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Pokemon is so Last Century
Get ready for....CARDCAPTORS!

By Donald Liebenson

Parents who were late catching on to "Pokemon" have a chance to get in early on what may be the Next Big Thing; "Cardcaptors." From Kids' WB!, the network that brought you Ash Ketchum and Pikachu, comes Sakura and Kero.

Already a hit in its native Japan, "Cardcaptors" debuted in this country in late June. Our hero is ten-year-old Sakura, who has accidentally set free the mystical and magical Klow cards from a sorcerer's book of magic. The cards embody the forces of nature ("Wind, water, fire, earth, clouds, wind, rain, electricity"). Sakura's quest is to catch 'em all--excuse me--collect 'em all.

In the premiere episode, Sakura was compelled to form an uneasy alliance with Li, a mysterious new exchange student who had been making ominous appearances in Sakura's dreams, and claims he is the Klow cards' rightful master.

Comparisons with "Pokemon," which opened the door to mainstream acceptance of the Japanese style of animation called anime, are inevitable. Just as there are 150 (and counting) collectible Pokemon, there are 52 Klow cards. Pikachu, the Elmo of Pokemondom, has his counterpart in Kero, a stuffed toy (very marketing-savvy) who, a la the late, lamented "Calvin and Hobbes" comic strip, comes to life in Sakura's presence to offer words of wisdom ("You must expect things when you least expect them") and motivation.

But there are intriguing differences between the two series. For starters, Sakura is a girl, and unlike aspiring Pokemon master Ash, questions her qualifications to be a cardcaptor. Like the original Buffy in the feature film of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," she doubts her destiny.

The series will also resonate with Harry Potter fans. But as Kero tells her, "The cards were in the book. The book had a seal. You broke the seal, and only a person with specially chosen powers has that kind of ability...You're destined to have them."

Unlike "Sailor Moon's" heroines, Sakura is a hero with cross-over appeal for boys. The cardcaptor uniform designed for her by her friend Madison may look like "pink frills," but it's actually "non-conducting titanium and rubber," which comes in handy when you're doing battle with the Thunder Beast. And once Sakura does get over her self-doubts, she proves herself to be a worthy card-captor indeed. And she rollerskates!

The fledgling series has what Kids' WB! senior vice president Donna Friedman calls the "core elements" that made "Pokemon" such a breakthrough for Japanese anime. "It's a cool, interesting world," she said in a phone interview. "It has a very different mythology from 'Pokemon' and a different kind of quest. It has relatable characters and a mix of adventure and humor that is consistent with 'Pokemon.'"

It's too soon to gauge whether "Release the light" has the same catch-phrase potential or pop culture staying power as, say, "Pikachu, I choose you." But with the holiday gift season just months away, can we expect an onslaught of "Cardcaptors" merchandise, from little stuffed Keros to Klow trading games?

It's in the cards.

Donald Liebenson lives in Highland Park, Illinois and covers entertainment for national magazines.

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