When I discuss magical girls, I have certain go-to titles I like to mention as examples. Sailor Moon is the quintessential superheroine magical girl series. Revolutionary Girl Utena is the quintessential pretentious art-house magical girl series. Princess Tutu is the quintessential unexpectedly awesome magical girl series. Shugo Chara! is the just-plain quintessential magical girl series.
And Cardcaptor Sakura is the quintessential overrated magical girl series.
A few weeks back, somebody asked me to elaborate on exactly what I dislike about the Cardcaptor Sakura franchise. I had thought about writing a post on the subject for some time … but realized I couldn’t fit it all in one post. So you get ten. For the next ten days or until I get bored, this is Ten Things I Hate about Cardcaptor Sakura … except I could only come up with nine, so we’re going to skip number four as a way of honoring Japanese superstition.
Of course, to be fair, I should probably mention that when I say I hate it, I mean I hate it with that special kind of hatred known only to fanboys. One of the writers of Battlestar Galactica, I forget which, once mentioned in an interview that a fan wrote him to say, “I hate this episode. I’ve watched it eight times, and I hate it more every time.” That’s fanboy hatred. I hate Cardcaptor Sakura, a magical girl title, with the hatred of a magical girl fanboy.
A few months ago, I got into a discussion about Sakura with some dude on the Internet. He was not himself a magical girl aficionado, and he said that he had expected Sakura to be cloyingly saccharine and sappy, but was surprised to find it a competently produced and likable coming-of-age story. I replied to him that I thought Cardcaptor Sakura was sick and wrong, and that after I finished reading its first of two story arcs (comprising the first six collected volumes of the manga), I felt as if I’d just been groomed by a child molestor.
He replied, “Oh, yes. The story is about a loveable, sweet, innocent little girl completely surrounded by perverts.” I can imagine no better summary of this franchise.
Because I developed an interest in manga and anime only as an adult, my exposure to a lot of famous titles is backwards from most people in the English-speaking world. Just as many encountered Sailor Moon for the first time in the heavily edited DiC dub, many in the U.S. encountered Cardcaptor Sakura for the first time in the heavily edited dub entitled Cardcaptors. I’ve never seen Cardcaptors. My first encounter with the franchise was the manga, which was produced by the four-woman manga-ka team known collectively as Clamp. According to Infogalactic, Clamp produced the series from 1996 to 2000 in the magazine Nakayoshi, which is marketed primarily to preteen girls and has hosted a great many other major magical girl titles. In 2001, Cardcaptor Sakura won the Seiun Award for best manga.
My set of manga is from Tokyopop. When Tokyopop lost a slew of its licenses around 2009, the series was acquired by Darkhorse.
The manga was adapted into a 70-episode anime from 1998 to 2000, directed by Morio Asaka. The production values of the series were high, and it has aged remarkably well, partly because it influenced a lot of what came after it and partly because it was just very well done, with excellent animation and artwork. It alters and expands the story considerably, and though one added subplot is ultimately pointless, the other changes are improvements. The complaints I’m going to make here apply primarily to the manga, so if you only know Cardcaptor Sakura through the animated version, and especially if you only know it through Cardcaptors, some of what I have to say about the series’ content will likely surprise you. The anime—complete and uncensored—is available on Crunchyroll with a subscription. I recommend it over the comic.
The group Clamp comprises Nanase Ohkawa, Mokona, Tsubaki Nekoi, and Satsuki Igarashi. Originally an eleven-member doujinshi (fan fiction) circle, they trimmed themselves to four members and went pro in the 1980s, becoming some of the most influential, successful, and hardworking women in manga. They are enormously prolific; perhaps only Rumiko Takahashi can boast a similarly massive corpus, but not one with such a range. Clamp has worked in most every genre. Their titles have met success internationally, and at one point their magical girlfriend underage porno fantasy Chobits was the bestselling comic in America. Chobits is both absurd and utterly vile, and I could not bring myself to finish it, so its success is as mystifying to me as Cardcaptor Sakura’s. It is actually about a girl robot with a reboot switch in her vagina, and I swear on Sailor Moon’s wand I did not make that up.
