Cardcaptor Sakura and Well-Roundedness

Cardcaptor Sakura and its sequel, Clear Card, are available to stream on Crunchyroll, Funimation/VRV, and Hulu.

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I’m specifically talking about this kind of cutesy imagery, but we’ll get back to her in particular in a bit.

Magical Girl anime exist in this weird space as a subgenre. On one hand, there’s a clear public conception of the sparkly, sugary-sweet Saturday-morning goodness they bring to the table as softer, more morality-heavy alternatives to action cartoons.

On the other hand, very few of the magical girl anime most recognizable to your neighbor’s mom’s cat (at least in the U.S. – I can’t speak for places where I don’t live) completely line up with this conception of the genre.

You can’t really say that about other types of shows that run in the same space – the ever-dominant Superman and Batman pretty cleanly cover ~90% of the stereotypes associated with comic book heroes between them, staple series Mobile Suit Gundam defines today’s runbook for “semi-realistic mecha” shows (and its later seasons/series run the gamut of “super robot” archetypes), and the household-name Dragon Ball has its fingerprints on every energy beam, tournament arc, and yelling power-up transformation in a shonen action series made in the last thirty years.

But of the handful of magical girl series that you might reflexively name as examples, there’s a fair chance that almost every single one of them hit on some unique turn or – for lack of a gentler word – gimmick that makes them decidedly different than the store-brand conception of a magical girl series.

Granted, a big part of this is likely because the codifying examples aired before anime had significant traction in North American markets, but still, you’d normally expect some of those to slip through the cracks. Not so in this case – raise your hand if you’ve ever heard of Princess Knight or Cutie Honey.

Now bop yourself on the noggin with it, because even if you’re not probably lying, you still just raised your hand at a written blog article, ya dummy.

Anyway.

Taking an example from the very top of the pile: Sailor Moon. You’ve got girls transforming into dresses to sling magic at a monster of the week, sure. But that’s about where it jumps ship to something else entirety. The rest of the show takes much more after Super Sentai (Power Rangers) series, from the older cast and their natural preoccupation with young adult problems to the central five-woman band of physical fighters (complete with exaggerated poses). Honestly, the “magical” elements of that series regularly take a backseat to the presentation of a kung-fu hero team that just happens to be comprised of young women.

Which, to be clear, is totally awesome grounds for a show concerned with giving role models to young kids, with all the lovely and empowering things that Sailor Moon embodies. It just doesn’t really resemble the stereotypical frilly, childlike fare we’re looking for here.

Then there’s Lyrical Nanoha, a series a few rungs down the popularity ladder, but clearly with enough of a following to get its movie re-adaptations into U.S. theaters, which is more pull than just about any other anime from 2005 still have. The series does tread a bit closer to stereotype in the earlier seasons, but very quickly leans into a particular science-fantasy flavor, including full-magitek weaponry and defined rules.

And not even “equivalent exchange” or “can’t bring back the dead” rules. Like, time-traveling alien police who show up and arrest Nanoha for violating Magic Law.

(Which makes more sense given context, trust me.)

It somehow escalates from there until its third season is effectively centered on a military academy for magitek cops, with the Japanese hometown setting never to be seen again. The end result is a full sci-fi/fantasy action series initially sold by way of a cute mascot girl but now hitting notes that cater to older demographics. Again, all in favor of what the show is doing, especially the main character’s long, steady progression into an action heroine over the course of the show, but it’s a far cry from waving a wand at this week’s creature-from-under-the-bed.

And, of course, the most recent standout answer has to be Madoka Magica. Ever since that show planted its flag in the ground, a sustained wave of follow-the-leader series have come in its wake (many of whom I’d argue missed anything below Madoka‘s surface, but there’s plenty there for its own tirade post some other time).

While Madoka makes heavy use of a lot of the frilly, starry, floral, and all-around vivid imagery associated with magical girls, it also uses a lot of very different imagery and subject matter that place the series very firmly into a different camp that doesn’t want discussion in an article about a different show. Needless to say, Madoka’s sights are set on very different demographics than five-to-ten-year-old-children, and it’s another that definitely doesn’t fit the mold.

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And while Kiki’s clearly not even close, she’s still the best of the best in the business

So, the biggest name left (and the obvious one for the presumably-every-one-of-you with even passable reading comprehension) is the actually-much-more-traditional Cardcaptor Sakura.

Which – psych! – I can’t in good conscience make definitive statements on from having only watched the pilot episode of the original show. So it might actually be the one big-name magical girl show to properly fit the magical-beams-and-pink-dresses imagery. I wouldn’t be the person to say.

