My love of anime began at a very young age. I have distinct memories of my parents dropping four-year-old me off at my cousin’s so my auntie could babysit me for the day while they were at work. My cousin had a Pikachu plush, we watched a couple of episodes of Pokémon, and the rest was history. My fondest anime-related memories from my childhood come from Cardcaptor Sakura – more specifically, Cardcaptors, Nelvana’s English dub of the series. Near the end of 2017, I watched the original, non-Nelvana version for the first time. During this pseudo-rewatch, I realized just how much Nelvana cut. Toya and Yukito are in a relationship!? Syaoran has an obvious crush on Yukito!? There’s not one, but two teacher-student relationships!? None of these relationships are present in Cardcaptors, but the dub prepared me for them by cutting them out.
As with most English-dubbed anime in the early 2000s, Nelvana attempted to capture what it perceived as anime’s primary audience: young males. Paradoxically, Cardcaptors opened me up to a world of femininely-coded television that a young boy in the early 2000s hadn’t even considered. As I grew older, alongside Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Beyblade, I also greatly enjoyed shows like Totally Spies, Kim Possible, and That’s So Raven, shows that young boys probably weren’t “supposed” to watch. Nevertheless, I watched, enjoyed, and grew from them. I can trace my childhood tastes in television back to Cardcaptors, back to how Sakura is a female character both boys and girls can attach themselves to through how her development mirrors the general development of children into preadolescence. Through Cardcaptors, I realized that coming into one’s identity as a boy and as a man does not mean having to embody typically masculine-coded traits and actions.
Note: Cardcaptors changes the names of most of the characters to sound more “American.” For consistency’s sake, I will be sticking with their original names except where appropriate.
Cardcaptor Sakura follows Sakura Kinomoto, an elementary school student unintentionally charged with collecting the Clow Cards. Each Clow Card corresponds to a specific element or magical property – everything from Wind and Fire to Song and Mirror. Early on in the series, Syaoran Li enters the scene also in search of the cards, acting as Sakura’s rival and later, her love interest. Cardcaptors changes Sakura’s last name to Avalon and Syaoran Li becomes Li Showron. The English dub removes any hint of romance from their relationship, as well as the show’s various other relationships. While Cardcaptor’s blatant erasure of the various relationships central to the original’s themes of unconventional love and coming-of-age fundamentally change (and arguably ruin) the show’s messages, this erasure inadvertently made room for the show to explore other themes; namely, the conflict between masculinity and femininity in children.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Cardcaptors is how Nelvana worked to make Syaoran the main character rather than Sakura. The first dub episode aired was episode 8: the one where Syaoran enters as a primary cast member. Cardcaptor Sakura is a show so enmeshed in its main character that any attempts to recut it so Syaoran is the lead will inevitably fail, as Cardcaptors did. What I remember about the show is Sakura’s adventures, her slow maturity into a kid realizing the weight of the world is on her shoulders. More importantly, she does all this with a smile on her face and optimism in her heart. Both Cardcaptor Sakura and Cardcaptors emphasize this central theme of hope through Sakura and through her successes. Syaoran is both a foil and friend to Sakura, evoking her optimism and inherent belief in the goodness of everyone while forcing her to reconcile that trustworthiness with self-awareness and the maturity that comes with experience. Cardcaptor Sakura and Cardcaptors foreground Sakura’s development and Li’s part in that development, emphasizing the inherent growth children experience in their formative interactions with peers. I, like most everyone, can directly relate to this both on the general level of being a kid and having friends, and on the personal level of watching Cardcaptors and growing alongside Sakura and Syaoran.
