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Sunday, December 15, 2013

Retrospective Review: Card Captor Sakura

Cardcaptor Sakura omnibus v.1-4
Author: CLAMP
Dark Horse Comics
Each volume is approx. 550 pages

Fourth grader Sakura Kinomoto finds a strange book in her father's library -- a book made by the wizard Clow to store dangerous spirits sealed within a set of magical cards. But when Sakura opens it up, there is nothing left inside but Kero-chan, the book's cute little guardian beast . . . who informs Sakura that since the Clow cards seem to have escaped while he was asleep, it's now her job to capture them! (Source: Goodreads/DHC)

Spoiler warning: Retrospective reviews contain spoilers for the books they discuss as well as later events in the series. Read on at your own peril!
Once upon a time, Tokyopop (remember them?) sold Card Captor Sakura manga by the issue, doling out the story chapter by chapter every month to a ravenous, maho shojo starved fanbase whose thirst had been partially slated with Sailor Moon and various similar releases. If Sailor Moon was the magical girl to rule them all, Card Captor Sakura was her high-spirited little sister who fought just as hard and would eventually gain the same massive audience (especially when the Cardcaptors fans high on Nelvana/Fox Box realized their favorite anime actually came from an earlier manga).

And I was one of them, a Card Captor fanatic, someone who owned a talking Kero plushie and a complete glossy set of the Clow Cards, who owned the Cardcaptors' infamous soundtrack (that theme song, though, oww) and memorized the chants from the program and even the various card-related rituals from the comic books, as if shuffling around my plastic Clow Cards in a certain way would actually show me the future. Someone who had images of all the color art from both anime and manga on her computer, who joined Card Captor Sakura related online groups and read CCS fanfiction and got into ship wars and made friends based on a mutual love of Sakura Kinomoto and her endless supply of shiny pretty costumes.
CCS would eventually get the Tokyopop graphic novel treatment reserved for very few: the initial American flipped fit-to-pocket Mixx releases, then the eventual '100% authentic' graphic novels with the new covers that would also end up being released via fancy art box. Recently, Dark Horse Comics has seen fit to 'rescue' several CLAMP titles, including Card Captor Sakura, which was released in four massive omnibus editions. These new editions include a brand new translation and pages upon pages of color art from the manga. They may be heavy but for a Sakura fanatic you know, they are pretty much perfect.
Going back to the Card Captor Sakura story is like being wrapped up in a familiar hug from a loved one you haven't seen in so many years, then being invited into their home for hot cocoa and stories of their adventures that have passed since the last time you've met, only these stories of magic and romance are very familiar. For Card Captor Sakura, some things undoubtedly do not stand up to the test of time from childhood. However, the majority of the series is highly enjoyable fluffy fun and highly accessible for all types of readers.
Sakura Kinomoto is the accidental heroine of Card Captor Sakura by CLAMP, although it is later revealed that her stumbling across the Clow Cards in her father's library is no mere accident (hitsuzen, as a later CLAMP character would say). She is very much the star of her own story, with a localized and colorful cast of characters who play support during her quest to reseal the Clow Cards, and then later recast them in her own style as Sakura Cards. As CLAMP heroines go, she is certainly one of the most steadfast and kindest, although I think Hikaru from Magic Knight Rayearth could challenge her easily in terms of high spirits and bravery.
The issue with Sakura is that she's not terribly proactive. She tends to go with the flow plot-wise and let things happen before dealing with them, even when dreams suggest exactly what is going to happen down the pipe later on. See: all the dreams suggesting a showdown in Tokyo Tower with a magician or man with long wings, depending on the arc - Tokyo Tower being a favorite place of conflict not only for this series, but for CLAMP titles in general. When she does become proactive, Sakura usually ends up being pulled along by outer forces anyway, such as Eriol or the Clow Cards themselves.
That is okay, though! Sakura's strength comes partly from her problem solving skills. Throw a problem at her - lights out at the school play, an over abundance of flowers at a race, a girl who looks like her running around town - and Sakura will put her mind to it and solve it, usually with magic and the assistance of her few friends who know she is a magician. It's smart of Card Captor Sakura to set itself up as a series of tests for Sakura to prove her mettle as Clow Reed's successor, although now I wish we could see Sakura as a grown-up magician with her own symbol and cards and guardians, perhaps in high school or later, just to see what kind of person she is when Clow Reed's descendants aren't torturing her daily with weird stuff.
Sakura's strength also comes from her friends and family, and it's here that I think the series did things right, even if a bit sad. We have Tomoyo, her best friend who is deeply in love with Sakura but has resigned herself to unrequited love so long as Sakura is happy. We also have her older brother, Touya, and his friend, Yukito, who is Sakura's first crush. Touya and Sakura's parents are Fujimoto, who ends up being incredibly vital to the plot by series' end, and Nadeshiko, who is just strikingly gorgeous and geez Fujimoto has all the luck, doesn't he? Nadeshiko also has the honor of being a regular-ish character despite being dead, thanks to Touya's second sight and ability to see ghosts.
