Imagine a Young Man Taking Off His Contact Lenses… Forever (Or a Detailed Look at Code Geass: Lelouch of the Revolution)

The subject of this article is the 2006-08 animated series Code Geass: Lelouch of the Revolution, aired in two seasons (season one, referred to as Code Geass, 2006-07, season two, referred to as R2, 2008). The series attracted significant debate among fans as to whether the radical shift in tone brought about by the sudden decision to feature a second season, first shown in the delay between episodes 23 and 24 of the first season, and the rolling together of episodes 24 and 25 into a single double-length episode with its own title sequence, was a good thing.

The essential plot of the series concerns a future where a pseudo-British nation, Britannia, has regained its imperial aims and conquered much of the world, and focuses on an ostracised prince, Lelouch, attempting to get revenge on a family he considers his enemies following an attack on his mother and sister which left the latter blind and paralysed. Early in the series he encounters an apparently omniscient woman, CC, who agrees to help him find vengeance and gives him the ability to control the minds of others – the geass of the title. Subsequently, the series follows two plots; Lelouch’s attempts to avenge his mother’s death and his attempts to conceal his secret identity as the freedom fighter Zero from his companions and enemies. The second season, R2, adds further complications and focuses more on the corrupting effects of power, with Lelouch becoming increasingly megalomaniacal and distant until ultimately becoming too caught up in the lies that he has relied on to gain power to be able to continue.

This general plot, about the extent to which a self-important and arrogant protagonist is prepared to sacrifice others, lie and cheat to get vengeance while still remaining convinced his actions are completely justified, is well-worn but interesting; as a series with a target audience of young people it is entirely as expected for a science fiction drama. The idea of a double identity and the inherent difficulties in reconciling lifestyles and the required fictions is stock superhero stuff, executed for the most part as a source of comedy stepping away from the central storyline. That said, often these low points in dramatic tension are oddly placed and the overall arc of the story becomes muddled early into R2 and never fully recovers. The end result is something that seems disjointed, inconsistent, contrived and at times quite dull.

It is rare for a series to be completely without any redeeming factors, however, and despite being genuinely poorly written, at many points poorly drawn and ultimately a waste of a potentially interesting concept, Code Geass is at times incredibly entertaining and occasionally shows flashes of being a far better series than it turned out as. Having watched both seasons of the show recently, two main failings are evident which each contribute to it being ultimately a poor product despite these moments of quality.

The first, and probably the most significant, is the lacklustre pacing of plot developments. The first season worked well by gradually escalating the stakes, showing how Lelouch initially sees his power as the solution to all potential problems, tries to learn how it works and keeps running into situations where it does not. Mixing the standard plot points of a superhero story (learning about an emerging power and encountering enemies who make using it difficult) with the stock elements of the military sci-fi genre can work; supernatural powers set against technology and military force provides an interesting and time-honoured narrative convention. However, a story needs a defined arc and R2 especially does not have one; while Code Geass set up a series of mysteries (what the “geass” is, who CC really is, what a mysterious temple discovered towards the end of the series means), R2‘s resolution of them is haphazard and uneven. Each big revelation is cheapened by the next, which results in the series ultimately feeling like it climaxes and then continues needlessly; the revelation the audience has been waiting for (the truth about Lelouch’s mother, and the geass) is not the endpoint of the series and the final arc instead attempts to create a fresh crescendo of tension which ends up ridiculous.

An arc-based or episodic storyline would be no problem; completing one story and then moving on to another is effectively what the first season does by pitting Lelouch against a series of antagonists (beginning with the ineffectual Clovis and then proceeding upwards through the military hierachy and royal succession) but R2 shies away from this by running its stories concurrently; while other series may use comic episodes to relieve built up tension following a storyline’s completion, R2 simply inserts them seemingly at random and uses them as part of the buildup. Not only is this tonally jarring to have character development of recurring antagonists take place during slapstick moments set around a school, it means there is no real sense of peak and trough throughout the narrative; instead it builds and builds with occasional sudden deviations. While this is thematically appropriate (R2‘s story focuses on how Lelouch is losing control – and possibly his mind) it does not make for a good piece of television.