Syaoran, too, embodies themes of sensitivity and growth. In Cardcaptors, though his crush on Yukito and romance with Sakura are erased, he still enters the series as a hot-headed and prickly rival before gradually softening into someone that realizes strength lies as much in restraint as it does in power. He and Sakura are close friends by the end of the series, a development almost as powerful as their move into young romance. It subtly teaches viewers that it is okay for boys and girls to “just” be friends. My own life reflects this as I grew up having more female friends than male. Most of this comes from some pretty extreme bullying, but regardless I found solace in the opposite sex as people I could form bonds with not out of some hope for romance but out of a need for connection. Syaoran feels this need, too, as he comes to realize not only are him and Sakura on the same side but that he feels a bond with her that he cannot afford to lose. He defends her when the Clow Cards overpower her (which isn’t often), and it is through the verbal push of Meiling that he realizes his budding romantic feelings for her. Romance was something I struggled with in childhood, and it remains an issue today. “How do I reconcile these feelings when they have to do with someone I already have a deep connection with?” is a question I struggled with when I was younger and still bothers me now. Cardcaptor Sakura and Cardcaptors, though Syaoran and Sakura do confess their love by the series conclusion, resist easy answers through how it takes each of them seventy episodes and two movies to get to that point. Sakura and Syaoran mature as individuals first and become a couple second. Development ultimately happens on a distinctly individualized level through how we internalize our experiences with others, how we make them our own through self-reflection and self-reconciliation.
The recently aired sequel series Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card develops on the themes found in both the original and the Nelvana dub most strikingly with Syaoran. When he returns after moving back to China at the end of both versions, he is quieter, more subdued, but Syaoran nonetheless. He eats lunch with Sakura, Tomoyo, and her friends; he fears for Sakura’s safety even as she surpasses him in nearly every aspect; and he has better control over both his magic and his strength, able to tap into both when needed. We get the clear sense that Syaoran’s time in China was one of introspection and self-evaluation, of sitting with the experiences and changes he underwent in the original series and learning from them. He grows because of experience, and his experiences grow because of him.
I like to think Syaoran’s growth reflects my own. I was six years old when Cardcaptors aired and turned twenty-two as Clear Card was airing – virtually a whole lifetime between two shows. I, too, have softened, can more easily eat with others, and know how to control myself instead of acting emotions-first. Clamp recognized that much of Cardcaptor Sakura’s fans have grown immensely since the original series and fashioned their characters around this growth. Though she is still somewhat clumsy and adorably stubborn, we get the sense that Sakura cares more deeply and fights harder for those that she loves. She gains depth through how she develops in ways that feel meaningful, earned, and recognizable. First loves, school clubs, and friends moving away parallel her re-capturing of the Sakura Cards – both are the necessary struggles we face in life embodied both literally and metaphorically. Every Sakura Card turns into a Clear Card when Sakura captures them, a more refined and powerful version of the same basic element. In this way, the cards, too, reflect the idea of growth and maturity. We remain the same person, the same human element, but we refine, develop, become more transparent and, in the process, change.
Less than a year has passed in-universe, but nearly two decades sit between the series. So much has happened in both the world and our own lives. Cardcaptor Sakura recognizes this; it recognizes that we need an escape. It also recognizes that we cannot escape. There will be trouble, the Clow Cards will scatter again, but don’t worry, we’ll find them. And we’ll grow along the way, in our relationships and in ourselves. Cardcaptor Sakura, Cardcaptors, and Clear Card remain among my most treasured works of all time through how they played a formative part in my development as an anime fan and as a person. I hold Sakura Kinomoto and Syaoran Li as among my favourite hero(es) in fiction through how they both reflect my own growth and embody childhood maturation in ways both genuine and nuanced. Cardcaptor Sakura teaches us to love hard and love absolutely; Cardcaptors taught me to be comfortable in my skin and in who I am; and Clear Card reminded me of where I was, where I am now, and where I will be.
Special thanks to NomadicDec, whose edits and suggestions helped me organize my thoughts and improved this article immensely. Big thanks, friend. Thanks also to fellow Cardcaptor Sakura lover Vukir for reading through the draft and offering his thoughts. Much appreciated!
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