When I was in elementary school, one of my favorite after-school cartoons was the anime Cardcaptors. It was probably responsible for every trope that I love today—this series had wingfic, magical cats, and even the odd dragon or two. When I grew up, though, I learned that Cardcaptors was in fact just a really poorly dubbed and mangled version of its original Japanese series, Cardcaptor Sakura. And so, because I was feeling nostalgic, I set out to rewatch the original series as it was meant to be watched.
Cardcaptor Sakura is, fittingly enough, about an elementary school girl named Sakura Kinomoto, who accidentally opens the Book of Clow one day and releases all the magical cards inside it in one ill-timed gust of wind. She’s told by Cerberus (Keroberos), the cards’ guardian, that only a person with great magical powers could have opened the Book, and that Sakura would have to recapture all the cards as the new Cardcaptor. Other characters include Li Syaoran, a descendant of Clow Reed who thinks he’s the rightful new Cardcaptor, his cousin Li Meilin, Sakura’s friend Tomoyo, and a host of entertaining side characters.
I can see why I was drawn to the series as an after-school kind of thing: it’s very slice-of-life and episodic, with Sakura capturing a card or two every episode while going along with her elementary school life. Many episodes seemed to even feature the cards as an afterthought—the focus would be on Sakura’s relationships, and the card for that episode would just pop up near the end. If you’re not a big slice-of-life person, this series might not be for you. I was watching it in my living room and all my family members drifted by it with no apparent interest after seeing Sakura worry about the nth homework assignment or school trip. However, slice-of-life is a genre that I’m interested in, and as a kid, I could really emphasize with Sakura’s school difficulties, her chore wheel at home, and her annoying older brother, Touya, as those were things that I was also dealing with (especially the older brother part, haha). And as an adult, it was pretty comforting to remember a world in which the only thing I really had to do was to buy some groceries for dinner.
The subbed version I watched was extraordinarily better than the dubbed version I remember from childhood. Though Sakura was a little absent-minded and clueless in the tropey way that female anime protagonists all seem to be, she had female mentors as well as male mentors and didn’t end up solely ordered around by Syaoran and Kero. Plus, this trope was somewhat subverted in Season 2, where she really comes into her own as the Cardcaptor and Syaoran is relegated largely to the role of love interest. Syaoran and his cousin Meilin, also, were the first Chinese characters I could ever remember seeing on American TV (even though the dub called him “Li Showron”, I could tell what he was meant to be called). It’s no wonder that the characters of the show stuck with me for far longer than the actual plot did.
As with anything made by CLAMP, there was a lot of gay content, absolutely none of which made it into the American version I first watched. Touya and Yukito, Touya’s best friend, end up together, while Syaoran has a crush on Yukito and Tomoyo has a crush on Sakura. It’s all extremely normalized and shoujo-cute, and watching it as an adult, I was extremely happy to find out that my junior shipping goggles had been correct on all counts—it just sucks that I had to watch the sub for confirmation. But the series also normalized some questionable things, such as student-teacher relationships and large age differences between couples, as other Japanese series have done. I enjoyed how Cardcaptor Sakura took the time to delve into the intricacies of these relationships, because few other series have—Sakura’s father, Fujitaka, married Sakura’s mother, Nadeshiko, when she was still a student and he was her teacher, and Sakura’s father spends much of the series getting to know Nadeshiko’s family and earning their forgiveness so that it seemed like more than just a tropey May-December romance. But there are several other teacher-student relationships in the show, and though they’re all very innocent, I don’t think power imbalances in relationships should be romanticized in this way no matter how “cute” it may seem.
Despite its flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed my rewatch of Cardcaptor Sakura, and though I can tell it’s not for everyone, I would still highly recommend it. Just try not to watch the dubbed version: it aired out of order and completely erased all the nuance and diversity that made the original such a great show. Definitely check it out!