Directors Who Shine In Spite Of The Anime Industry – 86 Eighty Six and Toshimasa Ishii

Directors Who Shine In Spite Of The Anime Industry – 86 Eighty Six and Toshimasa Ishii

Toshimasa Ishii’s direction on 86: Eighty Six elevated a war drama with a keen political outlook, but despite his team’s many successes, they always faced an uphill battle because mismanagement from above dealt them an unfair hand. This is the reality even for anime’s most brilliant directors.

At the time of release, the first part of 86: Eighty Six felt pretty extraordinary as a TV show, and arguably even more so as an adaptation. As we approach the anime’s first anniversary, that assessment only grows more positive; partly because of its inherent qualities, but also due to unfortunate circumstances forcing its viewers to realize just how special what this team had put together was.

For those still unaware, 86 tells a story heavily inspired by World War II as a means to explore ideas like racial discrimination, the role of dehumanizing propaganda, and the descent into fascism that ultimately follows an obsession with the aesthetics of liberalism. Unlike a lot of pop culture dealing with racism, it insists on tackling these issues from a structural, institutional angle, rather than singling out bad apples in positions of power. It’s so transparent in this that the army they face is a robotic hive, their most threatening foes being instruments for personal catharsis rather than a solution for those societal problems; the prelude for the fourth novel, written from the point of view of the protagonist Lena, succinctly states that the actual enemy is the Republic that established those discriminatory policies. While from a western perspective its portrayal of racial issues might not map to reality perfectly—maybe not the best way to approach works created under different cultural backgrounds—author Asato Asato appears to have an instinctive grasp of the nuance that these topics demand. One that doesn’t come in the form of subtlety, as all viewers can attest.

Now, while her original novels have no issue developing that worldview, the real state for exposition in anime is much more limited; especially so in the case of a TV anime with aspirations of becoming a hit, where being too wordy isn’t on the table. To successfully capture 86’s thoughtful outlook into a snappier TV series, you’d have to bake those ideas into the direction itself, putting together a streamlined narrative chockful of details for anyone willing to stop and absorb the nuances. A nightmarish task in and of itself, even more so if your project leader happens to be a newcomer series director. Fortunately, Toshimasa Ishii is not your standard newbie.

As we explained at length in our coverage of the first half of show, Ishii accomplished the dream of many seasoned directors with a strong personality: weaponizing their favorite stylistic techniques in a contextually, thematically fitting way. This applies to the works of some of the greatest directors out there; while kagenashi is a relatively common visual approach, it has for a long time been synonymous with Mamoru Hosoda, who has built an entire animation philosophy around the idea that unshaded artwork presents a more sincere picture that embodies and resonates with children—the protagonists and core audience of his works. Talented as they may be, it usually takes directors a fair amount of time to figure out how to justify and thematically strengthen their favorite quirks. On top of that, new series directors tend to be a bit timid with their immediate stylistic chops when compared to their storyboarding and episode direction output, as they have to gradually grow accustomed to the increased scope and all the new managerial tasks. I’m going to have to assume Ishii never got the news about this, because none of it applied to him.

In the case of 86‘s first arc, this translated into Ishii’s long documented fondness for smooth transitions warping into a tool of contrast to embody the inequality of the setting. Although Ishii excels at keeping the visual inertia in between match cuts, this time around he didn’t go for a seamless back and forth between the two major POVs—the corrupt, hedonistic Republic and the desolated frontlines—as the goal was constantly underlining their opposed realities. As a result, these abundant snappy transitions always had a coherent flow thanks to one major element—visuals, audio, even concepts—but also introduced dissonance to make you viscerally feel that inequality; be it J/L cuts where the audio and visuals don’t switch in unison, a sudden change in volume, or simple tonal whiplash, 86 was adamant in making you feel its world’s disparity. Very deliberate editing overall, but built upon fundamentally organic flow that allowed even those usually bothered by visible authorial hands to immerse themselves into the story.

