Hello, and welcome to a special Wave Motion Cannon roundtable discussion! Today we’re gathered together to discuss Code Geass, one of the biggest anime hits of the mid-2000s and still an enduring favorite (and common gateway anime) within many fandom circles. With the show’s tenth anniversary project bringing announcements of new installations about a year ago and the first of the planned recap movies already having screened in Japan, it seems a fitting time to look back at the show, its place in the history of modern anime fandom, and what the show means to all of us.
Before we begin, let’s introduce our illustrious panel, which includes two WMC stalwarts and two fabulous guests:
karice – blogger, translator and interpreter fascinated with the nitty-gritty of how the shows she loves came to be. An anime fan since the 1990s, she watched Code Geass as it was airing. Incidentally, she watched most of R2 on Japanese TV, as she was living in Japan when it first aired.
iblessall – an anime blogger, podcaster, and aspiring artist who’s been watching anime for about 5 years and writing about it for about as long on Mage in a Barrel. A fan of idol anime, giant robots, childhood friends, and pretty colors. Finished watching Code Geass for the first time quite recently.
Suribot – Wave Motion Canon writer. Anime live-tweeter extraordinaire. Has been had a relationship with Code Geass for the past decade and is terrified by the prospect of ten more years.
The Subtle Doctor – editor-at-large at Wave Motion Cannon, Subs has been an anime fan since 1998. As a longtime mechaholic, he binged through all of Code Geass in the early 2010s and…largely enjoyed the ride?
(Editors note: the catalyst for this discussion was a batch of reflective tweets from Geass’s head writer, Okouchi Ichiro, discussing various aspects of the production, in light of its anniversary.
These tweets have been translated for you all by the inimitable karice. Please thank her for her work! We recommend that you take a look at these before launching into our chat, as we reference them quite liberally. – Subs)
karice – Okie-dokie, since I was the one who set this in motion, I guess it’s fitting for me to kick this off. Code Geass is a show that means a lot to me in my journey as an anime fan. Back in this August 2009, the reason I put it on a list of personally important anime was because Geass was “the first anime I really watched just for the seiyuu,” which is definitely true. Listening to the Yamayama and Lulukuru radio shows–featuring Jun Fukuyama, Noriyaki Sugiyama and Takahiro Sakurai–over and over again was often a highlight of my day. It also helped me get a lot better at Japanese!
But as the first lot of Okouchi’s tweets reminded me, Geass was also the show that got me interested in anime writing, because of all those rumours about story details they had to change when broadcast went from the first season’s late-night time slot to a prime time one (for anime). So it ended up being the first show that I went out of my way to collect interviews and articles on, and the first one that I ever did a translation for. I didn’t really interact with other fans back then, and since my Japanese wasn’t crash-hot at the time, I eventually put it aside and launched myself into the Macross Frontier fandom–I’m somewhat ashamed to admit that I still haven’t seen Akito the Exiled, actually. But the Geass tenth anniversary celebrations and the new films might just be the impetus I need to return to it.
Over to you, Bless. I know you have a really different history with the show compared to the rest of us gathered here…
Bless: I guess I do! As of this writing, it’s been less than a month since I finished the final episode of Code Geass R2 and I’m still not quite sure I’ve fully wrapped my head around how I feel about the series. Since I’ve only been watching anime for a few years and got into it right around the time simulcast culture was taking off, I’m really only just now starting to get to some of the major touchstones of the fandom from the decades before 2010.
One of the interesting things about coming back to these shows that have lot of residual popularity after a number of years is that they’ve built up particular reputations, both real and perceived. To use the example we’re here to discuss, all I knew about Geass going in was that it was supposed to be a wild ride, that tons of people had fond memories of it (heck, there was even an aniblog I read named after an iconic scene!), and that Suzaku sucked. I had, of course, already had the experience of having differing opinions on shows around which general opinion had already calcified, so I was keen to see if the Geass that existed in my mind as a result of the murmurs of conversation would match up with the Geass I actually watched.
The answer to that is complex, but I’m sure we’ll get into that as we go.
Suri: Code Geass, specifically R2, occupies an odd place in my mind. I recall blazing through the entire first season in a matter of days, running up to its cliffhanger, and then following R2 week-to-week. I recall R2 being one of the first subbed shows I kept up with as it came out, but the timeline on that doesn’t make sense. I think it might be that Code Geass R2 wasn’t the first time I was excited week-to-week for new episodes but the first time there was an audience around it I was able to connect with.
