Cardcaptor Sakura & Cixous: Together At Last

Hello all!  You’ve likely seen me making a few stray comments here & there on the site, but, well, what follows became too much to put in any comment (& what post could I put it in?).  Pontifus was gracious enough to let me take over…er, I mean, to let me post here.  So today we’ll be taking a look at Cardcaptor Sakura.

I first came across Cardcaptor Sakura by watching the dubbed version on TV.  I didn’t catch every episode that aired (& as particularly is my curse, I missed a number of the beginning episodes).  Over last summer, I finally decided to see if any of the episodes or movies were available on the Netflix, & lo! they were there.  But what I found perplexing was that some of the reviews utterly reviled the edited English dub as presenting Sakura & the other female characters as vapid, weak, & submissive.

Of course, it practically goes without saying that there are quite a few differences between the two versions.  The English dub was drastically edited from the original.  As I watched the sub version, I was amazed by the differences repeatedly.

The awkwardness of this scene makes way more sense now!

The awkwardness of this scene makes way more sense now!

But the Sakuras don’t seem terribly different.  In the sub version, she’s still squeeing over Yukito (which seems to happen more often & more severely than in the dub), having fun baking cakes, worrying about being late for school, & in general, being a ditz.  In her defense, she is still a kid.  And in some ways, she is more capable than some kids are—she’s often home by herself & (despite her brother Toya’s teasing) can cook & bake fairly complex dishes from scratch for her family.

At the same time, though, Sakura is ‘inheriting’ strong magic & power from the Clow Cards that she collects.  She has the responsibility on more than one occasion to save the lives of her friends & family (& often of strangers as well).  Those occasions often involve Sakura risking her life (let’s face it:  dealing with the Sword Card, for example, was srs bsns).  But what does Sakura think in a crunch?

At this point, I literally had to pause the episode (& pause in my knitting) as a realization came crashing down on my head:  #@$%#! I might be more of a feminist than I thought.

This is when she’s after the last Clow Card!  This is while the city is being destroyed!  This is in the midst of this fight!  Is this supposed to be a strong character who’s a good example for kids?  Kero has to tell her to think!

*heaves a sigh* OK, admittedly, I am rather biased—critical thinking (hell, even just thinking) is one of the skills I hold in highest regard. So maybe I’m being a little unfair.

CCS does often subvert gender construction, which is perhaps most glaringly obvious in the play that Sakura’s class puts on—Li plays Sleeping Beauty & Sakura plays the Prince who will awaken him/her.  But oddly, it’s here, blatantly playing a male, that Sakura manages entirely on her own to figure out how to capture the Clow Cards responsible for the mischief at the end of the play.  However, once the characters are out of the confines of the play & a couple of episodes down the road, we’re at the point of Sakura not being able to think on her own (see above diatribe).

Not much better.  Let’s try this again, this time with a little help from some friends.

First, let’s do some groundwork by borrowing the concept of “in-between.”  This handy concept essentially dismantles the idea of (or at least blurs the line between) binary constructs in deconstructionist methodology; Mary Poovey uses this in an attempt to reconcile deconstructionism with feminism.  Thus, as Poovey sets forth, the “in-between”
expose[s] the fact that the opposition between the “sexes,” like the definitions of “women” and “men,” is a social construction, not a reflection or articulation of biological fact.  In so doing, deconstruction sets up the possibility that the supposedly fixed opposition of masculine/feminine might lose its social prominence because we could begin to recognize that there is no necessary connection between anatomical sexuality and gender stereotypes or roles. (*)
Why is this necessary?  For one, it allows us to view Sakura as a liminal character, balancing between both the “male” & the “female.”  This liminality is a requisite for recovering & using the Clow Cards.  For another, the binary system potentially accounts for Li’s initial (but long-lasting) treatment of Sakura.  What winds up happening, though, is that Sakura must eventually integrate herself into a binary system of gender in order to convert the cards into Sakura Cards.  Or, more accurately, she must first subvert the binary system & then create her own discourse within it.

We still need one more thing:  “The Laugh of the Medusa” by Hélène Cixous.  In it, Cixous describes écriture féminine, or “gendered feminine writing.”  I’ll be referencing this a couple times as we go, but a brief summary seems like a good idea.  In a nutshell, Cixous’ idea is this:  the dominant form of writing & language is masculine.  To break out of this (Cixous regards masculine writing as stagnant), one must engage in écriture féminine, which Cixous sets in opposition to phallogocentric writing.

