[Negligible spoilers] Prior to watching this masterpiece, I had thought the protagonist character was no longer an area of storytelling innovation. In classic shounen, the protagonist is designed to champion the viewer. Through his/her falls and triumphs, the viewer is able to grow vicariously alongside the protagonist. As such, the protagonist has to be relatable, charismatic and possibly idiosyncratic depending on the target audience. He/she may be strong or weak, but the bottomline is he/she needs to champion the viewer. Many shows that came after the grandfather of all shounen, Dragon Ball Z, experimented with various alternatives to the classic hero’s journey. Naruto convolved the protagonist in a yin-yang-like duality with the
antagonist secondary protagonist. One Piece used the protagonist as the steering wheel of a grander adventure and world. Fullmetal Alchemist used the protagonist to navigate its deep and philosophical themes. Hunter x Hunter rejected the idea of a central protagonist altogether by making the “protagonist” weak with no grand ambition but produced the most creative cast of antagonist (if there even are antagonists) of all time whose own ambitions drove the plot spontaneously. Then there’s Code Geass, which arguably executed the greatest concept of all – the martyr protagonist. At this point, this too seems like an overdone concept (esp. with Attack on Titan’s cop out ending), but considering how Code Geass was the first to perfect the execution of this concept, it only serves to make posterior attempts to emulate it look phony at best.
Lelouch vi Britannia, the granddaddy of Eren Yeager when it comes to the martyr protagonist, is both the protagonist and invention on which the authors bet the show’s reputation on. As the main driver of the plot, it’s hard not to understate the great investment the authors made in his charismatic design. His cerebral personality is no secret, but what I am most impressed with is the subtleness of his motivation. Sure, the show starts with him declaring outright he will crush the Britannia empire as a child, but the gauntlet is so intentionally put down as to invite skepticism (tell-then-show rather than show-not-tell). In the first episode, he is seen defeating a noble in chess by moving his king first, felicitously used to introduce his first memorable quote after the match when prompted why he moved the king first.
If the king doesn’t lead, how can he expect his subordinates to follow?– Lelouch vi Britannia
Now the viewer is shown a glimpse of his backstory. As the former heir to the Britannia throne (not a spoiler) who ended up the victim of (what appears to be) an imperial power struggle, he shuns nobles and bureaucrats who are leaders in name only. Yet, as restless as he is, he claims he has accomplished nothing in the lie that is his life post ousting from his former identity. Then, C.C. saved him with Geass (the show’s form of superpower), acknowledging he has a reason to live and thereby grants him the right to the power of a king. What I love about C.C. is she does not claim he has a just reason, but only that he has the will for one (and thereby the will to fulfill their Geass contract for her selfish sake). This already foreshadows moral ambiguity and promises one heck of a character driven plot – a plot no less full of twists and turns than Death Note’s. But unlike Death Note, the protagonist grapples with gray morality from the start as opposed to only in the end. Lelouch’s personality is the richest of any protagonist I have seen to date (“smart” doesn’t begin to describe him). This makes the show much more than its book cover impression as the show that’s “Death Note with Mecha”. Moreover, the central character rivalry between Lelouch and Suzaku is far more than a contest of deductive ability or power levels. It’s an ideology debate between two best friends who are each deeply flawed individuals. Other characters, while not “prime movers” of the story themselves, support the plot like multi-purpose chess pieces. They not only: a) execute their plot role flawlessly, b) reveals aspects of the central two characters’ personalities, but c) layers their own contingencies to this central conflict, contributing to then ultimately resolving in the greatest anime ending of all time.
The story was a ride beginning to end, and it took me a whole rewatch to appreciate all the details behind its execution. I am proud to regard Code Geass as the best anime I’ve ever watched.