This review is an analysis of the themes in Cardcaptor Sakura, following no precise review style.
CLAMP, Maria Simpson (translator) (2004). Cardcaptor Sakura Vol. 1. Los Angeles, CA: Tokyopop.
Published in English in 2004, after an original publication in 1996.
Cardcaptor Sakura isn’t a new manga. One of the early works in the “magical girl” genre (emerging only shortly after Sailor Moon), the series is notable for its thoughtful, emotionally complex characters and a plot which combines predictable, cute elements of the magical girl genre with dramatic arcs, mysteries, and character development sure to interest adults as well as children. The plot centers on Sakura Kimimoto, who accidentally frees a set of magical, sentient cards from an ancient book, and is charged with using her newfound magic to recapture them in order to prevent wholesale destruction and chaos.
The central characters of Cardcaptor Sakura are between the ages of nine and eleven, but are as thoughtful, considerate, brave, and passionate as the teenage and adult secondary characters. Sakura consistently keeps the secret of the cards and commits to solving problems on her own without help from adults. She races around the city alone to complete her heroic tasks. Some adult reviewers have criticized this tendency as unrealistic, but one of the key strengths in CLAMP’s work for young female readers is refusing to underestimate their audience.
CLAMP’s interest in complex moral themes and questions about unconventional relationships, explored in depth in Chobits, Wish, and XXXHolic, shines through in Cardcaptor Sakura. Sakura’s brother Touya has an understated but clearly romantic relationship with Yuki, a boy his age with supernatural powers. Tomoyo, Sakura’s best friend, compliments her beauty and has a crush on her. Both Sakura and her male rival Siyaoran have a crush on Yuki, Sakura’s brother’s boyfriend. The series is notable for the nonchalance it expresses toward same-sex attraction and love.
One could chalk this up either to CLAMP being committed to same-sex representation as a matter of activism, or to their desire to cash in on the popularity of so-called shonen-ai and shoujo-ai comics, which are frequently by and for straight Japanese and global audiences interested in depictions of forbidden love. Nanase Okhawa, one of the four CLAMP members, mentions “varieties of romance” in this 2004 interview, not naming homosexuality explicitly.
On a more precisely unsavory note, the series is notable for also depicting a number of relationships between male teachers and female students in a positive light, including one between a ten-year-old and her teacher, censored from the American editions of comics and the spinoff show. Sakura’s mother, dead at the time the series opens, was also one of her father’s students.
The fact that both pedophilia and homosexuality are depicted neutrally in a comic for children has provoked ire from many reviewers, some of whom conflate the two issues and argue that CLAMP’s complex characterizations of children are a propaganda tactic intended to normalize both gay relationships and pedophilia.
As a reviewer, I think that the homosexual relationships are actually handled well, or at least in a manner comparable to U.S-based depictions of gay relationships in the 1990s. However, the lack of a strong condemnation of power abuses within the text and the failure to differentiate consensual relationships between peers from ones between an adult and child/teenager doesn’t do much to help young readers develop a critique of harmful or abusive relationships.
Writing during an era when manga specifically for young girls was relatively new, CLAMP created something that bridged the adult and youth market and has become an enduring icon of children’s comics. At the same time, Cardcaptor Sakura provokes anxiety and censorship because of its content. It is a key part of the growth of a market for children’s comics today. A key question for librarians is how to treat children’s books written during different eras or in different cultural contexts that may contain a mix of positive and negative messages for children. I think the first step is to be a critical and careful reader and to look at everything, good and bad, the work brings to the table.