Much of this success was owed to the show’s brilliant structure, which means that series composer Toshiya Ono and supervising author Asato herself deserve major props as well. On top of expanding a single light novel’s volume with both supplementary and original material into an entire season with much more breathing room, as well as making sure each episode was filled with background details about the setting, they all came up with with a fascinating folding, overlapping structure for every episode. Each half of an episode would cover similar timeframes and mirrored realities, exploiting Ishii’s snappy transitions to turn those micro embodiments of the series’ themes into larger examples; essentially, shaping the work after its message, fully completing Ishii’s compelling approach where the intangibles of the delivery spell out all the words they couldn’t fit into animation.

Although there are some criticisms one could make of that first half of 86, like its obsession with finality making it feel like it has half a dozen climactic endings and too many cliffhangers, it went so above and beyond what is expected from a light novel adaptation that I can only see it as a smashing success. And yet here we are a year later, after a second cours that was kind of a mixed bag. Some of its issues are inherent to the source material, but it’s plagued with more pervasive external issues that even an episode of the year caliber 1-2 punch at the end hasn’t been able to fully wash away.

So, what is it that makes it a more uneven experience? Heading into the broadcast, I had already warned anime viewers that the story it would cover left less space for that structural brilliance from the first half. 86’s second arc sticks to a singular point of view, following the Spearhead crew into new frontlines for a different country, and only offering a couple of glimpses of Lena and the quickly decaying Republic. With only one reality to depict and a more straightforward structure, Ishii’s most effective weapon for the first half was neutralized… but is that really a deal breaker? While it’s less inventive, the anime still managed to reconstruct this story in a smart way, focusing on overarching contrasts and evolution rather than immediate juxtapositions like its predecessor—adapting the focus of the direction to the form of the story once again.

If the structure of the narrative is simply less unique, is its content the issue then? Although I’m willing to put some more of the blame here, I’d say this also isn’t quite the case. In fact, more than a few viewers seem to outright prefer the story beats in this second arc, and there are good reasons for that. Its screentime is fully dedicated to the group with the most natural chemistry among themselves after all, and it happens to cash in major emotional payoffs that the first half had built up towards. Even though the action is never going to be a highlight of the series, as it makes an explicit point about this war being chaotic and deeply upsetting, the operations led by the Federacy are definitely easier to parse and thus less of a headache. If 86’s worldview and politics never resonated with you, this more straightforward war story might be more up your alley, at least on paper.

Now, this doesn’t imply that the show lost its political nuance. While the Federacy is not as interesting of a regime to tear apart, the contrast between its idealism and patronizing attitudes towards the Other that quickly turn into uglier forms of discrimination is still captured effectively. Its most inspired moments, however, come once again from its depiction of the failed Republic. The first episode goes out of its way to have Lena’s superior—an active perpetrator of the country’s supremacist policies—showcase a photo of his family. That innocuous detail is turned on its head in the finale, when we’re invited to his office again. All nationalistic paraphernalia has been removed now that they’re being visited by countries aware of their systemic discrimination, and on his desk there are now two photos: one with the same child soldiers he’d kept on the frontlines, with faces of clear disgust, and one with the same family members we’d seen before… except with dyed hair, hiding the truth about the Republic’s ethnostate by pretending to belong to different races. From beginning to end, 86 has understood that this fixation with appearances, with the aesthetics of liberalism, easily becomes the shield of the oppressor.

Following this game of elimination, the next aspect to question would be the show’s direction… and as you can likely imagine, that has not been the Achilles heel of this second cours either. The team led by Ishii didn’t fundamentally change a winning formula: a very similar lineup was still on the same page, controlling the tempo with one neat transition after the other. Regular contributors like Ryo Ando and Satsuki Takahashi were already perfectly aware of what the series director expected of them, and be it through guidance or direct corrections to their storyboards, Ishii didn’t hesitate to make new prestigious guests conform to his style either. Episode#17 was in fact storyboarded by Your Lie in April‘s Kyouhei Ishiguro, who despite having no previous experience with the team offered one of the most inspired takes on the show’s recurring motifs and techniques. At their best, those snappy transitions were as satisfying as they were throughout the first arc, but given that this arc’s focus wasn’t on the juxtaposition of realities, their lesser thematic relevance made them less memorable. Instead, Ishii coordinated the whole team to build around a new theme: distance, separation, isolation.

