Remembrance of Things Past in Anime


Last year, I had the pleasure of watching the anime adaptation of Asato Asato’s 86: Eighty-Six. Though ostensibly a series about racism and futuristic mech warfare, what struck me about the series was how memory was a subtle golden thread woven through the series. Beneath the numerous battle scenes lies an extended artistic impression of the way memories are borne by some, erased by others, and then reclaimed by others still in a digitally saturated milieu.

What follows is an attempt at reflecting upon the series’ depiction of memory, highlighting moments that zero in on the carriage of memory, the refusal to take it up, and the redemption of memory. In doing so, we will map out these moments against philosophical, social theoretical and scriptural resources, with particular reference to Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology and the Psalms. While there are spoilers, I hope to keep them to a minimum so that you could, even after reading this limited reflection, still enjoy the series.

Memory Undertaken

86 Eighty Six paints a bleak future made up of a series of warring nations. Two of these are the Republic of San Magnolia and the Empire of Giad, who have been at war for nine years. The warfare waged can be described as a cross between tank and drone warfare, fought in units known as Juggernauts. What happens to the Juggernauts forms not only the main concern of the war, but also the central driver of the narrative. This is because the Juggernauts, at least in the official reportage of the war by the Republic, are considered self-piloted autonomous units.

What drives the plot is the revelation that the Juggernauts are actually piloted by people, only they are not recognized as such by San Magnolia. The Republic is an apartheid regime, where citizenship is confined to the Albas, a race of white-haired and porcelain-skinned humans. Those not bearing these features are relegated to a helot-like class and banished to essentially concentration camps in the officially non-existent Eighty-Sixth District. These unfortunates are denied citizenship, housing, and even basic supplies; they are also denied the acknowledgment that they are even human.

Known as “86,” they are dragooned to pilot the Juggernauts and fight San Magnolia’s wars in exchange for (barely) improved conditions and promises of citizenship. They are directed remotely by officers taken from the ranks of the Alba, who witness nothing of the suffering borne by their “drones” (as the Alba call them), the only exception being a series of blips on a screen that disappear upon death. In spite of the millions of casualties suffered by the 86 over the years, their denial of human status has meant that the war is officially a zero-casualty conflict. Upon death, all 86 are legally refused burial or and all memorialization is prohibited. The life of the 86, when it is not marked by marginalization and violence, is a life marked by a slow-burning genocide via collective amnesia.

At the forefront of this warfare and forgetting is a unit of veteran Juggernauts codenamed “Spearhead” led by Shinei Nouzen. To his comrades, he is known as Shin. To the Republic, he is known as “Undertaker.” The rationale behind his nom de guerre is twofold. On a surface level—the only level that matters for the Republic’s Alba class—the name is attributed to his high kill rate. On another level—the level that matters for his comrades—Shin is the Undertaker because of his practice of carving out, collecting and storing in a box, the insignias that emblazon the sides of his fallen comrades’ Juggernauts. In a world where the 86 are destined to be forgotten, the Undertaker carries on his very person the memory of the dead as he doles out death to his enemies.

On the one hand, Shin’s act of carrying his fallen comrade’s insignias in a box harken back to ancient as well as medieval understandings of memory as a storehouse of memories, to be deposited and withdrawn at will. In his Theaetetus, for instance, Plato adopted the idea of the memory as a wax upon which our perceptions and thoughts are imprinted.[1] Plato gives the (perhaps over-simplistic) impression that things that get stored in the memory retain their integrity indefinitely, barring any outside interference. In this context, recall is the intentional act of withdrawing that intact memory.

Though more nuanced than Plato, Augustine still regarded the memory as a storehouse of static items. In his Confessions, Augustine spoke of memory as vast “treasuries of innumerable images of all kinds of objects brought in by sense-perception”.[2] Augustine’s nuance from Plato lies in designating our memories as a storehouse of images. Viewers glimpses of this aspect of memory in episodes where Shin recalls his comrades via flashbacks, moving images of events in which they are in combat or moments of recreation.

