“What should you do if there’s an evil you can’t defeat with justice? Do you stain your hands with evil to destroy evil, or do you uphold your justice even if it means surrendering to evil?“
These are some of the questions I’ve been pondering ever since I finished Season 1 of my current favorite thriller anime, Code Geass: Lelouch of the Revolution. Spoilers ahead for Season 1!
Director Gorō Taniguchi skillfully uses characterization, allusions, paradoxes, and other cinematographic devices to create a brilliant adaptation of the story that proposes that question, and others questions such as “Should change come from peaceful negotiations or war? Or does the world need a messiah figure or a fair democracy?”
Like the anime Attack on Titan and Death Note, Code Geass discusses these important philosophical questions about ethics in politics that are relevant to the real world, especially now with the US elections and the rise of religious conflicts in places such as Israel.
However, using a foil character, Suzaku, to contrast the main character, Lelouch, Goro takes it a step farther. He flips the narrative to explore what happens when the usually antagonistic approach to changing the world—resulting in the loss of people’s lives—is actually the most ethical course of action.
A Saviour is Needed
The first scene of Code Geass is of two unnamed children in the woods; one helping the other climb up a steep cliff. On top of this cliff, they can both see it—the Britannian air fleet coming to attack Japan.
It was the day of the invasion of Japan that left it “stripped of its freedom, its rights, and even its name.” Following the invasion, the “Elevens” left with nothing, living in grey-tinted ghettos of poverty while the Brittannians settled comfortably in their capital with a contrastingly bright and luxurious life. The tragedy of the Japanese is heartbreaking, and more significantly, it appeals to a feeling of loss, despair, and disrespect that is familiar to people from former colonies, like me. And so once the Japanese terrorist attacks begin in an attempt to fight against injustice, we automatically root for them. (But isn’t terrorism wrong?)
Lelouch, our anti-hero main character, is first introduced playing a game of chess against the royals. He’s portrayed as a calculating, cold mastermind, his chess game foreshadowing how he will be battling them in a real-life game of political chess. Lelouch’s goal is one that he reveals only to his confidante character, CC: to resurrect a nation and use it as a tool to fight against Brittania to avenge his mother, and make a better place for his sister Anally.
Through gaining mind control powers known as “Geass”, Lelouch is able to create an alter ego, Zero, and uses it to begin his plans. He proves to be a resourceful, strategic and natural-born leader by assuming all the aspects of a leader like a Saviour, to those who need a beacon of hope; Conqueror, to those who want to fight and win against Britannia; and King, to those who need back their country Japan. He is able to manipulate many people by valuing everyone’s ideologies, and uniting them under one goal.
Like CC, Lelouch’s character is molded by his relationships with the characters around him, most notably Suzaku, his childhood best friend. Suzaku is a member of the army, and loyal to the Britannian state. He has a strong moral compass and is willing to be a martyr or an executor in order to fight for what he believes in.
And his intentions are similar to Lelouch’s—to change the world. But being Lelouch’s foil, their contrasting personalities and set of values serves as the main conflict of the story.
A Messiah or a Martyr?
Suzaku believes no one should die for changing the world; Lelouch believes creation comes from destruction.
In my opinion, Lelouch’s efforts to build a new world have a higher probability of success. His strategic skills and his trustworthiness are proven by having saved the Japanese multiple times as Zero. When dealing with oppressors, you have to prove your strength and fight fervently for freedom. The Japanese were willing to risk their lives and fight—he just provided them with a strategic plan and united them under good leadership.
However, Suzaku believes no plan is worth collateral, so he tries to defeat Zero. But Suzaku and Lelouch’s sister Euphy’s naive plan for a Safe Zone for Japanese will not make Japan reach its potential: a sovereign state. In fact, it would have resulted in the systematic genocide of all Japanese.
Lelouch believes in strategic deaths of those who are prepared to die because of his dedication to his goals. But Lelouch would sacrifice his plans for Euphy’s foolish safe zone plan, and would save the lives of people closest to him no matter the consequences. Why? Because his brain gets flustered and goes straight into survival mode in these cases, causing his brilliant decision-making skills to short circuit.
Emotions cloud Lelouch’s judgement, but Suzaku makes judgements based on his emotions.
Suzaku isn’t that lenient. He would choose to kill people close to him if it would save the lives of the many. Suzaku’s loyalty only lies within himself. Doesn’t that make him more cruel, heartless, and unethical than Lelouch?
Whose ideology is more morally sound? Is there anyone except God with the authority to answer this question? There is a flaw in everyone’s ideology because humans are imperfect, but each side believes there can be only one morally right ideology, and it’s theirs. This is why religious wars and political conflicts happen. This anime’s purpose is to show all the negative effects this system of thinking causes.
The best thing we can do is to collaborate and be empathetic to ensure the least amount of lives will be lost, instead of trying to change each other’s ideologies for egoistic benefits. The anime gives an example where this is true, as there are many instances where the two seem to be a perfect team; Lelouch the mastermind who is guided by logic and systematic thinking, and Suzaku the warrior, who makes quick decisions in stressful situations, guided by his moral code and impulsivity, each man picking up for where the other lacks.
This brings us back to the opener: Suzaku was the one supporting Lelouch up the cliff. Is this foreshadowing for a collaboration for these two in Season 2?
This could be the only way for change to occur in the Code Geass world. And empathizing with each other’s perspectives could be how our world changes for the better as well.