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Making a Living in Manga in Japan with Felipe Smith
Lost in Translation
Episode XLV: Cardcaptor Sakura
"At its core, Cardcaptor Sakura is about love in all its many forms."
—Jake Forbes, Manga; The Complete Guide
Sometimes, when you read too much manga, you get jaded. You think you've seen it all; you think that a whole genre sucks, like battle manga or B>oy's Lo>ve manga or four-panel manga. At times like these, sometimes you just need to read one really good manga to realize that a good enough artist can make even the most stereotypical premise seem fresh. For me, when it comes to "magical girl" manga, that manga is Cardcaptor Sakura by CLAMP.
It's said that Osamu Tezuka was so ambitious that he wanted to produce bestsellers in every manga genre, but nowadays, that goal seems to be CLAMP's. They've done occult mysteries (Tokyo Babylon and xxxHOLiC), romantic comedies (Chobits), end-of-the-world dramas (X/1999) and RPG-style heroic adventures (Magic Knight Rayearth and Tsubasa, RESERVoir CHRoNiCLE). Every time, they work within the genre but then add their own personal touch. On the surface, the plotlines of Cardcaptor Sakura are pretty typical, stories of field trips and birthdays and school plays and sports competitions and Valentine's Day, only with magical fight scenes thrown in. CLAMP even manages to work with the Nakayoshi magazine restriction of re-explaining the premise every chapter or two in case someone just picked up the series and doesn't know what's going on. I'm generally not a fan of magical girl manga, or collecting-things manga, so when I read Cardcaptor Sakura I was amazed to find myself loving a story where kids in fancy costumes chase down cute creatures and capture them.
The story jumps right into the action, with our heroine running around the rooftops blasting some weird creature until she captures it into a card. Flashback to a few days earlier: Sakura is a 4th grader who loves P.E. and pancakes and is scared of ghosts. She lived a mundane life until she opened a mysterious old book in the library of her archaeologist father. Out of the book emerges a tiny dog-like talking creature with little wings, which announces that it is the mighty Cerberus, guardian of the Clow Cards. Sakura nicknames the teeny-weeny beast "Kero-chan" and finds out that the Clow Cards are magical card-spirits created by the great wizard Clow Reed. The Clow Cards can take the forms of cards or elemental forces or beautiful women, and they have names like The Sword, The Shield, The Windy, The Mirror, etc. By opening the sealed book, Sakura has proven that she has magical abilities, and therefore it's her responsibility to help find the missing Clow Cards that have escaped into the world and are causing mischief.
It sounds hard, but Kero-chan is a cute little creature with a funny Osaka accent and more attitude than size, and Sakura can't say no. Soon, she's off searching for the cards, with the help of her adoring best friend Tomoyo, who videotapes Sakura's adventures and sews costumes for her. Tomoyo is from an ultra-rich family, but she's fairly normal, or at least as normal as Sakura is. (Sakura: "How many fourth-graders have bodyguards?" Tomoyo: "How many fourth-graders have magical powers?") The two of them must hide Kero-chan and Sakura's magic from the muggles around them, and there's lots of comedy as they make Kero-chan pretend to be a stuffed animal to keep their secret safe.
And so, with Kero-chan's guidance, Sakura sets out to capture the Clow Cards, which are mostly hanging out in the neighborhood hidden in various places. At first, Sakura only has a limited number of cards, but she uses their powers wisely, for instance pitting the Five Chinese Elements against one another in the proper ways (wood beats earth, etc.). Not all the cards look like humans, and some of them have very strange powers, like The Mirror, which forms doppelgangers of people, and the Maze, which traps Sakura and her friends in an endless labyrinth. On the whole, they're very similar to Tarot Cards (like in JoJo's Bizarre Adventure), but rather than use real-life Tarot Cards, CLAMP chose the additional creative challenge of making their own deck. (Of course, it also means they own the copyright over the Clow Cards, unlike Tarot Cards which are public domain.) As Sakura gathers cards, her power keeps growing and growing. Beneath her spunky, happy personality, she's tough and smart. After all, she's really a sorceress, not just a magical girl; the only reason she looks like a magical girl is because of Tomoyo's costumes, and the reason her magic wand is cute and pink is because Clow Reed predicted that his creations would end up in her hands, and he designed a wand a little girl would like. Only CLAMP would go to the trouble of inventing a consistent occult terminology for a magical girl monster-fighting manga.
