SPOILERS for the entire Code: Realize anime.
There’s a lot to love about Code: Realize. The whole story is a wild, off-the-wall steampunk adventure with literary characters for love interests, a heroine whose skin emits acid, and a corgi with a prosthetic leg and a top hat. The rip-roaring, action-driven tone makes for an otome adaptation with an unusual potential for crossover appeal.
A major part of that appeal is the heroine. While many otome games have meek, passive heroines at the mercy of the boys around her, Cardia goes from little more than a living doll to a protagonist who actively takes control of her own narrative. A significant part of this transformation comes when she trades in her gown for pants, a rare and welcome move for female characters all across anime.
It would have been easy enough for Code: Realize to go with the usual blank-slate, self-insert protagonist. At the start of the series, Cardia is blank and lifeless, living in isolation due to her skin melting anything it touches. Her long, impractical gown, made of a special material, is the only thing protecting the world from her.
Her initial passivity makes sense for her character, given that she’s been treated as an object for most of her life (and effectively is—she’s not even technically a living being, but a chimera powered by a device called a “horologium” in her chest). Her rare exposure to others before the start of the series occurred mostly when people tried to steal the horologium.
While her corrosive skin does prevent many of the consent issues that otome games often have, she still could have remained low on personality, helpless but for the handsome young men fawning over her. After all, the rest of the cast includes charmingly over-the-top versions of literary characters like Arsene Lupin, Dr. Frankenstein, and Abraham Van Helsing.
Within the canon, they’d be happy to continue protecting Cardia; and speaking as a viewer, they have more than enough personality to carry the series on their own. Thankfully, though, that’s not the story Code:Realize wants to tell.
Cardia’s switch to jodhpurs in Episode 4 signals a major shift in her role within the group as well as for her development. Because of her corrosive skin, she can only wear clothes made specifically out of a material that won’t melt when it comes into contact with her. Viktor “Fran” Frankenstein had to spend hours locked in his lab researching how to create it. The men all gather together to present it to her, along with a new pillow made out of the same material.
Although Cardia never expressed any distaste for the gown necessarily, it had a long, frilly skirt and corseted bodice that, pragmatically speaking, would have prevented her from doing much with her comrades besides sitting at home and waiting for their return.
In a blouse and jodhpurs, she can not only accompany them but actively contribute. She is a fully participatory member of the group rather than a passive object to be guarded and rescued from peril over and over. Presenting Cardia with pants was the boys’ way of truly welcoming her into their lives.
What’s more, she takes an interest in being more active and is an immediate asset. In the second episode, she briefly scandalizes Lupin by hiking up her skirt while fleeing an enemy, explaining, “It’s easier to run this way.” Putting on the pants indicates not just the expectation that she’ll contribute, but also her desire to.
Now, in a nurturing environment, she starts to develop her own personality: compassionate, driven, and a fast learner. In her first venture out into the world, her compassion quells a fellow “monster”: Count Dracula, reimagined as an isolated young boy. She later asks Helsing to help her learn to fight, since their line of work often puts them in combat situations. Once she dons her new, more practical outfit, she sheds her past persona of lifeless doll and, though she still carries the baggage of all those years alone, becomes a vivacious young woman.
The show’s climax confirms the symbolic meaning of Cardia switching to pants from a skirt. In the final stages of the plot, Finis, her brother, takes her captive in order to make the plan “Code: Realize” a reality and destroy the world. Were Code: Realize to occur, both Cardia and Finis’s personalities would be subsumed by the giant globe that holds their father, and Cardia as an individual would cease to exist.
The first thing Finis does after kidnapping her is change her back into her dress, calling her pants “ridiculous.” He recalls their father fawning over the original Cardia, a human girl who died and was recreated as the homunculus who survives today. She is forced back into a dress just as she is forced back into her original purpose, ordered to play a role that no longer fits and fulfill a plan that would destroy everything she holds dear.
To Finis, Cardia’s personality, goals, and growth mean nothing, and anything different from her original state should be eradicated. The boys valued her and wanted to see her grow and evolve; Finis wants her preserved as a helpless, passive thing, until she becomes a tool to bring about the end of the world. That Cardia not only rejects but actively resists his plan, eventually defeating him with the support of her allies, demonstrates the importance of female agency to the story’s ethos.
Ideally, a woman switching to a more practical outfit that allows greater freedom of movement would just be normal, but it really is a rarity. I asked my Twitter followers to come up with female characters who wear pants; most of the characters listed wore them as part of military uniforms, and characters who wore pants as casual everyday wear were quite rare. Those who did were usually masculine-coded, such as Sailor Moon’s Haruka.
Even in action-driven series, most women keep to skirts. From Fate/stay night’s Saber in her combat ballgown to InuYasha’s Kagome fleeing demons in her school uniform’s miniskirt, pragmatism is rarely on character designers’ minds when they create their female characters. Even Yona of the Dawn’s heroine wears a long skirt as she travels the country and takes up swordplay and archery.
At best, skirts’ impracticalities end up getting treated as a non-issue (Kagome’s model sheet famously included a note to animators never to draw a pantyshot); at worst, they’re used as fodder for fan service and cheap jokes at the character’s expense. Cardia’s costume change doesn’t just signal a change within the character, but also shows that her designers looked at her needs pragmatically and gave them more consideration than just the aesthetically pleasing default.
There’s nothing wrong with wearing skirts, but even the most diehard skirt-wearer would admit there are times when they’re just not practical. Designing female characters who wear skirts even in such situations communicates, consciously or unconsciously, a subtle gender-normative statement about the kinds of clothes girls should wear. In giving Cardia pants and making her story about gaining a sense of agency and identity, Code: Realize breaks away from those norms and shows other series how they can do the same.