How Kururugi Suzaku Beats Chivalry to a Pulp–and Wears It Proudly in Code Geass

Code Geass…for some incredible reason, there’s just something about the show that I absolutely adore. Maybe it’s the ridiculously epic (and yet also plain ludicrous) plot twists. Or the perhaps even more ridiculously over the top action sequences. The intensity of the melodrama cranked up so high it would make the soapiest soap opera wince and cry.

Ultimately though, it’s about the characters.

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As with anime with huge character casts, one runs the risk of what I’d like to call  “Bilbo Butter Syndrome,” a reference to Tolkien’s Bilbo’s quote when he states that the burden of bearing the ring for so many decades has taken a toll on his overall well being: “I feel like butter scraped over too much bread…I feel thin.” And unless you’d have the luxury of epic, never-ending production of episodes (a la Naruto), a big cast often means skimping on the character development—especially for an action-oriented show.

While Code Geass’s protagonist Lelouch Lamperouge obviously enjoys the greatest amount of character development, I’d argue that most of the characters (including the minor ones that stick around) are given a surprising amount of development as well.

Minor character development will be discussed another day. What I’m really here to talk about is Kururugi Suzaku, one of my favorite characters of all time.

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What’s not surprising about Suzaku is the polarity of the audience’s reaction towards him. Some people (a significant number) just plain hate him. Others (myself included) rave about him and his badassery (<-yes, that is totally a word).

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What particularly interests me is how human and flawed Suzaku is.  Given how nationalistic Code Geass is (another post for another day), it’s amazing how perfectly Suzaku fits the chivalric knight trope. Yet there’s no denying that there’s something Japanese like in his demeanor that shines through even when he’s assimilated into Britannian culture. It wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to draw the connection between Suzaku’s plans to “free Japan within the system” with the imperial-collaborator partnerships that were oh so common during the Age of Imperialism. One finds that imperialistic relations often facilitates an exchange of cultural ideas. (Whether or not this side is predominantly one-sided depends on the nature of the involved peoples.)

In the case for Code Geass, the cultural exchange appears overwhelmingly one-sided: Brittanian ideals forced onto the Japanese, who have been stripped of their citizenship and human rights.

As I dive into my analysis of Suzaku and his connections to both English and Japanese mythology, one question I’d like to provide at least a tentative answer is: How does Suzaku fit the archetype of the Arthurian knight? Does he ultimately succeed or does he fail? How does Code Geass make use of the Arthurian canon to reinforce its message?

Suzaku, Perfectly Lancelot?

I’m not going to pretend and say that I’m an expert on Arthurian romances. I’ve read Chrétien de Troyes Four Arthurian Romances. I even muddled my way through most of Thomas Malory’s monstrous Le Morte D’Arthur (I have a love-hate relationship with English texts this old—I love the stories but hate the overly antiquated spellings and syntax. And let’s not get into the formatting).

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Aside from the obvious fact that his Knightmare Frame (CG’s term for mecha) is named Lancelot (Sunrise is many things and subtle is not one of them), the parallel between Suzaku and the Lancelot of legend is uncanny.

For a little background information on Lancelot (you can find a lot more in the two texts that I mentioned) for those who aren’t well-versed with the traditional Arthurian lore, Lancelot was King Arthur’s most revered and powerful knight. He was also one of the few knights who was most(ly) successful at upholding the Pentecostal Oath (in summary, is the oath that all Arthur’s knights had to take:

never to do outrageousity nor murder, and always to flee treason; also by no mean to be cruel, but to give mercy unto him that asketh mercy, upon pain of forfeiture of their worship and lordship of King Arthur for evermore; and always to do ladies, damosels, and gentlewomen succor upon pain of death. Also, that no man take no battles in a wrongful quarrel for no law, ne for no world’s goods.

Lancelot’s also notorious, however, for ultimately bringing destruction to Arthur’s kingdom by having an affair with Guinevere…yeah.

Before we even start pointing fingers at Suzaku’s “Guinevere,” (Euphemia? Lelouch?) let’s cover the bases on his similarities with Lancelot’s less risqué qualities first.

Lancelot was especially known for being undefeatable, and thereby most virtuous.

Lancelot lived in a time and world where might literally meant right. When there was ever a dispute to be settled, a duel would be the equivalent of the modern-day trial. Operating the logic that God would not let the righteous lose, the knights would fight and the victor would be considered the one in the right.

