Lost in Animeland: Code Geass and Endings

Endings have always been a problem in anime. Even among my favorite shows, those that actually come to some kind of satisfying conclusion at the end of the series are a small minority. As an anime fan, it’s just something you learn to deal with — I’m at the point, especially with one season (13 episode) shows, that I just don’t expect them to actually wrap anything up. Even so, it can be frustrating!

(It also means that when a show does have a distinct beginning, middle, and end, planned and executed for its run time, it often stands out. This is one of the reasons Madoka Magika was so impressive.)

Because who doesn't love random beach hijinks in their adventure show?  For thirteen episodes.  One of them a musical.
Because who doesn’t love random beach hijinks in their adventure show? For thirteen episodes. One of them a musical.

This problem with endings comes from a number of sources, some of which are familiar to American TV audiences, others being more unique to the anime world. The most obvious problem is when shows are continued or ended based on popularity, without regard to story arcs. This is a phenomenon tiresomely familiar to American viewers — the premature end of Firefly, the endless attenuation of X-Files, the flip-flop that screwed up the last two seasons of Bablyon 5, and so on. (It would probably be harder to find a show that wasn’t affected by this problem.) This happens to anime too. Gainax‘s early effort Nadia: Secret of Blue Water was unexpectedly prolonged mid-season, forcing the writers to maroon the cast on a desert island for 13 episodes in order to postpone the ending. Many other shows, their hopes for further seasons dashed by low ratings, have been forced to cram enormous amounts of plot into a few final episodes, creating weird chunks of exposition and nonsense.

For anime, though, a larger barrier to a satisfying ending is its relationship with the source material. With very few exceptions, anime is based on a print source — often a manga (comic), sometimes a novel, and more recently a light novel series. (Light novels are short, partially illustrated novels that are aimed mostly at teens and come in long, comic-style series.) When the source material is a series, it is usually still ongoing when the anime begins (to capitalize on its popularity) which means the pacing of the anime has to be carefully regulated so as not to overrun or fall too far behind the source.

Admittedly, the original dig give us Edward and Al battling Nazi robots from another dimension.
Admittedly, the original did give us Edward and Al battling Nazi robots from another dimension.

A good example is Full Metal Alchemist. The original series overran the ongoing manga, forcing the writers to invent their own, completely different ending from what the original author had envisioned. Later, after the manga had finished, a new series (FMA: Brotherhood) redid the story from scratch, rushing through the early parts that the first series had already covered and then animating the manga ending. Most series aren’t so lucky, though — they either get abbreviated endings, or are simply left hanging, if the manga releases don’t keep up. (I’m reminded of the worries about George R. R. Martin and Game of Thrones, one of the few US TV shows that has a similar dynamic.)

I blame you for this, Suzumiya Haruhi.
I blame you for this, Suzumiya Haruhi.

More recently, a frustrating trend (for US viewers) has been the new model of shows deliberately animating just the beginning of a series, usually a light novel series. This has economic roots — anime is often not very profitable (or even loss-making) in and of itself, and relies on selling merchandise and tie-ins to make money for its creators. Taking this to its logical conclusion, studios now partner with the publishing companies to produce what are essentially 13 episode advertisements, unprofitable anime that drive sales for the much more profitable book series. Obviously, for those of us relying on translations, this is irritating; the only saving grace is that if an anime is popular enough (like Bakemonogatari) it can become profitable in its own right, and more seasons will be made.

(If you were hoping for an explanation of the end of Evangelion, by the way, there isn’t one. The creator is just insane.)

Now that we’ve talked about why so few shows end properly, let’s look at a prime example of the phenomenon, a show that starts off brilliantly and then falls apart.

(Because I talk about the second season, this will contain some spoilers, but nothing that’s a major reveal.)

(The subtitle is roughly “Lelouch of the Rebellion”.)

The world of Code Geass is an alternate history, sort of, in which the “Brittanian Empire” (roughly the US) has conquered much of the world, including Japan. Japan, renamed “Area 11″, is populated by a mix of Brittanian citizens and “Elevens”, natives with few legal rights.

Also, Code Geass was sponsored (no joke) by Pizza Hut, so CC was constantly doing product placement with slightly hilarious results.
Also, Code Geass was sponsored (no joke) by Pizza Hut, so CC was constantly doing product placement with slightly hilarious results.

Lelouch is a former prince of Brittania, exiled to Area 11. (To go to high school, of course.) One day he gets caught up in a terrorist attack and unlocks a mysterious suitcase, which contains a girl who calls herself C.C. (“Girl in a suitcase” is, for some reason, a recurring anime trope.) Contact with C.C. grants Lelouch “the power of the King” — the ability to give orders to anyone that they are forced to follow, up to and including suicide.

There are a couple of things that make Code Geass great. One of them is the worldbuilding, which is a lot more detailed and better thought out than most shows. Giant mecha are the weapons of choice, of course, but their designs have at least a nod to practicality rather than being purely based on coolness. (They even have escape pods!) Lelouch’s power, which at first glance would seem to make him nearly godlike, comes with some interesting restrictions: it requires eye contact (not always easy when someone is riding a giant robot) and only works on any given person once, then never again. How he deals with these drawbacks (he even experiments to find out the precise limits!) is one part of what makes the show fascinating.

