It took the announcement of a sequel to Cardcaptor Sakura to convince me to watch it, not out of any particular lack of interest in the series (for I had heard from many people it was rather good) but more out of a lack of time and too many other things on my queue of things to watch. Nevertheless, I have now begun watching it, and am rather pleased I decided to because it is proving enjoyable and, crucially, interesting in ways I did not quite expect.
First and foremost it is grounded, insofar as a show about magic can be grounded; the usual aesthetic trappings you would expect (fancy costumes for the business of being a hero) are provided in very mundane fashion by an industrious sidekick who tries to tailor them, where possible, to the problem in question. Or merely what she likes. This is a charming detail that immediately removes much of the transformation sequence big hero aspect and adds some nice humour (as they are generally more focused on looking nice than being practical). If one is going to lampshade or poke fun at the typical costume clichés of magical girls (and by extension, I suppose, women superheroes) having them be made by a sidekick who knows how a hero “should” dress is a way of doing it that remains cute and innocent. Tomoyo is good-natured and the costumes she makes are all perfectly sweet. More importantly to Sakura’s use of this, it is from a purely external genre awareness; Tomoyo is not some superhero expert who bases her designs on a love of fiction (to create a kind of metafictional fourth-wall breaking), she is merely someone who thinks her friend should do her heroism in pretty dresses. Any interpretation of that as lampshading genre trends purely comes from the viewer’s metatextual knowledge, not the “text” of the series itself.
So, the series does not set itself up as particularly large-scale in its superhero-ness; the protagonist borrows her clothes for doing her job rather than having any particularly power-related costume. What, then, else does it offer? An antagonist, or primary group of antagonists for the first arc, which is pleasantly grounded despite being at the same time very much beyond the hero’s expectations of scale. It is the usual stuff for a fairytale handled with pleasant familiarity, a child accidentally unleashes a bunch of powerful magical creatures and has to get them back in order to stop all manner of increasingly bad problems bothering the town. Two things here make this work so well; firstly, these card-based spirits are rarely much beyond capricious animals doing things as they like and in the process causing peril and secondly there is not, in this first arc, a grand and orchestrated world-ending plot which coincidentally centres on one town.
It is entirely more credible in a charming, quaint work of fantasy fiction like this that the accidental release of a bunch of spells from a spellbook would cause a lot of localised mayhem in one town than some grand overlord of evil decides one small town is the best place to start invading. Now, obviously, credibility and canonicity are not things one should be looking for too deeply in fiction like this; tactical realism has very little place in Sakura and it should not – as should very little fiction, really – be approached as a puzzle to solve every single detail into a precise, empirically-sound world. But the setup of this initial arc offers a focused story that has the potential for a variety of challenges, the potential for nonviolent solutions to be the right approach, and internal consistency of why it is one person who must undo all these localised issues. It is something of a fable in the end, and that is entirely fine. Not quite as simple a morality-tale as the magical girl shows I would describe as Chibi Maruko-Chan with magic (the things in the vein of Creamy Mami etcetera where the drama in each episode mostly comes from the inevitably problems of using magic in a way that isn’t quite legit) but equally a fine alternative to the role of the magical girl being to punch peoples’ problems away. Of course, the arrival of a rival and the implications of deeper lore suggest that over the 70-odd episode running time there will be more to the series than just sorting out problems of Sakura’s own causing, but the initial decision to have a consistent plot without a typical gang of villains is, for the reasons described, a good one.
None of this would work particularly interestingly without a supporting cast outside of the two main characters, and the series is pleasingly light-handed in its cast. The families depicted feel like they bicker and disagree in the ways families do, there is no mean-spiritedness in how children act and it really does not seek to present itself as a children’s story that demonises adults. Sonomi, Tomoyo’s mother, might dislike Sakura’s father over a youthful row – but from the children’s perspective it is something reduced down to fierce competitiveness and frustration, and never taken out on the children. Now, one could argue (as an adult viewer) that this disagreement – about Sakura’s mother marrying young and marrying her schoolteacher is a pretty solid ground for resentment, because it is a fairly atypical kind of relationship.
But this is a show primarily about children, for children, that is not setting out to be a tragedy-laden school soap. Were Cardcaptor Sakura in fact Dear Brother then Sonomi would probably try and drown Sakura in a lake at a remote retreat, and Tomoyo would get locked in a basement. Thankfully, and this is not a slight on either series, it very much is not Dear Brother and within the first 13 episodes the most the disagreement comes to is the parents’ 100 metres race at sports day. The children in question are not stupid, and are aware there is something serious between the families, but it is not used as an impediment for dramatic effect. It all contributes to the world being one that is sometimes not all that fair, that has adult problems, but is still one where children can be children, albeit with increasing amounts of wizard-related peril.
So, this has been a lot of words about a series which doubtless even more has been said about in the past, touching lightly on the things it does well and their significance within a crowded and constantly expanding genre. Simply saying Cardcaptor Sakura is good seems inadequate; within its genre, it is very good, and even just in general as an animated series to be recommended it is very nicely presented and enjoyable. It is important, I think, if writing about stuff for families to consider it from the perspective of what does it offer its target audience – and it offers a story about someone doing the right thing, with their friends supporting, and a good family to go home to. You can’t, I think, ask for much more than that.
NB: It is something of a digression into largely incomparable territory here but consider by contrast Kill La Kill, which (among may themes touched lightly upon) tried to say something about acceptance of revealing clothing, a different cliché of the woman superhero, being the last bastion of modesty that needed to be cast off to properly become anti-authoritarian. That series, skewing for a very different target audience to Sakura, leapt red-bloodedly into costumes made mostly of tape and underwear and, I would say, used that exploitative, titillating aesthetic to say the thing to do is embrace the self-image needed to fight with everything on display. This is really something of a difficult and awkward argument to pursue especially when one considers the fact it sets male and female parental figures against each other in trying to get their daughters to dress provocatively in order to make some kind of point about anti-authoritarianism. I feel the conclusion easiest to come to from KLK’s ending is that it became about not dressing in some fashion because someone else – be it a talking blouse or your abusive mother – wanted you to, but because you wanted to. Either way, it was quite an unsatisfying exploration of any such theme the longer one thought about it, even if it was visceral and seemed immensely significant and bombastic when being watched.