Code Geass Anime Review
Koudo Giasu - Hangyaku no Ruruushu
Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion
US Release By
Anti-heroic Mecha War Drama
25 25-minute episodes
2006-10-05 - 2007-03-29, 2007-07-28
Lelouch Lamperouge is not an average teenager. He grew up as an orphan caring for his blind, paraplegic younger sister Nunnally in the war-torn land of Japan--now known only as Area 11 after its brutal conquest and subjugation by the Britannian Empire. A Britannian by birth, he now attends a prestigious boarding school for the Britannian upper class near Tokyo. But he is even less average than this; before coming to Japan he was a son of the Emperor of Britannia himself, until he was disowned by his father after his mother was killed in a mysterious attack.
His longtime friend, Suzaku--son of the late Prime Minister of pre-conquest Japan--has taken a different path: Joining the Britannian military in hopes of one day becoming an honorary Britannian citizen himself.
Fate will give them both the opportunity to do more than this, though, when Lelouch stumbles upon a mysterious girl, C.C., who gifts him with the power of Geass--the ability, in his case, to issue a single, absolute order to any person, which they will unquestioningly obey. Suzaku, in turn, finds himself thrust into the limelight as a star mecha pilot for Britannia... a role that will pit him against his friend, in the guise of the masked rebel leader Zero. A leader who seeks to create a world opposite that of Britannia's, where all will be equal. A world that Lelouch is willing to use any means necessary to achieve.
Quick ReviewSwitch to Full Review
In fundamental concept, Code Geass is the answer to the question "What if the stereotypical mastermind villain was the good guy?" A marvel of a series, it applies shoujo-style layered, melodramatic tragedy to a shounen-style mecha war story, producing something unique and engaging that is neither. Overblown in style and structure yet brutally unsentimental, Code Geass is defined by the meticulous scheming of Lelouch, the Machiavellian anti-hero who carries the show. Really, who is the show. The CLAMP character designs, fluid animation, and varied mecha combat are all part of the picture, but when it comes down to it the reason you watch are for those moments when Lelouch smiles sadistically and you realize he's already won, usually by savage blindide. His multifaceted personality and willing decent into a hell of his own making are backed by Jun Fukuyama's commanding Japanese performance (don't bother with the English dub) and framed by a colorful cast of people doomed to be broken by fate.
Casting villain as hero and hero as villain, Code Geass twists a stock melodramatic war story into something new and deliciously malicious. The series rides almost entirely on the shoulders of its ultimate anti-hero, which turns out to be its greatest strength. It's neither uplifting nor weepy--it's a ruthless chess match set to a symphony of brutality that is as gripping as it is unusual. In short, wicked, tragic fun.
Full ReviewSwitch to Quick Review
In fundamental concept, Code Geass is the answer to the question "What if the stereotypical mastermind villain was the good guy?"
A marvel of a series, it applies shoujo-style layered, melodramatic tragedy to a shounen-style mecha war story, producing something unique and engaging that is neither. Overblown in style and structure yet brutally unsentimental, Code Geass is defined by the meticulous scheming of Lelouch, the Machiavellian anti-hero who carries the show. Really, who is the show.
Thus we have the two central characters: Suzaku is emotional, kind, noble, and in every way the classic hero... except he's a loyal minion of the evil empire. Lelouch is an icy, calculating strategist with shades of megalomania who believes a sufficient end justifies any means and pulls strings as his masked alter-ego, "Zero"... and he's the one leading the rebellion.
Based on the yin and yang of the fundamentally good but misguided Suzaku and ruthless but heroic Lelouch, you would expect that conflict to be what the series focuses on.
The series is subtitled "Lelouch of the Rebellion" because it's about him, period. Suzaku provides contrast, but Lelouch and his elaborate plans are what drive this series and what make it so much wicked fun.
The concept of a literal anti-hero is intriguing, and Code Geass features a villain extreme enough to make it work: the Britannian Empire and its social Darwinist leader. Set in an alternate near-future occupied Japan, it wastes no time establishing the Britannian Empire as cruel and borderline genocidal. Britannia is so powerful and efficient that you're willing to believe only someone like Lelouch could stand up to it.
