Sunday, June 7, 2009

Code Geass

I've just watched the series finale of Sunrise's Code Geass and it just reinforced my opinion that this is one of the best mecha anime to date. The denouement was powerful and moving, neatly bringing the series to a satisfactory conclusion. It maintained the show's commitment to moral ambiguity, avoiding pessimism, and, like many anime, was more than a little bittersweet.

I'll try to avoid any spoilers in my comments here, but be warned some of the Wikipedia pages I hyperlink to may let cats out of bags.

If your not familiar with the series, it's set in an alternative universe in which the Holy Britannian Empire is the dominant world power and has conquered most of the planet using their fearsome mecha known as Knightmare Frames. As the series begins they have recently vanquished Japan, not only subjugating the populace but stripping the people of thier national identity by renaming the country Area 11. Young Lelouch Lamperouge is a Britannian student attending the prestigious Ashford Academy in the newly subdued territory. An avid chess enthusiast, he is on his way to a match one day when he becomes embroiled in a clash between Imperial forces and a handful of Japanese insurgents who have hijacked a truck containing a top secret cargo of military significance. Thus begins a chain of events which will irrevocably alter the fate not only of Lelouch but of the empire itself.

The narrative of this show is rich and complicated. It displays a sophisticated complexity in its plotting, with twists and turns that seldom seem contrived or obvious. It dramatizes the political machinations of the show's various factions in a realistic and convincing fashion without allowing the pace of the show to falter. The characters are all credible with even minor figures possessing depth and personality. Nameless extras who would be killed off without a thought in most shows are often given lines that convey a sense that a human life has been lost. These various elements are deftly combined by writer Ichirō Ōkouchi and director Gorō Taniguchi into a cohesive and compelling drama, as Lelouch's penchant for chess extends to his ambitious manipulation of events and people in his daring and dangerous game.

If the show has flaws it's due to the limitations of the genre. The Spiderman syndrome, in which a youth with extraordinary powers must try to deal with the normal travails of high school while striving to keep his secret identity under wraps, is as prevalent here as it is in show like Bleach. This is exacerbated by the harem cliche that is Ashford Academy, with the president of the student body providing buxom fanservice. And of course the various mecha with their distinctive names and abilities verge on being personalities themselves. But while these things detract from the series they don't overwhelm it. In fact, in the case of the mecha they tend to compliment it, adding feeling of plausibility to otherwise unrealistic hardware.

I've only seen the English dubbed version of this series, so I can't comment on the DVD extras like the audio and picture dramas. And I haven't read any of the manga, which all seem to be set in alternative realities to the main storyline anyway. But what I have seen I can't recommend highly enough. Taniguchi and Ōkouchi do a masterful job of combining challenging and complex political, moral, and human problems with vivid and compelling characters all the while maintaining a brisk narrative pace. The dilemmas this story poses to its characters are demanding and often disturbing and the resolutions sometimes shocking, but always compelling. This is a spectacular anime with plenty of action and thrills underpinned by solid storytelling. So if you haven't watched it, go see Code Geass. Lelouch commands you!

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