This review was revised on 12th January 2010. Although the wording has changed, my thoughts and sentiments on the show remain exactly the same. Please take note, however, that the Overall rating changed from 8.7 to 8.5 to take into account the relative ranking of another series.
Opening with a chess game where a high-school student, Lelouch Lamperouge, defeats an aristocrat in record time, Code Geass is a show clearly low in logic and high in cheese. When said student acquires mind-control powers, an all-black superhero costume, and starts playing political games with people as pawns, events get really dumbfounding. In spite of this, Code Geass brims with the kind of high-octane antics that make getting swept away in its story hard to resist.
At the start, terrible things happen to Japanese civilians in rapid, manipulative scenarios to grab attention and sympathy. From then on, it's a rollercoaster ride in which Lelouch (under the pseudonym 'Zero') outmanoeuvres the oppressive Britannian Empire between bouts of maniacal laughter and sweeping hand gestures. The show is an exercise in theatrics, a high-budget pantomime where every chorus of 'He's behind you!' at the Britannians feels as exciting as the first. Indeed, this series embraces melodrama with such joyous frenzy, that its liberal application becomes an endearing trait rather than a handicap.
While any political venture is bound to be fraught with controversies, Code Geass settles only for the juciest. Who can forget the Emperor announcing his warped form of moral darwinism to the world? 'People are not equal!' he asserts. 'We must fight! Compete, take, control, possess! Beyond that lies the future.' Or the show's use of that classic 'buddies at war' plot device a la Gundam SEED, where Lelouch and Suzaku Kururugi stand in opposing camps despite being childhood friends. My personal award, however, goes to Princess Euphemia's stunning revelation on war, which sums up the shallow waters of intellectualism in which Code Geass wades: 'Suzaku, I finally understand. It's not about ideal countries, justice, or other such complicated things. I just want to see smiles.' Tell that to the Iraqis, sweetie.
Moreover, although strictly classifiable as a mecha show, Code Geass is not at all defined by this feature; while the political manoeuvres drive the story, the mecha serve the same function as spoilers on an already monstrous sports car. At some point the writers thought: 'They're tacky and superfluous, but what the heck, they'll make things go faster!' Indeed, as accessories, they are extremely good fun, delivering the kind of pyrotechnics and en masse casualties an action show needs these days to keep the kids slavering.
With all its excesses and crude pseudo-philosophies, nobody could mistake Code Geass for a subtle, intelligent show. On the other hand, I can't deny the slick way it appeals to sentiment and intuition to deliver a jaw-dropping political adventure. It verges on madness and, once or twice, even flirts with genius, but always with a keen eye for spectacle.
Nobody does 'cute' like the ladies at CLAMP. Only they could be responsible for the adorably anorexic character designs reminiscent of their previous works like Tsubasa Chronicle. The unique concept is bright, cartoonish, and full of kawai details - from princesses with flowing pink hair to the quaint upward curve of the girls' miniskirts. Even Lelouch, despite his tortured personality, is on cel nothing more than a bug-eyed bishie. Yet the animation as a whole stops short of looking as childish as Tsubasa Chronicle thanks to the generous application of gory blood splatters and smoothly-animated mecha battles.
On the other hand, the show offers an awkward set of main themes. While they don't suit the tone of the narrative, I'm not certain their schizophrenic application is wholly inappropriate either. The banal first opening theme says nothing of what’s to come in the story, but will likely appeal to avid J-pop lovers. Later, the opening theme switches to the bizarre ‘Kaidoku Funou’ by Jinn; with a funky riff and discordant vocals, this one is more of a controversial choice. I have come to appreciate its unique sound over time and rank it as one of my favourite themes, although this is unlikely to be the case with most other viewers. The rest of the soundtrack consists of choral and instrumental pieces designed to work with the show's grandness - the chorals, in particular, help produce some rousing tragic scenes.
Code Geass is an excellent example of polishing a narrative by using the characters like a dishrag; it manipulates its cast with such ruthless disregard for their development, that most remain unmemorable at best. A handful of main characters deliver entertaining performances and serve their purpose within the narrative well, although they sometimes evince glaring contradictions or convenient mindlessness.
Take Suzaku, for instance, who seems a typical hero - he wants to make the world a better place by changing Britannia from within. Unfortunately, beyond appearances his character falls apart. I'm unsure what the writers were aiming for when they scripted him, but they certainly succeeded in creating a textbook hypcrite. Even as the Britannians massacre his fellow Japanese nationals at every given opportunity, he chooses to fight Zero as part of the Britannian army in the name of justice. With that kind of mindless loyalty to the wrong side, his interventions against Zero appear not so much heroic as idiotic. The show's saving grace is that it makes no pretense of being philosophically consistent - Suzaku, like all the others, is but a convenient cog to facilitate the manipulation of my emotions.
Only Lelouch resembles anything like a fully-fleshed human being. He is to Code Geass what Light Yagami is to Death Note. Armed with a similar arsenal of histrionic speeches ('Either live with me, or die with me!'), he nonetheless comes across more charming. Unlike Light, falling in love with Lelouch is unavoidable for the simple fact that he fights on behalf of the victims whilst having little regard for his own status. In fact, his greatest point of fascination is that, beneath his hatred for Britannia, he loathes himself even more. Delivering a performance that's theatrical but also full of acute anguish, he epitomises everything that's brilliant about Code Geass.
Still reeling from the conclusion of Death Note? Make Code Geass the antidote. While it contains melodrama and cheese to saturation levels, it delivers them in a heady narrative that few could resist. With a bounty of twists and cliff-hangers on the menu, Code Geass is the perfect way for mainstream fans hungry for action to burn away several hours.
In 2010, the Britannian Empire enslaved Japan using powerful mecha known as Knightmares; in the aftermath Japan was renamed Area 11, and its people began a hard and terrible existence. Lelouch, a Britannian student living in Area 11, has grown up hating the Empire and everything it stands for. One day, in the middle of a terrorist attack, Lelouch meets a mysterious girl who grants him the ability to control minds. Can he use his new power to fight for freedom, or will his hatred twist his good intentions into mindless acts of vengeance?
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