It was the turn of the millennium. Japanese anime was becoming increasingly popular, with big names such as Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, and Pokemon. Naturally, we were all excited to see what else was coming from Japan. Two iconic shows that came out in this era revolved around magical cards: Yu-Gi-Oh! and Cardcaptors. Like Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon before them, they formed sort of a male/female pair, but of course, that never stopped anyone of a certain gender from liking the other show, not back then, and definitely not now. Still, they were quite different in tone. Yu-Gi-Oh was a shonen sports anime (way before esports made it big) that just happened to put people’s souls at stake, while Cardcaptors was more of a slice-of-life show that just happened to have magical trickster tarot card spirits causing trouble every so often. Both were about self-discovery and coming of age, themes that transcend gender boundaries even if they manifest themselves in different ways.
But wait, this post isn’t about Yu-Gi-Oh, is it? Funny how that became intertwined into how I view Cardcaptors anyway. Yes, I’m aware that a lot of people don’t like that name. It was an attempt to make the title more gender-neutral as opposed to the true name, Cardcaptor Sakura. Apparently, in the US, the entire thing was rewritten to appeal to boys; with more of an action focus and scenes edited to make it look like Li Syaoran (or Xiăoláng, as its spelled in Chinese pinyin) was the main character. Well, in Canada, I never got that impression that the main character was anyone but Sakura, probably because we actually got all the episodes. I understand the frustration with the edits, and indeed, I’m not really going to defend the needless censorship. Still, a highly edited dub didn’t stop 4Kids’s version of Yu-Gi-Oh from specifically having fans and defenders, one reason being the witty dialogue spouted by everyone that is actually closer to the Abridged Series than one might think.
Okay, now I’ll stop talking about Yu-Gi-Oh.* But it is strange that when I tracked down the original Japanese Cardcaptor Sakura, I ended up preferring the English version. It felt a lot like the subplot of the Simpsons episode The Haw-Hawed Couple, in which Lisa decides her dad’s made-up ending to avoid mentioning Greystash’s death in the Harry Potter parody she was reading was actually better than canon. But why? It took a while for me to figure that out, but with the increasing celebration of gender fluidity in modern times, it finally hit me.
Sakura in the English version was one of the rare tomboy magical girls who had the coveted protagonist status. I mean, sure, Japanese Sakura was into sports and wore her hair short, but she was still your typical cutesy girly girl. In contrast, the English dub played up her tomboyish traits. Her voice was low-pitched and often had a more assertive tone, and she could be quite sassy in multiple instances. Yet, she still wore miniskirts and dresses and had a fondness for cute things. And the best part? Here was a girl who was quite androgynous in presentation, and no one questioned it. No one treated it as strange, no one tried to convince her to be more masculine or feminine. She was just comfortable being herself. In her world, androgyny was perfectly normal and unremarkable, and so too did it become so in my world.
It was a stark contrast to most other characters I had seen at the time, and even until now. Buttercup from the Powerpuff Girls, Helga Pataki from Hey Arnold!, Jade Chan from Jackie Chan Adventures, Rika from Digimon Tamers, all very cool and interesting characters, but they were clearly on the tomboyish side of the spectrum. Sakura and Meilin, on the other hand, were closer to the middle (heck, Meilin was a lot like the other tomboy characters, except more cutesy and girly in appearance and attitude). They taught me that, no, wearing a short skirt doesn’t automatically disqualify you from being assertive, hanging out with boys, or having masculine-coded interests. Expressions of femininity are just as valid as masculine expression coming from anyone. I know that Sakura’s personality change was probably done to appeal to boys, but in that case, her androgyny was a happy accident. Indeed, I have fond memories of the Nelvana dub precisely because I rarely ever get to see an androgynous character like her. It’s similar to why Power Rangers has such enduring popularity. Sure, the original season had corny dialogue and people in rubber suits, but a wide demographic of kids could look at those teenagers and think, “Hey, I can role play a Power Ranger too!”
Meilin also deserves a paragraph to herself, because of how much she changed in my view from a superfluous character I expected to totally hate into one of my all-time favourite anime characters. She didn’t give the best first impression, being whiny, mostly useless in capturing cards, seemingly only cared about crushing on Xiăoláng, and just came of as your typical unlikable third wheel character. But I was surprised just how much I ended up liking her. For all her faults, she tries really hard at everything she does and when it really matters, she’s ready to rush in to help her friends. Plus, when I realized why she was such a bitch (she had a massive inferiority complex over being screwed by destiny and not being the almighty Chosen One with bullshit main character powers), I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. Besides, her sarcastic dialogue was simply so hilarious (“How can I be so perfect at everything else, yet I am lousy at baking a stupid cake?”; “Is hypothermia part of the curriculum?”; (in response to Sakura saying she’s happy to see everyone together again) “Really, you mean that’s it?”; and so much more) that I’m glad that she remained a bitch to the very end. Especially considering just how much girls are socialized to be passive and polite, seeing someone who doesn’t give a damn about any of that and just speaks her mind is very refreshing. And yes, while the whole secondary Asian love interest getting dumped for the default race lead character (in this case, Chinese rather than the default Japanese) is a grating trend in general, in this case, Meilin is likable enough that I can forgive it just this once. Sort of.
Meilin is also special to me for another reason. I began to imagine what it would be like to be around someone like her, someone not afraid to chew me out when I deserved it, but I knew I could count on when I needed a friend the most. In essence, I made a subconscious wish for a friend like her. Years later, I would meet a girl in my lab group who also had a cute face and a hyperactive and cheerful, but blunt and sarcastic attitude. We eventually became best friends, sharing our successes, eccentricities, and inferiority complexes. One time, we had a discussion on what role we’d play as TV show characters, and months, I realized, she acted a lot like an anime character. Slowly, I made the connection to Meilin, and was amazed. Never did I imagine my wish would actually come true, but it did!
To some extent, I’ve outgrown Cardcaptor Sakura. My tastes have shifted darker (like Grimm Fairy Tales or even Simpsons / Hey Arnold! dark), and the series overall is a bit too saccharine for me nowadays. The manga continuation doesn’t seem to be doing much for me either. Still, it’s a fond memory for me, and I feel compelled to preserve the memory of the English dub. It’s weird to want to keep alive the memory of something most would rather forget, but it’s one of those cases where one fan’s worthless trash is another fan’s beloved Garbodor. If I got to see another magical series with an androgynous protagonist, I may join in the chorus of hate, but not likely. Besides, the Nelvana dub also has some amazingly memorable music, most of all Guardian of the Cards. That, definitely, is worth remembering.
*By the way, my favourite Yu-Gi-Oh! character is the camp, androgynous manchild Maximillion Pegasus. Okay, now I’m done.