I sure did watch all five seasons of Symphogear for one line stating that a character is trans. I’d probably be more peeved if I didn’t absolutely love every second of Symphogear, a completely bonkers pseudo-magical girl show about lesbians who sing during battle to power up their gear, in which the moon is an ancient relic created to prevent humans from understanding each other as punishment for the Tower of Babel.
In fact, the trans characters I’ll be discussing are part of the Bavarian Illuminati, because of course the Illuminati are in this show. Cagliostro and Prelati are introduced as antagonists in the fourth season, Symphogear AXZ: By shedding many tears, the reality you face is… (every season has an outrageously long, semi-coherent subtitle). To be clear: yes, they’re supposed to be the historical figures Allesandro di Cagliostro and François Prelati, who were granted perfect immortal bodies by their leader, St. Germain.¹ These bodies are female.
Let’s talk about Cagliostro first, since her gender is given more screentime, so to speak. Her official character profile confirms that she used to be male, also mentioning that she was famed for her countless lies, and swore after attaining her perfect body that she’d be true to herself. She’s very feminine — her attacks feature lots of hearts, she refers to herself as “ashi,” which is presumably a corruption of the feminine first-person pronoun “atashi,” and at one point she bases a hunch (which turns out to be 100% correct) on her “girl’s intuition.” This is where we get our in-show confirmation that she’s trans — Prelati says she “only became a woman later in life to obtain a perfect body.”
I don’t like this phrasing. It ambiguates cause and effect — it’s not clear if Cagliostro and Prelati wanted female bodies specifically, or if the perfect bodies St. Germain granted them just happened to be female and they began to identify as female as a result. Cagliostro’s character profile does this as well, saying her body was “completed via alchemy into the perfect form of ‘woman.'” Yes, the scare quotes around “woman” are in the original. While this is a confusing phrase overall, it would seem to imply that St. Germain’s alchemically perfect bodies are all female, and you get femmed whether you like it or not. Which would obviously not be great.
That said, it is quite clear that Cagliostro at least is having a great time as a woman. At one point she says “the estrogen is boiling my brain!” which is…weird, to say the least, but notwithstanding.
If I haven’t talked much about Prelati, it’s because her gender is never especially relevant to her character. It is officially confirmed that she’s trans, but only in Cagliostro’s character profile, which says they both “used to be men.” Watching the show, someone who’s heard of François Prelati could assume she was trans based on that, but it’s never spelled out. She uses the gender-neutral/feminine first-person pronoun “watashi,” and wears a very cute and feminine outfit that I personally would love to own. There’s no particular reason to believe she doesn’t identify as female.
One thing Symphogear does very well is the contrast between Cagliostro and Prelati. Despite both being trans, they couldn’t be more different — Cagliostro’s gender and transness are a large part of her character, she delights in being a woman, her personality is bright and fun-loving, and she has a voluptuous body and revealing clothes, appearing very adult. Meanwhile, Prelati’s gender isn’t especially relevant either to the viewer or her, she’s quiet and a bit gloomy, her clothes are very modest (she’s the only character to show no skin whatsoever in her battle outfit), and her body is childlike. (Incidentally, Cagliostro is voiced by Shouta Aoi, a cis man with a notably androgynous voice; Prelati is voiced by Rina Hidaka, a cis woman.) It’s clear there’s not just one way to “be trans,” and it makes certain things like Cagliostro’s estrogen comment go down a bit smoother.
So, there are trans women in Symphogear, and relatively little attention is brought to the fact that they’re trans, which means they’re never misgendered or otherwise treated differently than any other woman in the show. St. Germain in particular clearly has a huge amount of respect and loyalty towards her teammates, despite obviously knowing their circumstances. So far, so good. But for a proper breakdown of how their role in the story plays out, we’re going to need a bit of background.
You see, Symphogear is a show where this season’s enemies are next season’s allies. Generally someone dies, but it’s usually a supporting/background figure, not the actual combatants. Season three diverges from this slightly, but it’s mostly because the combatants are mechanical dolls, and someone associated with the antagonist group still joins the squad, albeit in a support capacity.
[SPOILERS for the end of Symphogear AXZ and Symphogear XV follow.]
Cagliostro and Prelati die. Twice, actually, if you count Cagliostro faking their deaths. You see, the leader of the Bavarian Illuminati is kind of a bastard who’s been stringing St. Germain and her team along on false premises — when they find this out, the three of them sacrifice themselves to stop him. They’re also some of the only combatants who never have a proper reappearance. The aforementioned mechanical dolls come back in different bodies; St. Germain’s spirit is seen to inhabit the protagonist’s gear and joins her in battle. The spirits of Cagliostro and Prelati do technically show up again in the final season, but it’s a grand total of two shots during a where neither of them speak.
This isn’t the worst. It’s not like the trans characters are the only ones to die, even in AXZ, and they go out nobly and on their own terms. The presumably cis female antagonists from the final season actually die in a very similar way. I don’t love it though, if only because it would’ve been really nice to have some trans gals on the main team.
The one thing I’d recommend in term of improving rep would be to change Prelati’s line to say they obtained perfect female bodies, not that they became women to obtain perfect bodies, which makes it sound a bit like the woman part was just a necessary inconvenience. Maybe the estrogen line too. Other than that, though, it’s quite solid.
It’s probably also worth mentioning Elfnein, who first appears in the third season, Symphogear GX: Believe in justice and hold a determination to fist. (GX has the best subtitle by far). The main antagonist of GX is an alchemist, Carol, and Elfnein is a homunculus created by her, in her image and with her memories — however, Elfnein has no physical sex. She appears to identify as female, or at least doesn’t mind being referred to as such, though it’s never spelled out. The most we get is the technicians who gave her a physical both going out of their way to refer to her as “kanojo,” she/her, which might imply that Elfnein requested that. She uses the masculine first-person pronoun “boku,” but Carol — who is by all appearances a cis girl — uses the even more masculine “ore,” and it’s not unheard of for female characters in anime and manga to use either one.
I don’t have much to say about Elfnein overall — neither her gender nor her (lack of a) physical sex are ever brought up again, which is probably for the best. I just think she’s neat.
I’m not sure I’d go out of my way to recommend Symphogear on the merits of its representation alone. Like I said up top, there is only one line mentioning it in the show itself. But Symphogear is fun as hell, five seasons of delightful gay nonsense, and canon genderqueer characters are icing on the cake.
¹ – While St. Germain appears to be inspired by the Count of St. Germain, it doesn’t seem as though we’re meant to think of her as literally that person, the way we are with Cagliostro and Prelati, since what we see of her past bears no resemblance to that of the Count.