What makes the series fascinating is the way Shin’s carriage of his comrade’s memory is facilitated precisely by this recall of images, which in turn is triggered by events taking place in the field. It is a type of recall that harkens back to Augustine’s notion that it is sense-perception that generates the image of the flashback flooding Shin’s mind. More interestingly, what Shin perceives is not a direct correlate to the image being memorialized. Rather, the perception of one thing (the event in the field) is the launchpad for a memory of another thing (the image of time spent with comrades). It is this second aspect I would like to elaborate on, for it goes beyond the mere fact of our being carriers of memory, and looks at how we carry them.

Memory Overtaken

In Phenomenology of Perception, Maurice Merleau-Ponty spoke about the deep engagement that occurs between ourselves and our environs. For Merleau-Ponty, we are not the free-thinking, autonomous subjects we imagine ourselves to be, cogitating as we wish and engaging the world as we wish. Commenting on Merleau-Ponty’s epistemology, Christopher Ben Simpson noted that the self is “not aware of itself in its ‘absolute difference.’” Instead, we are primordially situated in what Merleau-Ponty calls a “prepersonal zone” consisting of “pre-reflective relations with others. This is a ‘naive frequenting of the world’” that indicates our radical openness to the world.[3]

The radicality of this openness led Merleau-Ponty to remark that “the world and I are within one another, and there is no anteriority of the percipere to the percipi.[4] This deep involvement between ourselves and the world suggests that there is also no anteriority of the person remembering and the furniture of the world that triggers that memory. For Merleau-Ponty, as we move through and perceive our surroundings, we also become continuously committed to that environment. More importantly, we become continuously committed to the forms of knowledge embedded within those environs.[5] The implications of this “intervolvement” are twofold.

The first is that the environs are not innocent, not inert “furniture of the world” that one simply passes through or interacts only at will. Rather, because of our radical involvement with the world, everything in it, however inert it might seem to us, plays an active role as a carrier of memory. For instance, Marcel Proust once remarked in his Remembrance of Things Past about how a madeleine cake can, the moment he engaged it, trigger the recall of a memory. We can go further and say that the memory carried by the world is not confined to one specific locale within the world; a trigger in one part of the world has the capacity to catapult us to another.

Many of us would have experienced how, for example, an innocent turn around the corner into an alleyway in Melbourne can launch us back to an alleyway we saw in Paris. A cup of watery coffee in New York can cause one to fondly reminisce about one’s time in Rome, when coffee was good, plentiful and cheap. A train ride between two drab suburbs can cause us to remember taking public transport across a sea of Edwardian houses through Chicago, and so on. These examples suggest that our minds are not the sole depositories of memory. If, as Merleau-Ponty suggests, cognition comes through a deep immersion with the furniture of the world, then that very furniture also acts as a latent holder of memory.

The way our environs carry and trigger memory leads us to the second implication of our precognitive commitment to the world. It concerns the degree to which our memories are under our own voluntary management, such that we recall memories as we want to. There is a poignant and telling scene in 86, where Spearhead are moving through a territory that was the scene of a pre-battle party for the whole unit. The simple act of moving through the territory was sufficient to trigger Shin’s memory of his comrades, catapulting him to that time and the exchanges that took place.

The significance of this becomes clearer in Remembrance, where Proust not only remarked about the fact of his memory. He also found himself asking himself: from whence comes this memory? Proust problematizes what Shin artistically depicts, namely the way in which, as we move through and inhabit the furniture of the world, the latter becomes the agent by which we are made to remember things. We remember in spite of, not because of, our intentions.

At best, our remembering despite ourselves can be an occasion of pleasant surprise. That said, 86 also reminds us of a third dimension of memory that is unhappy, even sinister. On the eve of a battle between Spearhead and the Empire’s army of autonomous, self-piloting drones Shin—and through him the Juggernaut’s handler, the Alba Vladilena Milizé—begin to hear voices. These are tortured voices articulating layers of pain and anguish, voices manifesting fragmented memories of 86 who have fallen, and whose brains and memories are harvested from the battlefields and recycled to populate the AIs housed within the Empire’s drones.