You can see the disastrous implications for a society’s justice system operating under this single principle…(long story short, Lancelot’s undermining of the system basically broke the Order of the Round Table and led to the destruction of Camelot.)

Though it’s not based on any religious principle, the principle “might equals right” is hardly a foreign concept in Code Geass. Charles vi Britannia might be a social Darwinist bastard but you can’t deny that his Machiavellian philosophy and methods are effective for him (that is, until when the “might is right” rule bites him back in the butt when he’s no longer top dog).

At the start of the series, the Brittanian Empire’s conquered roughly a third of the world, including Japan, unceremoniously renamed “Area 11.” The Japanese are stripped of their citizenship, denied their basic human rights, shuttled off to live in ghettos, the whole colonization shebang. Those who choose to cooperate with the Brittanian empire can gain “Honorary Britannian” status through good behavior and showing proper “Britannian loyalty.” As you can imagine, Japanese who opt for honorary Brittanian status are disliked by all- by their own people, they’re traitors, and in the eyes of snooty Brittanian nobility, honorary Brittanians are only slightly better than dogs.

Suzaku is one such Honorary Britannian who believes that the two peoples can reconcile and live harmoniously. You have to give the guy points for believing in what seemed to be a ludicrously impossible dream.

And yet not unlike Lancelot, Suzaku’s ascendency to glory and fame happens so quickly, so serendipitously, it wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to call the guy as God-blessed.

Behold, Spinzaku awesomeness
Behold, Spinzaku awesomeness

Complicating the Love Triangle: Guinevere, Lancelot and Meleagant

Lancelot’s knightly prowess is overshadowed by his adulterous affair with Queen Guinevere, a relationship that in most accounts, is universally acknowledged to be the catalyst to Camelot’s destruction.

Princess Euphemia knighting Suzaku
Princess Euphemia knighting Suzaku

Suzaku literally gets knighted (despite his honorary Brittanian status), thanks to a compassionate, lovestruck Princess Euphemia who shares his dream in changing Brittania from within the system [1]. He, like Lancelot, is single-minded in his passions–his love for Euphemia (who a la Geassed massacre, ironically also destroys a major peacemaking event, effectively obliterating any bloodless opportunities of reconciliation.)

Also, like Lancelot, Suzaku struggles in his love. Euphemia obviously loves him for his kindness and self-deprecation but you get the impression that she doesn’t quite understand the depth of the darkness he harbors in his soul. Living is painful for Suzaku, who’s had to deal with the fact that he murdered his father (who was prepared to have Japan fight a losing war with Brittania) to end the bloodshed, but also be indirectly responsible for the squalor and deplorable state of former Japanese citizens and their lack of basic human rights (so in essence, Suzaku also has to shoulder the burden of an entire nation’s misery).

Euphemia giving some racist Brittanians a piece of her mind. No one bullies her boyfriend.
Euphemia giving some racist Brittanians a piece of her mind. No one bullies her boyfriend.

There’s also the messy fact that his best friend ends up killing his girlfriend and also screwed with his mind so that he can’t ever hope to kill himself and put his safety over that of others.

The only thing that keeps him going is the slim hope that the path of non-aggression, of collaboration, of brown nosing and working within a corrupt system, might eventually lead to a better future. And some heavy guilt-tripping at work. Like, a lot of it.

So how does Suzaku measure up as a knight? Combat-wise, he’s very proficient. Having a cutting-edge 7th Generation Knightmare Frame certainly doesn’t hurt but it’s been mentioned many times that Knightmare piloting requires more finesse than just pushing a few buttons. Suzaku’s athletic prowess and inhuman reflexes outclasses most of his opponents, with only Kallen Kouzuki evenly matching him.

Suzaku fights against Xing-Ke.
Suzaku fights against Xing-Ke.

Suzaku’s a fighter, not a strategist, and in a world where chivalry is a farcical code only to be enacted by members of the aristocratic elite, one needs more than brawn to win. And like Lancelot, Suzaku’s not too much of a thinker, and tends to bumble into traps (granted the traps ARE set by Lelouch so it’s hard to not blame him for falling for them). He’s not a particularly good guard, is clumsy to a fault, and gets bitten by cats.

Suzaku: I told you before, Lelouch, that I was going to change this world from the inside.

Lelouch: Even if it means selling out your friends?

Suzaku: That’s right.

Suzaku rocking his Knight of Zero pilot suit.
Suzaku rocking his Knight of Zero pilot suit.

