Code Geass is one of the most popular anime of all time, and more than that, it’s a personal favorite. It reinvigorated my interest in mecha, especially when I had been in a slump of post-Evangelion depressing, but just before finally getting around to watching Gurren Lagann. It is this bizarre cross of a war drama, political thriller, mecha anime, and slice of life, and it is simply incredible that it worked so well.
And there’s a lot that goes into Code Geass’ success aside from blending different types of stories, themes, and tones. It was impeccably produced and still stands as studio Sunrise’s best work. Its art style and character design are far removed from generic anime aesthetic and are all the more memorable for it. And I could never praise Code Geass without mentioning its ending, which has remained one of the best finales in all anime more than a decade later.
But the ending is just a few episodes out of 50, and Code Geass is special for more than just a few measly minutes in its hefty runtime. No, what sets this story apart is its character writing, specifically its protagonist, Lelouch vi Britannia. Lelouch is one of the best characters in fiction period, much less the smaller world of anime, and I just have to tell you why.
And a large part of that is due to the ending, which I will be discussing in-depth from here, so this is your spoiler warning for all of Code Geass. I will not be referencing the 2019 film at all, though, as I hold that they weaken Lelouch’s character arc.
Code Geass takes place in an alternate history where the Britannian Empire has brought most of the globe to heel. In the region formerly known as Japan lies Lelouch Lamperouge, the exiled genius prince of the Empire. After his mother was assassinated and his sister crippled, Lelouch abdicated his position out of hatred for his father. He’s made a comfortable spot for himself at the rather prestigious Ashford Academy, but in truth, he’s hiding and planning.
Lelouch has some grand plans of exacting revenge upon his father and toppling Britannia, but they’re far off in the future and seem more like pipe dreams coming from a powerless albeit smart high school student. That is, until he unwittingly rescues C.C., a mysterious girl who forms a contract with Lelouch in order to save both of them from Britannian soldiers. In return for being bound to C.C. and with promise of a dreadful fate, Lelouch gains the power of the Geass, mind powers that manifest differently, depending on the person. Lelouch’s Geass takes the form of mind control, absolute obedience from anyone he makes eye contact with, but only once.
With this new power, he launches a rebellion to unseat Britannia and free Japan, assuming the identity of Zero to protect his sister and classmates. He is now fighting his father and royal siblings, as well as his childhood Suzaku, now a member of the Britannian army. To succeed, he has to navigate complex alliances and political systems, as well as outmaneuver the world’s dominant military force with a tiny fraction of the resources.
Lelouch is no idealistic freedom fighter, though, his motives are singularly selfish and if not for his abiding love of his sister, Nunally, you might think he was a monster. Lelouch kills his own brother in cold blood, who did admittedly have it coming. However, he also orchestrates the death of many Japanese rebels simply to strengthen his political position in negotiations and unite the survivors under Zero. He’s a bastard, through and through, but his kind side appears often enough to let you know he’s not completely insincere.
Lelouch suffers many setbacks, including the loss of his memory and army at the end of the first season, but he does eventually succeed in killing his father and claiming the Britannian throne. Lelouch solidifies his tyrannical regime through the use of violence, terror, and his Geass, of course. You aren’t quite sure what you’re watching, as this change has been so abrupt and consequential. You wonder whether or not this was the end goal all along, if his claims of doing this for his sister were just covering up his pursuit of power.
It isn’t until the final moments of Code Geass that the details of the Zero Requiem become clear. Emperor Lelouch sits atop a parade float in an ostentatious gloat of his supreme victory, when Suzaku, disguised as Zero, storms the throne and slays the monster. Lelouch has been planning this for far longer than we were led to believe, understanding that removing the world’s foremost power would create a dangerous vacuum, and he would need to unite the people behind one administration. To do that, he becomes a martyr, throwing aside his selfish goals and becoming the villain so that the world might find a hero.
Lelouch is a veteran member of the club, Anime Protagonists You’re Not Sure You Should Root For, alongside club president Light Yagami, part-time member Ken Kaneki, and newest member Eren Yeager. He’s cold and calculating, willing to sacrifice pieces on the board in order to secure victory. Indeed, he contextualizes the battlefield as a chessboard so he can strategize in a more familiar environment.