Only a small slice of Japanese manga gets translated into English, and a respectable portion of that slice is from Clamp. If you read manga in English, you sooner or later read Clamp. It’s inevitable. I cannot claim to have surveyed all of their work, but what I have read, I have detested, with the sole exception of Magic Knight Rayearth, which, perhaps ironically, they produced immediately before Sakura. Clamp possesses both talent and energy, as evident from their gigantic and diverse output. They have a lot of fans, but I admit to having a blind spot for their work. I think it’s awful. Theirs has become a name I actively avoid when browsing for manga.
The last time I picked up a Clamp title in a library, it was an omnibus volume of Clover. I read about four chapters, and as usual found the story to be bland and the characters to be wooden. Then the protagonist visited his roommate, who casually mentioned how much he enjoys rump-pumping little boys, and I dropped the volume in disgust. That’s Clamp in a nutshell.
One of the reasons I have gravitated toward Japanese pop culture and away from the English-language science fiction I used to read is that much of science fiction has been taken over by people who are less interested in storytelling than in soap-boxing, usually soap-boxing about identity politics or sexual habits. Although anime and manga are famous (or infamous) for showcasing sexual deviancy, they at least for the most part do it in a way that makes no particular demand on the audience. For example, Sailor Moon, in both the manga and anime, presents the characters Uranus and Neptune as homosexuals, but it doesn’t presume to tell you what to think about it. You can like it or dislike it or be indifferent. It’s simply there, with no obvious message (and, for that matter, no obvious point) behind it. Clamp’s work is different: they present sexual deviancy, especially paedophilia, with the same insufferable finger-wagging, the same suggestion of you’ll take it and like it, that I find so intolerable in the genres and franchises I’ve left behind. Clamp has a tendency to preach sermons instead of telling stories; the aforementioned Chobits, for example, does a midstream 180 from being a satire of how information technology breaks down interpersonal relationships to being a paean to internet porn, apparently because Clamp realized midway through that they were inadvertently telling a story that contradicted their personal philosophy.
I’ll discuss later what that philosophy apparently is. It is of course risky to describe an author’s personal opinions based on his fiction, but Clamp is consistent and explicit enough that I think we can do so with a reasonable degree of accuracy, especially since Chobits appears to be their sock puppet.
Cardcaptor Sakura is one of the most popular magical girl titles of all time. If we were to make a list of the most influential titles in the genre, Sakura would definitely be somewhere near the top, jostling elbows with the likes of Sailor Moon and Ojamajo Doremi. In polls of most popular magical girls, Sakura usually makes a strong showing even today, which is significant for a franchise that for over a decade was dormant until just recently.
The series has an elegant premise that straddles the “cute witch” and “magical girl warrior” types. A wizard named Clow Reed, who had mastered both Eastern and Western forms of magic, had produced a set of cards containing magic spells and kept them in a book guarded by an elemental creature named Cerberus. The cards, however escaped, either on their own (in the manga) or through the heroine’s inadvertent meddling (in the anime). Now with his power reduced so that he looks like a talking plush toy, Cerberus (a.k.a. Kero-chan) anoints ten-year-old Sakura Kinomoto as the cardcaptor tasked with capturing the Clow Cards and becoming their new master before they can wreak havoc on the town.
She encounters a rival, however, in a ten-year-old boy from Hong Kong, Syaoran (or Xialong, depending on your preferred transliteration), a descendant of Clow Reed who’s determined to beat Sakura to the cards. Assisted by Kero-chan as well as her incredibly creepy (more on that later) sidekick Tomoyo, a ten-year-old monomaniacal lesbian voyeur with a costume fetish (more on that later, I said!), Sakura goes on weekly missions to track down the cards and acquire their power. Thus, Sakura is able to get a new magical ability most every week and thereby powers up steadily throughout the series.
