Cardcaptor Sakura is a magical girl series released in 1996 (manga) and 1998 (anime) which remains very popular among otaku. Following the life of a young girl who discovers magic powers and must use those new-found abilities to collect magical cards which have been dispersed throughout her city, Cardcaptor Sakura’s main draw is the natural charm its characters possess, particularly the heroine Kinomoto Sakura. Sakura exudes a sense of authenticity in her character that makes older male fans feel for her, and sometimes even develop sexual feelings for her.
While it’s never clear as to whether or not Cardcaptor Sakura was intended to be received by the fans in this manner (even though Sakura creators CLAMP were fans themselves before becoming professionals), there exists little of that ambiguity with a similar show, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha. Essentially following the same basic premise as Cardcaptor Sakura, Nanoha features a young girl who receives magical powers and has to go collect items, but the key difference between the two series is that while Cardcaptor Sakura was targeted towards primarily young girls, Nanoha was aimed squarely at those older male otaku who were very fond of Kinomoto Sakura and the world in which she lived. The late-night time slot, the merchandising (posters in the otaku-oriented Megami Magazine, Nanoha-themed hug pillows), all of it points to a show made for otaku. Why then, do the people who make and promote Nanoha go through all the trouble of giving the series this magical girl facade and having it designed to look on the surface as if it were designed for the enjoyment of young girls when it clearly is not? The answer is, because that’s what the fans want.
Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha
“Textual poaching” is a term which refers to the act of engaging a work of media, be it text, television, radio, etc., and taking from it not so much what the author intended, but what is pleasurable or enjoyable to the reader/viewer instead of the work as a whole. Coined by Michael de Certeau in 1984, the term was utilized by Henry Jenkins in his study of Star Trek fans, particularly in the way that fans approached their own creative endeavors pertaining to their chosen fandom. The classic example of this is the notion that Kirk and Spock are romantically interested in one another, based on their close friendship and lines which are interpreted as “hints” towards their “true” relationship.
More recently, Jenkins has talked about how the one-sided conversation between creator and consumer has broken down, and how easy it is now for people to talk to a creator, albeit in the indirect form of shouting into the internet. While Jenkins does not focus particularly on Japanese animation, this is essentially the environment modern anime finds itself in, and in this setting you will find that a number of shows, like Nanoha, are designed to be poached.
At the zoo, chimpanzees are not fed by simply placing the food in front of them. Instead, what the zookeepers do is hide the food in the chimpanzees’ cage so that the chimps may find it themselves, and in doing so are creating a facsimile of the wild setting where chimps would forage for food. Even though the zoo is obviously not the jungle, this artificial foraging is what the chimpanzees prefer to simply having the food given to them. In essence, this is the situation surrounding the otaku and the otaku-conscious creator. The otaku, the fan, gains enjoyment from being able to draw from these works a secondary interpretation of events and characters within, and so the creator responds by making a story which on the surface seems very similar to an “innocent” series, but in actuality is constructed from the ground up as a work meant to simulate the foraging otaku engage in to find aspects of a work they can extrapolate as fans. Another example of this is Prince of Tennis and other similar series which, while running in Shounen Jump, are designed in part to attract the female readers who, similar to the Kirk/Spock fans, saw the “close friendship” theme common in shounen manga as “CLOSE FRIENDSHIP.”
Prince of Tennis
The joy derived from not approaching a work as intended makes sense when you realize that many fans are familiar with the notion of liking things to an extent others may not. Fans, after all, are not the majority. As such, they are experienced with liking things which are not intended for them, to the point that the act of pursuing series not intended for them may become the focus of their activity as fans. Creators understand this desire, and so have responded in kind by making series which are designed to be used in that manner, like a small man-made pond where pre-caught fish are thrown in to make things easier. The relationship between creator and fan/otaku is thus predicated on this willful suspension of disbelief. The otaku are willing to pretend that this series made for otaku is not made for otaku. The creator, in turn, continues to intentionally hide bits of “sustenance” in the fans’ cage, a cage which the fans have willfully constructed themselves and can leave at any time should they choose to do so.