The setting offers some interesting turnabout; the ostensible heroes are ragtag insurgent "terrorists," and the surviving Japanese ultra-nationalists are depicted as almost comically traditional and entirely ineffective. Nor are many Britannians--the other students, for example--really evil. It isn't likely worth reading too much into as social commentary, though, past the general idea of bad leaders leading to bad things and everyone being some shade of grey even in a black-and-white world.
Now, back to Lelouch. Supremely confident, a brilliant strategist, and cruelly calculating, Lelouch is a marvel of a character. On one hand he presents a kind, gentle persona in front of classmates and the crippled sister he dotes on. On the other is his larger-than-life heroic grandstanding as the egalitarian Zero. But as the viewer we get to listen in on his thoughts, revealing nearly every heroic speech and action to be carefully calculated and utterly disingenuous in all but goal. The disconnect between what he's planning and everyone else is perceiving is a thing to behold.
Due to being the stereotypical villain in every way but the side he takes, he also ends up with the exact opposite of every quality of the stereotypical mecha action hero. Indeed, he's good at everything but fighting--he has skilled minions for that. When forced into a direct fight he repeatedly gets his butt kicked unceremoniously.
So we have a mecha show where the hero can't fight.1 Instead, he wins by outthinking his opponents. Unbeatable chessmasters are an old cliche, and more often than not "genius" strategists aren't half as clever as the audience. Here, if you overlook the contrived set-ups, Lelouch elevates the cliche to an art form. Even the biggest showdowns consist of a knowing smile at the last moment when you realize he's already won. Usually without raising a finger, and often via savage blindside.
And, again and again, I found myself shaking my head in awe and remarking "Oh, that is cold."
To this end, Lelouch is given an unusual but fitting superpower: The ability to issue anyone a single, absolute order. The series starts right off showing you what this power can do, and how merciless Lelouch is with it, when he gives a group of soldiers the simple order, "Die." How he later parlays this ability into elaborate plans on a vast scale is something else entirely. In spite of this, the series is otherwise so down-to-earth that when related otherworldly stuff occasionally pops up it seems surprisingly out of place.
Of course, having a strategist so good he even outmaneuvers himself at one point makes it even more fun on the rare occasions when he freezes up in the face of absurd twists-of-fate. That touch of humanity and fallibility keeps the drama engaging.
On that note, the Japanese acting is superb. Jun Fukuyama's Lelouch, again, is the show. The commanding voice of his Zero persona is enthralling as a charismatic leader with a frightening tinge of megalomania around the edges. In stark contrast is the personable, gentle voice he uses at school. The series even juxtaposes the two in quick succession when he needs to handle a phone call in the heat of battle. The rest of the acting, though not quite the same spectacle, is both fittingly broad for the characterization and very good.
The English dub is of no interest--Lelouch's voice just isn't of the same calibre, which drags the whole thing down.
The series includes a smattering of traditional light schoolyard hijinks episodes that at first seem out of place, but serve to put Lelouch in the one situation where he's out of his element. They also provide some contrast with the harsh world outside the privileged walls of Britannian settlements. Surprisingly, the occasional humor works, providing the equivalent of Hamlet's conversation with the gravedigger to set up the tragedy immediately after.
True to shoujo drama form, the world of Code Geass is a cruel place where any decent people not crushed by villains are destined to have the universe itself conspire to break them before destroying them completely. That said, the panache and lack of sentiment in the execution sets it apart--in a series where the villain is the hero, tragedy and broken people are there to be relished. Part of the fun is trying to second-guess where the Rube Goldberg construction of lies and double-crosses will lead and in what horrifying way the best-intentioned plans will go wrong.
Unlike most, Lelouch accepts the tragedy inherent in his methods, though even he is sometimes shocked by how wrong things go. Yet his single-minded devotion keeps him running full-steam through the sort of mind-breaking revelations that would--and do--destroy any other character. His latent humanity in turn leaves you wondering how much sanity he has left.
