What started as an unholy union between Sunrise and CLAMP quickly became one of the most watched and talked about series on its release in 2007: Code Geass. Measuring its popularity would be impossible, but interest is still high even after a two season television run, numerous manga adaptations and other merchandising paraphernalia with a recent cryptic post on the official website rippling across innumerable blogs and outlets, reported as news.
Code Geass succeeded in bridging many different genres garnering it a wide audience: at times it slipped into bipedal mechanised combat, others a tortured love story. The main narrative drive however is the story of a minority facing a majority, the oppressed revolting against their oppressors; it gives the story sharp pathos and universal appeal. It also doesn't hurt that the series is completely crackers, continually attempting to one-up itself resulting in rapidly escalating insanity. What was once a brilliant tactical manoeuvre becomes de rigueur and the increasingly ridiculous situations require similarly absurd solutions. Called a trainwreck by many, the series managed an ending that was supremely satisfying and tied up enough loose ends to provide closure to all but the most ardent fans.
Beginning with the disaffected but brilliant youth Lelouch obtaining supernatural power of persuasion, he begins a campaign against the ruling world superpower: Britannia. Having invaded Japan years prior, murdered his mother and crippled his sister, he has every reason for revenge and after a succession of tactical victories he sets up a rebel organisation known as the Black Knights. Aided by his power, a Geass, his influence grows until he is able to take on the behemoth of Britannia in military terms. With the help of estranged family members a splinter area is formed: the United States of Japan; backed by various geographical power blocs Lelouch strikes at heart of Britannia, defeating all who oppose him.
The centre of this maelstrom of madness, Lelouch, is the greatest draw the series has: he is devious, scheming, ferociously intelligent and wears the audacious mantle of both protagonist and antagonist. From the small skirmishes at the beginning through to the grand sweeping battles at the culmination, his tactics are utterly implausible but fiendishly entertaining and the disregard shown towards comrades and bumbling enemies makes them all the more delectable. Suffering constant tribulations, he is stopped from becoming completely unsympathetic and, despite questionable methods, his aim to help his sister and overthrow a dictatorship are worthy causes. Other characters such as Kallen and C.C. are expanded upon by their own side stories but never allowed to thunder steal from Lelouch. The tertiary characters are most fascinating, mostly through what is omitted rather than exposed: characters such as Ohgi and Guildford are gifted enough exposure for meaningful interjections but wisely fall back out of sight before they outstay their welcome.
The partnership with CLAMP for character designs didn't manage to erase the foibles that go along with a Sunrise anime. Men with long hair are considered the manliest of all, lesbians are given short shrift and predisposed to all manner of mental instabilities, and love interests are promptly murdered or otherwise separated by an inconvenient accident. Like with recent Gundam projects, there are political undertones to some of the situations and dialogue, more prevalent in the second series than the first, but thankfully this kind of seriousness is lost in the bedlam of roller-blading robots and improperly dressed buxom females.
It is remarkable that Code Geass doesn't buckle under its own weight: the second season adds further characters to the already bulging roster, but that it finds time to give even incidental cannon fodder names and (brief) histories is testament to how much thought has gone into the silliness. When the second season switched from a late night to prime time early-evening showing, there were whispered portents from the show's production staff of dumbing down and story rewrites to suit the new slot. The sporadic nudity and desk masturbation from the first series were omitted, but if anything the show became more risqué. The extra budget galvanised the already spindly CLAMP characters by subtracting clothes and adding cup sizes to the females and imbuing the camera with a better appreciation for compromising angles and situations. The scrappy edges of the first season were discarded as more and more outrageous machines filled the skies, animation that once oscillated between sub-par and acceptable became universally excellent resplendent with bright colours and flowing lines.
Separating the show from the fervour surrounding it is not straightforward, however even a cursory rewatch is enough to demonstrate how breathless and ballsy the series is. In a medium and a genre known for its excess, Code Geass went further by saturating the characters and story with melodrama befitting of the most hackneyed of soaps. Every episode ends on a cliffhanger, every scuffle more epic than the last, and every time victory is within reach it is snatched away. The abject lunacy of individual scenes and the narrative as a whole becomes part of its charm; it may not stand up to much reasoned scrutiny, but Code Geass is one of the most entertaining and enjoyable series to be released in the past ten years, ending well and avoiding absolute brainlessness saves it from being a guilty pleasure.
First aired: 06 October 2006
Finished airing: 28 September 2008
Availability: DVD — Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk, United Publications (UK)
References: MyAnimeList, Wikipedia, AniDB, serious fucking business