Where does the Arthurian parallel fail? Well, Lancelot ultimately fails as a knight by abandoning his spiritual duties and knightly obligations and succumbing to carnal love. He’s also kind of a huge hypocrite in that rather than playing by the rules, he uses the rules to his advantage to justify his actions. Can’t get much worse than wooing your king’s lady. “It’s totally okay for me to sleep with the Queen because if it were wrong, God would punish me by making me lose, right?”

Suzaku’s case is trickier to pin down. Code Geass comments little on religion (Social Darwinism appears to be the closest thing Brittania has to one) and though morality is discussed, the world of Geass lies firmly in the secular and the material.

Suzaku and Lancelot are failures as knights, though in different ways. Lancelot fails because of his choice to put aside his personal desires for the sake of keeping the kingdom together. It’s not just that Lancelot sleeps with Guinevere that’s the problem–it’s that fact that it’s Lancelot who’s doing it. Lancelot, who by every definition is the ideal knight–he never loses in battle and follows chivalry by the letter (the spirit of the oath…not so much).

Suzaku fails at a knight namely at his inability to protect his loved ones (including Euphemia) from harm. He sacrifices his reputation, his country, and even his own knightly code of morals in order to break the tragic cycle of Brittania’s imperialistic endeavors.

You told the world a lie when you proclaimed you were a knight for justice. Why don’t you live up to that lie by trying to become a true knight for justice? Then you’ll have the lie going, to the very end.

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Suzaku’s reply to Toudou’s “Why are you such a traitor?!”

Unlike a certain lily-livered Arthurian knight, Suzaku doesn’t hide behind the shining, perfect knightly facade. He holds to it when he can, and understands the importance of its image, but he isn’t afraid to be hated or feared. Suzaku realizes that the chivalric code of honor that knights hold on to is nothing but an illusion, its image only realized by making lies into truth.  That the protection of peace involves sacrificing one’s honor, one’s reputation, one’s own life.

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It’s kind of ironic that Suzaku acts as a better knight for Lelouch than he ever did for Euphemia (Suzakux Lelouch, anyone?). The fact that the two are united by a common purpose (take down Schneizel and his nuclear weapons of doom and turn Lelouch into the world’s biggest douchebag in history) might have something to do with it. And the camaraderie of the two realizing that the rest of the world hating them certainly doesn’t hurt.

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Knight of Seven Suzaku was kind of an angsty jerk. Knight of Zero Suzaku is a cool jerk who revels in his newfound purpose in life. He’s a new kind of knight–one that goes to any means to achieve his objectives–even if that means getting rough on the ladies, murdering a few disgruntled Britannian nobles, or turning on his king.

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Lelouch: The punishment for what you have done shall be this then…you will live on, always wearing that mask, serving as a knight for justice and truth. You will no longer live your life as Suzaku Kururugi, you shall sacrifice the ordinary pleasures of your life in benefit of the world for eternity.
Suzaku: This Geass I do solemnly accept.

In the eyes of the world, Kururugi Suzaku is a terrible knight, not to mention a terrible person. He is a traitor in all respects–he has betrayed his country, his people, his morality. He’s almost as hated as Emperor Lelouch himself–and undoubtedly his “funeral” was the furthest thing from well-attended.

It is only in private that the mask of brutality comes off and yet you get the sense that Suzaku keeps up the mask even then. When Lelouch is falling apart and drowns in self-doubt, Suzaku pushes him to remember their mission, to remember Zero Requiem. There is no room for weakness–they must play their roles perfectly.

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Suzaku as the new Zero

The performance and metaphor of masks fits well with the fall of Camelot in the Arthurian canon. The abandoning of masks–or rather the realization of the impossibility of keeping to the Pentecostal Oath–results in the destruction of King Arthur’s kingdom. In the case for Code Geass, the masks, rather than completely abandoned, are kept and reforged. Lies are necessary for people to move forward just as people need masks in order to hide their pain and find the courage to create miracles.

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How ironic it is for Suzaku to lower his mask exactly when he dons the mask of Zero?  The assassination of Lelouch, though clearly and intentionally public, is also an incredibly intimate moment between our knight and king. His acceptance of his fate as the new Zero and the conditions upon which Lelouch dictates to him with his dying breath are not unlike the Pentecostal Oath King Arthur commanded all of his knights to take.

