I was reading CLAMP’s Cardcaptor Sakura recently. It’s a series that my wife likes a lot, and Jason Thompson gives it high marks in his amazing guide to all things manga ever. So I wanted to like it…but it just didn’t really do it for me. I can certainly see part of the appeal; Clamp’s art is great; Sakura’s ever-changing round of preposterously frilly costumes is especially entertaining…especially since it brings up the much-neglected question, “Don’t those super-heroes ever get tired of wearing the same thing?” And I like the fact that everybody in the series seems to have a crush on everybody else, more or less regardless of gender or even age. Longing between teenage boys, between girls, or between an elementary school girl and her teacher are all viewed through the same bittersweet lens of romantic sighs and giant expressive eyeballs. You’ve got to love the gay utopia.
But overall, the storyline felt a bit flat for me. I think the problem is that, if I’m going to read a fantasy series about larger than life struggles between clashing mystical forces, the eldritch evils need to be impressively, um, eldritch and evil. Clamp is certainly visually up to the mystical pyrotechnics, but their chipper everyone-loves-everyone-else worldview has left them unable to deliver a villain of any sort. Instead, all Sakura’s tests are just that — arbitrary tests. Her enemy, Clow, isn’t a bad guy at all; he’s a mentor figure who keeps putting her in “dangerous” situations in order to help her realize her true potential. Admittedly, the protagonists are all school kids, but the plot is still disturbingly school-like — some supposedly all-knowing shit-head tormenting the protagonists with pointless exercises while all the time claiming its for their own good. At the end everybody hugs, but I would have been happier if they’d slapped Clow silly for deliberately wasting everyone’s time.
I’m probably just hopelessly jaded, but I much prefer my magical fairy tales for children to have some teeth. Childhood, much like adulthood, is rather scary, and it’s hard for me to cathart if my escapist material doesn’t at least nod at this actuality. C. S. Lewis’ “The Last Battle,” or John Christopher’s “The City of Gold and Lead,” Tolkein, Ursula K. Le Guin’s “A Wizard of Earthsea” are all suitably apocalyptic…but even just a touch of sincere menace, as in “Where the Wild Things Are” can go a long way. I read Dame Darcy’s “Frightful Fairy Tales” recently, and that gets it just about perfect — it really shows how fantasy and horror started in the same place, and still haven’t drifted that far apart. Darcy’s stories are knowing, and there is an ironic wink or two, but for the most part her tales are told straight. I think the most effective one is “Persimmion, in which a witch changes a young woman into a statue, which stands in the forest for many years, ignored and weathering, as the world around her changes. There’s a happy ending here, too, with true love winning the day after many, many years, but the joyous spring is given weight, conviction and depth by the painful winter. We like to think of childhood as a series of carefully managed stages, through which benevolent parental dictators guide their eagerly willing trainees. But I think Darcy’s closer to the truth in painting it as a series of painful and largely uncontrollable transformations, preceded or followed by long periods of frozen boredom and helplessness. And I’m not sure, ultimately, that the second version isn’t less cruel than the first. The witch who changes the girl into the statue has at least done her the honor of hating her honestly. In Cardcaptor Sakura, Clow’s lovingly duplicitous guidance seems to me indistinguishable from contempt. If you have to choose, it’s better to be raised by an ogre than by a God.
And, yeah, I like Darcy’s art better too. The two are actually quite comparable; Darcy’s art too is girly, filled with frills and flowers and mooning large-eyed ectomorphs. But she also has an otherworldly menace that Clamp quite deliberately eschews. In Clamp, all the characters look like plush toys; for Darcy, they look like plush toys wandering around in one of Edward Gorey’s dreams.
Incidentally, Darcy contributed a piece to the Gay Utopia symposium I edited. The symposium also has a creepy shojo take on Little Red Riding Hood by Nishizaka Hiromi which I’d encourage you to check out.