The second main criticism is the significant tonal and setting-related inconsistency between seasons; a central part of military sci-fi is consistent and, if not realistic, credible technology. The first season had a very consistent setting; the overwhelming power of the Britannians was a result of their powered fighting suits, or KMFs. The escalation of the conflict moved from Lelouch first working out how to fight KMFs, to acquiring his own for his fledgling force, to an arms race as both sides put great minds behind weapon development. The scientists were central characters and their personal rivalry was played out in the combat sequences. The technological progress was restrained; it focused mostly on new wonder-weapons and culminated in the invention of flight-capable KMFs as a significant development which made both sides rethink their plans.

In R2, the technology of the setting is advanced so far as to make suspension of disbelief difficult; while the first season’s combat was intended to show how superior planning and strategy could beat militarily superior enemies, R2 instead focuses on a procession of geass users with powers including time travel, and incongruous units including transforming fighter craft. The tone has changed and the setting no longer feels like the same one as before despite both series being linked. Similarly, the tone of the whole series changes; by moving from one man’s quest for revenge and a warped perception of justice to ultimately the threat of global nuclear war and battles for control of half the world, the visceral and believable nature of the action is gone. R2‘s battles focus more on armies being moved around while leaders duel each other. Again, this is thematically relevant; the focus is no longer on a personal motive but instead how noble aims can be corrupted by megalomania, and how Lelouch is losing sight of the human cost of his actions, but it is ineptly handled. A viewer is consistently left thinking there must be ways of maintaining the credibility of the setting while still reflecting this thematic element.

That is not to say that there are not moments of Code Geass that are well-done; one scene in R2, shortly after Lelouch’s climactic showdown with the reigning Emperor, has CC lose her memory; the character had, over the course of the first season, become a fan favourite and the subject of internet memes focusing on her liking of pizza and docile nature. While these aspects of the character were secondary to her actual role in the story, they were nevertheless the ones that audiences identified with. As a result, the resolution of her narrative arc (explaining her history, identity and the reason for Lelouch’s losing control of his power) is given significant power in how it leaves her, for a period, as the epitome of docility; a literal mindless object of affection who can do little but obey and survive. The things which audiences had made the defining features of CC’s character are now the only features.

Similarly, the final chapters of the story provide the best possible closure to the narrative; while I do not wish to completely describe the ending of the series, a recurring theme in the final episodes is Lelouch realising how in his efforts to look after his own interests, he has neglected those of his sister and ended up losing her through his efforts to protect her. The final scene of the entire series, in which he is finally held accountable for everything he has done, is surprisingly effective and understated compared to the constant building up of tension and escalation of scale that has defined the preceding episodes.

To conclude, the main issues that consistently undo any attempts at challenging genre traditions and being thought-provoking by Code Geass are its inconsistencies and ill-defined narratives. While these decisions (the technological changes, the confused and overwhelming combining of narrative arcs) are thematically apt in a series about the abuse and loss of control of power, it is impossible to call the series an overall success; were it better written and more consistent in narrative terms, then it could explore the same themes in a clearer and more enjoyable fashion.

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3 comments

  1. Ommadon

    I do not know if you’re interested in reading lengthy comments regarding your older posts, especially a few months after the fact, but I suppose it’s still more appropriate to leave my own thoughts here rather than trying to awkwardly address the subject elsewhere. I offer my apologies in advance for any inconveniences caused.

    First, I must congratulate you for simply providing a comparatively multi-layered analysis of this series, since most of its audience tends to react by either embracing or dismissing the whole package without giving it much additional thought, remaining focused on the obvious extremes of blind praise or pure venom. There are always exceptions, of course, but in the particular case of “Code Geass” they seem to be rare, at least far as most online discussions are concerned. Inevitably, this state of affairs also brings down the quality of said debates. Just for that alone, I will say you’ve earned my respect…which should not make any practical difference, by all means, but I always prefer to be as frank as possible about such things.

    Second, much like the series itself did, I cannot possibly hide the fact that your post gives me mixed feelings. While I do not intend to convert you over to my way of thinking, so to speak, I believe there is some value in presenting a distinct point of view.

    We appear to be in relative agreement with respect to the existence of certain underlying themes which establish a logical link between both seasons, even if their actual execution throughout much of the “Code Geass R2” narrative was inconsistent and, in any case, noticeably inferior to how they were handled during the first season. This was a disappointment, no doubt, but the result is far from being truly senseless.

