Thursday, January 14, 2016

Anime Review: Code Geass

Guest post by Sam McDonald.
I'm doing a bit more research into my next edition of The Audio File, so I thought I might review a little something different this month. If you really need you're audio fix you can always checkout my posts over at Amazing Stories. Specifically, I'm going to be reviewing the alternate history anime: Code Geass.

The back story is that America lost the Revolutionary War, but the British Isles were later conquered by Napoleon, as was pretty much all of Europe. The British royal family fled to their still loyal American colonies. In time they would rise from the ashes as the Holy Britannian Empire and would grow to span the entirety of the Americas. Britannia's two main rivals are the European Union, the federated descendant of Napoleon's empire, and the Chinese Federation, a union between China and India.

The series begins seven years after Japan was annexed by Britannia. Why was the notoriously resource poor Japan annexed by a foreign power? You see, in this world most power and energy is derived from a highly reactive substance known as sakuradite and Japan is the Persian Gulf of sakuradite. The Britannian conquest of Japan was aided by the use of mobile suit mecha known as Knightmare Frames.

The series follows an exiled Britannian prince named Lelouch Lamperouge. He's been seeking revenge against Brittannia for the assassination of his mother and he wants to make the world a safer place for his disabled sister Nunally. Lelouch has all but given up hope of achieving any of this, but then he meets a mysterious girl named C.C. (pronounced see-two) who grants him the power of geass. Geass takes many forms, but for Lelouch it's the ability of command anyone he makes eye contact with to perform any action, but only once per person. Lelouch soon creates an identity for himself as the masked vigilante Zero and he quickly becomes an icon and leader of the Japanese resistance movement, who christen themselves The Black Knights.

Before long the events of the rebellion spread far beyond Japan and engulf the entire world. Lelouch is surrounded by enemies and potential allies, and then there's his childhood friend Suzaku Kururugi. Suzaku is an honorary Britannian of Japanese origin who has risen through the ranks of the military and hopes to reform the empire from within.

This series is probably one of the best alternate history anime out there. The alternate history is really central to the plot and setting rather than simply being used as a backdrop. There's several more details to the setting's history that you can find through various supplementary materials and a few quick online searches. Highlights include that the Ancient Britons successfully repelled the Roman invasion, sakuradite was first discovered under Stonehenge and Elizabeth I apparently had male heirs. It’s a very intriguing setting full of all kinds of possibilities.

Besides being an alternate history series Code Geass is also a member of the Real Robot genre. As best I understand it, Real Robot attempts to portray mecha and piloted robots in a more realist manner than something like, say, Pacific Rim. The Knightmares are overly large, they move using wheels, they have a few more fantastic features such as energy shields, but overall they're pretty well grounded.

One of the big themes that is present thought out the series is that those who fight wars must be willing to account for their consequences. The Black Knights are fighting for freedom against a monstrous oppressor, but they often find themselves making decisions that often bring unforeseen consequences. At the same time, thought Britannian society is incredibly racist and classist, as the series goes on we increasingly see that most average Britannians are decent enough people just trying to live their lives. Then there's the driving questions of what will really be better for the Japanese people in the long run. Should they attempt revolution and risk millions of innocent lives, or work for reform within the system, but potentially at the cost of their heritage and culture? In short, shades of grey all around.

The other really big theme throughout the series is of course racism and that plays in rather interestingly when it comes to the artwork. The character designs for the series were designed by the artist group CLAMP. In typical CLAMP style most of the characters have a very long limbed and noodley look to them. Generally speaking, the Japanese characters will have black or brown hair, while the Britannians tend to have hair from every color of the rainbow. Interestingly though, Lelouch looks fairly Japanese, while Suzaku looks like he could pass as a pure-blooded Britannian. Give that racism is a fairly prominent theme throughout the series this may have been intentional.

Now, I know some of you might have some concerns about this next subject, so let's just get it out of the way now. Yes, there is fanservice in this series, but on the whole it's pretty evenhanded. Female characters tend to be incredibly buxom, male characters get more than a few shirtless scenes and characters of both genders get shots lingering on their rear ends. There's also the odd scene of brief nudity here and there, but it's nothing beyond PG-13 level.

While we're on the subject of touchy issues, let's talk about the voice acting. I'm going to focus on the English dub of the series here. Now, I'm more than aware that to some anime fans this is considered heresy, but I get more out of something when I hear it. I also don't hold any ill will towards those of you who prefer subtitles, I just ask for mutual respect here. Okay, now let's talk about some voice acting that really stood out.