In Shin’s case, years of battle experience have made him treat these waves of shards of memory as so much background noise. In the case of Milizé, however, the exposure to these tortured memories proves too much for her psyche to take, almost causing a psychotic meltdown. What this episode highlights is how memory emits not just from the furniture of the world, but also from other persons. Our radical openness and commitment to the world mean that others who similarly move through the world are as much carriers of memory as the world itself, with their memories mapping themselves onto us.

It highlights Graham Ward’s building upon Merleau-Ponty’s epistemology, wherein our embodiment, knowledge is less a result of individual cognition, than it is the result of our embodied participation in relations with the world, and the other embodied subjects within it.[6] Within these relations, Ward says, lies an ongoing “transcorporeal” exchange of knowledge, wherein we emit and receive claims on our knowledge that are not of our making. In knowing, we not only become privy to our own memory; unknowingly, sometimes even unwillingly, we become participants in and carriers of the memories of others.

The fourth dimension of memory becomes evident when we consider how, amidst the cries of the harvested 86, tinged as they are with sadness and fear, there is also anger. In the seeming blur of voices seething with rage, Shin is able to single out one, that of his long-lost older brother Rei, who was conscripted, killed, and harvested to become a drone of the Empire, a so-called “Shepherd” that, like the Alba handlers of the Republic, directs the other war machines of the Empire. What makes Rei stand out is a memory searing with anger directed at Shin, who Rei blames for the death of their parents.

In one episode we see the encounter with Rei’s memory trigger Shin’s own recall to his childhood in which Rei, snapping from the cumulative effects of persecution, the death of his parents and his impending enlistment, nearly strangles Shin to death. It is this memory that defines both individually, and also the relationship between them. Whilst Rei truly blamed Shin, what is also true is that Shin had no part in their parent’s death. Yet, the subtle and striking twist is how both brothers carry a false memory that both believe to be true.

This highlights yet another aspect of the transcorporeal exchange of memory, wherein the memories which we are made to recall bear little, if any, resemblance to actual events. What is more, we get recruited to become participants in these manufactured memories, and dragooned into regarding them as our own. If commitments to knowledge are embedded in our engagements with the world and others, then what we believe to be real knowledge is also caught up in these embeddings,[7] regardless of the empirical veracity or lack thereof.

A fifth dimension of memory comes into clearer relief when viewers consider the subtle role digital technology plays in the erasure of memory. Recall that Spearhead works in conjunction with their Alba handler Milizé. One of the most striking features of this relationship is that, in keeping with the apartheid enforced by the Republic, and the sanitized image of “bloodless” warfare, handlers never set foot on the battlefield or meet their subordinates, save for a direct audio link. The only visual a handler has of their units is on a screen during battle, with every move a Juggernaut pilot makes controlled from within the safe confines of the Republic. Only codenames and symbols denote a pilot’s presence, like a twisted game of Space Invaders. A pilot’s death is marked only by the disappearance of word and symbol. This interface is present in every episode, and is virtually taken for granted in the narrative.

What viewers may forget is that we have a privileged perspective, able to see both handler and 86. Because we take this for granted, we are taken aback when we realize one does not know what the other looks like, or when pilots, once deceased, seem to be forgotten. This dissonance is a subtle provocation, for it highlights how digital technologies, beneath the seemingly endless capacity for storing past words and actions in files and servers, are also imbued with the uncanny ability to, borrowing from Liedeke Plate, manufacture and maintain an “amnesiology”, regimes of ignorance and forgetting.[8] Plate noted what she termed “technologies of memory” — these include our more familiar modern digital devices, but also seemingly benign textual stores like books.

