With Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon Crystal and Puella Magi Madoka Magica commanding sizeable stateside audiences, a growing number of viewers are discovering the merits of the magic girl genre. But anime aficionados will quickly point out that the mahō shōjo has a remarkably rich history, dating back to the 1953 manga, Princess Knight (Ribon no Kishi) and intensifying when a dubbed version of the American sitcom Bewitched inspired its own animated series, 1966’s Sally the Witch (Mahōtsukai Sarī).
Domestically, Usagi Tsukino and Madoka Kaname’s trans-Pacific trek wasn’t without precedent. Beyond an effort to localize Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, Kids’ WB viewers might have caught Cardcaptors– a misguided attempt to introduce Cardcaptor Sakura to the U.S. While the dubbing was consistent with the quality exhibited by Nelvana’s voice overs for Kirby: Right Back at Ya! and Beyblade, the core problem was WB’s attempt to tailor the series for a male demographic. In effect, the channel cleaved Cardcaptor Sakura, not only skipping the first seven episodes of the series (and reediting the remaining 62 into 39 installments), but shifted the focus away from the series’ lovable protagonist.
Considering that the genre is typically a metaphor for a girl’s journey toward adulthood and self-actualization, Kids’ WB’s decision was depressingly imprudent, robbing Sakura of most of its charm. Fortunately, NIS America’s licensing of the original series ensures that this meaningful anime won’t be overlooked by domestic audiences.
Cardcaptor Sakura’s opening episode introduces us to the eponymous character, a spirited fourth-grader who lives with her older brother and widowed father. After returning home from school one afternoon, Sakura Kinomoto is drawn to her father’s basement study by a series of ominous noises. Scanning the area for intruders, she notices a shimmering book one of the shelves, and grabs the tome for further inspection, finding as stack of enigmatic cards hidden inside. When Sakura reads the name from the top of the tarot-like deck, a fierce wind materializes, sending the remaining cards rocketing in every direction.
In the aftermath, the young girl spots Kerberos, (think the ferocity of the mythological Cerberus mixed with the adorability of a Care Bear) a diminutive caretaker who explains the significance of the Clow Cards. Fearing the repercussions of having the cards spread cross the town of Tomoeda, Kerberos recruits Sakura into rounding up the remainder of the scattered deck.
Early on, Cardcaptor Sakura signals its superiority over similarly-themed shows. Whereas cute sidekicks like Kerberos often offer little more than comic relief, here the duo’s relationship develops in a poignant manner, recalling the heart-warming rapport between Natsume and Madara from Natsume’s Book of Friends. While initially domineering and a bit condescending, the pair cultivate a natural friendship, with Kerberos exposing his protective nature when Sakura’s card capturing quest puts the heroine in imminent danger. Following a pivotal event at the end of the second season, the pair’s affiliation changes once more, creating a bond that embodies Sakura’s tender mediations on friendship, without ever becoming mawkish or preachy.
Whereas the American edit of Cardcaptor cast Sakura’s friend Tomoyo Daidouji (renamed to Madison Taylor) as an obsessive acquaintance with a technology fetish, watching the original series reveals that the character is actually a loyal and caring confidant. As the creator of Sakura’s magic girl uniforms and benefactor of the communication equipment that allows her to coordinate with Kerberos, the unscathed edit takes the time to show more reciprocity from the lead, altering the rapport between the pair. Similarly, there’s a genuine compassion between Sakura and her brother Toya, that’s articulated through everything from gentle teasing to self-sacrifice.
Most impressive is the series resistance toward supplying an archetypical villain. While conflict is present, the motivations of Cardcaptor Sakura’s implied antagonists are often shifted, allowing viewers to identify with their perspectives. But that’s not to say the series lacks action, frequent battles offer tempered doses of animated spectacle. Wisely, director Morio Asaka never lets these sequences dominate an episode, providing just enough creatively framed action to complement Sakura’s expositional elements.
Upholding their record of providing pleasing packaging and delighting supplementals, NIS America’s Premium Edition of Cardcaptor Sakura is poised to delight collectors. Break open the shrinkwrap which protects the artwork adorned outer box and you’ll find an impressively sized plastic clamshell which houses the nine Blu-rays used to hold the entire seventy episode compendium. Beyond missing an opportunity for the case to resemble the Clow Book, some of the inserts found inside stack disks on top of another, which might worry those who are obsessive with keeping their collections scratch-free.
Accompanying the disk container is a seventy-six page collector’s book, which beyond flaunting a handful of illustrations of Sakura, contains an illustrated episode guide, which offers concise, well-written synopses for each installment, all written from Tomoyo’s perspective. Although talent interviews and additional artwork would have been gratifying, given the sixteen year span since Cardcaptor Sakura first aired, the omission is understandable.
Although this time frame might worry visual purists, Sakura rarely shows her age. While a bit of grain is evident throughout the series’ twenty-nine hour playtime (as well as pillarboxed output) image quality is habitually clean while colors are truthfully hued, pushing the out-of-print Geneon release into obsolesce. Madhouse’s animation stands a one of the more fluid and meticulous works of the era, with few of the glaring shortcuts taken to simplify production. Aurally, the original Japanese voice over is in untarnished stereo, with each actor delivering a convincing performance. Sadly, the American dub isn’t quite as adept, burdened by pronunciation gaffs and the telltale sound of a grown women trying to emulate a young boy. As a further incentive to watch the subbed version, the track is delivered monaurally.
Teeming with tenderness and likability, NIS America’s release of Cardcaptor Sakura corrects the injustices once committed to the series. Replicating the original Japanese broadcast, viewers will likely discover the reasons why the plucky heroine was able to briefly topple Pokémon. Sakura is one those atypical anime capable of bewitching both young and adult audiences, demonstrating both the power of the magic girl and superior storytelling.