Reviewby Nick Creamer,
Code Geass: Akito the Exiled
While the mysterious rebel Zero has disappeared from Area 11, war still rages across continental Europe. Leila Malcal fights on behalf of the European union, commanding Assault Unit wZero and its new ace, displaced Eleven Akito Hyuga. Together with Hyuga and the ragtag soldiers of her new Wyvern unit, she squares off against the Britannian subsector Euro Britannia, until a mysterious figure surfaces from Akito's bloody past. With loyalties shifting and new powers rising, Leila and Akito will have to challenge both their own feelings and the world around them, searching for a better future in the midst of despair.
The original Code Geass was a juggernaut of a franchise, a thrilling war drama predicated on an array of core strengths. Those strengths began with Lelouch, a simple teen born in a difficult time, a master tactician who simply wanted to give his sister a future. Lelouch's personal showboating and constant tactical gimmicks were bolstered by rip-roaring pacing, constant narrative invention, and a lack of self-seriousness that inspired such genius episodes as A Cat Steals Lelouch's Helmet, and The One With The Giant Pizza. Code Geass leapt from twist to twist without hesitance or apology, creating a larger-than-life action tapestry that found the sweet spot between structurally smart and tonally ridiculous. It's no surprise to me that Code Geass became a hit, or that many shows have attempted to follow in its footsteps.
Even Code Geass's own creators have repeatedly attempted to capture its bottled lightning. Hiroyuki Yoshino and Ichiro Okouchi, two writers fundamental to the Geass formula, later composed Guilty Crown together before moving on to individual projects like Valvrave the Liberator and Izetta: The Last Witch. Each of those shows seems designed to reflect Geass's bombastic style in some way, and though each have their moments, they ultimately feel like shadows of the original. When it came time to create a new Geass OVA, a new talent was brought in: Kazuki Akane, a director best known for the '90s classic Escaflowne.
I offer that context to start because without it, Akito the Exiled doesn't really make any sense. If you're looking for a continuation of the things that made Geass great, you will likely be disappointed by Akito. This story moves slowly, with very little of the humor or bombast that contributed to Geass's signature tone. Code Geass was a campy thrill ride, a mile-a-minute journey through wild twists and crazy battles. Akito the Exiled is a somber character piece, a melancholy love story framed around an almost irrelevant European conflict. Akito the Exiled may exist in the Geass universe, but it does not occupy Code Geass's singular genre.
In the early episodes, the disconnect between Code Geass's fundamental mechanics and Akito the Exiled's own priorities chafe terribly. The OVA seems to understand that being a Geass property carries certain assumptions, so we're quickly introduced to a bloated bridge staff, a diversely talented crew of soldiers, and a thorny political crisis. Everyone has their own motivations, which are gestured at for a minute or two and then ignored. Heroine Leila Malcal has a battle she needs to win, but there's little context for this, only the urgency implied through everyone yelling at her.
Akito the Exiled stays muddled for a while, as Leila recruits a few unlikely allies and we learn more about ace pilot Akito. The OVA's early episodes are a pacing nightmare, an awkward mix of too-quick character introductions and terribly long mood segments. We're given maybe fifteen seconds with each of ten different bridge members, but will then spend thirty seconds slowly zooming in on Akito as he stares unhappily at the moon. The tonal focus that lent Escaflowne such a distinctive personality feels ill-suited to the Geass world, with its incoherent worldbuilding and one-note characters. Akito the Exiled is a show at war with itself.
But Akito does settle into its own groove eventually. The long mood-focused segments may feel out of place at the start, but they're striking sequences regardless, and the show eventually earns that pacing. The muddle of Britannia-Euro Britannia-Europa politics eventually resolves into a clear personal conflict, allowing the characters' feelings to echo the fundamental mechanics of the battles. There are many genuinely beautiful segments of Akito the Exiled, and even some rare moments of humor. The ending may dip into psychological technobabble, but the final turn of Akito's nemesis rings emotionally true.
