Actually, this, combined with "Practice, Practice, Practice," is just about the single most effective technique for improving your work ... and as I am on a quest to someday achieve greatness, so to speak, constant improvement is required.
Anyway, today the object under the microscope is Cardcaptor Sakura. What can those wacky folks at CLAMP studios teach me today?
WARNING! Spoilers ahead!
FIRST IMPRESSIONS - THE "HOOK"
One thing I notice right away, is that CCS has a very strong hook, upon which it hangs everything right away: the mythos of the Clow Cards, and the release of same. In the first episode, we are introduced to Sakura, the girl who for various reasons must be the Cardcaptor, even though she has no idea what it's all about, and we are introduced to Kero and the Clow Cards right out of the gate. And the fact that Sakura inadvertently releases the cards, managing to retain only WINDY, does three things right off the bat:
- It gives Sakura a vitally important task (re-seal the cards before they cause massive amounts of destruction),
- It gives Sakura the tools she needs to get started (one attack card, WINDY, and a mentor, in the form of Kero), and
- It makes it Sakura's personal responsibility to take on this task. The fact that she takes on the task, despite her being just a small girl and a timid one at that, shows her devotion to duty, and establishes her heroic character immediately. The danger involved in catching the first card (FLY) frightens her almost to the point of panic -- but she rises to the challenge, and in doing so, gains not only a little more confidence, but a little more power (i.e., access to the tremendous utility provided by the FLY card).
The strong hook is a two-edged sword, however: recapturing the cards, one card at a time, gives 52 very discrete, clear-cut goals that she must achieve, and is a great framework on which to hang a long-term storyline. On the other hand, it also sows the seeds for the show's ending: once she's got all the cards, then what?
The series creators managed to extend the length of the storyline by tweaking the mythos a bit: once all the cards were captured, they'd lose all their magic unless they were converted, one at a time, from Clow Cards to Sakura Cards, so a reincarnated version of Clow Reed showed up and started creating all sorts of deliberately dangerous situations to force Sakura's hand in changing them. This felt very contrived to me, and the stories after this begin to lose the more natural feel of the earlier ones. I have not seen as many of the second half, alas (but I'm working on it!), so I have less to say about that segment of the show.
I'm going to refer to the "first half" and the "second half" of the series as I go through all this. "First half" refers to the period of time in which Sakura is first attempting to capture all the cards, through the point where she gains them all. "Second half" refers to basically the rest of the series, when Sakura is converting the cards from Clow Cards to Sakura Cards.
What would have been better, IMO, and also had more long-term potential, would have been to figure out just what Sakura would do with the cards once they were captured. Surely this deck of powerful magic cards was created for a reason -- what is it? Over the course of two years or so, Sakura goes from being a timid little girl to being a confident, powerful magician with almost superheroic powers ... surely she's going to do something more exciting with them than finishing off her years of school and becoming a secretary or something...
LARGER STRUCTURE: FORESHADOWING, PATTERNS, AND ECHOES
The second thing that's immediately obvious to me is that the creators of the series knew where it was going to end before they even started. Some of this may come from the fact that CCS existed as a manga series before it was a TV show ... I don't know how far into the storyline the manga got before the show started.
However, it could just as easily have been that the series creators did all the groundwork before they started writing, unlike, say, what I typically do. *sheepish look*
Almost every major event in the first half of the series is heralded by an appearance of the "Tokyo Radio Tower Dream" -- which is itself simply a flash-forward to the climactic sequence of the first season (which takes place at the Tokyo Radio Tower). Every time Sakura has the dream, another detail becomes visible, usually a character involved in the climactic sequence. Before Li shows up, he appears in the dream; before Miss Mizuki shows up, she becomes visible in the dream. By the end of the first half of the series, practically half of the climactic sequence has already been shown -- in such small bits and pieces that watching the last episode becomes something like putting together a puzzle.
This is a very cool technique. Each little reveal makes you wonder: What's next? How does it connect to what came before? Is this a good thing, or a bad thing? It keeps you constantly speculating, and looking forward to the final answer, like a series of ongoing mini-cliffhangers as the series progresses.
As a corollary to this, the series incorporates a concept that I first encountered in Ray Winninger's excellent DungeonCraft articles: When you create a person, place, or object, give it at least one secret. CCS is chock to the brim with secrets! Secrets the characters don't know themselves, secrets the characters don't tell each other, secrets in the form of things the characters know but don't realize are important ... and these secrets are rationed out in very tightly-controlled portions. Give away too much, and they become anticlimactic ... give away too little, and the reader becomes frustrated.
Sakura's Tokyo Radio Tower Dream is one such secret -- i.e., what's going to happen at the climax of the first half. But there are so many more! The creators have built a large, detailed, and intricately-crafted mythos, with a lot of stuff to know! For instance...
