Technically, it's a mecha show, i.e. about piloted war robots. I tend to avoid those. This one, though, is also startlingly good and probably the strongest anime of 2021.
It's about a world at war. The Republic of San Magnolia is under attack from the next-door Giadian Empire's robot drone army, the Legion. Fortunately, the Republic has its own unmanned robot units. They're fighting an ethical war, with no fatalities. The Republic's citizens live a life of luxury, far from the battlefields and only distantly aware of conflict at all. Besides, the Empire's robot drones will stop fighting in two years' time. The robots killed all the humans in their own country, so now they're mindlessly following their original programming with no maintenance or replacements. In two years, their operational lifespan runs out.
That's the theory, anyway. In practice, the Republic's robots are manned by conscripts who've been declared non-people in order to avoid domestic squeamishness. They're from the Republic's 86th district. They've got a different hair colour, so that's a sufficient justification for confining them in internment camps and sending them off to fight in spider-robots. They're not even allowed to use their personal names.
This has two story strands. One focuses on the 86 themselves. There's a group called Spearhead, made up of all the toughest 86 survivors... so naturally they've been posted to a front-line camp where they never get any support or reinforcements. They do, though, have a handler who maintains telepathic contact with them and guides them on the battlefield. That's the heroine of the second story strand: Major Vladilena "Lena" Milize. She wants to empathise with the 86. She thinks she can understand how they feel. This is a war story, but it's also a study of racism, apartheid and worse, including the patronising assumptions of people who mean well.
It's horrifying even at the start, but then it gets worse. When Lena's assigned to be Spearhead's handler, she's told that Spearhead's previous handlers have gone insane or even committed suicide. At the time, you'll assume that this is hyperbole. It's not. It's an understandable response to later revelations. The 86 of Spearhead are good, especially their leader, Shin'ei Nouzen (aka. Undertaker), but they're being thrown into endless no-win battles. More and more of them die... and the worst of it is the contrast with the happy, peaceful lives of the white-haired Republic citizens. (After all, when the 86 are all dead and the genocide is complete, the Republic will probably just choose another minority and do the same with them.)
Even the recap episode 11.5 made me cry.
Season 2 is completely different, but also a thoughtful, logical continuation of the story. The Republic isn't the only country fighting the Legion. Ironically, one of those is the Giadian Federacy. The Empire fell, but there are still Giadians and they now have a democracy. It's a Western-style federation that prides itself on its compassion and humanity... but their attitudes to the 86 are ironically just a different flavour of "patronising". The Republic said that the 86 were literally pigs. The Giadians see it as their civic duty to protect these helpless children and stop them from ever having to go to war again. Lena was never this insulting.
Mind you, this naivety hasn't stopped the Giadians from being better at waging war. They've held up against the Legion more efficiently than the self-deceiving Republic ever did and they're far, far better at keeping down the body count. It should also be noted that there's still an underclass in the Giad Federacy, even if they don't live in death camps.
"I don't go to school. I'm not that wealthy."
The show, alas, had production issues. Here's a timeline:
Season 1 (episodes 1-11) = broadcast weekly in April-June, without issues.
Recap episode 11.5 = broadcast the following week
Season 2 (episodes 12-17) = broadcast weekly in October-November
Special episode 17.5 = the show's official website announced that ep.18 wouldn't air as scheduled due to "production issues." Instead, they showed a "visual commentary" episode. This is basically a DVD commentary, with three of the voice cast... and I loved it. I laughed aloud when they were getting excited about the Bandai models of their characters' war machines. Also, Shouya Chiba is the smiliest man in the world and it's mind-boggling to imagine him as the stoic, deeply damaged Shin'ei.
Episode 18 = airs as normal.
Special episode 18.5 = another recap episode. There were more "production issues".
Episodes 19-21 = these air as normal in December, but the show's just burned two of its broadcast dates and it's going to have to find another date for Season 2's last two episodes.
Special episode 21.5 = yet another recap episode, broadcast in March 2022 to remind the audience about the show.
Episodes 22-23 = March 2022. At last, Season 2 is complete.
This isn't anyone's fault, really. The anime industry is chronically overworked, underpaid and balanced on a knife edge. This isn't the first show to fall off and it won't be the last. I can admire the staff for refusing to compromise on quality. They accepted the delays and produced episodes that did the material justice. Can I see any negatives? Well, maybe Frederica Rosenfort's voice. That's not a 10-year-old. That's an anime squawk that we've been trained to accept as a standard substitute for one. That's the nearest I have to a grumble, though.
Damn, this show's good. It's about war, racism and the emotional damage to the 86 themselves, but it's so rich that there's room for all sorts of other readings. It's a show about a killer international disaster that aired during the COVID pandemic. I'll have to return to this judgement after I've finished watching all the 2021 shows, but I'll call it now. Best anime of the year.