Jumping at Shadows: Is the first episode of Code Geass Japanese Right-wing propaganda?

“There is a house down in New Orleans. They call the Rising Sun.”

  • House of the Rising Sun. (Traditional American Folk song)

Now I’ll admit my first encounter with Japanese culture didn’t come from anime at all, but rather a book. And not really just any book, but a book written by an American. In this case, Michael Crichton’s “Rising Sun“. Now admittedly around the time it was written it was fairly topical. Japan was buying up large parts of American real estate. Economically and psychologically, the country felt dwarfed by the powerhouse across the ocean. So Crichton, being the smart writer he was, wrote a book exploring the Japanese-American relationship at the time.

It was the first time I came across the word, “gaijin”.

Now the only reason I bring up the book, is that when I told other people about what I learned in there, they looked at me and said, “You know that’s kind of racist.” Now of course, they were referring to what I was saying, not the Japanese attitude.

Now, I’m not going to go into whether Crichton overstated Japan’s xenophobia or whether he’s racist because honestly, that’s not the point. The point is that America (and to a lesser or greater extent the rest of the Western world) is very conscious of race. We talk about it. We argue about it. We have entire fields of study devoted to it. We have television shows that explore it.

So it’s not surprising that we end up seeing it in anime. Unlike my friends at the time, we’re all pretty familiar with the word gaijin, and the sometimes racist, sometimes xenophobic stuff that creeps into anime from time to time.

In fact, we’re so used to it that we expect it. We look at the two CIA agents in GitS: Standalone Complex and say, “Yep there it is.” We look at the masked Americans in Gasaraki and say, “There it is again.” I’m pretty sure that we could come up with a laundry list of questionable things that have popped into anime since we’ve started watching it.

So when another blogger asked, “Whether we thought the first episode of Code Geass R2 was right-wing Japanese propaganda?” The initial reaction would be, “Yes.”

And it could certainly be seen like that. I mean, you have an invading Western force occupying Japan. You have the noble Japanese people under the thumb of those cruel Brittanians. In fact, the rebel’s hero, a Caucasian westerner, is a ruthless anti-hero who would willingly sacrifice his own men.

But… I would say that interpretation is kind of limited.

Tanaguchi and Imperalism

The question here really is one of context. And really I have iknight’s pimping of Goro Tanaguchi to thank for it. If we look at Code Geass in the light of PLANETES, then the episode falls into a completely different category.

PLANETES is probably one of the most scathing indictments of colonialism and imperialism that I’ve seen. In fact, the second half of the series is dominated by a group of “terrorists” from developing countries who want to share in the wealth of space exploration. But the Western world has shut them out.

I put “terrorists” in parentheses because throughout most of the series these people are portrayed as hard working, just people, who happened to come from poor or war torn countries. Now I’d provide specific examples, but I don’t want to spoil the series.

Although, I can point out the UN satellite in the first episode. Which Ai originally thought was a symbol of peace and turned out to be blatant PR for the UN.

Now if I compare that with dynamic between the Brittanians and the Japanese, it becomes less about who it’s happening to and more about what exactly is happening. Whatever else Code Geass might be about; it is mostly a warning AGAINST imperialism. That just happens to take place in Japan. Much like 1984 happened to be based in England, or Fahrenheit 451 happens to be based in America.

But why Suzaku and Lelouch

Now somebody could ask, well what about Suzaku and Lelouch? I mean the Japanese guy is noble and heroic and has all the best intentions. And the Briton is sneaky, self-involved and cold. And on the surface, I think that’s probably a decent argument. And when I was thinking about this subject, I did run up against a brick wall.

I mean Suzaku IS a good guy. But… he’s still the villain. I mean he’s the Vichy government. And Lelouch IS still the hero even with all of his faults. So why the switch-up?

And I think the answer is pretty simple. Tanaguchi seems torn on terrorism.

If we take the character from PLANETES, who will remain nameless, as an example. We can see that he’s a noble man. The first time he gets introduced he’s actually a hero. All he wants is a little social justice, but the powers that be won’t listen to him. So he takes matters into his own hands. Now I won’t say he glamorizes terrorism, but that he realizes that there are times when the tree of liberty has to get watered.

But he also realizes that violence has to be a means to an end and not the end in and of itself. In fact, Lelouch’s almost surrender to Euphie points at this. Once the government listens, it’s time for the terrorism to stop.