He loves playing as a political and strategic mastermind, though it becomes increasingly obvious as the series goes on that he is a slave to his emotions like any normal person. It’s just that he has a brilliant mind with a talent for improvisation, which means he can defend any point he has to take excellently, even if he didn’t believe it a moment earlier. A trademark of narcissism, and a handy talent when you have to combat world leaders and still be back at school for the student council meeting by 3.
It also becomes more uncomfortable as you realize that while Lelouch is plenty capable, he’s an emotionally stunted child. He’s stuck in the mindset that he can still get everything he wants if he’s smart enough and throws enough expendable people under the bus to get it. This doesn’t detract from his character development, however, his sub-textual immaturity is one of his most compelling traits.
It’s why his sacrifice to secure an absolute victory is so touching. He has worked tirelessly for his entire life and sacrificed so much to reach a position where he is only one move away from check. It’s just that he has to become the other player’s king in order for his efforts to pay off.
Most anime protagonists are either wholly good, or mostly good with some defects to give their character a little bit of texture. Lelouch is the inverse of that principle, he’s a reprehensible person with good traits that stand out amidst the atrocities he commits. Despite everything, he is still drawn to do right by his friends and loved ones. It’s not so much that he’s struggling with a devil and angel Lelouch fighting for control, but for the kind, caring Lelouch to get what he wants, he has to do some abominable things.
I have previously criticized Code Geass for spending too much time at Ashford away from the actual plot. I wasn’t entirely wrong, as the Ashford segments still contain an absurd amount of padding and a lot of cringe-inducing 2000s era anime tropes. However, Ashford and the characters within it are why Lelouch doesn’t completely alienate the audience before the finale, which is vital.
He is grounded throughout the first season by the fact that his actions are to protect Nunally, and that as long as the Britannian Empire remains in power, their safety is uncertain. This reassurance is removed with Nunally’s “death”, and further compounded when she resurfaces in opposition to Zero. It is at this point where Lelouch is beyond the pale, almost unrecognizable to where he began, but it comes late enough in the story that you are still invested in him as a character.
Then there is his friendship with Suzaku, who is essential to Lelouch remaining sympathetic. In the first season, Lelouch is humanized by having close bonds with his family and friends, but his growth into a villain is fueled by Suzaku discovering his identity and turning on him. The thing that illustrates this best is perhaps Lelouch’s most iconic line, “These hands of mine have been dirty for a long time, Suzaku. Your coming to face me doesn’t matter at all. Hell, I welcome it even. I mean of course you and I are friends.” This solidifies him as the glowering villain before the amnesia of season two soft resets the plot.
And here we come to Rolo, who, other than being a delicious chocolate caramel candy, is the most controversial character in Code Geass. Personally, Rolo is necessary to Lelouch’s character in the second season and I wouldn’t advocate for him being removed. The memory wipe at the end of season one was probably just another way to pad out the series’ runtime, but if you had to keep it, I like Rolo. Lelouch manipulating his fake brother and slowly learning to care for him is gripping, and the culmination in Rolo’s death is beautifully written and performed, even if I disagree with the cause of it.
When you weigh Lelouch’s evil and benevolent personas against each other, you can see that they truly are just two sides of the same person. He’s not a cartoon villain, even if he is actually a cartoon villain, but he’s a person with believable flaws and behaviors. His arc is written to be cathartic, to build upon the work done throughout the 50 episodes of the series, and to ultimately redeem a character who has only ever acted in his own self-interest.
It’s far from a perfect journey to get to that point, I’ve already criticized the pacing and length of the series, and the infamous scene where he accidentally orders Euphemia to reignite the war has been a constant sore spot in the anime community, even today. However, these are more generally problems with the series and its writing. With Lelouch himself, I feel downright comfortable declaring him as the best protagonist in anime. Plus, he’s the most favorited on My Anime List, which is an objective source of truth.
Maybe I’m being dramatic, overhyping this older anime where all the people look like scarecrows for some reason, but I can reasonably die on this hill. If you disagree, look over there! A comment section where I’d love to hear your thoughts before I succumb to dying on this hill. And after you’re done with that, and I’m done with this mortal existence, go ahead and like the essay, follow the Otaku Exhibition on WordPress, or over on Twitter @ExhibitionOtaku. Until next time, thanks for reading.