Anime, Feminist/Gender Theory, Manga, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory

How The Female Gaze was Celebrated and Censored in Cardcaptor Sakura

Originally published for Bitch Flicks as part of their ‘Female Gaze’ theme week, 26th August 2015.


With their starry eyes, cutesy costumes, Barbie-esque features, and catchphrases overflowing with dreamy positivity, the magical girls of the shojo (girls) genre of anime might not seem like the most feminist of heroines upon cursory glance. Yet, the plucky sorceress’ of such cult classics as Sailor Moon can be seen as emblematic of a counter-movement of female action heroes in Japanese culture – the antidote to the hyper-masculinity of the shonen (boys) genre.

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Sailor Moon from Sailor Moon

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Goku from Dragon Ball

This assessment by no means disregards the problems of the magical girl genre – glorification of the traditionally ultra feminine, fetishisation and infantilisation. Shojo characters with their typically doe-eyed innocence can be easily corrupted to cater to a specific male fantasy of virginal femininity. However, the work of the all-female team of manga/anime creators known as ‘CLAMP’ not only combats these issues, but also, as Kathryn Hemmann in The Female Gaze in Contemporary Japanese Culture writes, “employs shojo for themselves and their own pleasure.”

I became a fan of CLAMP – like most people of my age – in the 1990s. As a child, my introduction to the wonderfully weird world of Japanese cartoons consisted of the standard diet for most children of that era: Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh! and Dragon Ball Z. Imported, dissected, re-dubbed, and re-packaged to suit the tastes of a western – and more specifically – male audience. But amongst the shouts of “Gotta Catch ‘Em All!” and “Kamehameha!” there was one show that really left a lasting impression on me. It was about a little girl gifted with great power through capturing and using magical ‘Clow’ cards. She wasn’t muscly; she wasn’t self-assured; and she certainly wasn’t male. She was Sakura Kinomoto, the show was called Cardcaptors (Cardcaptor Sakura in it’s original Japanese format), and it was my first exposure to both CLAMP and the magical girl or ‘mahou shoujo’ genre they helped to popularise.

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CLAMP at the Phoenix Anime Convention, 2006

Like most adolescent heroes, Sakura seems hopelessly ill-equipped to begin with, and yet her sheer determination to achieve her full potential sees her through to becoming a magical force to be reckoned with without ever surrendering her loving personality. Rather than conforming to the ‘strong female character’ stereotype that implies that women must act more masculine to achieve truly equal footing with male action heroes, Sakura’s power stems from traits considered more conventionally feminine: love, empathy, and pureness of heart. Even her wardrobe changes into unapologetically girly battle outfits aesthetically reinforce CLAMP’s refusal to bow to a male audiences’ preferences.

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Sakura’s signature battle outfit.

These themes of romance and friendship are a core part of the story development and instrumental in the viewer’s investment in the characters. Through Cardcaptor Sakura, CLAMP explores the complexities of both platonic and romantic female love – both heterosexual and homosexual – from an almost exclusively female perspective. In almost soap opera-esque melodrama, Sakura pines for her older brother’s best friend (who unbeknownst to her, is also his love interest) as Sakura’s best friend Tomoyo pines for her. Tomoyo, who lives a rich and sheltered life in a female-centric household, seems to live vicariously through Sakura. Upon discovering her secret heroics at night, she begins to capture Sakura’s adventures on camera and even provides her with her signature battle costumes, which cause Sakura huge embarrassment. Yet, at the risk of hurting her friend’s feelings, she grudgingly wears them anyway.

As the show develops, we are shown more and more just how deeply Tomoyo’s feelings run. In episode 11, Tomoyo gives Sakura a rare tour of her impressive mansion home, including a cinema room in which she confesses that she watches her recordings back of Sakura in battle constantly. It seems that Tomoyo is as much a part of the audience to Sakura’s life as we – the viewers – are. It also strikes me that this obsessive behaviour might translate entirely differently if Tomoyo were male.

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Tomoyo and Kero-chan spy on Sakura.