This might sound like a decent if unremarkable concept, one that could make for a likeable if perhaps forgettable magical girl franchise. Clamp, however, puts it to an unexpected purpose. Cardcaptor Sakura is indeed a cutesy, largely forgettable, and merchandise-driven magical girl story. But more than that, it is an apologia for sexual perversion. That’s a bold claim, but I will have defended it by the time I finish these essays.
Cardcaptor Sakura is well known for being hugely popular with the lolicon (read: paedophile) crowd, which may be surprising at first because, in terms of what actually appears on the page or on the screen, it is as milquetoast as they come: there are no panty shots, no nude transformation sequences, no group bathing scenes, no risqué jokes. It is in one sense the tamest of the tame magical girl series. So we might ask why it has attracted such an unsavory peripheral fan base. By the time I’m done, I’ll propose a possible answer.
So let us begin. From least hated to most hated, here are Ten Things I Hate about Cardcaptor Sakura:
Number 10: Sakura Kinomoto.
I hate the protagonist, or at least I don’t like her.
As a rule, magical girl stories are character-driven. A typical magical girl title is simply the protagonist’s name, usually with some extra nouns and adjectives in front of it. It’s important that the magical girl be memorable, which is probably why creators in the genre have developed a grab-bag of standard character attributes (she’s clumsy, she’s hyperactive, she can’t make it to school on time, etc.) and why they’ve invented what I call the “obsessive best friend” character, a sidekick who exists to broadcast the heroine’s virtues.
Putting the weight of an ongoing story onto the shoulders of a single character is difficult, so it’s no surprise that even some excellent titles make missteps: for example, Sailor Moon is endearing but irritatingly whiny, and Revolutionary Girl Utena gets backgrounded in her own show.
But Cardcaptor Sakura commits the cardinal sin of magical girl characterization: Sakura Kinomoto is boring. B-oooo-ring!
She’s athletic and reasonably intelligent, which is a nice change from the standard clutzy and airheaded magical girl type. She rollerblades to school in the morning. She has sibling squabbles with her older brother and crushes on his yaoi butt-buddy … but aside from that, I can’t say much of anything about her. She’s remarkably dull. I think what Clamp was trying to do was create an ideal and idealized little girl, but by making her a sort of perfected “every-girl” type, they ended up with a girl who’s simply vanilla.
Even her obsessive best friend, the creepy-ass Tomoyo (who will get her own post), can’t say much of anything about her, except that she’s cute—but since this manga is drawn in generically cute style, her face looks like everyone else’s. That’s is the problem with Sakura: she comes across as generic. She’s generically cute. She’s generically nice. She’s generically friendly. She’s also absurdly well-mannered even for a particularly polite ten-year-old. I can’t recall an instance in which she loses her temper. She hardly even gets dirty.
The problem of Sakura’s unremarkableness would be less acute if she weren’t so passive. Although she is supposedly becoming the “Master of the Clow” over the course of the series, she shows astonishingly little interest in actually learning magic. We never see her reading books of magic. We never see her in a training montage. Usually, when she’s facing some problem that she needs to solve with magic, Kero-chan has to explain the properties of her magic spells on the fly, begging the question, why hasn’t he told her that already? Why hasn’t he taught her anything? On occasion, Sakura will face down a “villain” (more on that later, too) who will scornfully say something like, “You haven’t even learned that much?” I always find myself in agreement: why hasn’t she learned that much? She isn’t a reluctant heroine like some magical girls, so her lack of curiosity is inexplicable.
On top of that, she seems to be incapable of doing much of anything without instructions. She’s like a pokèmon: whenever there’s an action sequence, she needs somebody yelling directions at her before she can make a move. When she attempts spells on her own without someone coaching, she usually screws them up, mostly because she hasn’t learned her cards’ basic properties or how they interact.
The end result of this is that I find myself rooting for Syaoran to become the cards’ master. He’s actually studied magic. And he actually gives a rip.
To be continued …