Now that the glitter of the new year has well and truly settled, we can all look back on 2017 and, with a slow shake of the head, mutter to ourselves: boy, did that year suck, or what? And—though it’s really too early to call it yet—with nothing really showing any signs of changing for the better so far, 2018 might shape up to be just as crappy. Maybe even worse.
What we desperately need is more positive thinking. More optimism. More of that Obama-branded hope. In the immortal words of Belinda Carlisle, we need a hero. Not a sad Ben Affleck kind of hero. Not a noodle-haired Danny Rand kind of hero. Not even a digitally shaven Henry Cavill kind of hero. No, what we need now is a rollerblading preteen, armed with a magical staff, on a mystic adventure—a “quest for all time,” you might even say.
What we need, in 2018, is Sakura Kinomoto, and thanks to the brand new Clear Card chapter in the Cardcaptor Sakura saga that premiered this month on Crunchyroll, that’s exactly what we’ve got!
For the uninitiated, Cardcaptor Sakura (or Cardcaptors, as it was better known as outside of Japan) was a shojo anime series that hit American and European shores in the ’90s along with Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball and Pokemon, during the anime boom of the era. The story follows Sakura; her best friend and cousin, Tomoyo; her rival, Syaoran Li; and her magical, animal sidekick, Kero, on a mission to capture Clow Cards—the powerful essences of which run amok in her hometown. For viewers at the time, it was a gateway into anime, imbuing the series with irresistible nostalgic appeal today. But, beyond that, what makes Cardcaptor Sakura so special? And why, two decades later, are we in need of a return trip to Sakura’s world?
For me, Cardcaptor Sakura is a show to curl up and soak in like a warm bath. Though there is a sufficient amount of action and adventuring in it, the story is driven primarily by characters. The narrative hooks fixed firmly on relationships and emotional bonds, whether they are platonic, familial, romantic or confusingly blurred somewhere in between. Even in the butchered, American dubbed version that downplayed Sakura’s leading role and needlessly erased the explicit queerness of prominent characters, the real magic of the show was still detectable.
It’s a series filled with genuine warmth, tenderness, and a strong, underlying message of acceptance that was baked-in by its all-female creative team (known collectively as “CLAMP”) from the start. When discussing the same-sex themes of the original manga in the Cardcaptor Sakura Memorial Book, CLAMP head writer Nanase Ohkawa made it clear that the writers wanted to explore and normalize queer identities in people of a young age in a way that wouldn’t talk down to its target audience:
“I don’t know if this is the right way to put it, but I wanted to create something that minorities would feel comfortable with. Depending on your point of view, Tomoyo-chan’s feelings for Sakura could be considered dangerous… So think of how Sakura-chan acts. For example, when she found out Syaoran was in love with Yukito [her older brother’s male friend] she didn’t look at him strangely. She did consider him a rival but she didn’t act as though it was weird. Maybe it’s too much to hope that younger readers will understand all that, but I do hope they’ll understand, a little bit, by looking at Sakura-chan.”
Like Sailor Moon, Sakura was not only most people’s first taste of anime, but also their first taste of “magical girls.” And, in 2018, it’s amazing to think that these kinds of heroines are still so few and far between outside of the medium. The Strong Female Character archetype that we’ve all grown so accustomed to is a fantastic inspirational model for girls to look up to in pop culture, but it’s still fairly limiting. We still largely measure female “strength” in terms of folded arms, stern expressions, and “take no prisoner” attitudes. There’s usually a lot of dark colors and muted palettes involved, too. It’s a totally valid but very traditionally masculine idea of “strength.”
Meanwhile, the kind of hyper-femininity that magical girls like Sakura offer—while also sometimes limiting in its own way—is still a trait that is ridiculed in both men and women. Frilly skirts, high-pitched squeals, and a sweet disposition have never been considered aspirational qualities for would-be agents of justice. Black Widow or Katniss Everdeen are only allowed to look “pretty” for the purposes of tactical seduction—be it a male enemy or a male viewer. And yet, Sakura and the rest of her magical girl ilk get the job done with a beaming smile and a ludicrously puffy dress in front of a largely female audience. We can see evidence of this influence today in Star vs. The Forces of Evil, Miraculous Ladybug, Steven Universe, and My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, but it would be great to see it spread outside of kids’ cartoons.
In retrospect, as well as alternate model for the Strong Female Character, Cardcaptor Sakura even provided a curiously prophetic commentary on our current conversations on male fragility. Sakura’s rival, Syaoran, was initially consumed by bitterness that his destined role as a Cardcaptor was pulled out from under him by someone so girlishly “weak”—an attitude that will sound awfully familiar to anyone who has had the misfortune of scrolling through a comment section under a report about any traditionally male role being given to a woman in the last year or so.
In the dark, alternate timeline of doom we’re currently trapped in, we need the unbeatable optimism, emotional sensitivity, and subversively feminine brand of heroism that Sakura Kinomoto graced us with back in the ’90s—not because burying our heads in Memberberry nostalgia is a great idea during a time when we should be more present-minded than ever, but because twenty years later, we still have a lot to learn from her and thank her for.
Hannah is a writer, illustrator, librarian (yes, they still exist) and feminasty based in the UK. When she’s not working, you’ll find her collecting Clow Cards, training her Blaziken to be the very best like no-one ever was, and binge-watching RuPaul’s Drag Race. Follow her! She’d like the company: https://twitter.com/SpannerX23
(featured image: Madhouse)
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