Tomoyo’s idolisation of Sakura is far from veiled, and yet it is not revealed to be unmistakably romantic until Episode 40, in which Sakura must capture a Clow card that makes people dream about their hidden desires. Sakura, Tomoyo, Syaoran Li (Sakura’s rival and male love interest) and his cousin Meilin visit a fun fair. Sakura and Meilin team up to play a Whack-A-Mole game and Tomoyo – as usual – picks up her camera to film Sakura in action. Suddenly, the Clow card appears in the form of a glowing butterfly and lands on Tomoyo’s shoulder. Tomoyo falls into a dream sequence, in which we see her deepest desire play out through her eyes. On a pink background of falling cherry blossom, copies of Sakura dressed in Tomoyo’s outfits call her name and dance playfully around her. We are shown a shot of Tomoyo’s face – staring in awe at first, and then relax into a smile. ‘I’m so happy!’ she says to herself, and runs towards the dancing copies of Sakura – still filming.

It seems like an odd moment to be sexually awakened – watching your crush play a ‘Whack-A-Mole’ game at a fun fair – and perhaps if the show had been targeted at a more mixed audience (or the characters were older) this moment might have been filled with more obvious sexualised content. But through Tomoyo’s own eyes, CLAMP visually summarise the complex feelings of romance, admiration, obsession, and innocent love she feels for her best friend. Not only this, but as Sakura dances continually out of Tomoyo’s physical reach, the implication becomes one of wanting something you know you can never have. Tomoyo knows by now of Syaoran’s feelings for Sakura, and like a true friend, encourages their romance for the sake of Sakura’s happiness rather than her own.

This ‘doomed’ romance trap seems to be a family curse, as we discover in episode 10 that Tomoyo’s mother appeared to also be hopelessly in love with Sakura’s mother (who happens to also be her cousin). Similarly, Sakura’s mother didn’t return her cousin’s feelings as she was in love with an older man (Sakura’s father) in the same way that Sakura is attracted to Yukito – an older boy. Both mothers are absent from their lives – Sakura’s mother through death, and Tomoyo’s through continual business trips – yet their daughters seem fated to play out their romantic histories.

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Tomoyo invading Sakura’s personal space…

Suffering from a bout of nostalgia, I decided to revisit the show as an adult, first in it’s Americanised form, and then the original Japanese version to compare the differences. I was shocked to discover that in an effort to make the show fit the perceived needs of their rigidly defined demographic of young boys, the executives at Kids WB had hacked all elements of ‘toxic’ feminisation from it – romance, homosexuality, and the agency of Sakura has a protagonist (even her name is removed from the title) – dramatically reducing the series from 70 to just 39 episodes. In fact, if they had been able to “maximise” their cuts, the show would reportedly have run for merely 13 episodes. In other words, there was a concerted effort to twist the female gaze into a male one under the belief that CLAMP’s blend of hyper-femininity and action would be unappealing for the male audience it was being sold to. In Japanese Superheroes for Global Girls, Anne Allison quotes this from an executive from Mattel, “[…] In America, girls will watch male-oriented programming but boys won’t watch female-oriented shows; this makes a male superhero a better bet.”

Whilst moaning about all this to my partner recently, I asked him if he had watched the dubbed version of the show as a child. He said that he had, but didn’t realise until he was older that the show had probably been intended for girls. I asked him if he remembered being turned-off that the show’s hero was a little girl as opposed to the ultra-masculine characters of his favourite childhood anime, Dragon Ball Z. His answer totally undermines Mattel’s assumptions about the show’s gender appeal: “I thought Sakura was really cool. In fact, I loved her so much I begged my mum for roller-skates that Christmas so that I could skate around to be like her.” Even more affirming than this is the fact that whilst the dubbed version of the show ended up being cancelled, the original Japanese one ran to its intended conclusion; spawned two films; and inspired two spin-off series’ using the same characters – Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicle and xxxHolic.