I don’t think I can separate the reality of Code Geass from my memories of it, not completely at least, and the show is as much a moment in time as it is a creative work for me. That moment in time isn’t all good, but recalling it gives me a warm feeling in my heart. The critical part of my brain, however, seems to have started treating it very differently than other nostalgic anime from my past. Rather than only remembering the good bits, the farther away from Code Geass I get, the more I recall the structural flaws of the show and its narrative missteps. The Code Geass of my memory is, perhaps, a much more flawed show than it is in reality, even if I remember it fondly.
I’m curious to see where my feelings end up on this by the time we are done.
Subs: The first season of Code Geass was one of the last big shows that came out before I went to graduate school and had to be out of the fandom for a couple of years in order to focus on my studies. And when I say big, I mean big. Geass was a certifiable monster. I wasn’t watching the fansubs at the time, but, just being around the fandom on various anime forums and in IRC channels, I could feel the high level of enthusiasm for the show. Since Full Metal Alchemist finished a couple of years prior, I had been wondering what the next hit show would be. I hadn’t become a mecha fan yet, so I certainly wasn’t expecting a robot show from Sunrise to capture the imagination of anime fandom, but that is exactly what happened. Funnily enough, I think part of the reason the show did indeed captivate the fandom was because it eschewed a lot of the established rules “a robot show from Sunrise” normally adheres to. Geass also had a lot of elements in it that managed to appeal to a wide cross section of communities within the fandom at that moment in time, while simultaneously producing an exciting and fairly accessible story that casual anime fans could latch onto.
I got around to watching the show in the early part of this decade, after my professional life had calmed down a bit. There are as many things I like about it as I dislike; however, to Geass’s great credit, vivid memories of the show and the way it made me feel remain with me to this day, and there are plenty of shows I watched more recently that I can’t remember anything about. I still have trouble pronouncing “geass” correctly, though.
karice: Hm…something Suri said definitely resonates with me. I’ve rewatched Geass once, almost immediately after R2 ended the first time around. Then after I started studying international relations, with a focus on Japan, I realized that I should probably watch it again because of what happened during the Westphalian era through to the World Wars and the Occupation of Japan seemed like relevant background that may have inspired the creators in their efforts at world building. And thanks to another mecha show in 2014, I finally started looking into the history of robot anime, and I started wondering about where Geass fit in that history. So there are at least two reasons I’d rewatch it again, but I wonder if I fear that my fond memories of the show will be cut to pieces if I ever sat down to really try and analyze it…
But perhaps analyzing why it was such a hit back then might be a way for me to start exploring those memories. I feel that the character of Lelouch has a lot to do with it. As Okouchi noted in that first lot of tweets, Lelouch is an unusual protagonist for a mecha anime, because he’s a commander rather than a pilot. He’s a chess master, pulling the strings to try and change the world for the better and all for the sake of one person. Even though he did a lot of horrible things in the process, it feels like a lot of people still like Lelouch, wouldn’t you say?
Bless: I certainly liked him! For me, the key to Lelouch’s character is the combination of tragic elements that both appear in his backstory and also occur during the show’s present, both as a result of the world he lives in and his own actions. Even when Lelouch is doing terrible things, you still want to root for him because of how his motivations arise out of the tragic circumstances of his life. You really feel the unfairness of his situation, and that makes you want to see him succeed. Geass is rather fascinating that way, as it makes you feel a lot of different, conflicting, sometimes even intense emotions.
Suri: Lelouch is the strong point of the show, which is good, since it’s pretty much always about him. Geass manages to strike a balance between Lelouch’s heinous acts and his motivation for doing them. After all, the absolute worst thing he does in season one is completely by accident and was never his intention. The most satisfying part of a chess master archetype character, for me, is when things just don’t go according to plan. The collapse and recovery from there, if there even is one, is usually the most compelling sequence.
Lelouch’s role as a commander rather than a pilot is probably one of the most important tenets of the battles in Code Geass, but I also wish the show adhered to that throughout. It was fine when he was in a generic mech alongside the units he was commanding (great, even), but sticking him in the Shinkiro and giving him giant devastating beam weapons detracts from that. A more recent mecha series, Knight’s & Magic, has the same problem. The protagonist is an engineer and mecha-designer, but the show still seeks to put him in the pilot seat. Non-pilots as the protagonists of mecha shows are a great angle! Lelouch as the chess master doesn’t work as strongly in the show, for me at least, when Lelouch is the one making things happen. Even the King and Queen are pieces in chess, so I kind of prefer when Lelouch isn’t on the board at all.
Subs: I think Lelouch isn’t so much likable as he is interesting. He really works for me as the driving force of the show because, no matter how my feelings on him swing, he’s always a blast to watch.
