Code Geass R2 Anime Review
Koudo Giasu - Hangyaku no Ruruushu R2
Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion R2
US Release By
Anti-Heroic Mecha War Drama
25 25-minute episodes
2008-04-06 - 2008-09-28
A year has passed since the Black Rebellion was crushed after the sudden disappearance of Zero. A handful of desperate holdouts, led by C.C., have nothing left but a last-ditch plan.
Meanwhile, Lelouch is living a quiet life as an exceptionally talented schoolboy, caring for his younger brother Rollo and moonlighting as a chess master. Something, of course, is very wrong with Lelouch's life and the false memories on which it is based.
But when his true self is unlocked in the midst of a terrorist attack, can Lelouch again take the Rebellion from a ragtag band of cornered terrorists to a force that can stand against the unchallenged might of the Britannian Empire and the Emperor's unstoppable Knights of the Round, now lead by Suzaku?
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Code Geass was, presumably, so successful that the order came down to keep it on the air longer and beef up the marketability. The result is rather tragic; R2 pushes the narrative reset button and sticks in 20 episodes of fanservice-padded, marketing-driven filler, doing everything it can to try and screw a spectacular series up. The laundry list includes cheesecake, improbable schoolyard hijinks, silly characters, ninjas, so many Gundam-reject uber-mechs I lost count, underdeveloped sub-plots, and even an Eva-esque metaphysical sidestep. Even the theme songs go downhill. But despite all that, the strength of the foundation and occasional bit of Lelouch brilliance is enough to keep the rehash at least watchable. The good news is that around episode 20 it finally gets back to where it should have been in episode 1, and the epic endgame is exactly the sort of Lelouch-driven, bloody symphony of heroism-through-villainy you would hope for. It also still looks great, if you overlook the flying stooper-mecha.
For everything R2 does wrong, the characters and concept are strong enough to weather the marketing-driven storm, so when it finally gets back on track it at least dishes out a fitting, epic climax to a spectacularly malicious series.
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Code Geass R2, the two-season continuation of Code Geass, is 75% marketing-driven filler and does everything it can to try and screw up a spectacular series. It very nearly succeeds, but the quality of the foundation is enough to keep the filler watchable and the eventual conclusion pulls everything back together for a worthy finale.
What went wrong? Presumably, Code Geass was so successful that the order came down to move it to a prime timeslot, add an extra season, and milk every last drop of commercial value out of it. The result is a litany of cheap attempts to make the series more marketable, as if the shameless flogging of Pizza Hut wasn't bad enough. (Though after a literal billboard early on, the blatant plugs are actually less frequent than before.) The bright side is that, once the finale finally arrives, it's an appropriately gripping Lelouch-fueled spectacle.
In the interim, the variety of ammunition R2 employs in the ongoing attempt to shoot itself in the foot (really, both feet, then the head) is impressive.
The most obvious thing it does wrong is not ending as soon as it starts.
The first series rushed into a cliffhanger end and left me wondering where another 25 episodes would fit in. They don't; it uses a Geass twist to essentially push the narrative reset button. By the time R2 finally gets to the endgame around the three-quarters mark it's clear that most of the preceding 20 episodes were unnecessary rehash getting back to where it should have been in episode 1.
It's depressingly obvious that the writers hadn't planned on much (if any) of the filler. The damning evidence ranges from overall repetition to smaller things like the build-up about Shirley's diary page getting ditched, replaced later by a different plot device with the same effect.
As much as I want to say "Just skip the first 20 episodes," that wouldn't work. From a narrative standpoint they're mostly repeating things that already happened in different context, but too many of the soap-operatic twists and turns worm their way into the final story arc to ignore. Maybe you could watch it while you're doing something else, and only pay close attention when Lelouch does something awesome.
Next on the self-destruction list is fanservice. Several excuses to put female characters in skimpy swimwear could, perhaps, be overlooked. But a ninja-maid? Revealing Sayoko as a sleeper agent was a nice twist; a ninja sleeper agent, that's just pandering--fun, but stupid.
Then there's the ever-increasing cast of colorful characters, half of whom end up at Ashford Academy and exist mostly to fill a fan-favorite niche. The few who are passably interesting get short-changed in terms of development anyway.
Take, for example, Knights of the Round supersoldier Anya: Pink-haired, fifteen years old, and pilots a dippy-looking walking cannon. She spends most of the series being an improbable schoolyard nuisance, giving people quizzical looks and photographing them. Now, when her motivation is finally revealed it's reasonably interesting--in a world where memories can't be trusted, she's grasping for something immutable. But, rather than making something of this, she's promptly jettisoned in favor of more central characters.
