As with many sub-millennial Americans, I spent my early years watching anime. Pokemon, Yugioh, and Sonic X were mainstays due to their associated properties, of course. Other Toonami series(though not Adult Swim ones, those were too risque for my young mind) were also watched in my house, most notably Zatch Bell, which I really gotta do a video on someday, it’s fantastic. Anyway, anime was the norm during childhood and due to my frankly excessive level of internet use, I was well aware that the shows I was watching were Japanese. But over time, I drifted away from the medium, spending more and more hours a day on video games.
That couldn’t go on forever, though. Animation, in its endless potential for creativity, was something I loved on an intrinsic level. In other words, I wasn’t watching cartoons because that’s what got made for kids, or at least not solely for that reason, I watched them because I loved the medium itself. As I grew into a middle-schooler, receding into my shell from a combination of puberty, dysphoria, and an uncomfortable change in environment, the cartoons I was watching began to feel a bit too… sterile. Don’t get me wrong, many of them were great, with one, in particular, being incredibly important to me. But they weren’t edgy enough. Yes, I was watching Korra at this point, yes, that show ends in a murder-suicide, look, adolescence is a difficult time. It was for this reason that I decided to verge back into the realm of anime, hoping to find something which would suit my fancy.
It didn’t take long to do so. I first discovered Death Note, tearing through it but ultimately finding that it fell apart after the first arc ends. Of course, nowadays I can’t stand it whatsoever, but at the time it was intriguing enough that even with its problems, it made me want to explore more of the medium. To prepare an analogy, Death Note was the rubbing alcohol applied to my skin but the actual needle which injected this anime vaccine was Code Geass.
What makes Code Geass such a perfect introduction, one which comes up frequently on lists dedicated to that purpose, is how overwhelmingly anime it is, how clearly it comes from the otaku tradition. While Death Note, in many ways, poses itself as a somewhat comedic take on “prestige television”, the kind of thing which would appeal to the Breaking Bad crowd, Code Geass wears all its influences on its sleeve. Cool anti-hero wearing a mask who’s the disgraced son of the antagonistic nation? Check. Long, lanky designs drawn by Clamp with a clear attempt to convey an androgynous beauty? Check. A subplot involving the villains’ attempt to merge all of humanity into one and bring down the barriers that divide us? Check. I hadn’t watched any of the works Code Geass draws upon when I first discovered the series but it’s still quite clear when watching it that it is anime, that it has to be anime, and that it’s utterly unconcerned with appealing to those who don’t regularly like anime.
There are so many elements of the series that snuck their way into my mind, acting like mental tapeworms that required more of the medium if they weren’t going to kill me. Take the portrayal of the mecha. To this day I will argue that Knightmare Frames are a near-perfect mech design, especially early in season 1. Their relatively small stature makes them feel believable in a way that even mobile suits don’t, and before they go all-in on super robot shenanigans, there’s an intense sense of tangibility. The mechanics of the monstrous machines are easily understandable and their clunky movements lend them a sort of misshapen beauty. Mecha, at least of this sort, was not something I had anything more than a passing familiarity with until this point. The closest I’d seen were those of Power Rangers and given that those were both super robots and live action, it wasn’t exactly the same thing. I couldn’t imagine myself piloting a Zord, I absolutely could see myself in the cockpit of a Knightmare. The power fantasy that they allowed for was immense and absolutely helped to cement my interest in the genre.
We could also look at the cute girls. I was unfamiliar with Clamp when I watched the show but man did I like their designs. Looking back I can easily see the moe trends that the show’s many girls sprung from, but at the time, I just knew that I found them adorable. And certainly, the show does too. It’d be nigh-impossible to argue that the series treats women perfectly but I hardly minded that back in 2012. Shirley, Kallen, CC, Nunnally, Euphie, whether they’re being used for fanservice — another concept I was introduced to through Code Geass — or comedy, I consistently enjoyed their presence in the show. Silly anime bullshit like having the girls dress up as animals or fawn all over Lelouch is exactly the kind of thing middle-schoolers are primed to adore, so it’s no wonder that I did. In the time since watching it, I’ve seen these tropes countless times and it was Code Geass’ graceful introduction that made my enjoyment of them all so possible.
What really makes the series work though is that, in spite of all these anime-as-hell elements, the series is able to tell a relatively tight and propulsive narrative. The characters, particularly Lelouch, were wonderfully complex and interesting to a middle schooler’s eyes, and given that I had read a ton of Shakespeare the previous year, I was absolutely in love with the series’ blatantly tragic structure. The anti-imperialist ideology was intriguing and while I was sad to see it fade away as the series changes priorities, leaving some weird moral messages in its wake, I loved it nonetheless. It was, altogether, a great ride with great writing and great characters all wrapped up by the best ending I’d experienced in any media up until that point, a moment which still rings in my mind today, over 6 years later.
Looking back after a rewatch, I can’t say it’s as good now as I found it then. I’ve gotta be more critical, given some of its absolutely bizarre decisions — no one will ever justify Bloody Euphy to me — and hilariously awful plot-twists. Suzaku has only grown more detestable in my mind, the quisling son-of-a-bitch. But it’s still enjoyable and it’s not hard to see why it had the impact that it did, on me and the culture at large. An emotionally resonant story was what I was looking for and I certainly found just that in Code Geass. But far more importantly, I found a set of trappings which would quickly come to consume my entire life. Yeah, I probably would’ve fallen for anime at some point without the show, but I can’t say that for sure and it may have born out in a very different manner. I honestly doubt I’d be the person I am today without Code Geass. So, I’m plenty willing to call it the perfect introduction to anime because for all its faults, it’d be hard to find a series that better encapsulates the medium to a first-time viewer.