The remainder of the cast consists of a number of far more traditional anime-archetype school friends and colorful Britannian personalities. The kinder, gentler characters provide some nice contrast with Lelouch's ruthlessness, though the most memorable is literal mad scientist Lloyd, the amusingly cracked brain behind Britannia's mecha development.
Romance, thankfully, is limited to a hint of a triangle mirroring the three facets of Lelouch's personality. There's pleasant everygirl Shirley after the schoolboy, conflicted Japanese ace pilot Kallen in awe of Zero, and the enigmatic C.C., the real Lelouch's "accomplice." C.C.'s detached bemusement at nearly everything provides a nice counter to the humorless Lelouch. Suzaku, meanwhile, has a low-key relationship with kind-hearted Britannian princess Euphemia.
The series is not, sadly, without flaw.
The biggest issue is what happens in the mostly-disappointing sequel, R2. But, this series remains gripping up to the last second of Episode 25, so I'll reserve those complaints for said sequel.2
The real problem is Pizza Hut.
Say what? The thing is, Code Geass is strewn with very, very blatant Pizza Hut product placement. At first I chalked it up as a clever way of showing the foreign-ness of the Britannians in contrast to the Elevens. Then you realize that hardly an episode goes by without a huge "incidental" logo filling the screen during a conversation while C.C. munches away with a Pizza Hut box prominently displayed. After a while it gets kind of ridiculous. (I also wonder about the wisdom of associating your fast food with a murderous antihero and his warped muse--it's not the subconscious image I'd be cultivating, anyway.)
Come to think of it, you can probably blame Pizza Hut--or at least the associated desire to milk money from the series--for the heavily-padded, commercialized sequel. So, everything wrong with this series is Pizza Hut's fault, at least in spirit.
On the technical end of things, the animation is at the high end of TV quality. The emphasis is on strategy, but mecha fans will find enough slick-looking action to hold their attention. More notable is the exaggerated flair of the character animation, particularly Lelouch's sweeping, stage-worthy gesticulation. The facial expressions, in fact, are as memorable as anything--from Lelouch's defining malicious sneer to the tortured faces of people broken by tragedy.
The character designs (but little else) are by CLAMP, with the look you'd expect from the famed shoujo group--expressive, extremely angular features, large eyes, and willowy physiques. The rest of the design is no less memorable; there are a handful of wicked uber-mechs, many appealingly clunky regular mecha (including some willfully dorky Samurai-themed mecha that match the ultra-nationalist look of the insurgent army), and a variety of imposing Imperial hardware, not to mention plenty of smaller bits of technology. Interestingly, there's significant attention to realism in the sound design--the gunshots in particular are so realistic that they seem understated compared to everything else.
The background music, in turn, is appropriately broad and orchestral, though it lacks the flair of nearly everything else (an exception is C.C.'s wonderfully funky theme). The Ali Project end/opening themes, however, couldn't be better--the group's unique blend of aggressive, high-speed vocals, chaotic techno-tinged tunes, and macabre lyrics are a perfect fit for this series.
Overall, Code Geass is one heck of a series. Casting villain as hero and hero as villain, it twists a stock melodramatic war story into something new and deliciously malicious. The series rides almost entirely on the shoulders of its ultimate anti-hero, which turns out to be its greatest strength. It's neither uplifting nor weepy--it's a ruthless chess match set to a symphony of brutality that is as gripping as it is unusual. In short, wicked, tragic fun.
Have something to say about this anime? Join our newly-resurrected forums and speak your mind.
The genius, ends-justify-the-means hero concept is very similar to Death Note, except in that series the character is more villain than anti-hero; they're so similar that it's tempting to call Code Geass a sci-fi-mecha, role-reversed remake. The mecha war story aspect, in turn, shares much with Gundam Wing, and to a lesser extent other Gundam series. As far as the tragic aspects go many shoujo series walk that path, X being high on the list and vaguely similar in theme (it also looks similar on account of being by CLAMP).
Notes and Trivia
Code Geass was an original concept developed for TV by Sunrise, with character designs and a bit of early-stage creative input from famed manga group CLAMP.
