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Code Geass vs Death Note

Wednesday 12th November 2014

Andrew Osmond says if you liked that, you might like this

Code GeassAt heart, Death Note and Code Geass tell the same story. A teenage Tokyo schoolboy with a towering intellect, railing against the world, is given fantastic powers by a supernatural agency. He finds he can manipulate people like puppets and kill with ease. His power is bound by rules and restrictions, yet still seems godlike. He vows to remake his world, furnishing a fake identity which quickly becomes a legend among lesser mortals. Even the people closest to him have no idea who he is. Some are unknowingly allies and enemies as he rises in power, forced into terrible deeds by an agenda that’s dream and nightmare…

Obvious differences; Death Note is set in our world, while Code Geass is set in a lurid alternative history where Japan’s been conquered by the terrible Britannian empire. Death Note’s tone is seductively amoral, beyond good and evil. Code Geass is heroic in outlook, but a heroism that’s morally compromised and by no means fated to win. Death Note has apple-loving death gods; Code Geass serves up an array of battle-ready mecha ‘bots.

In Death Note, the boy is Light Yagami, who’s given a magic notebook. He can kill people merely by writing their names on its pages. As a superb high concept, it’s comparable to the watch-it-and-you’ll-die video in Japan’s Ringu franchise, or the universe-altering keyboard in Stephen King’s story, “Word Processor of the Gods.” But you could compare Death Note to a far older tale, “The Ring of Gyges.” It’s cited in Plato’s Republic, written around the fourth century BC. In the story, a man finds a magic artefact, a ring of invisibility. He realises he can use it to do anything he wants, without ever being punished; he’s effectively a “god among men.” He ends up killing a king and marrying the widowed queen.

In Death Note, Light acts from ostensibly nobler motives. He wants to use the Death Note to exact justice against all criminals and evildoers, until no-one on Earth will dare commit any crime at all. In fact, he wants to make the lives of ordinary people into the opposite of “The Ring of Gyges” – a world where crime is always punished, morality perfectly enforced. Superhero fans will notice a version of this idea appeared in a recent Hollywood film. Death Note is a variant of just about every superhero story, in which a youngster discovers powers which put him beyond ordinary humanity.

One interesting divergence between Death Note and American hero stories, though, concerns motives. If Death Note had been written along the lines of a Marvel or DC comic, then surely Light would have been given a tragic origin story; one where a beloved friend or relative was injured or murdered by criminals, to give readers an “emotional” connection to his campaign for ultimate justice. Light, though, is given no such motive (though another important character in the story is).

Instead, Light’s campaign is framed as an obsessive puzzle, a trial of intellect, and a grand strategy to be mapped to the tiniest detail and contingency. Rather than a superhero, Light is like a murderous Sherlock Holmes; he fights with his mind, and his obsession drives him to ever-more ruthless acts to realise his dream. He’s even nastier in the live-action Japanese film versions, which change crucial points from the manga and anime.

Death NoteOf course, Death Note brilliantly brings in a Sherlock of its own; the master detective L, Light’s greatest foe, like a human owl with an emo fashion sense. Indeed, you can see Death Note as a Sherlock story seen from Moriarty’s (Light’s) side. But the manga plays with the idea that Light could have been an upholder of justice himself, working within the system. If he’d never found the Death Note, Light’s intelligence and guile could have made him like L, fighting super-criminals like, er, Light. Watch the show and you’ll see the idea permutated with fiendish ingenuity. And as you watch, imagine if L, who’s just as obsessive and ego-driven as Light, had been given the Death Note at the beginning. Might the youths have swapped their identities entirely; Light as L, L as Light?

In Code Geass, Light’s equivalent is Lelouch Lamperouge. He’s a schoolboy, but also an exiled Prince, living in a Japan occupied by the Britannian empire. Instead of a Death Note, Lelouch is given the “geass” of the title, a mind-control app manifesting as an avian shape in his eye. Like the Death Note, at first the geass seems to give limitless power, before its rules become clear (for example, Lelouch can only use its mind-control one time per person). Nonetheless, it’s enough to make Lelouch a commander of Japanese guerrillas fighting Britannia; he takes to leadership quicker than Light, who fights a lot of his campaign solo except for his death god.

As we noted earlier, Code Geass is a more ‘heroic’ tale than Death Note, for several reasons. Firstly, the Britannian regime is emphatically horrible, with Nazi-style ideologies and methods (for example, it bloodily ‘cleanses’ ghettoes of children and elderly). As the violent first episode indicates, it’s hard to see how Lelouch joining the conflict could make things worse. Moreover, Lelouch, unlike Light, has a personal stake in these horrors, and works not to save ‘humanity’ but a specific human, his blind sister Nunnally.

Nonetheless, Code Geass shares much of the appeal of Death Note, especially the lure of a superpower that makes people dance to your tune. And also like Death Note, Code Geass throws out addictive practical conundrums for the viewer. For example, if you don’t have a Batcave in the basement (and Lelouch doesn’t), how can you live a double life as an aristocrat schoolboy and a military leader? What happens when events in one life spill into another? Can you let personal feelings impede your campaign, or live with yourself if you don’t? Lelouch is very ready to spill blood – early on, he takes out one of his hated royal family without blinking – but unlike Light, he has a conscience, which makes him far more vulnerable.

The storytelling reflects that. Light in Death Note is frustrated, stymied and always challenged, but Lelouch is far likelier to be undermined completely or blunder big time. (Or as we put it in our earlier write-ups of the show, the unintended consequences of Lelouch’s actions have a habit of coming round to bite him on the bum.) Lelouch doesn’t control events the way Light does; though he’s the main character, the huge ensemble cast pushes the story in ways no-one can foresee. Of course, this follows the traditions of Code Geass’s studio Sunrise, which has run epic multi-stranded conflicts since the first Gundam in 1979.

Still, both Light and Lelouch are both knowingly intoxicating power fantasies. Both characters, for example, are magnets for beautiful girls. Much of the time they see this as an annoyance (amusingly subverting harem clichés), but Light eventually becomes a satanic James Bond, seducing beautiful young women in hotel rooms, pouring out lies in honeyed words and secret notes. In Code Geass, the girl characters follow less cynical, more operatically tragic arcs, while Lelouch dresses up in a Phantom-style cape and mask as if he’s read up on his heartbreaks to come. In Death Note, it’s the boys who go operatic, with Light and L playing out rainy rooftop encounters and Biblically-tinged footbaths, as if they can see where their show’s head too.

Unlike many power-fantasy heroes, East and West, Light’s and Lelouch’s campaigns give their stories a definite shape and ending – their last episodes are final. (We think.) Were the pacts for dark power worthwhile? Did they win, and was there anything left of them if they did? Was it triumph of the will, or death by hubris? Watch the anime and find out…

Code Geass is available on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.

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