Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Royalist Reflections on “Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion”

Warning: (because I know from past Facebook posts how much some people hate this stuff) This article deals with an *anime* and was written as a way of returning a favor. If you do not like this sort of thing, if you detest anime no matter what it is about or what genre it falls into, turn back now, don’t whine about it later.

“Code Geass: Lelouch of the Rebellion” is a tragic-science fantasy-mech anime that debuted in Japan in 2006. As the name makes clear, it follows the story of Lelouch vi Britannia, a discarded prince living under an assumed identity in Japan, later known as “Area 11” after it is conquered by the overwhelming might of the Holy Britannian Empire and his rebellion against said empire and his father the Emperor. As to the show in general, I do not recall what prompted me to watch it originally but I am glad I did. I found it very entertaining, very engaging and just overall very well done. Based on how often it comes up so many years later, it seems to have made quite an impression and I think I am probably among the majority in giving it a ‘thumbs up’. The story was very clever and though there are some things I could nitpick, it would be just that; nitpicking.

Probably the one thing that stands out the most for me was how every episode kept you coming back for more, building upon what came before it to make you eager to know what happens next. And, it was not like some shows that have many cliffhangers followed by no satisfying pay-off. No, in “Code Geass” things actually happen. So, overall, I approve. You liked the characters you were supposed to like, hated the characters you were supposed to hate and most major characters were quite complex so that eventually you see that our “hero” Lelouch has his dark side and many of the villains are not without their good points either. Even if you still believe them to be very much the “bad guys”, you can at least understand how they see themselves as something totally different. Except for Suzaku. Everybody hates Suzaku. And everybody should. Anyway, down to the business of politics.

In the alternative version of history in which this story is set, the world is dominated by three major powers. One, about which the least is said, is the European Union or at least some sort of alternate version of it which, we are led to believe, operates along democratic republican lines. The second-largest power is the Chinese Federation which is a nominal monarchy though, we are led to believe, is still rather communist or socialist in economic terms. Finally the most powerful of the three is the aforementioned Holy Britannian Empire which is a capitalistic, aristocratic, militaristic absolute monarchy. From a famous speech given by the ruler of this empire fairly early in the series, Emperor Charles zi Britannia, this super-state seems to be based on royal absolutism and social-Darwinian capitalism. I have joked before that Emperor Charles could seem like the bastard child of King Louis XIV and Ayn Rand. At one point in the series we briefly hear a schoolteacher talking about the battle in which the last British monarch was defeated and from maps we see that Great Britain itself is part of the European Union while the Holy Britannian Empire is based on North America and North America is referred to by Britannians in Area 11 (Japan) as “the homeland”. So, it seems as though the Holy Britannian Empire, the “bad guys” is probably intended to represent the United States of America.

What I took from the show (and there is not much detail about this sort of background material as it is not really pertinent to the story) was that the American War for Independence either never happened or was won by the British and the British were later driven from the British Isles and so North America became the capital of the British Empire which eventually became the more grandiose ‘Holy Britannian Empire’. It seems to combine the false but stereotypical view of Britain and America by combining an entrenched aristocracy with cut-throat capitalism. Neither of these is reality of course, in Britain these days the hereditary peerage has no power and seems to be tolerated only because people cannot be bothered to do away with it. America, likewise, while widely viewed as the epitome of free market capitalism, particularly by those who view it as heartless and exploitative, has of course never been purely capitalist and has become increasingly less so ever since probably the Gilded Age, with big anti-capitalist shoves coming from Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Lyndon B. Johnson and lately Barrack Obama (and the Bush bailouts so as not to let the Republicans off without a mention).

The defenders of the Holy Britannian Empire are certainly the “bad guys” in this show but I have something of a history of being sympathetic toward if not outright siding with the “bad guys” in any number of movies and television shows. Of course, as the villains, the Britannians do plenty of horribly cruel things throughout the series, to say nothing of what the ultimate secret plan of the Emperor is, which actually turns out to have nothing to do with politics or global domination really. They treat subject peoples horribly (our story is set in Japan but we are to assume that what we see is standard procedure in other conquered territories), rob them of their rights, stamp out their national identity, segregate them and sometimes massacre them. However, there is also another aspect which many people may find surprising which is that the Britannians are also very meritocratic. Suzaku, “an 11” (as Japanese people are called) is able to rise to the highest rank in the empire simply by his own ability. We see other characters who seem to be of different races (it can sometimes be hard to tell in an anime) who have risen to important positions by their own talents and are treated as is appropriate for whatever rank or station they hold. Likewise, some of the aristocrats we see are corrupt buffoons while all those holding positions of real importance show that they have talent to justify their being there.