Lancelot ended up having to join a monastery in order to relinquish his worldly desires (and even in the end, when Guinevere dies, he doesn’t ever quite let go of her). Suzaku, on the other hand, willingly sacrifices his own future to protect the world’s future. Which is actually really admirable and a much more constructive means of redeeming himself than the destructive self-deprecation he had going on for most of both seasons. And this action, for any doubters out there, actually makes him pretty damn selfless.

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A knight and his king.

And ultimately, a surprisingly good knight.

[1] It might be of interest to know that Euphemia was named after a Catholic saint (St. Euphemia), a martyr who was revered for her piety. An interesting story where her family was captured and subjected to torture by non-Christian (pagan) forces that threw her to the lions to get eaten but the lions ended up comforting her instead.

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13 thoughts on “How Kururugi Suzaku Beats Chivalry to a Pulp–and Wears It Proudly in Code Geass

  1. C-Could it be…? No way… Impossible…!

    I’ve encountered another Suzaku fan?!

    I adore Suzaku in the same way I adore all these struggling “white knight” characters (I mean, look at my avatar) but there are a couple of elements of his character that I’m ambivalent about. Was it intentional for him to be so widely hated, for instance? His philosophy is so full of hypocrisies and holes that it’s difficult not to be annoyed by his idealism. And yet I think, to an extent, the writers wanted us to take Suzaku’s ideals seriously as a countermeasure against Lelouch’s own ideas. The dichotomy is very muddy and imbalanced, though, and we’re generally made to favour Lelouch. I’m pretty sure to an extent you can argue that he’s just not very well-portrayed.

    If you ask me, that’s exactly what makes Suzaku so compelling. He has this presence within and outside the show itself. People react strongly against his character and instead egg on the anti-hero, because that’s just what we like to see in our escapist fiction. Either way, Suzaku’s character is built upon contradictions and ironies.

    I’m interested in how you ultimately see Suzaku as a righteous character. I think he’s got very blurry morals and frankly too much blood on his hands to ever be fully redeemed. That’s exactly what makes his final comeuppance so fulfilling – he has to don a mask when he has become true to himself, he has to kill his best friend, he has to die in spirit but live on in flesh. But righteous? He has all the good intentions, but I think by R2 he doesn’t know what his good intentions are anymore.

    Have you read The Quiet American? It’s got a very similar moral conflict to that of Code Geass</em: idealism versus cynicism, means versus ends, etc. The character of Howard Pyle is hauntingly similar to that of Suzaku in R1 – the idealist who is ignorant and who causes more harm than good. There are definitely Suzaku-like people in the world today; rather than a stuffy old Arthurian archetype updated for modern audiences, I'd argue there's also something very inherently "modern" about his sensibilities.

    Oooooh, I could talk about Suzaku all day. Better end this essay-long comment here.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Suzaku fans unite! You bring up a lot of excellent points and I’ll try my best to address them. Given how the narrative is told in Code Geass, the audience is practically set up to hate him. He’s the obstacle in Lelouch’s way, the wrench in Zero’s plans, the childhood friend who infuriatingly is unable to understand why idealism doesn’t get him very far in the world and as you aptly put it, does more harm than good.

      I suppose my definition of righteousness merits some explaining. I personally believe there is a moral high standard of justice (i.e. an absolute justice, though by no means, this absolute justice is definitively bounded). However, there is also a relative scale of righteousness for people, too. Everyone does bad things (Suzaku especially), but even while he’s doing them, he never lets himself forget it. There’s a wonderful scene when he confronts Kallen (when she’s captured) in R2 where Suzaku tries to apologize to her for mistreating her and Kallen beats the crap out of the him. He just takes the hits without complaint, simply because he acknowledges that he’s the one who did wrong.

      One might argue that Suzaku’s self-recriminating behavior is self-indulgent as it gives him an “out” for all of the horrible things he’s done but I would argue that it’s a testament that there are some moral rules he’s not willing to personally break. He knows he’s a hypocrite and hates himself for it and though he knows self-loathing isn’t going to make up for his behavior, he’s still punishing himself. The punishment for Zero Requiem is the death sentence he’s been seeking ever since the series started–a fate where he “dies” but cannot die. The fact that he can willingly accept sounds pretty darn righteous to me.

      You mention that Suzaku doesn’t know what his good intentions are anymore in R2. I’d argue that rather than not knowing what his good intentions are, he actually condemns the whole concept of having good intentions. Because he knows that good intentions, more often than not, get mistranslated in the execution of realizing them, which is why he adopts the Machiavellian “the ends justify the means” adage.