In fact, the opinion I get from watching his stuff could be summed up, “There is a thin line between terrorist and revolutionary.” And that’s a fairly cosmopolitan (if somewhat radical) viewpoint, if I do say so myself.

Related Links

Anime World Order’s interview with Helen McCarthy, Rob Fenelon and Dave III presents an interesting take on the relationship between Britain and Japan.

Iknight’s look at the Lelouch’s character.

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13 Comments

  1. I see your point. Lelouch’s struggle and experience is some sort of atavism to the days of colonial Britain (Britannia). The British Empire was an imperial power and it held India as well as China in its sway during the late 19th to the early 20th century. I don’t know if Taniguchi himself thought of this, but I also believe that the Britain (Brittania) and Japan (Eleven) of this world is not representative of the Britain and Japan of the real world.

    However, other countries can also be used. Why not Djibouti, for example? Why not Thailand, or Madagascar? Why did the creators have to use a simulacrum of Britain? As much as we try to deny it, there seems to be some sort of subliminal message, and it is not ONLY a message against imperialism. It may also be propaganda. Or it may be an alternate universe. Britain was one of the allies that defeated Japan in the second-world war. Had Britain been less diplomatic, or still diseased with imperialistic thoughts, Japan being under Britain is a possibility.

    Paraphrasing Chekhov, a gun is in a play for it to be used later on. The setting may be interpreted as just a setting, but I have offered plausible alternatives as well, because I don’t believe Taniguchi and his crew to be so haphazard as to simply pick any country as colonizer and Japan as colonized.

    But I am merely offering other interpretations. What I want to point out that Code Geass as propaganda should not be effaced as an interpretation, because it also holds water.

    I’d also like to offer another interpretation. Suzaku is NOT a good guy, because while he has virtues and values that SEEM exemplary, he also is violent. Violence is evil, according to Levinas. He’s just as gray as Lelouch, although portrayed in a better light.

    Why the switch-up? Because anti-heroes are so much more fun to watch. And unlike heroes, they have more depth to them. Heroes suggest some sort of perfection, while anti-heroes are thoroughly imperfect, which lends credence to them being more human – and someone we as viewers can commiserate with.

  2. An excellent defence (well, whenever anyone writes positively about Code Geass the fanboy in me approves, but anyway . . .). While I’m always cagey about reading meaning through the intentions of the creators,

    @ Michael: You certainly read a nationalist, propagandist purpose into Code Geass but I think it can be effaced – I’m working on an entry on this myself at the moment, and (working with what is said here) I’ve a few ideas as to why it’s Britain and Japan. Let’s just say that nerve gas and Narnia are both involved.

  3. I always believed Lelouch and Suzaku could never agree because they were arguing different points. Though, points with conflicting attributes.

    I agree that Geass shines bad light on imperialism. Personally, I have no opinion on whether Britannia is an importance or not, but in the past few hundred I think they are the poster-girl country for Imperialism, since they did it a plenty.

  4. @ Michael – To be honest, I didn’t touch the the why Britian and Japan issue, because I’ve heard and explaination, and I knew iknight was working on this, and would be a better person to touch on it. But I think it has less to do with the differences between Britian and Japan and more to do with the similiarities. And the reason why he used Japan is because it would be easier for a Japanese audience to relate. Or at least that’s what I was trying to argue. Although you do bring up a good point with “Chekov’s gun.”

    Although I do have to disagree with your point on heroes and anti-heroes. A hero can be just as torn and undecided as an anti-hero. (One of these days I’m going to compile a list of anti-hero archetypes, if I can ever decide what constitutes one.) I mean Ayato Kamina from RahXephon is a hero, and he’s pretty interesting. Hachi-Maki from Planetes is pretty interesting and he’s a hero. I don’t think being a good character and being heroic are necessarily opposing things.

    @ iknight – Honestly I was a little shaky on trying to look through to the creator’s intentions. But the whole colonialism/imperialism thing is such a big theme in Planetes and a somewhat smaller theme in s-CRY-ed that I couldn’t resist. I mean really all of his work does have a fairly political bent. But thenks 🙂 I’m hoping I didn’t step on your toes here.

    And nerve gas and Narnia are two words I never thought I’d hear in the same senttence. But yet… strangely fitting.

    @ Ryan A – Yeah, personally I’m not convinced that Britian is important because it’s Britian but because culturally and historically it’s pretty similiar to Japan. I mean Japan did it’s fair share of Imperalism prior to WWII. In fact, you probably could say the Americans got involved in WWII because of Japanese imperalism.

