I love a good heroine, and the world of animation provides a variety of archetypes to choose from: Technicians, warriors, royalty, soldiers, thieves, and so forth. One particular type is (mostly) unique to anime, which is the “magical girl.” And when you think of prominent, famous magical girls in anime you’re down to one of two really big names.
This is the one which isn’t Sailor Moon.
What is it?
Cardcaptor Sakura started life as a manga series by the artist collective known as CLAMP, then was adapted into a series spanning 70 broadcast episodes and two theatrical movies.
What kind of story is it?
Sakura, our heroine, is a perpetually upbeat, clever, athletic young lady with occasional bouts of clumsiness. One day, she accidentally sets loose a whole mess of magical cards. It’s her job to re-capture all fifty-some-odd of ’em. Oh, and she gets magic powers with which to tackle the job.
She’s aided and/or thwarted by a handful of unusual folks, such as her best friend Tomoyo who has made it her mission in life to ensure that her newly-minted magical girl bestie never has to wear the same outfit twice. Take that, Moon Princess Serenity!
Basically, in nearly every episode Sakura has to capture (or, in the latter part of the series, change) each and every lost card. Along the way she deals with family, friendship, romance, and all manner of school activities.
Why do you like it?
Lemme tell ya: CCS is the polar opposite of “grimdark,” and that makes me very happy. That’s not to say it’s so fluffy that it’s devoid of depth and drama, mind you. The dramatic stakes feel high enough. The show doesn’t feel the need to kill anyone off or prolong anyone’s suffering just for the sake of “grittiness,” however. And I love that.
A lot of the fun comes from seeing how our young heroes figure out how to deal with each of the cards they encounter. The solution to each challenge follows logically (more or less) from the identification of which card they’re dealing with. Often, previously-captured cards’ powers are brought into play in clever ways.
When not facing magical challenges, the characters spend time hanging out, goofing off, living life and generally being adorable. And every now and then, a bit of the overarching plot thread shows up to pique the viewer’s interest.
What might one not like about it?
If you’re prone to becoming uncomfortable when characters express romantic interest toward other characters of the same gender, you’ll have a rough time watching Cardcaptor Sakura. I mean, it’s generally schoolkid-crush levels for the most part but it’s still not even remotely subtle.
Also that grimdark thing, particularly the near-total lack thereof. If you need some amount of grittiness in order to enjoy a story, this won’t work for you. In the end, this show is about the power of one girl’s unstoppable commitment to being kind and decent to everyone she possibly can. I can’t imagine how someone could find that off-putting but that may be simply a limitation of my imagination.
There are also talking animals… kind of. I know some people can’t stand that sort of thing, so you’re duly warned.
Other thoughts about it?
There’s a solid mid-series plot thread wrap up which leads into the second major portion of the show, with another solid ending followed by the completion of the entire story in the second movie. Yes, you really will want to watch both movies. (One takes place partway through the TV show’s timeline.)
In a lot of ways, CCS is the gold-standard magical girl show. Sailor Moon may be (slightly, arguably) better known, and unlike most magical girl shows CCS doesn’t rely on a transformation sequence (Sakura has to get into each of Tomoyo’s provided costumes the old-fashioned way), but there’s nothing better fitted to the concept of “young girl uses magic and willful determination to make the world better.” Other shows may have better music, higher production values (consider that this show was made in the late 1990s), and so forth. Still: You’re not going to get a better Platonic Ideal of “mahou shoujo” than Cardcaptor Sakura.
Of course in this new millennium we have to deconstruct the entire genre with things like Madoka Magicka, which is a stunning piece of work and seriously grimdark into the bargain. Sigh.
By the way: I freely admit that I have taken advantage of a particular element which shows up at the end of most episodes to fuel a running gag in this entry which won’t make any sense to someone who hasn’t watched the show. It’s my website and I’ll joke if I want to.
Where can I watch it?
This one’s a bit tricky.
There’s a Blu-Ray release, but the dubbing and the subtitling are both poorly regarded by most fans of the show. There’s a DVD set, but it’s spread across seventeen individually-boxed discs. (Oh, and it’s out of print, so good luck.) You might find discs of a horribly chopped down dubbed version of the show which aired on American TV called Cardcaptors which you should avoid at all costs.
My recommendation is to stream the subtitled version on Crunchyroll. Start here. You’ll thank me… in a few weeks when you get through the other 69 episodes…