I love the name of this anime. Without a doubt one of the best names I’ve encountered. That and its fame in animedom is why I decided to finally watch it some time back. But this anime does not rank highly on my list. There are too many unnecessary plot twists that attempt to explain every little mystery, and it gets complicated and impractical as a result. Character design is decent, but execution suffers because of the all the aforementioned plot twists. Art is exquisite, though not my favorite. Overall, there’s some things I really like that make this as popular as it is, and there’s some things I don’t like that probably also serve to make it popular in some cases.
This rating would be lower, except Lelouch himself is iconic, and deservedly so. His vampiric design is visually exciting and very memorable. The faceless helmet is an interesting idea, one I’ve even toyed with in personal writings at times, and presents many opportunities to add to a character or plot. The red-purple-black-gold thing works for me. However, while these aspects are interesting, they feel a little under-utilized. There’s lots of things to like about Lelouch, and a few things that just don’t work.
I’ll touch on his appearance first. Vampiric collar and cape and snappy suit, he commands attention, and that is well done. However, the vampiric appearance itself gets left untouched. Literature around vampires is extensive. Even Japan is fascinated with these myths and their associated literature. Why they chose such an appearance for this potentially epic character and then didn’t do diddly-squat with it as an aspect of his character baffles me. You could make an argument that he sucks the life out of everyone around him, or lives off of them, but it would just be us making that argument, and even so it’s flimsy and a stretch at that. You could say “well it’s not a Japanese myth” and hence they might not handle it well. Possible, but then you have characters like Kiss-shot Acerola-orion Heart-under-blade, and I needn’t go on. This is a big miss for Code Geass in my opinion.
The helmet is another. You could say it’s a complete denial of who he is, and that contrasts with how he uses his position occasionally in his plans, but that’s very insubstantial. Face-changes and face masks almost always have that element, and don’t require an entirely blank visage to do their work. Another view could be one of impassivity. I like this one, as you have several character who use geass who are either mostly emotionless or nearly heartless, or both. So you could argue that maybe acquiring geass isn’t a slow decline to inhumanity, but it occurs instantly, and hence the instant use of the blank-faced helmet, or something in that vein. But all of these approaches get contradicted later. Lelouch is the least impassive character in the series arguably, and if anything is in sharp contrast to the broken C.C., who is ultimately impassive. I could make other arguments, but they all end up impossible at some point. So again, this is a great design, but a big miss of an opportunity.
The unusual eyes are a fixture in so many fantasy anime, I can hardly complain about his reddish eye as a copy of Kaneki’s iconic ghoul eye, but it nonetheless ends up feeling like that. So I’m not a fan in that vein. However, it still works for him, and adds to his fantastic appearance. As a tool for the plot or his character however, it still doesn’t add much. It’s just kind of there, just like his vampire cape and empty visage. Maybe not as much can be expected of the eye, as it is so predominant in anime. But still, for such an epic anime in some ways and such a wonderfully designed character, it feels like there’s a miss in there somewhere.
His plotting and succeeding and plotting and failing is a big rollercoaster of emotions that you just get tired of after the fifth time or so, and it becomes a tired and ineffective aspect of his character. Not just the details of the plots either, but the manipulations he attempts and his efforts to control others’ actions and reactions. I realize the author is probably trying to portray Lelouch’s influence as mostly a matter of his personal popularity, and as he runs out of ideas his popularity, and hence his influence, begins to wane. But as a device for the character, it gets a little tiresome, and makes him less popular with me eventually. That doesn’t seem like a great way to treat your character, or audience.
Lelouch is a main character of main characters, but has so many neglected possibilities that I feel very unsatisfied with him. Even the appellation “Zero” doesn’t seem to mean much, despite its possibilities. Recognizable, memorable, yes, forever. But could he have been so, so much more? Absolutely.
C.C. has similar issues. Since she’s not the main character, obviously it’s not as big a deal. But as beautiful and captivating she is, she mostly ends up sitting on the sidelines. Sidelines can be used effectively too, but for her it’s just the sidelines, until suddenly they bring her out in some bizarre plot twists, until she goes away again. I adore her green hair and golden eyes and her white outfit, and how they introduce her. You realize she’s a key to so much right away, and it sets the stage for lots of mysteries. But when those mysteries all end explained, often in unremarkable ways, you can’t even remember why she was so important in the first place, other than the transmission of the geass to Lelouch. For that’s essentially the only significant role she plays. Again, there’s a miss. She’s everything, and Lelouch is nothing without her, but she disappears. They almost get to touching on that during the series, but it never blossoms as it should perhaps.
