Code Geass Isn’t Nearly As Good As I Remember

I was extremely surprised when I recently learned that my partner—without question the biggest anime nerd I know—had somehow never watched Code Geass. Not only is the 2006-2008 mecha action show consistently popular and highly-rated on sites like MyAnimeList, but I remembered really loving it when I first watched it at around 19 or 20, and therefore insisted that he absolutely had to watch it with me soon. I looked forward to revisiting the setting of an alternate history Japan suffering under the oppressive rule of the “Britannian Empire,” with the last holdouts of their military fighting a losing battle with increasingly outdated mecha technology. I was excited to once again experience the rise of the new revolutionary leader “Zero,” who took advantage of his secret identity as an exiled Britannian prince as well as his newfound supernatural powers to mount a more effective resistance. And I especially eagerly anticipated reuniting with some of my favourite characters, like Kallen Kouzuki Stadtfeld, a mixed-race young woman who—despite being raised in Britannian society and being largely estranged from her Japanese mother—still fights alongside Zero because of some sense of loyalty to her Japanese roots. And now that my rewatch of Code Geass is complete, I do still think that there’s something compelling about these characters and concepts, and I can see why I liked them so much when I was younger. But unfortunately, my partner and I discovered that the rest of the show is pretty much absolute nonsense. So as long as you don’t mind some big spoilers, read on for my reflection on the strange experience of rewatching an old favourite that turned out to be way less entertaining than I remembered, sorted into a rough list of my five biggest issues with the show.

Issue #1: Why is everyone in high school?

One thing I quickly realized I had forgotten about Code Geass was just how much of it takes place at Ashford Academy, the improbably fancy high school where some of the major players of the ongoing revolution happen to be in the same class. While some episodes focus on issues such as Lelouch and his “Black Knights” plotting to save an innocent man from execution by the Britannian Empire, others take a break for romantic comedy hijinks like some kind of ersatz Valentine’s Day event in which everyone is running around trying to steal each other’s huge heart-shaped hats. I don’t mean to argue that there’s anything inherently wrong with using a high school setting in this kind of action show—other classics of the mecha genre, like Neon Genesis Evangelion, make great use of the protagonists’ school lives to emphasize the vulnerability of the central child soldiers, and contrast the idyllic youths they could be leading with their tragic violent realities. But Code Geass never seems to manage that, with most of the school-focused episodes instead coming across like unnecessary filler at best and a downright annoying distraction from the real plot at worst.

Even as the stakes of the revolutionary plotline escalate over the show’s two seasons, Ashford Academy remains an inexplicably central setting. Political meetings between the heads of several different nations take place in the school gym. Lelouch has his maid dress up as him and attend school on his behalf to hide the fact that he’s skipping classes to organize his mecha military in another country. Partway through season 2, the Britannians drop a huge bomb on the city, and the camera pans from the massive crater in the ground to the completely undamaged school building literally right on the edge of it as someone exclaims, “At least the school is okay!” At this point, I could hear my partner on the other end of our discord call, who had absolutely zero patience for any of the school plotlines, sigh deeply with the weariness of a man far beyond his years. But even the endless frustration we both felt about the frequent school-related diversions paled in comparison to our complete lack of sympathy for the show’s self-centered drama queen protagonist.

Issue #2: Lelouch just kind of sucks

Now that I’m coming at this anime with a lot more knowledge of politics and military history than I had before, I’ve realized that a colonized country probably couldn’t have a worse revolutionary leader than Lelouch Lamperouge. Rather than having any real dedication to the cause of freeing Japan from oppression, he seems entirely motivated by a personal revenge quest against his emperor dad. And to fulfill that goal, he has to be the only revolutionary with any power in Japan, I guess, so he spends half his time fighting other rebel groups who don’t want to follow his orders, when instead he could have won the revolution much more quickly and efficiently and with fewer casualties if he just allied with them instead—like someone who actually cares about what he’s fighting for and how many people die for it might. My partner and I kept expecting his followers to eventually turn against him because of the endless parade of awful things he does, but when they eventually do, it’s not so much for any logical reason as it is because they find out he has secret magical powers and that freaks them out. The war crimes bit they’re fine with, I guess.

I think there are a lot of comparisons to be drawn between Code Geass and Death Note, another influential anime from the same era about a teenage boy trying to shape the world according to his will with the use of supernatural powers. The way I see it, the major difference between the two is that Death Note makes it clear from early on that Light Yagami is a monster—that his conviction that he deserves the godlike power to decide who lives and who dies is deeply ethically wrong. Death Note might encourage the audience to have some sympathy and affection for Light at some points in the narrative, but it also expects you to condemn him on a moral level, and to find catharsis and satisfaction in his eventual defeat. Code Geass, on the other hand, lacks that kind of complexity, and usually seems like it wants you to think Lelouch is cool and awesome, and  nothing bad that happens is ever his fault. Not even . . .