Note:  this blurring of binaries even happens at the most general level:  CCS is shōjo.  The blurring of binaries is inherent in a shōjo character, as such characters are essentially their own gender, not male or female.  Although we’re likely already aware of what shōjo means (or, if we’re not, Wikipedia can sometimes be your friend), CCS seems to try to be both shōjo & not shōjo (just in case we weren’t subverting enough binary systems…).  Sakura begins the series as the “not-quite-female female,” but this changes along the way.  I’m not really going to get into the sexual nature/experience/alignment of the shōjo character, as I don’t really have those goggles in my collection.  I’ll leave that to…someone else or another time.  In addition, while the primary addressee of “The Laugh of the Medusa” is “Woman,” the practice of feminine writing does not seem to be relegated to only to the female sex.  In fact, Cixous suggests that écriture féminine is best engaged in through bisexuality, through androgyny, having both features of the male & female (sound a little familiar?).  Thus we are viewing another in-between, as écriture féminine seems to exist to subvert the (masculine) status quo.

To connect Cixous to CCS, we need to take one final small step on our own.  That step is to think of Sakura’s use of the cards as an equivalent of writing.  It’s not much of a stretch.  We can think of the staff Sakura uses as her writing instrument, & the activation & actions of the cards (as well as the use of the magic power she has) as the writing itself.  We can essentially use the terms “magical power” & “text” interchangeably.

Let’s start on a small scale—the power of writing one’s name.  Whenever Sakura captures a card, she must write her name on it.  If she fails to do so after finding it, as she does in one episode, the card will not recognize Sakura as the new master, & thus, since Clow Reed is gone, it will run amok until Sakura turns it back into a card & writes her name across the bottom.  She is unable to harness the card’s power if it doesn’t have her name on it.  The same also applies to Li, as he must also inscribe his name on the cards that he captures.  Each of them can only use the cards s/he caught—Sakura never uses Li’s cards, or vice versa.  Thus, by writing her name on the cards she captures, Sakura is essentially excluding Li from using them.  Presumably, however, their names could be erased & overwritten.  But while the writing of their names is what gives them power over the cards, the cards don’t seem to function solely on their magical powers.

Now to start on the bigger picture.  Sakura has magic power of her own, or else, as Kero states, she wouldn’t have been able to open the seal on the cards.  As she starts her adventure of collecting the cards, Sakura’s magical powers aren’t particularly strong, & they seem focused more on detecting other magical presences (like the Clow Cards).  But as her knowledge of the Clow Cards increases, so does her magical power.  However, when Sakura uses a Clow Card, she is effectively creating (or using, perhaps) her text (magic) within Clow Reed’s text (magic).  Because she is just starting, she has to function within the power that Clow Reed left behind; she isn’t strong enough yet to support the kind of power the cards require—the show later implies that this is in part due to the fact that she is just a child.  Thus she is still learning, & she needs (& the cards need) the magic that Clow Reed left behind.  As Cixous states, “There’s no room for her if she’s not a he.”  Sakura cannot use the Clow Cards solely as a female—she has to balance the female (herself, her magic, her text) with the male (Clow Reed’s magic, his text).  She must balance herself in the liminal space between, as a shōjo.

However, Sakura’s magical power & use of the Clow Cards comes as an affront to Li, whose family can trace their lineage & magical power to Clow Reed.  Li’s text operates within the traditional, ancestral, masculine text of Clow Reed; as a result, Li often views Sakura’s text functioning within Clow Reed’s as an aberration, as subversive.

When Li’s character is introduced in the 8th episode, most of his first appearances involve berating Sakura for knowing so little about the Clow Cards.  When he bullies her & demands she give him the Clow Cards she’s recovered, she resists, saying that she promised Kero she would find all the cards, but she still has to be saved by her brother Toya.  Later Li calls her “idiot” & “moron.”  Instead of trying to stand up for herself this time, she proceeds to cower behind him while he figures out how to capture the Thunder Card.  For someone who made a promise to collect the cards, she certainly isn’t being active about it here.  Though passivity can be a mark of the shōjo, Sakura has been fairly active about capturing the cards.  While a number of her previous encounters with the cards involved some running from them, Sakura isn’t running; however, she’s depending on Li, a boy who continues to insult & harass her, to take care of the situation.

Because it's cool to be mean, right?

Because it's cool to be mean, right?

Li continues to treat Sakura in much the same manner for quite some time, though their competition for the cards eventually turns into friendly rivalry & then cooperative.  It seems as though as Sakura’s magical knowledge increases, Li is able to respect her more.

Sakura remains in the liminal space of the shōjo as long as she is capturing Clow Cards.  However, once all of the cards are collected, she must face the Final Judgment & defeat Yue.  However, because Yue draws & controls the power from the magic Clow Reed left behind, he can’t be defeated by just using Clow Reed’s magic or the Clow Cards.  The old text, then, is insufficient, even for Sakura, simply because she is still operating within that text.