Kallen is a favorite of mine, but like most of the other characters, gets a little lost after a while, and her character changes too much and too often, and it just ends up disappointing. Such a waste of beauty and character design. I love the red hair and the teal eyes, and the rebellious, martial trappings. She strives to fit that second-in-command role, and as much Lelouch will let her she does. Their interaction is good, but as he loses her over time, and as she loses him, it doesn’t feel as sad as it should. Everything is too messy and confusing at that point.
Some of the other characters are interesting at times, but never really become much. Cornelia is a fun character that comes and goes in the ins and outs of the story, never developed much though. Villetta’s amnesia and interaction with the Black Knight Kaname Ogi is briefly interesting, but resolves poorly. There are others, but I don’t want to go into all of them.
Did I forget Suzaku? No, just I can’t go into all that. He essentially fills whatever roll the crazy story requires him to fill temporarily. In that sense he’s a very empty character, with nothing particular to define him. You could say if anything devotion to “duty” is his defining trait, but so what? It doesn’t serve him well for sure, although he does come out alive at the end, despite it all. And his “duty” seems to waiver all over the place. Very unsatisfying and forgettable.
But surely he’s not ignoring Euphemia? No, but I’ll touch that more when I discuss the story below.
Lastly about characters, and perhaps this should have been first: there’s too damn many! I don’t want to follow the personal stories of every Black Knight, and know that every member of the Brittanian royal family has at least some redeeming qualities. There didn’t need to be a second C.C. character (V.V., how imaginative). Competing eccentric scientists on each side, and their emotionally damaged sidekicks. It’s all so confusing and frustrating, and very much detracts from the series.
I want to say this art is unique, but the facial style is not super unusual, if somewhat rare. What’s most striking in this show is how unbearably thin and stretched everyone is. As weird as this is, I think it serves the dark tenor of the show well. Lelouch in particular is all arms and legs, as they say. It adds to his fantastical appearance, and I’m definitely a fan. It gives our basketball-player cosplayers an obvious choice! Joking aside, I appreciate this bizarre design feature. The flowing robes and the mass of pointy-ended black hair adds to his sinister appearance, and is certainly part of what makes him epic. He’s a showman, and he looks every inch of it.
At this point I should mention that this anime is a mecha anime, lest we forget. The mechs are nicely drawn, and their battles are always engaging, if a little impossible. One or two too many times all too convenient new tools suddenly appear at their disposal. That gets a little old quickly. Every mech we are introduced to seems to eventually be outclassed by another one we didn’t know existed before, rendering the older ones ordinary and uninteresting. I’m a big fan of good mecha anime, and this one satisfies in that regard enough, though like I’ve said several times already in this article, it could have been better.
We have the ultra-big eyes in this series again. This usually come with very sharp features and often bizarre mouths. We get a little of that, but I don’t mind it here. I have seen shows where this is so bizarre it detracts from the show, and that’s not the case here. I feel it is very appropriate. It’s done so well in some ways that it defines this style a little, like Naruto or Jojo define their particular styles. Anytime you stray into this style you’re going to get Clannad comparisons, but you don’t have to. This is good enough on its own to push back on comparisons.
Scenery is really good. It’s very detailed oftentimes, and is appropriately gigantic for the large-scale battles that often occur within them.
I know some of you are going to hate me for this, but I detest how this story goes. There is so, so much potential in this series, a lot of which I pointed out above. But it’s totally lost in the labyrinthine mess that this story becomes. Character development gets bulldozed by all the twists and turns. Interesting mysteries get explained in mundane or impossible ways. It all becomes so tiresome, I had trouble making it through the second season. Lelouch’s depression grows, his life becomes more and more complicated, less and less focused, more and more isolated. It gets so twisted and confusing. And as I’ve said over and over, it ends up losing something in the process. I’ll give a couple examples.
Euphemia’s introduction, effort, development, and sudden and tragic death presents a great opportunity. And the writer tries to do so. Lelouch, on some level, is obviously not satisfied with the turn things have taken when Euphemia extends the olive branch to Japan. When he goes along with it anyway, you can definitely feel his frustration with the fact that he’s losing control. This is an excellent choice in how to handle him at this point in the story. But then suddenly, without any reason, an accident leads to Euphemia’s madness and ultimate demise, and chaos ensues through misunderstanding, miscommunication, and just silly personal problems between the characters. An accident!
