The exploration of discrimination and privilege as a theme and conflict isn’t new to stories, regardless of their forms and where they originate. Anime is no exception to that, but it has also been criticized in the past for its simplistic take. Saviors are commonly found in privileged groups, and those who are discriminatory are often portrayed as psychotic, evil, and basically the worst scum in existence.
86: Eighty-Six, however, takes one of the most nuanced dives into how privilege and discrimination form their society that I have ever seen, despite starting relatively black and white. In this fantasy world, “Albas,” silver-haired and silver-eyed people, are the privileged. They live in a technologically advanced city with a clean whiteness often associated with the rich. The others are simply dubbed as “86” — people with a variety of hair color, eye color, and skin tones that were forced into camps outside, not recognized as human citizens, and are drafted into units to fight battles against a relentless AI enemy army while all Alba command leaders remain safe within city limits and control their units through a computer screen. The Albas are bad, the 86 are good, perfect minorities, and Lena, the Alba protagonist, is the privileged savior.
Except it isn’t as simple as that at all. The anime’s takes on Lena, on the 86 residents, and on the Albas as a whole has continuously shown just how multifaceted privilege and discrimination are when it has become integrated into society.
Lena checks off all the marks of the “white savior” trope. She grows up privileged as an Alba, comes from a high-ranking family, is considered family by other high-ranking officials, and is notoriously righteous. She lectures other Albas for talking bad about the 86, and she constantly treats her 86 underlings with kindness through her communications. She mourns when one dies, and she cries as if she’s one of them.
Until all that gets thrown back into her face when she is assigned to the Spearhead unit. The 86 in the Spearhead unit initially treat her with fake niceties, but later mock her and become furious with her mindset that being “kind” to the other 86 members makes her one with the unit and “not like the other Albas.” She completely fails to see how her tone, her naivete, and her righteous lectures for the discriminated 86 unit members to be more responsible comes from a place of arrogance and privilege. To drive the issue home, Theo, one of the Spearhead unit members, rightfully points out that she still upholds many of the Albas’ societal tenants through her expectations: she expects 86 residents to fight on the battlefield while she safely sits behind a screen; she believes she can mourn for her fallen “comrades” despite knowing quite literally nothing about them; she never bothers to ask about their struggles and only seems to concentrate on the “good” parts of their lives (ie. better food); and she doesn’t even think to learn their real names.
Funnily enough, Lena’s history had all the makings to mold her as the perfect altruistic savior, from being saved by a 86 unit member to her father losing his life to fighting on the battlefield with the 86. However, even with those huge impacts on her life, one cannot forget that she grew up within the safety of technology, city, power, and money. It is realistic for her to unknowingly discriminate because of her privilege. Her history, on the other hand, sets up a reasonable pathway as to why it matters for her to care about the 86 and helps build her redemption arc into becoming a true ally of the discriminated community. While she lacks considerable power and influence to make societal changes, she focuses more on small self-improvements. She learns everything about the people in the unit and even uses bribery on other Albas to send her unit supplies to better their lives. However, as her unit begins to lose more people to the enemy, Lena turns to her closest friends and family for help — the other Albas. From there, 86 takes another step into dissecting the effects of privilege.
The Other Albas
There is no surprise to say that there are blatantly discriminatory Albas, just like there are blatantly discriminatory people in real life. You see them in the first episode where they mock the deaths of the 86 and admit to feeling nothing as they don’t see the 86 as people. However, those moments take up little screen time, and the vast majority of the series spotlights two other Alba characters: Annette, Lena’s best friend, and Karlstahl, Lena’s uncle figure.
Annette, I would argue, represents a large part of the privileged population in real life. She knows what’s happening to the people in 86 is wrong. She absolutely believes they’re humans and don’t deserve the treatment they’ve received. However, her current place in life is comfortable, and having to think further than her safe circles makes her uncomfortable and helpless. She told Lena that worrying about those things was too troublesome with no real answer, and it would require Albas to own up and pay the consequences, including people in her life that she cares about. “Better to pretend it doesn’t exist and just not think about it,” she claims.