But the focus of the manga isn't about fighting monsters (the Clow Cards are more like spirits anyway): the real battleground of the series is Sakura's heart. Sakura, that tiny 10-year-old almost-chibi, has a crush on Yukito, the dreamy best friend of her 17-year-old big brother. His delicate good looks, and his unbelievable kindness and gentleness, send Sakura into squee-ing raptures of happiness whenever he's around. She'll even endure the presence of her annoying big brother to hang out with Yukito. Later on in the series, another boy comes into the picture: Li Syaoran, a boy from China who's Sakura's age. Syaoran is the scion of a family of Chinese magicians, and when he first shows up, he's a jerk who's competing with Sakura for the Clow Cards. ("I know now that you can't collect the Clow Cards. You're too weak.") Worse still, the first time he sees Yukito, he too falls in love with him, making him not just a magical rival, but a romantic rival!
Very often the perils in magical girl manga seem pretty unperilous, more like Magical Happy Slight Inconveniences. Like with most everything in Cardcaptor Sakura, CLAMP is self-aware of this: when Kero-chan warns Sakura, "If the cards aren't kept inside the book, they come to life and do evil!" Sakura anxiously asks "Like, what kind of evil? Stealing a snack? Bending a flower? Not doing homework? Staying up late?" But the danger of the cards is serious. In the ultimate battle with the final Clow Card, Sakura learns that unless she can win, everyone who has touched the Clow Cards will lose their memories of the Cards—together with all their memories of the one they love the most. It's a threat everyone can appreciate, one much more believable than something little like death and destruction.
If Sailor Moon is a bit like shonen manga with its themes of battle and friendship, Cardcaptor Sakura is pure shojo, by which I mean, it's relationship-driven. Every character is important and three-dimensional: there are no bad guys who are pure evil, nor are there random people who Sakura helps and who then never show up again, nor are there good-guy characters who show up to help the hero once and then end up with nothing to do but cheer from the sidelines, like Tenshinhan and Yamcha in Dragon Ball. In the same way, no relationship possibilities are wasted. If you mapped the characters in Cardcaptor Sakura, you'd see a complex chain of lines (red strings, maybe) indicating who loves who. And it's not just old-fashioned hetero man-and-wife romances either. There are girl-on-girl crushes: the way Tomoyo secretly feels about Sakura, or the way Tomoyo's mother felt about Sakura's mother Nadeshiko, for which she still nurses a grudge against her father ("You married my precious Nadeshiko! And she was only sixteen! I will never forgive you!"). There are boy-on-boy crushes, with several male characters having feelings for Yukito, some of them quite serious. As a caveat, I should also mention that CLAMP loves ageplay. Even though almost nobody even kisses anyone else, they love the thrill of forbidden love (is love too strong a word? Forbidden crushes?). Not only does Sakura love high-school-age Yukito, but Toya also has feelings for an older woman, and Sakura's mother, God rest her soul, was nine years younger than Sakura's dad. It does get a bit squicky when we discover that Sakura's classmate Rika is in love with her adult teacher and vice versa, and that they're even secretly engaged, but those characters are always on the periphery.
You could say that CLAMP is just tilling the soil with suggestive ideas so that other people can plant the flowers of fanfic, but Cardcaptor Sakura is so sweet and innocent, and so earnest, that I never felt too weirded out. It never seems like they're just pairing people off to get rid of them. Beyond romantic love, there is a feeling of warmth to the characters. Everyone surrounding Sakura is caring and loving—her friends at school, her father with his broad shoulders and his parental wisdom, her big brother who teases her but cares for her deep down—yet it never seems like a mere princess fantasy where the heroine is pampered by others. Sakura earns their affection, and the reader's affection as well. There is a secret magical explanation for some of the characters' feelings of love, which is revealed later in the series, but that doesn't take away from the pleasure. The loves in Cardcaptor Sakura are sweet, and for a series aimed at fairly young readers, they're amazingly subtle. The melodrama is there, but they never make it too obvious; like in Kobato., a lot of the pleasure of the series is figuring out the relationships between the characters. Or the little scenes, like the chapter when Sakura uses her magic to make someone a present for Valentine's Day.
