Tuesday, 18 May 2010

De-Coding Geass

What to make of Code Geass? Easiest perhaps to start with what’s unlikely to be disputed: Code Geass, Lelouch of the Rebellion (コードギアス 反逆のルルーシュ) is fabulous. Imagery from the collective genius of Clamp (クランプ), conceits that seem baroque and excessive even amidst Tokyo’s own baroque excess – think mind control, giant fighting robots which sprint around and leap gracefully, plenty of conspiracies at the highest level – and richly detailed fantasy all help. It’s an anime phenomenon.

It’s also – and this becomes clear within a few minutes of your first viewing – a frighteningly eloquent addition to the imaginative armory of Japan’s nationalist ultra-right. What’s out of the ordinary in Code Geass, though, is just how matter-of-factly this ultra-rightist strain is incorporated and presented. If, like me, you’ve been trained in literary criticism, your whole schooling and educational formation primes you to look for subtexts, gaps, deeper meanings and allusions. Watching this anime is bewildering, then, for how little that kind of training matters. It’d be impossible to produce a Marxist reading here because there’s no textual ideology to be uncovered, no political unconscious to be recreated. There’s little to be gained from those instruments which might “force a given interpretive practice to stand and yield up its name, to blurt out its master code and thereby reveal its metaphysical and ideological underpinnings” (The Political Unconscious, 43), : the text marks its own origin and trajectory with signals and traces left behind like guides. Precious little critical work to do, in other words, apart from noting that curious fact itself: for the creators of Code Geass, it matters that the subtext isn’t a subtext. It is politically and aesthetically central to this work that its ‘hidden’ material is on display. That marks a worrying new development in rightist discourse but might have uses of its own.

The plot, minus spoilers, should make this clear: it’s the future, and The Holy Empire of Buritania (神聖ブリタニア帝国) now control Japan, having renamed it Area 11. The Britannians ruthlessly suppress Japanese culture and language, forcing people to take on new names, and work to eradicate all traces of Japanese autonomy and history. Racist and convinced of their own superiority, the Brittanians see themselves as the natural rulers of the ‘lower’ 11s (their name for the Japanese). The population is oppressed – some of the most powerful scenes document what occupying forces do, and what occupations look like – and resistance groups face annihilation by ace commanders piloting agile and well-armed robots. It’s a grim situation.

Where things gets going is around Lelouch Lamperouge, something of a class traitor figure with family motives for hating Brittania and wanting to see its rule end. I won’t give away any more there in case you haven’t seen or read the series.

You don’t have to know the work to see where this is going. Take out the robots and the absurdly named hero, substitute ‘Japan’ for ‘Britannia’ and ‘Korea’ for ‘Japan’, and what you have is the outline for a well-nigh naturalist representation of Japan’s imperial past.

This is what I’ve been pondering, and I had hoped to find some answers over the months drafts of this post have seen themselves reduced from proto-essays into lists of puzzled questions. Why revive that story now? Why re-produce the taboo of the right-wing nationalist myth? What purpose does this serve? Code Geass’ odd realism is all the stranger for appearing in an historical moment when discourses around Japan’s imperial legacy are at their least clear, when nationalist-driven confusion and disinformation has started to have lasting and damaging effects, when, as Alexis Dudden argues in an extremely useful and reflective recent essay, “Japan's place in Asia's twentieth century has come to be nationally remembered, rather than historically learned”. What’s going on?

Two provisional and inadequate answers. One is familiar and suitable for almost any discussion of the ultra-right: we’ve good reason to be afraid. Code Geass is an index of the confidence of those pushing the nationalist agenda and all that goes with it. The dystopia of a conquered Japan is one that plays on a strain of rightist rhetoric ‘hailing’ the Japanese as aggrieved yet aggressive victims, wronged and needing to do wrong. You could do worse than find that rhetoric personified in Tokyo’s odious Shintaro Ishihara.

My second answer is a utopian one. Whatever its nationalist aims, Code Geass revives historical memory in a country where there has been a sustained, and often successful, effort at erasing that historical memory, amongst young people in particular. Code Geass appears, then, in a political space particularly sensitive to its own mediated memories and ways of forgetting, to so-called ‘post-memory,’ and to the vexed relations between memory, amnesia, and politics. In representing imperialism – not so much ‘naming the system’ this time as recalling, and then not quite in tranquility - Code Geass confronts the imagination with history for the first time in a long while. It reintroduces the repressed memories of the colonial legacy into Japan’s mass-cultural world. That is bound to destabilize the current methods of exclusion, and who knows what kinds of questions it might produce.

In Late Marxism, Fredric Jameson makes a rather gloomy proposition:

Our historical metabolism has undergone a serious mutation; the organs with which we register time can handle only smaller and smaller and more and more immediate, empirical segments; the schematisation of our transcendental historical imagination encompasses less and less material, and can process only stories short enough to be verifiable via television. The larger, more abstract thoughts…fall outside the apparatus; they may be true but are no longer representable.

Fitting, then, that it’s via television that these organs might be rebuilt. Code Geass sends out the sparks of meaning and insight and suggestion far further than its creators may have hoped. For whatever reason, Code Geass has broken with the official strategy of forgetting: it might just, and despite itself, help along the project of remembering, of the historical imagination.


Fredric Jameson, Late Marxism, or, Adorno: the Persistence of the Dialectic (1990; London: Verso, 2007), p. 91.

In case you missed it in the links, I do recommend Alexis Dudden’s essay. It’s what good academic writing should be: scholarly, engaged, accessible, and challenging. She’s an important thinker.

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