      I haven’t read The Quiet American–it sounds like a fascinating read! I realize that the Arthurian knight archetype doesn’t quite work in Code Geass, but I wanted to show how the archetype is commented and transformed in the show. The Arthurian knights were hardly the epitome of chivalry–they succumbed to worldly desires, broke loyalties, and were just plain misogynists! Though it’s not clear whether or not the writers intended to, the strict nature of the Pentacostal oath essentially set the knights up for failure (though Lancelot usually takes the blame). This is why idealism is so dangerous–it demands perfection without tolerating failure. How does one go about redeeming oneself when one sins? If the story of Camelot’s downfall asks the question: “What happens when perfection cannot be achieved?”, Code Geass follows up with the question: “How does one salvage from failure?” The Arthurian canon is a story of destruction while Code Geass inherits that destruction and turns it into a tale of renewal.

      I’ve answered your essay-long comment with one of my own as thanks. I love essay-long comments! So feel free to write away!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Suzaku is definitely quite an interesting character. He’s certainly both a great foil and pretty complex in his own right. It’s good to read this analysis since I’m not too familiar with the whole Arthurian/knightly ideal, truth be told, but the character was definitely influenced by it, to a large extent, in addition to the other Gundam and even arguably Kamen Rider-based sources of inspiration. There’s a number of different ways to look at the topic and this seems to be entirely applicable. Congratulations.

    And I’m totally cool with Suzaku fans, despite being more of a sympathizer than a huge one myself. What I don’t particularly care for is the knee-jerk logic expressed by those who only started appreciating him right at the very end of the show, but I’m glad this post wasn’t so narrow-minded and could dig beyond that angle.

    As a side note…Code Geass does have a number of nationalist elements, to say the least, but I would say it’s more of a left-wing nationalism rather than a right-wing one, which is a distinction few people tend to consider.

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    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment! I haven’t watched enough Gundam to see the influences but that makes a lot of sense. The Kamen Rider parallel is interesting, though–which Kamen Rider tropes do you see in Code Geass?

      Weirdly enough, I’ve always liked Suzaku from the very start. His stance on working within the system was admittedly a constant source of exasperation but only because his efforts seemed in vain. I’m a huge sucker for masochistic idealists though, so Suzaku was a very likable character for me. Regardless of how much I like/dislike a character, I do my best to give a fair and complete analysis of them so I’m glad to have succeeded in that respect.

      The presence of nationalism is nothing new in anime but I’m glad you pointed out the distinction. National self-determination is a favorite theme in many anime, and it’s something I hope to explore further in a future post.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Hey, I’m writing an essay on the idea of Geass as the “Grail object” for a Grail legends class, and I wanted to ask if it’s okay for me to reference this article. Thank you!

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    1. Sounds like a neat paper! I’m curious to see how you’ll connect Geass with the Holy Grail. If you want to use this article as a reference, feel free. Hopefully your prof’s okay with blog posts as references?

      Like

      1. Yeah, she’s pretty laid-back, as long as I can back my arguments up with the original content. I’m still fleshing it out, but my basic premise is that C.C.’s Code is the Grail, and — well, this is basically my conclusion:

        “In a world in which “God” is perceived as the collective unconscious of humanity, the Grail isn’t about a connection to the land, as in BBC’s Merlin and Boorman’s Excalibur, or about serving a higher being, as in Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, but instead about the connections between people. They’ve only gotten to where they are by, in Lelouch’s case, indiscriminately using people to advance his own goals, and, in Suzaku’s case, by continually betraying others. This lack of care for interpersonal relationships is the sin which deems Lelouch and Suzaku unworthy of the Grail.”

        Or something along those lines.

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  4. Well done! You’ve got my applause!

    You did well. I would had like more if you adding a bit about the contradiction: Yes, Might makes Right, but why people still praise Honor, especially Britannian themselves? And why did it still lead people to ruin?

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    1. Thanks! Medieval literature tropes–and medievalism itself–are of great interest to me so it was nice to apply them here (and Code Geass is simply an awesome anime). Your question is a good one. If “Might makes Right”, then why do people still value honor? Honor is a familiar but ultimately vague concept…we associate honor with moral uprightness but as Code Geass (and the Arthurian legend) shows, honor doesn’t always win. Given the crooked ways of the world–people, including knights–aren’t perfect and will find it easy to toss aside (or manipulate) their moral standards to get what they want or justify their actions. Perhaps, this is the reason why we value honor–because we acknowledge it as something difficult to achieve, and far more difficult to maintain.

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