Does It Hold Up?: Cardcaptor Sakura

[Does It Hold Up is a feature in which I look back to anime I watched as a child. The caveat for this is I have to watch them as close to the original productions that were available back then.]

Cardcaptor Sakura debuted as a manga in May 1996 from the all-female manga group CLAMP. The manga would run until June 2000 and would be critically acclaimed during its time. The manga won the Seiun Award for Best Manga in 2001 in Japan. In April 1998, Madhouse licensed the series for an anime which ran until March 2000 with a 70 episode run. The Cardcaptor Sakura anime would also win awards, including Animage’s Anime Grand Prix in 1999, awarded to the best anime as voted on by the magazine’s readers and in 1999 and 2000 would win best episode for the season two and three finales. It would eventually get licensed around the world, including North America where Canadian distributor Nelvana would dub it and rename the series Cardcaptors.

This version of the show debuted on June 17, 2000 on Kids WB in the United States, which is where I would watch it. The heavily edited 39 episode run would last until December 14, 2001, but would also be shown on Toonami and elsewhere around the world. Cardcaptors was heavily criticized during its time due to the large number of episodes missing, shuffling the episodes out of order, Americanizing all of the names, censorship, and trying to repurpose the show from the Magical Girl genre to more of an action show to appease the overwhelming young male demographic of animation at the time. In his review of Cardcaptors, Jake Godek of THEM Anime says of the dub, “This dubbing deserves credit as being one of the worst if not the worst dubbing done for a program.”

 The cast of  Cardcaptor Sakura .  Credit to CLAMP/Madhouse.

The cast of Cardcaptor Sakura. Credit to CLAMP/Madhouse.

By the time the show made it to Europe, the cut episodes were re-added and placed in sequential order. Later, Animax would redub the entire show making it more true to the original Japanese release. This is the dub that I ended up watching and the one that is on Crunchyroll and also that NIS America licensed out in 2014. While the Animax dub is more true to the original, it does have some slight censorship issues that I’ll cover later. This does change this portion of Does It Hold Up a little, since this isn’t the same Cardcaptors dub that I watched 15 years ago. Nevertheless, I was able to be reminiscent of this show, even if I was watching a longer version of it and listening to a better dub.

To break down how Cardcaptor Sakura is as a whole, let’s break it up season by season. Season one was 35 episodes and aired in Japan from April 7th to December 29th, 1998. The basic plotline of the first season is Sakura trying to track down all of the Clow Cards that she inadvertently let free. Before we go any further, I must make note of how this dub and the Cardcaptors dub pronounce Sakura. The Japanese pronunciation of Sakura is Sah-kah-rah, which is prevalent throughout most pronunciations of the name. For some reason, both English dubs decided to pronounce it as Suh-ker-ruh. Sure, this is nitpicking, but it is slightly baffling that no one in either dubbing process, especially the Animax one spoke up and said anything about the mispronunciation.

There is not much difference animation wise between the three seasons, as they were all released fairly close to one another. For a show released in 1998, it does seem to show its age looking at it in 2015. Specifically, it almost looks like an anime that was released in the early 90s rather than the late 90s. Though, the animation itself is rock solid and holds up very well today. You rarely if ever see any animation mistakes or hiccups. There are a few reused scenes here and there, including the numerous times Sakura calls forth her staff and the Clow Cards. All of these scenes follow the same pattern episode to episode; they do consistently change to show off whatever outfit Sakura is wearing at the time. Given that her friend Tomoyo is constantly making her new battle costumes, it’s a real testament to the dedication the animation team gave this show to not slack off in this area. 

The opening to CardcaptorsCredit to CLAMP/Madhouse/Nelvana.

The story, specifically in season one, seems to fall flat or feel real strong. Cardcaptor Sakura does foreshadowing very well and doesn’t reveal its hand to you until the very last minute. At the same time, there are a lot of episodes during season one where it feels like nothing is happening to advance the story. Most of this first season follows a “flavor of the week” model, in which it is Sakura going and finding which specific Clow Card is causing a ruckus and sealing it. Let’s compare this to another staple of the Magical Girl genre, Sailor Moon. Sailor Moon also follows a “flavor of the week” model in which the Sailor Scouts have to dispense of a monster that week. Unlike Cardcaptor Sakura though, there is a clear form of villainy in front of the Sailor Scouts. You never really get that in Cardcaptor Sakura because when Li arrives, he is just a rival to Sakura who is also looking to capture the Clow Cards. Even when Mizuki is brought in, she is only shown as a new character in Sakura’s reoccurring dream, but is never given villain or antagonist status as she never interferes with Sakura or goes head-to-head with her.

