‘Pizza Butt’ is an inelegant nickname. I propose ‘Beauttocks’ as an alternative.
You may recall that in the first episode of the first season of Code Geass, one of the resistance fighters, having been wounded, reaches out towards a button next to a picture of his family, mutters ‘Nippon banzai!’ and blows up the truck he’s driving. Now I am not Japanese, and in fact I have my doubts about the act of suicide, but I nevertheless found this moment rather stirring. The scene as a whole, however, is also rather disturbing – and not, I hasten to add, because of any patriotic fervour or jingoism, but for a rather subtler reason. This, remember, is the context: the resistance have got their hands on a container of what they think is a gas weapon from the Britannian military, and the lorry carrying it it is trying to escape through Tokyo’s old subway system.
Gas. Tokyo’s subway system. You don’t have to be Professor Plum to know why this combination of weapon and location makes Mr ‘Nippon banzai!’ seem rather less heroic, but for anyone who hasn’t figured it out yet, it was Aum Shinrikyo on the Tokyo Metro with the Sarin. This doesn’t mean there’s some kind of reductive equivalence being drawn between Area 11’s resistance and Asahara’s cult – though given Lelouch’s comparison of himself to the Messiah at the Battle of Narita it would be interesting to compare the Black Knights to a cult – but it does mean it’s very hard to look at the screen and go ‘Yeah! Nippon banzai!’ – and if you are doing that, you need to pay closer attention.
I’m not an expert on Japan, but I’ve been told that nationalism is one of the hot potatoes of Japanese politics, for fairly obvious historical reasons which I shall avoid mentioning like a dubious History textbook. This show is certainly prepared to talk about nationalism. As well as overtly handling it by featuring resistance fighters – or terrorists – it refers to those aforementioned historical reasons covertly: the day of the year that Britannia invaded Japan, August 10th, is the (real-life) anniversary of the day that Japan’s leaders decided to surrender in 1945, for example. I cannot, however, think of a moment of uncomplicatedly heroic nationalism in Code Geass. There’s always a figurative container of nerve gas unsettling things inside the resistance fighters’ metaphorical truck. In general, the Black Knights are characterised by dubious methods and blind obedience to two people – C.C. and Lelouch – who don’t see the liberation of Japan as an end but as a means.
* * *
‘Wider still and wider
Shall thy bounds be set;
God, who made thee mighty,
Make thee mightier yet.’
[And we think other nations have strange rituals!]
So much for jingoism. Let’s talk about empires. Code Geass‘s rather complex alternate history – you could accuse Okouchi of implausibility, if you thought plausibility and history had anything to do with one another – places Britannia in charge of the entirity of North and South America. Understandably, questions have been asked about Britannia’s connection to the United States of Reality.
How you react to this connection rather depends on your political views. If you think the USA is an expansionist power which likes to invade other countries to get its hands on their resources, then of course you’ll think that Britannia is a representation of America, because that’s what Britannia is. As it happens, I don’t think that that’s a fair description of the United States; I’d agree that the US doesn’t exactly have a shining track record, but it’s no Great Satan and it’s ethos is miles away from, and considerably more confused than, the Britannian Empire’s (of which more below).
So I don’t think Britannia’s just a thinly-clothed stand-in for the US. It certainly makes viewers think of the States, and it may serve as a vehicle for (thinly-)veiled criticism of certain recent events in US foreign policy. (For proper anti-Americanism, try Gasaraki, or Angel Cop.) But it’s up to the viewer to go ‘Yeah, the US is like Britannia, and therefore sucks!’ Or, alternatively, to go ‘Yeah, this show’s criticising the US, and therefore sucks!’ Both remarks fail to account for Code Geass‘s ability to muddy waters.
Code Geass isn’t a simple portrait of America’s foreign policy. But it certainly is a portrait of conquest and colonisation, which is one of the things that makes the use of a stylised British Empire so appropriate: we were lucky enough to be Top Nation at a time when it was more-or-less acceptable to go around conquering places and settling in for the long haul. Various features of the Empire’s rule play on the colonial process, including it’s use of collaborators: returning to the very first episode, the masked soldiers who are dropped in to ‘cleanse’ the Shinjuku ghetto are honourary Britannians, who are promised full citizenship as an incentive. And there’s Suzaku, of course.
‘Social Darwinism’ is the in-phrase to describe the ethos of the Britannian Empire, and it’s applied with considerable thoroughness, right down to the way that Emperor Charles (and that’s a bad sign) manages his family. I know I’m not the first to note that Lelouch himself runs along similar lines in his attempt to overthrow Britannia: consider his remark that the Battle of Narita is a good way to weed out the weaker Black Knights. However, unlike the state of most (if not all) historical empires, the Britannian system of values is more-or-less coherent: the strong should rule the weak, and the Britannians are the strong. Granted, it’s amoral, but you never hear them complaining when they’re defeated – though that is something Lelouch has yet to actually properly do. (This is reminiscent of Reinhard von Lohengramm‘s suggestion that he’d be happy to be succeeded by anyone who’s clever enough to usurp his position.) It’s a bit like an empire as it would be if Akagi designed it: not the White Man’s Burden but perhaps the Mighty Man’s Privelege.
* * *
‘Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold:
Bring me my Chariot of fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor Shall my Sword sleep in my hand . . .’