All such technologies, in manifesting texts and symbols to us, also engage in “selective discarding and creative destruction.” That is to say fostering “silence, repression and absence” which make others disappear. “Technologies of memory,” Plate argues, “are above all technologies of forgetting.”[9] This capacity for erasure is more accentuated, Ward suggests, in the era of digital technology and a culture that “idolizes the present [and] the seizure of the present,”[10] made manifest in the focusing of one's attention to that which is present on the screen in the present, whilst discarding anything that came before.[11]

Memory Retaken

If our radical openness to the world opens us to also become recipients to an onslaught of memories—sometimes false memories—not of our making, we need to ask: are we doomed to be only the unwitting carriers of misremembrance, with no hope for a true and integral memory? To this, the series sows some seeds of hope.

In the latter part of the series Spearhead, having gone well into the territory of the Empire, breaks contact with Milizé and the Republic. Unwittingly, they find themselves in the custody of an entity that at least the 86 never knew existed, the breakaway Federal Republic of Giad, led by one idealistic and semi-fatherly Ernst Zimmermann. The citizens of the Federacy grant the Spearhead survivors asylum in exchange for their expertise in Juggernaut warfare. They also grant something that both San Magnolia and the Empire have denied them, a monument to the memory of fallen Spearhead members, listing each one by name. The Undertaker need not be the sole bearer of memory, for now a whole polity, in the edifice they erected, bears that memory with him.

The significance of this seemingly small act in the narrative can be teased out if we interpolate what takes place against another narrative, that of the Bible. For as much as it is a story of our salvation, the biblical narrative is also a salvation enacted through acts of remembrance undertaken by both God and humanity. At one level, we can see, through the lens of Merleau-Ponty, how the Federacy’s monument to Spearhead acts as an agent of memory. Yet, as earlier indicated, it is also a monument that points beyond itself to the Federacy’s own memory.

This is an animated mirror to a process taking place in Psalm 8, where the edifice is “the moon and the stars which [God has] put in its place” (Ps 8:3). These are not simply inert lumps of rock. They are the furniture of the cosmos which, in the Psalmist’s perception of them, are also deposits of memory, evinced by the Psalmist’s question upon seeing the edifice: “what is Man that . . . you keep him in mind?” (Ps 8:4). In the same way that the series’ stone monument points to the Republic’s memory of Spearhead, the Bible’s cosmic monument points to God’s memory of us.

It is this divine memory, which transcends the contingencies of political regimes, technologies of forgetting or even the furniture of the universe, in which our being becomes irrevocable. That is not to say that memory now is unmediated by materiality and from that, transcorporeality. To borrow from Ward, the transcorporeality of knowledge by which we are remembered now has an unalterable grounding in the mind of God, that is the logos or the Word of God. It also has a new telos that undercuts the lust for domination, by directing transcorporeality towards a path of “following in the wake of the Word”.[12]

[1] Plato, Theaetetus, 191(d).

[2] Augustine, Confessions, 10.8.12.

[3] Christopher Ben Simpson, Merleau-Ponty & Theology (NY: Bloomsbury, 2012), 53.

[4] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (London: Routledge, 1962), 123.

[5] Ibid., 94.

[6] Graham Ward, Cities of God, 81–96.

[7] See Matthew John Paul Tan (2010) “Reason, Politics and Evangelisation”. Heythrop Journal XVLIII, 5.

[8] Liedeke Plate (2016), “Amnesiology: Towards a Study of Cultural Oblivion”. Memory Studies 9(2), 143-155 at 150.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ward, Cities of God, 154.

[11] I have written further on this in Matthew John Paul Tan (2015). “Faith in the Church of Facebook”. Journal of Moral Theology, 4(1), 25–35. See especially 30–31.

[12] Ward, Cities, 95.

Featured Image: Still from 86: Eighty-Six, Source: IMDB, Fair Use.


Matthew Tan

Matthew John Paul Tan is Dean of Studies at Vianney College, the seminary of the diocese of Wagga Wagga in Australia. He also serves as Adjunct Senior Lecturer in Theology at the University of Notre Dame Australia. He is the author of two books and blogs at Awkward Asian Theologian, which seeks to bring academic theology and personal experience together.

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