Instead of the monthly round up, I decided to do something a little different. While this column is going to be home to many an in depth review, I also intend it to be an actual column, with opinions to offer on dub matters. For this particular column, however, I have a dual focus. I plan to say something about what I think of the dub to Code Geass: Lelouche of the Rebellion, seasons 1 and 2 (currently airing on Adult Swim). I also plan to talk a bit about the whole question of what makes a dub good or not. I am sure there will be people reading this who wonder "Why is this show being praised, while another is being panned?" To some degree, it is all about suitability. How well a dub fits its material.
Casting a spell
Listening to the Code Geass dub is an interesting experience. For in this show, I think what you have is a very high powered cast engaged in doing their best with what is, in the end, rather limited material, bound by certain genre conventions and the expectations of the audience. I have to this point held back from giving one of my fuller rambles about this title, for various reasons. I think I'm ready now to lay out a few thoughts, some sparked by what I just saw (the episode with Viletta in the swimsuit—we all have our own ways of remembering which episode is which, seeing Viletta in that…umm…swimsuit is how I will remember this episode).
There has been debate about the "unevenness" of the dub. I would disagree. I think overall, the dub has been well suited to its material. That is, in fact, the key to seeing why the dub is somewhat imbalanced, such as it can be on occasion.
Code Geass is very much a genre piece, perhaps a pastiche of genre pieces: there are elements of high drama and political intrigue; there are comedic, high school-based gags that are firmly within the realm of the anime high school comedy; there are fighting scenes with mecha that follow the forms and patterns of most mecha shows. There are conventions that must be followed for each of these genres, even if they can sometimes feel slightly ill at ease when forced to compete with each other for our attention.
The basic storyline (I should be spoiling no one at this point. With season 1 completely broadcast, season 2 underway, and the first third of season 1 already out on DVD, there are no surprises here) is that of rebellion against a brutal dictatorship by a rebel who employs a Machiavellian philosophy and strategy of resistance. No peaceful sit-ins or singing kumbaya here. As our anti-hero, Lelouche Vi Britannia, is a person whose life is based upon deception and a ruthless lust for power, we expect both a certain smooth evil to flow from his lips, together with occasional bouts of snarling maliciousness, the usual audience expectation of a cartoon villain.
Johnny Young Bosch has, however, pulled back from that at times, being a bit more cerebral and distant. Unemotional. I don't think it's a bad interpretative choice, but I can see where some audience expectation is going to be disappointed by that. As Zero especially, JYB chooses to be deliberately on the flat side. But that might be the better choice. For he is someone who is, in the end, inexperienced at what he is doing. He is an amateur. A very intelligent one, but remember, he is only a high school student, not someone who has navigated court intrigue and office politics for 30 years. His response has been, from the very beginning, to deaden himself inside, to harden his heart against what he is doing. Remember his physical reaction after engaging in his first killing, that of his own half-brother Clovis. He get nauseous and vomits, and then chides himself at his apparent weakness.
To bring things up to the present, when he comes before the assembled Black Knights to give some sort of speech after he has just freed Tohdoh, Ohgi and the other prisoners, he hews closely to the old maxim of Benjamin Jowett: "Never regret, never explain, never apologize." And that is exactly what he does. He offers no explanation or apology. That's because he is deadening himself to the need to do so. So, I think that JYB's interpretative decision (or if this was the decision of Kevin Seymour, the direction, then his) to pull back, to tone down the expected exaggerated voicings of a villain (because Lelouche is more villain than hero, even if his cause has some merit), is not a bad one at all.
When the action centers around Ashford Academy, we move into high school comedy mode. And this is the register where the performances of Julie Ann Taylor (Milly Ashford), Amy Kincaid (Shirley Fenette) and Brian Beacock (Rivalz Cardemonde) live. For they are largely employed in the role of comic relief (up to this point) and the performances are targeted in that range. Ms. Taylor is playful and seductive. Ms. Kincaid is spirited and somewhat addled. Mr. Beacock is the cheerful friend to Lelouche, but stricken heavily with lovesickness for Milly. They are all broad comic tropes, and the voices match that milieu.