The major focus in 86 Part 2 isn’t on the war story, but rather on co-protagonist Shin coming to terms with his new problem—having a future. After putting his brother to rest, and under the mistaken assumption that Lena has died, an increasingly larger schism opens between him and the rest of the crew. While the others still feel drawn to the war, they gradually begin feeling like there might be something to live for on the other side, which Shin can’t even fathom as is. That distance is portrayed visually, physically, over and over and over and over and over throughout the entire second cours, to the point where you’ll start to wonder if they could ever run out of ways to convey isolation. One of the most memorable examples comes in episode #20, storyboarded by the most renowned member of this team: Tomohiko Ito, who also happens to be Ishii’s senior with a similar lineage through Hosoda. Its climactic confrontation, which addresses that rift in an intense argument, places Shin with his best friend Raiden above a railway; the camera’s racking focus draws attention to a clear road alongside Raiden, while Shin’s is obstructed by man-made obstacles, underlining the idea that it is Shin himself who has rejected the mere idea of a future—but also offering him support.

As you can imagine, the show’s imagery is more vivid and diverse than just countless depictions of self-isolation, even if that became the backbone in the same way as the contrasting transitions in the first cours. That introspective approach, its understated usage of flower language, the contrast between organic and inorganic, and even the subversion of the ideas of heaven and hell that has been going on since the very start of the show all culminate into the climactic episode #22, directed and storyboarded by Ishii himself. He once again intertwines the physical form of anime with its themes, using an increasingly narrower aspect ratio that constraints and even mutilates Shin to represent his mental state; the black bars of this cinemascope format become negative space representations of his inner demons, speaking over his friend’s supportive words and eventually overtaking them with hurtful self-flagellation. Only Lena’s arrival, as the only person who can walk through the defenses Shin made for himself, manages to melt away the restrictions that were narrowing his world to the point of being incapable of seeing a future. She confidently walks over black bars, and even flips the color of his world; from the inert metallic blue of the machines, also linked to the Republic’s inhumanity, to the bright red of Bloody Regina, of the red spider lilies that represent death but also reincarnation—and so Shin, who has always been convinced he already died, can be reborn once again. It is the best, most important episode in the show, by one of the best and most important up-and-coming directors in anime.

In summary, we have a story with a different spin but not inherently lesser, a more standard structure that is still soundly laid out, a worldview that continues to be poignant, and direction that is still incredibly inspired; which is to say, nothing that really explains why this second half of 86 might be anything other than excellent. To say that the problem that dragged it down was the animation wouldn’t be wrong, but it’s important to take that statement in a broader sense. Sure, the drawings are often wonky and the movement awkwardly robotic, but I’m referring to a more fundamental issue—the entirety of the delivery is compromised because the production schedule collapsed beyond recovery. Recurring techniques were sometimes less impactful or downright awkward, the execution of evocative concepts became often too artless to be memorable, and the overall roughness was enough to drag you away from a once very immersive experience. And the worst of all: this was all very predictable. In fact, we’ve been warning about it since before the broadcast of the first half.

86’s production got off to a bad start. People will point to the effects of the pandemic to explain that, but by the point that its effects were felt in the industry, 86 was already in trouble. Its animation production only kicked into full gear in Q1 2020, which is cutting it was too close for a 2 cours anime—split as they may be—that was meant to start its broadcast in the same year. Once every studio’s efficiency took a nosedive due to covid-19, the production committee was forced to delay it just enough so that the project could have similar deadlines than originally intended, yet clearly not enough to address preexisting problems.

It doesn’t help that, as you might have noticed if you read our coverage or simply looked at the credits, 86’s team has always been pretty small. Its directorial rotation is talented, but short enough that people like Ando handled those duties in as many as 6 different episodes; and that’s without counting his commitment to other titles in the meantime. The real problem, though, was an animation team that kept punching above their weight until they completely fell apart, dragging with them the rest of the crew as subsequent tasks had essentially zero time spared to them. With only a single episode subcontracted to its own sibling CloverWorks, and an animation lineup lacking depth and the high-profile names you’d expect, 86’s downfall was always a matter of when rather than if.

