Certain stories are such a perfect storm of ideas and spectacle that they resonate with the zeitgeist and leave a lasting influence. It’s a double-edged sword that leaves many stories so much a product of their time that revisiting them can undo the magic that made them so special and effective in the first place. So it is with Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion. From the vantage point of our current climate, the setup is politically naïve at best, while the themes of xenophobia, cultural erasure and media manipulation are handled with such broad strokes that big ideas are framed almost entirely as teen angst. Here it offers an illusion of intelligence, rather than any real depth.
At its heart, Code Geass is a story about imperialism, positing a world in which Britain’s empire didn’t come to an end but instead encompassed most of the globe. It’s interesting that the antagonistic force here is British imperialism, while wilfully ignoring Japan’s own imperialist history. Nevertheless, Britannia rules with an iron fist – literally, with its superior firepower and mechs.
After entering into a Faustian pact and earning the ability to control others, high schooler Lelouch sets himself on a crusade. He ingratiates himself with a terror cell – one of many partisan groups battling Britannia guerrilla style – bringing strategy and order to take down the oppressors. Superficially he might have the best interests of Japan – or Area 11 as it’s now known – but Lelouch’s plight is much more personal. He’s part of the royal Britannian family living in hiding and desperate to discover who’s responsible for the attack that killed his mother and maimed his sister.
A chess whizz, Lelouch uses his pragmatism and natural strategy to grow the terror cell from uncoordinated ragtags to a well-quipped, underground army with the potential to topple imperial rule. If it all sounds operatic that’s only because it is. The series is dripping in camp and pomp. Lelouch himself is such a diva in his cravat, cape and massive Dracula collar. Despite this, it’s easy to see why he’s so often compared to Death Note’s Light Yagami. While there are undeniable similarities, there are some key differences. Where Light is a psychopath, Lelouch possesses empathy and a conscience. Light wanted to make himself a god, Lelouch’s main drive was his blind wheelchair-bound sister. On a lighter note, Lelouch isn’t always a sourpuss. In one episode, he chases a cat, in another he’s dressed up like one and laughing.
As with Light, however, Lelouch employs trial and error to understand the scope and limitations of his power. In this case it’s the titular Geass which, like Kakashi’s Sharingan, works with eye contact, allowing him to control anyone he likes. There are limitations in place so that it isn’t just a boring plot-fixing device meaning that Lelouch is often fallible. It’s more interesting to see characters fail – and how they respond to failure – than their successes, after all.
The stylish animation still holds up today, especially with this newly released Blu-ray collection, though the basic sound design leaves it feeling desperately dated – not to mention that irritating sound effect that plays every single time Lelouch uses his Geass. Fortunately, the trumpet-led score gives it a moody military quality that’s as effective now as it was in 2006.
There’s plenty of tired tropes on display from the prodigal son turning for his royal birth right, to childhood friends who become enemies, but the show’s endearing mix of action strategy, teen drama, and fable make it heads and shoulders above many of its contemporaries… at least to begin with. As the first series progresses, it devolves into a hard slog of nonsensical plot turns and eye-rolling character developments. More than one goes insane and it’s poorly handled in every instance. By the last few episodes, its early strengths are turned on their heads with a pantomime plot and characters to match. It’s here that Code Geass deserves to be compared to Death Note. Both start strong, with compelling plots and characters, but descend into drudgery and schlock. Also included in this collection is the complete second series which continues these same issues, albeit turned up to eleven.
Some shows get better with age, taking on new meaning and interpretation. Others, less so. Code Geass definitely falls into the latter camp but, for fans, it’s never looked better than it does on this Blu-ray.
Distributor: Manga Entertainment
Extras: English dub, episode commentaries, shorts, interviews, textless opening & closing animation, trailers