Code Geass arguably needs no introduction. Equal parts famous and infamous, it was the surprise hit of the 2006 season. Overseas licensing quickly followed, including volume releases from Beez Entertainment. With that Bandai subsidiary sadly no longer with us, Kaze has obtained the license and is releasing the show in two complete season sets.
In an alternate timeline, the British Isles have stood unchallenged (bar losing said isles and having assumed America as their new homeland) and become the ruthless powerhouse that is the Britannian Empire, brutally conquering other countries and rechristening them with the number in which they were taken.
In the conquered Japan, Area 11, the exiled prince Lelouch vi Britannia lives under an alias in the Tokyo settlement as a student. Assumed dead, Lelouch’s anger towards his homeland is given direction when a chance encounter with a stolen Britannian military project sees him gain the mystical power of Geass, allowing him limited power over the minds of others. Combined with his naturally prodigious intellect, he adopts the alias of the charismatic revolutionary Zero and begins to cultivate an army for his shared goals of destroying the Empire, unraveling the mystery of his mother’s assassination and creating a world where his also exiled maternal younger sister can live happily.
But at the same time, his childhood friend Suzaku has joined the Britannian military. Believing the empire can be changed from within, he disagrees with the actions of Zero and thus the two friends unknowingly become enemies.
The surface appeal of Code Geass is easy to see. Everyone has wondered at least once in their life what they would do if they had the position or ability to rule/change the world. For Lelouch, his motivations are understandable if inwardly focused.
One of the easiest comparisons to make is to Death Note’s Light Yagami/Kira, as both are young geniuses who gain a dark mystical power and use it in an elaborate campaign to reshape the world as they see fit. However Lelouch’s moral compass is more active, even if he does commit several reprehensible actions. The early episodes are a particular treat as his blossoming ego over initial victories leads him to brutally discover that he can’t achieve his goals on his own and must provoke others to want to aid him. In fact much like his alias sways the dejected Japanese who are looking for a leader, as a viewer seeing the entirety it’s hard not to become attached to Lelouch, especially if you were ever that pompous teenager who felt stifled by convention and viewed others as distracted fools. Lelouch’s arrogance and retention of his forename are two partial clues to the character’s psyche, suggesting he’s not so much abandoned his aspirations of the throne so much as he’s simply in the single worst place to achieve it. The result is a character who, even as you root for him, holds a distant edge that means you’re never fully sure how far he’s willing to go or if he truly respects the aspirations of those he calls allies.
The power of his Geass directly looks at his ambitions and ability, especially as a set of rules for it is quickly established to stop it being too powerful. The most prominent of these is that although it allows him to command anyone he makes direct eye contact with, he can only use it on a person once. This means he can’t just use it to escape his enemies every time, as with most he’ll need it later to extract information from them and he personally can’t justify using it on just anybody. Away from the weighty issue of morality, this leads to some of the show’s most entertaining moments as he uses his genius to pull off near impossible strategies. Anime is often criticised for telegraphing the way out of peril, but with Geass there are tons of genuinely tense situations that will leave you wondering how certain characters can turn them around or escape.
The problem with doing a story where two opposing sets of ethics are contrasted is that oftentimes a clear bias emerges. So it’s to the shows credit that Suzaku isn’t the boring straw man he could have been and is actually a likeable counter to Lelouch. He’s had his own share of trauma which gets explored, and his position is understandable. If Lelouch wants to watch the current world burn then Suzaku wants to redeem it. In fact Suzaku’s viewpoint seems focused on the possibility of the future whilst Lelouch’s burns with the anger of the past. When I first watched the series my first reference was Gundam SEED and its focus on two childhood friends meeting again on opposing sides of war. By not outright copying that and instead giving the two leads limited awareness of being in opposition, Geass creates much more interesting story opportunities and avoids the repeated ‘Boo hoo, we’re enemies now!’ concept of SEED and even briefly used in Gundam AGE.
Speaking of Gundam, however, it does have a respectful influence on the show without being too blatant. In a way the story can be seen as the inverse of the original series, with us being introduced to the masked antagonist Char before the heroic Amuro. Lelouch’s motivations and alias are similar to Char’s, and Suzaku ends up as the surprisingly talented pilot of the Gundam-inspired Lancelot, the white robot that constantly proves to be the thorn in Lelouch’s strategies.
The most blatant moment however is the state funeral for the first Britannian prince Lelouch is able to assassinate. This directly pulls from the very similar state funeral seen in Mobile Suit Gundam both in style and narrative function, right down to the “So this is the enemy…” realisation.