During some of these downtime episodes, the show does explore the numerous relationships it spawns and the overall feeling of love. This is a strong point of the story as you get vastly different takes on the concept. It does help round out the episodes so it is not just strictly catching a Clow Card each week, but it doesn’t feel like it is enough to carry the show on its own. This may just be a problem with season one being 35 episodes instead of 24. Season three also has this problem, while having 24 episodes, but you don’t necessarily feel as if the show isn’t doing anything as you do in the first season.

Season two ends up being the shortest season of the show with only 11 episodes that aired from April 6th to June 22nd, 1999. This season ends up being the finale for the first arc of the show with Sakura capturing all of the Clow Cards. Everything that had been foreshadowed previously, especially with Sakura’s reoccurring dream comes to fruition here. Season two is easily the strongest season of the show and that might be because it is only 11 episodes long. Everything is condensed down and the show finally starts sprinting towards a finish line. There is only a little bit of waiting around for the story to do something, since they did not have as much time to do that. 

 If I ever wore a kimono, it'd have to be this crocodile one.  Credit to CLAMP/Madhouse.

If I ever wore a kimono, it'd have to be this crocodile one. Credit to CLAMP/Madhouse.

The second season’s strongest moment is the big reveal that Yukito was actually the second guardian beast of the seal, Yue. You get a brief hint of this when in episode 27; Li mentions that people with magical power are attracted to one another. Putting that together with the fact that Sakura and Li both mention that they have feelings for Yukito, it becomes quite obvious that he has powers of his own. However, the line is never really brought up much afterwards which leaves everyone still in the dark until this reveal. This is one of the reasons why the foreshadowing in the story is really good since you get payoffs like these.  Season two ends with Sakura proving to Yue that she can be the new master of the Clow Cards and is a fitting ending to the first arc.

The third season changes up the story formula as it transitions into a new arc. A new transfer student is introduced into Sakura’s class named Eriol Hiragizawa. Unlike the two previous seasons, Eriol is straight away defined as the clear antagonist of this arc. Eriol is actually a reincarnated form of Clow Reed, the creator of the Clow Cards. When interacting with Sakura, he is overtly nice to her and does his best to not give away that he has magical powers. On the other hand, he also brings forth trials for Sakura in order for her to transform the Clow Cards into Sakura Cards. Eriol can’t necessarily be classified as a villain since he’s very bad at being a terrible person and also his whole motive is to actually help Sakura. They eventually have a showdown in the penultimate episode of the series where he reveals himself and forces Sakura to transform the rest of the Clow Cards in order to break a sleep spell he has put over the entire town. Sakura is successful and Eriol heads back to England at the end of the series.

Another key part of season three is the blossoming of Li’s feelings for Sakura. Viewers start to get a sense of this near the end of the second season, but it goes into full effect once season three starts. Li struggles with the idea of confessing to Sakura, almost coming close to doing so a few times before being interrupted at the key moment. Tomoyo ends up being Li’s wingman as she helps him build the confidence he needs to confess to Sakura and roots for him which also gives a fun addition to their friendship. Li ends up very conflicted when Sakura finally confesses to Yukito, but is rejected and Li helps comfort her. He finally confesses after the showdown with Clow Reed in the penultimate episode. Sakura spends the final episode wrestling with her own feelings for Li which help spurn out a new Sakura Card that has a heart on it. The series finale ends with Sakura seeing Li at the airport before he heads back to Hong Kong, but does not say how she feels to him.

Season 1 opening of Cardcaptor SakuraCredit to CLAMP/Madhouse.