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Tsubasa: Reservoir Chronicles

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xxxHolic

Sadly, by ‘butching’ Cardcaptor Sakura up to be squeezed into the TV schedule alongside Pokemon and Dragon Ball Z, western children were deprived of the tender and emotionally complex storytelling and character development behind all the magic and swordplay – and even from getting a satisfying ending to the show. It seems that whilst Japanese children are considered mature enough to deal with female superheroes, complex pre-pubescent emotions, and LGBTQ+ representation from a female perspective, western children are unfortunately not treated with the same respect or intelligence.


iwantedwings (aka Hannah) is a freelance writer, artist, anime-nerd, and Britney Spears apologist based in the UK.

 

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Anime, Pop Culture, Visual Cultural Theory

Anime and Cartoons: East vs. West

So, this is all started when I tried to find a DVD of the brilliant but sadly forgotten anime series The Big O. I say ‘tried’ because to my surprise I discovered that not only were there barely any copies up for sale on both eBay and Amazon, but the asking prices ranged from £35 – 70…for two measly series’. I hadn’t encountered this much trouble finding an anime series on DVD since my fruitless hunt for Neon Genesis Evangelion last year (which was even more distressing – yes, distressing. Point of interest: the Evangelion manga is actually far easier to buy – and makes a heck more sense than the show. You can even get these handy 3-in-1 volumes, which I’ve been collecting, that also include neat stuff like full colour art pages and bizarre interviews with the writer and voice actors…if you’re an Evangelion junkie, I can’t recommend them enough.)

I did have some idea beforehand that Big O was a bit of a cult series, but the fact that the DVDs were so rare piqued my interest, so I had a nose around the show’s Wikipedia page (when in doubt…Wiki it) and found that the critical response to the show was sort of like…Marmite. Some people (like me) thought it was slick and clever with some pretty awesome mecha fight scenes, but others found it far too derivative. One guy from IGN said it seemed like

“the creators had watched The Matrix and The Truman Show one too many times.”

Yeah, I can see that. Most interestingly, however, was the fact that the show did very poorly in Japan, but was largely received positively in the West by the three people that actually watched it.

There isn’t really much reason given as to why that is online, but from what I remember of the show I could hazard a guess at why. The first thing I – and probably many other viewers – noticed when watching Big O is how similar the animation style is to Bruce Timm’s Batman: The Animated Series of the 90s, a show which took its artistic cues from film Noir of the 30s and 40s, as well Art Deco of the 20s.

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In fact, the similarities between these shows are so similar, it’s about as hard to not notice them as it would be as hard not to notice you were being wacked in the face by a giant robotic arm coming out of the TV screen. Not only is this true of the animation style, but the entire colour palette, design, atmosphere and characterisation draw parallels: Big O’s protagonist – the dashing Roger Smith – is pretty much Bruce Wayne, but with a giant mecha suit instead of a human-sized Bat-themed one. He even has a British butler, for Christ’s sake.

This leads me on to another obviously Western influence – the names of the characters. Roger Smith, Dorothy Wayneright, Norman Burg… the list goes on. Of course, this is not a unique trait to Big O. Full Metal Alchemist, Attack on Titan, D-Gray Man, Hellsing and a tonne of other anime have used Western names for their characters and also are clearly set in Western countries (the most popular being America, the UK, Germany and France.) However, all of the shows I just mentioned differ from Big O in that they have all been critically and commercially successful in their home country – Japan. Why? Well, the only difference I can see is again in the animation style – the other shows I just mentioned all look like Japanese home-grown anime, whereas Big O has the paw-prints of foreign influences (Bruce Timm’s Batman) all over it.

Anime, after all, seems quite strict in its self-classification. It’s kind of like a tin of baked beans: instantly recognisable from the label, and you know exactly what you’re getting in the inside (I can’t believe I just equated anime to baked beans…is that really the best analogy I can come up with? ) Even if you’ve never consciously sat down (or stood up, you can watch things how you like…) and watched any anime since Pokémon when you were 10 years old, I bet if I showed you a picture of any anime character you would most likely be able to say that the drawing style was certainly not Western. In fact, a perfect example of this is the hugely popular (and deservedly so) cartoon series Avatar: The Last Airbender and its sequel Korra (which is currently airing as I write this.) This show is CONSTANTLY being misclassified as anime due to the obvious Eastern influences on its style and over-arching themes, when in fact both of its creators are American and the show’s network is Nickelodeon. (It looks like anime, it smells like anime, but it just ain’t anime. I will tell you why in a bit…)

