I fell for one of the most overused plot devices in fictional relationships: The love/hate romance. Like Inuyasha and Kagome, Van and Hitomi, Mamoru and Usagi, often the two love interests in an anime butt heads in the beginning, becoming annoyed, frustrated, and even down right livid with each other, all while developing a secret love and closeness through their shared perilous adventures. The viewer catches on pretty quick, and it’s never a surprise when two characters put comically at odds end up madly in love — as though it were destiny.
Still, there was something special about Syaoran Li from Cardcaptor Sakura that made my heart race and blood boil more than the others. His entire demeanor was fascinating to me, and getting to slowly chip away at his rough exterior was a rewarding subplot of the show. The title of his debut in Episode 8, “Sakura’s Rival Appears,” essentially singles him out as the front-line antagonist for that season, believing himself the true master of the Clow Cards as a descendant of Clow Reed. He’s arrogant and socially awkward due to his sheltered life and single-minded drive in obtaining the Clow Cards to prove himself as a member of the Li Clan. He’s a skilled sorcerer and swordsman, and his confidence in battle always made me swoon.
He puts up this mysterious-loner appearance (which was apparently very much my thing), but comically those around him routinely tear it down. He’s very gullible, a trait he shares with Sakura, and always means well despite coming off a bit abrasive at first. He often berates and criticizes Sakura when they first meet, doubtful that her latent magical ability can compensate for her lack of knowledge and experience. As a similarly strong-willed character, Sakura and Syaoran compete whenever they can and end up inadvertently making each other stronger, eventually coming to depend on one another. Sakura’s infectious personality and determination to build her strength through friendships slowly draws Syaoran closer to the inner group and by the time she’s named the true Master of the Clow for defeating Yue, he’s already a trusted ally.
Though I initially fell for him watching the North American dub on television, I became even more captivated after watching the Japanese sub. Some suspicions about his character were confirmed, mostly surrounding his interactions with Yukito Tsukishiro — Sakura’s love interest in the first half of the show and for whom Syaoran also has affections. In the English dub, it’s portrayed as though he were afraid or intimidated by Yukito, instead of the magical crush he actually had. His moments of shyness around Yukito and how he’d get embarrassed over small gestures was so endearing and hinted at more complex person. Being Sakura’s rival in love definitely took some attention away from their growing bond, but the episodes that brought them closer together through their struggles capturing the cards were always my absolute favorites.
I’m not blind to the issues surrounding the idea of “taming” hot-headed men, that even though they threaten and bully, there is always more beneath the surface that redeems them. But we all have a soft spot for that character with an obsidian vein running through their heart of gold, and there’s something to that. In this case, it touches on empathy and a bond forged not just through hardship, but through true friendship. Syaoran isn’t ever portrayed as evil; he’s an awkward brat who slowly learns that relying on others can make you stronger than you could ever be alone. He is fiercely loyal with a courageous heart, but he leaves room for others make their own choices and triumph on their own merits.
When he does eventually confess his feelings to Sakura, he doesn’t pressure her, or expect anything really. She’s given the space to figure things out (a whole movie after the show, in fact), and their relationship never takes away from her independence or strength as a character.
Though he didn’t end up Master of the Clow Cards, Sayoran still managed to capture my heart.