In addition to the sequel series, R2, there are also nine short "in-between" episodes produced for the DVD release. They consist of an audio-drama-style dialogue with static illustrations of the scene; set between the regular episodes (with appropriate fractional numbers), they explain backstory or elaborate on things not shown explicitly in the series proper. It's legitimate to count them as canon.
Spin-offs are many; a series of light novels, audio dramas, assorted games for the DS, PS2, and PSP, and four different manga series. Some retell the same events, some are alternate takes; of the manga series one is similar except for the lack of mecha (somewhat ironically, that would probably improve the series), one takes place in mid-19th Century Japan, one focuses on Suzaku as a masked superhero, and one is an alternate take on the TV scenario with Nunnally as the Geass-using main character. The novels and three of the manga series are already available in English as of this writing.
When the show originally aired in Japan, the first 23 episodes were broadcast weekly between 2006-10-05 and 2007-03-29. Due presumably to the production issues that became much more apparent in R2, the final two episodes, 24 and 25, weren't aired until four months later, when they were both shown back-to-back on 2007-07-28. The sequel series followed about eight months later.
The series is set in an alternate earth timeline that is laid out somewhat more thoroughly in the books and other supporting media. It initially diverges as far back as Julius Caesar's time, but the most substantial changes begin in the 1600s. Technologically the most major difference happens recently, when Knightmare Frame mecha became the dominant military technology (and, as a result, Japan became strategically valuable due to its large natural Sakuradite reserves, used to power Knightmares).
It's tempting to call Death Note a sort of sister series to Code Geass. You almost have to assume that Lelouch was inspired by Light in the manga (which preceded it by a couple of years), and the two TV shows ran simultaneously--the first episode of Code Geass aired two days after the premier of Death Note, and the finale aired about a month after Death Note wrapped up.
Footnote 1: It's interesting that one of the manga adaptations omits the mecha entirely, because frankly the series would have almost certainly been better without them. Sunrise, of course, is all about the giant robots, and they do serve a purpose in the story: Powerful mecha make the characters with physical skills--the literal knights Suzaku and Kallen--strategically significant in a way knights of old were but modern weapons have rendered obsolete. Still, some other solution to that narrative necessity would have been welcome, and it might have averted the near-inevitable arms race that turned the mecha in the sequel into the ridiculous mess they become.
Footnote 2: This is a major spoiler about the very end, so skip it if you haven't seen it. It's mystifying to me why the writers didn't take advantage of the tragic trifecta of Euphemia being forced by her Geass to try and kill Suzaku, then him being forced by his to defend himself and kill her, and then being unable to kill himself in despair on top of it. It wasn't necessary, but after having set up such a perfect feedback loop of unintentional tragedy and induced hate it baffles me that they walked away from it.
US DVD Review
Bandai's 6-disc North American DVD release includes the standard bilingual audio and subtitles. Extras include the interesting mini-episodes mentioned in the notes, audio commentary, and textless opening/endings. There are also sets of two discs each in addition to the single-disc release, and Limited Edition versions than kick in soundtracks, manga, art, and other goodies.
It's not particularly gory, but it is quite violent on both a personal and grand scale; other mature themes are limited. In unedited form (there are a few very minor edits for TV broadcast), depending on your view of the questionable morality of the characters and general themes of genocide it would be either the high end of 13-up or low end of 16-up (Bandai chose the former).
Violence: 4 - Rarely graphic, but legions of people, both innocent and military, die onscreen and off, many at the hands of the main characters.
Nudity: 1 - A few limited bits of fanservice here and there.
Sex/Mature Themes: 2 - The mature themes rarely go past general romance, and even that is so low-key as to be almost nonexistent, save a single, brief scene that is relatively explicit despite being almost completely dark.
Language: 1 - This will depend on the version you see, but generally pretty clean.
Available in North America from Bandai on bilingual DVD. They are available on six individual volumes, or 2-disc sets with the same materials. The newer sets are also available in Limited Edition versions that add soundtracks, manga, art, and other extras.