Lelouche himself, and Suzaku Kururugi (Yuri Lowenthal) also appear in this realm on occasion, but I sometimes think that they both as characters and as performances do not quite inhabit it. Both Mr. Bosch and Mr. Lowenthal seem slightly ill at ease in the school settings. Lelouche sounds like he is playacting at being a student, and Suzaku seems utterly uncomfortable at times. Now, you might be thinking that I am about to chide them for not sounding more natural, but I am not. In fact, the performances are quite apt for how the characters are defined within the weird, screwed up universe that the characters of Code Geass inhabit. After all, Lelouche would rather be plotting the downfall of his father than sitting around the school. And Suzaku has tried to define himself by being so serious, by treating every moment with such attention that you wonder if he really does anything other than think about how he is going to remake the "system" and bring peace and justice to the world (good luck with that). Neither character fits naturally within the realm of high school comedy. While I think I could actually imagine Milly, Shirley or Rivalz wandering into an episode of School Rumble or possibly Azumanga Daioh, I would find it extremely difficult to conceive of Lelouche or Suzaku making a similar cameo appearance. So, their unease in the school setting is really quite correct.
In the action sequences, we get acting more along the lines of what is to be expected from conventional mecha warfare. Perhaps the most representative performances in that respect are Jeremiah Gottwald (Crispin Freeman), Cornelia Li Britannia (Mary Elizabeth McGlynn) and Col. Tohdoh (Steve Blum). Each of them follows the standard patterns of the action hero, with a few exceptions here and there (Mr. Freeman gets to play the deranged crazy at one point, while Ms. McGlynn is allowed to show some emotional range both when she is distraught over her sister's death, and in the encounter she has with Lelouche at the end of the first season, where the fight has been literally beaten out of her). We get a lot of good action foley work from them as they are batted about in their Knightmare frames, and plenty of action shouts and all of the audio cues that we have come to expect from mecha warfare.
It is in this element that Mr. Lowenthal also seems most comfortable, which is natural since it is within a Knightmare frame that Suzaku seems most comfortable. The intensity of his seriousness is much more fitted to an action show than to the comedic realm of the high school. Also fitting comfortably in this genre segment is Karen Strassman's Kallen Stadtfeld
Uneasiness: where it is coming from
If, at this point, you are expecting a full review of everyone in Code Geass, I am sorry to disappoint you, but I am not going to do that (my final comments are that Liam O'Brien is absolutely perfect as Lloyd, and there are many other performances worth mentioning, such as Kirk Thornton (Ohgi) and Megan Hollingshead (Viletta Nu), but as the show is not yet over, I have not come to a final conclusion about all of it, including the performances of the leads [so, no, I have no comment on Kate Higgins other than that I like her]).
Yet, we are left with an interesting question: what effect does this mixture of genres and different types of performances have on the dub? What it does, in my opinion, is occasionally cause a certain amount of jarring from being moved from one genre to another, and having characters that cross genres not quite mesh entirely well with those who are firmly fixed in one place.
Code Geass is a show that is highly, perhaps even too heavily theatrical in its very conception, let alone presentation. The characters who might embody the "Geass spirit" most forcefully in addition to Lelouche himself might be Lloyd and Diethard Ried (Jamieson Price), both of whom come on stage with many a flourish, and deliver their lines with such campy deliveries, they could sell ham to a delicatessen. And this is EXACTLY HOW THEY SHOULD SOUND. But their heavy theatricality seems slightly out of place, when we have the over-seriousness of the action segment, and the silly comedy of the high school contingent. While Code Geass the show can mix genres with some success (thought not always, in my opinion), the performances do not readily mix as easily. This is not a criticism I am making of the dub and its actors. I think Kevin Seymour and the cast are doing a very good job providing appropriate performances for this show. It is the material itself that is causing problems, making it seem on occasion that the performances are not quite right when they are fairly well executed.
So, what was the point of this column, if it was not meant to be a full scale review of Code Geass? I think it should be clear. There are times when you can have veteran actors providing appropriate performances, and yet they might not sound just right. And that would be because of the limitations of the source material itself. At times, they are doing too much with the material, putting on performances that are too strongly based in the genre segments that their individual characters inhabit. At other points, they might seem out of place, since their character is firmly planted into one set of conventions, while the scene they are in is located in another. Sometimes the overly dramatic delivery of some characters seems wildly unsuitable, but they may not necessarily be so, since the character actually should be ramped up to that level.
What really matters in the end is that the performances be true to the characters, and for the most part, they are in Code Geass.
I guess at some point I should check out the Japanese track to see how they approached the central problem of performing Code Geass: managing the changes in the material from serious to silly to sad to sappy.
As we have little left of 2008, I would like to wish all of our readers here at Mania a Happy New Year. Once we get into 2009, I plan to take a look back at 2008 with a few friends.