The series is divided into two parts. In the first half, Sakura fights a bunch of spirits and collects all the Clow Cards, but instead of ending the series goes in a new direction. The new story arc begins when Eriol Hiiragizawa, a British-looking exchange student with a bit of a Harry Potter vibe, transfers to Sakura's school. Of course, strange things happen when Eriol comes to town, but the second half of the manga isn't about catching monsters, it's about love. CLAMP ditches the whole card-capturing aspect and focuses on the characters' relationships, mostly on Yukito and Syaoran, the two boys closest to Sakura's heart. It starts when Syaoran realizes that he likes Sakura, and his jerky attitude changes to the blushing awkwardness of a boy in love. (Yeaaaahhh puberty!) But Sakura is still in love with Yukito, despite their age difference and the fact that he has problems she can't even begin to imagine. Who will she end up with? Is she old enough to make this decision in a meaningful way? This part of the series is a little slow-moving; there's too many silly scenes when someone is about to confess their love but they're interrupted by another character barging in. Eriol's personality and purpose in the story are also a little hazy; it's hard to have a really menacing antagonist in a manga this nice. But the moment when Sakura finally confesses her true love to Yukito, and how he responds, is one of the most memorable scenes I've ever read in a shojo manga. Maybe the purpose of all the side romances in Cardcaptor Sakura isn't just to expand the dojinshi possibilities, but to make a point about love: there are many different kinds of love, and sometimes, even we ourselves don't know what's truly in our own hearts.
I can't talk about Cardcaptor Sakura without mentioning the great artwork. In a medium where pages often look like they were rescued from an exploding screentone factory, their linework is incredibly clear and delicate. The characters are gorgeous with expressive faces, Kero-chan is cute, the action scenes are nonviolent but exciting, and the backgrounds are lush and green. (Are all the flowers in shojo manga an expression of biophilia?) CLAMP does a particularly great job of drawing magical effects: the swirling wind when Sakura uses The Fly to fly through the air; the splashing waves of The Watery; the ivy and greenery of The Wood; the beams and motes of light whenever magic is cast. These are the kinds of things that look much better hand-drawn than they would in live-action or CG, as Roger Ebert said in his review of The Last Airbender ("Since "Airbender" involves the human manipulation of the forces of air, earth, water and fire, there is hardly an event that can be rendered plausibly in live action."). Of course, with CLAMP sometimes it's hard to tell what's real and what's symbolic; in their old manga X/1999, probably their most ornate work, practically every page is covered in flower blossoms, faerie lights and drifting feathers. CLAMP seems to make fun of this tendency in the fight with the Flower Card, when it first seems like they're just drawing lots of flowers in the air but it turns out it's a form of Clow magic that threatens to literally drown everyone in flowers. ("Wh-where are all these flowers coming from?") In general, Cardcaptor Sakura is drawn in a much more restrained style than CLAMP's earlier work, anticipating their future manga like xxxHOLiC, as well as the general stylistic shift away from the 1990s over-toned style to the more minimalist styles of the 2000s.
This is a beautifully drawn series that gets into your heart. It never seems mean, it never seems jaded, but sometimes it's sad, and when Sakura and her friends have their ups and downs, you really feel for them. I'd recommend Cardcaptor Sakura to anyone looking for a good, PG-rated shojo romance for younger readers (if you're not homophobic and you don't mind big age differences between love interests, that is). The old Tokyopop edition from ten years ago is long out of print, but Da>rk Horse has been reprinting the series in massive 600-page omnibus editions with better production values, and their English rewrite is great too ("It feels like something bad is here! Do you think these woods are haunted?" "You must be sensing gho…uh…GOATS! Yeah!") Cardcaptor Sakura's message is that you may be able to grow up into a great magician, you may be able to save the world, but you can't always control love. But love is there, and someday, love will find you. I've always dreamed of beginning this column with a Jake Forbes quote and ending with a Journey quote.
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this article has been modified since it was originally posted; see change history