    I do agree that they’re arguing different points. Lelouch is arguing rebellion while Suzaku is arguing assimiliation.

  5. Whoever said that Lelouch was Caucasian? I think you are making a convenient assumption there.

  6. @Amanda – Yeah you’re right. I am making an assumption, but it’s an assumption based off of a couple of observations. First they state that the first time Lelouch went to Japan was after his mother was killed. So he wasn’t from Japan. Second, he’s a shade paler than most of the ethinically Japanese characters. Third, his cousin (at least if I remember correctly) is blonde haired and blue eyed.

    So… yeah it’s possible that he’s ethnically Japanese, but it’s more likely that he’s Caucasian. But you do bring up a good point.

  7. […] 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 […]

  8. […] colonialism, Daniel recently wrote a post that related it to Code Geass (which was a reaction to Cameron’s post). But what if the writers didn’t think of all that? What if the murky sensibilities of Code Geass […]

  9. […] post is inspired by little sleep, British pride and people talking serious about Geass… I would delve more into it but it doesn’t warrant digging… […]

  10. People always over-react when two races get into conflict. “OMG RACISM” seems to be the catchphrase; instead of looking at the real reasons why people are going into conflict, they right away assume that it’s because of the difference in race and intolerance.

    With regards to Code Geass, any readings of racism is equally an over-reaction. I think of setting simply as an interesting way to set up the conflict between Lelouche and Suzaku – a prince of the oppressor representing the oppressed, and a prince of the oppressed fighting for the oppressor. That dichotomy, as well as that of their philosophies and intentions, makes for exciting drama. The setting of Japan is nothing more than a way to afford a sense for familiarity and empathy to the viewers, and the fictional empire of Britannia is the antagonist required to set up the conflict.

    Off topic, but I thought Planetes is not a criticism of Imperialism or has any other such political undertone, but was a tale of the disunity caused by selfishness and greed and the following society’s injustice (the poverty of nations is a reflection of the poverty of individuals in any society), and ultimately, an exploration of how these two issues can be resolved. I feel it’s more of a closer look at humanity and its flaws than anything political.

  11. I am glad you took my remark with consideration :).

    Indeed those observations are quite right, however let me point out that having a skin a shade lighter does not instantly make anyone Caucasian. I, for one know that a lot of Japanese and oriental people in general have even paler skin than Caucasians, it’s just a different shade (beige undertone vs. rosy). If you are going to base it off the way they colored the characters, then you must also consider the fact that Lelouch himself has jet black hair and purple eyes. I doubt that many Caucasians would have a brunette shade that naturally dark. He is certainly not Japanese, but that does not automatically make him caucasian.

    Bear in mind that his mother, the empress, was a “commoner”, and judging from the varied races Britannians can have (ie. Viletta, the Black King and various Britannian high ranking officers), it is possible that Marianne herself is not even Caucasian (or human for that matter). In terms of the emperor, bear in mind that the actual line of Britannian emperors started from a man named ‘Ricardo van Britannia” who was from the American colonies. He could very well be hispanic for all we know. Also, since Charles di Britannia had many wives, it’s possible that Schneizel (the blonde hair and blue eyed half brother of Lelouch) may have had Caucasian mother, but this does not mean Lelouch’s mother was.

    Another thing to recall is the fact that in the very first episode, the Britannian guards mistook Lelouch for a Japanese terrorist, hinting at the possibility that his looks are not of a definite race, and could be easily mistaken for anything.

    Of course you are free to write whatever you believe, but it is a bit narrow-minded to type him down as a “Caucasian protagonist” when it was not even clearly stated in the anime that he was. If anything, his race is more subjective, and it depends on the individual’s perception, which ultimately depend on his/her own culture and background. I am just saying that to describe him in a matter-of-factly manner as such is a bit too assuming, when there are equally valid circumstances that point to the other direction.

  12. @ Lupus – Honestly I think it depends on how you look at the story in Planetes. Whether the larger picture is a reflection of the smaller picture or if the smaller picture is a reflection of the larger picture. Although I do think your argument is valid. And you’ve definitely given me an idea for a post. 🙂

    @ Amanda – You’re right. I was assuming a bit too much.

  13. It seems that a lot of people are assuming Brittania to be some representation of Britain (just because of the similarity in names?). To me it seems to be more of a veiled criticism of the United States government. And if anything, I feel like the U.S. government would come under greater fire from Japan than Britain would.


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