The OVA's execution is a similar mash of the sublime and the deeply misguided. To start with the bad, the show has altogether too much faith in its ability to make use of CG environments. There are many shots in this OVA that seem to zoom across a CG room and right up to a traditionally animated character just because they can, jarring horribly along the way. The robots are also completely CG, and while that's expected in this day and age, it feels disappointing after the late-era traditional animation of the original Geass. When robots are sliding across a clearly 2D surface and clashing against CG turrets, it can feel a little too much like you're watching an outdated video game cutscene.
On the plus side, Akito the Exiled seems absolutely determined to prove that CG robots are a potentially worthwhile evolution. Akito's battles sing with the opportunities a free camera provides, spinning around robots and following them as they careen around corners and rappel between buildings. Europa's transforming robots, which transition near-instantly between bipedal and spider forms, feel like they're designed to demonstrate just how smooth CG motion can be. There are fights staged across zeppelins and fights waged between fields of spikes, the camera ducking and twisting to offer a visceral spectacle that traditional animation couldn't realistically match.
The OVA's traditional art is just as strong, a great match for the show's more reflective tone. The background art in Akito is consistently terrific, and Akane knows just how to let a segment breathe for best emotional effect. The character designs stick to CLAMP's general model, matching the original's proud mix of expressiveness and inherent fanservice. The OVA's music may actually be its strongest feature, offering a diverse and brilliantly applied mix of somber piano melodies, stirring orchestral arrangements, and even some jazz standouts for the fight scenes. Akane's touch feels meaningful there as well, with some of the most dramatically consequential battles transposed not against crashing horns or wailing guitars, but sad reflective piano ballads.
Ultimately, Akito the Exiled is a fascinating mess. In comparison to the immediate thrills of Code Geass, its first half feels a bit like punishment, and the OVA never quite recovers. There are some compelling strengths here, but they feel hamstrung by the show's placement within the wider Geass universe. The nature of Akito the Exiled might best be summed up by its own relationship with Lelouch - he's featured prominently on the cover, but his role in the narrative is basically meaningless. I'd be interested in seeing an utterly self-contained version of Akito the Exiled, but Code Geass: Akito the Exiled is more of a compelling failure.
This release comes in a standard slipcase that houses both the show's bluray case and a collection of chipboard art cards, all featuring portrait shots of the OVA's various characters. On-disc extras are limited to a pair of dub commentary tracks, which offer the usual mix of scattered reflections on the show's scripting and dubbing process. The episode one commentary is provided by ADR director Justin Shults, which makes for an interesting contrast with the usual cast-filled commentary tracks. On the one hand, Shults' solo appearance means he can tell a variety of specific stories about the creative decisions that went into the dubbing process - on the other hand, the lack of back-and-forth does result in some dead air. Shults is a genuinely funny and insightful presence though (“Chris Sabat as Smilas: not good. Just not a good actor,” “J. Michael Tatum's a method actor, so he'd just show up to all his scenes drunk”), so I found the commentary very fun on the whole.
The dub itself is ambitious but ultimately pretty awkward. The dub cast all attempt to offer accents appropriate for their various European origins, and the results tend to be less than convincing. Given the original Code Geass made no effort to match its geographically diverse cast with appropriate accents, it's a little strange that Akito the Exiled makes this awkward stab at authenticity - Shults explains that they were seeking a more authentically European experience, but I feel the results are fairly mixed.
Overall, I'm not sure who I'd recommend Akito the Exiled to. Fans of Kazuki Akane's other work will likely appreciate Akito's tonal choices, but the story being told often doesn't feel matched to the gravity of its framing. Fans of Code Geass may enjoy how this story fleshes out the Geass world, but they likely won't appreciate its wholesale abandonment of Geass's style of storytelling. All that said, I ultimately came to enjoy Akito's strange fragmented being. Bold experiments in beloved franchises are always a risky choice. Akito may not always succeed, but it's a compelling effort nonetheless.
Overall (dub) : C+
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C
Animation : B
Art : A-
Music : A
+ Second half resolves into a satisfying mech battle and character drama, the music is terrific
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