It takes a special kind of book to make me read it more than once. The Count of Monte Cristo for example, is one of those rare examples of literary work which somehow strikes home and delivers something unexplainable that compels me to relive the adventures and personal stories of my favorite characters. And even as good as Monte Cristo is I have only read it twice. In fact, I can count on two hands the number of books I have read more than once and can count on one hand the number of books I have read more than twice. So, a week ago, when I put Usagi is Dead down for the twelfth time, I decided that maybe I should devote some time to writing a review for it.

Sailor Moon

The face of terror

Usagi is Dead Usagi is Dead Hip Hip Hip Hooray by Dark Day for Anime (Mark Page) is a curious sort of thing for me to hold in such high esteem. For starters, it is fanfiction. The mere mention of that word usually sends anyone with an iota of self-respect and literary decency screaming for the hills or draws those with a certain disregard for mental preservation and sarcastic tongues to crowd around it, pointing and laughing. Second, it is a fanfiction of Sailor Moon, an anime that by any standards is a generic heap of silliness filled with “large-eyed, big breasted, pre-pubescent cartoon girls with legs up to their armpits” battling the evil forces of evil in generic Tokyo-land. Why is it, then, that given these two enormous pit falls, I would choose to read this again over reading basically anything else? Lets go on a little journey to find out.

Back in 1998 there were only really two ways to reasonably get at anime: VHS bootlegs and cartoon network. Being a n00b, I was inducted via the latter of the two into the world of Japanese silliness. At the time, there were only a couple of shows on TV. Among them were Sailor Moon and Dragonball Z. I loved my quaint and ridiculous shows and, even though they aired bits of them because not all had been translated and dubbed into English, I wanted to know everything about them. Thus, using our dial-up internets for all they were worth, I got on the various fan run web-rings (remember those?) and read up on all the nifty sections of the shows and the comics that I thought I would never see. And then, oh, and then I discovered the fanfics. How young and naive was I? Very, to both. I read tens of fanfics, and not just of those two shows. I read stories made up about shows and franchises I had never heard of before.

Then, one day, I found a funny story called Goku is Dead. The story was a tongue and cheek parody of the way the main character of DBZ dies a lot but never really goes away, always resurrecting somehow. So at the end, Goku decides to use the dragon balls to wish for himself to leave existence and everyone breaths a side of relief. I only remember any of this, because at the bottom of the story, in the ever present author’s notes, was the following: “This story is based on the Sailor Moon story ‘Usagi is Dead.’ “Oh!” said I, “This story was funny, and I like Sailor Moon, I shall go and see what this other funny thing is!” But it was nothing like the first story. It was nothing like a small, one shot fiction. Nor was it funny. Nor was it cute. Nor was it anything I could have possibly expected.

Standing in at twenty chapters and roughly 375 pages (8.5×11) and finished, Usagi is Dead already stands out in the world of fanfiction. There are very few stories on fanfiction.net which can boast of such length. Even fewer that can have such length, and such complexity while being exciting, interesting and original.

Usagi

Vengeance comes from where we least expect it

If you know nothing about Sailor Moon, let me catch you up real fast. The titular character, Sailor Moon, is a girl named Usagi who turns out to be the reincarnation of the princess of the ancient Moon Kingdom which ruled over the Solar System millennia ago. She and the reincarnated soldiers of each planet are all the best of friends and make up the Sailor Senshi to defend Tokyo against evil.

At its base, Usagi is Dead, even according to the author, is about Usagi “hatcheting” the other Sailor Senshi and it doesn’t bother pulling any punches. The very first chapter is dedicated to Usagi, having been killed by unknown means, visiting the place of her death as a ghost. When she goes to find her friends, she discovers they are having a party in celebration of their having successfully plotted and carried out her execution. Shocked and dismayed, she returns to the school where she died and finds an old enemy who offers to give her spirit a new body. With the body she vows revenge against the rest of the senshi who betrayed and murdered her in cold blood. From there the readers are introduced to a mind altering space parasite, Sailor Pluto’s half crazed sister, time and causal loops, a dimension spanning eternal city, a mentally unstable Sailor Saturn, enough blood and guts for a whole family, and an unending number of Usagi clones. And then things start getting weird.

So without spoiling too much of the story (which wouldn’t really make a difference, since I’m positive it wouldn’t make sense out of context), why is Usagi is Dead so good? There are several reasons. First, the complexity of the story. Second, the characterization. And third, the originality.

The complexity of the narrative of Usagi is Dead is astounding. Around chapter 11, the book has seven simultaneous plot threads going, all of which started with Usagi getting killed. These plot lines are all contingent on each other, each providing story or characterization not only to their own participants but to the actors in other threads. The amazing thing is, it is not confusing.  Usually, if even seasoned authors try this, it becomes hard to follow all the threads going at once, but here it seems to flow naturally. By chapter twenty, all the plot lines weave back together to form the conclusion bringing the whole book back full circle.

