Last month, the newest in a series of midquels to critically acclaimed 2006 anime Code Geass, called Code Geass: Akito the Exiled, aired in Japanese theatres. I saw the preview and it piqued my interest, but there was one small problem: I'd never seen Code Geass. So a few weeks back, I sat about fixing that.
From my move to Japan in 2005 until 2012 when I began writing for Kotaku, I watched almost no anime — despite watching hundreds of series both before and since. Because of this, there is a noticeable hole in my anime history. Over the years I have attempted to fill in the gap by watching shows like Steins;Gate and Angel Beats. However, none has been recommended to me as many times as Code Geass has. And with good reason: It's an anime that takes the mecha and war themes from Gundam and mixes it with the psychological and moral exploration of Death Note.
[This review contains massive spoilers for Code Geass. You have been warned.]
Code Geass is set in an alternate universe where, during the French Revolution, the nobles of all Europe fled to the American colonies (which never became independent) and ruled there from that time on. The resulting country, "Britannia," is the world's foremost superpower by the time of Code Geass. Unlike America as we know it, Britannia's code is "all men are not created equal." Rather the strongest — be that by physical strength or through nepotism — will rise to the top. With this philosophy in mind, Britannia conquered Japan with its mecha army and turned the country into a land where the invaders live in splendor and the Japanese — now known as "11s" — live in ghettos.
The main lead of Code Geass is Lelouch — a prince of Britannia in hiding in Japan. His goals are simple: He wants to kill his father, the Emperor, for abandoning him and his crippled sister Nunnally after the assassination of their mother. Along the way, he plans to discover the identity of and then kill anyone involved with his mother's murderer. If he has to overthrow the government of Britannia to do this, so be it.
At the start of the anime, Lelouch is a quite intelligent high schooler — and a master of strategy beyond all but the greatest of generals. However, he is still years away from putting his plans for revenge into action. That is until the day that he gains a superpower, thanks to his chance meeting with mysterious immortal girl C.C.: the titular "Geass." With it, he can give any person one (and only one) command that they will obey no matter what. Power in hand, Lelouch starts his quest for revenge.
On the other side of the story is Suzaku, Lelouch and Nunnally's childhood best friend and the son of the last prime minster of Japan. During Lelouch's years in hiding, Suzaku has worked within Britannia's system by starting to work his way through the ranks of its military. But while Lelouch seeks to tear down the system by defeating it, Suzaku wants to climb to the top and change it from within.
With this, our duality is set up: The prince of the invaders siding with the Japanese rebels to overthrow the Britannian government, while the "prince" of Japan sides with the invaders.
Of course, in typical anime fashion, they also soon end up going to high school with one another.
The first season of Code Geass alternates among three different types of stories. The first are those about Lelouch's masked alter ego "Zero" — as he goes from helping various rebel terrorist cells to eventually forming them into an army and making his play to take over Japan. The second kind deal with Lelouch's normal school life — his personal relationships with Nunnally, Suzaku, and the rest of his school friends. The third mixes the two and deals with his attempts to hide his secret identity while still having the appearance of a normal life.
But really, when it comes down to it, the first season of Code Geass is the story of a hero becoming a villain, step by step. At first, Lelouch seems like a hero — or perhaps an "anti-hero" — we can get behind. He has a legitimate grievance: His mother was brutally murdered, and his father's response was to decide against searching for the killer and at the same time to banish his youngest children to Japan — just months before invasion. Add to that how evil Brittanian society is and it's hard not to root for "Zero" and his rebel army, the Black Knights.
However, step-by-step we watch Lelouch walk down the path of evil. His initial mindset is the problem. Outside of his personal life at school, he sees everyone as pawns — allies, enemies, and civilians alike. While he sells the idea to the common man and his fellow rebels that he and his Black Knights are heroes of justice, he doesn't mean a word of it. The liberation of Japan is simply a means to an end — namely his revenge. And if he can get that revenge by sacrificing Japan, he'll do it.
At first, he kills only soldiers. But soon, he is collapsing mountains and burying hundreds of civilians — laughing maniacally to himself and reveling in his cleverness. It is only when this affects one of his friends (as he accidentally kills her father in said landslide) that he starts to question it. Yet, when confronted by what he has done, he runs from the idea, simply ordering her with his Geass to forget about him — thus erasing the reminder of his guilt.
His sins continue to mount. He kills his own brother; he promises to help a separate rebel cell and then kills them all, martyring them as a way to increase his own power; and he mind-controls countless innocents into becoming murderers.
The closer Lelouch gets to his goal, the more focused on it he becomes. He sees only his goals as relevant, and he all but discards his interpersonal relationships at school. By the end, only two things matter to him: revenge and Nunnally.
