Alright, its taken me since April to reach this point so I may as well dispense with any further delays and say it outright. Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion is not a masterpiece, it isn’t a great show nor is it a very good one. What it is is a marginally good television program that takes concepts and characters from a wide variety of successful anime productions from the last decade and stitches them all together into twenty-five episodes of vulgarity and excess, a Frankenstein’s monster of a production that has the cold manufactured feel of a product of a focus group rather than of a motivated team of creative individuals.
Let me take a step back for a moment, because the truth of the matter is that Code Geass brought with it a genuinely compelling concept, one that could have done wonders if the creators at Sunrise had known what the hell they were doing. It takes place in an alternate universe where a version of the British Empire called Britannia, through various quirks of fate, manages to endure and thrive into the 21st century. After witnessing the assasination of his mother and having his and his sister’s lives ruined by his father, an exiled Britannian prince living under the assumed name Lelouch Lamperouge, out of a desire for revenge against the emperor, rises to become a revolutionary leader in an occupied Japan.
This concept could have gone in any number of directions and in the right hands could have been turned into something truly remarkable. Unfortunately Goro Tanaguchi and his team at Sunrise either didn’t realize the potential of what they’d come up with or were simply too caught up in making a commercially successful product to care. For, you see, although the basic premise survived to see the light of day it has been chained to and obscured by a wide variety of disparate concepts and ideas, none of which add anything of substance to the proceedings. This is a program that wants to be a mecha action series at the same time it wants to be a war drama at the same time it wants to be a romance/harem series at the same time it wants to be a high school comedy while above all else its trying to be Death Note with a copy of V for Vendetta in its pocket. It all gives the impression of a program that’s so terribly frightened of being disliked by any one subset of the anime fandom that it rushes to appeal to every conceivable kind of viewer and as a result is never truly exceptional at any of the things it attempts.
Giant robots, for example, are thrown in for no better reason than to draw in and satisfy the needs of the giant robot fandom. I don’t have anything against mecha per se but neither do I have any great love for it leaving me rather indifferent to it overall. All I ask is that it adds something to the experience, that there is some concrete purpose for their presence motivated by the narrative, that the giant robots aren’t merely props easily interchangeable with any other fantastical weaponry. Full Metal Panic provides, in its continuity, a fairly detailed justification for how its variation on the giant robot concept came into being. Patlabor provides a similarly believable rationale as well. Ride Back would have had a wonderful thematic connection to its motorcycle/robot hybrids had the creators had the sense to utilize a specific scene outside of the end credits. Code Geass has no such virtue. The “Knightmare frames” come across as a ploy just as empty and cynical as Gonzo’s additions of giant robots to their adaptations of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Dumas’s The Count of Monte Cristo.
The story itself runs into trouble fairly quickly. In the first episode, Lelouch is inspired to begin his campaign against Britannia when he obtains a supernatural ability called Geass from a mysterious girl wearing a tight-fitting straitjacket. This ability allows him to control the will and actions of anyone he chooses with very few actual limitations. All he needs is direct eye contact with his intended victim and that’s it. By comparison the Death Note has a whole page full of rules and restrictions on its use. As a result, a lot of Death Note’s intrigue is generated from the various ways Light Yagami finds to work with or around those rules. The Geass is almost too powerful by comparison. As a result it makes his decision to start a rebellion in Japan as a means of gaining revenge against his father in Britannia seem a very roundabout way of doing things. It would seem more effective to simply hop a plane home, Geass his way past security to get to his father and that would be the end of it. Its not like Lelouch doesn’t accomplish much the same thing with his brother Clovis at the end of the second episode. Of course, if Lelouch were to actually follow the course simple logic would dictate then he wouldn’t have started his rebellion and Code Geass wouldn’t have had the opportunity to indulge in enough overblown spectacle to shame Michael Bay.
This problem is further compounded by the revelation in the second episode that Lelouch is some sort of super-genius strategist. It’s never explained to any degree where his ability comes from, whether the creators want the viewer to assume that its some sort of blood inherited trait or that he was simply educated on the subject. The most the viewer is allowed to understand is that Lelouch’s “strategic brilliance” has something to do with the fact that he’s good at chess, which, if you actually accept that, only explains a fraction of the schemes that he devises. In the end, as a character Lelouch comes across as little more than a plot devise, a strategy generating machine that provides the series with its single greatest source of overblown spectacle.
Out of the rest of the cast the only character who made, or I should say had the potential to leave in impression on me was the anti-Britannian rebel Kallen. She receives an entire episode devoted to her background as the daughter of a Japanese mother and a Britannian father. Much is made of her identification with the Japanese side of her parentage and how her deceased brother figures into things and there is indeed potential for something interesting here. Unfortunately nothing is ever done with any of these elements. Everything that was brought up in that episode is quickly shelved and never brought up again.
It should be noted that a good portion of the issues I have with the show stem from the fact that Code Geass possesses all the subtlety of a sledgehammer to the skull. The result is a heavily calculated experience where the hands of the creators can be clearly seen picking and choosing which ideas or scenarios would have the greatest impact regardless of whether or not they make any sense (coincidences are invoked to the point of absurdity). The first episode alone depicts an ethnic cleansing (a scenario the series portrays twice in its first season) and a bloody mass suicide sure to satisfy the more ghoulish members of the viewership. Fanservice is plentiful and obvious with only a scant few female cast members escaping the first season with their dignity, if they ever had any to begin with.
On the technical side of things there isn’t really a whole lot I can complain about. The animation is smooth well done. The color scheme employed can be a little too bright and cheery for its own good with purple mechs and a city that is lit with pink lighting at night but that is a minor complaint overall. Character designs come courtesy of CLAMP so if you like their artwork you’ll like what you see here. If you don’t like CLAMP then there isn’t anything in Code Geass that will convince you otherwise. The soundtrack, credited to Hitomi Kuroishi and Kotaro Nakagawa, isn’t anything spectacular but it is nonetheless serviceable. It is a competent presentation overall, if only.