Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Aug 31st 2008
Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion
In an alternate universe where old-fashioned imperialism never went out of style, the world is in the thrall of the most powerful empire of all time: the Holy Empire of Britannia. When Japan dares resist the Empire's might, the Britannians crush the island nation using newly-developed bipedal weapons called Knightmare Frames. Stripped of even their name—they're now called Elevens—the Japanese people are brutally repressed. At the height of the brutality, Lelouch Lamperouge, a Britannian student in "Area 11," is granted the power of "Geass" by a mysterious girl named C. C. Embittered by the death of his mother at the hands of the Emperor of Britannia, and determined to secure a safe haven for his blind, paraplegic sister, he assumes the identity of Zero, a terrorist mastermind bent on destroying the Empire. Armed with Machiavellian smarts beyond his years, an absolute power that forces others to obey his orders, a small team of soldiers led by female terrorist (and classmate) Kallen, and a killer wardrobe, Lelouch sets out to bring the war to his enemies—terrorist style. Now if only his best friend (and Imperial Knightmare pilot) Suzaku would just stop unwittingly trying to kill him.
After roaring onto the anime scene at the helm of Infinite Ryvius, director Goro Taniguchi has had something of a checkered history. His series are visually inventive and unfailingly entertaining, but beyond that, quite variable. It's his habit to follow each of his respectable projects (Ryvius and the more modest but equally brilliant Planetes) with something, to put it kindly, with a lot more trash in it—a la the intense but insanely stupid s-CRY-ed. By that logic Code Geass, coming on the heels of the spectacularly uneven GUNxSWORD, should be a beautifully-constructed masterpiece. Well, patterns, like rules, are made to be broken.
From the first episode, when Taniguchi takes his tale of political strife and drives it straight into the kind of hammy, blood-soaked territory that would have been handled by Vincent Price were it a micro-budgeted live-action film from the seventies, it's obvious that a masterpiece is out of the question. Lelouch is a bastard, full of hubris. Superior characterization is supplanted by a slew of characters as thin as their whipcord designs (by Clamp). Tense mecha battles alternate with stretches of goony humor that blend into the series' tales of terrorism and compromised morality like hippies at a skinhead convention. And occasionally the series wanders off onto single-episode tangents that might as well have “character-building” signs stapled to their foreheads. Hardly the stuff of masterpieces.
But no one ever said that a series had to be a masterpiece to be good. The sizable cast is also as colorful as their designs, Lelouch's hubris is tempered by his absolute devotion to his sister and friends (and it doesn't hurt that he regularly gets his comeuppance), and the plot—cobbled together from equal parts Death Note and Gundam Seed—is propelled at such a speed that neither its derivation nor its jarring shifts in tone have much time to rankle. The massacre that rages over the first two episodes sets the tone, never letting up or allowing the tension to flag, even as it prioritizes careful strategy over godlike piloting skills.
Over the course of the next seven episodes, Taniguchi replicates that feat three more times—once during an attempted rescue, again during a full-scale terrorist attack, and once more during a hostage situation gone very wrong. Even when stapling character-building signs to its forehead, the series is always looking forward to Lelouch's next explosive scheme. Each is mounted as a bombastic melodramatic set-piece: Lelouch-as-Zero poses theatrically, mecha disintegrate cinematically, Kotaro Nakagawa's fine score climbs to overwrought heights, characters spout dialogue ripe enough to make the Bard blush, and Taniguchi's inborn dramatic flair is allowed to run utterly rampant.
The result is fast-paced, shamefully enjoyable, and not nearly as stupid as it first appears—cat-chasing gags aside. C. C., Kallen, and Princess Euphemia comprise the core of a female cast in which "strength" refers as much to iron wills and ambition as to butt-kicking skills and hair-trigger tempers, and Taniguchi is smart enough to recognize (and capitalize on) the Achilles' heel of all real-life schemers: people don't always act the way you predict.
For all of the scrawny, angular good looks of Clamp's original designs, the appeal of the character designs owes nearly as much to animation character designer Takahiro Kimura as to the manga superstars. His touch is apparent in the stylized way that characters move and in the liquid eyes and clean lines of their unusually expressive faces. As always, the mobility of his characters' faces is refreshing—though be sure not to think of the Grinch when Lelouch gets his evil-scheming face on, or you'll never be able to take the boy seriously again—and his handling of fan-service superb (though surprisingly restrained—remember Godannar?). The distinctive color schemes of the Britannians complement the bright, detailed world they occupy, both of which contrast nicely with the rubble-strewn, rags-clad poverty of the Elevens and their city.
Sunrise handles animation duties with their usual aplomb. Shortcuts are nearly nonexistent, the characters are allowed a wide range of movement that only occasionally suffer from stiffness, and the mecha battles are fast, furious and bloody, making the most of the flashy but effectively warlike giant robot designs (fashioned after Ryosuke Takahashi's Gasaraki).
Bandai's English adaptation was intended for consumption on Cartoon Network, so it comes as no surprise that it's rock-solid in most aspects. Johnny Yong Bosch's Lelouch is an effective mixture of youth and overblown villainy and the supporting cast—Kate Higgins's C. C. in particular—is much better than it needs to be. The actors do a fine job of translating the Japanese Code Geass experience into English, though of necessity they tone down the original's theatrics. What does surprise is the script's fidelity to the original. The adaptation is often taken word-for-word from the subtitle script—a strategy that is normally ill-advised, but works fine here, as naturalism was never an option.
Bandai scraped together an unusual quantity of extra material for these releases. Clean versions of the frankly disappointing opening and ending themes are of course provided, as are various previews and trailers. The "Picture Dramas" (three of them) are side-shows with voice-over narration that fill in little gaps in the series (and in one case, serve up heaps of hot-tub fan-service). The real treats, however, are the episode-long audio commentaries, of which there are four, each with a medley of cast and crew, and each brimming with enough energy and silly behind-the-scenes dirt to indicate that both cast and crew had an absolute blast making the series. Their musings in episode four on the logistics of Zero's theatrics are particularly amusing. It would explain a lot if he really does have his lines taped to the inside of his helmet.
Yes, Lelouch is hard to like. Yes, the dialogue is terrible. Yes, the Geass is an unpleasant conceit. And yes, the series goes way over the top. But unlike many series, Code Geass has the skill and energy to carry viewers over the top with it, where they can spend a pleasurable few hours reveling in its melodramatic charms.
Overall (dub) : B
Overall (sub) : B
Story : B-
Animation : B+
Art : B+
Music : B+
+ Builds to a series of climactic confrontations that are both thoroughly preposterous and genuinely cool; unusually strong female cast; easy on the eyes.
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