When it comes to 90’s magical girl anime, you can’t get much better than Cardcaptor Sakura. Coming off the success of both Sailor Moon and Pokémon, the show had a great blend of adventure, romance, and wholesome slice-of-life moments. I loved it as a kid, and I still turn it on whenever I need a pick-me-up. But the version of Cardcaptor Sakura I watched as a kid in the U.S. was a heavily edited, hollow facsimile of the original Japanese version, just called Cardcaptors. The original version is much better. And gayer. (Spoilers incoming!)
Let’s start from the beginning. Cardcaptor Sakura started out as a shoujo manga by the all-female collective CLAMP. One of the major themes in all of their stories is the idea of pure love, a kind of love that is not sexualized and not bound by traditional gender roles. Gay and bi relationships are common, and homophobia is nonexistent. It’s a comforting fantasy for young LGBTQ+ audiences: an idealized version of our world, where people can genuinely be themselves without fear of societal judgment.
The show was a hit with both boys and girls in Japan, but a lot was changed in Nelvana and Warner Bros.’ English dub. Almost half the episodes were cut, character’s names were “Americanized”, and the tone was more action-heavy to appeal to boys. And like Sailor Moon before it, all the LGBTQ+ content was censored or removed. Lots of English dubs changed or censored anime at this time (remember how Yu-Gi-Oh changed “dying” to “being sent to the Shadow Realm”?), but Cardcaptors was particularly egregious because of how different the Japanese and original English versions really were.
Take Sakura’s BFF, Tomoyo (or, ugh, “Madison” in the English version). She can’t use magic, but always helps Sakura by designing her cute frilly outfits and capturing her exploits on camera. In the Japanese version, it’s obvious that Tomoyo has an unrequited crush on Sakura. Her eyes light up every time they see each other! Sure, filming your best friend constantly is a bit obsessive, but Tomoyo clearly means well. She doesn’t get jealous when Sakura talks about her male crushes, and always puts Sakura’s happiness above her own. It’s a genuinely nuanced relationship for a kid’s show, and a positive message for any queer kids who might be having these feelings for the first time.
In the Nelvana dub, Sakura and “Madison” are just friends. That’s it. Apparently Tomoyo just sees Sakura as her muse for her upcoming film career or something. Because constantly following your best friend around, filming her kicking magical ass in outfits that you made specifically for her, is just something girls do all the time, right?
And poor Yukito got hit even worse by the censorship train. In the Japanese, everybody has a thing for the white-haired bishie boy: Sakura, her male rival Syaoran, and especially her older brother Touya. Touya and Yukito’s romance is subtle at first, but soon even little Sakura can see their obvious attraction. They subvert traditional masculine tropes, openly expressing their feelings and not being afraid to cry when they need to. In one of the most touching moments of the show, Touya even gives up his magic powers to save Yukito. Who wouldn’t want to root for such a wholesome, genuine couple?
Well, not American TV bigwigs in the 90’s, apparently, cause all that shit was cut too. And not just the romantic aspect – in the original version, both Yukito and side character Ruby have no sex or gender. They may use male and female pronouns, respectively, but their true reality is much more complex. For a 90’s shoujo manga, Cardcaptor Sakura was way ahead of its time, but we in the States missed out on all of that when it first came out.
LGBTQ+ representation is vitally important. Studies show that teaching children about LGBTQ+ identities early on normalizes them, increasing tolerance and making it safer for queer kids to express themselves freely. Sadly, homosexuality is still a taboo in Japan, and same-sex marriage is still illegal. CLAMP was way ahead of its time for featuring complex, non-stereotypical queer characters in a way that was accessible to children of all ages. But that progressive spirit didn’t make it when the series went across the Pacific. And Western censorship of LGBTQ+ content in anime persists to this day.
If you’ve never seen Cardcaptor Sakura or only watched the bastardized Cardcaptors, give it a shot. It’s a nostalgically charming anime, with lots of great messages for both kids and adults. Netflix and Crunchyroll even have the newer, uncensored English dub! It’s a shoujo classic, highly influential in the magical girl genre, and filled to the brim with gayness. RELEASE!