It’s been a while now since the series ended, but on reflection I think the many failures of Sunrise’s 50 episode long Pizza Hut commercial deserve another look. The mistakes the show made are in a lot of ways representative of larger problems in modern TV anime (although honestly I can’t think of any other series with such gratuitous product placement). Obviously anyone who expected a giant robot series to take the genre anywhere it hasn’t been already was fooling themselves, but what makes Geass interesting is that it was actually a rather ambitious show in its own way (not that its ambition did it any good).
The series sprung fully-formed from the brow of Ichiro Okouchi. Don’t feel bad if the name isn’t familiar, he’s a screenwriter and hasn’t written an original story before or since (for my money he’s never really written one at all). Despite Code Geass not being based on an original comic or novel and not being part of a popular franchise like Gundam, the show’s creators were determined from the outset to turn the series into a money-maker. To this end they garnered corporate sponsorships from several large companies, turned character design over to the well-known fujoshi circle CLAMP, and hired the famous Norio Wakamoto to play the series’ royal antagonist. I don’t think mecha anime have ever really been about much more than selling toys, but Geass was conceived with very high expectations, and the writers took pains to stretch the already dangerously thin plot concept into a sickeningly broad appeal.
In terms of the basic structure of the plot, Code Geass is in many ways similar to Death Note. A bored genius is granted a supernatural power that allows him to control others, which he decides to use in order to change the structure of society. Along the way, he loses some of his humanity and are eventually defeated by his close friend and rival who adheres to a stricter moral code. From there Geass’ writers strove to attach as many tropes as possible, like lucky charms to assure commercial success. First, an alternate history that makes the show a nationalistic tale of revolutionary freedom fighters (that the downtrodden Nipponese are lead by a British aristocrat is never questioned). Next, the critically un-moe Ryuk is replaced by a buxom witch, and a smattering of weirdness about a race of psychic, immortal aliens and the collective unconscious is tacked on. An imperious prince with a tragic past and a classically lanky CLAMP body is added to win over the fangirls. Mecha are put into the mix to bring in the giant robot crowd. A score of almost entirely useless tertiary characters are created and given intimations of romance for no particular reason. And finally and most ridiculously, the show asks us to accept the idea that while this band of teenagers are directing a war that kills hundreds of thousands of people, they are all coincidentally attending the same high school, where they have wacky student council adventures. Thus is born the world’s first alternate history, supernatural drama, high school comedy, royal succession, lesbian romance, mecha war tragedy anime, and its identical twin second season.
Obviously, taking bits from every sub-genre and mashing them together doesn’t make Code Geass greater than the sum of its parts. To start with, the morality of the show is completely flawed. Although Death Note isn’t innocent of glorifying its murderous antihero, the impression you’re given by the series (hopefully) is that, visions of a perfectly just society aside, you probably shouldn’t just kill everyone you don’t like. Light begins the show with pure intentions and is forced to give up more and more until the horror of his ‘end justifies the means’ philosophy is exposed. By contrast, although Lelouch is also driven to increasingly horrible acts, the show’s ending seems to suggest that he was in fact justified in killing and deceiving all those thousands of people, including the ones closest to him. There’s something a little creepy about the moral of the story being ‘it’s ok to mind-control and murder anyone up to and including your own family as long as you’re working to bring the world under the control of a single government’. Not to mention his conflict with Charles in the not-very-well-explained Sword of Akasha, where he opposes the plan to merge human beings into the collective unconsciousness because he feels they should make the choice themselves. Which is all well and good except that the show ends with him forcing the world to unite by fooling them into hating him. That is to say, he uses deception to force his views on them after all. It’s silly to expect ethics in a TV anime deeper than ‘the power of friendship and love triumphs over all,’ but if the show could avoid directly contradicting itself it would be a lot more enjoyable.
Of course, even if you wanted to take the show’s themes seriously, you’d be hard-pressed to reconcile them with the absolutely retarded school subplot. It’s hard enough to believe that the incredibly talented teenagers who are responsible in large part for the upcoming wars just happen to attend the same private high school, but what really damages the show’s credibility (such as it is) is the zany hijinx they participate inbetween battles of their guerrilla war. Did these episodes add anything to the show? Did anyone who really appreciated Code Geass actually enjoy the idiotic filler? How can you take the show’s drama seriously when halfway through both seasons they take a break from fighting over the future of mankind to cook the world’s biggest pizza?
Oh man, don’t forget the pizza. Somewhere along the line, Pizza Hut must have dumped a million dollars into this show and they got their money’s worth. If there’s anything that distracts more from the plot (again, if you can call it that) than the moronic high school antics, it’s the constant, unrelenting stream of advertising. Anime is hardly above product placement, but C.C. spends half the series acting cool and mysterious while lugging around a huge plushie of Pizza Hut’s mascot. This shit is creative brutalism, blatantly displaying the show’s function (make a ton of money) where a more tasteful writer might have thrown in some authorial buttresses or facades to hide it. By the way, after the first season’s aforementioned ‘world’s largest pizza’ contest, the writers went ahead and duplicated the same damn episode for R2, because it was just so great the first time. I guess the one addition to the second version would be the references to Mahou Sensei Negima, and the only thing more embarrassing than retreading your own stupid filler has got to be realizing that when it comes to meshing together different genres and presenting a wide variety of interesting characters you’re seriously outclassed by Ken Akamatsu (manga version only). You know you’ve hit rock bottom when the Love Hina guy can write a cooler action story than you.