Now, let’s play with the following assumption: Lelouch was not unhappy with this outcome, accident though it were. That would make sense, as demonstrated by his actions in the immediate aftermath of her rampage. Additionally, control of the situation was returned to him, and the war could continue, and hence his quest for vengeance. I do not recall any instances where you even find a hint of Lelouch implying he was satisfied with this outcome. On the contrary, it colors pretty much everything he does thereafter, affecting him quite negatively, and adding to his unhappiness. Oh so he’s just immature and not ready to deal with the emotion he’s faced with, and he can’t handle the impact of the decisions he’s making, and…wait wait wait, what? All of that is unnecessary and drags on the story. As effective as this event is in the story, it could have been handled very differently. It ends up just frustrating and depressing the viewer. You feel terribly for everyone involved, but then totally put off by how everyone handles it afterwards.
The second example is perhaps the most obvious thing in the show: the Geass ability. The ability to command anyone, and yet he seems so haphazard with it and it becomes almost useless by the end of the show. So much so that they have to add other characters that use it to make it relevant. It leads to Euphemia’s demise, but that’s just another twist. Sure it’s the source of all his power, but so what? It doesn’t particularly add to the story beyond that. And that’s frustrating, given how critical it is to the story in the first place.
I could get heavily into the chess aspect of this story. Or how this aspect could make a connection with Death Note. Or not. So I won’t.
This story becomes a great tragedy as it nears its conclusion. Perhaps it’s just me, but I feel like it became that more and more as it dragged on, and maybe wasn’t intended to be so initially. Was there some way for Euphemia to not be killed through a silly course of events? Was there some way Nunnally could have come out of her shock sooner? Was it necessary to build up the goodness of Lelouch and Nunnally’s mother, all to have it torn away and leave us in confusion whether she was a heroic defender of her children or a subversive plotter against who we’re not really sure? Most important of all, could we not have cut out all the twists and turns and just gotten sooner to Lelouch’s sacrificial attempt to redeem himself? Seriously, by the time you get to that point, you not only don’t know whether you want him to succeed or fail, or whether you want him to live or die, but you find you don’t really care either way. Sure, I don’t mind making things a little complicated, and not relying entirely on the stereotypical bad guy to help us decide who we’d rather die and not, but there’s so much of it by the end of this story you can’t even view any character in one way or the other anymore. There were definitely times in the story where I felt like someone needed to just kill one of the characters. But then later that character would kind of redeem themselves, and you wouldn’t feel that way anymore. Too confusing, too emotionally difficult to follow. And not in a good way. Akame ga Kill leaves you feeling tragic loss upon tragic loss. Re:Zero leaves your heart destroyed watching Rem die over and over, and connects you with Subaru through that. Attack on Titan builds depression on depression until you feel in your gut the suffering of the characters. Code Geass leaves you wanting to just walk away, since you’ll be unsatisfied either way. Too many plot twists and crazy resolutions to otherwise interesting mysteries.
Lelouch is an epic character who is instantly recognizable by anyone who knows anything about anime. He should be experienced. I say so cautiously however, as once you start you will feel the urge to finish the series, and it will be uncomfortable and tiresome.
I’ve heard people say this anime tries to appeal to broad audiences by having a little bit of everything. Well, I guess it succeeds at that, and possibly this explains its popularity. But I will ironically refer to the Western proverb that if you attempt to please everyone, you will please no one. So hence it may be “popular,” but perhaps only in the sense that everyone can find something they like about this series, but no one particularly likes it completely and overall. I certainly don’t. There’s too many missed opportunities, and that’s how I remember this show. I make a habit of rewatching shows I haven’t seen in a while before I write these reviews, but I couldn’t bring myself to rewatch even a single episode of this series. Does that speak to how memorable it can be? Absolutely, as I’m writing about much of this purely from memory, without reminders of any kind. That is the success of this series ultimately, that is is memorable despite all the things I can complain about in it. And that is an accomplishment in art.
Great with lots of qualifiers is just good or average, and that’s what this ends up feeling like. I surely want to say more, but I absolutely can’t. It totally could be better, despite it all.