Cardcaptor Sakura: the perfect Buffy primer

While geek parents are waiting for their kids to get old enough to watch Buffy, why not pave the way with Cardcaptor Sakura?

As far as I can tell, the main reason for having kids is to introduce them the movies, TV shows and computer games you loved when you were growing up. Is there anything more exciting than the prospect of seeing them discover Luke Skywalker’s parentage for the first time, or watching as they realise just how useless Zia is in The Mysterious Cities Of Gold?

However, it’s a bit of a waiting game with some geek content. I, for one, look forward to the day I can sit down and watch seven seasons of Buffy The Vampire Slayer with my progeny, but I can’t see myself doing so until they’re teenagers. So what to do in the meantime? Well, I’ve recently discovered that the anime TV series Cardcaptor Sakura is the perfect show to watch in preparation for Buffy.  Cardcaptor Sakura screened back in 1999-2000, comprising seventy episodes over three series. Produced by Madhouse and based on the manga created by the all-female artist group Clamp, it concerns ten year old Sakura Kinomoto, who accidentally sets loose a bunch of magical Clow cards in the city of Tomoeda. Each card contains a spirit of great power, and it falls upon Sakura to find and then master all the cards. Each time she ‘captures’ the cards, she also gains their powers, and so amasses a growing arsenal of magical abilities. 


In practice, this means that in the first season of the show we have a ‘magic card of the week’ formula, as with the ‘monsters of the week’ we saw in Buffy. Most of Sakura’s time is spent at school with her best friend and Willow Rosenberg stand-in, Tomoyo Daidouji, and exchange student Syaoran Li. Together with the guardian of the cards – tiny flying lion thingy Cerberus – dispensing advice about the magical nature of the cards, our Scooby Gang is complete. A lot of time is spent fighting magical spirits at the school or their houses, and you only need to see scenes of haunted school hallways after dark to spot further similarities.  Since Cardcaptor Sakura is based on the Shōjo manga, it’s aimed at teenage girls. Whilst it doesn’t make as clear-cut a feminist statement as Buffy did, the nature of the premise means that we often have more female characters than male onscreen, and of course it’s regularly up to Sakura to save the day. Also, being based on the works of Clamp, we have none of the usual ‘fan service’ that is often disappointingly synonymous with anime. As the 22-minute episodes zip by, the narrative shifts to focus to the characters rather than the magic card of the week. Like Buffy, the relationship and domestic elements come to the fore. Sakura has a crush on her brother’s friend, Yukito Tsukishiro, who is years older than her and has a habit of turning up in the right place at the right time. We slowly discover, that much like Mr Brooding Forehead himself, Angel, that there’s more than meets the eye with Yukito. Sakura’s crush on him is only one of several dramatic subplots that come to the fore, including non-heteronormative romances that are, impressively, treated as nothing out of the ordinary.

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Season two and three are less conventional and more serialised than the first, and I felt myself reminiscing about the show’s simpler roots by the time the last few episodes came around (echoing the complaints about Buffy season six and seven, I guess). But the fact remains that we have a kick-arse female lead character who has to negotiate her way through school whilst battling all manner of magical beings with the help of her close friends. Her perpetual perkiness may annoy some, but her ongoing positivity seems just about right for the intended audience, whilst her flaws give her a bit of depth. The show had a chequered history in the West. When it was initially released in a dubbed form in North America, the series was heavily edited to cut out the same sex attraction, change the score and sound effects, as well as to generally make it less ‘girly’ and thus supposedly more appealing to boys. They also screened the episodes in a completely different order, reminding us of the horrors suffered by a certain other Joss Whedon show. The original, unedited series has been available on DVD in Australia, New Zealand and the US for a couple of years now, so those who watched the original butchered screenings when they were younger can now see the show the way it was intended. You should know that it has English subtitles though, since the American dub was only done for the censored version. Cardcaptor Sakura: The Movie was an animated feature set between seasons one and two of the show, whilst Cardcaptor Sakura Movie 2: The Sealed Card is the finale that takes place after season three. There are more Buffy similarities – an absent parent, magical hijinks during a school play – but I’ll leave you to find them. The following five episodes give you an idea of the show at its best. For the most part, they’re Clow-card-of-the-week episodes, for fear of spoiling any surprises that occur in the more serialised seasons two and three.

Episode 7: Sakura’s First Attempt As A Thief

 On a school trip to the local museum, Sakura witnesses a boy vandalising one of the paintings. He claims that the painting’s true image has been changed, and he wants to restore it to honour the painter, his deceased father. Sakura, Tomoyo and Cerberus surmise that the image is under the influence of a Clow card, but each time they get within reach of the painting, it teleports them back outside. This is the first time the writers get clever with use of the Clow cards.

Episode 12: Sakura’s Never-Ending Day

 Similar to the Life Serial episode of Buffy, this sees Sakura under the power of a card that has her repeating the same day over and over again. Worse still, it’s the day of her recorder exam. Exchange student Syaoran really comes into the fore here. Their uneasy alliance is one of the longest running storylines in the show.

Episode 24: Sakura’s Little Adventure

 Sakura accidentally sets off the Little card, causing her to shrink to a miniscule size. Like The Incredible Shrinking Man, suddenly household pets and garden insects become formidable enemies. The first of two episodes referencing Alice In Wonderland, it’s also one of Cardcaptor Sakura‘s funniest episodes.

Episode 32: Sakura, Kero, And Syaoran

 Everyone loves bodyswap episodes, right? What about if one of the said bodies belongs to sulky teenage boy/martial artist, Syaoran, and miniature winged lion/guardian of the cards, Cerberus?  Oh, and the two of them normally can’t stand each other, either…

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 Episode 46: Sakura And The Final Judgement

 We’re well into this show’s equivalent of an X-Files mytharc episode, so watching this on its own would be more than a little confusing. As far as high stakes and epic battles, however, this truly delivers, especially considering this catastrophic event is the culmination of a three episode story. The significance of Sakura’s prophetic dreams (yep, just like Buffy has) are explained here, and the outcome shakes the foundations of the show from this point on…

So if your young ‘uns aren’t quite ready for all the bumpy foreheads, vampire dustings, broken necks, domestic violence, rape, eye gouging and awkward metaphors for drug addiction that was Buffy The Vampire Slayer – wow, it sounds horrid when I put it that way – then perhaps check out Cardcaptor Sakura, a much more kid-friendly pint-sized kicker of supernatural butt. Stuart writes film reviews for and is a regular guest on the Reel Chat Podcast.