Admit it -- you'd dress like that if you thought you could get away with it.
Admit it — you’d dress like that if you thought you could get away with it.

The other thing that makes Code Geass work is Lelouch himself, who is practically unique among anime protagonists. (The only comparison I can think of would be Light from Death Note.) He’s both pro-active and highly goal oriented — immediately on discovering that he’s been granted this power, he starts implementing a plan to destroy the empire that scorned him, starting by raising a rebellion in Area 11. It’s rare enough for a show to have a main character be the primary driver of the action (rather than simply reacting to things that happen to him) that this directness of purpose is enormously refreshing, and the plans that he comes up with are entertaining to watch. The show relies a lot on the “something’s gone wrong — or was that part of the plan?” tension that carries heist movies and similar.

It also doesn’t shy away from moral issues. Lelouch is ruthless and duplicitous, willing to do whatever is needed to get what he wants, but as he comes to know the rebels his willingness to sacrifice them is tested. They make a point of acknowledging the chaos and death caused by the rebel terrorism, and questioning whether the gains are worth the cost. On the flip side, the Brittanians have a full range of characters, from sympathetic to scenery-chewing evil.

That big thing on its back is the cockpit/escape pod.  Realism!  Sort of.
That big thing on its back is the cockpit/escape pod. Realism! Sort of.

So what went wrong?

Roughly speaking, the same kind of TV shenanigans that we’re used to in the US. At the end of season one, Lelouch’s rebellion had come out into the open, and he’d cast off his high school student identity for good. But the show was moved to a new timeslot, and the producers worried that new viewers wouldn’t be able to pick up in the middle.

The result was a mess. Handwavy memory-manipulation magic put Lelouch and his friends back into high school, in theory so new viewers could get to know them in the original context, but in the process undid much of the character development of the previous season. The pacing was also thrown off, so big chunks of season two are dull, while the final ending is crammed into a tiny space. Even the world design and fights suffered, shifting from interesting plans and tactics to ever-more-powerful special mechs fighting.

Also one of the most epic bromances in anime history.
Also one of the most epic bromances in anime history.

It’s a shame, because there’s hints in there of the story that might have been. The ending, which doesn’t work in context, might have been satisfying if it had been given the proper room to breath. Like Firefly or Babylon 5, I’ll always wonder what might have been if the creators had been given the freedom to do what they wanted. (Maybe they would have screwed it up anyway.)

The question of whether to recommend Code Geass is a complicated one. The first season is as good as any mecha/action show I’ve ever scene, with solid, interesting characters and good plotting. It’s hard to watch, though, knowing that the various mysteries and arcs will never be brought to a really satisfying conclusion. If you can live with that, then its definitely worth checking out; just go in with your eyes open.


Next Time: Road Stories With Talking Motorcyles

Don't ask why she's dressed as a bunny.  Just ... don't ask.
Don’t ask why she’s dressed as a bunny. Just … don’t ask.


New from Django:
My latest, the middle-grade fantasy The Forbidden Library!
My latest, the middle-grade fantasy The Forbidden Library!

Django Wexler is the author of fantasies The Thousand Names and The Forbidden Library. He graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research. Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books. When not watching anime, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts.

11 thoughts on “Lost in Animeland: Code Geass and Endings”

  1. Sponsored by Pizza Hut. That is strangely hilarious. Not that it doesn’t happen with regular series, either (c.f. Chuck)

    1. It was definitely a little weird. Not all that common in anime — more often they change names to avoid corporate trademarks. (WcDonalds, Bamazon, etc.)

  2. I quit Code Geass after Ep 22, where Lelouch gets totally, unbelievably screwed over by a freak coincidence. I’m sure part of the problem was that it was too much angst, but I think a larger problem was that it was too much angst for _no reason_.

    Good show up to that point, though.

    1. Platypus: Ironically enough, I think some of the best episodes of the first season are 23 to 25. Which obviously means that I don’t share your views on that particular point. Sure, I can agree that the specific trigger for the plot twist seen in episode 22 was a little too coincidental. It’s a fair criticism to call that out.

      But from the perspective of seeing the big picture and thus looking at that entire situation in retrospect, I think there were multiple signs that things weren’t going to work out at all. The show doesn’t really attempt to hide it. Both thematically speaking and even in just terms of the direct lead up to that sequence, there was no chance that such a compromise would have been a lasting solution.

      That would be the easy way out, so to speak, and Lelouch finding a last minute out to grudgingly agree with Euphemia due to personal bias and sympathy for his sister(s) wouldn’t change the fact it represented the exact opposite of his own chosen approach. For me there was in fact a powerful reason driving the “angst” as you’ve called it, and that’s the fact neither Lelouch nor Suzaku had come remotely close to resolving their differences. If anything, their reactions and positions both immediately before and immediately after that unfortunate incident showed this.

