I visit my cross with conviction a fourth time: the concept of the guilty pleasure. For those unaware of my previous writing on it, allow me to distinguish my idea of the guilty pleasure from that commonly held one, that exists on the plane of enjoying levels of culture: that is one feels guilty a ‘low’ culture product like anime or manga (especially if such example is a fanservice show such as K-On! or Ikkitousen) as if one should be enjoying ‘high’ culture classical ballet, German opera, or at least Legend of the Galactic Heroes.
This kind of guilt isn’t what concerns me. Culture is flat as far as I’m concerned; subjectivity, taste, and all that. The kind of guilt that concerns me is a moral one. It’s that thing we feel when we take pleasure in something ‘wrong,’ from our relative and individual moral standards. We have such standards to some degree, most of us certainly do. When we think about the things we watch and how we enjoy them, we may not like what we find about ourselves. In this post we talk about Code Geass.
When I watch political rallies here and abroad, I often find myself on the shocked side of amused upon seeing people, voters, constituents get so emotionally worked up for the candidates and public figures that go on stage. I mean, it gets crazy. There are tears and screaming. It’s almost like witnessing a religious experience on a large scale.
I step back a little, and compare this spectacle to females displaying the same behavior in the presence of pop (music) idols. I still remember the Beatles’ first contact with their American audience. It’s one of the most awesome moments in entertainment. The fanatical shrieking, the tears, the grasping hands… it’s a similar spectacle; and it is repeated through the succeeding decades between female fans and their idols.
I don’t want to get much into the higher proclivity of females to display this kind of behaviors, as well as how men become feminine when indulging these. I’m more interested in why this happens in the first place. I’m going to speculate some, and see where I end up.
Part of it I think is that we tend to cast these individuals into narratives. And these narratives have conflicts: critics panning the musicians’ work, the Man keeping the voice of freedom gagged; almost always the object of fanaticism being unjustly treated, and made to look small, or at least small enough to be cast as the underdog. After all, why cry for giants? Why shed tears for the mighty? The fallen mighty must have a bigger foe that did the felling, to inspire sympathy. Self-destructiveness can be cast as ‘inner’ demons.
Almost always, the evil is externalized. Yes, evil. There needs to be some kind of moral righteousness for the pitying, sympathizing agent. We want to feel good about ourselves especially when we give compassion. It’s a virtuous spiral. But yes it is virtuous in that it must be reassured of its moral righteousness.
If this is so, why the popularity of anti-heroes? Why are Lelouch Lamperouge (Code Geass) and perhaps Yagami Light (Death Note) so popular?
Am I mistaken to assume that the people who ‘get’ these characters are people who don’t scream like fanatics during the political rallies of the candidates they support? I posit that the appreciation of anti-heroes comes with an appreciation for evil. Perhaps not just dispositional evil, but rather the evil sustained by exposure to compromise and corruption. After all, sophisticated voters are somewhat aware of how the political machinery works: trading favors, money, compromise compromise compromise.
What about the people who ‘don’t get’ these characters, and yet wildly support them? I imagine these people have a very limited view of these. Limited perhaps by self-delusions including but not limited to personal hopes pinned on the inherent goodness of humans. In political rallies, these are the people who are quick to call critics of their candidate libelous liars, and slanderers. They shout these things with tears in their eyes… righteous rage, and pity for their besieged hero.
Zero, the leader of the Black Knights and the righteous persona created by Lelouch Lamperouge, plays with these dynamics. Always Zero must be the voice of righteousness. People must believe in themselves to be righteous, and that their opponents to be unjust. The citizens of Britannia certainly consider themselves to be righteous; and that it is their right to subjugate the less righteous, the less rightful. This makes for a compelling narrative that Zero plays with: Britannians consider the Japanese not just less than themselves, but they consider themselves not better than humans, but to be the only humans. The Japanese are a sub-human species and are treated as such by their conquerors.
This is why Zero does not endorse the acquisition of ‘Britannian Rights’ or some half-assed citizenship within the empire for the Japanese. It plays within the narrative, the dichotomy of human/sub-human, master/slave, first class/everyone else class of citizens. What was the Japanese assertion? Explicitly or not, they believed themselves to deserve the rights enjoyed by the Britannian, people, the rights enjoyed by any human being or class thereof, because they are righteous. They as a people believed themselves to be morally strong, to be noble and righteous. This it is why the Order of the Black Knights required themselves to behave heroically, to be in the service of justice.
- Lelouch vi Britannia: Vengeance upon the perceived murderers of his mother Marianne. This is the truth in the sense that this is what Lelouch believes in and desires most.
- Zero: Political leader and militant liberator of the Japanese people. This is the lie in the sense that more than anything it is the means to accomplishing vengeance upon his perceived enemies.
- Lelouch Lamperouge: This is the vessel that holds both, it is a lie to everyone; nothing truthful or authentic is in this identity.