Worse is Chinese super-warrior Xingke. He's pretty, he's a tactician to rival Lelouch, he's a pilot to rival Suzaku, he has an unrequited love for someone above his station, and he's got one of those unnamed terminal illnesses whose only symptom is coughing up blood at dramatic moments. He is also completely forgotten as soon as his big moment as the antagonist is resolved, relegated to occasional appearances when it's unavoidable.
The only newly-introduced character that actually gets a fair shake is Lelouch's fake brother Rolo, a marvelous, tragic combination of fragile child and cold-blooded assassin. Lelouch, being Lelouch, ends up owning him, in heartless, calculating fashion.
Speaking of the man who drives the series, Lelouch is the other big exception. As he edges closer to being a hero--putting the greater good above simple protection of the weak spurred by his sister--the ruthless execution of his plans seems to weigh heavier on him, as does his self-appointed role as sin-eater.
Sadly, past him, even continuing figures like Ohgi and Viletta have major--and potentially quite interesting--subplots that are either forgotten or cut short. Given that the whole thing is filler anyway, it's particularly insulting to ignore worthwhile tangents in favor of ones introduced out of the blue. Which also get short-changed.
Where things really take a nosedive, though, is the mecha. The relative restraint had been admirable--apart from Lelouch's anti-aircraft win button (which served to keep him central without actually giving him any skill) the giant robots were relatively down-to-earth. (Both figuratively and literally, since they couldn't fly outside of exceptional circumstances and creative grappling-cable-fu.)
No more. In R2 everything can fly, armies routinely fall to a single uber-mech, and the fanservice-on-legs menagerie looks increasingly like Gundam rejects or something Bandai sells to 10-year-olds. I'd lost count by the final battle, but we were somewhere around a dozen named machines ranging from Lelouch's new "type really fast to win battles" juggernaut to a transforming jet that's a Macross Valkyrie with a new paint job. (Plus an all-female team explicitly piloting things called Valkyries.)
I wasn't even surprised by the time someone inevitably used that ultimate mecha cliche, the rocket punch. It's not like Sunrise forgot how to do a cool battle, either--the final, vicious, one-on-one duel mercifully takes place sans flying equipment and goofy weapons.
The one quality-suicide attempt I didn't see coming, but probably should have, is an Evangelion-inspired metaphysical showdown that kicks off the finale. Thankfully, that's where it gets back on track--Lelouch wastes no time dealing with it how you always wish heroes would, making the whole sidestep forgivable. The series then spends several episodes in a much more concrete endgame.
Now, back to Lelouch. Code Geass runs on Lelouch and his Machiavellian schemes, so the real make-or-break of R2 is whether he gets to do his thing. At the end, hoo-boy, does he ever. The middle stretch, however, is again disappointing--creative Geass use, vicious backstabs, and wicked reveals are disappointingly sparse. Still, there's a fantastic bit early on where he gives a pitch-perfect, heartstring-tugging hero speech, which is revealed to be carefully manufactured and completely disingenuous. The exodus from Japan is also spectacular.
And in the end, that's what kept me watching R2. For all the attempts at self-destruction, there are just enough interesting scenes and occasional bits of Lelouch brilliance to hold it together until it gets back on track.
As for the good part, it doesn't end up at all where you might think it's going, but once it gets there it makes perfect sense.
The chaotic finale of the first series had one flaw: Instead of the rickety tower of fragile alliances and double-crosses finally collapsing under its own weight, fate just steps in and smashes the whole thing with a proverbial baseball bat. The speed and totality with which everything went from hopeful to Hell was amazing, but the method seemed downright crude by the standards the series had set for itself.
R2 makes no such mistake--since it's no longer rushing to wrap up only to start over, it lets the drama and convoluted plans play out in full. The result is exactly the sort of Lelouch-driven, bloody symphony of heroism-through-villainy you would hope for.
My only complaint, and this likely comes from the ongoing attempts to appease fans, is that it's uncharacteristically merciful to the characters. Oh, it's still brutal--the body count is high and the tragedy multi-layered--but when all is said and done it wasn't even close to the spectacle of the first series. I'm not a big fan of tragedy, but if ever there was a series that shouldn't ease up at the end, it's Code Geass.1
You could, I suppose, argue that "hope through horror" is the motto of R2, and there are still a few beautifully tragic moments. In fact, one of the best bits in the middle section is a death scene in which quick cuts to blood subtly welling up from a chest wound capture life slipping away more effectively than histrionics or swelling soundtrack.
