Sakura Kinomoto has a slightly sadistic big brother, a loving father and a dead mum. She's just an ordinary ten-year-old girl, good at sports and perhaps not too bright, until one day she opens a book and unleashes 52 magical creatures upon the world. They're called Clow Cards and now it's her job to recapture them before they wreak havoc. So says a flying yellow teddy bear called Keroberos, the Guardian of the Clow Cards. Sakura (or rather "Cardcaptor Sakura") is far from happy about this, but it seems that duty calls.
Yup, it's another magical girl show. It has all the traditional elements... earnest heroine, transformation sequence (albeit this time without nudity) and talking animal sidekick. However in this case we're looking at a CLAMP show, animated by Madhouse, which suggests that it's worth a look. As it happens, Cardcaptor Sakura became one of Japan's most popular shows and helped knock Pokemon off the ratings. It lasted for seventy episodes and three seasons, plus two full-length movies and assorted specials. Those wanting to watch in English even have a choice of the Animax dub (broadcast in South-East Asian countries like Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand), the Nelvena dub (a heavily edited American version called simply Cardcaptors) and the subtitle-only Pioneer DVD releases.
It's a great show, but unfortunately I'm not the target audience. It's gentle, it's charming, it's inoffensive and, frankly, it's a little bland. Thinking about it, I have a feeling that my problem with it might stem from the lack of worthwhile antagonists. Hunting down Clow Cards is all very well, but they're not malevolent. In many cases you could hardly even call them mischievous. The action scenes are imaginative, with Madhouse's usual top-notch animation, but the show as a whole lacks urgency. This may be why I differ from most fans in preferring Season Three, which is slower and more introspective but at least has Eriol and his creepy friends going about their dubious business.
Of course, this being CLAMP, it's not quite as simple as that. The show is charming, but unlike some others it's not merely coasting on that. Just to keep things interesting, there are wrinkles.
Firstly there's the controversial stuff. It's completely chaste, but there are same-sex romances, homosexual and sexually grey characters, witchcraft, the supernatural, spiritualism, pre-teen romance and dating (including in one case between a teacher and his student), the death of family members and one or two moments that could be read as suggesting one-sided incestuous feelings within the Kinomoto family. What's more, it's not sneaked in surreptitiously. This isn't a sniggering schoolboys show. Oh no, it's front and centre. Trying to remove the inappropriate material, as in the Nelvena dub, would be like trying to remove the insanity from Sailor Moon. These are generally one-sided crushes, almost the definition of harmlessness, but at some point almost every major character is linked to someone else in such a fashion. If these hinted-at relationships were consummated, pretty much the whole cast would go into either care or jail.
Needless to say, this is a good thing. Cardcaptor Sakura conforms unashamedly to the magical girl formula, but at least CLAMP made sure to add a few tweaks we hadn't seen before. What's more, it's all innocent and natural. Real girls get crushes on all kinds of people. They're ten years old. It's meaningless. Nothing will happen, the world won't end and in ten years' time they'll still be as normal as can be.
There's also a certain level of self-awareness. Magical girl anime are all about the costumes and merchandising-friendly trinkets, so here Sakura has a best friend Tomoya with the spare time, financial resources and almost creepy level of adoration to spend all day every day making an endless supply of new battle costumes.
Seasons One and Two even try to compensate for the aforementioned lack of urgency through Sakura's dreams. There's a disaster coming. If you've seen another CLAMP series called X, these prophecies might give you the willies. There's some similarity between certain character designs of the two series, although it was Kumiko Takahashi who designed this show's cast while Mokona Apapa only did the costumes and cards. (Takahashi also designed Tokyo Babylon's characters. You'll see Apapa's famous pretty boys in the likes of X and Rayearth.) No, the creepy similarity between these two series is more specific. I'm talking about prophetic dreams of an apocalypse, involving mysterious pointy-chinned figures standing on the Tokyo Tower at night in a cloud of rose petals, silhouetted against the moon. That's not exactly vague. I was starting to wonder about crossovers. By the end of this series, Sakura could probably hold her own in combat in the
X universe. What she lacks in raw power, she makes up for in combat options. However it's an appalling notion because Cardcaptor Sakura is escapism for little girls, while X is a world of bloody violent death.
Another unusual element here is spiritualism. Most magical girl shows retain an everyday world where no one knows about the heroine's adventures. That's all part of the fantasy. However here Sakura's brother Toya has the second sight. We have ghosts, the afterlife and contact with the dead, all unrelated to the Clow Cards. Sakura's mother being dead is backstory that doesn't affect the plot. This isn't a particularly important point, but it struck me as odd.
Every so often the show springs surprises. It might suddenly introduce new regulars, or perhaps write them out. Impending season breaks in particular suggest upheavals to the status quo. I always particularly enjoyed those episodes, which make the most of the chance to make permanent changes in our heroes' lives. The two movies are also a pleasant break from the norm, both being something we hadn't quite seen before. Astonishingly they're both also good movies, winning the "Best Animation Film Award" at Animation Kobe 1999 and 2000 respectively. I'm always surprised to get that from anime movies based on TV series. The first movie is more exciting, but the second movie has some of the best character moments in the whole series. Kero-chan, Sonomi, Tomoyo, Yukito and Yue are all more vivid and/or subtly evolved beyond their previous versions, while we get a resolution of the Sakura-Shaoran relationship in a way the TV series had avoided doing. It's impressive, avoiding the curse of anime movies. They even manage to tell important stories in the context of the TV series instead of feeling like a (rightly) deleted episode.
For what it's worth, the first movie comes at exactly the halfway point (after episode 35, "Sakura's Wonderful Christmas") and the second movie comes at the end, after episode 70.
I should warn you about the Nelvena dub, aka. "Cardcaptors". The most-hated English dub of any anime I know, it can only be explained by a stomach-turning dissection of the US television industry. Their first objection was that Cardcaptor Sakura is a girls' show. This didn't fit their target demographic, so they re-edited the series to make Li Shaolin the hero and Sakura his dumb and oft-mocked sidekick. This is particularly odd since for much of the show Shaolin is an abrasive git with much to learn and no manners. Episodes were edited together or dropped entirely, while any potentially objectionable material was deleted with little regard to story logic. They also added unloved CGI. Needless to say, one suggests avoiding the Nelvena dub as one would a urine-stained drunk waving a used syringe.
One oddity I haven't mentioned is the "Leave It To Kero" segments following each episode in Season One. These are random nonsense as Kero-chan burbles on about nothing as a way of padding out the time with recycled footage. That probably sounds like a slating, but in fact I admire the idea. It's light-hearted fun and undoubtedly saved a few pennies for the sake of the rest of the production. It's also after the real show's over, so if you don't like it, you don't have to watch it. And make no mistake, this is a fine-looking show. Madhouse knows animation.
At the end of the day, this show doesn't feel as if it matters much. It's funny, sweet and skilfully crafted, but you won't lose anything if you skip a few episodes. However I happily watched it to the end and would have continued had there been more. It's well thought out, with a solid mythology that underpins everything more completely than you'd guess at the beginning. It has clever characterisation. It offers twists on a familiar genre, while at the same time covering all the bases. I'd say it deserved its success without ever being a must-watch, but it's always well-crafted and enjoyable. It probably helps to be a little girl, though.