I think the use of the phrase “heretical turn” by Okouchi (Editor’s note: Tweet #4) is intentional and significant. Making a robot show starring someone who isn’t a pilot is a pretty big departure for a Sunrise vehicle. But, as Okouchi goes on to write, this distinctive nature of the show helped make Geass R1 a cult hit in its late night time slot, an air time which allowed the creative staff feel like they could take some chances. Honestly, I think the ‘heretical turn” also helped in making it not feel so much like a robot show, which only helped its popularity in America in my opinion.
Finally, if you’re creating a chess master commander, non-pilot character, it totally makes sense to give him a “Power Overwhelming” like the geass. We can look back and see that the popularity of this show and its contemporary Death Note indicates that anime fans in the mid 00s were really into the idea of mere mortals being gifted the Power Overwhelming and the ethical implications and struggles that ensue.
Bless: I unambiguously declare my opposition to the idea that putting Lelouch in a special mecha was bad! The most cool robots on the field, the better—and the Shinkiro was definitely cool. After all, the giant robots are the best part of Code Geass. Everyone knows this.
Oh… were we talking about Lelouch?
karice: Yes we were! Now see what you’ve done–there’s so much more we could say about that heretical turn, and how it led to that unforgettable finale despite some bumps along the way, not to mention the shipping *shudders*–but now I want to talk about the mecha too!
I thought that way the Knightmare Frames moved–as if they’re on rollerblades–was pretty cool. Part of it might be that the previous mecha show I’d seen was Gundam SEED Destiny…and well, let’s just say I’m not the biggest fan of those battles. In any case, these ones were different, and definitely one of the elements other than Lelouch that made Geass fun to watch.
Subs: You hit on a personally important point for me, karice (and Bless as well): no matter how off-the-rails the plot might feel like it was going, no matter how frustrating I might find certain characters, the one consistently enjoyable bit about the show was the awesome Knightmare Frames. As a longtime mecha fan, I was really happy to see another show pick up and do their own riffs on the design legacy of Armored Trooper VOTOMS, a show that’s near and dear to my heart. Restricting the Knightmares’ mobility in the way Geass does allows for the possibility of actual tactical battles involving giant robots, something that becomes more difficult the more mobility and weaponry you give your story’s mecha. So, by placing a constraint on itself in one area, Geass allows itself a wide array of possibilities in terms of combat situations.
Now, having mecha on treads is about the only thing VOTOMS and Geass had in common for while, but in 2010 the OAV VOTOMS: Finder sees the franchise actually borrowing from Geass! Finder drastically increases the agility of its mecha and equips them with melee weapons and grappling hooks; the end result is an OAV with robots that feel much more like Knightmare Frames than Scope Dogs. Ah, the wheel of inspiration.
Suri: I completely agree that restricting certain aspects of mecha design makes fights more interesting, but “restraint” and Code Geass don’t exactly go together in my head, especially as the series progresses and we get full-on flight types.
Or, if we look at Akito the Exiled (takes place before R2 in the timeline), we get this disaster.
The clockwork sword is my favorite part, because it’s ludicrous.
Honestly, even though Code Geass has plenty of cool robots (and I love my cool robots), that never felt like a super strong selling point of the show to me. I wanted either more super robot-style stuff like the Guren SEITEN or for the show to stay a bit more grounded. Instead, it occupies this odd space in which some people have real robots and others have backflipping super robots (looking at you, Suzaku). Still, I always loved the spectacle. Individually, I feel like a good number of Code Geass’s pieces work very well. There’s tons of exciting things going on, and most individual moments feel good; however, a lot of the cogs maybe don’t fit together as neatly as they could. I feel like that might be (along with a lot of stuff in R2) why the show gets referred to as something of a mess in the western fandom.
karice: Whoa…that’s a monstrosity! Not sure if I even want to watch Akito now!
Bless: Suri, I’m sensing you set up a metaphor here… the clockwork sword… the cogs of Geass not fitting together… how profound… (You can also watch Hand Shakers for this effect).
On a more serious note, Geass as a “mess” is one of the things I find most academically fascinating about the show. We’re all familiar with the famous line, “I have a school festival and a coup-d’etat to run!” It’s a hilarious moment that deserves its fame, and I think it’s emblematic of the genre-blending tendencies that make Code Geass at once iconic, singular, and memorable. It’s not that other shows haven’t done similar things before, but the hectic rate at which all these individual elements bump together creates a very specific effect.