- Each card is unique. It has a personality, a special power, a certain set of characteristics, and a set of relationships both to the Cardcaptor and to the other cards. Attack cards, defense cards, and special cards must be captured in different ways. Some cards are easy to capture and may even be eager to "come home," as it were ... others are mischievous and try to get away, and some are downright sinister and dangerous. Many of the cards are almost evil on their own: WATER tries to down people ... SWORD takes over Rika's mind and makes her try to kill indescriminately. This uncertainty adds to the tension as a new card is detected: what can it do? How will it behave? Is it a "good" card or a "bad" one?
- Clow Reed! This enigmatic figure, a sorcerer from the past now long gone, influences just about everything that happens throughout the course of the story. Everywhere Sakura goes, she bumps into some ripple in history caused by Clow Reed's wake. The Cards themselves, obviously ... Kero and Yue, both of whom knew Clow Reed personally and were very deeply affected by his presence in their, um, lives ... Li Shaoron and Mielin are his descendants, and theoretical heirs to his legacy (the Clow Cards), and are thus somewhat put out when the Cards (and Kero) choose Sakura as the Cardcaptor instead ... and of course, random "Clow Reed was here" moments, such as the ghost-sorceress who kidnaps Sakura thinking that she must be Clow Reed in the first CCS movie. We are never given more than tantalizing glimpses and very rough sketches in the first half of the series, and even when a reincarnation of Clow Reed becomes an actual character in the second half, he is not the actual Clow Reed, so much as an echo.
- Who loves who??? Wow, there is a tangled knot of romantic relationships in CCS! Learning who loves who, and keeping track of it all, almost requires a scorecard. (Quick rundown, as I understand it: Tomoya loves Sakura. Sakura loves Yukito, until he is revealed to be Yue, then she starts getting interested in Li. Yukito loves Toya; Toya used to love Miss Mizuki (and she used to love him), but now he loves Yukito instead. Li loves Yukito, until he realizes it was just a crush brought on by his sensing of Yukito's power (as a false persona for Yue), at which point he starts getting interested in Sakura. Mielin loves Li, but he wishes she would just get off his back. Kero loves only sweets, although he was always jealous of the attention Clow Reed paid to Yue. Yue is far too aloof to be said to love anyone, but he sure was very attached to Clow Reed. Did I miss any?
NOTE: I did not create this graphic; I snagged it off of the Animenation message boards.
NAMES, IMAGES, AND MOTIFS
I'm sure there are a ton of references that just zoom on by me because I don't speak Japanese and have a limited knowledge of Japanese culture. But I'll list what I've spotted so far.
Sakura: Means "cherry blossom," and this motif is reflected in many ways. Blooming cherry trees and floating petals are common images wherever Sakura goes; Sakura has red hair, is considered very pretty by most people she encounters, and is at the age where she is "just coming into bloom," so to speak. She often wears pink and red in her clothing.
Keroberos: Keroberos is the Japanese analog of Cerberus, and like the Greek Cerberus, Kero is a beastly guardian. But instead of a vicious, three-headed attack dog, Kero is a bright, cheery plush cat with wings in his small form, or an enormous bright, cheery lion thingie with wings in his true form. Kero is governed by the Sun, and as such he is golden in color. His wings point to his "celestial" nature, as they do in the case of Yue. The fact that the FLY card goes from giving wings to Sakura's wand in the first half of the series, to giving them directly to Sakura in the second half, suggest that not only is the magic truly becoming a facet of herself rather than something outside of herself, but also that she is becoming something more "celestial" and less "earthbound" herself.
Yukito/Yue: "Yuki" means "snow," and Kero often refers to Yukito as "that snow-rabbit guy." Yukito is, unknown to himself, a created persona to house Yue, one of the two Guardians of the Clow Cards (and the Cardcaptor) -- who is governed by the Moon. Traditionally, where we see "the man in the moon" in the shadows of the craters on the moon's surface, Japanese culture sees a rabbit. Yue, in his true form, wears pale white and blue clothing, is remote, cold, and somewhat aloof. Yukito is the object of an unfulfilled (and unfulfillable) crush by both Sakura and Li; I don't know if the moon figures as heavily in Japanese concepts of romance as it does in American ones, but I would assume it does. Yukito's constant, immense hunger, played almost entirely for laughs in the first half of the series, foreshadows the threat in the second half of Yue's drawing on Sakura's magic to continue his existence and her near-inability to keep him alive.
WHOOF! I'M WORN OUT.
Well, I'm sure there's more to say, but I'm about "analyzed out" for now. But that's why this is "Part One." In any well-crafted, large work, there is a lot of stuff to learn and know, and this is certainly true of Cardcaptor Sakura. If anyone has other insights they'd like to share, I'd love to hear them -- so I can steal, er, learn from your thoughts as well! =^.^=