It’s been quite a while since I sat down to write one of my “persuasion posts.” I’d nearly forgotten that my very first of these was for another work of CLAMP’s. Of course, the two series are about as different as they could be, yet both exhibit some of my favorite CLAMP-y traits, particularly CLAMP’s ability to create warm, believable relationships within an unbelievable setting. With that in mind, let’s talk about…
Cardcaptor Sakura was CLAMP’s second series (after Magic Knight Rayearth) to be published in the shoujo anthology Nakayoshi, and the first created from the start with Nakayoshi‘s sensibilities specifically in mind. Thus, the series’ heroine, Sakura, was written to be the same age as the magazine’s core readership and also as a magical girl, though CLAMP had little experience with the genre. Of course, CLAMP being CLAMP, they’d do this in their own way.
“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 Boy’s Love 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.”
– Jason Thompson, ANN/Jason Thompson’s House of 1000 Manga
Fourth grader Sakura Kinomoto lives with her older brother Toyo and her widower dad in the fictional town of Tomoeda, Japan, not far outside Tokyo. Sakura is afraid of ghosts, hates math, is great at sports, and loves to eat pancakes. She’s also the official collector of the Clow Cards, a deck of magical cards accidentally released from a book Sakura found in her father’s study. She’s guided in her task by a cute, winged, teddy bear-like creature named Cerberus (usually referred to by Sakura as “Kero-chan”), guardian of the book and, like the cards themselves, a creation of the long-deceased sorcerer Clow Reed. Sakura is also generally accompanied by her best friend, Tomoyo, who designs and sews elaborate costumes for Sakura to wear on her magical girl adventures—and captures it all on video.
If the above paragraph alone represented the entirety of Cardcaptor Sakura, it would already be the absolute dearest of all dear things in the world. But of course, there’s more.
Just as Sakura’s really getting the hang of the whole cardcaptor business, along comes Syaoran Li, a Chinese transfer student and direct descendent of Clow Reed, who has traveled to Tomoeda to capture the cards himself. Certain that an ordinary girl like Sakura is in no way up for the task, he follows her on all her adventures, sometimes helping out, but as time goes on and Sakura becomes more confident in her role, Syaoran spends more time simply being struck by the awesomeness of Sakura’s developing power which is ultimately far greater than his own.
Then there’s Yukito—a sweet, bespectacled young man who happens to be both Sakura’s brother’s best friend and (unbeknownst to Yukito) the “temporary” human form of Yue, second guardian of the Clow Cards and one thorny supernatural dude. Yue is also skeptical of Sakura’s abilities and unwilling to accept a new master of the Clow Cards, which forces Sakura into the position of having to win the right to his loyalty by defeating him in a fight—one that potentially poses grave consequences for Sakura and everyone she holds dear.
But in Cardcaptor Sakura, even the most dire of dire situations is something that can be overcome. Sakura’s mantra, “I’m sure I’ll be all right!” is more than just an uplifting quasi-magical spell, it’s a philosophy of the manga as a whole. Scary circumstances may arise, possible villains appear, but the world is a warm and generous place, and even our deepest wounds can be healed with the help of loving friends.
Sakura’s got a huge crush on sweet, unaffected Yukito who is (sadly for Sakura) already pretty well hung up on her brother. But Toya’s not the only rival for Sakura’s affections. Prickly Syaoran also becomes quite bothered in Yukito’s presence, much to his own dismay.
Meanwhile, new British transfer student Eriol is showing lots of interest in Sakura, just as Syaoran begins to realize that Yukito may not be his heart’s desire after all. And rounding out all the romantic complication is smiling, devoted Tomoyo, whose best friend is oblivious to her affections—a reality that kindhearted Tomoyo is mature enough to take in stride.
If this is all sounding kind of relationship-y and not all that magical-girl-y, well… it should. Though CLAMP makes fun and stylish use of Sakura’s supernatural journey, it’s her emotional journey that’s really the point of it all. Throughout the series, Sakura finds herself needing to re-evaluate her feelings for most of those nearest and dearest to her, as she becomes aware of the many different kinds of love she feels for them. This is the heart of Cardcaptor Sakura, and it’s one that absolutely shines.
