Saturday, September 27, 2008

Code Geass

The final(?) episode of Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion R2 is set to air tomorrow, bringing a close to one of the most compelling anime television series of recent years. I've decided to post my thoughts on the series now, as, based on previous experience, my enthusiasm for discussing a show tends to evaporate as soon as it's over, regardless of its quality.

Set in a future where the Britannian empire has conquered most of the planet through its superior giant robot technology, Code Geass follows Lelouch, a ruthless young genius, who leads a rebellion in Japan, promising liberation for all oppressed peoples. The series does not come with a killer premise, but it excels in scope and execution. Featuring a Gundam-esque narrative of mecha action and politics, an attractive cast of characters designed by the all-female group CLAMP, and with some occasional high school hijinks to lighten the tension, it means to appeal to virtually every niche in anime fandom, and it succeeds as no other series has since Escaflowne in 1996.

Very much in the storytelling style of older shows, Code Geass is a fast-paced, event-driven action series, mercifully free of the pseudo-philosophical babble that has plagued so many post-Evangelion programs. Nor is it derivative mecha fanservice junk. Like Escaflowne and the better Gundam shows, Code Geass dares to take itself seriously, never backing away from the danger inherent to the premise. The plot often takes improbable turns, but this series has the skill and, more importantly, the rare conviction to follow them through to their transformative consequences.

If the show has a major shortcoming, it might be in its sometimes cold attitude toward its characters, treating them at times less like people and more like disposable pieces in a well-orchestrated game. This is likely a symptom inherited from Gundam, but Code Geass at least manages to avoid the out-and-out nihilism of that franchise. None of the major characters are actually soldiers; they fight because they feel they have to for the things they want, which, at the outset may be mere ideals, but gradually take more concrete forms. These personal motivations lend the characters just enough humanity to make the audience genuinely concerned for their well-being.

Of particular note is Lelouch himself, a charismatic antihero in the vein of Light Yagami from Death Note. In those older shows that Code Geass is in so many other ways inspired by, a character like Lelouch would have been the sympathetic antagonist a la Char Aznable from Gundam, but, here, it is actually his friend, the exaggeratedly heroic Suzaku Kururugi, that serves as the foil. A schemer whose acts verge on terrorism, Lelouch deftly manipulates all those around him in his struggle against the tyranny of Brittania. But, again, it is not Lelouch's well-intentioned grand designs, ultimately, but his rather less noble motivation--revenge against those he holds responsible for the death of his mother--that makes him a palatable character, granting him a human element that makes for the fine distinction between Lelouch and Death Note's Light, and setting him apart as a uniquely compelling character in anime.

While it may not actually be the most broadly-appealing or Western-friendly anime, Code Geass has a lot to offer. For long-time genre fans, it is a welcome reminder of what drew them to anime in the first place. For others, it is simply a gripping, adrenaline-fueled story that outclasses just about every other action series out there.

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