As always, this review is provided in video format and transcribed directly below. I would like to note that my reviews are written first and foremost to be experienced as videos (that is, read aloud), so no guarantees that jokes, grammar, or anything else will transition entirely smoothly to text.
Well, only got a couple weeks left ‘till 2018, so let’s take a look at that next season of anime. We’ve got some more Overlord, some Seven Deadly Sins (sounds good, I liked both of those), another Fate series (I’m always game), Citrus (not familiar with the manga, but looks yuri, I’ll keep my eye on it), Dagashi Kashi 2 (strange this is getting a second season) and then… Cardcaptor Sakura: Clear Card-hen. Now this — this is interesting.
Considering the age of the average anime fan, myself included, it would probably behoove me to first explain exactly what this is. Cardcaptor Sakura is a 70 episode magical girl anime series, adapted from the manga by CLAMP and produced by Madhouse, from 1998 into the year 2000. It was popular and well-received at the time, and certainly maintains its ardent fan base, but 17 years is a long time in the world of anime, which makes this sequel especially surprising. So is it something to look forward to, or has Sakura’s time passed? It was with this question in mind that I sat down on a cold November morning and began watching Cardcaptor Sakura.
To hit you out of the gate, Cardcaptor Sakura is good. It’s very good, and it’s good in a way that I feel transcends its usual demographic (i.e. young girls) without actually aiming for an entirely new one, a la Madoka Magica.
Like Madoka though, we start off Sakura with a dream — a strange dream filled with strange beings and strange cards. Waking up not sure what to make of it, our eponymous main character Sakura goes about her day, accidentally unleash es a swarm of mysterious Clow Cards into the world, and is recruited by a talking animal to use magical abilities and get them all back. Cardcaptor Sakura involves literally capturing cards. Who knew?
The setup’s not going to win any awards; the show’s not without cliche, and does at times feels specifically aimed at an all-ages audience. In episode 1, Sakura lays out all her friends and family beat-by-beat to the viewer, without much room for ambiguity, and the overal l episodic structure is on the surface more than a little formulaic. It’s a swell day for Sakura and company, then there’s some problem, and it turns out a Clow Card is behind it, so Sakura steps up and in one way or another saves the day. Wash, rinse, repeat dozens of times.
But once you look past the most basic of plot summaries, the series immediately stands out, in some interesting or just entertaining ways. For one, the visuals. The show looks great. There’s a lot of life to the animation and an energetic direction that enhances the young, cheery atmosphere of Sakura’s life. The shot composition is dynamic without becoming eccentric, rarely lingering too long on any one view, and always doing what it can to make things look engaging. It’s directed by Morio Asaka, whose name I didn’t know beforehand but I probably should have, considering his later work on Nana and Chihayafuru (which I reviewed last time.) An impressive amount of design work also went into this anime, but I’ll touch on that a little later.
On top of which, the show has a surprising knack for clever comedic timing and delivery, not necessarily to a gut busting degree but certainly to a point where it’s funnier than your average anime (since personally I don’t usually find anime very funny). It knows how to emphasize a joke without explaining the joke, as is clear from almost the first scene, where Sakura’s older brother playfully chastises her for “stomping around”. When she loudly retorts that she doesn’t stomp around, the camera emphasizes her feet and the sound design makes her steps feel explosive — in other words, like she’s stomping. It’s not a subtle thing, and it’s not really even that funny, but it’s the attitude which is important, having enough confidence to just make a joke with faith that the audience will understand what the joke was.
You see this again when the talking animal, Kero, is first summoned. The ominous lighting and eerie soundtrack establish a frightening, mysterious atmosphere, only to be — well here, just watch. Oh, wait. You’re reading the text version. Please don’t every time, I put a lot of work into my videos. Anyways, there was a clip with great comedic timing; I died.
