Reviewby Jacob Chapman,
Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion
Blu-Ray - Seasons One & Two [Collector's Edition]
Lelouch Lamperouge of the Britannian Empire and Suzaku Kururugi of Japan (known as Area 11 after its successful subjugation) are childhood friends on the opposite sides of an impossible war—in more ways than one. Not only are they battling for conflicting sides in Japan's struggle for independence, they're each supporting the enemy of their own people! After acquiring a mysterious superpower called "Geass" from Britannia's beautiful living superweapon C.C., the disgraced prince Lelouch vows to drive Britannian rule from Japan's borders in an act of vengeance on the emperor (his father) for executing his mother. By contrast, Suzaku has been knighted and gifted the power of Britannia's most powerful mech, Lancelot, to encourage peaceful relations between the nations after the death of his own father, Japan's former prime minister. As both of these teens are driven forward by their passionate principles and erratic emotions, a cast of freedom fighters and imperialist warriors alike will rise up around them to determine Japan's (or will it be Area 11's?) future through both cunning and bloodshed.
Ten years after it initially aired, Code Geass still remains a megaton franchise in Japan. Not only have its spinoff OVAs continued to sell fantastically well to this day, but we even got the shocking announcement of a direct sequel a few months ago: "Lelouch of the Resurrection." This news is especially alarming if you know how the original show ended, but it's just like Code Geass to throw out even more impossible twists when it seemed like there couldn't possibly be any left.
Because above all else, Code Geass's legacy lies in its unforgettable twists. This might be a deceptive statement since it's not necessarily known for having good twists— just a ridiculous number of twists. Its earliest episodes assault the viewer with a truckload of mysteries and shocking developments. Why was Lelouch's mother murdered? What is C.C.'s true nature? Why is Suzaku so adamant about enforcing peaceful submission under Britannian rule? All these questions continue to stack up as new characters form unexpected alliances and formidable foes on both sides are often killed or incapacitated in unforeseen ways. Code Geass moves its big box of chess pieces around so quickly from the start, sprinkling in snappy narration and exposition to keep anyone from getting confused along the way, that it's hard to care very much about whether any of it holds together.
Regardless of how you feel about Code Geass's plot and characters, its director Goro Taniguchi had an impeccable knack for selling the story in almost every moment. Given Sunrise's healthy production resources and a series of uniquely expressive character designs by CLAMP, Taniguchi and his team of talented animators had an excellent foundation to build an epic on, so in a stroke of accidental genius, they chose to build it entirely from its fancy facade inwards. Code Geass sets both the big picture of the war's endgame and the more intimate work of character development to the side in favor of immediate, gripping conflicts and memorable sequences. C.C. is shot between the eyes and grants Lelouch an incredible superpower in death. Lelouch commands a squad of soldiers to kill themselves and goes from horror at the resulting carnage to a maniacal grin. Lelouch dons an over-the-top disguise to rescue his best friend, relying on the most groundless bluff on the most public national stage to save the day.
In retrospect, most of these unforgettable scenes don't have long-term consequences, but their impact in the moment allows the show to deliver more excitement in its opening act that some entire anime series manage in their final climax. Some combination of Geass's crisp editing, melodramatic character animation, and brass-heavy soundtrack brings the spirit of showmanship to some frequently seat-of-its-pants storytelling in an instantaneously gratifying way, like when you inhale a whole sleeve of Girl Scout Cookies before you can even get from the front door to the kitchen. When there's so much "and then!" packed this efficiently into every tense new moment, you don't have enough breathing room to focus much on the "but why?"
That's probably for the best, because just as there are two domineering sides in the fight for Japan's sovereignty, there are two pungent extremes to Code Geass's "go big or go home" approach, divided almost perfectly by the break between its two seasons. While Code Geass's iffy script rarely pulls any "clever" tricks ("well that's awfully convenient" is closer to how most of its twists play in hindsight), its story choices are still mostly satisfying in the first season. Even if it seems contrived that things would work out the way that they do for Lelouch, season one tends to dole out victories and defeats to the characters we most want to see triumphant or humbled in any given moment, and it always focuses on the most interesting aspect of each new struggle. While there's probably a lot of "what?!" in Code Geass season one, there's not much in the way of "but why?" (with the notorious exception of episode 22...) This is sadly not true for the left turn into "why" that constitutes most of its second season.