Meanwhile, Suzaku is trying to be a good and honorable person despite working for an evil, tyrannical government. Time and time again he is ordered to leave civilians to their fate, to kill an innocent, or to commit some other atrocity. Yet, somehow he manages to walk the fine line of finding a path to success without becoming a monster in the eyes of others.
Yet Suzaku already sees himself as a monster. As a child, he killed his own father so that Japan would be forced to surrender to Brittania and the war would end. While the act saved countless lives, he still sees himself as a murderer. And while he now fights for a noble goal, he nonetheless has a subconscious death wish, revealed in his relentlessly reckless acts of placing himself in the line of fire to save innocents.
However, in a moment of panic for his friend, Lelouch changes this about Suzaku — using his Geass and ordering him to "live." Now the man who is searching for an honorable death can never find one. If his life is threatened, he will do whatever it takes to live — no matter how underhanded or evil. With no other way out, Suzaku's only path to redemption is to double down on his goals and reform Britannia from the inside. Luckily, he finds someone already wanting to do this.
Euphemia, the Britannian princess closest in age to Lelouch and Nunnally and their half-sister, falls in love with Suzaku and shares his dream to make Japan a more equal place — even if it goes against her father's "survival of the fittest" ideology. And as sub-viceroy of Area 11 (Japan), she has power to work toward change. Instead of the violent revolution Lelouch advocates, she seeks to give the Japanese, who want freedom and relative autonomy, a special area to do that — something similar to our world's Hong Kong.
In the face of his half-sister's plan, Lelouch has a choice to make: Either help her and give up on his ambitions for revenge or use his power on her to make her fail.
This is the point of no return for Lelouch. In manner, disposition, and idealism, Euphemia is practically identical to Nunnally. And when faced with this, he steps back from the edge and makes the heroic choice. He gives up on his revenge to give Nunnally what she longs for: a place where Lelouch and she can live a peaceful life.
Tragically, in the anime's most dramatic and heartbreaking twist, it is at this moment that he unwittingly loses control of his powers. When he says to Euphemia "I could have ordered you to 'Kill all the Japanese' and you would have done it," the peaceful princess' mind twists from shocked horror to acceptance and she sets out to do just that — ordering her army to massacre thousands of civilians.
Much time has been spent showing the limits of Lelouch's Geass power. Namely that while it can only be used once per person, the effects are permanent. So as Zero, Lelouch has no choice but to kill Euphemia and end her dream — making him a hero of the Japanese people and starting a widespread uprising across Japan in the process.
With Euphemia dead, Lelouch crosses over into full villain mode. In the battle for Tokyo that follows, Lelouch kills thousands — collapsing part of the city just to take out enemy forces as he laughs. He cares nothing for the rebels that fight alongside him or for his school friends, and would readily sacrifice either group for his little sister. And that's exactly what happens.
At the key moment between victory and defeat, Nunnally is kidnapped and so Lelouch abandons his army and their cause, leaving them to fail without his leadership. Moreover, he isn't even able to rescue Nunnally as he comes face-to-face with Suzaku, who has discovered Lelouch's identity and what he did to Euphemia.
Thus the first season ends with Zero's total defeat. Over the course of the season, he walks down the path of evil for his goals — and it is these that destroy him in the end. He has no friends, his sister is missing, his army is destroyed, and he is a prisoner of a man who wants nothing more than to kill him. He is further from his goal than ever before.
The second season, R2, starts over with Lelouch seemingly enjoying a normal school life — except without Nunnally. Brainwashed by his father's own Geass (which can add and remove memories), Lelouch is now destined to live a normal life — never getting his revenge nor giving Nunnally the peaceful world she longs for. In other words, it's Lelouch's own personal hell even if he doesn't know it himself.
Soon enough he gets his memories back thanks to C.C. and once again begins building his army to liberate Japan and overthrow his father. The difference this time, however, is how he does it.
In his first rebellion, Lelouch was willing to sacrifice anyone or anything to achieve his goals. Because he viewed everyone as pawns to be manipulated, he'd use their own goals to gain loyalty and then exploit them, having no real commitment to seeing their goals accomplished.
In R2, Zero is trying to do it right. He cares for the people of Japan, his schoolmates, and his fellow Black Knights. He is not willing to sacrifice any of them or the relationships he's built with them. Instead of using them as stepping stones, he works with each group to make his and their goals the same so all end up with what they want. While the first season is Lelouch's fall into villainy, R2 is the story of his heroic redemption.
