Restricted to an abandoned mansion on the outskirts of London in fulfillment of a promise to her father, lonely Cardia lives day to day isolated from the world. Her body carries a deadly poison that rots or melts anything her skin touches, prompting the locals to call her a “monster.” Her last conversation with her father two years ago, telling her to stay out of sight and never fall in love, is the furthest back she can remember. One day, her quiet solitude is interrupted as the Royal Guards break in to capture her. It is then that Cardia meets Arsène Lupin, a chivalrous thief, who helps her escape the soldiers’ clutches. She soon finds herself on a journey with Lupin to locate her father, who holds the answers to her mysterious condition.
Source: Anime News Network
Here it is, folks. I found it. A fun otome visual novel adaptation with smart pacing, a solid plot, strong aesthetics, and good boys. THE UNICORN.
The first thing you need to understand about Code: Realize is that it is ridiculous in that particularly wonderful way that anime can be ridiculous. It’s set in a steampunk London full of lots of smog, ruffles, and way too many gears; the boys are all named after famous Victorian-era fictional characters; the animal companion is A DAPPER STEAMPUNK CORGI; and the story centers around a protagonist whose skin secretes a face-melting poison because her mad-scientist father embedded a massive energy device called a Horologium in her heart.
If that description does not fill you with childlike joy—or at least get you to crack a smile—then you can stop reading right now, because Code: Realize is not for you. For those who are giddily clapping their hands the way I am (it’s very hard to type like this, by the way), then this premiere will reward you in spades, because it’s almost perfectly executed. The series revels in its premise, taking itself just seriously enough to get you invested in the characters but not so seriously that it loses that sense of fantastical fun. It’s a real good time, is what I’m saying.
As is often the case with otome VNs, the female protagonist is something of a blank slate (the better for the player to map themselves into the role), but the story at least gives her a reason to be that way: Cardia has no memory of her life before two years ago, when she was locked away in a mansion by herself. Her only real memories are of someone telling her she’s a monster who must be kept in isolation. As a result, she spends most of the early part of the premiere staring blankly at people and being passively dragged from place to place.
Her behavior is understandable, mind you, given her lack of memory, history of emotional abuse, and uncontrollable destructive power (that poisonous skin I mentioned). Both the script and actress Hayami Saori (excellent as always) do a good job of imbuing Cardia with a deep loneliness and tentative longing rather than bland sadness. Still, it’s not the greatest start for a leading lady, and Code: Realize would have lost a lot of points if that had been the end-all, be-all of her character.
Fortunately, the series isn’t content to keep her in this naive, directionless state. Cardia does have a goal, for one: she wants to uncover her past and find out why her father cursed her with the Horologium. Moreover, there’s a strong narrative push in the second act to help her understand that she isn’t a monster—that none of this is her fault, and it’s okay for her to have desires or exercise agency.
The rest of the cast (particularly Lupin, who sees some of his own childhood loneliness in Cardia) are all kind and supportive to her, encouraging her to value herself and do the things she wants to do. “No one has to live in isolation,” Lupin tells her, and it’s a surprisingly resonant beat considering we’ve only spent about 20 minutes with these characters.
Speaking of the rest of the cast, well… they’re good boys, Brent. Unlike the barrage of characters a lot of shows this season have felt the need to dump on their poor audiences within the first 15 minutes, Code: Realize smartly, gradually introduces us to just three members of the cast outside of our protagonist: Gentleman thief Arsène Lupin (oh hai thar, Maurice Leblanc), genius engineer Impey Barbicane (‘sup, Jules Verne), and chemist Viktor “Fran” Frankenstein (how’s it hangin’, Mary Shelley).
They’re the Magic-Kyun variety of otome boys, meaning they’re basically nice dorks with a lot of charm, a little cheese, and a sense that they’re going to be very sweet and supportive to our troubled protagonist. Lupin is simultaneously gallant and easily flustered, Impey is an over-confident flirt, and Fran… seems pleasant? He doesn’t really get to do anything this episode, which is fine. We have plenty of time to get to to know him, too.
The premiere isn’t perfect, mind you. While I found Lupin and Impey’s cornball flirting endearing and harmless, it might not come across that way to everyone. There’s also an annoying scene where our Oh-So-Innocent Protagonist unbuttons her blouse to show Lupin the Horologium markings on her breastbone (her “Super-Science Décolletage,” as my roommate put it) and he scolds her because “that’s not how a lady is supposed to be behave” and “do you know what might’ve happened if I weren’t a gentleman?” Alas, even when your cast is full of good boys, gender norms and the threat of potential assault can never be forgotten, it seems.
That’s all of 30 seconds of the episode, though, and if you can get past it, this is a real fun premiere with a lot of potential going forward. We have a nifty steampunk world, a strong central mystery, overarching themes about agency and community, an evil organization, and an immediately likable cast with room to expand and grow. Code: Realize is the kind of fearless blend of history and fantasy, absurd plot points and sympathetic characters, that drew me to anime in the first place. I enjoyed the hell out of it and can’t wait to watch more.
…And I did mention that it has a Dapper Steampunk Corgi in it, right?