But before you get bored with me talking about general craft, let’s get a little more specific. As you would expect, the card capturing itself — while fun — is not always the quote-unquote “point” of the show, and often takes a backseat to more character-driven events. The average episode is normally concerned with fairly mundane plots, like finishing summer homework, and the usual stakes of the card battles are similarly low-key, vandalizing a painting or creating a rain of flower petals. There are the occasional cards that pose serious danger to life and limb, but just as often the whole thing’s little more than a mischievous diversion, which allows the characters rather than any big plot to take the spotlight. Many an episode serve to articulate an aspect of the story completely unrelated to magic, such as Sakura’s love for her father, and his mutual love for her. In these episodes the Cards facilitate a specific portion of the narrative rather than being the impetus or climax of it, with a rare few involving no cards or magic at all.
Obviously, the character we first become familiar with would be Sakura herself. In her words, she’s good at “being cheerful”, but the show takes pains to establish her as more than just a well-meaning klutz, like Sailor Moon’s Usagi. Her practice with batons shows off her physical dexterity, as well as the tendency for her mind to wander, while her cheer practice and roller-blading (knee pads with no helmet bugs me to no end) illustrates her general athletic ability, and that’s just the first ten minutes of episode 1. Not only does this create character traits, but it forms a foundation for her success as a magical girl, because her day-to-day skills directly correlate to her work as a Cardcaptor. (Her staff’s like a baton, get it?)
But having the smarts to do something so simple as properly setting up the main character is kind of a baseline of quality that you’d expect any good anime to do, far from a game-changer that goes above and beyond. Luckily that’s hardly the extent of the show’s skill; it’s barely a blip compared to what comes next. The defining factor of Cardcaptor Sakura being such a solid series is that, while it follows a little girl, it does not feel made by little girls. It presents the world through the lens of Sakura, but with a grace and maturity that belies a more deft hand.
Number one would be the attention to detail. Now Cardcaptor Sakura’s not a plot-driven show, so I don’t mean in the sense that, say, a twist happens and when you look back in hindsight, putting the pieces together makes it so obvious — although that does actually happen — but what I really mean is the proliferation of a general sense of place and coherency. This doesn’t feel like a sterile real-world setting, with characters transplanted into it. Rather, the world feels unique and lived in, as much as it can.
For example, there’s no family in the world that is truly average in every way. Every family has these things that only that family does, just small little quirks or oddities that you won’t see exactly like that anywhere else, and Sakura’s has that. Hung up in her kitchen is a whiteboard (maybe two, I don’t remember), with a chore chart, for distribution of chores, and a daily diary, where people write messages and what they’ll be doing for the day so everyone else knows. Not only does that fulfill the “unique family stuff” checkbox, it furthers a characterization of their general lifestyle, one where everyone pitches in and is kept abreast of each other’s activities, even if they don’t have the time to always talk in person. Something as small as this works wonders to foster a great sense of home without being too obvious about it.
But it’s not just setting details either. The characters themselves are also frequently fleshed out by these little bits that aren’t groundbreaking, but provide small insights into depth and personality. When you see Kero obsessing over video games or watching movies in his spare time, it’s endearing and it shows he’s a fun-first guy which makes him immediately more memorable than a stoic do-gooder… but I’m bearing the risk of repeating myself; this is a similar point I made with Sakura. The show is smart enough to tell you about the characters without telling you about the characters.
I feel I’ve digressed; let’s get back to what I was saying about maturity. While Sakura and her fourth-grade friends are the main characters, the show doesn’t dumb down its portrayal of the world to compensate. It’s an idealized world, perhaps, but it’s not a totally unrealistic one — aside from, y’know, the magic. You can see this with something as simple as a conversation between Sakura and her mother’s cousin. Sakura’s mom is dead, by the way, that’s just how we open, and this leaves her mother’s family with complicated feeling s for Sakura’s father, whom they partially blame for the mother’s death, even knowing deep down that really that’s not fair. So when Sakura, being the sweet, tone-deaf girl that she is asks this woman about her parents, the nuance in her expressions and the understatedness of her response conceal more complicated unsaid emotions, not to a point that feels like you’re suddenly watching a different show, but just enough that you can have a different appreciation for the scene if you’re a little older.