That’s not an accusation I throw around lightly by the way; the characterization of Negima‘s cast of one-dimensional loli archetypes was almost as flat as their chests, but Geass still beats Negima out for lamest because of the show’s major failures in illustrating motivations. Any given character might end up switching sides (without ever looking back) several times per season, and they all tended to fall in love at the drop of the hat. Characters and their actions were ridiculously contrived to meet moe quotas and the weird, undulating course of the plot. What was the point of the ninja maid? What on earth was up with that Diethard guy (literally a rebel without a cause)? What happened to Kallen’s loyalty? Hell, why did Lelouch make those bumbling advances towards her? Perhaps silliest and most shamelessly nonsensical was Nina’s crazy one-sided lesbian crush; if ever the Oxford English Dictionary comes out with an electronic edition that supports Youtube embeds, this will be the entry for gratuitous:
Last time I saw actual masturbation in anime was Eva, and for all Eva’s weirdness, it still made more sense there. It’s not like Nina’s affection for Euphimia wasn’t already made crystal clear, Geass makes its viewers voyeurs for no good damn reason. Note that this is the broadcast version of the scene; DVD owners are privileged to see the table’s corner covered with a thin sheen of Nina’s shameful secretions.
Probably my biggest complaint about Geass as an anime though is how incredibly weak it is as an action/drama show (probably the sub-genre it fits best in of the many that could describe it). It offers a few lukewarm mecha fights, which I don’t know enough about giant robot shows to judge, but I suppose they are okay if you’re into that kind of thing. But while Death Note and even more pedestrian shounen shows usually delve into the tricky plans and tactical reversals of individual conflicts, Lelouch’s genius manifests itself throughout the show in exactly two brilliant stratagems: predicting his opponent’s words and using the terrain against them. The first time he anticipates and pre-records a conversation in order to trick Kallen into believing he wasn’t Zero, it isn’t exactly a genius masterstroke, but the viewer is suitably impressed by the delayed revelation of how he pulled it off. When he uses the same trick to beat C.C.’s jilted ex-boytoy, it’s not as interesting but still a valid tactic. But in the show’s finale, when Lelouch at last topples his greatest foe by using the exact same trick he did in the third episode of the first season, I think it’s fair to say that the deception has worn a little thin. The old Sun Tzu standby of turning the terrain against his enemies is similarly overused, especially in episode 10 of R2, when after the Black Knights gain the upper hand by employing the terrain against the Chinese forces, they are defeated by the enemy general’s use of precisely the same strategy.
A good example of the show’s lack of strategic intrigue is its failure to ever really expand on the chess motif. Although Lelouch is purportedly a grandmaster-level genius and several times uses a king-shaped control device, at the several points in the story where characters are playing chess the layout of the pieces is never shown. It’s pretty amusing that the writers of a show with a prominent chess theme couldn’t even be assed to google ‘chess stalemate’ or something to find a suitable scenario to rip off for Lelouch’s tie with his brother Schneizel in R2. When chess pieces do accidentally end up on-screen, their positioning generally appears to be nonsensical and random.
But by far the lamest dramatic turn the show takes is Lelouch’s accidental hypnosis of his beloved sister on the eve of peace. With all the pieces in place for a complete end to hostilities and plans made for a restoration of the Japanese citizenry to equality and self-determination, Lelouch pisses the whole thing away by accidentally making a poorly-chosen example of a horrible command binding to his sister. Of course, I could forgive that the show’s plot tips on such a flimsy fulcrum if maybe Lelouch’s mistake were symbolic of the irresponsibility of absolute command or something, but that doesn’t seem to be the lesson that Lelouch takes from the disaster. He just keeps on hypnotizing people willy-nilly including, at one point, all of humanity’s collective unconsciousness and keeps on fighting the war for which he personally ruined the best chance of winning. The entire plot of the rest of the show can be said to have sprung from that one comedic screw-up that looked like it was straight out of a 4-koma comic.
Considering the ridiculous number of advantages Geass should have had over other anime, it was not only a creative failure but a commercial one too (it did move some DVDs, but its ratings were fairly low for the money involved). What lessons should animators take from Code Geass’ lukewarm reception? First and most important: that shoving together conflicting elements to increase viewer appeal will badly damage a show’s credibility and overall quality. It’s certainly not impossible to have comedic moments in a dramatic show, but making the plot bend over backwards to accommodate a ridiculous school setting can only damage the viewers’ suspension of disbelief. Second: if morality is a strong theme in a show, that morality shouldn’t contradict itself. Moral ambiguity is certainly a powerful artistic device, but if you want to paint characters as being entirely good, having them act directly against the philosophies they espouse confuses the story’s message. Third: half-assed characterization and half-assed plots make for half-assed anime. No matter what the quality of the CG, or the pedigree of the voice actors or the previous successes by the character designers, the story just won’t be interesting if it’s populated by characters whose motivations we don’t understand or if it just plain sucks. The progression from comic to anime usually helps weed out the weakest stories, and I think Code Geass’ in-vitro creation was part of what led it to being such a poor show.
And finally: if a show has characters with foreign names, they should avoid syllables that don’t exist in the voice actors’ native language. Really now; Lelouch? Rolo? Charles? Villeta? V.V.? Japanese doesn’t even have a voiced labiodental fricative (the ‘Vee’ sound). Whoever’s responsible for these names must be some kind of linguistic sadist. I’ve got to hand it to them though, listening to Jun Fukuyama struggling with his ‘L’s was the only thing that kept me going through 2 seasons of Geass. In any case, given the series’ poor ratings, my hopes are that next time a large studio decides to put together a surefire moneymaker they’ll more carefully consider the show they invest in.