Code Geass

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First off, this anime ends horribly. People talk about anime suddenly ending with no resolution. Sometimes they overreact – Deadman Wonderland and Attack on Titan end an arc but keep the big story unfinished. It’s frustrating, since the arcs are integral to a bigger story and don’t stand on their own. Code Geass, however, simply ends. Worse, it ends on a cliffhanger. I know there’s a second season, but you don’t separate seasons (Or episodes, or books) for the sake of it. You separate them because they’re different stories. This one’s unfinished and this is a huge blow.

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At first, it’s tempting to view the anime as exploration of Japan under Western influence. World War II wasn’t so long ago, and we all heard about how the Japanese are poor victims. This story is false, and bones have a way of digging themselves out. Japan was an aggressor in WWII and responsible for some true horrors. So seeing a story in which they are oppressed can be bizarre – you have to wonder whether in the world of Code Geass they found the bones in Shinjiku. The big Western oppressor this time is the UK, whose main contribution to the world after WWII was Big Beat and Dubstep.

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It’s not about politics. The Geass is a physical manifestation of power. The creators wisely chose to never talk about how it actually works. There’s no D&D-esque magic system behind it, only a few limits to help us understand power better. A Geass is limited, because power comes in different forms. A Geass can also be used once, but can consume you.

Power doesn’t just come in isolation. Something drives power. The user wants to achieve something with that power. We hear about how some people just want to feel powerful, but why do they want to feel powerful? Powerful is ability and security. Power cannot be an end. If it is an end, it is only because power is the means to get many ends. Power never stands alone.

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Here’s your main problem with the anime. Power here stands alone. Excluding Euphie, the story is an ordinary one about oppressed people rising against their overseers, but so what? What does the British empire stand for? What do the Japanese stand for? You cannot just kill the tyrant but have to replace it with something. A person once said that anarchy is a ‘tyranny of people with guns’. Since humans are pack animals, leaders come by naturally and can be good for us. Leaders work differently, though even when they seem similar. Both the Nazis and the Japanese did unethical human experiments, but for different ends.

The series is soaked by the theme of power. The position of every character is established quickly, and is an important part of everyone’s lives. Notice how Rivalz is obviously inferior to Lelouch, how no woman swoon over him and he’s mostly just there. During high school scenes, we follow the most powerful people – the student council whose head is the daughter of the principle. Lelouch is a person who lost his position of power and that’s the same story for Jeremiah. Cornelia’s and Euphemia’s relationship isn’t just about protecting the little sister – one is clearly more powerful than the other.

It’s a fantastic stage to test what drives power and they squash it. The two sides fighting stand for nothing. Many stories use the typical Hitler-esque tyrant, which is cliched but at least something. Here, the British Empire only protect its own existence without ever answering why it exists in the first place. The Japanese want to free themselves, but they only free themselves into a vague ‘equality’ thing.

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Then again, it’s not a story of simple evil vs. simple good. Many scenes show us the Britinnians, their lives and how they’re actual human beings. The inclusion of school life comedy is brilliant. It shows us there are people behind the oppressors who might be used to their lives of privilege, but they’re still people. When everything falls apart, there’s no sadism but empathy towards the upper class.

If the creators can write vibrant scenes about everyday life, why can’t they imbue their characters with motives and ideologies? Relationships with the same structure work differently. Both Lelouch and Cornelia protect their little sisters, but Lelouch is the soft warm protector whereas Cornelia is the condescending one. A small character arc involving Jeremiah – a clear villain and an asshole – shows us the pain of falling from a position of power. Even while the series sides with Lelouch, it doesn’t shy away from how his power can hurt his enemies.

The ‘Grand Purpose’ is integral to any piece of art. Everything connects to it, and it makes the flaws more understandable. Without the grand purpose, there is nothing to review. Even shows whose only purpose is to show big boobs have this purpose. Often, average shows swing between two such purpose and commit. Code Geass doesn’t even swing between purposes but simply doesn’t have one. It goes through the motions, provides good storytelling that leads nowhere.

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Credit must go to the designers. The series sports one of the best character design I’ve seen. As pure beauty few anime match it. In fact, the characters are so beautiful that it feels like a plot point. Everyone radiates sex appeal, but somehow no one has sex with anyone. The overly-slender bodies do contrast with this. They’re not just thin but long, but every face is plastic-surgery perfect. Every stare is full of confidence with sensual lips. Even the voice-actors give a sexual smugness to it all. CC and Milly always sound teasing, like they’re just about to invite you to their rooms. It’s nice, but sometimes bizarre.

It’s also fairly expressive. Notice the contrast in design between Lelouch and Suzaku. Suzaku has a softer, cuter look with the curly hair. Lelouch has sharp eyes, black hair that falls in spikes. These designs amplifies their personalities. Rivalz is being stuck with a goofy blue hairdo. The decision to give characters similar but different hair colors is meaningful. Euphy’s pink is brighter than Cornelia’s purple, just like their personality.

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The gigantic robots don’t fare so well. The action scenes are a constant thorn in the anime. Although there are emotional moments in those scenes, they take the chess game technique to the extreme. They become more about Lelouch’s genius rather than the characters. Imagine JoJo but with giant robots. JoJo was nice, but its storytelling was built for shallow stories driven by excitement. Here, the storytelling always aims for something deeper. If the robots had a cool look to them, then fine. The designers went full lazy and just had gigantic hulks of metal with arms and legs. None of the imagination that fuels the character design (A character who appears for a barely a minute looks better than most anime characters) reaches them.

