WARNING: The following contains spoilers for 86-Eighty-Six Episode 1, “Undertaker,” now streaming on Crunchyroll.
Based on the acclaimed and ongoing light novel series by Asato Asato, the 86-Eighty-Six anime begins by introducing its two different protagonists and a nation at war filled with racial and class discrimination. It's a tale of naive idealism vs. blunt realism as Vladilena “Lena” Milize and Shinei “Shin” Nouzen soon find their paths cross.
Lena is a Major in the Republic of San Magnolia's Army, the youngest ever promoted to that rank. Raised in a life of comfort and privilege, she is nonetheless earnest and passionately dedicated to her job of helping the nation's war efforts. However, her idealistic nature is completely at odds with the world around her as she slowly learns about her colleagues' horrific contempt for the soldiers they command.
The Republic of San Magnolia has long been at war with the Empire of Giad and their autonomous mecha machines called “Legions.” In response to this advanced technology, the Republic created their own mechas called “Juggernauts” and claim they are unmanned drones that help minimize war casualties – but this is a lie.
The Republic is made up of 86 districts, with 85 of them largely free from the consequences of war. Aside from having to eat artificial foods, 85 districts live lives of peace and astonishing ignorance. The 86th district, however, is inhabited by a race called the Colorata. They once enjoyed the same equal rights as the other districts but were eventually persecuted for their skin color by a racist government and forced to pilot the Juggernauts on the battlefield until they die. In the present day, the 86 aren't even considered human by most citizens, nor by their own faraway commanders (known as “Handlers”) in the military. When they die in battle, the media still reports no causalities since, to them, the 86 are not human.
Lena is one of the few Republic citizens who sympathize with the 86's plight and wants to aid them however she can. Unfortunately, many of her colleagues aren't taking the war seriously, instead of getting a sick pleasure in commanding the 86 to their deaths. Even the few who understand Lena's position believe any meaningful societal change is impossible.
However, there's an elite group of 86 soldiers known as the Spearhead Squadron who have driven multiple Handlers mad, with more than one commander even committing suicide. This Squadron is led by Captain Shinei Nouzen, a talented Juggernaut pilot known as “The Reaper” for his wild yet effective battlefield tactics – and a supposed ability to hear voices of the dead. After yet another Handler quits his position, Lena is given command of the Spearhead Squadron. The two protagonists connect for the first time, but only by voice. The soldiers live on their own near the edge of the battlefield, communicating with their Handlers through a neck-based device called the Para-raid. This device connects its users' voices, but also their sensory data – hence why some Handlers have been driven insane.
The 86-Eighty-Six premiere isn't all doom and gloom though. Importantly, it reminds viewers of its characters' general age bracket through select heartwarming moments. Lena's perky, upbeat nature comes through in her care for the 86 – but also her love of eggs and milk. The 86, meanwhile, deride the Republic's citizens but still make the most of their awful situation. When not battling the Legion, they enjoy cooking, joking at each other's expense, and even take care of a stray cat.
The 86 take their war efforts seriously, but they don't fight for the Republic's – or in their words, the “white pigs” – sake. Rather, war is all they know, so they fight for each other and try to survive to see another day. Whether Lena can make any significant improvement to their lives is unknown, but for now, they must all navigate a war effort in which enemies are both on the outside and inside.