Going into Code Geass for the first time, all I really knew about the series was that it was a landmark anime of its era (that is, the mid-2000s – right about the time I stopped watching anime for a long stretch) and a loose awareness of its premise. If you’re equally unfamiliar with the series, the gist is that Japan has been annexed by ‘Brittania’ – essentially an amalgam of the West. Now only known as Area 11, what once was Japan exists under an oppressive, racist rule enforced by mecha known colloquially as ‘Knightmares.’ Thus begins – or so I believed – a tale of resistance, rebellion and ultimately revolution. A heroic tale where the noble Japanese, through sacrifice and persistence, prevail against the evil Britannian Empire.
That’s not quite the story Code Geass is telling.
Not that you’d know from the first episode, which centres on a schoolboy swept up in a military conflict as outgunned group of rebels (or terrorists, if you prefer) take on the mechanised Brittanian army. That schoolboy, Lelouch Lamperouge (Jun Fukuyama/Johnny Yong Bosch), encounters a mysterious young girl who grants him magical powers – known as ‘Geass’ – that allows him to briefly control the thoughts of others. Lelouch uses these powers to extricate himself from his precarious circumstances and anonymously assist the rebels in their battle. So far, so good – a single ‘chosen one’ rising against an evil empire; pretty well what I expected.
Things get messier quickly. Lelouch ends up encountering the Britannian Prince Clovis and, without hesitation, murders him in cold blood. We learn that Lelouch, far from being an innocent ‘Eleven’ (the epithet used to described Japanese citizens under Britannian rule), is in fact a disgraced member of the Britannian royal family seeking revenge for the murder of his mother and the crippling of his sister. Lelouch is more Death Note’s Light Yagami than a noble hero, possessing the same arrogance, implausible intelligence and willingness to manipulate others. Like Light, Lelouch assumes a secret identity – as masked revolutionary leader Zero, leader of the Black Knights – and sets about corrupting the rebel organisation to serve his own ends.
Perhaps the true hero of the story is Lelouch’s childhood friend, Suzaku Kururugi (Takahiro Sakurai/Yuri Lowenthal)! Suzaku is the son of Japan’s last Prime Minister, and is blamed for the murder of Clovis. He escapes the charges and is (rather inexplicably) tasked with piloting an experimental Knightmare called Lancelot for the Britannian army. So we have a Japanese citizen – with genuine beef against the Britannians, given his father’s dead and all – who nonetheless loyally serves the Empire out of a sense of duty. Except, again, there are complicating factors yet to be revealed.
Many of the intricacies of Code Geass’s storyline are as unconvincing as the son of a deposed leader being tasked with the army’s most formidable weapon. The mid-season appearance of another Geass user – with the ability to read minds, rather than control them – feels like a Naruto offcut, for instance. But the core of the show is the ideological conflict between Lelouch, driven by revenge and self-regard, and Suzaku, who’s obedient to a fault. Each offers different – and fundamentally flawed – ways to approach authoritarian rule, and the successes of Geass come in the complexity of that conflict. This is a relentlessly realistic – read: pessimistic – series, that recognises neither path is without its problems.
By the end of the first season, any semblance of a heroic resistance storyline has collapsed into dust. I mentioned Death Note before, which premiered in the same year (2006) as Code Geass, and this series is imbued with a similarly dark sensibility. This isn’t out of place in Japanese storytelling (one suspects the scars of Hiroshima have left the nation’s storytelling far less optimistic than its Western equivalents), but the final episode stretch of season one draws the series into some very grim places. As a representation of the challenges of revolution, this is a truly sophisticated series, even if its individual storytelling strays into clunkiness and cliché with frustrating frequency. Even acknowledging those flaws, it’s not hard to see why Code Geass was so influential on anime of last decade.