Issue #3: The thing that happens at the end of season 1

Major spoilers from here on out, but this show isn’t very good so why would you care: at the end of season 1, Lelouch’s half-sister Princess Euphemia is on the verge of conceding to some of his demands and moving toward a better future for Japan, when he suddenly loses control of his powers in the middle of explaining to her that he could just force her to follow absolutely any order if he wanted to. He provides her with the hypothetical situation of, “If I told you, ‘kill all the Japanese,’ it wouldn’t matter how you felt about it,” just as his powers spark up without him realizing, sending her on a genocidal killing spree that only her death can stop.

This plot development feels completely absurd and contrived for a whole laundry list of reasons—just one of the many being what a completely bizarre and tasteless thing that is for Lelouch to suddenly say at the worst possible moment. I can imagine it feeling a bit more believable if he had ever previously been characterized as someone who makes edgy off-colour jokes all the time, but in the absence of any of that foreshadowing, it just feels like a clumsy and forced way to keep Lelouch fighting his enemies rather than having Euphemia’s proposed resolutions alter the main conflict of the story.

It feels so clumsy and forced, in fact, that I found myself theorizing about the possibility of there being an earlier draft of the story in which Lelouch really was positioned as the villain, and in which he intentionally ordered Euphemia to become a murderer and knowingly sacrificed her countless victims in order to get people to sympathize with him against the Britannians. I can imagine a storyline like that being pretty good if it was handled well—it would make a lot more sense than how silly the actual events of the show are, at any rate. I seriously wonder if some of that silliness comes from changes to the plot late in production that necessitated them leaving Euphemia’s massacre in, but changing what kicks it off.

In my vision of an alternate Code Geass, season 2 might then involve Lelouch successfully ascending to the leadership of a free Japan, only for his followers to gradually discover the truth about him and mount a new rebellion against him. Unfortunately, nothing like this happens in the actual season 2, which I think I somehow regret watching even more than season 1.

Issue #4: Season 2 manages to get even worse

Season 2 starts with a weird status quo reset involving a bunch of characters losing their memories, which just feels like the writers didn’t know where to go with the story. There’s an increasing focus on a ton of lore that’s hard to follow and even harder to care about, and one of the few memorable scenes is a nonsensical chess game that literally just isn’t how chess works. I don’t know, it’s honestly hard to mount a reasonable critique of this season because half of it had so little going on that it was putting me to sleep, and the other half had so much chaotic nonsense that I had no idea how to react. As my partner and I suffered through it because of a masochistic dedication to finishing what we had started, a common refrain between us was, “Remember when this show was about a revolution?” Eventually, mercifully, it ended—but not without raising even more questions about what the hell was supposed to be going on.

Issue #5: The ending makes zero sense

One of the things that stood out in my memory about the first time I watched Code Geass was the twist ending that felt really intelligent and impactful to me at the time. But on revisiting it, the reveal that Lelouch had been planning all along for a noble self-sacrifice that would somehow save the world doesn’t seem to mean anything. From what I can tell, his plan went something like this:

  1. Kill the Emperor of Britannia and claim his throne
  2. Become just as evil a dictator as he was, resulting in many more deaths
  3. Help Suzaku fake his death and take on the identity of Zero
  4. Have Suzaku assassinate him, which . . . unites all the people behind Zero and brings about world peace? Somehow???

Not only is the notion that the assassination of the emperor wouldn’t cause any complications whatsoever a completely absurd one, but why did steps 2-4 have to happen at all? Why didn’t Lelouch stop at step 1, where he had already become one of the most powerful people in the world, and just start making things better from there? Why did he need to fake being evil and then die? He was already the emperor! My partner observed that it seems like the writers just thought it would be cool for him to pass down the Zero identity to Suzaku and then worked backwards from there to invent a justification for it happening, and I have to agree. Really, all of this show feels like they were making it up as they went along.

So all in all, while there were still occasional good moments, I was severely disappointed by my rewatch of Code Geass. I think there are a lot of good stories that can be told about overthrowing imperial powers, that could express a lot of important and relevant messages if the people writing them had any idea what they were doing. Code Geass feels like a waste of a concept and characters that had potential to be great if they were handled differently, and if I ever subject myself to any version of Lelouch’s story again, I hope it’s in the hands of a different creative team building a new adaptation from the ashes of what could have been. If that ever happens, I’m not sure I’d be able to convince my partner to watch it with me, though—after two seasons of this nonsense, I don’t think he’ll be trusting my taste in anime again for years, and I’ve got some questions about what was going through young Jane Titor’s head too. At least we had a good time making fun of it together, which I think is an important part of any relationship.

If you’ve got some of your own Code Geass takes, or anime recommendations that will restore our sanity, feel free to comment here or let me know on twitter. Thanks for reading!

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