Released in 2006, Code Geass tells a story about a young man who seeks revenge against the family who discarded him. But he's not just any man - he is one of many children of the ruler of the Britannian Empire. After accusing his father, the Emperor, of doing nothing to protect his mother from a successful assassination plot, he and his sister were banished to a distant country known as Japan. That country was then later invaded, taken over by the Empire, and renamed 'Area 11' (Japan's citizens were henceforth referred to as 'Elevens'). The siblings were thought to have perished during the fighting. But seven years later, this man, the former seventeenth successor to the throne, emerges from hiding in order to bring down an Empire which has forgotten him.
Code Geass is a complex political tale that brings together a cast of varying stances, mindsets, and beliefs. When the main character, Lelouch, begins his campaign as a nameless rebel against the Britannian Empire, he quickly draws a multitude of people to him: friends, allies, family, and of course, enemies. His struggle to bring together and lead a cohesive Japanese rebellion, and the opposition he faces from both inside and outside forces, stretch his keen, strategic mind to its limits as he manoeuvres through both a literal battlefield and a political one. Rarely does the momentum of this series falter, even during more tender and comedic moments.
While there are many characters who play significant parts in Code Geass, let's review the four who feature most prominently...
Lelouch vi Britannia (aka. Lelouch Lamperouge)
The story begins with Lelouch as a Britannian student at Ashford Academy. Known as 'Lelouch Lamperouge', he is introduced as a smart, arrogant young man who regularly participates in chess gambling matches. After turning around a losing game in record time, he has the misfortune to be caught up in a military operation which is pursuing a truck driven by a pair of Japanese rebels. The pair in question had stolen what was thought to be a capsule of poison gas. In actual fact, the capsule played prison for a young woman.
Lelouch's first step on his path to taking down the Britannian Empire begins when the woman in the capsule grants him a strange power known as 'Geass', the so-called 'power of kings'. With it, Lelouch is able to give an absolute command to anybody he has eye contact with. Be it answers to his questions, requests to forget certain memories, or even an order to commit suicide - they will unquestionably obey.
One can say that such a power suits a person like him very well. While none of his princely arrogance shows at school around his friends and classmates, all of it comes to the fore when he delivers his orders.
"I, Lelouch vi Britannia, command you...to die!"
-- Lelouch vi Britannia (episode 1, season 1)
The above words were said immediately upon being granted his Geass. It shows the strength of his initial hatred for his former home country, that he is able to order the suicides of a squadron of Britannian men without hesitation. Although the mass killing clearly bothers him after it is committed, it doesn't stop him from stealing a mecha war machine shortly afterwards and leaping right into the massacre happening outside to help the Japanese rebel forces to victory.
(Left: Lelouch with Geass active in his eye)
His self-assurance in his own intelligence and capabilities is what gives him the confidence to fight the Britannian army. He had always planned to do so eventually, but the Geass, in his own words, "moved his schedule forward" (episode 5, season 1). Lelouch displays an incredible disregard for human life in spite of his initial queasiness at murder. Perhaps it's the distance he has to it as the commander sitting behind the front lines, or perhaps it's that his desire to destroy the Empire supersedes any morals he might have had. In any case, he has an indifferent attitude towards the deaths of civilians and soldiers while in the midst of a battlefield. He is completely willing to sacrifice a few in order to achieve his goals.
That said, he isn't completely without sympathy. There are few people whom he is close to and even fewer whom he calls 'friend' - and they are all on the Ashford Academy student council. It's difficult to tell whether he only acts friendly or genuinely enjoys their company as there's the sense that he's forcing himself to endure their whims, particularly those of the council president. Much of their antics are met with fond exasperation on his part.
However, one person he definitely cares about is his sister, Nunnally (see right). Left unable to walk during the assassination plot which killed their mother, Nunnally is the antithesis of her brother in that she is unfailingly kind and compassionate. One of Lelouch's core reasons for toppling Britannia is so that he can create a world that she can safely live in, one that doesn't depend upon survival of the fittest. If Lelouch has any weakness, it is his sister. He thinks nothing of abandoning a battle in order to save her even though it comes at the cost of losing the fight.
