Second only to Sailor Moon in terms of being ‘the iconic shōjo anime of the early 2000s,’ watching Cardcaptor Sakura as an adult today is just as magical as it was in my tweens.
A 12-volume ‘magical girl’ manga series, published between 1996 and 2000, Cardcaptor Sakura was simultaneously turned into a 70-episode anime TV series by Madhouse – and acted as many a young person’s gateway drug into an anime and manga obsession.
The subtitled Cardcaptor Sakura uncut collection one – episodes 1-35 – was released on DVD by Madman in 2012, and watching this series as an adult is one of those rare experiences when you enjoy the show as much as you did as a kid, if not more.
Lights, camera, magic
Sakura Kinomoto is a sweet, curious 10-year-old who one afternoon breaks the seal on a magical book in her father’s study, and releases the mischievous spirits imprisoned within, out into the world. Kero, the Guardian of the Clow Cards – a ferocious, magical beast who can also take the shape of an adorable, flying cat-rodent – is horrified to find all the cards gone and tells Sakura she must become the Cardcaptor.
Sakura takes on this new responsibility, and draws upon her latent magical ability to retrieve the spirits of the cards before they cause too much trouble, all while wearing adorable outfits.
In her task she is accompanied by her best friend Tomoyo, who makes elaborate costumes for Sakura and films her adventures; as well as her rival-turned-ally (and maybe something more) the grumpy Syaoran Li. There’s a cast of other important characters, including Sakura’s aloof older brother Toya, and Toya’s best friend, plus Sakura’s crush, the delightful Yukito. There may be more to Yukito than meets the eye…
The overall plot of the series is fairly simplistic and follows a monster-of-the-week format, with Sakura finding and capturing a new card most episodes. What puts Cardcaptor Sakura a cut above other shows that follow a similar format is that each of the cards she fights have such different powers.
The battle sequences are imaginative and visually distinct – something that is enhanced by Sakura’s ever changing, extravagant outfits. While some anime series tend to use the same ‘transformation sequences’ and clips time and time again, Cardcaptor Sakura always has new eye-candy.
The other reason Cardcaptor Sakura has held up so well from the 90s, appealing to audiences of any age, is that the monster-of-the-week plot is also interspersed with slice-of-life episodes that are heavy on the character development.
Capturing Clow Cards gives the show forward momentum. But just as important are nuanced the ways that Sakura, Syaoran and the other characters grow. There are non-magical subplots that are given a lot of screen time, such as Sakura’s fledging relationship with her deceased mother’s estranged family – pretty big stuff for a show aimed at kids.
Even though it was written in the 90s, the anime feels very modern, partly because of how progressive it is in contrast to Western kid’s shows. One of the things I love about both the manga and anime series is how chill the show is about gay and lesbian love stories – something that is disappointingly rare in many Western young adult stories. In Cardcaptor Sakura, nobody makes a big deal out of the fact that both Sakura and Syaoran have a crush on Yukito.
Anime vs. manga
One of the most interesting things about the anime is how much it differs from the manga. In many ways, the anime is a much more complete and fully fleshed-out story, and there are entire characters in the anime who don’t show up in the manga at all, such as Syaoran’s cousin/betrothed Meiling Li.
Which brings us to another one of the plot elements that jump out while watching the anime; Some of the romantic relationships that would typically be frowned upon in stories aimed at kids.
Just like Sailor Moon, there are quite a few romantic relationships with wildly inappropriate age gaps. Interestingly, these – such as the relationship between one of Sakura’s classmates, Rika, and their teacher Yoshiyuki Terada – seem to be given much less of a focus in the anime than in the manga.
Special shout out to Kero
As one final aside, Kero is still the best character on this show. Quick to anger, adorable, gluttonous, and hilarious, this pocket-sized, magically powered Guardian of the Clow Cards is so freakin’ cute. It’s worth watching for all the scenes of Kero eating cakes alone… which is way less weird than it sounds.