Prince Clovis finds peasants such a bother
All of this is in keeping with the values of the empire as presented in the speech given by Emperor Charles at a funeral. He speaks of the basis of the empire in very Darwinian terms, that in Britannia people compete and the cream rises to the top, that on the world stage they conquer, plunder and dominate because they are stronger and they are stronger because they are continuously evolving by this competition which weeds out the weak and dull and advances the strong and clever. “Inequality is not wrong,” the Emperor booms out to the audience, “Equality is!” At which point, he goes on to pour scorn on the other major powers, referring to the democratic EU (which of course the actual EU is certainly NOT) as a place that grants power on the basis of a popularity contest and the Chinese Federation which believes in wealth redistribution to promote equality as a system that has created a population of “lazy dullards”. All of which stands in stark contrast to the Holy Britannian Empire where the successful rule and the unsuccessful are ruled by them. The members of the Imperial Family are all deferred to and aristocrats treat common people contemptuously but even if you are a commoner you can earn advancement into the ranks of the aristocracy and even a foreigner of a conquered people can, with enough achievement, reach lofty positions. It is survival of the fittest.

As the villains of the series, though Lelouch himself is a Britannian prince, the Holy Britannian Empire does receive the most attention but I was also intrigued by what was told about the next largest rival of the empire on the world stage which was the Chinese Federation. Rather like how Britannia combines high-tech weapons and modern economics with barons, knights and sword play, the Chinese Federation seems to combine aspects of ancient as well as modern China. The nominal ruler is the childlike Empress (Tianzi) Jiang Lihua however, hearkening back to the days of the Han and Tang dynasties, it is the top court eunuchs that actually rule the federation. The empress herself is a mere figurehead who the eunuchs, we ultimately see, have no real reverence or even regard for at all, viewing her as ultimately dispensable. This is in stark contrast to Britannia where the Emperor is very much an absolute monarch and it is he who rules, usually through the persons of his many children.

The Chinese Empress
No back story is given for the Chinese Federation but it seemed to me to be a sort of representation of what could happen if the communist party remained in power for a sufficient period of time that traditional China would start to absorb the current People’s Republic of China. Stranger things have happened (see North Korea). After all, we have an imperial monarchy, we have court eunuchs, we have a sort of stylized version of traditional Chinese costumes and yet we also have a socialist economic system. I thought it also telling that the heart and center of power for the Chinese Federation was referred to as the “Vermillion Forbidden City” which is only a few shades different from the actual Purple Forbidden City but with more of a reddish tint to its name. What I imagined was that in this timeline, something like the current People’s Republic of China existed but lasted for so long that eventually the leadership came full circle and began to revert back to traditional Chinese ways, the dictator-president becoming the emperor and the party apparatchiks becoming the eunuchs. Red (or vermillion) is the new Imperial Yellow. This was, for me, a fascinating subject to ponder given how the communist revolutions that succeeded in East Asia tended to dance along the border, rather uncomfortably, with their imperial predecessors.

All of this is not far-fetched when one considers that Chairman Mao’s fourth wife, Jiang Qing, once had several imperial gowns made for herself in preparation for a visit by Imelda Marcos, First Lady of The Philippines, though she ultimately decided not to wear them as Mao disapproved. In North Korea we have seen the establishment of a Marxist political dynasty, complete with mystical folklore and even in Vietnam there was once talk of the current regime as a sort of new “Ho dynasty” (there was an actual one though it produced only two emperors) and at times have been efforts to portray successive presidents (who are not always the real rulers of the country) as some sort of reincarnation of Ho Chi Minh who has been raised to mythic, near god-like status. In the show, it is also interesting to note that the egalitarian, socialist policies of the Chinese Federation are implied to be praiseworthy but also shown to be quite ineffective with the federation being a generally impoverished country. We also see the monarchy being portrayed in a rather positive way with the little empress being a good, just and kind-hearted girl but who is being held prisoner by her corrupt and traitorous attendants. Similarly, while Emperor Charles of Britannia is certainly the main villain of the piece, we see that not everyone in the Imperial Family is so cruel, though there are those who are, if anything, even more devious.

I shall not spoil the ending for anyone who has not seen the series and may wish to but suffice it to say that, while the show certainly (and not surprisingly given modern sensibilities) promotes egalitarianism, it does not directly attack monarchy itself. We see a malevolent emperor, a benevolent empress, an emperor who pretends to be bad to accomplish a greater good and are left with another, presumably, benevolent empress. We see princes and princesses that are bad and good and some that seem to be the one but turn out to be the other in due time. There are also plenty of contradictions as almost every main character, be it Lelouch, Emperor Charles or Suzaku hold to the belief that the ends justify the means and so each do things which they claim to deplore in order to accomplish their ultimate aim which, each believes, will change things for the better. As for what became of the Japanese monarchy in this alternate timeline, I cannot say as it is never mentioned in the series and that is not uncommon in such Japanese works where, in my experience, the Emperor and Imperial Family tend to be a taboo subject. We do hear of Japan having a prime minister so, we can, perhaps, presume that the Imperial Family remains and somehow survives, hidden away somewhere, all of the earth-shattering events of this series.

