Code Geass is one of those series that you know exactly where it’s going from minute one: Everybody is going to die, horribly, after having been utterly destroyed mentally, unless continuing to live is more tragic than dying. Since the end is more or less visible, part of the fun, at least to me, is trying to guess how, exactly, the characters will be broken.
So far I’m relatively impressed with the series; the buildup to the crushing tragedy is nice and slow, and the first season even sneaks in a couple of unexpectedly playful episodes of schoolyard romance and mild hijinks to keep it from being a total downer (plus the Shakespearean happy-tragedy cadence).
Lelouch is an interesting antihero main character in that he is calculating, supremely confident, and absolutely merciless in his plotting (which in and of itself is a refreshing difference from standard sappy moralizing and uncertain heroes)—to him the ends most certainly justify any means—but he’s also far from perfect. His elaborate plans are impressive but he deals very badly with unexpected developments throwing a wrench into them, and he’s not an ultimate mech pilot—in fact he routinely gets his ass kicked, and very specifically lets other, better pilots take the cool badass mechs so he can pull strings from the rear lines. It’s also fun to see him squirm when everyday life throws him schoolyard hijinks-style curve balls.
The series also distinguishes itself for being notably brutal—in the first episode, this hero uses his newfound power (he can issue one absolute order to anyone that they will obey) to command a group of soldiers to kill themselves, which they promptly do. It pulls absolutely no punches when it comes to both general cruelty of the Britannian empire and with the main characters doing what they must to fight these oppressors. Certainly sets up moral ambiguity that actually works—the heroes are brutal and cruel, but then the Britannian empire is so bad that it’s hard to imagine any other strategy bearing much fruit. This is of course where Lelouch’s foil, a goody-two-shoes kid with a big uber-nasty mech comes in—he thinks he can change the Empire from within, but is basically a tool of theirs not doing much different from the rest of them.
As of just past the end-of-season-1 halfway point the series is holding my attention solidly; Lelouch’s battle plans are involved and intelligent enough to keep that end of things interesting (it’s the planning and execution that are the focus of the action more than the flashy mech fights, though there are a few of those), the human drama is predictably dark but still well characterized and engaging, and Lelouch continues to be a likable anti-hero. The rest of the ensemble cast—though he’s definitely the focus—is varied and interesting, and are only beginning to be set up for their individual and inevitable catastrophic falls into their personal hells. That they’re mostly likable enough for you to wish it wasn’t going to go oh-so-wrong for them makes the tragedy sweeter and the story interesting
Perhaps a bit surprisingly for such an extreme shoujo series there are no hints of yaoi at all, though there is a pointed bit of lesbian desire. The one relatively graphic scene used to illustrate it (I assume it was cut for the US TV broadcast—I have to wonder how much else they edited) caught me by surprise, though I didn’t like the dark overtones. Maybe that’s just me projecting, though—as usual with anything lesbian in anime that doesn’t take place in a Christian girls’ school it has “tragic end” written all over it, but everything in this series has tragic end written all over it, so maybe that scene just felt dark when it could have been taken straight. Regardless, I did like that it unequivocally brushed aside the sort of platonic romance cop-out that a lot of yuri-overtoned stuff seems to take. And either way, she’s a very minor character in the grand scheme of things.
There is one other weird thing about the series (I’ve been watching fansubs, not whatever ended up on US TV, so I have no comparison there); the episodes are numbered logically, which is to say that the periodic recap episodes—of which there are an unusually large number—are numbered as “half” episodes, making them easy to completely skip (which we have, given that there are so many of them).
There are also some radio-drama-style “bonus” in between episodes that I assume were tossed in as a DVD extra or something; they’re voice only with a few still images to illustrate but no animation, and are numbered appropriately to fit in between main episodes (0.5, 6.75, etc). What’s interesting is that the conversations in them often reveal relatively useful bits of information about the characters or backstory or such that make the following episode(s) make more sense (particularly the one at the beginning), but for the most part the visuals are absolutely shameless fanservice—so dirty, though there’s technically no detailed nudity (technically). Meaning they’re actually interesting to watch from a story standpoint, but make me feel sleazy for watching, and kind of cheapen the drama of the rest of the series. Does make for a break from the crushing tragedy, though, and there are a few very good jokes in them.
We’ll see how season 2 goes now that things have kicked into high gear with the tragedy and systematic destruction of the characters. So far so good.