It gives me HUGE pleasure this week to write about a manga that is so close to my heart I will physically hurt anyone that has a bad word to say about it. (Or maybe just cry a little.)
My first experience of Cardcaptor Sakura or Cardcaptors falls into the ‘Dubbed-Anime-That-You-Watched-as–a-Kid-in-the-90s-and-Didn’t-Know-it-Was-Anime’ category. A category that is also occupied for me – and probably most other people of my generation – by shows like Pokémon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Digimon, and Dragon Ball. Cardcaptor Sakura (CCS) belongs to the ‘magic girl’ genre, and on the surface looks a bit like Sailor Moon – its closest contemporary comparison – but for younger girls, as the ages of the main group fall around 10 – 12 years old. Given this, and its ridiculously saccharine appearance, you could be forgiven for dismissing it as typical shŌjo (‘young girl’ in Japanese) fare. However, upon re-watching the anime in it’s original Japanese language format and reading the manga it was based on, I was surprised at the quality of the artistry, the depth of the storytelling, and the how much I connected emotionally with the characters.
CCS was serialised in the magazine Nakayoshi between 1996 and 2000, and created by the all-female artist/writer group Clamp. It has since been collected into 12 volumes, and adapted into a 70 episode anime series and two films. I’ll summarise the story as briefly – and spoiler-free-y – as I can: The titular character – Sakura Kinomoto – is the daughter of a single father (her mother is dead) and sister of older brother, Toya (or ‘Tory’ in the English dub of the anime). The story begins with Sakura accidentally releasing a set of magical cards called ‘Clow cards’ that she discovers in a book in her father’s study. This simultaneously releases latent magical abilities within her that are connected to the cards, as well as the story’s mascot – Cerberus (nicknamed ‘Kero’) – who tells her that he is the ‘Guardian’ of the cards and tasks her to collect all of the cards that she set free. Sakura must battle the magical personification of each card’s power – e.g. Water, Wind, Fire, Jump, Fly, Mirror, etc. – in order to capture it, aided by Kero; her best friend Tomoyo Daidouji (‘Madison Taylor’ in the dub) and Chinese transfer student Syaoran Li (‘Li Showron’ in the dub, which borders on the phonetically offensive now that I’m seeing it written down…)
The quirkiness of these sidekick characters is one of the things that set CCS apart from others of its genre. Kero is a street talkin’ dude (apparently from Osaka, which the writers tell you is basically the New York of Japan – or more specifically the Brooklyn of Japan) who can’t get enough pudding and lives in Sakura’s sock drawer.
Tomoyo plays the BFF role with heavy emphasis on the ‘Forever’ part and serves the shŌjo fans well by tailoring Sakura a new combat outfit for every battle. Except when I say ‘combat outfit’ I’m talking bows, fake ears, bells, frills, and hats, oh so many hats… Sakura still kicks major butt though, despite the frilliness of her skirt. (Adorable fact: At the end of every episode of the anime, Kero does a post-credit ‘spotlight’ on each outfit wearing a bow tie and smoking a pipe, which continually begs the question: Just how old is Kero and should we be worried about that sock drawer?)
Syaoran is basically a middle-aged man trapped in a child’s body. Not literally. He is grumpy, awkward, and so very desperate to be the hero, which makes it even more hilarious to see him get all huffy and jittery when things don’t go his way. At first he looks down on Sakura as though she were a bumbling idiot, but over time he grows to see her as a rival and equal, and then as a true friend. Beyond that, his feelings apparently get so complicated it takes the entire stretch of the manga and two films post-series to sort them out. (Who am I to complain though, I love those films…)
There’s a lot to love about the central heroine too. Yes, Sakura is clumsy, cutesy, boy-obsessed, and naïve, but she’s also brave, loyal, eager, gutsy, and earnest. For a 10-year-old she also takes on a lot of responsibilities – staying late after school doing extra chores, cooking and cleaning around the house, going shopping with her friends completely un-chaperoned, and of course the small task of collecting all those rogue Clow cards that keep threatening to destroy the city and/or her friends and family. Perhaps this is in fact the reality for every Japanese child.
What you wouldn’t expect of such an innocent and well-meaning manga/anime is for it to be subject to any form of censorship. Yet, when the anime was shipped to the US to be dubbed, it was so heavily hacked up that certain key subplots and character dynamics were either gone or drastically altered. This was more than just removing cigarettes and violence, as was the case for other shows; it completely changed the way the English-speaking audience viewed it. In the interests of keeping this as spoiler-free as possible, I won’t go into too much detail, but let’s just say that certain relationships between certain characters were put firmly back in the closet. Things like this may seem small, but they had a detrimental effect overall. As a show that is so much more than the sum of its parts, this harsh editing sucked out a lot of the fun minor details that fleshed the show and its characters out into real, loveable people. In short, if you’re going to watch the anime, don’t waste your time watching it dubbed.
The theme song is still pretty good though:
Written by Hannah Collins.