This is not to say that all anime looks exactly the same though. In a similar way that different fine artists and film directors have individual and identifiable styles, anime (and manga) artists have different styles that suit different types of anime. Some shows that have stuck in my mind over the years for their outstanding and unique artwork include Soul Eater, Ghost in the Shell, One Piece, Blood Lad, Samurai Shamploo and K. Different anime studios also have a collective ‘house’ style, just like Western ones. Production I.G, which is famous for producing some of the best anime series’ and films in recent years, can be easily recognised by its super crisp and almost impossibly detailed digital rendering, not to mention its ethereal use of light and colour in post-production. Of course, the most recognisable ‘house’ style of all the Japanese studios has to be Ghibli, which has been hailed as the Disney of the East (although I think it equates better with Pixar. No offence Disney.). Ghibli’s style is probably the most Westernised of all come to think of it, yet its popularity in Japan – and internationally – cannot be overstated. It seems to be a troublesome anomaly in the context of what I’m talking about, but hey, exceptions prove the rule, right? (The answer is yes.)

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All of this is not really about me accusing Japanese anime creators or fans of being closed-minded or even xenophobic, but more to do with what I mentioned earlier: the strict parameters of the medium itself. A strictness that I consider largely self-imposed. Last year when I managed to wrangle critical anime texts into my dissertation research I read one Film Professor’s (his name escapes me now) definition of anime as an animation style that can only be produced in Japan (discounting the fact the much of the more menial production work in modern anime is actually done in South Korea, but never mind…) This definition certainly gives credence to my theory as to why heavily Westernised shows such as Big O get such a lukewarm reception in their home country.

So, is there a problem with a cultural medium being so insular?

Well, let me get one thing straight first: as a Western fan, the things that first attracted and fascinated me about anime were their distinctively Japanese qualities – not just stylistically, but in terms of cultural in-jokes, references and stereotypes. They feel – without meaning to sound patronising or tourist-y – like a tiny window into an exotically different cultural landscape to my own as told right from the mouths and pens of its inhabitants. There’s a reason why there is no such thing as a ‘casual’ anime fan in the West. The fans (or ‘Otaku’ as the Japanese call them, a derogatory term similar to the American ‘geek’ or ‘nerd’ meaning someone who is obsessed with manga or anime) put the fan into fanatical. And speaking as one of them, I can tell you that I reckon this is firstly because of the medium’s unmistakable uniqueness, and secondly because – as an outsider – you really have to commit yourself to watch it to actually understand all of the…well, Japanese-ness.

I’ll give you an example: when a character (usually male) is aroused (usually at the sight of a female character’s skirt being blown up by a convenient blast of wind…trust me, this happens more than you’d think) they have a nosebleed. This is because of a Japanese ‘belief’ that having a nosebleed is linked to sexual arousal.

Anime Nosebleeds

Here’s another example: you know how we in the UK and US (and possibly in other Western countries) have the phrase ‘my ears are burning’ when we think someone is talking about us somewhere? Well, in Japan, this is signified instead by a single, random sneeze. Without translation notes (which some subbers helpfully provide) these little quirks are lost on us Westerners, as it would be vice versa for a Japanese audience watching some Western shows. Visually, anime has its own language that you have to learn as well: sometimes characters will shrink into ‘chibi’ mode, and sometimes thoughts that are visualised and become mingled with reality, and another character can see what the other one is thinking and interact with that ‘thought.’ Yeah. There are a lot of quirks to get accustomed to, but it’s all part of the charm.