Contrast this anime with Future Diary. It’s another overly ambitious anime with so much going on it couldn’t flesh it all out. When Future Diary tackles an idea, it does so with full conviction. It may need more length, but when it’s about comedy it’s all about comedy. When it’s horror, it’s all horror. More importantly, Future Diary wasn’t about build-up but about arcs. Each arc had its own style. All of the elements in Geass aren’t spread evenly but crammed together into one gigantic arc that builds up to a huge climax. There is very little resolution in this anime. Some may enjoy the cliffhangers, the ‘what’ll happen next?’ but that’s boring. The most exciting anime are those that are exciting because what’s happening, in the present tense. They’ll keep you coming back.

Code Geass fails only because what it set out to do is be the best anime ever. It’s overall a good show with a dynamic story and a wide cast, each with their own point of view. Although it slips often to cheap thriller mode, the characters’ personality dominate it more than conventions. Even if it’s not the best anime ever, most creators can’t even attempt something this ambitious.

3 sexy homosapiens out of 5

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Kemono no Souja Erin (Beast Trainer Erin)

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It’s a curious thing. Good stories tend to come when the creators know their limits and strengths. You cover up your weaknesses and emphasizes your strengths. Some stories know their weak point and still find a way to get around them. Erin is an anime that’s often focused on its weak parts, yet aside from a weak patch in the middle it’s fantastic.

The strength and weakness is in Erin herself. She’s not a psychological portrait but a mythic one. The whole story is, in fact, more mythic than psychological. Characters aren’t complex or odd, but have very specific role they fill.

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It can sound limiting, but it’s not. Giving your characters a certain role gives you focus. Since the series never pretends to be a deep psychological examination of these roles, they manage to breathe life into them in other ways. Sometimes, two characters have the same role but act on it differently. Jone and Esal are two very different kind of teachers.

These aren’t roles that limit characters. They are never moral ones, of villains and heroes. They give them agency and define who they are. The story is often more than about Erin. There are many episodes in which she barely appears. Other characters star them and their viewpoint is explored.

Excluding one power-hungry villain that only reveals himself in the end, Erin is a series full of shades of grey. Almost any character that is introduced as villainous is immidiately revealed have a logical viewpoint. Even when their intentions still side against Erin, the anime expects us to understand them. This goes further than grey morality. Erin is clearly a moral hero, yet we’re expected to understand her enemies.

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As for Erin, she’s a great example of how a moral hero should be. She’s not defined by her morality. Her moral behavior comes from somewhere, specifically her fascination with nature which her mother gave her.

This is also where the series, despite not being psychological manages to accurately display what growing up is. Like any good story for children, it deals with the themes of childhood. Erin has the natural curiosity of a child. The difference between her and others is that her mother encourages it. As Erin grows up and meets more mentors, they keep on encouraging it rather than discouraging for some bizarre reasons that create the contemporary education system.

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When Erin starts to display extraordinary abilities, it’s not a case of Mary Sue-ness. Erin is a moral hero who represents curiosity, and curiosity naturally leads us to develop our skills. Curiosity is also what what makes us reach towards others and understand them.

That’s its answer to the main conflict. The show doesn’t have a central theme but it builds towards an epic climax that’s expressive, rather than a placeholder. The central conflict between the two populations is simple. It doesn’t rival the complexity of real life conflicts and it doesn’t have to.

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Political ‘intrigue’ is often a crutch authors rely on, killing characters off to surprise (Game of Thrones still suck). The root of many conflicts is in disagreements, and violence is what we use when we don’t try or think we can reach out to the other side.

As the best episode displays, it’s easy to love one another when you agree with that person. It’s harder to still love them they take a separate path from yours. The episode that chronicles this divide between two brothers is easily the best one of the show.

While the lack of a central theme and psychological exploration don’t harm the series, they do take its toll on the middle part. It’s almost neglectful of a traumatic experience and the pace grinds into a halt.

It doesn’t replicate the serenity of Mushishi. The view of the natural world is different. Rather, the show gets stuck, recycling the same ideas (Erin’s curiosity) and adding characters who only become fleshed out later on. There are worthwhile moments there, but about 8 episodes could have been cut.

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There’s also the odd technique of repeated flashbacks. While some are well-placed, showing them over and over first makes them lose their impact. Then it comes off as lazy and just trying to kill time. The big traumatic event’s repetition is especially bad. Since the series isn’t psychological, the flashbacks don’t make sense and they just make it lose its impact. That said, when they do return in the last arcs of the series they retain their impact.

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The series also teases too much in these episodes about characters who become fleshed out later. Since the series is static during that section, it’s not a slow build-up. Rather, the series feels shy at throwing itself at something greater. What’s weird is that anytime it does become ambitious are fantastic. Nearly every dramatic moment is powerful regardless of Erin’s age. The line “Don’t harm these people with the same hands that can play such a beautiful song” is more profound than any time with realistic design and adult characters wearing suits.

The art style is excellent and beautiful. It’s ‘childish’, but in a good way. There is a simplicity and elegance to it like a children’s drawing. The backgrounds are where the series does it best. They often have a sketchy look to them, relying more on basic shapes and colors to create an atmosphere. It’s not chaotic, though. The sketchiness creates a bare background which fits with the sombre atmosphere. When the series gets dark, it stands in contrast.

 

Erin doesn’t justify its length. It lags in the middle and has too many repeating flashbacks. The varied cast also don’t the development they clearly can. While these flaws can make it tedious at times, the improvement at the second half saves it. From then on, as an example of how deep and emotionally engrossing children’s stories can be it’s perfect. It may focus on a single heroine, but it’s a world of shades of grey, with only one truly villainous character who has a purpose anyway. It fell off the radar because it’s not immediate, but it’s worth pushing through its weak parts. At its best, it’s almost the best anime ever.

4 lizards out of 5