Why ‘Britannia’? Well – and from this point on I should say I’m only expanding some ideas proposed by iniksbane – a good place to start would be McCarthy’s remarks in a recent Anime World Order podcast (I’ve transcribed her words, but the punctuation’s mine and I sliced bits out for flow):
‘England is kind-of like Japan’s Narnia [. . .] Everybody is very friendly, the villains all sound like Jeremy Irons. It’s not a real place. And I think that one of the things about being a small island with a very established monarchy and a very interesting racial mix which we try to pretend is completely homogenous – but which isn’t – is that we are a mirror for Japan.
We have a very traditional education system [. . .] we have a society of people who tend to be understated, who tend to be socially quite compliant, socially interested in keeping the peace between each other [. . .] and if you start to look at Japan as Japan really is, rather than Japan as most people perceive it: as a society with big regional variations – that’s parallelled [yes, that's how we spell it ~ T.A.] in Britain; as a society with big economic variations across the country, in industries and in areas for posperity – so really we are very close to each other. [. . .]
And for that reason, I think that Japan has begun to use Britain as a mirror, as a way of saying things about Japan that they fear, or that they dread, or that they’re not sure of, by holding them up in Britain.
This seems relevant to Code Geass, particularly so since the ‘British’ elements in the Britannian Empire are taken from the fantasy of Britain, of knights, aristocrats and the Arthurian tradition (I’m sure Saber is rattling in her grave). In fact, there’s a certain Celtic tinge (fringe?) to the show, what with the Arthurian nomenclature for special Knightmares and Schneizel’s ship, the fact that the first member of the Britannian line was a Celtic leader, the use of Scottish place-names for mass-produced Knightmares and of course the ‘Geass’ – though the connection to the geis of Irish mythology has never been officially confirmed. Or denied.
[Incidentally, quite a lot of medieval Arthurian literature was actually written in France, which suggests that Arthurian Britain was serving as a kind of mirror back then too. And when the English did write about Arthur, they sometimes did it in a rather knowing way.]
So, if this fantastical Britan(nia) is serving as ‘Japan’s Narnia’, then Code Geass could be read as a ‘taste-of-your-own-medicine’ colonial narrative (and, trust me, Japan’s medicine was, at times, bitter stuff). One of the popular interpretations of The War of the Worlds runs along these lines: the theory goes that Wells has suburban Britain invaded by technologically advanced, mecha-piloting aliens as a way of saying ‘See? Not very nice, is it?’ And there are certainly colonial resonances in the book, such as one character’s prediction that the Martians will train some humans to collaborate with them in hunting the rest, and in the way the Martians eventually succumb to disease (disease being the way to die in the colonies).
* * *
Ultimately, while it takes place in a colonial setting, Code Geass is a cartoon about a few specific people, and giant robots, fighting. It’s not a non-fiction book about imperialism. What’s most visually memorable about this show are the attributes of its characters: Lelouch’s eye, mask and voice; C.C.’s hair, straightjacket and pizza obsession; Karen/Kallen’s Kasshu headband and Guren Finger; Suzaku’s snazzy white-and-gold uniforms, et cetera, et cetera. Perhaps because it is a story that primarily wants to be fun, Code Geass thumbs its nose at cleometrics and indeed at the marxist (small ‘m’) approach to history in general. It is not about mass movements but about the mistakes made by a few important people, whose actions affect vast numbers. It is a wildly entertaining tragedy. [The negative flip-side to this coin is that it's also a story told in an extremely aristocratic style. The ones who have been chosen are (wo)men of destiny, and the rest are pawns.]
In fact, by being about the mistakes of a few people, Code Geass lines neatly up with one of my few strongly-held beliefs: that most of us spend a lot of our time screwing up to some degree, and only figuring out where we went wrong afterwards. Who really knows what’s going on? The Emperor, and perhaps C.C. Who isn’t morally blinded? Euphemia, through the sheer power of naïveté, (ironically) Nunally and perhaps the Emperor, in a rejection-of-morals way. The rest of the cast stumble along, doing their best. Although Zero, on one side, and the Purists, on the other, would like to persuade you otherwise, the factions are too morally and (for that matter) racially muddled to be reduced to ‘good’ and ‘bad'; freedom fighters don’t have to be nice people, and collaborators aren’t necessarily villainous. Countries and movements are ‘made up of a large number of individuals, who all have their own thoughts, feelings, and emotions’.
So while it’s worth recognising the colonial slant of Code Geass – and I’ve a sad feeling that there’s a lot more to say than I have said – it’s unwise to try to reduce things down to a purely colonial interpretation, just as it’s unwise to try to argue that Lelouch is superior to Suzaku, or vice versa. It’s partly unwise because, as I pointed out above, Code Geass is anime, not a thesis, and fiction tends to be confused about what it wants to tell you, because it’s too busy trying to give you a good time. It’s also unwise because, beyond the limitations of being entertainment, this particular piece of entertainment consciously works hard to complicate things. This is Code Geass: whittle everything down to catchphrases and you’ll find you’re handling intellectual Sarin.
This is all Bateszi‘s fault for asking difficult questions about Code Geass in the first place.
Well, it’s mostly his fault; the incoherency of the entry itself is because at the moment I’m revising for some exams with the focused attention of a man riding a unicycle slalom to escape from a swarm of wasps while eating peas with a cocktail stick and construing Pindar’s Odes. Into San-bloody-skrit.
Gratitude is due to iniksbane, whose own entry on the subject, linked above, examines Code Geass‘s place in the corpus of Goro Taniguchi, whose previous projects have also said some rather pointed things about poverty and exploitation. It’s an analytical method which I (try to) avoid, so it’s good someone else is around to do it so well. And I should also thank Hige for pointing out how the British and the Japanese both seem to have a sense of nationality which is implicit rather than explicit.