I thought that Johnny Young Bosch brought a lot of emotion a depth to his performance as Lelouch. Likewise, Yuri Lowenthal did an equally good job voicing Suzaku. Though having first encountered Yuri as the voice of Ben Tennyson in Ben 10: Alien Force, it did cause some of Suzaku's lines to come across as unintentionally humorous or otherwise hard to take seriously. On the whole I'd say that all of the voice actors did really great jobs voicing their characters.

Now, Code Geass may be a really great series, but it's not without its flaws. One of the biggest issues I had was the way the plot tended to switch between the ongoing rebellion and the high school antics going on with the student council at Lelouch and Suzaku's boarding school. The first few episodes did a pretty good job of striking a balance, but as the series progresses the student council bits began to feel increasingly forced and didn't contribute much to the plot. At times it almost felt like I was watching two completely different series that somehow got mashed together.

Then there's the fact that many of the Britannians have oddly French sounding names. This is particularly jarring when you consider that the European Union is Britannia's sworn enemy. China and India merging into a single nation is apparently something of a common trope in Japanese alternate history and science fiction, but it still comes across as kind of random. I also find it kind of odd that, despite being incredibly racist and classist, Brittannia seems oddly progressive when it comes to women's rights and accepts homosexuality.

We also don't get to see the European Union as much as we get to see Britannia and the Chinese Federation. There is a series set in between seasons one and two, however, known as Code Geass: Akito the Exiled. It is set in the European Union, though it has yet to be released in America.

As far as the second season goes, it certainly had its good points, but in many ways it felt even more disjointed than the first season. It seemed to go more and more off the rails, and by the time the ending came...well, I wouldn't want to spoil that. In large part this can be blamed on executive meddling with the production. The first season wound up being much more popular than anticipated, so the crew were forced to make alteration to the plot to allow for more new fans to watch the show. Code Geass is very continuity heavy, so I can kind of see where they were coming from, but I find myself questioning if it was really all for the best in the end.

Despite some iffy elements, overall Code Geass is a pretty good anime, but where would you go if you wanted to watch it? This is an especially pressing issue given that Bandai Entertainment, which was responsible for the English dub, shut down its North American division. Have no fear, FUNimation Entertainment has rescued the license for Code Geass and several other Bandai properties.

They have yet to rerelease the series, but you can find the original Bandai DVDs on Amazons for relatively descent prices. Season one is known as Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion, while season two is known as Code Geass: R2. FUNimation also has the license for Code Geass: Akito the Exiled, so hopefully we'll see a dub of it someday. There's also several manga adaptations, but none of them are particularly faithful to the anime.

Code Geass is reasonably well known in the anime community, but what about in the alternate history community? On the whole it's fairly well loved. In fact, many users on AlternateHistory.com are fans and more than a few of their timelines are also Code Geass fanfics. Also, remember that map Lynn Davis made of a Stuart monarchy in America? If you look to the southwest you'll see a city named Pendragon, located where Phoenix would be, just like the Britannian capital of the same name.

Well there you have it. Code Geass may not be the greatest anime I've ever seen, but it's still a pretty good show. Hey, if you're looking for one of the best alternate history anime out there, you can't beat Code Geass. I'll return to my regularly scheduled posting of The Audio File next month, but if you'd like to see some more reviews of alternate history anime let me know and I'll put it on the rotation. I will see you all next time.

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Sam McDonald is a college student from Shreveport, LA.  When not involved with his studies he can be found blogging on Amazing Stories, making and posting maps across the web and working on short stories that he hopes to have published in magazines such as Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and the Escape Artists Podcasts.

2 comments:

  1. It sounds fascinating, my lack of familiarity with so much of anime, notwithstanding, so I might seek it out.

    I noticed, though, that, when listing alternate history flaws in Code Geass, you avoided the elephant in the room, specifically, the ancient Britons avoiding Roman conquest, yet still ending up with a history similar enough to ours, that both an Elizabeth I and an American Revolution against Britain still existed. It's a head-scratcher, to be sure, even if it's a necessary evil required to give that world its exotic flavor. Then again, you did mention that more information about that world's history can be found elsewhere; will that clear up my confusion?

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    1. Well, give the presence of Alien Space Bats elements such as geass and sakuradite, I was willing to let that bit slide. The Britons resisting the Romans bit is mentioned in the supplementary material, and there's a certain amount of fan speculation that i may have been imperial propaganda.

      And don't worry about a lack of familiarity with anime. After I finish up my next few editions of The Audio File I intend to show case some great alternate history anime.

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