Created by Naoko Takeuchi, Sailor Moon is often considered as the definitive anime of the 1990s during the popularity boom of the medium in western countries. Ironically, I never watched it. I must’ve missed it. But now I am a fan, though I have yet to actually watch the original series. Instead, I’ve been watching the current anime Sailor Moon Crystal, which serves as a modern reintroduction to the franchise. And to be frank, I have a few things to say on the quality of the show. Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t bad, but it isn’t all that great either.
Disclaimer: This article contains spoilers. The views in this article are mine and mine alone, they don’t represent any other fans of Sailor Moon. Blah-blah-blah-yakkity-schmakitty-blah-blah.
Of course, not everyone knows what Sailor Moon is all about. In short – magical schoolgirl superheroes battle monsters. Our heroine is Usagi Tsukino, a ditzy but persevering girl with the unfortunate intelligence of a barbeque instruction manual. She meets a talking cat Luna who tells her she is the reincarnation of one of the Sailor Guardians of the Moon Kingdom, magical warriors who protect the world from evil. Usagi can transform into Sailor Moon, and leads the Guardians to battle the Dark Kingdom (dubbed the Negaverse in the English version of the original anime) and other evil forces. The other Guardians include genius Ami Mizuno (Sailor Mercury), paranormally gifted shrine maiden Rei Hino (Sailor Mars), tomboy Makoto Kino (Sailor Jupiter), and the versatile Minako Aino (Sailor Venus) along with her own cat sidekick Artemis. Usagi also deals with love in the form of Mamoru Chiba, aka Tuxedo Mask, a vigilante who dresses like the Phantom of the Opera.
The original Sailor Moon series focused on the Dark Kingdom to begin with, but Crystal focused only thirteen episodes on it. The evil Queen Beryl wishes to absorb enough human energy to awaken her master Queen Metalia and cover the world in darkness. To do this, her four minions Kunzite, Jadeite, Zoisite, and Nephrite summon monsters to do evil things. Crystal squeezes the plot into thirteen episodes, but as with quite a lot of things in the series, it feels like the writers were trying to zoom through it very quickly.
By the eighth episode, before we’ve even got to know the main characters, they drop the heavy plot twists, and Tuxedo Mask is mortally wounded and then abducted by the bad guys to be brainwashed. And I found myself in the next episode screaming at the characters when they start dropping exposition about the backstory whilst poor Usagi is having an emotional breakdown over her boyfriend getting kidnapped. Priorities, people. Then, five episodes later, Queen Metalia is out and about, and bing-bam-boom, she’s defeated in one episode. And this is all done in thirteen episodes with very little time to breathe and focus on what is important – character development.
It should be the characters that guide the story, and a well-developed character can make a series worthwhile. Sailor Moon has a lot of wonderful characters, and I am quite fond of them. But in Crystal, the character development is the sacrifice to get through the first arc in thirteen episodes. Aside from Usagi and Tuxedo Mask, we don’t really get to know or see any other character grow beyond their introduction. Everyone has a label – Ami is the smart one, Rei is the serious one, Makoto is the tough one, Minako is the nice one, etc. They have little to no impact on the story, there is never conflict between the girls, and can’t grow as characters because that is all given to Usagi…sort of.
*Spoiler warning below!*
In the second half of Crystal which is still airing (two week gaps per episode), Usagi, Mamoru, Minako and the cats go to the future, discovering Usagi and Mamoru will still be together in the 30th century, and the strange little girl Chibi-Usa who’s been hanging around them is actually their future daughter. You see, Usagi and Mamoru are destined by fate to be eternal lovers, but when the two return to the present day and Mamoru instinctively wants to protect Chibi-Usa, Usagi jealously screams at him and runs away in tears. What a reaction. She discovers she and her boyfriend will be together nine centuries later, get married, have a daughter, and her immediate reaction is to get envious that her future husband wants to protect her future daughter. My reaction was “Urrgh!”
And the villains. Oh, boy, the villains! And I thought Darth Maul was a one-dimensional villain. Every single bad guy in Sailor Moon Crystal is as flat, bland, and unmemorable as a they come. We learn the backstories of Queen Beryl and her minions, but there are no footholds to actually like them as they have no personalities. All four minions all look the same and all they talk about is getting the magic Silver Crystal which is the MacGuffin of the show. They don’t shut up about it. Ever. And they have no personalities or character to them beyond being Queen Beryl’s toadies, and when we do learn who they really are, it comes too late to care about them. Queen Beryl herself is like a boring Rita Repulsa, and Queen Metalia is more of a presence than a character and equally empty.
The series’ production quality brings some positives to the table. I like the voice acting (particularly from Usagi’s voice actress Kotono Mitsuishi who was the only returning actress from the 90s anime), the music is quite nice, and the animation is bright and colourful, though the transformation sequences are done in garish cel animation.
A minor issue is the character design. All of the Sailor Guardians have exceedingly long arms, the same basic facial designs, and bodies so thin it looks like a gust of wind would split them in half. As you may have noticed, I haven’t exactly been all that kind to Sailor Moon Crystal. I do actually enjoy watching it, but the increasingly obvious lack of depth is starting to bug me. To counter it, I’ll also cover the other version of Sailor Moon that I’ve watched – the live action TV series Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon.
Airing in Japan in 2003, the live action take is basically the equivalent of Power Rangers and has a similar feel and budget. It follows the Dark Kingdom arc of the manga, successfully stretching it more or less over forty-nine episodes with plenty of time to flesh out the characters and have some fun. There are some story changes and new ideas such as turning Ami evil for a few episodes, Luna being able to transform into a Sailor Guardian, and the addition of a couple of bad guys. All of the cast members get to develop and actually argue, fall out, make up, and interact like actual people. Even the villains get their own story arcs, although, Zoisite spends the whole thing playing a piano.
Perhaps the character who undergoes the most drastic change is Minako, who becomes a popular J-pop superstar pretending to Princess Serenity for most of the series and sometimes pretending to be a right jerk. The production value is a mixed bag, but there is nothing that is genuinely awful. There is a sense of cheesiness about the whole thing, and it does feel and look a lot like Power Rangers or Beetleborgs (both of which began life as Japanese shows). But the good story and characters just make it so much fun that the production’s limits aren’t really an issue. Heck, I even found Luna, who is mostly portrayed as a talking plush toy, to be well handled despite the obvious hilarity of seeing the cuddly toy just sitting there in the background without moving.
If I had one complaint, it is the lack of memorable music. It seems they took their soundtrack from other places. When Minako is revealed to be Sailor Venus, they play the theme song from The Pagemaster, which is my favourite film of all time. The Sailor Guardian costumes look like something a talented cosplayer might make, and the effects are a bit basic. The bad guys’ costumes are even more hilarious, but at least you can distinguish the villains apart now since they undergo decent character development. So, yeah, Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon does feel like watching a fan-made series at times but it gives itself plenty of time and room to grow in both story and characters, something which Crystal could learn from.
Regardless, Sailor Moon is a highly-regarded and beloved institution in the world of anime. While the quality of products may very, the characters and iconic imagery will go down in history. I just wish that Sailor Moon Crystal had more room to take itself slowly instead of barrelling through the story as quickly as possible at the cost of the characters. Maybe the second season will be better as long as we don’t have to wait dreadful two week gaps between each episode.
Are you a Sailor Moon fan? Should a show put characters first and plot second? Let us know in the comments section below or visit our Twitter feed.