In the end, from a monarchist perspective, I found nothing too objectionable about it. The setting and nature of the series tends to make me more tolerant since it is all so ‘make believe’ and detached from the real world. As stated at the outset, I found it an engrossing and entertaining show, intelligent, with plenty to “chew on” (as I like to describe such things), giving viewers much to ponder, discuss and debate whether one agrees or disagrees with any particular aspect or premise. If you are open to this sort of thing and not put off by all things anime (there is fan service, giant robots and at least one ‘magical girl’ so this is as ‘anime’ as it gets) then I would recommend watching it if you can. Whether you come away liking or disliking it, I think it will at least prove stimulating. If you are as twisted as I am you might even find yourself thinking that the Holy Britannian Empire doesn’t sound so bad in some ways but then, that should probably be cause for concern. Some characters will impress you, some will frustrate you, some will make you laugh (*cough* Lloyd *cough*), and some will make you sympathetic. And, if in spite of all their horrible deeds, you hear Emperor Charles’ speech and jump up shouting with the crowd, “ALL HAIL BRITANNIA!” then you just might be a … Mad Monarchist.

10 comments:

  1. I will never have guessed that the Mad Monarchist liked Code Geass or anime for that matter, either way i like this monarchist view on pop culture you should probably do this more.

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  2. Japanese fiction has always shamelessly employed monarchism as a theme. In Code Geass, monarchism is being merged with political ideology to reveal its different forms which, in my opinion, only shows how flexible and eternal monarchy really is. There is a Japanese game called Yokai Watch (recently localised to the US) where you play as a protagonist tasked with defeating a republican usurper and restore the lost prince to his throne. Not to mention various dystopian works which essentially explore what hell would overcome Japan if she ever became a republic.

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  3. " Except for Suzaku. Everybody hates Suzaku. And everybody should."

    Correct.

    Also a nerd fact: The Brittanians did originate in Britain, the alternate history begins when the Britons elect a High King of some sort and actually repulse the Roman Conquest. However, somehow, Napoleon still became a historical entity and Conquered Britain itself, the royal family fled to their American colonies and well, thats how the empire became what it is in the show.

    While I am no fan of anime I am a fan of animation and, which is more, storytelling and the bardic arts. In my experience, even Japanese media which can be as flagrantly radical as any western media at times, is on the whole much more friendly towards the idea of aristocracies and monarchies. But this REALLY depends on who is writing the script moreso than executive meddling (most of the time) the Sci Fi Author John C. Wright once made a blog post regarding how remarkably sane the Japanese were about things such as 'whitewashing' characters in response to the upcoming live action movie adaptation of the Ghost in the Shell anime. They simply do not perceive the world through the liberal lens even though liberalism as poisoned so much of their culture. Which is rather remarkable.

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  4. Thanks for the great article. I always liked Britannia because of their technological advancement. And yes, everybody does hate Suzaku.

    I was wondering, with all this talk about Trump and "Make America Great Again", maybe you should write an article on what it means for a country to be "Great". Perhaps compare it to what "greatness" meant in the past and what "greatness" means today. Just a suggestion.

    Keep up the good work.

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  5. Anime is kind of a guilty pleasure of mine. My friends got me into it back in high school, I've heard of Code Geass but never got a chance to actually watch it. Referring to one of your observations though, of course the defenders of the Empire are portrayed as the bad guys. The cultural marxists control the media and the culture, so it fits with their worldview to demonize and attack anything that represents traditionalism or conservatism, anything that doesn't fit into their ultra egalitarian, internationalist republican agenda. This mindset goes all the way back to the French revolution.

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  6. Wow, did my comment not make it through?

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  7. I've heard of Code Geass but I have not watched it yet. However, another anime I think you would like is Legend of Galactic Heroes.

    Some call it "Japan's Star Wars", but has more depth than Star Wars and is much better. It focuses primarily on politics and military tactics/strategy, depicting a war between a Galactic Empire (which is based on Imperial Germany and Prussia, ruled by a Kaiser) and the Free Planets Alliance, which is a democratic republic (at least in theory). The story is shown through the points of view of hundreds of characters in a War and Peace-style epic, but the two 'main' ones are Reinhard von Lohengramm on the Empire's side and Yang Wenli on the Alliance. Both of them are admirals in their country's fleets and are military geniuses, the former wanting to conquer to universe while the latter just wants to defend his democratic ideals.

    The best thing about it is that there are no clear 'bad guys' and 'good guys', the show leaves the viewer to decide whom he supports, and monarchy is not portrayed negatively. In fact, it is often portrayed in a better light than republicanism.

    Anyway, I do not want to spoil it in case you decide to watch it. The user Soselo1917 uploaded all of the episodes and has a playlist of it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R9ktgN80MP4&list=PL79E5a0wBpi63v5gPBgCXSZocon5ZzTlP

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  8. I am no fan of anime but I do like code geass, also I agree that the earl of pudding will make most people laugh.

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  9. Like Александр П said I also didn't watch Code Geass. But I also watched Legend of the Galactic Heroes, and I also recommend it for the same reasons, much more complexity than Star Wars, despite of the first impression some could get of being only a "Japan's Star Wars".

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  10. the first opening was pretty nostalgic
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8xNqQnG4m-Q

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