It’s very rare for the collective response to an anime as widely viewed as Guilty Crown to be so unified and even rarer when that response skews so strongly to the negative, but that’s where we are after 15 episodes. Right from its debut the show was compared incessantly with Code Geass, propelled by a similar setting and premise and the fact that the two shows share the brains of the writing crew. Those comparisons died down a bit when the differences became clear and very quickly it was apparent that Guilty Crown simply wasn’t going to be anywhere near as fun, let alone as good as Code Geass. The question of what makes Code Geass more entertaining than Guilty Crown has been considered, but generally quickly dismissed with references to Lelouch’s naturally magnetic leadership. I think it’s worth considering at a (slightly) deeper level. (Major spoilers for both titles within.)
Code Geass is commonly referred to as a divisive anime, but this is mostly directed to R2. When I did a survey of 40 of my dearest friends (ie, I looked up the stats pages on MAL), Code Geass averaged a beefy rating of 8.19 with a scatter of just 1.24. Alternatively, R2 had an average rating more than a full point lower, 7.15, with a much larger standard deviation of 1.56. No one on my MAL Friends list dropped the first season, but three people dropped the second, and kadian1364 along with NHRV Forum regular, Flash Sword Irene, must have watched the show through gritted teeth, giving it a low rating of 4. Ironically, the global rating for R2 is higher than the first season by 0.09, and Code Geass‘s second season is ranked as MAL’s 8th highest anime overall. Momentarily making the assumption that you have to be of discerning taste to get on my Friends list, R2 is a prime example of a title where the critical and popular reception diverged.
Obviously, we’re still waiting for most of Guilty Crown‘s stats to come in at this stage, but there’s one that already makes a statement. Of my 26 MAL Friends who have listed it, 8 have already dropped it. Guilty Crown has been criticized for its weak characters, inappropriately timed fanservice, questionable plot and its delusions of grandeur. My biggest criticism of the show is that anything goes: each new void is introduced at a time when it’s most convenient to the plot. However, momentarily ignoring the characters, many of the same criticisms were also levied at Code Geass, particularly its second season. So why were we so much more forgiving of Code Geass‘ indulgences? (And to say Code Geass was indulgent is the understatement of the century.) Was it simply because its cast was that much stronger and more developed? Or was it execution or atmosphere related, or something else a little less tangible?
If there’s one thing we can all agree on it’s that Code Geass has a much better cast. Parallels exist between the two ensembles, that have come a little further around with the death of tortured childhood friend, Hare, in Guilty Crown‘s most recent episode. Shu and Lelouch occupy the lead role (in two respects of the word), except Lelouch climbed to that position quickly, through the force of his character, while Shu was placed there to fill a vacuum created by Gai’s death, pretty much because there was no one better around. Shirley and Hare are the tortured childhood friends who die, propelling the lead(ers) into further action, Kallen and Ayase are the fiery female mecha pilots and third wheel in the love rectangle, while CC and Inori are the mysterious supernatural entities who act as enablers, supporters and confidants for the leads and are the most likely to form a relationship with them. Suzaku’s reflection is most closely matched by Gai, but the differences between their characters are more stark, with Gai occupying a mentor role for Shu, while Suzaku was mostly Lelouch’s enemy and rival. Even more analogues between the two casts exist between less important characters (although I’m not sure who Tsugumi’s counterpart is), but almost universally, the Code Geass character is the more interesting and likable.
The two main script writers for Guilty Crown also worked on Code Geass, but their roles have been reversed this time, with Yoshino Hiroyuki the primary writer for Guilty Crown and his support, Okouchi Ichiro, being the main writer from Code Geass. Code Geass has better writing, but it came under heavy fire, particularly as it was airing. I suspect Code Geass‘ director, Taniguchi Goro, did a much better job of papering over the cracks in the series’ writing than Araki Tetsuro has done with Guilty Crown. I’m not overly familiar with Taniguchi’s work outside of Code Geass, but I know that both Infinite Ryvius and Planetes are very highly regarded. However, I’m anything but a fan of Araki, who seems to love to emphasize the superficial and seems to believe that subtle is what happens at the end of a zombie apocalypse.
For mine, outside of the characters, it’s the things that are less obvious, such as tone and pacing, that make Code Geass a superior work. Code Geass knew that it needn’t be super serious all the time, yet, within its more dramatic moments there was more tension, more impact and, at the very least, the illusion of more meaning. When it comes to meaning, neither story can be taken extremely seriously as a comment on occupation and interventionist foreign policy, particularly not compared with any anime by Takahashi Ryosuke (Flag, Gasaraki, Votoms, etc). Meaning-wise, the difference comes from what the two shows want us to get from their characters. Guilty Crown is turning more and more into the story of how a boy who is as emotionally maladjusted as the average teenager grows into a leader, hardened by the events that take place around him. That’s the type of story you could get from watching Naruto. Code Geass fast forwards through all of that in the first episode, and the rivalry, battle of wits and constant betrayal that Lelouch is involved in paints him as a much more conflicted person, allowing the show’s commentary about him to be much deeper and more engaging.