And this is the show’s default setting, especially with scenes involving older characters. Through actions, dialogue, and even the occasional scene without Sakura in it, it establishes the older people as actually older people, with to some degree more complicated thoughts and motivations than Sakura, at her age, is likely to even understand. Sakura is young, and as a result more simple, but that doesn’t meant the world has to be.
At certain points, this can create an interesting dichotomy between Sakura’s immaturity versus the relative maturity of some situations she encounters. Sakura’s like ten years old. She’s scared of things a little kid would be scared of, and her general comprehension is appropriate for her age. So in one episode, she ends up in what is basically a psychological maze, and she just doesn’t really get it. Illusions and other magic of that ilk are very effective against her, because she’s too young to connect the dots or cast doubt on what she’s literally seeing, which I loved.
The takeaway from all this is that Cardcaptor Sakura really is the best kind of “kids” show. It’s “young”, but it doesn’t take that as an excuse to be dumb. It treats the audience with a certain respect, and puts in the effort to actually create compelling characters in a real world.
Speaking of “characters”, I suppose I’ve mostly talked about them in passing, so let’s change that. Sakura’s best friend is Tomoyo, who remains a steadfast companion from start to finish. I wouldn’t exactly call her a “deep” or supremely interesting character, but she’s certainly an entertaining one, particularly as it comes to her infatuation with Sakura. Tomoyo is very strongly implied to have feelings for Sakura, but she’s also smart enough to realize that those feelings will never be reciprocated in quite the same way, so she’s content to just observe Sakura and have a presence in her life. The extent of Tomoyo’s feelings do edge towards creepy, but in well-meaning, funny ways, describing her definition of “fun” being the opportunity to film Sakura having fun, and — I love this — she literally will just watch footage of Sakura in her spare time. Unhealthy? Probably, but also pretty damn hilarious in my opinion.
And then we have the show’s magical boy, Syaoran Li. Li is not immediately a presence in the series, being introduced some time later in Episode 8. He initially serves to create a sort of rival and senior character to Sakura, as a boy much more familiar with the general workings of magic who scoffs at Sakura’s own inexperience. Especially early on, it’s almost like he tries to be a brooding edgelord-type character, but the show is self-aware of how silly that is, given his age and the general tone, frequently taking the wind out of his sails with comedic hijinks and other such things.
As you’d expect, despite Li’s frosty attitude towards Sakura, the two end up spending a lot of time together throughout the series, and the show brilliantly articulates the growth in their relationship. With how frequently they’re together, Li can’t help but get to know Sakura, developing an understanding of her quirks and personality, and grudgingly coming to acknowledge her stronger points, to the extent that’s he’s not fooled for a second by a magical doppelganger in Episode 25. Then eventually, Li’s tolerance of Sakura predictably blossoms into outright affection. The t hing that makes this shift work so well is that he’s introduced as a character first, and a love interest second. I don’t even like to use the term “love interest” here; it implies that a character only exists for romance, which Li certainly does not. He’s meticulously established as an individual over like twenty episodes before there’s much of any romantic tension between the two — or rather, from him, since Sakura is just oblivious.
I don’t know where else to put this, but I also wanted to mention that before falling for Sakura, Li’s heart is swayed by a male friend of her older brother’s, Yukito. Between that and Tomoyo, it’s nice how naturally the series treats homosexuality. It’s not even brought up as a talking point; it’s presented as matter of course that sure, boys can like boys and girls can like girls. (Though to be honest, this may be an extension of the show’s seeming tolerance for any sort of romance, even that which might be slightly more problematic, such as a relationship between a teacher and his student — which is Sakura’s parents, by the way.)
Anyhoo, I’m gonna move on and not bother touching on all the side characters I missed, but know that there are several and while naturally few receive the same degree of depth or focus as the mains, most are characterized enough, either in their own right or via their relationship to others, that they are rarely boring.