In a few of the tweets that karice translated, Okouchi talks about the original version of the first episode and how it differed in the actual episode. He notes the cultural festival and cat episodes’ existence were predicated on the choice to keep Ashford Academy as a “peaceful space.” And by doing that, they not only created that little war-less (until it isn’t, in a rather devastating inversion) pocket within the show’s world and narrative, but also the space for an entirely different genre than the one Lelouch’s dramatic story of revenge and sadness inhabits. I feel like many of the sillier antics in the show, even when they happen away from the school, flow out of it. Which all makes me think, I wonder how Geass would be received if it were to air for the first time in today’s anime fandom?
karice: I have also wondered how Geass would fare if it were a show released today rather than 10 years ago. On the one hand, having taught at a high school in Japan, I can understand the appeal of those silly antics, especially with the cultural festival. Believe me–whilst perhaps not on the scale of what Hiroyuki Yoshino tends to do in the shows he’s a main writer for (for more examples, c.f. the school-based shenanigans in Macross Frontier, Mai-HiME and Guilty Crown), school festivals in Japan can be WILD. They are certainly far beyond anything kids from my own high school ever did, though perhaps that should be expected of a private Catholic girls’ school.
But on the other hand, we’re arguably more aware of the real effects of war now than we were 10 years ago. So I wonder if new viewers to the show today might, at best, roll their eyes at how bombastic and over-the-top Geass is, or at worst, completely refuse to suspend disbelief. That the most recent Gundam series–Iron-Blooded Orphans and Thunderbolt–have gone back to the ‘commentary on war’ roots of the real robot genre may well be an indicator of change in how acceptable or not the crazy genre mix of Geass might be today…
Though perhaps it’s just me. I don’t exactly watch a lot of anime these days, and certainly not a lot of the popular shonen shows like My Hero Academia, so beyond a certain behemoth from yesteryear, I’m not sure exactly what’s popular and why. What do rest of you think?
Subs: I think it might still stand a chance of being popular due to the strong first impression it makes. There’s so goddamn much anime being made in 2017 that I think titles that come out of the gate strong have a better chance–even if they do lose a bit of steam or take weird turns–than ones that take time to hit their stride. Having said that, there’s no question that Geass would be politicized way more today than it was ten years ago, and the reactionary culture of social media would undoubtedly bear its fangs at the show because of…certain moments.
Speaking of the internet, it’s really interesting to read Okouchi talk about how he initially kind of feared that it would hurt the show. However, it turns out that when your anime is as bonkers as Geass, reading spoilers and fan reactions out of context actually piques people’s’ interest and pushes them to seek it out.
Suri: See, I wonder if they leaned into that aspect for the second season. Because R2 feels like it has a far greater number of absurd moments in it. My favorite example being the “I’m Spartacus!” moment fairly early on when Lelouch somehow has ONE MILLION Zero costumes and helmets manufactured in various shapes and sizes and coordinates with ONE MILLION people to put them all on at the same time in the hopes that Britannia military officials will just go “Welp, you got me!” and let them all go.
In a military drama that often makes special note of the resources and logistics involved in combat, with mining rights and fuel shortages being key points in relation to the mecha, that moment stands out as being particularly unbelievable. Especially since they manage to arrange that in like, a week or two? There are some sequences that stretched the already-tenuous suspension of disbelief present, it seems more like intentional one-upmanship rather than a carefully crafted strategy.
Bless: I think the crowing “wtf” moment for me in R2 was just how easily Lelouch’s father was dispatched. After all that build up, he just kind of puffs out of existence, narratively. It’s so curious, and it leads to R2 turning back to a (relatively) more grounded, physical military battle after messing around with the supernatural for a few episodes. I guess I don’t really know if that’s good or bad or simply just another piece in the Geass puzzle of showmanship and gamesmanship. It was almost like they decided this plotline with killing God and whatnot was played out and what was really important was getting back to the real world.
In the end, I can’t really complain, as that decision led to the glorious final scenes of the show—which, if I’m being honest, are far and away my favorite cases of Geass BS. The melodrama!
karice: Oh that ending! According to an old Okouchi interview I have (Editor’s note: this is contained in Continue 42), one I picked up right after the series ended, episodes 1 and 25 of R1, and 25 of R2, were planned right from the start—though he didn’t actually say exactly what was planned, I assume he was referring to the major plot points, since we know that some details were changed in that first episode. It’s especially interesting considering how the Geass power wasn’t even on the cards a year before that first episode landed on TV!
