For many years, Cardcaptor Sakura has stood as one of the great failures of bringing anime to the west. CLAMP’s classic magical girl tale is now infamous for being cut up, rewritten and generally bastardized to chase after the Pokemon demographic, and has languished in licencing hell since. Geneon’s early 2000s DVD release of the show was a barebones affair spread over 18(!) volumes and went out of print almost immediately, commanding colossal prices on the aftermarket. For many years these discs stood as the only official English language releases, and even when Madman Entertainment released the show last year on DVD, they just used copies of the gritty old Geneon print.
Thank goodness then for NIS America, who rescued the licence and have given it the royal treatment for its first North American release in a decade, remastering the show for blu-ray and bundling it into a handsome hard box with accompanying artbook; a three-volume DVD release will follow. It’s not cheap though, even if you are getting seventy episodes for your money. Has this modern classic stood the test of time? Or should it return to the copyright limbo from whence it came?
Cardcaptor Sakura Complete Series Blu-ray
Publisher: NIS America
Release Date: August 5th 2014
Sakura Kinomoto is a bright, energetic ten year old who lives with her father and brother, goes to the local elementary school and has a crush on her brother’s dreamy teenage friend. She’s a normal girl in other words. But one day she accidentally opens a mysterious book and unleashes a flurry of magical cards upon the world. The Cards’ guardian, a dinky beast named Cerberus (or Kero-chan, as Sakura comes to call him) enlists her help in recapturing them, granting her magical powers to do so. Now Sakura has to attempt to hunt down all of the rogue cards, while trying to balance her magical adventures with the everyday life of a fourth-grader.
So far, so magical girl 101. But a simple recap fails to communicate the overwhelming charm, warmth and humour Cardcaptor Sakura layers onto its basic story. The key to the story’s terrific entertainment value is the way it successfully melds magical adventure with pitch-perfect slice of life drama and then populates both stories with rich, relatable characters who develop both themselves and their relationships with each other in interesting ways. Many have cited this show as the birth of the ‘moe’ phenomenon, and it’s true that Sakura is almost unbearably cute and bursting with ‘take her home with you’ charm. Crucially though, it’s more than surface level adorability. Sakura isn’t a perfect idol who’s built to sell merchandise, she’s a real, three dimensional character (er, metaphorically speaking) who earns our affection rather than blithely demanding it. We see her mature, learn from her mistakes and appreciate her friends and family. She’s smart, capable, cute and strong willed, but also flawed in recognisable ways, such as her recurring fear of ghosts. The show never stoops to sexualising or objectifying her, and it doesn’t shy away from hurting her either (emotionally rather than physically for the most part). The highest compliment I can give is that she acts like a real ten year old would, both happy and sad as she runs through the high and lows of growing up and finding her place in the world.
Assembled around her is one of the smartest, funniest and most fleshed out supporting casts ever put together. For the most part the show revolves around a three pronged axis of core characters – Sakura, her best friend Tomoyo and her erstwhile frenemy Xiolang. Tomoyo is perhaps the closest the show comes to pure sugar-coated shoujo fantasy, being the bestest best friend one could ever have, but even she has hidden depths, acting as Sakura’s shoulder to cry on, wardrobe assistant and agony aunt. Her romantic feelings towards Sakura are beautifully underplayed and her understanding that they’ll never be reciprocated only strengthens our appreciation of her. Xialoang meanwhile is the stereotypical anime jerk rival, but he’s also one who mellows remarkably across the show’s very long run. The writing is brilliant at bringing hidden depth out of him and his journey from rival to friend to (eventually) romantic interest is subtle and believable. The three core cast members play brilliantly against one another and simply spending time with them is a pleasure, a sure sign of how good the show is.
Given its massive length (It’s one of the rare non-shounen shows to exceed 50 episodes, making it all the way to 70) this is largely a leisurely watch, but one which uses the abundance of time available to it in smart ways. The pacing is strong throughout and it helps that the writing is good enough to juggle multiple storylines at once, bringing them forward and fading them back as appropriate. Some span the entire run, such as Sakura’s recurring crush on her big brother’s classmate Yukito, another example of the way the show delicately handles relationship between people in realistic and caring fashion. On that note, it’s also a remarkably progressive show, not only incorporating characters of many different sexualities, but refusing to make them the punchline for cheap jokes. It’s not exactly a show for those who are looking for epic drama – there’s arguably not even a real bad guy – but it makes its small battles matter so much because we care about the people involved. It’s the ‘normal’ parts which ground it, and make the magical segments much more exciting.
Overall, I’d say Cardcaptor Sakura is a tremendous feel good show. That’s not to say it’s a laugh riot from beginning to end – there’s plenty of sadness, heartbreak and hard times – but it’s so full of good cheer, warmth and kindness that it’s impossible for it not to get into your heart. It’s a story where love really does triumph, where people are kind and honest and caring, and where the hopes and dreams of our young cast are what matters the most. More than fifteen years later, there’s still something truly magical about that.