Backing out to broader things again, another interesting aspect of this show is in how it carries itself, and the cute little ways it pokes fun at magical girl convention. Cardcaptor Sakura definitely puts its unique spin on things, sometimes for a purpose, and sometimes seemingly just to show off that it could. This is made obvious almost right away, when Tomoyo — a normal person — catches on to Sakura being a magical girl like immediately, with photographic evidence, forcing her way into an accomplice role in the process. In the same scene, Tomoyo explicitly calls Sakura a “magical girl”, pushing her to come up with a trademark pose and outfit, which struck me as just very curious more than anything, because — how to put this — usually common fictional concepts of our world are assumed not to exist in stories that involve them. Like in The Walking Dead, no one has any idea of what a zombie is, and they have to discover things through experience, like the head being the weak point; it’s not a universe where zombies were part of pop culture, and then suddenly became real. But here, Sakura is a magical girl in a universe implied to have magical girl entertainment, which to me is kind of hilarious.
But the neat thing is that Sakura isn’t strictly a copy-and-paste magical girl. For instance, she does not transform. Her costume is a literal wardrobe change, supplied by Tomoyo to complete the image of a magical girl, which is just as hilarious. And I said “costume” singular, but Tomoyo and the anime staff are nuts, so what I actually meant was “costumes” plural. Do you remember when I said “an impressive amount of design work also went into this series”? This is what I meant. Every fight, Sakura is either in normal clothes, since she got jumped out of the blue, oran entirely new unique outfit. Just to let that sink in, they designed entirely distinct, fully detailed magical girl costumes for every time Sakura suits up. You just don’t see that level of effort and ambition. It’s awesome!
A second neat thing is the card dynamic and the show’s actual magic system. Sakura doesn’t have unlimited magical abilities that she can pull out of thin air as needed by the plot. She can only use magic by tapping into the cards themselves. This dramatically limits her arsenal and forces her to strategize, combining a mix of magical and physical attacks, especially early in the series when she only has literally three or four cards. Now this is no Death Note, so the tactics are about as intricate as trapping the water monster in the freezer, but that’s still a level of thought that shows of this ilk often aren’t willing to give. Plus limiting Sakura’s magic gives us humorous moments like this, wildly dodging attacks like a normal person because that’s the only option.
As for negatives, I do think the show is too long for its own good. If you’ve forgotten, Cardcaptor Sakura is a 70 episode series, and sometimes you’ll feel that hard, with frequent repetition and meandering. It starts to repeat jokes, rehash scenarios, reiterate information over and over — you’re going to see this exact dream sequence literally like 5 times. This especially hurts in the show’s last third, which presents itself as being a little more plot-focused but then just spins in circles, cutting-off confessions and leaving important conversations half-finished again and again and again. There’s this one conversation in particular that keeps getting initiated — I’m going to say six times over twelve episodes — but, due to incessant interruptions, never resolves. It’s unspeakably frustrating, and feels super contrived because the characters are not this dumb. At some point they’d take a different approach, maybe talking in a private setting instead of constantly trying and failing at school.
However, in my opinion, the show’s better moments and general strength of craft do make up for those slight dips. This is one of the few anime I’ve seen that I honestly believe could be enjoyed by practically any audience, as long as they entered with something of an open mind. It’s just such a joyous watch, you’d almost have to be determined not to like it to actually feel that way.
So after taking everything into account, on a scale from F to S… I’ll give Cardcaptor Sakura an A, and a high A at that. In fact, it could’ve even been an S if it was just tightened up a little bit more. Maybe like 50 episodes instead of 70. I guess to come back to the question I started with: yes, Clear Card-hen is something to look forward to, and I’m hotly anticipating it myself. Oh, and I almost forgot about the movies! If after this you do decide to go and watch Cardcaptor Sakura, be sure to check out the franchise’s second film afterward. It’s an anime-original story, but the series has a lot of anime-original content any way, and the film was designed to be a finale. It’s a great one.
And lucky for you, Cardcaptor Sakura is currently available in full on Crunchyroll, subbed and surprisingly dubbed too — it is the actual dub, not the heavily edited Cardcaptors which was the original English release of the series. Do note that Clear Card-hen’s already been announced to retain the original Japanese cast, and while a dub from Funimation has been confirmed, it’s anyone’s guess if the English voice actors will also return.