10 Years Later… Code Geass: mecha with heart

Code Geass is a really entertaining show that charmed me like nothing else back in the day. At the time I was not prepared for the complexity of the characters and epic story. I say complexity, but what I really mean is simple, yet nuanced. There are many layers to Code Geass that, if you’re not a fan, I doubt you’ll care to notice or appreciate as much as I do. However, this is not to say that I think those who do not enjoy it in this way (or at all) are invalid in their experience and reading of the text.

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As a 4-cour show, Code Geass is able to have a lot more fun with itself; more over-the-top characters, story, and plot, coupled with this really compelling epic war drama full of terrific tactical battles, that creates and accentuates really interesting dynamics between the characters. On the other hand, it’s also this stupid (awesome) highschool comedy (to use the term loosely) that can feel weird at times, but there are plenty of moments where I felt the silliness was incorporated most amusingly into the more serious parts of the narrative. And as a result, it ended up being oddly exciting and a lot of more fun, despite itself. Also, the show provided me with great action and violence, (partial) nudity, exquisite (mecha) fanservice, and a level of profundity in story that I hadn’t experienced until then, that made me feel like an adult.

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Also mechs. Mechs are cool as well.

Watching Code Geass for the first time; it kept tugging at me from the corner of my mind whenever I returned to the drudgery of everyday life. As though Lelouch had performed his power of Geass on me from the first episode, I was completely entranced by it. For me, it was like the renaissance of anime I needed in my life. So much about what it offered resonated with me so deeply and in a very powerful and beautiful way, that once I had reached the ending it cracked open a void in me. A feeling of sweet sadness that came with the realization that what I had just experienced was finally over and there was no more of it left for me to continue watching.

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We got the birth of one of the most compelling anime characters of all time, (Lelouch Lamperouge / vi Britannia), as well as some really entertaining and well-written interpersonal relationships.

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Tell me, can you point to a character more completely consumed by love, who dons the role of an insurgent leader and performs a myriad of atrocious acts all for the sake of his loved one, in the name of creating a better world; who is the key to the deliverance of so many; whose machinations so intricate and costly, than Lelouch? The ambiguity of the character’s morality stems from this conflict of love and evil (under the guise of justice and good intentions). A man so driven by the results he’s set out to obtain, that even when he gets what he originally wanted, he must see his ambitions through until the end, all for the sake of the bigger picture (a love nurtured by evil; and an facade of darkness concealing the spark of good to come). A splendidly crafted, extremely charismatic, and subtly layered male lead, indeed.

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Definitely no mirror in the corner here.

Next, the fight scenes (strategy, tactics, and mechs; my faithful companions) were for the most part, brilliantly executed, without overshadowing the major themes of the story. Instead, they bled together incredibly well, and it was really interesting to examine these upon my second viewing, because the treatment of the real robots is rather fantastically unique. These mechs have roller-skates (yes, you heard me, roller-skates), and it’s fucking awesome, for many reasons, not the least of which include: the slash harken; a really cool short range weapon, that allows for some excellent Knightmare on Knightmare action and dynamics.

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To me, the whole idea and execution of a multi-functional weapon like the slash harken is glorious, and worthy of note for its use as a claw that can be fired via a strong cable from the Knightmare Frame. One of the ways in which this makes combat so interesting is how it serves as both an advantage and disadvantage for the user – i.e. it allows them to grab onto their opponent, which helps prevent them from escaping and gives them favour in short-to-mid-range combat. However, it also sets them up as an easier target as well, given now that they’ve attached themselves to their opponent, they’ve also limited their mobility too, creating a weakness for any potential surrounding allied units to exploit.

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Notably, this doesn’t happen much in the show. While it would’ve been really satisfying to see encounters on the battlefield play out more like this, the show instead opted for more flashy exchanges, and over time essentially abandoned tactics altogether unfortunately. This was a big tease for me, as most of the time the harkens are either countered via dodging or cutting the cable, and/or missing the target altogether. It doesn’t bother me too much, as I rather liked the flashy exchanges, but part of me wishes there were more of these grounded skirmishes.

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However, I think it’s this foundation of realistic elements that allows for the fantastic elements in the show to really shine. A preference for the fetishization of super powered robots takes more prominence over the more real robot combat warfare tactics about half-way through the first season. Though not entirely neglected or removed, it does become apparent that the show would rather have its power techniques animated with bright flashes and explosions, than its initial clever and impressive well-choreographed action sequences.

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As the series became more grander and epic in scope, so too did the KMFs. And once the technology started developing at ludicrous speed, virtually every unit from the beginning of the show became obsolete. Thus, the fighting potential of the KMFs, as opposed to the more strategic military engagements we had become accustomed to (and riveted by), became the new focus for the armed conflicts. Which resulted in a huge shift in the landscape of combat, as the super prototypes would reveal very powerful glamorous weaponry; being able to discharge incredible (beam) attacks capable of wiping out entire battle units with ease, rendering tactical deployment of KMFs futile. Also, the rolling-based combat from earlier was abandoned in favour of having the Knightmare Frames take to the skies and engage in battles there.

