"I will crush Britannia."
These are the opening words of Code Geass, spoken by disaffected Britannian royal and certified magnificent bastard Lelouch Lamperouge. Code Geass is a two-season supernatural-mecha-drama anime. It is set in an early-future alternate world dominated by the Britannian Empire, a sort of twisted child of the USA and Imperial Britain dedicated to a doctrine of Social Darwinism. This Empire turns upon the child prince Lelouche after the assassination of his queen mother. Lelouch swears a two-fold oath: to wreak bloody vengeance upon the Britannian Empire, and to create a new world where he, his crippled sister, and other weak nobodies can live in peace.
On his path, Lelouch gains a unique superpower and creates a caped alter-ego, "Zero," a hammy revolutionary demagogue balanced somewhere between Robin Hood and Vladamir Lenin. The story covers Zero's undercover miracle-working at the head of a nationalistic Japanese terror cell and his absurd daytime antics at (what else) a Japanese boarding school. Elegant character designs (by CLAMP) and a stirring soundtrack complement passable graphics to bring this piece to life.
But the political drama, high-octane mecha fights (did I mention the mechas have roller-skates?) and Hogwarts-esque school silliness is just the icing on the cake. The real heart of Code Geass is the tension between Lelouch's two vows, his quest for power and his personal bonds, particularly to his sister. Code Geass takes a classic formula - hero corrupted by power - and adds a fresh twist. Lelouch earnestly tries to hide behind the mask of the monster, to submerse himself in the character of "Zero." Whether he succeeds is for the audience to judge. Even in those delicious moments when the facade cracks, the audience is left wondering: Is this the true Lelouch? Or is this Zero in a moment of weakness?
I won't say anything more on this subject, except that, as a brother who tends to baby his little sister, I found Lelouch's tender relationship with his sister Nunnally genuinely touching. But even as he protects Nunnally, he deceives her - here again, Lelouch is an enigma.
Code Geass takes three staples of the anime genre and executes them with refreshing grace. The first is "The Monster," as noted above. The second is "The Genius." Lelouch is billed as a child prodigy, and gets away with a few ridiculous feats because of this, including piloting a mecha training-free. However, true to form, Lelouch's genius flickers between genuine ability and facade. The best moments of the anime (and there are a lot of them) come whenever Lelouch begins losing control. Picture a puppeteer trying to hold one too many strings. When his schemes begin unravelling, Lelouch freezes, he panics, and the audience laps it up.
The third element Code Geass nails is "The Gift." Lelouch's "Geass," granted to him in the first episode, gives him the ability to force any person to fulfill one single command. I was able to get through this whole article without explaining the Geass superpower because, really, the ability to manipulate others is almost an extension of Lelouch's character.
All-in-all, Code Geass is a surprisingly deep series that will appeal to diehard anime-fans and first-timers alike. The series is by no means flawless - in particular, the character of Suzaku, ostensibly Lelouch's foil, tends to get a bit muddled. The series is also full of the ridiculously excessive nudity, innuendo, and schoolgirl-fetish-material that seems obligatory in an anime, so youngsters: Beware! The first season is by far the better of the two, but while season two (or R2) gets a bit lost mid-way, it finds its pace again near the conclusion. For all you non-anime fans out there, there is an English dub, but if you can handle subtitles, everyone agrees the sub (subtitled version) is the way to go.
So, if you're looking for engaging characterization, crafty intrigue, fun mecha fights, or gratuitous overly-bouncy animated boobies, check Code Geass out! Rating: 3.15/π