It only took five episodes to finally discover what Leila’s geass is. I was calling it as ‘the power to make people nicer’ (probably by erasing their personality and replacing it with something Leila approves); the actual thing isn’t quite, and it ends up pretty odd, convoluted, and slightly incomprehensible.
I’ve seen reviews complain that Akito the Exiled looks cheap; I disagree. The mecha design is different from Code Geass proper, but the combat sequences are fluid and colorful. It’s not as expensive as Unlimited Budget Works but let’s keep expectations reasonable. This is a hell of a lot of mecha fights where each unit has intricate, detailed moving parts. Each combat sequence probably costs several people’s firstborns to animate.
It’s acrobatic and can get slightly vertiginous (and unsettling if you’re arachnophobic; the Alexanders switch seamlessly between humanoid and spider forms for rapid scuttling). Finally, Code Geass mecha that look properly unnerving.
Britannian mecha this time around are hilariously flamboyant, wear cloaks, and one of them is a golden centaur wielding this inexplicable clockwork polearm. (This same knightmare has built-in high heels.)
Character faces can and often do get wonky (just like they did in the original Code Geass), but the mecha are perfectly polished.
Let’s dig into the gender politics
Code Geass, for all its relative good points, has always been in-your-face with the fanservice: the bouncing boobs, the scant clothing, and sometimes even gender-coding a mecha to match its pilot (CC’s Lancelot is a pretty pastel pink), the very grim period during which CC loses her memories and keeps trying to get naked in front of Lelouch (not really SFW). It’s pretty bad. Routine stuff, but bad.
Akito the Exiled is – well – it’s about as bad, with Leila’s and Ayano’s boobs constantly jiggling like they never wear bras; they go into combat in skintight suits, and both are drawn with huge breasts which get in your face constantly, unrelentingly, like someone is trying to make you hate boobs. Leila wears high-heeled boots and a frilly skirt uniform. I leave to you to judge whether the episode where Ryo is put into a skimpy costume and spends all his time having his ass groped and squeezed by a bunch of old Roma ladies is good. (Certainly the depiction of the old lady troupe is pretty racist; I’m not sure what to do with the fact that they cheerfully molest the shit out of Ryo. There are also a lot of shots of the men’s asses in tight combat suits, where the artists absolutely do take the time to draw emphatic butt cracks. I can’t tell whether they’re trying to be equal-opportunity about sexual objectification or if they seriously think butts are inevitable.)
The mecha are pretty weird this time around. The Alexanders, a mass-produced unit piloted by Akito and friends, are – ok, no delicate way to put this: they have breasts, or at least an abnormally bulbous chest, whether their pilots are male or female. They have distinctly feminine faces, unlike every other mecha in the entire property.
This results in a trippy moment where the fourth episode concludes with Leila escaping a tense situation while holding onto the breasts of her (cis) boyfriend’s feminine mecha. And then we come to Jean Rowe.
I spent most of the time watching Akito thinking it was odd that, this time around, there’s a dearth of female characters on the Britannian side (which in the main series had its share of women scientists, pilots, knights, etc). When Jean first shows up onscreen, I’d assumed she was a man because the series treats her like one: no fanservice. No jiggly boobs, no combat heels, no gratuitous T&A shots (until episode 4, but it’s in the dark so you can’t see that they bothered to draw on round butts for her unless you color-correct the screenshot). She’s stern, incredibly competent, a chivalrous knight and a talented soldier. She’s in love with Shaing, and when she first embraces him I thought, ‘Well, CG is pretty explicit with the gay this time!’ I was surprised that the fan wiki says she’s a woman. (She changed her name from Jeanne to Jean apparently because this particular chunk of Britannia is especially misogynistic, and not because she’s a trans man or non-binary.)
It takes the scene where Shaing slaps her in the face, open-handed, that it removed all doubt as to her gender. It is only after this that she gets the fanservice treatment with a shower scene. Then she sacrifices herself to stop Shaing in mutual suicide, becoming one more in a long line of the women Shaing has loved and slaughtered.
So what is this about? Fighting is bad, and violence is actually quite sad. None of this is convincing. They do try! Many of the combat sequences are accompanied by elegiac, quiet music rather than the more rousing sort we associate with mecha battle. Leila’s geass can alter reality itself, and… infuse people with empathy? It’s not very clear. It’s somewhat beside the point; I expect the writers wanted to keep her apart from the convoluted geass stuff from the main series, allowing Leila to get away from it all without having to worry about CC or the rest of them showing up to drag her into the space-time ‘collective human consciousness’ battle to control reality (you’ve seen Code Geass, you know what I mean). Meantime, Shaing’s geass all this while was the ability to command people he loves to commit suicide. Errrr…
Tone-wise, it couldn’t be more different from the original Code Geass. Much of this takes place on continental Europe (from which the Britannians originally fled, first to Britain then to America; part of the joke – at American expense – in this show’s alt-history is that the Holy Britannian Empire is situated in North America, and the USA was never founded) with striking shots of Parisian cityscapes and somber Roman ruins. Leila and Akito are much more subdued characters than Lelouch, and neither has ambition to change the world – the closest character to Lelouch is, if anything, the antagonist Shaing (who deals with having a sister he loves by flat-out murdering her, and who means to burn the world down).
It continues the theme of the dispossessed, conquered Japanese as the world’s favorite punching bag; everyone, European or Britannian, is extremely racist toward them. The portrayal of racism might seem over-the-top, but I find it incisive and plausible, concentration camps and all. A European commander snarls, ‘What’s wrong with using [the Japanese] as suicide troops? They’re a race that loves to die!’ (referring to kamikaze pilots). Elsewhere, Akito tells Leila, ‘Europeans are all the same. They’re scared of us Japanese because they think we all know karate and are good with swords.’ Leila isn’t exempt, despite her desire to be a white savior to the Japanese. Unlike Lelouch, her mission is smaller-scale and rather than taking over the Japanese revolution, she tries her best to make her countrypeople less heinous to them.
Despite the intervention of the collective consciousness – and all that geass guff – nobody in Code Geass or Akito the Exiled is ever given the option to leave humanity or the world. There’s an afterlife, of sorts, and some humans can become immortal code-bearers like CC, but at the end of the day they only have each other. This is the only life they get and their only chance. While Lelouch’s arc leads to self-immolation dressed up as self-sacrifice, Leila’s and Akito’s epilogue sees them living in peace, with all their friends alive and intact, their chosen family. Which is about all they can hope for. The world can’t change, and as we later see in Code Geass, the EU’s final fate is to be annexed and conquered by the Britannians. Everything ends, just as Shaing says, in annihilation.