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Going back to the mention of subbing though (or subtitling) – this opens up another kettle of fish for the Western Otaku. As I’m sure anyone who has ever tried directly inputting Japanese into Google translate has discovered there can be some hilariously terrible consequences of mistranslation in fan subs. Of course, I completely recommend purchasing official releases on DVD for professionally done subs (and to support the creators of the shows), however, as any seasoned fan will know, these English releases are too few and far between. (Not to mention overpriced…£16 for 4 episodes of Vampire Knight? I don’t think so HMV.) Only the most popular shows will get a Western release, and usually quite a bit longer after their Japanese release. Remember how you would have to wait, like, a whole YEAR for the next Pokémon game to come out after its Japanese release? Well, anime still feels like that for me. Even worse, the only anime that is shown on TV (that I can find) has had American dubbing wacked onto it – which can sound HORRIBLE (cases in point: Ceil Phantomhive in the dubbing of Black Butler and Sakura Kinomoto in Cardcaptors. Awful. Just…ugh.)

Saying that the American intro is just too catchy to be forgotten…

Even worse than this, anyone who has ever watched the American production company 4Kids ‘interpretations’ of anime such as Yu-Gi-Oh! and One Piece and then compared them with their Japanese originals will know just how heavily censored and fiddled with they are. (Cardcaptors is another good example of this, as I explored in my Tumblr blog – An LGBT Guide to Anime – in which 4Kids carefully cuts out every scene where it is evident that Sakura’s older brother has the hots for his male best friend. This results in one episode only being half as long as the rest, and so they have to fill time with flashbacks to the previous episodes. Really 4Kids? You think that two guys holding hands is a worse message to kids than a preteen girl sneaking out of her room every night to supposedly fight magical monsters and lie to her friends and family about it every day?)

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This issue of censorship also makes the intolerance two-fold: just as Japanese audiences have little taste for Westernised shows; there are plenty of elements of Japanese shows that Western companies such as 4Kids deem unpalatable for their audiences. I have often been dismayed at the Western cultural practice of snubbing anything animated as being ‘just for kids.’ Now that I’m in my 20s * shudder * I have to admit that I’ve started wondering if I am just too old to be watching stuff like this. But then I remember that in Japan, most of the shows I watch are not aimed exclusively at kids – anime is a billion dollar (or yen, I should say) industry with a firm cultural foothold in the country’s heritage. Anime and manga are serious business and lots of it has some serious content – and by that I mean adult with a capital ‘A’. Anyone who has ever seen Ghost in the Shell, Neon Genesis Evangelion or Akira will know what I mean. Even more ‘kid-friendly’ shows such as Bleach have a fair amount of blood spurting around the place.

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I suppose from Japan’s standpoint there’s also the argument that – as such moneymaking behemoth – why should this localised medium bother to try harder to extend its reach globally? And how could any foreign shows possibly compete against such overwhelming competition? With such a comparatively small international market there just doesn’t seem to be enough reason for most anime production companies to make that extra effort to cater to fans beyond the East. Or even just beyond Japan.

I think it’s about time I summed all this up. To begin with, I talked about how The Big O was not widely accepted in its home country seemingly due to its heavy use of Western influences; similarly, despite its popularity increasing from the mid-1990s to now, anime as a whole still enjoys only cult fan status in most of the West. As a Western fan, I find this a great shame – largely because of the availability issues I mentioned earlier, and also because I really feel that anime as a distinctive and imaginative creative medium is massively underrated in our mainstream visual cultural landscape. Though, perhaps I am just seeing it through the rose-tinted glasses of a foreigner…

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Let’s end things on a good note though. The existence of shows such as The Big O and Avatar: The Last Airbender and its sequel Korra, prove that cultural ‘borrowing’ from the West to the East and vice versa are not only possible, but produce some brilliant results. In fact some of your favourite American cartoons over the years may be a bit more Japanese than you realised: ever seen Totally Spies, Batman: Gotham Knight, The Matrix: Animated, Ben 10 or Teen Titans? All were heavily anime influenced. (In fact, Teen Titans creator Glen Murakami was so conscious of this that he purposefully picked Japanese pop (or J-pop) band Puffy Ami Yumi to do the show’s opening theme song – in both English and Japanese.) So perhaps the way forward is more of a cocktail, rather than a straight spirit. Yes, more food analogies…

(What do you mean Totally Spies was not one of your favourite cartoons? They have lipsticks disguised as lasers! What’s not to love??)

Anime and Cartoons: East vs. West

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