That said, Clear Card (last season’s sequel series, produced only a short 20 years after the original!) is, once again, a clear genre hybrid – wouldn’t’cha know it? This time, though, we have a show in cahoots with the notorious cute-characters-doing-cute things “slice of life” genre. To be fair, slice of life shows are at least tonally in the same ballpark as magical girls (low stakes, upbeat, a penchant for pastel color palettes), so the biggest thing Clear Card takes away is in how the show splits its time between the everyday goings-on of its cast and the actual evils that our heroine is bound to fight (which in many episodes is about a 70-30 split in favor of the mundane).

But that serves it perfectly fine from where I’m sitting, because Cardcaptor Sakura seems to me all about embracing a positive, balanced outlook on the ordinary as its strength moreso than courage or purity or whatever virtue this week’s writer wants to pin on the heroine’s chest and highlight with a sparkly title card.

It’s even resonant in the very first thing the viewer ever sees in the show’s advertising art: the costumes. Costumes being very pointedly used in the plural, because nearly every single episode sees Sakura face her challenges in some new outfit, and with nary a flashy transformation sequence in sight. Rather, the show elects to skip whatever colorful metaphor you want to read out of a girl literally transforming into a different person to gain strength (heck, Sakura fights her first battle in her pajamas), but instead leans into Sakura’s best friend and chief confidant, Tomoyo.

Even knowing that she can’t directly do much to help with Sakura’s dangerous superheroics (and Magical Girls are totally a demographic shift of superheroes, full stop, I’d watch Sakura in Avengers), she still insists from early on that she should help out using what skills she does have. And, even though Sakura can get visibly embarrassed about it at times, she still accepts Tomoyo’s “help” of delightfully-elaborate costumes and live filming because she appreciates the gesture. It’s a very tangible display of mutual support that does so much more for the characters and themes in the show than a repeated “suiting up” animation could ever be.

And that’s just the tip of it; there are a score of more subtle instances of the show underscoring the cast’s more run-of-the-mill efforts every bit as much as it does Sakura’s struggle against trans-dimensional mirror labyrinths.

Chiefly, there’s the low, constant hum of Sakura’s single-parent (and, some weeks, zero-parent) household, where a twelve-year-old is made to shoulder a not-insignificant portion of the duties of keeping a household running smoothly. Which she does with flying colors, in fact, to the point that she can comfortably invite friends over for completely self-run dinner parties. It’s not even that she’s a prodigy or especially dutiful or whatever; Sakura’s just shown to be really good at buckling down and being responsible without making a production of it. It’s on the maturity level of a lot of people twice her age, and while the show hardly stops to gawk at it, the regular non-event of a middle-school child operating a suburban house should leave an impression on anyone who’s ever been more responsible for maintaining any living space beyond their own bedroom.

Another thing the show never bats an eye at is Sakura’s hobbies – her cheerleading squad is shown to exist almost entirely for its own sake (I think it might have been shown in the context of a sports team once), which in and of itself creates a nice element of balance between a team activity and independence, and her penchant for rollerblading could easily come across as tomboyish if anyone were to eve make a remark on it – which they gratefully don’t, instead deeming it totally normal and non-indicative of the rest of her personality.

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Except possibly her regard for personal safety. No helmet? The absolute madness!

All in all, Clear Card has a lot of that – compared to all the swirls and sparkles that adorn the trailers and posters pushing the show, everything about the characters in the show is overwhelmingly normal. In every element, there’s not too much of one thing and an understatement of the other, leaving the impression of somebody with completely and totally average skills, holding completely and totally average values, in the middle of a completely and totally average crowd.

And I found that way more admirable than heroes that make a visible show of their tenacity or are extolled for the strength of character or dream of being King of the Pirates.

Kinamoto Sakura, above all else, is attainable. We’re meant to look up to her resolve, positive energy, and general optimism as a role model, to be sure, but her resultant naivete and slight gullibility help ground her as someone you absolutely buy into as a possible person. She’s a character whose various strengths are evident not in the way she staves off arcane disasters, but rather in how she interacts with her family, supports her friends, and lives her day-to-day life. And while that results in the antagonists in Clear Card being either totally forgettable or questionably-even-sentient (frequently both), that’s more than a fair drawback for having the show’s icon feel like a peer rather than an idealized figure.

A thoroughly ordinary, middle-of-the-road heroine.

Perfectly balanced.

(As all things should be.)

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