In order to make his ambition a reality, Lelouch creates a masked figure known as 'Zero' and forms an organisation from the Japanese resistance groups left scattered throughout the country. He names this organisation the 'Order of the Black Knights', likely to mock the 'true' knights which serve and protect members of the royal family. Under Zero's leadership, the Black Knights quickly gain recognition, military power, and influence enough that they establish a micronation within Area 11. They even eventually become powerful enough to function as a fourth major, independent power on the world stage.
Lelouch's campaign against Britannia repeatedly forces him to make weighty decisions about human cost. Although he has been fully prepared for the carnage that results from his rebellion, the pressure to remain a strong, unshakeable commander grows increasingly hard as the series proceeds. Between the need to harden himself to the reality of war and the need to remain human enough to see his ideal world flourish, Lelouch's struggle to balance his double life as the masked leader of the rebellion against that of an uninvolved student makes for an intense, gripping narrative.
The young woman who bestowed the power of Geass upon Lelouch. Very little is known about her at the start, beyond that she is immortal and the subject of secret research by one of the Britannian princes. She had been stolen from a facility under the mistaken impression that her prison capsule was filled with gas, and was released when her capsule was opened to expel that gas.
Known as C.C., she becomes an ally of Lelouch as he takes on the identity of Zero and forms a consolidated rebel group, the Order of the Black Knights. While at first her relationship with Lelouch is one of indifference and convenience, a tentative trust forms between them after he insists on saving her during a battle. It is a slow-building trust though: C.C.'s assistance is always rendered under the excuse that she is doing so in order to help him fulfil his contract with her. She makes sure to remind him of this whenever he requests her help, and steps in to rescue him from life-threatening situations regardless of whether he wants her to or not.
Beyond helping her contractee, C.C. is a willful person who operates under her own rules. Outside of Lelouch's battles and war plans, she has very little care for the convenience of others. Early examples include openly wandering the Ashford Academy campus despite being wanted by the Britannian army, deliberately misleading Nunnally into thinking she and Lelouch had gotten engaged, and also daring to expose herself again in order to obtain a giant slice of pizza during a school festival.
"We made a promise to share a future together. [To Lelouch:] Didn't we?"
-- C.C. to Nunnally about her 'contract' (episode 5, season 1)
Due to being immortal and immune to Geass, she has lived a long and lonely life. As a result, she's extremely cynical about human nature. History, she knows, will always repeat itself. Human beings have a history of war making, and no matter the result, she knows she will survive it because of her immortality. It's why the only care she has for current events is if they affect the person she has made a contract with and rarely cares for the lives of anyone outside of that.
As the series progresses though, she and Lelouch develop more than a simple trust in each other. She becomes instrumental to his plans and a staunch ally. Although it's revealed that she had been using him in order to further a plan set in motion by his father, she abandons it in order to see Lelouch's vision of the world come to fruition. The apathetic, amoral demeanour she had held for much of the series is discarded once she makes up her mind to do so, culminating in the impulsive action she takes to save Lelouch during a surprise attack close to the end of the series.
In the end, it can be said she reclaimed some of her humanity thanks to Lelouch. Her desire to pass on and leave her immortality in the hands of another is replaced by a hope and a promise - that the world he creates will make life worthwhile.
"The power of kings, called Geass, will make people lonely. I suppose that wasn't quite true, was it?"
-- C.C. (episode 25, season 2)
Kallen Stadtfeld (aka. Kallen Kouzuki)
A half-Britannian, half-Japanese student and resistance fighter. Kallen's father is head of a prestigious Britannian family, the Stadtfelds, whilst her mother is Japanese. She has strong ties to both sides of her family, although she must conceal her parentage while attending the Britannian-only school, Ashford Academy.
Kallen is in the unenviable position of being a potential target for racism from both Britannians and those who still call themselves Japanese. While her Britannian parentage allows her to be considered a citizen of that country - and thus make use of the appropriate privileges and rights - she shows a strong preference for her Japanese heritage. So much so, she frequently skips school in order to participate in Japanese resistance activities and insists on being known as 'Kallen Kouzuki' outside of the academy.
Suzaku: "Kallen... Kallen Stadtfeld... You--"
Kallen: "Don't call me by that name! I am Kallen Kouzuki - Japanese!"