Popular suspicion holds that Code Geass was originally intended to only be one season, because season two not only recycles many of season one's plot points in a less satisfying way, it adds a series of new subplots and reveals that were absolutely best left on the cutting room floor. Amnesia is used to push characters out of the show or force them to repeat crowd-pleasing beats of their character arcs. Several long episodes are spent in China with an alt-Lelouch and alt-Nunnally who add nothing engaging to the story. There's a wholly unnecessary JRPG-cliche-ridden backstory reveal for a major villain that makes their entire role in the story unsatisfying. All this and more culminate in a finale that easily could have been spliced onto the end of season one instead by cutting out the show's most painful decisions. If season one of Code Geass is like the first few rides on your favorite rollercoaster, season two marks the point where you start feeling nauseous and need to stop getting back in line.
To be fair, it's not a hard-and-fast split between good and bad seasons. Code Geass's finale and the few episodes leading up to it return to the show's core strengths and even imbue its largely underdeveloped main cast with enough nuance to give them meaningful arcs. The first season also becomes a slog immediately when trying its hand at comedy. Its high school antics episodes were awkward at the time but play even lamer now, killing the high-stakes main plot's momentum just so the audience can cringe and fidget through unimportant student council shenanigans. Still, for the most part, Code Geass is more successful at encouraging you to turn your brain off in its first half than its second, just managing to save face by going out on a high note.
The transfer on Funimation's blu-ray release presents the show as snazzy as it's ever going to look. (The audio mostly sounds good too, save for one major oversight that fans should definitely know about before purchasing.) While the show's stark color palette hasn't aged perfectly, its art design and animation style remain refreshingly one-of-a-kind, although more for the humans than the mostly-boring mech designs. (It's still neat to see a mech show this recent-ish where all the robots are hand-drawn instead of CG.) Extras on this Collector's Edition release include an impressive stack of art cards illustrated by CLAMP, most if not all of the extravagant illustrations they produced for the series. There's a ton of bonus material on the discs as well: eighteen Japanese episode commentaries across both seasons featuring just about every major player in the staff or cast, all the dozens of Code Geass "picture dramas" (audio dramas set to colored illustrations) in both English and Japanese for the first season but sub-only for the second season, all the original broadcast versions of the show's next episode previews, and finally the most curious extra, four English voice actor interviews in standard definition from the DVD releases. They seem to have been recorded somewhat impromptu, since they're poorly mic'd in what looks like a hallway of the dubbing studio's production office with an undressed background of exposed outlets and AV carts. It's wacky to see these prolific VAs almost ten years younger though!
Even after a decade, it's hard to say if most people enjoy Code Geass for the reason it was intended to be enjoyed. There's no denying that the show strives for character depth and political commentary that it never quite achieves, and its creators have had notoriously limited success trying to make serious anime dramas in their following projects. For a show with such an unusually high volume of memorable scenes, it's kinda weird to realize that the writing was never very good, which goes to show that style can be just as essential to a cinematic experience as substance. Code Geass had more relentless plot twists than most other anime, but the twists themselves didn't do anything for its story that hadn't been done in anime before. Above all else, Code Geass doubled down on a powerful sense of conviction that gave even its dumbest moments the kind of gravity that still draws people in years later. Seeing as this franchise has always turned stupidity into its own kind of strength, maybe bringing Lelouch back for a sequel could be the start of another unforgettably wild ride?
Overall (dub) : B+
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : B-
Animation : B+
Art : A-
Music : B+
+ Compelling grand-scale war plot driven by strong personalities, unique art direction and character design that still stands out a decade later, captivating animation and direction, so over-the-top that it's hard not to enjoy even its dumbest moments, strong finale
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