The Japanese people, the oppressed population of ‘Area 11’ need to somehow believe more than anything that they are righteous, and therefore must be represented by righteous heroes. The resistance, the rebels, both lack a compelling call, a rallying cry that will make the people do more than wait for them to prove themselves. Zero and his Order of the Black Knights provided this call. This is why Britannia did what it could to discredit Zero, to show that he is unheroic, that he is without righteousness.
So how do we behave in following the narrative? What do we enjoy in following Lelouch’s story? Do we want him to win? If we do, WHY? Do we believe in his righteousness, the same way many of the Japanese did when they followed him to China; the same way how the Zero Requiem was designed to recover and then preserve his heroism in the eyes of the people? No. I don’t think so at all. The people who watch this show mainly entertained by the Lelouch narrative are those who are to a degree fascinated by his flawed character; his amoral devotion to his desired ends, his cleverness, and ultimately the strength of his will.
Those of us who ‘follow’ Lelouch, how did we get here? We are shown righteousness first! We are shown how Lelouch is a victim of injustice — from the chess player he defeated (representing adults, Britannians), to the ruthless troops of Clovis, we are shown a weak but clever individual against terrible odds. We are then shown the over matched rebels, and how Lelouch allies himself with them. But somewhere along the way, as early as the second episode of the 50-episode saga, we are shown how Lelouch holds contempt for his enemies, how little he values their lives. This culminates with his murder of Clovis.
This is a decision point for us. If we disapprove of murder in cold blood (and I assume many of us do), we need to ask ourselves if we should keep supporting this character. But at this point, the narrative makes it difficult for us to hold Lelouch in contempt. Clovis is evil. Jeremiah is fascist. It would take Suzaku later on to truly challenge us. And we were! Many of us hated Suzaku, calling him a ‘moralfag,’ as if his stand — to create change from within order and from within the law was despicable; as if Lelouch with his easy manipulation of others — his Geass power is even overtly manipulative, was the hero worth rooting for.
I theorize that this moral problem — the pleasure of rooting for a known murderer; a selfish, manipulating teenager on a revenge streak, does fill people with guilt. What can possibly make this guilt go away? A simple solution is to dismiss the show… and there are levels of dismissal.
The first level is a decisive and telling one: this is just entertainment. It’s just a show. It’s a silly anime with robots and fanservice. We don’t have to think too hard. It doesn’t really say anything about us if we don’t think about it.
See what we did there? That would have been enough, to be honest. However, many of us went further.
The second level is to qualify the entertainment: Code Geass is a bad show. It’s poorly written. We who cannot be bothered to think too hard about the moral implications of rooting for a character like Lelouch are suddenly blessed with the competence to dismiss it further as a show with terrible merit. How terrible? We convince ourselves that the best way to enjoy this show; and the only way we are still enjoying this show, is that it is funny unintentionally. The comedy doesn’t exist within the design of the narrative, but is rather outside it. It’s attempts at presenting a narrative is the object of the ridicule which is then the source of the entertainment value.
At this point we find ourselves rather distant from the moral problem. At this point it is easy to dismiss all the characters’ motivations and morals. These issues can’t be real, can’t be taken seriously… because the show is so bad. It’s popularity increasing exponentially, while the viewers keep telling themselves and each other that they’re only watching this because it is entertainingly bad.
I’m not here to defend the quality of Code Geass. I certainly like it, but nobody else has to.
What I’ve sought to map out is a speculative path of conflict avoidance. Very few of us can convince ourselves that the show is outright terrible after 4 episodes. At that point we are already compelled to watch, and chances are we were compelled by Lelouch. And we were all betrayed by him. By we, I mean the viewers who disagree with murder, and manipulative and malicious selfishness. Overtly or not, we are confronted by enjoying these things. Why do we enjoy it so much? And why do we still like this guy; and by like I mean we want him to triumph in the end. I’m sure we wanted him to redeem himself. That’s a carrot that I’m sure led more than a few of us donkeys through the valleys of Lelouch’s depravity.
I suggested earlier that some of us who went this far with Lelouch may have an appreciation for evil. Maybe some of us do, but I find this less interesting compared to those of us who tell ourselves that we don’t, and suffer guilt for indulging ourselves in it.
Some of us are reassured by his death. His death bought him redemption since it was in the spirit of sacrifice. There was no selfishness left: no legacy to build, nothing to clear or clean his name in history. He wanted to do right by everyone, and to a degree, he did — those who were left. But what of us who insisted that he was alive? Why do we want to keep him alive? Where is the justice in that? Have we distanced ourselves so thoroughly from the moral issues of his narrative that it’s okay for him to get away with everything he has done? All the blood on his hands, and perhaps more damning, all the lies.
Liars, even to themselves can probably go easier on a liar like Lelouch.
But if we acknowledge the lie, did the pleasure we took from watching Code Geass disappear? No. We already had it, enjoyed it. We already defended the show against trolls, or even endorsed it to friends whether as a ‘good’ show, or as a delightful pile of terribleness. It doesn’t matter. We had our fun. Only the guilt remains.
My own ‘fanaticism’ for Ikari Gendo of Neon Genesis Evangelion [->]
Narutaru turns the screws harder and deeper [->]