  3. [UPDATE: Spoiler warning, as per following discussion – Editor]

    Actually, it’s because of having my eyes open that I don’t agree with the main point of this article and particularly reject the claim of Code Geass being a case of having a bad ending. Opinions can and will differ, but I must stress this.

    For me, the finale was extremely fitting and works in multiple ways, especially for the main characters themselves and considering the themes of the story. I’d even wish more anime had an ending that accomplished this much, one way or another, so I can’t possibly share your sentiments.

    First, the temporary memory reset between the two Code Geass seasons was certainly a bit too convenient. That was more of a business decision than a narrative requirement. But I don’t think it was necessarily negative in terms of character development. It’s extremely clear to me that Suzaku’s mindset radically changed as a result of the events of late season one, and that’s exactly why his attitude became a lot more confrontational. This was not undone in the second series. If anything, it’s pointed out that his “friendly” stance towards Lelouch at school is even more of an artificial construct than it ever was before.

    To make a long story short…Suzaku had always been wearing a mask of his own, at least figuratively speaking, almost just like Lelouch. His strong belief in using the right methods was a belief he adopted as a direct consequence of his father’s death. But this facade started to break away during the events following the Euphemia debacle and he ultimately rejected it towards the final episodes of R2, after another set of events confirmed that his decision might not have been the best one and that using other methods was a valid choice after all. You can dislike specific details about said events, of course, but for me this much is absolutely a valid progression of how the first series set things up.

    In the case of Lelouch, his plans did take a few steps back and he had to go through some purely introductory motions after the time skip. I don’t blame you for considering that to be more or less boring. But it’s also clear to me that he never forgave himself for what happened to Euphemia and even seeing his own sister try to go down the same path visibly hurt him.

    To sum things up, a set of additional trauma throughout the second season only reinforced his implicit and explicit resolution, which was also part of the first season’s finale, and that was to do what he believed to be correct and shoulder all the blame in the process, as long as he was able to produce results in the end. His whole “evil emperor” act was simply taking this previously existing logic to an extreme. After all, Lelouch was a consummate liar and a believer in the ends justifying the means, even if that also meant accepting a form of punishment.

    Second, I think Code Geass was always a very unrealistic, over-the-top and theatrical story in terms of both its content, presentation and narrative, so any complaints that could be made concerning the impossibility or implausibility of certain key events, while always valid when viewing the series from a real world perspective, ostensibly tend to fall flat when analyzing this fictional universe under its own nature. From the first episode to the last, the series was far less concerned with being down-to-earth than larger-than-life and operatic.

    More as a technical nitpick, I would say that some mysteries weren’t addressed, but others did receive an answer, like it or not, and arguably several of them were not central to the conflicts at hand and only useful as background information.

    1. For me it’s not so much that the *content* of the ending was bad as that I think it was executed poorly. The whole Zero Requiem plot could definitely have worked, and I don’t disagree with your assessment of Suzaku’s character or Lelouch’s motivations.

      My issue is more that the time required to do the memory reset and return to the “high school hijinks” phase of the show threw off the pacing completely, so what could have been an awesome ending was rushed and unsatisfying. (For me, obviously, YMMV.) It really soured my enjoyment of R2 overall, and twisted the character arcs. (Kallen in particular.) If they’d been able to continue straight from where they left off in R1, the events of the ending might have had the room they needed to work properly.

      (You may want to add a “Spoiler Warning” to your comment, btw.)

      1. Sorry about the spoilers, I would have added that warning if possible. It seems I can’t edit the post myself though.

        I’m afraid we are still at odds, albeit less so. We can easily agree that the second season could have used its time far more wisely. I’m not a big fan of either the reset or the high school antics, so taking those out of the way would only serve to improve the pacing and give the series as a whole a little more breathing room. That’s quite true. But only to some extent, mind you, since at various points the show was in fact trying to create the sensation of a crazy rush ahead and smoothing things over too much would produce the opposite effect.

        That being the case, I’d point out the last arc (22 to 25) actually visibly slowed the pace down compared to what preceded it. That’s not where the bulk of the extra space should be used, IMO, so I think the middle portion of R2 (13 to 21) is what truly needed fleshing out, by cutting or trimming most of the preceding material and making for an easier transition into the final part.

        I’ alsom mixed on Kallen, there was more they could do to develop her based on existing elements like her family and so on, but suffice to say I don’t think her actions were out of character.

        Generally spekaing, there were various episodes or scenes that I’d open call out as mediocre or worse in execution, earlier on, but I think the last episode hit all the right notes for me.

  4. The references above to episodes 22-25 suggest to me that are talking about season 2 of the original Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion, and that you are not referring to Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion, R2, which basically backtracks from to overturn the ending given in the second season of the original, and resumes his crusade against the Britannian empire. I have not actually finished watching R2, but it also runs two seasons, and appears to be building to an ending.

    So I guess I’m asking how you feel about R2 and its ending. Do you feel it did any better?

    1. That wasn’t me referring to those episodes — I use “season” here a bit loosely, meaning the original Code Geass, with “second season” meaning R2. “Second Series” would be more accurate. I was fine with the ending to the original series (though it’s a massive cliffhanger), it was R2 that bothered me.

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