But how could this happen to a series that Aniplex believed could follow SAO’s path as the next Dengeki megahit? As it turns out, belief and commitment aren’t quite the same thing. While the novels’ popularity made it clear that the series held that type of potential, 86 is an inherently trickier sell; overtly political, lacking in enjoyable action, and willing to bench the character that would normally be considered the heroine for an entire season. It’s a series many people will have to meet in the middle, since those who want a more serious war story will also have to put up with concessions like Frederica and the convenient writing that surrounds her. Chances are that you’ll encounter some friction in your experience—but that is simply how fiction is meant to be, as much as corporations would love to sand it all down into a polished ball of nothingness that can be marketed to the broadest group of people possible. By being too wary of 86’s edges, which ultimately haven’t stopped it from resonating very strongly with its audience, higher-ups kneecapped this adaptation from the start.

Mind you: the rocky start isn’t all there is. As we’ve mentioned regarding recent CloverWorks developments, Aniplex is accelerating the pace of their higher-profile production lines to the point where they all have two concurrent projects at any time. Although 86 was handled by a new animation producer—more proof of that lack of faith in the project—a very significant part of this team has already moved onto a new project, one that will make people acquainted with anime staff groan once details are revealed and the implications about the production schedule are made clear. This unhealthy pace impacts teams and their work, skilled as this industry is at hiding those consequences; there is no denying that 86 was rushed even more because this projected need to be wrapped up before fully moving on, and you can imagine what its successor’s pre-production is like with an exhausted team and a new broadcast date already in the horizon.

While being as close to a villain in stories like this as you can be, companies like Aniplex are upsettingly good at twisting their mistakes into PR stunts. With cheeky moves like announcing the delay 86 days before the new broadcast date for the finale, and making its ending coincide with the in-world date where the cast finally met, they’ve got fans celebrating their mismanagement; to the eyes of many who don’t know any better, this is not a band-aid over a wound that could have been prevented, but rather a brilliant decision that shows the passion for this work. The final two episodes after this long delay boast of an exceptional quality that underlines what this team would have been capable of with fewer restraints, but even this big gap between broadcasts doesn’t mean that the deadlines became particularly reasonable—being less ridiculous is no achievement to celebrate. The staff’s inarguable commitment is being conflated with the studio’s and the corporation that owns them, and PR trickery turns a cowardly approach into supposed reverence for this work. It’s no wonder that anime’s status quo is so hard to change, when the companies that benefit from it excel at turning their mistakes into causes for celebration.

In the end, I still believe 86 is an excellent series. Even Part 2, with its clear shortcomings, easily clears the bar for seasonal greatness. Ishii’s performance in his series direction debut is truly astonishing, and when the circumstances allowed them to, the rest of the team didn’t lag far behind. While anime’s production pipeline has always enabled individual artists to shine regardless of the surrounding circumstances—though increasingly less so with the more atomized animation process—that becomes much harder the higher up they are, which puts Ishii’s success into perspective. 86’s bittersweet aftertaste shouldn’t fit a show this strong, a directorial debut this thoroughly inspired. I’d rather not have to be celebrating Ishii’s triumph over circumstances he shouldn’t have had to conquer, one that he clearly didn’t escape from unscathed. We all deserve more works to succeed because of their circumstances, rather than in spite of them.

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7 months ago

I disagree with you about the central themes of 86. The repeated cameo of “All Quiet on the Western Front” by Remarque pins the intended theme down as strongly anti-war: the cameraderdie of 86ers and their personally felt losses are more important to them than the officers and the country they are fighting for, for whom they are just means to an end. The second season is not as poignant because it tries to get the point across that even if your country is humane and not actively evil, war is still a terrible thing; but it discontinues the string… Read more »

4 months ago
Reply to  Mendel

I agree with you in that there is no, or at least not a very obvious draw towards the ‘fascist’ point. But to the contrary, I think that it has more to do with the understanding of inner-societal comparison. For example, how the first part shows direct comparison between the elevated lives of the Alba and then cutting to the simple yet violent lives of the 86. In the second part it shows this in how while the Federacy is different from the Republic, there are various similarities pointed out such as their disdain of the 86 soldiers (from the… Read more »