Being a Brit and this being a UK release, I feel I should address the elephant in the room: the setting. I admit that when I originally watched the show the concept of ‘A world where the British Empire never toppled and instead went out of control’ piqued my curiosity and I wanted to see how it was handled. At times it can be mildly uncomfortable, especially when most of the Britannian characters never seem to question their own furor and are literally stripping away other cultures. At the same time the show can feel a bit defensive of Japan, treating it as an innocent little island that is being victimised. Both issues kind of overlap in the case of Ashford Academy, the Britannian boarding school attended by Lelouch and Suzaku as well as Kallen, a half Britannian/Japanese ally of Zero. There’s not very much interesting about any of the solely student characters, and despite the idea of it being one of the cornerstones of Britannian influence on the country, Ashford feels much more like a Japanese school. There’s a student council, school festivals, etc. In a way though this actually segues into my thoughts that eventually what controversy there is goes away. You get swept up in the story and characters and realise that for the most part the show knows it’s just a show and thus is a bit camp and daft. There’s still a lot of dark themes, and the pace of the show is effectively a ticking time bomb of lies and consequences, but culturally and politically it isn’t too offensive. There are even a few characters and groups introduced later which show Japan isn’t as innocent as it may first appear.
Geass is often classified as a mecha series but I’m not quite sure that’s accurate. Whilst mecha do frequently appear, the series doesn’t really feel as dominated by them as other shows I could name, and as a result the character moments avoid feeling secondary to the action scenes as often seems to be the case in mecha shows. However, when they do appear they far from disappoint. Dubbed Knightmare Frames owing to their Britannian origin, most are 15-metre tall machines which feel closer to Western design standards. Combined with functions such as motorised wheels and rocket anchors there’s the very tangible sense that these machines could exist and work in reality compared to so many other gigantic and eccentric Japanese robots. Even the more advanced individual units like Suzaku’s Lancelot and Kallen’s Guren feel like logical advancements. Suzaku’s role as a pilot also offers a further distinction from Lelouch; whilst Suzaku is an incredibly talented pilot Lelouch is merely average, often requiring more talented subordinates such as Kallen to spearhead combat and act as a guard. This also creates a tasty plot thread for Kallen as her unknowing rivalry with Suzaku runs alongside Lelouch’s similar case.
Having watched the show originally in Japanese, I watched the dub for this review. What I had seen of it prior wasn’t very good but it’s actually surprisingly well done, to the point it honestly changed some of my opinions of characters. The best case of this is Liam O’Brien’s performance as Lloyd, Suzaku’s mad scientist superior. Tetsu Shiratori’s performance in the original was genuinely annoying, making a comedic character fall completely flat. O’Brien’s more subdued take is much more appealing and actually makes Lloyd’s blunt lack of social tact more amusing.
The vast majority of the cast are likewise well performed, with the power trio of Lelouch (Johnny Yong Bosch), Suzaku (Yuri Lowenthal) and CC (Kate Higgins) all receiving nuanced performances. One of the few weak areas though is with the performances for the girls in the student council of Ashford Academy. Julie Ann Taylor does a fine job as the president Milly but all of the others, including Lelouch’s sister Nunnally, all suffer from a critical case of older actresses trying to voice younger girls with the result being they have voices that sound very fake.
But again, the vast majority of the performances work very well; Crispin Freeman offers a sublime take on Jeremiah Gottwald, especially once the character transitions from mere arrogant antagonist to something deeper.
The video quality for the set is very high. Kaze are releasing these sets on both Blu-ray and DVD, but even if you just watch the latter as I did you’ll still be getting great quality. Other DVD releases seem to be shown up in this HD world but this is a great offering. It doesn’t hurt that Geass generally has strong animation, rarely going off model.
The set comes with a fine dose of extras, made up of clean versions of the openings and endings, commentary tracks and ‘Picture Dramas’. These are short vignettes which present extra scenes in the show’s timeline as voice acting over very limited animation, akin to motion comics. Whilst most of these add little flashes of character and background, some are just silly comedy or fanservice. This type of extra is becoming more apparent on mainstream Western releases, so Geass was perhaps ahead of the pack with this good idea. The episodes are only presented with dubbed audio, so fans of the original cast mildly miss out.
The commentary tracks are attached to most of the important episodes and feature the Japanese cast and crew. Jun Fukuyama hosts all of them, and it really makes the difference compared to something like the Gundam 00 commentaries. Fukuyama is encouraging of silliness but also keeps things on track for interesting discussions, meaning they mostly avoid the pitfall of getting lost in small talk and inside jokes. A small problem, however, is that these tracks originate from the original home video release of the show in Japan. This means that the odd dangling plot thread which never got completed will be referred to with unintentional irony.
Having the openings and endings to watch individually is appreciated, especially as Geass has some great ones. Unfortunately, this does serve to showcase their flaws as well. The first opening is a brilliant mix of audio and visuals but by the end the show was resorting to reusing episode animation and even promotional art, resulting in something at times looks like the fan made MV OP trend popular on YouTube.
Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion Season One gets an emphatic recommendation from me. Although the show is slightly tongue in cheek, it’s also a near perfect blend of characters, plot and action. Every episode builds the story up and it’s hard not to get sucked in. It’s certainly the rare exception to have a ton of characters and have nearly all of them add something important to the story (indeed, there are more characters then I can easily discuss in this review). A lot of people have probably already seen it, but I think this is one of those rare titles that becomes a legend and belongs in a good anime collection. It’s an involved look at the path of a revolutionary and the consequences involved with wanting to reshape the world.
Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion Season One (UK Edition) is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Amazon.co.uk.