    I would also agree that poor pacing ultimately led to the downfall of said narrative, although I’d argue that the real problem wasn’t the placement of the “R2” school-based comedy episodes (5 and 12), which actually took place after the preceding arcs had just peaked and thus fulfiledl the typical function of providing relief when the “conflict of the hour” had already been resolved. I am not too fond of those episodes myself, but I would not consider them to be particularly odd in that sense either.

    I believe the biggest problem affecting the pacing and narrative, in the grand scheme of things, is more of a structural concern: the “R2” narrative, while it did not ignore the overall framework that had been established by the previous season, went through what we could call a “soft” reset at the beginning of its broadcast, essentially retooling and compromising the continuing story to meet external requirements.

    You may have heard of this before, but there was a time slot change (from Thursday after-midnight to Sunday afternoon) which created a demand for higher ratings and also brought forth the need to introduce the series to a new audience, not just provide the direct continuation that existing fans were expecting. As a result, the start of “R2” needed to serve multiple masters and the staff did not free themselves from those shackles until the China arc (8-11), at the earliest, but the consequences had produced significant plot changes in the meanwhile, and also meant that the rest of the story had to be compressed, cut and otherwise dumbed-down to fit the remaining number of episodes. Needless to say, they probably needed more planning between seasons to reconcile everything successfully beforehand, since apparently the final “R2” script wasn’t completed until they were about one month into the broadcast and that’s a bit too late to properly alter the course to match the available time. In reality, these decisions and other related shortcomings led to the many false climaxes present in the second half of “R2” without taking an adequate break and, generally speaking, made the writing take an extra turn for the sloppy, not out of incompetence alone but out of pure necessity. I suppose your analysis does not intend to take into account the circumstances behind a show’s production, only the outcome, but this is still worth noting.

    With respect to your setting concerns, I would argue that the majority of new robot designs introduced by “R2” were simply an extension of the experimental machines and wonder-weapons we had already seen during the first season, not necessarily an offense against the previously established setting. In a few words, the success of the Lancelot led to the further development and adoption of more radical designs, especially in Britannia since there would be no lack of resources and sponsors for such purposes, and mecha flight technology likewise became widespread after having tangible proofs-of-concept. Personally, I’d just question the inclusion of two unreasonably powerful mecha, both of which we saw only during the last quarter of the series before their mutual destruction. However, I will readily admit that the strategical and tactical content of the battles, in part as a result of this progression but perhaps more due to the mentioned behind-the-scenes dilemmas, was severely reduced and made for numerous weak or lukewarm showings, leaving a few honorable exceptions aside.

    As for the new Geass users, their numbers were expanded by a handful of named characters (Charles, Rolo –who manipulated time perception but did not time travel– and two or three more) plus the unnamed minions of a secret cult, but this development itself did not violate what little we knew about such powers nor did it affect the outcome of most battles. The main weaknesses there have to do with the narrative and its execution, in my opinion, not with the nature of the setting. I had no issues suspending my disbelief in this regard.

    Finally, we have come to the question of personal evaluation. While I agree that better writing and more consistency would have been necessary to make “Code Geass R2” in particular a worthwhile product instead of a disappointing one, I do not consider “Code Geass” as a whole to be a poor one, but merely flawed. It was precisely the existence of the entire first series, which isn’t perfect but remains qualitatively superior in most of the problematic areas described, and the presence of moments of quality even throughout the messy “R2” that kept my interest and made me appreciate the ending, thus I wouldn’t consider the attempt to challenge genre traditions and introduce a certain amount of thought-provoking material to be entirely unsuccessful. If it is a failure, then I consider it to be a partial yet interesting one, which isn’t without merit and may even be revisited, as opposed to an uniformly bad product that I’d rather forget.

  2. r042

    First of all I’ve no problem with comments – I welcome people giving their own views.

    As to your arguments, I don’t fully agree but can see where you’re coming from – indeed I think it’s entirely reasonable to look at any failure of a series as in some way redeemable. Thanks for posting your opinions!

  3. whakamole

    those posts were much longer than mine and completely true, I just want to say that I, personally, love the series, bothe the first season and R2, though I do see all the problems mentioned. my main problem is actually the whole thing with the emperor and “god” which was kinda never explained, at all. other than that I pretty much like the series, though a few characters were introduced that seemed kinda useless.

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