Number 9: The Characterization.
Many of the characters in Cardcaptor Sakura are supposed to be fourth-grade or fifth-grade children, all around ten years of age.
Not a one of them, and I mean not a single one, behaves anything at all like any real kid I’ve ever met. Ever.
As I mentioned in my lengthy review of Shugo Chara!, this is a common problem in manga and anime, so much so that there is oftentimes no apparent difference between kids who are supposed to be in high school, middle school, or elementary. I was surprised to learn halfway through Fairy Musketeers that the characters were supposed to be teenagers instead of prepubescent children, and I was surprised to learn halfway through the second volume of Sugar Sugar Rune that the characters were supposed to be prepubescent children instead of teenagers. Not only because of the exaggerated character designs typical of these artforms, but also because of what is often superficial or sloppy characterization, it can be hard to tell the difference.
The fact is that writing kids is hard. I know this both from commentary by writers and from personal experience. In fact, it’s only fair to admit that I’m a writer of children myself, so someone might point out that I’m throwing stones from a glass house. I accept that criticism; Dana Volt is loosely based on a real fifth-grade girl, but I don’t pretend to know what’s actually going on in her head, though I like to believe I can get away with that because the POV character doesn’t know what’s going on in her head, either.
Even though we were all kids at one point, adults can have a hard time thinking like children. For that reason, writers have developed certain tricks they use to maintain suspension of disbelief. One trick you may have seen in, for example, Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, is to simply have characters in-universe point out that the child is precocious and acts like an adult. This is perhaps the most blunt and crude method of staving off the reader objection that a child is not childlike.
Another trick, beloved of the authors of contemporary fiction, is to depict a child as “quiet and thoughtful.” Even though you’ve never met a real child either as quiet or as thoughtful as the quiet, thoughtful children who people so many novels in the Kirkus reviews, this character type has become a convention, so readers typically accept it unquestioningly. A good example is the titular heroine of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline (the novel, not the abomination that is the movie). Gaiman makes no attempt to delve into his protagonist’s psychology, but he doesn’t need to; she’s a stock character.
It’s hard to tell exactly what makes for convincing child characters. We may at first suppose that the characters need to have simple thoughts and a simple vocabulary, since children’s thoughts and vocabularies are simpler than adults’. But that doesn’t seem to be the case. Calvin in Bill Waterson’s masterful Calvin and Hobbes has an enormous vocabulary and discusses subjects of which most six-year-olds are probably unaware, yet is somehow a convincing child character. It’s hard to define exactly what it is that makes Calvin believable, but we can at least see a few things that contribute. Most especially, he has the energy of a child. He runs everywhere. He talks a lot. He makes messes. He plays in mud. He invents games. He has an enormous imagination. It matters little that he uses words or satirizes subjects that even most of Waterson’s readers might be unfamiliar with. The spirit of childhood is present in Waterson’s comic strip even if many of the literal components of childhood are not.
Anime and manga have developed their own grab-bag of stock character personalities, especially for girls, personalities so common in the media that they have names: tsundere, yandere, genki girl, etc. Oddly enough, creators apply these, with little or no modification, to any characters eight to eighteen. The result is often little kids who act like teens and vice versa. Observe, for example, the indistinguishable personalities of Sailor Moon and Sailor Chibi Moon.
But even with all these shenanigans going on in Japanese productions, there is no title like Cardcaptor Sakura that repeatedly destroys my suspension of disbelief merely on account of the characterization. The manga and the anime are equally guilty on this score.
There’s a scene in the anime in which a bunch of small schoolchildren learn that a new teddy bear shop has opened downtown. They go down to the new store, walk in quietly, quietly observe the teddy bears on the shelves, have a calm and polite conversation with the shop owner, and in all things act like old ladies doing their daily shopping instead of like kids in a toy store.
And when they acquire toys, these kids set them up on shelves and look at them like grown-up toy collectors. They don’t play.
Sakura and her best-friend-who-secretly-wants-to-rape-her Tomoyo can sit down and have a lengthy conversation over tea, but we never see them run around. They don’t jabber a mile a minute like real pubescent girls. They don’t run barefoot down to the canal to catch frogs. They don’t play with dolls. They don’t play games of pretend. Granted, Sakura is a magical girl, so her real life is a game of pretend, but none of the other kids play like children either. I can’t remember if we even see them skipping rope.
Simply compare the quiet, lethargic interactions of Sakura and the rapetastic Tomoyo with, for example, Yotsubato! When little Yotsuba plays with the ten-year-old girl next door, they play make-believe games with their bears or make messes with craft projects. They go visit the tomboyish yet delicate Miura who fools Yotsuba into believing she’s a princess. They act, you know, like real kids.
Now, granted, it may not be fair to compare anything to Calvin and Hobbes or Yotsubato! Those two works are exceptional. Still, Cardcaptor Sakura does not even manage to be as believable in its characterization as even less deft and insightful cartoons or comics. It doesn’t even manage to pull of the “thoughtful, quiet child” schtick.
The anime actually manages to make this problem worse. In addition to all the adult-child character faithfully reproduced from the manga, it adds the character of Meiling, a poor man’s Shampoo, a little Chinese girl who insists she’s Syaoran’s fiancée. In addition to being a ripped-off stereotype, her lovey-dovey climbing on Syaoran is decidedly un-childlike. Hers is the pointless subplot that the anime introduces, keeps going for a while, and then eventually sweeps out of the way. I think she exists to pump up the episode count.
Then there’s these two:
That’s Takashi and Chiharu. They’re boyfriend and girlfriend. In fourth grade. And they’ve been going out since kindergarten or something. They’re amusing because there’s a running gag with him always telling ridiculous fibs (that Sakura naïvely falls for) and her choking him in frustration. However, they act not like squabbling children, but like an old married couple. These are minor characters, but their unrealistic relationship is typical of this series, and indeed Clamp’s work, as a whole: Clamp appears to be incapable of telling the difference between children’s relationships and adults’ relationships. Much more on that later.
This inability is particularly evident in their depiction of Tomoyo, but as Cardcaptor Sakura’s Scrappy Do, she deserves her own post.