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Once the mecha combat transformed into super units squaring off against one another, the show disappointed me as a fan of tactics-based action. Though, I realize this was done because Code Geass is more than a mecha action show; it becomes increasingly less concerned with the technical aspects of combat, and far more interested in the emotional/philosophical dynamics between characters and the outcomes (outside) of the battles. That said, I was able to enjoy these types of engagements as well, because the cleverness behind them was still there, just not in the same way. Though, less impressive than when Lelouch treated the battlefield like a game of chess, in which he himself was also a piece on the board, the show still ticks the boxes on: mecha design variety, tactical/strategic elements, invincible pilot, beam spam, shouting debates while in cockpit, force fields, flying, (lots of) combat scenes, and most outrageous/hilarious move; Spinzaku.

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Something I didn’t hear until years after I had completed the show was talk of its contrived writing. But I don’t think it’s remotely accidental that certain events in the story transpire the way they do, or are as out of left field as some might believe. I won’t give spoilers here, but there’s a particular confrontation between Zero and Euphy (Ep.22) that I think has lot more going on underneath it than people give it credit for. Strictly in terms of character, there’s some real interesting depth to Lelouch here that many might have overlooked as an awesome subtle moment of character. Also, it’s arguably one of the best plot twists in all of anime.

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Few moments in anime struck me quite like this, and it did it twice. It begins as a really nice intimate exchange of honesty between the two characters, where Lulu is able to drop his guard for once and have a rather beautiful heart-to-heart with his sister. And I won’t say what happens next, but suffice it to say, it really plays with the audience’s expectations here, and it’s one of my favourite scenes in the entire series. Which I believe is a big part of what makes Code Geass so much fun. And there’s so many awesome instances that arise because of scenes like this that I can’t imagine how they would have happened without that extra underlying bit of nuance and character.

Of course when you’re watching the scene yourself, you’ll likely be thinking to yourself “There’s no way it ends like this” the entire time, especially when you consider the point you’re at in the story and compare it to the foresight of knowing there’s much more to come. Because of this, there is an expectation for things to escalate and new conflicts to arise. And as far as I’m concerned, the rules of the narrative were never violated here, but rather came about naturally, in line with the audience’s expectations and the narrative flow from beginning to here and after. It’s brilliant because it’s a seemingly random event that both meets the expectations of the viewer, and happens at just the right (unexpected) time, while still working within the confines of the rules set. It’s a Black Swan done right. And one of epic poetic irony.

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“The power of the king will isolate you”

Reading into the text this way has been another rich form of enjoyment for me. It really adds new dimensions to the show when you peel back the layers and look at things both small and big in many different ways. Even at face value, I can treat them as conceits I am willing to overlook simply because the heart of the show is so powerful. Yes, there is a sense of nostalgia and sentimentality I share towards this show, and no, I am not blind to its faults because of it. Rather, it’s perhaps because I have this connection that I’m able to see them as positives, and embrace them in ways that allow me to appreciate the show and the awesome dramatic ironies it brings, for what it is.

The show also makes great use of the high school setting, making Lelouch’s double-life as Zero work and play out in a lot more interesting and entertaining ways than if he didn’t have that role to keep up appearances. Plus, the cat episode is actually important and I will fight anyone who says otherwise! And I actually do enjoy the fanservice it gives me as well. One might say it detracts from the overall seriousness of the story and plot, but I’d argue that it’s part of the charm that comes with it. As a friend of mine so aptly put it, the show is “juvenile sci-fi drama done right”.

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Crucial during mech scenes

Code Geass is similar to a Shakespearean play, only with mechs and awesome battles, and without the tragedy those plays are famous for. In that it plays out similar to Hamlet, but as a contemporary sci-fi epic with a much larger cast of characters and arguably more complex and interesting themes and motivations. For those who have completed the show (because spoilers), I recommend reading silhouettica’s post for a more in-depth comparison between the two.

Some of the scenes this show provides still manages to put a lump in my throat whenever I rewatch them, and it’s all so heartrendingly beautiful watching this show play out like some fantastical opera-esque tale, that makes it such a joy to come back to. Everything from the characters to their relationships and changing dynamics (both on and off the battlefield), the gorgeous character designs (C.C., Kallen, and Cornelia), the awesome background art (Exelica Garden), the engaging wild and crazy plot twists, and the spectacular action, are all so rewarding and so thoroughly awesome.

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All of these weird and amazing things is what makes Code Geass, such an awesome show with this rich tapestry of layers behind it, and one hell of a rollercoaster ride that ends on one of the most beautiful and satisfying notes in anime history.

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