On that note, the visuals are one area where R2 consistently lives up to its predecessor--fluid animation, moody settings, and sharp, evocative character art. Stooper-mecha aside, the battles are animated beautifully. The music, not so much; while the background score remains solid, the two new opening themes go from mediocre to downright lame. At least Ali Project is back for the final end theme.
The Japanese acting is, again, a spectacle, with Jun Fukuyama's Lelouch at the charismatic, split-personalitied, megalomanic center of it all. There isn't quite the level of brutal emotional trauma anchoring the drama that the first series had, but the supporting cast features a wide variety of colorful voices. The most memorable of the new cast members is again Rollo, for the fragile, chillingly pleasant voice Takahiro Mizushima gives him.
In the end the biggest tragedy of R2 is that it takes a wicked twist on a commercial genre, then does everything it can to re-commercialize and bleed it dry. Yet, for everything it does wrong, the characters and concept are strong enough to (barely) weather the marketing-driven storm--greed and its partner Pizza Hut fail to kill the series. When it finally gets to where it should have started it dishes out a fitting climax to a spectacularly malicious series.
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On account of the increased commercialization the middle stretch is closer to Gundam Wing and its kin than even the original Code Geass. Similarities to X are also stronger in the end stretch, both on account of the metaphysics and cataclysmic scale. Please Save My Earth is another one with a sympathetic, similarly conflicted villain to Lelouch (though, in the inverse of R2's quality problem, it disintegrates in the last episode).
Notes and Trivia
The first Code Geass series was originally aired in a late night 1:30am timeslot; R2 was moved to the prime after-school 5pm slot.
Britannia generally uses an Arthurian naming scheme; in addition to the capital, Pendragon, the Knights of the Round's Knightmare Frames are all named after the Knights of the Round Table. An exception is that team of Valkyries, which are of Norse mythological origin.
Speaking of which, for evidence of just how overboard the wild array of fancy mecha go in this series, you can look over the 10,000 word Wikipedia article on the mecha alone. There's also a nearly 20,000 word article on the characters.
Visually-speaking, the original Japanese TV broadcast and the Japanese DVD release weren't quite the same; a few shots scattered through the series had the artwork improved for the DVD release. Unlike the normal "TV safe" or "spiced up for DVD" visual changes, the adjustments are purely artistic--mostly just little, sloppy bits of character art replaced with something more consistent. I believe all the US releases are of the cleaned-up version.
As with the first series, there are another nine short "in-between" episodes produced for the DVD release. They consist of an audio-drama-style dialogue with static illustrations of the scene. Two are prequel episodes and one is an epilogue, with the rest fitting between 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.
Footnote 1: This is an extreme spoiler footnote on the very end--only read this if you've already seen it. The last shot is somewhat disappointing from a dramatic standpoint. It had built up one of those perfect tragic crescendos where the characters have a sudden moment of realization, yet it comes too late to stop the tragic end. Simultaneously, Lelouch pulls off the ultimate scheme, wherein he checkmates himself and demonstrates--as he'd tried to but been prevented from doing several times before--that he's willing to make any sacrifice for victory. That was near-perfect. Then, in the final post-credit shot, it slips in a cop-out that, while no doubt a relief for Lelouch fans, completely deflates the tragedy. (The situation would have been reversed had Nunally been dead, but it tried to have its cake and eat it too by backing out of that dramatic punch as well.) You could argue that it wasn't implying Lelouch lived, but I don't buy that at all, and I want to. I will give that Lelouch needed to live to fulfill his contract with C.C., and did not need to stay dead for his plan to work, but sacrificing the perfect coup de grace was a narrative mistake. (Also, if you want to get technical, he could easily have dealt with C.C. by pawning immortality off on Suzaku, confident he wouldn't abuse it, and that even has the additional layer of tragedy in that Suzaku had already lost everything and wanted to die.)
US DVD Review
Bandai's DVDs come in four two-disc chunks with Japanese and English soundtracks and an English subtitle track. Bonuses include the in-between audio episodes, galleries, previews, some commentaries, and a few other odds and ends. Limited Edition versions add a volume of the manga and fancier outer slipcover.
There are a few brief but overt sexual themes and a moderate amount of general fanservice, but the mature content is largely limited to violence of every sort and associated questionable morality.
Violence: 4 - Literally millions, both innocent and military, die in battles and crossfire, and there are also a few incidences of more direct, graphic violence on a personal scale.
Nudity: 2 - Periodic fanservice-type shower scenes and skimpy clothing.
Sex/Mature Themes: 2 - Nothing substantial physical, but a few bits of overt sexuality and general mature themes.
Language: 2 - I haven't seen an English translation to comment, but some moderately strong language.