This is the first time Cardcaptor Sakura has been released on blu-ray outside of Japan, and NIS went back to the original masters to ensure a high quality transfer. They largely succeeded, and the result is a sharp, clean and generally excellent picture. It’s a notable improvement over the original DVD version, which looks fuzzy and low contrast in comparison. Thankfully, we’ve been spared any cropping, and each episode is presented in its original 4:3 aspect ratio, pillarboxed to 16:9. Some have complained that the picture has been de-noised too aggressively, but I disagree and feel that there’s enough of that 90’s grain still present to give some bite to the overall image. Colours have excellent pop and the show remains extremely well animated considering its age and status. CLAMP’s iconic ‘noodle people’ character design had not yet become completely ridiculous in 1998 and their range of characters remain attractive and distinctive. As ever with the authors, elaborate costuming is a huge part of the visual appeal and Sakura’s ever changing wardrobe is rendered well in all its splendor. Most of the visual pop comes from the various magic spells and effects and they remain slick and impressive artistic displays. The show is overall animated to a much higher standard than typical of late 90’s efforts, with a surprisingly keen artistic eye on display. The care and attention to detail is typical of animating studio Madhouse, who had just completed production on the outstanding Perfect Blue.
Along with the remastered picture comes an overhauled translation that mercifully ditches the DVD standard yellow subtitles for a nice clean white. There are no radical overhauls to the Geneon script, which was largely a solid effort, but there’s definitely some noteworthy tweaks. The new translation tends to flow better but also streamlines out many specifically Japanese references – for example, Sakura’s reaction to Kero’s Osakan accent is streamlined into more general bewilderment, and the show translates ‘onii-chan’ as just character names rather than ‘big brother’. It’s largely harmless stuff, but it’s disappointing that some of the more particular idiosyncrasies are lost. There’s also one extremely bad translation problem which relates to the way the script translates last names as first names (i.e. ‘Kinomoto-san’ is always just translated to ‘Sakura’). I’d never advocate the inclusion of honorifics, and I appreciate the effort to streamline some of the more unwieldy Japanese, but in this particular case it quite seriously diminishes an important emotional moment in the show. Generally I feel this translation should have skewed a little more towards ‘accurate’ rather than ‘liberal’ – a $250 box set is most likely for pre-existing fans only after all.
Two separate audio tracks are presented, the original Japanese and an English dub, both presented in 2.0 stereo. The Japanese is a perfectly cast pleasure, with Sakura Tange delivering a definitive (and ultimately typecasting) performance as Sakura, while everyone else nails their characters perfectly. The big buzz here was the inclusion of the English dub, but I really wouldn’t get your hopes up. This isn’t Nelvana’s Cardcaptors dub that aired on US television (and featured Matt Hill’s delightful Noo Yawk Kero) but instead an East Asian dub produced by Animax. It’s not quite as terrible as you’d imagine, but it’s definitely not good either, and it’s basically here as a curio. It’s also worth noting that the audio quality on the dub is audibly fuzzy and way lower than the Japanese track, which is crisp, clear and well separated.
Given the age of the show, it’s somewhat understandable that the only extras on disc are clean openings and closings. It’s still pretty disappointing though. Instead, the vast majority of bonus content in this release comes in physical form. NISA present the show in a solid, extremely well put together hard slipcase (though I’m not a huge fan of their choice of art and especially the logo) and bundle all 9 discs into one enjoyably weird shaped bluray case. Alongside this you’ve got a hardcover book entitled ‘The Cardcaptor’ which acts as an episode guide, although it’s charmingly written in a first-person perspective by Tomoyo. Illustrations mostly take the form of screencaps (there’s a few pages of character art at the end) but the overall presentation is handsome and it’s a useful way to jump around episodes and quickly remind yourself what happened when. It’s also worth noting what this release doesn’t contain, namely the two movies, which are licensed separately by Discotek. This isn’t too much of an issue for the first one, but since the second one basically comprises the entire ending of the show, it’s a little annoying. In line with no doubt strict licencing terms, this set is locked to blu-ray region A, so importers will need a multi-region player to get any use out of these discs.
Cardcaptor Sakura remains one of the most wonderful, heartwarming anime ever made, and time has not dulled its tremendous quality. In the nuts-and-bolts of where it matters – the show itself – this is a worthy release by NISA, buffing the visuals and audio to the best they’ve ever been. The packaging is smart but perhaps not befitting of a set costing quite this much, and it’s disappointing that this high price effectively locks out casual or new fans (although a future DVD release should take some of the sting out of that). Still, the fact that this legendary show is once again available is cause for celebration, and those who already love the show deeply cannot fail to be thrilled by this box. If you can stomach the cost, fans new and old alike will be swept off their feet by the charm, wit and warmth of Sakura and friends.
Cardcaptor Sakura is currently streaming on Crunchyroll (US only)