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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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 . 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).
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
And ultimately, a surprisingly good knight.
 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.