-- episode 19, season 1
(Above: Kallen pretending to be a frail student)
There is no question of her loyalty to the Japanese cause. She was one of those involved in the truck-jacking incident that brought Lelouch into contact with C.C. After the Order of the Black Knights is formed, she quickly establishes herself as one of the Order's top fighters and is given the position of captain of Zero's personal squad. Her Knightmare frame is unique amongst those used by the rest of the resistance, but it is widely recognised that no-one else can match her skill when it comes to piloting any of the machines. Many refer to her as the ace of the Black Knights, and Zero even gives her the codename 'Q1' early on, well before the Order had been properly formed ('Q' being chess shorthand for the Queen).
While she hates the subservience former Japanese must show to Britannia, Kallen does not dislike its citizens as much as she vehemently claims to others. She may be aggressive, outspoken, and brash when it comes to the heat of battle, but she also shows concern for close friends regardless of their nationality. It isn't so much that she hates individuals because they're Britannian, it's that she hates Britannia because their culture of arrogance and social privilege has produced a heavily tiered society. She is someone who would be acutely aware that if she didn't have the advantage of her Britannian father's status, she might face the same discrimination the Japanese do simply for being a half-blood.
Her reasons for fighting began as personal. However, the end result she hopes for is an ideal country where there is no discrimination. To that end, she believes that the Britannian hold on Japan must be overthrown so that the country and its citizens can reclaim their national identity. Her determination to see the Black Knights succeed throws her into many perilous situations as the war between Japan and Britannia escalates. Yet no matter what hardships she is faced with, she marches on towards the future that she believes in.
Lelouch's childhood friend and sworn opponent of Zero. Suzaku also disagrees with Britannia's overbearing, hard-handed method of governance but his moral standpoint on the issue differs from the Order of the Black Knights. He doesn't believe in Zero's "the ends justifies the means" approach, choosing instead to join the Britannian army in the hopes of rising through the ranks and enacting internal change through proper means.
Although Suzaku and Lelouch originate from opposing countries, their backgrounds are quite similar: Suzaku is the son of the former Japanese Prime Minister, Genbu Kururugi, and is therefore a significant figure to the Japanese who cling to their old country; Lelouch is a Britannian prince and therefore an equally important figure to Britannia, even if he is low on the ladder of ascension. They share the same sentiment about Britannia and both wish to see a more peaceful world. However, their methods could not be more different.
It is an interesting parallel that Suzaku makes to Lelouch. Just like how Lelouch's self-assurance in his eventual victory can be said to have arisen from his royal origins, Suzaku's principles reflect his Japanese upbringing. His insistence on proper formalities, his awareness of his own social position - both are subtle elements that were marks of Japanese society. His idea of social status is completely different to the way hierarchy works in Britannian society: in Britannia, status is something flaunted and used to control. However, Suzaku sees status as a mark of respect that he wishes to attain. He believes that if a former Japanese national like him obtains a high rank within the army through honest service, then Britannians will come to accept and respect him.
"I'm going to change Britannia into a worthwhile country from the inside out. I think that it's worthless to achieve results by using wrong methods."
-- Suzaku Kururugi to Zero (episode 4, season 1)
Suzaku's road is a hard one. Before he reached a point where his skill as a Knightmare pilot is recognised by the ruling family, he faced constant tests of loyalty from his superiors which often involved murdering innocents or former Japanese citizens. He usually tries to find some way around those conditions whilst obeying his orders, and is always relieved when he's saved from having to kill anyone other than enemy fighters. It's one principle that he never willingly comprises upon, even though he steadily grows more hardened as the series wears on.
Yet it's his efficiency in battle - i.e. his talent at piloting a Knightmare - that helps him on his way to becoming someone of influence within Britannian ranks. If Kallen is known as the ace of the Black Knights, Suzaku is the ace of the Britannian army. Dubbed the 'White Knight', Suzaku shows a high level of affinity early in the first season for a Knightmare frame called 'Lancelot'. It's an appropriate association when one considers his position and compares it to the Knightmare's Arthurian namesake. The escalating war means that he grows into a ruthless, efficient soldier. However, he never loses sight of what he wants to accomplish.