And that reminds me–I was listening to a podcast on screenwriting a few months ago, when one of the hosts talked about the kernel of an idea that could be an interesting story: “these two guys are best friends; at the end of this story, one is going to kill the other.” The first thought that came to my mind upon hearing that was Lelouch and Suzaku, even though I hadn’t seen Geass for years — so melodrama or not, it’s definitely one of the defining moments of the series.
Great points about the LOL logistics of some of the things that happened, Suri, though I must admit that I didn’t actually think about any of that at the time. Though speaking of time passing in the show, was there ever a timeline created (or published) of all the events?
And going back over that episode with Charles and Marianne again now made me realize that Geass does refer back to the roots of (real) robot anime, i.e. what causes war and how can we stop it? At the time, I didn’t really sit down to think about which philosophical positions the three sides—Charles/Marianne, Schneizel and then Lelouch—took. Even now, nothing jumps out at me (unlike Clausewitz in Aldnoah.Zero).
And going back to your comment on the impact of the internet, Subs, with the way the fan reactions from Kansai probably boosted interest in Tokyo. I’ve sometimes wondered, actually, if the relative care Japanese fans seem to take with spoilers when there is a staggered release might have something to do with this. Not saying that Japanese fans don’t post spoilers, but from what I’ve seen and experienced following a couple of series over the years, they typically post text reactions, whereas I find English-speaking fans more likely to live-tweet images and even the names of characters who’ve died, for example. Though even this has probably evolved since then, especially with Twitter…
Subs: The differences between Japanese and American anime fandom are pretty interesting. In the case you mention, karice, Japanese fans almost seem like an extension of the marketing team! Posting enticing snippets that draw others in; it’s as if taking care of the product is an additional part of their fandom. Perhaps I’m reading a bit much into this, but it is admittedly kind of nice to think of fans as a group concerned with more than just consumption.
Question for you all: do you consider Code Geass a landmark work? Or, rather, what is the show’s legacy in your mind? For me, it’s hard to argue with a decade of staying power. So few anime remain alive in fandom consciousness for the entire year of their release, let alone ten years. It’s really impressive. Plenty of shows since 2006 have tried to imitate Geass, in whole or in part, and none have been as successful at capturing our imaginations.
I think the thing that sticks with me most about the show is, as bless mentions, “the melodrama!” Geass presents itself as a war drama at the grandest of scale. The show is not winking at its audience; it fully embraces its theatrical nature. Of course, the grandiosity is balanced out and made more palatable by the school life scenes. Given modern fandom’s reaction to older Sunrise mecha shows like Zeta Gundam which don’t serve up levity with their weighty war operas, including the school stuff was ultimately the right move. However, for my money, the melodrama is The Thing about this TV show. Even if I didn’t always care for how things shook out, I always appreciated the pomp and bonkers-ness of Geass and how committed it is to these.
Suri: Undoubtedly a landmark. It changed the terrain of the industry and we’re still talking about it a decade later. Now, is it a GOOD landmark? I think so. I’m not exactly chomping at the bit for more Code Geass, but especially after thinking on it so much, I look back on the show fondly. I do still think of it as something of a train wreck, but the show built a good number of impressive trains before crashing many of them.
Bless: Although I’m not overly fond of the show at this point, I think the fact that I even started it (because it wasn’t just for the giant robots) illustrates its place in the fandom. Opinions on the show aside, people remember this anime, which after ten years I think is notable, even if it came to prominence before the simulcast era relegated pretty much everything—even the greatest shows—to being 3-month hits and very rarely more. But I went back to Geass because people still talk about it, and because I’m interested in the history of this industry and the corresponding fandom. Like it or not, I think Geass has been imbued with historical value by virtue of its impact on the fandom and, as Subs and Suri mentioned, on things that came after it. As far as I’m concerned, that does indeed make it a landmark.
karice: Yeah, I’m with all of you on Geass’s landmark status. However, if you ask me what makes it so memorable, I’ll have to offer up a slightly different answer. To me, the core of the show was Lelouch and his relationships with the two people he cared about most in the world. To draw on the words of screenwriters I’ve been listening to over the last year, whilst there was melodrama, especially in the second season, I felt that the show had done enough with these characters to make those moments work. Granted, I may be one of the few people nominally of the Western fandom that feels this way–and to be honest, I’m more at home in the Japanese fandoms of many shows I’ve loved–but the end of Lelouch’s story has definitely stayed with me. If anything, I actually fear that the sequel may completely destroy the impact of that finale. But even then, I’ll definitely be watching it, if only to find out just how much staying power Geass really has! And I expect that many other anime fans will, too.
And that’s a wrap on our trip down Code Geass memory lane! Let us know in the comments if you enjoyed this or want more content in this format. Thanks for reading!