To succeed, Sakura has to create a new staff & remake the Clow Cards into Sakura Cards.  I am again reminded of Cixous:  “If woman has always functioned “within” the discourse of man…it is time for her to dislocate this “within,” to explode it, turn it around, and seize it; to make it hers, containing it, taking it in her own mouth, biting that tongue with her very own teeth to invent for herself a language to get inside of.”  & that is precisely what happens.  By using her own power, by creating her own text, by remaking the card, Sakura is able to win, & Yue must serve her.  Even the new staff she has created requires a new chant & a new magical circle, things that Sakura must make up on her own.

Finally, the staff’s change is worthy of a little further scrutiny.  Let’s take a look.

We have Li’s sword, Sakura’s first staff, & the one that she creates during the Final Judgment.  The point of Li’s sword is what he uses when using one of the Clow Cards; he only uses the flat of it for his own elemental magic.  Sakura only ever uses the beak of the staff for using the cards.  The sword & beak are naturally phallic symbols (reminiscent of Gilbert & Gubar’s concept of the phallic pen), a marker of Clow Reed’s power that the cards require.  The end of Sakura’s second staff, a circle enclosing a star with wings on either side, seems to imply a uterus or vagina.

However, the staff change leaves us in a tiny bit of a lurch in terms of shōjo.  We have our not-quite-female female breaking out of androgyny, creating her own feminine text with a feminine pen.  Even in the next play Sakura’s class puts on, Sakura plays the princess rather than the prince.

It seems to be a subversion of subversion.  But then, that seems to be what CCS likes to do.

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6 Comments

  1. Now you should read the original manga and compare it to the unedited anime. ^_~

    Reply
    • Pontifus

       /  19 February 2010

      I second this.

      It sounds like the anime and manga are quite different, and my only CCS experience is with the latter (I didn’t watch the show when it aired on American TV because, when I was 14, that would’ve been SRSLY GHEY). I think a lot of what you point out here also operates in the manga — the phallic v. yonic symbolism, the patriarchy coming through in certain characters and its subsequent subversion, and so on. And I’m all for magic-as-writing, perhaps needless to say, which is probably productive in every context ever. But, if I’m getting the anime’s direction right (and I may not be), there seem to be two key differences between the two installments in the franchise, and they seem more than a little contradictory. Firstly, I’d say the manga’s subversion of gender roles, and its giving Sakura “feminine writing,” is more overt. Gender really never seems to occur consciously to anyone, even; when it comes to picking objects of affection, everyone is fair game for everyone else (regardless of age, even!). But, on the other hand, the manga’s second major arc essentially consists of — well, I don’t want to say too much, but Sakura’s actions are much more dependent upon men. Her mastery of feminine writing is perhaps subverted. And this is stuff that happens after the Final Judgment bit. I’m horribly clumsy with feminist theory, so I’d be interested to see what you’d think of the manga.

      Reply
      • Well, are you confusing gender roles and sexual attraction? CLAMP typically has a lot of bi/gay/straight mash-ups, but the actual gender roles are rarely more questionable than in CCS. Which is weird, or I’ve always thought it was. You’d think a group so devoted to guys and girls getting it on with people that have the same plumbing would question what the identities of each person in the relationship are.

  2. Magic and writing are commonly conflated in a lot of texts, so it’s really interesting to see them conflated to create the women’s writing Cixous advocated. Honestly, I’ve never known what, pragmatically, women’s writing would be, as Cixous is so mystical in parts of the “Laugh of the Medusa.”

    What do you think of the “laugh” itself in CCS? Do Sakura or any of the other characters ever manage to appropriate what’s been turned against them? I’m thinking that Sakura’s kind management of the cards might be a “feminine” turning against the patriarchal rule they’ve suffered under Clow’s control — and would suffer under Li’s. It’s still not quite as juicy as the real laughter of the Medusa, but then Sakura hasn’t really managed to hit puberty yet.

    Reply
    • TheKittymeister

       /  19 February 2010

      True facts.

      I would agree that Sakura’s management of the cards could be seen that way. At one point, Kero tells her the cards that she’s captured like her. They’re often shown dancing around her, something that never seems to happen to Li. Amusing, then, that the ever-androgynous Yue should tend to be cold & distant to everyone, wrapped up in his love for Clow Reed.

      As far as appropriating, turning the cards into Sakura Cards seems to serve that purpose for Sakura (also, most of the plot of the second movie does the same). If she doesn’t change the cards quickly enough, they will become useless. As far as the other characters…I will think on this.

      Reply

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