One of the things you’ll note, even just from reading this description, is that this series tends to treat its same-sex crushes and romantic relationships pretty much the same as its heterosexual crushes and romantic relationships—which is to say that they’re all pretty chaste, and all very readily accepted by Sakura, who for the most part acts as the series’ moral center.
Even in a CLAMP manga, this is pretty refreshing, for although CLAMP has several series that portray same-sex romantic love (Tokyo Babylon and Legal Drug spring immediately to mind), there’s a purity to Cardcaptor Sakura—and to Sakura herself—that keeps these relationships from ever reading as deviant or exotic, as they so often do in manga (including CLAMP manga like, say, Miyuki-chan in Wonderland). And while it would be inaccurate to attribute anything we might recognize as actual gay identity to the series’ portrayal of its same-sex pairings, this straightforward, innocent approach rings true for a character like Sakura, whose ideas about love are being formed, slowly but surely, right before our eyes.
There’s a scene early in the second of the Dark Horse omnibus volumes, in which Sakura and a very embarrassed Syaoran are discussing their mutual feelings for Yukito. At the end of the conversation, Sakura arrives at this simple conclusion: “We can’t help it. We just… like him.” This is Sakura’s romantic worldview in a nutshell. She doesn’t know why people love who they love, or what any of it might mean in the eyes of her school, her town, Japan, East Asia, or humankind as a messy, divisive whole. She just knows that they do, and that’s more than enough for her. And with Sakura at the helm, it feels perfectly natural for her clear, unspoiled perspective to permeate the series overall.
Of course, romantic love is not the only variety on the table, and that’s one of the series’ strengths as well. Even the story’s romantic couples are decidedly friends first, and whatever “floaty” feelings may be buzzing around, it’s clear that those friendships stand strong, with or without anything more heart-throbbing behind them. Family relationships stand out as well, particularly Sakura’s relationships with her brother and her father—both of which are every bit as charming and throughly-written as her budding romantic adventures.
In our anniversary edition of Off the Shelf, David Welsh writes of Dark Horse’s first Cardcaptor Sakura omnibus,
I’ve already used the word “adorable” twice in this review, and you should gird yourself for me using it again, because this book is adorable in all of the best ways a thing can be adorable. The character designs? Adorable. The jokes and romance? Adorable. The sparkly, easy-to-read art? Adorable. It’s cheerful, heartwarming stuff that still manages to be thoughtful and exciting, and I can’t wait to read more of it, because, beyond being very endearing magical-girl manga, it seems like it might be heading interesting, even daring places.
As usual, David is not wrong. Cardcaptor Sakura is endlessly adorable. And by that I don’t mean “precious” or “saccharine” or anything like that, because Cardcaptor Sakura is none of those things. Nor is it any kind of grand satire or comment on the genre. It doesn’t need to be, because it’s just so skillfully created as exactly what it is. Cardcaptor Sakura is straight-out adorable—warm, heartfelt, genuinely cute, smart when it needs to be, and often funny.
Sakura? Adorable. Tomoyo and her costumes? So freaking adorable. Toya and Yukito? Dreamy and adorable. Syaoran crushing on Yukito and Sakura? Absolutely, positively adorable.
And while the main cast is, as I’ve said, extremely adorable, CLAMP doesn’t skimp when it comes to supporting characters, either. Most of Cardcaptor Sakura‘s minor characters are just as charming and idiosyncratic as its leads. Particular favorites of mine, for instance, are Sakura’s classmates Chiharu and Yamazaki. The two have been a couple since kindergarten, and much of their page time in the series is spent with Yamazaki conveying completely made-up facts to the other children while Chiharu rolls her eyes affectionately. Later, British transfer student Eriol joins in, much to Yamazaki’s delight. Observe:
The out-of-print TOKYOPOP books are becoming difficult to find, but fortunately as of September 26th, the entire series will be available in Dark Horse’s beautiful omnibus editions—worth the wait if you don’t already own the series (and probably even if you do). The omnibus editions come in a wonderful large trim size, printed on beautiful, smooth, white paper that shows off CLAMP’s delicate line work to its greatest advantage. Each volume contains beautiful color pages, including bonus images at the end of each omnibus, like these lovely drawings of Yue and Cerberus in their true forms.
I’m looking forward to changing out my older copies of the last three volumes for Dark Horse’s shiny new omnibus, and I plan to reread the entire series as soon as that volume is released.
Won’t you join me?
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