(Let us not think about the fact that Nadeshiko's spirit is apparently permanently tied to the Kinomoto residence, or that she spends her days watching her husband and her children live their lives without her. Let us not think about Nadeshiko watching Fujimoto go about his business, unable to see his dead wife watching him. YOU ARE NOT READY FOR ALL OF THESE ASSOCIATED FEELS.)
Tomoyo and Touya (and by extension, Yukito) are Card Captor Sakura's legit, canon LGBT characters. I'm discounting Ruby Moon/Nakuru because they are not canonly trans*, although that is a very valid interpretation of their character to me. Also, I'll discount for now Syaoran's crush on Yukito, because that turned out to be magically induced (although painfully adorable). Tomoyo is a tragic figure, in love with a girl who only sees her as a friend and is perfectly all right with being alone because her one and only is with someone else. Touya, however, gets a happier ending, although it comes after a lot of "JUST KISS ALREADY" moments between him and Yukito. Well, they never actually do kiss. But they admit that they other person is their most precious person and in CLAMP's world, it's probably for the best. Those who kiss end up getting bad ends in the name of angst.
In retrospect, Tomoyo's love for Sakura is blindingly obvious, even more so that when I first read it. Of course, Touya/Yukito was always a thing - I was shipping it from the butchered dub anime for crying out loud. And Sakura's crush on Yukito was smartly and tactfully dealt with in a way most series would not. Four for Yukito and being mature about the whole thing, and for Sakura for realizing her feelings belonged in a different context and not assuming the smart thing to do is separate completely from Yukito, who is a genuine friend through and through. Show me another children's manga who would do the same!
I had said earlier about Card Captor Sakura that 'some things undoubtedly do not stand up to the test of time from childhood'. After re-reading the series, the main thing that does not stand up at all under any sort of scrutiny is the relationship between Mr. Terada and Rika. Terada is an elementary school teacher; Rika is his student. In the series, they are dating and are in involved in a romantic relationship. Terada even gives Rika a promise ring, for when Rika is old enough to be married. Obviously, their relationship must be kept on the down low, even from Sakura, who probably has more pressing issues on her mind that the older guy Rika is undoubtedly dating.
You won't really find the Terada/Rika relationship in the anime, at least not in this form. Why? Because someone at Madhouse Studio had a bloody brain and realized that maybe not everything from the series should stay intact in anime form. Let's be real: Terada should not be dating a fourth-grade student. He should not be dating a student, period, especially one as young and impressionable as Rika. I love teacher/student relationships in fiction and May/December relationships in general, but Rika isn't even legal in Japan.
And yet the Card Captor Sakura series presents their romantic escapades as normally (and blushingly) as the Sakura/Syaoran and Yukito/Touya and Yamazaki/Chiharu relationships - and that is just questionable, to say the least. It's hard to claim that CCS doesn't condone an underage student/teacher romantic relationship when they portray it in the same light as the others. And I find the fact that Terada gives Rika a promise ring awfully manipulative, since he has no idea if Rika will still feel the same way about him when she is finally a legal age to be wed. Hell, he doesn't even know if he will, too!
But that is just one creepy relationship that tries to spoil the bunch. There are many relationships in Card Captor Sakura - between family, friends, significant others, colleagues, classmates, et cetera. For the most part, they are healthy and worth exploring and are central to the story of Sakura becoming a great magician and taming Clow's magical deck. I'd say the most important relationships are those within the Kinomoto household; it's Sakura's family that she draws her strength from, and it's the lineage of Sakura's family that led her on her current path to begin with.
When I was a little kid, I read Card Captor Sakura for the magic and the action scenes and Sakura's awesome wardrobe, courtesy of Tomoyo's sewing machine. Now - well, okay, I still read it for those things! But I also read it for the characters, Sakura's arc of personal growth, Yukito and Touya grow closer together, Syaoran and Sakura realize their feelings for one another, Clow Reed's history and how it's all tangled up in the Kinomoto family tree . . . oh, and Yamazaki's terrible, laughable puns. What can I say? He's an adorable dork.
And, of course, the art! I think CLAMP's art style used for Card Captor Sakura is my favorite of theirs. I love the costumes, the magic, the various spirits of the Clow Cards, the character designs. The art is stellar enough in black and white, but once it is rendered in color, it bursts into life in ways monochrome simply cannot compete with. The best CCS art, naturally, is that which is centered around Sakura Kinomoto and her outfits for card capturing. I still consider the art of her sitting upon her extended wand like a broom, hovering above a rippling pool of water, in her blue Watery card costume, one of the best color images in CLAMP's repertoire.

Nostalgia glasses put aside, Card Captor Sakura is a by-the-numbers series in some ways, groundbreaking in other, more subtle ways. As a magical girl manga, it entertains and enthralls and captures a wider audience that most of its genre. It works as an action/adventure, a school drama, a romance, and a maho shojo series all together. And now, thanks to Dark Horse, you can stack all four volumes on your bedside table and marathon through them properly. And with a series like Card Captor Sakura, you won't want to stop with just one volume - you will most definitely want to read them all.