Season three is likely the second best season in the series since it has more true story beats than season one. Sakura is once again working towards a goal with the cards, trying to figure out the mystery behind Clow Reed, and also there is the love aspect between Li and Sakura. With season three being only 24 episodes, it does leave less room for filler unlike the first season. I was a little upset that there was no true resolution to the Li and Sakura relationship, but this apparently gets addressed in one of the movies. There’s also the fact that I would have liked to seen Eriol be more of an antagonist instead of just being the super nice guy who causes trouble here and there. There is also no real explanation as to where Eriol’s partners Ruby Moon and Spinel come from or why Eriol made new creatures in the vain of Kero and Yue.

As I mentioned earlier, love is a very prevalent theme within Cardcaptor Sakura. You see this with Sakura and her feelings for Yukito, Li’s feelings for Sakura, and also Li’s feelings for Yukito. For a show made in the late 90s, it is rather surprising how forward the idea of same-sex relationships is in this show. Early on, Li makes no qualms about having feelings for Yukito, though this is later dismissed as Li being more attracted to Yukito’s moon powers when Yukito’s true identity is revealed. There are also sly hints within the show that Tomoyo has feelings for Sakura and possibly with Sakura’s brother Toya and Yukito late in the series. If this show debuted today, we would probably praise it for this type of representation, but in the late 90s, this was a rarity.

Another theme that I picked up on while watching, was that young girls shouldn’t trust boys that are super nice to them. For Sakura, Yukito is nice to her constantly and then turns out to be the judge of the Clow Cards, Yue. There is also Eriol is nice to almost a creepy degree and then just meddles with her affairs constantly. Of course, the two of them don’t hurt Sakura to a terrible degree, but they both have secrets hidden behind their niceness. Considering this is a series tailored to young girls, this probably isn’t bad advice for them to pick up on especially in this day and age.

 Cover art for volume 8 of the  Cardcaptor Sakura  manga.  Credit to CLAMP.

Cover art for volume 8 of the Cardcaptor Sakura manga. Credit to CLAMP.

Now, the big part of this series to talk about is how the English dub is. Given that this is the second dub that Cardcaptor Sakura went through, it is nowhere near as bad as the first Cardcaptors dub. There is far less censorship in this second dub, but there are strange occurrences of it happening. In episode 27 when Sakura and Li are talking about their feelings for Yukito, the vocal audio track cuts out leaving only subtitles to tell what each character is saying. This happens again in episode 51 when Li talks about liking Yukito. With the fact that this dub is supposed to be as true to original as it can be, it is rather strange that those two parts were crudely cut out. There is also a post credits scene on the finale which is not dubbed where Sakura thanks viewers for watching the series, but that might be a case of that scene being cut from the Animax run of the series.

For the most part, the main characters’ voice actors do stay the same throughout the series. There are a few exceptions to this, however. Tomoyo’s voice actress changes every season which is very jarring when watching through the whole series. The acting quality also starts to drop off from season two onwards where it seems as if the actors start to phone it in more than in season one. A technical issue also pops up in the season three premiere, episode 47, where the audio/video sync is off by a full second. Despite these problems, I wouldn’t say it is a bad dub. No one would put it up with the pantheon of great English dubs, but there are far worse dub works during this time period. It certainly wouldn’t stand out today for being good or bad.

Cardcaptor Sakura was a show I was first introduced to when I was ten years old, prompting me to have a crush on Sakura. Fifteen years later, does this show still hold up or has it aged poorly? Going into this, I was expecting Cardcaptor Sakura to disappoint me and to not stand the test of time. Surprisingly, this show is still rather good years later. There are issues with the story that I believe could have been solved by cutting back on season one, but the animation is still very solid, the plot points and foreshadowing are well done, and it has relatable themes that can be viewed and used effectively today. There’s a reason this series won so many awards back then and it shows today when it is still as good as it was back in 1998. If you have never given Cardcaptor Sakura a shot or only have memories of Cardcaptors, go back and take another look. You will more than likely be happy with this decision. Just maybe try the original Japanese audio before thinking of checking out the English dub.

(If you want to see Cardcaptor Sakura in video game form, check out me playing the Sega Dreamcast game, Cardcaptor Sakura: Tomoyo’s Video War! /cheap plug)

Cardcaptor Sakura is available on Crunchyroll in English and Japanese and on Blu-Ray through Amazon.

[Next time on Does It Hold Up, we head to the future and the year After Colony 195.]