As the word on the ‘net may tell you, Code Geass is about as over the top as anime can possibly get (which says a lot, I might add). A high-energy mix of several genres, from mecha, to war drama, and even high-school drama, Code Geass is, I would say, a major train wreck of ideas and conventions. Unlike many other train wrecks, however, Code Geass possesses enough energy to carry the viewer through its numerous absurdities. To put it bluntly, Code Geass may be a train wreck, but it’s an exciting train wreck.
The story revolves around a Lelouch Vi Brittania, an exiled prince of an empire that has conquered and brutally oppressed Japan, renaming it Area 11. Lelouch has grown up despising the empire for failing to protect his family from a terrorist attack years prior which left his mother dead and his adorable little sister blind and crippled. When said prince is given mind-control powers by a mysterious girl, he proceeds to don a cape and mask as part of his plan to crush the empire.
Okay, if the aforementioned set-up sounds cliché, don’t let it fool you – the clichés don’t extend past that. Once Lelouch gains the power he needs, instead of just joining the ranks of the good guys, he proceeds to take charge and form his own army to lead a rebellion. What follows is a large scale political maneuvering and chess-style strategies, courtesy of main protagonist, Lelouch. It’s his ruthless conniving that makes Code Geass so much guilty fun to watch. Whenever he manages to pull of one of his signature “miracles” or traps his enemies with his uncanny intelligence, you can’t help but go “whoa…awesome.”
As if to just add one more layer of “awesome” the series also includes large-scale mecha battles. While they seem like a bit of an afterthought, they’re nonetheless bloody good fun, especially when Lelouch steps in and uses his classic stratagems to tip things in his favor. “Whoa…awesome.”
From beginning to end, the show’s events are hurled at a rapid fire pace, and it is here where the show becomes an exciting train wreck. Imagine a show in which each episode presents a wealth of over-the-top antics, plus a wealth of fan service and political intrigue. How about one more “whoa…awesome?”
Unfortunately, with so much going on in so little time, there’s not much room to develop some of the show’s many plot points. As a result, instead of falling back on previously established plot elements, the show often relies on contrived plot devices made up right on the spot. The most blatant of these comes towards the end of the show. Instead of all the fragile alliances falling apart at the seams, the writers fling a convenient plot point into the mix, and suddenly everything falls apart. While it’s pretty shocking, I can’t help but find it pretty cheap as well.
The show also suffers from being an incomplete work. Like pretty much every other episode of the series, the final episode ends on a cliffhanger. The writers are making darn sure viewers return for the show’s second season.
Still, even with all the flaws, there’s no denying the sheer amount of fun to be had with Code Geass. The show embraces theatricality with such frenetic energy that it’s possible to just sit back and enjoy it for the cheesy, contrived mess it is.
With character designs done by Clamp, the same guys who did Card Captor Sakura, the characters look unnaturally cute for a show of this type. By “cute” I mean tall, lanky characters with large eyes and slender bodies. While some may find this style to be poorly suited to the series, I personally found it to be an asset: In a series that revolves around theatricality, the ridiculous looking characters actually added to the show’s feel rather than detract from it. Perhaps the only real criticism I’d have would be with the overly-simple design of the Zero costume. Consisting of a black faceless mask, a cape, and a purple suit, it’s not nearly as imposing as you’d expect.
As for the mecha battles, expect the same kind of kinetic fun we usually get from Gundam’s studio Sunrise. Thanks to their talent for animating mechas in action, as well as a reasonably high budget, they remain fun and engaging from beginning to end. In fact, as I sit here writing this review, I cannot remember a single shortcut taken.
On the other hand, the series offers a mixed bag of themes. The first opening, ‘Colors’, is a bizarre J-Pop tune that will undoubtedly be divided between those who love it and those who find it completely out of place in the series. Personally, while it took some getting used to, I found it to be quite catchy and fit the grandiose nature of the show quite well. On the other hand, the show’s second opening theme, ‘Kaidoku Fudou’, was just bizarre, and didn’t fit the tone of the show at all. As for the ending themes, all I can say is your mileage may vary.
While the theme songs are schizophrenic, the BGM remains consistently fantastic. In keeping with the show’s plot, the score is wonderfully overblown, offering a wide variety of orchestral and choral tunes that add to the grandness of any scene. Likewise, the voice acting is also first rate, with Jun Fukuyama nailing Lelouch’s imposing, amoral tone. On the other hand, the English dub is hardly worthy of mention. They all give a solid effort, but none of them have quite the same edge as the originals.
I’ve seen many large scale shows manage to use a majority of its cast to great effect in the grand scheme of things, but Code Geass is not one of them. Instead of giving us a memorable set of individuals that grow and develop, we have a host of characters who end up as mere throwaways, dropping in an out of obscurity as the plot dictates. As a result, only a handful of characters are likely to leave any lasting impression.
When I say “characters,” I am referring primarily to the show’s protagonist, Lelouch. He is a character who is often compared to Death Note’s Light Yagami, something I personally resent. Granted, it’s easy to draw similarities between the two, at least initially – Both operate with ruthless efficiency in their plans to create a better world, and both are super-arrogant and egotistical. Nonetheless, Lelouch soon proves to be far more complex than Death Note’s principal psychopath. Unlike Light, Lelouch remains sympathetic for the simple reason that what he does isn’t out of any God complex but merely out of concern for his loved ones. Also unlike Light, Lelouch remains fully self-aware. He knows his actions will have consequences, he knows of the Hell he’ll have to put himself through, and he’s more than willing to accept it – except, of course, on the occasions when his plans go really wrong.
Playing opposite Lelouch is Suzaku, who represents the noble, idealistic hero and the complete opposite of the sinister Lelouch. As such, he plans to save Japan by changing Britannia from within as opposed to using violence, which puts him and Lelouch on opposing sides. At face value he seems good-to-the-bone, but his mindless loyalty to Britannia, an empire that brutally oppresses his fellow Japanese at every opportunity, makes him appear as little more than a complete hypocrite. Still, once his back-story is given light, his actions start to gain more credibility, and he becomes one of the show’s more fascinating personalities.
Other notable characters include Kallen, the conflicted rebel ace pilot (and ecchi-shot provider), and the mysterious geass girl C.C., whose bemusement towards Lelouch’s antics add a dose of much needed humor. Everyone else pretty much falls into the aforementioned throwaway category. Code Geass, therefore, has a strong main cast and a weak supporting cast.
Think of Code Geass as the best kind of summer blockbuster: cheesy, absurd, but oozing with the kind of theatrics that makes going to the movies such a fun time. While it’s plot is rough around the edges and may not be to everyone’s taste, Code Geass comes recommended to those willing to turn their brain off and enjoy the spectacle.