead bathing and having fun in the river

In a scenario typical of high school camping trip, three lads try to catch a glimpse of “heaven on earth”,  only the women they’re peeping on happen to be ready to switch from laughing and playing to having their weapons drawn and trained on them in no time.

During the bathing scene we learn that Kurena likes Shin, and is also jealous and angry that Shin is always talking with Handler One. When she storms off in the middle of a group chat with Lena, Daiya chases her down, and when she says she hates her and wants Shin to “break” her like the others, Daiya asks her if that’s really what she wants Shin to think she truly believes.

Kurena comes back to join the rest of the group, who are describing a recent meteor shower to Lena, who doesn’t get to see the stars due to the lights of the city. Kirschblüte, AKA Kaie, admits to Lena that she doesn’t believe all Alba are bad, just as not all Eighty Six are good. She just has one question for Lena.

Before we hear what Kaie’s question is, we go back a bit to before the conversation, this time in Lena’s world as she searches for maps to help her unit. While Spearhead are all gathered in the common room of their dingy makeshift barracks, Lena is all alone at her desk in her immaculate and ornate bedchamber. Even so, it feels like she’s remotely enjoying their company, reacting and laughing along with them.

That’s when Kaie asks: Why do you care about us so much? Lena answers: she was saved on the battlefield by a Processor, who told her they were members of the Republic, born and raised. For him it was an honor to serve that Republic. Since then, she’s made a point to live up to the example set by his words. Kaie first calls her an idealist virgin, then assures her she’s not a bad person, which is why she believes Lena isn’t cut out to be a Handler. She warns her not to get too involved with them.

Still, Lena has her code of honor, and she continues to follow it, making immediate use of the maps she found to aid Shin and Spearhead during their next engagement. Then it becomes clear we’re about to arrive at the foreboding moment in the cold open, as Kirschblüte ends up immobilized by an unexpected bog, where she becomes easy prey to a Legion unit.

Kaie’s last words are No. I don’t want to die, but what’s so haunting is how she says them. I’d describe her tone as…miffed? Frustrated, not panicked. It’s a harrowing, claustrophobic moment, and it’s heartwrenching to watch Lena squirm in her seat, forced to watch the inevitable unfold via sterile, abstract graphics on a glowing monitor, powerless to stop it.

The mission ends in success, but the loss of Kirschblüte hangs heavily on Lena’s conscience. But Theo, the pissed-off kid who unloads on her, doesn’t have time for her act. Not when he just lost his comrade. He makes it clear to her that not a single one of them has time to deal with her hypocrisy, sending them out to fight and die against their will from her warm safe place. Lena’s face contorts with reactions to his words, which are, by the way, absolutely correct.

Lena is a hypocrite. At the end of the day, she wears the uniform of a nation that treats the Eighty Six as inhuman chattel. Just because she’s nice to them doesn’t change that. Her empathy and good intentions aren’t enough to bridge the gap between them.

If she truly wants to live up to the ideals of the Processor who saved her, Major Vladilena Mirizé will have to reject them, because they were false. She can either let Theo’s harsh words break her, or she can hear them, accept them, and start to do more—much more—to fight against the intolerable injustice.

Rating: 4/5 Stars

86 – 02 – The Two Decisions

Aldrecht, Spearhead’s Juggernaut engineer and mechanic, scolds Shin once again for being so reckless with a piece of equipment for which there are no spare parts…except those from the Juggernauts of fallen soldiers. But relying on such parts isn’t a problem for someone with the callsign Undertaker, who has an entire chest full of names of the dead under his command.

In this 86th district where Shin and his comrades are stuck having to fight for an uncaring republic and oblivious public, the skies are blue and bright, and the grass and trees as green and lush as the other 85 districts of Magnolia, but all that matters is fighting the next battle and coming out of it in one piece.

No doubt used to taking the initiative due to incompetent or disinterested Handlers, Shin deploys Spearhead well before Lena gives the initial order to sortie, and establishes a different kill zone different from the one she chose. Lena trusts an elite processor’s instincts, and the battle commences as a cloud of tiny radar-jamming machines darken the sky.

They provide cover to a host of menacing, gleaming chrome Legion machines, a stark contrast to the rusty, old-fashioned, and very manned—Republic Juggernauts. Honestly I wouldn’t be surprised if there are people inside the Legion machines too, but I don’t think 86 is going in that particular direction.

Instead we get a bad-ass battle sequence scored by the Sawano Hiroyuki, whose reliably epic orchestral bombast calls to mind both greats like Attack on Titan and not-so-greats like Aldnoah.Zero. I’m on record as being down with anything for which this guy does the music; he always elevates it.

That said, the battle is more than awesome music. Despite being outnumbered, outgunned, and outteched, Shin and Spearhead prove to be a formidable match for the contingent of unfeeling autonomous machines. The battle is won without any casualties.

86 establishes its structural template of spending one half with Lena and half with Shin, only the reverse of the first episode. Lena’s half follows Shin’s, and we see how calm, quiet, and sterile her experience of the battle is compared to Shin and the other soldiers.

It’s also nice to see her exchange with Shin repeated so we can catch her facial expressions; particularly her reaction to her data transmission snafu she made. By not cutting back and forth between the two in real time, the distance between their experiences is amplified. Pressing the point that Lena’s experience is all theory and Shin’s is all practical, Lena pays a visit to a lecture hall at the academy.

Lena explicitly asked to address the future Handlers, and she starts by debunking many of the lies their professor was spouting. To her, the 86 are in fact human, even if they don’t have silver hair and blue eyes—the Alba clearly being an analogue to the “superior” Aryan race espoused by the Nazis.

Lena is confident her uncle will bail her out of any potential punishment for speaking the truth, but more troubling is that none of the youths seems to share her concerns, while Annette would clearly prefer her friend keep her head down. Lena is spitting in the wind.

She returns to her room and engages in enthusiastic conversation with Shin, and later his entire unit. Many of them still aren’t quite sure what to make of this Handler with a conscience, only that despite being the same age she seems hopelessly young and naïve.

Judging from some of their downcast expressions, it’s almost rubbing salt in the wound that she’s being so nice to them, considering she’s working for the system forcing them to fight and die while denying their status as human beings.

Still…Lena is nice, and kind, and wants to understand and help in any way she can. Just as her nation made the two decisions to create 85 districts for the Alba and one for the 86, she made two decisions as well: first, to be Spearhead’s Handler, and second, to treat them like human beings. She even hopes Shin reaches his combat term limit so he can regain his citizenship and get to do something or go somewhere fun.

I don’t know if Shin smirks because what she said genuinely raised his spirits, or if it’s a grim scoff, as if to say “would you listen to this kid?” All I know is he’s already more interesting than Inaho, and any dialogue with a Handler with ideals and morals must be a pleasant surprise in a world where most surprises aren’t.

86 – 01 (First Impressions) – There but for the Grace of God Go I

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.

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