Screen & Page: Behold The Power Of The King In ‘Code Geass’
Most anime is adapted from manga, often produced by the manga publisher to raise awareness and sell it overseas. But what about the anime shows or films that go the other way, adapted from the screen to the page? How do those works hold up, and what changes or stays the same? That’s what Screen & Page aims to explore.
Today, we're talking about the most successful anime of the 2000s which wears its messy heart on its sleeve: Code Geass!
A friend first showed me Code Geass at college through the then-out-of-print DVDs she had, and I remember my astonishment at a show that seemed more far-reaching and thoughtful than any anime I'd ever seen before. Going into this rewatch, I wondered if the show would hold up.
Happily, it does. Directed by Goro Taniguchi, written by Ichiro Okouchi and Hiroyuki Yoshino and animated by Sunrise, with character designs by CLAMP, Code Geass is modern anime storytelling at its best: bursting with ideas and action, compelling characters and an utterly sincere point of view, even if its reach exceeds its grasp.
In an alternate present where the sun never set on the British Empire, Emperor Charles Zi Britannia rules over 1/3rd of the world from his base in America, and exploits the subjects of his Holy Britannian Empire. Seven years ago, Britannia conquered Japan with giant mechas called Knightmare Frames, and renamed the country Area 11, dividing it into bombed-out ghettos for the Japanese --- cruelly called Elevens --- and posh settlements for the Britannians, like lazy but brilliant student Lelouch Lamperouge.
Lelouch is actually Lelouch vi Britannia, heir to the throne, who hates his dad for murdering his mom and exiling him and younger sister Nunnally (who was crippled and blinded in the same assault) to Japan. Aside from class and student council activities at the posh Ashford Academy, all Lelouch seems to care for is protecting Nunnally and beating rich jerks at chess for money.
One day, terrorists hijack a military truck and wind up crashing in view of Lelouch. Lelouch steps in to help, and discovers a straitjacketed green-haired girl being held inside a container. When a military response unit opens fire on the truck, the girl grants Lelouch a power called Geass, "the power of a king," and he is able to order the soldiers to take their own lives.
Thus begins a journey that sees Lelouch rebuild a group of terrorists into an organization called the Black Knights, complete with Power Rangers-esque masks, in the process transforming himself, Japan, the Britannian Empire, and the entire world.
Being a soap opera, this show burns through plot twists and character arcs like wildfire. It's compulsively watchable and here's why; it's a show about a teenager aimed at teenagers, grounded in a teenage point of view.
Once all the conflict, romance and politicking play out, Geass' basic question is: do you confront your past honestly and move forward, or do you fixate on your traumas and vow revenge? Lelouch impulsively chooses the latter, and by the time he realizes he's wrong, it's too late for him. Ultimately, the show argues, moving forward with your life, despite all of its pain and heartbreak, is good.
Am I reading too much into a show that's both grounded and down-to-earth, and also off-the-wall and swarming with robots? Maybe, but that's why this show hit as hard as it did: it was designed to be a blockbuster, yes, but its basic conclusion is smart and well-stated.
Couple that with swift pacing, great-to-stellar animation, solid designs by CLAMP that translate well to the screen, a stellar soundtrack, and wholly committed actors, and this show easily keeps your attention.
Some characters and subplots do feel a bit underwritten. Lelouch has a fine foil in Suzaku, the Japanese prime minister's militaristic son, but outside of that relationship the character falls flat. Nunnally's ultimately just a plot device --- a fate sadly shared by most disabled characters in media. The contractually-obligated-fanservice portion of the show --- added when the first season was aired late-night in Japan, and kept when popularity bumped the second season to prime time --- is just gratuitous.
Still, the broad sweep of it all is impressive. There's something for everyone here --- my favorite subplot being the star-crossed romance between a Britannian viceroy and one of the top Black Knights. It's an imperfect, messy show, but that's part of its charm. A sequel was recently announced and I'm excited to see it.
There's a lot of Code Geass manga out there but the one we're talking about here is Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion by Majiko (styled as "Majiko~!"), which began running in Monthly Asuka magazine two months after the anime's premiere, and was collected by Bandai Entertainment's manga division prior to the company's 2012 shutdown.
The manga is heavily streamlined, and for good reason. While the monthly chapters are long, incorporating every one of the show's twists and turns in a condensed format would make the story confusing. Thus, Majiko decreases the number of characters, removes some elements completely, and recenters most of the plot at Ashford Academy. Events still largely play out the same, just with different pacing.
It's a fun, quick read, grounding the YA romance stuff upfront, and honestly doing it better than the show.. All the nonsense about the emperor's ultimate plan is easier to grasp because of the constraints Majiko is working under. It's clearer... but that doesn't make it better.
It's the anime's big sprawl of a story that makes it equally frustrating and great. Removing any of that, albeit for completely understandable reasons, lessens the story's sweep and impact.
So while the manga is good and worth reading, it's a different story than the anime by virtue of presentation. Ultimately, I like the anime's story better for its mess. It's like any shared superhero universe; there's stuff you love, and stuff you just loathe, but the crazy, improbable way it all hangs together is what makes it tick.
Both seasons of Code Geass are available to stream at FUNimation's website and are available on DVD, Blu-Ray and digital from FUNimation. DVDs were provided to the author for review purposes.. The Code Geass manga is available in print from Amazon and other retailers and at your local library.