Annette isn’t in any shape or form “bad” like typical bigot characters are portrayed. She’s aware of the moral implications, and she doesn’t personally agree with it. Her decision to weigh the lives of people she cares about over the lives of the underprivileged is actually understandable — most people would value the lives of their loved ones over strangers. However, it still doesn’t change how much she contributes to making sure society operates to a status quo, and the anime leans hard into it. The series often switches from a dialogue scene between Lena and Annette to the battlefield where more people in 86 die — which further highlights Annette’s passive contribution to the death of the innocents.
On the other hand, Karlstahl represents the privileged people in power. His arguments to Lena’s requests are about stability and reasonableness — society has operated in such a way for so long that disrupting the existing status quo would only upend chaos. Not only that, he claims that the citizens are also at fault for agreeing with the segregation of the two races, so it’s the duty of the government to enact the will of the citizens. These arguments also sound uncomfortably familiar to the arguments politicians in real life make about sticking to “the way of life.” They sound logical, which makes it hard for even Lena to argue against aside from emotional outbursts.
However, that isn’t the only side of Karlstahl we see. Despite Lena’s growing rebellious nature to the culture of Albas, Karlstahl has shown her nothing but care and love. He’s worried about her mental state and her safety. He made a promise to her father, who was his best friend, to keep her safe and happy. He reassures her in a kind way that does not talk down to her at all, and when he gets frustrated with her, he lectures her sternly but not cruelly. From all his interactions, it’s clear that his feelings of familial love towards Lena is genuine, and it’s a painful reminder how family may have differing opinions that complicates matters of privilege and discrimination. It is hard to reconcile the images of a genuine family man with a not-so-obviously-hateful man into a single person.
Finally, 86: EIGHTY SIX spends equal time spotlighting the Spearhead Unit and their complicated history with the Albas. Some members of the unit, like Shin and Raiden, are more sympathetic to Lena because they were raised by Albas who risked their lives to protect them. Shin’s guardian was even banished to the camps for refusing to hand him over after the ruse was discovered. Others, like Kurena, remain spiteful for enduring the worst abuse from Albas. However, even within the group of the underprivileged, the anime was not afraid to introduce some hard truths, notably that even the discriminated are capable of isolating and segregating other minority groups.
Anju stands at the center of that example as half Alba and half 86. While her biracial status is not revealed until later in the anime, Anju’s character design looks suspiciously similar to Lena, especially with their similar face and eye shapes. The Spearhead unit member also has lighter skin color than most people of her kind — notably just a shade darker than the pale white of Albas — and extremely light purple hair that is closest in coloration to Albas’ silver hair. As a result, Anju was both severely bullied by the 86 and unable to pass as Alba due to her coloration. Her loyalty, as a result, only comes to her comrades within the Spearhead unit and to neither groups of people as neither of them accepted her.
It can be hard to accept, but minorities are just as capable of discriminating against other minority groups. In the real world, people of color can be sexist, women can be homophobic, and LGBTQ+ people can be racist. Anju serves as a reminder of this muddled dichotomy, and exposes that minorities are not exactly monolithic in their opinions and beliefs. It’s another complicated angle that privilege and discrimination inevitably introduces to society, and 86 made sure to include that in its comprehensive look at the world.
Reflection of Real Life
As a U.S. citizen, I easily relate to 86’s story. Undermining societal expectations, institutions, and monolith opinions has been the forefront of many movements in the U.S., and it is constantly met with pushback not just by people in power but also citizens in the privileged group. However, what makes this anime so great is that it can apply to any kind privilege and discrimination exhibited in other countries and cultures. The 86 people can be LGBTQ+ people, women, people who live on lower incomes, certain religious groups, and certain ethnic groups, and the story still remains true for all at the end of the day.