When Nunnally suddenly reappears and is given the governorship of Japan, Lelouch takes the Black Knights to China — not only to avoid fighting his sister but also to encourage the rest of the world to rise up against Britannia. When his best pilot and good friend Kallen is captured, he tries to save her regardless of the obvious tactical risk. Instead of trying to win by military conquest alone, Lelouch begins building a coalition of nations to stand up to Britannia. In the first season, he would have likely done none of these things.
However, while his means toward victory are generally good, like any person he backslides from time to time. Unfortunately, though, he backslides hard. After the murder of one of his friends by another Geass user, Lelouch leads a group of Black Knights against a Geass research facility, massacring all there — men, women, and children.
Of course, there are consequences to Lelouch's actions. In fact, this entire anime is about consequences.
Eventually, every evil choice Lelouch makes over both seasons eventually comes to light: from the secrets he's kept and countless lies he's told to the atrocities he's committed. And so on the edge of victory, he loses it all a second time.
While Lelouch has had a complete turnaround in character and is, by and large, the hero he pretended to be in the first season, that doesn't mean his past crimes are forgotten. R2 is Lelouch's attempt at redemption, but in his case, redemption is impossible. Defeated, he goes off to face his father for a final confrontation.
Suzaku, on the other hand, finds himself falling towards evil. The woman he loved is dead by the hands of his best friend. However, he is faced with a torturous problem. With his memories altered, Lelouch is the ideal version of his best friend and not the murderer he hates. Suzaku spends much of the season trying to figure out if Lelouch has his memories back. While he loves the Lelouch he grew up with, he hates the Lelouch that became Zero. The conflict tears at him constantly as he becomes far from the idealist he was in the first season.
Yet, when faced with his own point of no return — the torture and mind-rape of Kallen to discover if Lelouch has gotten his memories back — Suzaku steps back. Just as when Lelouch had to make a similar choice about mind controlling Euphemia, Suzaku chooses the path of a hero. Unfortunately, also like with Lelouch, the Geass powers make this choice moot.
In the mecha battle with Kallen that follows, Suzaku is all but defeated, ready to die — ready to atone for all the evil he has done. Unfortunately, he knows of a way to survive and so the "live" Geass placed on him by Lelouch long ago kicks in once again, and he launches a nuke in downtown Tokyo. He kills hundreds of thousands in one bright flash.
With this act, Suzaku finds himself irredeemable in his own eyes — not to mention numerous others'. His goal of saving Japan from inside the system is now unattainable. After all, what Japanese would follow the man who killed hundreds of thousands of civilians just to save himself. With nothing left to lose, he joins Lelouch and C.C. to stop the mad Emperor's plans.
Most anime would end here: The heroes, disgraced though they are, defeat the evil bad guy and save the world. But to Lelouch and Suzaku the victory is hollow. The world is safe, but now Britannia has nuclear weapons. And with such power, Britannia will rule the planet even without the Emperor.
At their lowest point, the two make a pact: to bring about the peaceful world that Euphemia and Nunnally dreamed of — no matter what evils must be done or how many must die for it to be so. And what easier way to bring people together than to present them with a common enemy.
So Lelouch sets about becoming the most evil man in human history. He uses his Geass to take over Britannia and enslave thousands. He holds hostage the leaders of the fledgling coalition of countries he built as Zero. He betrays every friend and ally (other than C.C., Suzaku and his small group of Britannian accomplices needed to pull off his plans) and kills more than a few of them in the battles that follow. In the end, he is left the unquestioned ruler of the world with mind control powers and the means to launch a nuclear strike at any place on the planet.
Months later as Lelouch parades the defeated through the streets of Tokyo, Zero, hero of justice, once again appears and kills the evil dictator — freeing mankind in one thrust of a sword and bringing about true world peace.
While the two can never be redeemed for all they have done, this is how they choose to atone. Lelouch dies for all his crimes — forever to be remembered as the most evil man in history and the scapegoat for every problem in the world for decades to come. Suzaku lives on as Zero, guiding the world while at the same time carrying the impossible weight of the guilt of all they have done, unable to take his own life.
From start to finish Code Geass is an excellent morality play built on the classic structure of heroic rise, fall, and redemption ending with a heroic sacrifice. Through Lelouch and Suzaku we see two people start with noble goals only to be corrupted by the evil found without and within. Yet, it is only when they do the greatest evil that they bring about the greatest good.
In the end, is what they did right? The anime gives no easy answers. Instead, it simply gives you the external facts and their internal motivations and lets you be the judge.
Add to the moral quandaries a healthy helping of mecha, superpowers, and a cast of complex, dynamic characters (that I could easily write another 3000 words about) and you have a show that is most deserving of its place as one of the best anime of the past decade — and perhaps of all time.
Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion and Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion R2 are available on DVD in the US.
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