Saturn and Pluto

The other side of the scales

The characterization is perhaps the strongest suit of this book. In the original series, and in the manga, the characters we are presented with are almost entirely one dimensional. Usagi, for instance, is the epitome of kindness and self-sacrifice, bestowing her power of friendship upon all she meets. In Usagi is Deadthe character of Usagi find herself betrayed and murdered by those she considered the definition of friendship. Her character becomes a duality, literally, between a dark and vengeful side along with a side which wishes to reconcile the sad truths she faces and her inner need for gentle compassion. Hotaru, Sailor Saturn, who could be considered the other main character, mirrors this struggle, only hers is within herself and not extroverted between clones. We are introduced to the normal Horatu in the present as she is in the show, a weak, shy girl who does not want to get into any conflicts with those she considers her friends. We are then introduced to the Hotaru in a future timeline who is takes introversion to an extreme, a cold, merciless killer for hire named Black Saturn. The future Hotoru must come to grips with what she has become after the events five years previous.

Sailor Saturn

Why is the soldier of death not allowed to die?

The other senshi too are all explored. Their thoughts and motives throughout the ordeals they are faced with flow naturally without any kind of awkwardness. They ask some fundamental questions of the universe in which they live. Why must we die over and over only to be reborn? What is the meaning of our lives and relationships when there is no end to existence? Are any of us really in control? What is destiny? All these questions are explored at varying degrees by these characters who live in a world where such questions are perfectly reasonable and expected.

Finally, there is the originality of Usagi is Dead. First, there is the character of Naiad, Sailor Pluto’s sister, the principal antagonist of the book. She is brought into this fanfic with such a force and with such a detailed back story that it is hard to remember that she is not actually from the main canon. Her powers, motives, and relationships are all contained only within this book yet, after reading it, you can go back through the canon and point to sections where you can say “Yes, Naiad had some influence here.”

The originality does not stop there. This brings me to what I think makes me like Usagi is Dead so much. In short, this book, with its twenty chapters, rewrites the Sailor Moon canon and makes it better. The original canon is one dimensional, with a flimsy back story that does not give much weight to what it presents. Yes, there was a moon kingdom, but why? Why did it collapse when it did? Just because Queen Beryl (a canon antagonist) attacked it? Where did the senshi get their power and who got to become senshi? What were the politics like? How did the royalty function? Usagi is Dead asks and then answers all these questions with style. It imagines long dead wars, rites of succession, an academy, the harnessing of systems’ elemental powers, power struggles between factions, castes of miko, circles of senshi, and more and more and more. And nearly none of it is told as exposition, but through narrative, through the reliving of past lives. It brings life and an organic history to the Sailor Moon canon which didn’t exist before. And the best part is, it makes sense. Usagi is Dead does not just make up an alternate universe, it explains things in the canon that were not explained in a way that adds depth and richness to an otherwise shallow series.

Of course, all that is not to say that Usagi is Dead is without its faults. It certainly has them. Owing to its fanfic roots it has many references to other anime fandom (specifically in the Usagi clones). The chapters are not all structured using the same style of paragraph breaking and scene changing. It uses a large amount of Japanese honorifics which today is consider “weeaboo”. And perhaps its biggest short fall, there is an unfinished sequel. Thankfully, the sequel is unneeded to enjoy the primary story.

Inners

If this were in the book, it would get nasty fast

So, would you enjoy Usagi is Dead? Well, let me tell you a story. Since 1998, when I first read Usagi is Dead I have read it twelve times, almost once a year, and it has yet to get old. I have shared it with many people and except one person who didnt care for the fact that some friends killed one of their own (she didnt bother reading past ten pages) every single person who has read it has liked it. It doesn’t matter if they knew anything about anime or Sailor Moon. As I stated, since it basically rewrote the Sailor Moon universe, outside knowledge, while helpful, isnt needed. Once, I even took it to a church camp to read while there and the teenage boys who, at first, were repulsed by the fact it bore the distinction of being about Sailor Moon, a girls show, suddenly showed interest in such lines as “They too, exploded. They oozed across the floor, their constituent materials being reduced to a oozing red soup that Usagi disdainfully turned from” and subsequently came to read the whole thing. So yes, I think you probably might like it if you gave it a try.

For my part, I love Usagi is Dead. Its complexity, originality, and characterization are, to me, now so much part of how I see the Sailor Moon universe that I can no longer divorce them. For me, it is Sailor Moon. It also ruined any fanfiction I read afterwards. Having know what a truely well done fanfic was, I could no longer read bad or mediocre ones without comparing it to Usagi is Dead. In fact, I compare my own works to Usagi is Dead to see if they measure up. If something I write can be as compelling, complex, and original as Usagi is Dead, then I would consider it a success. I can tell you this as well, should I ever have the money, I would like to purchase the rights to Sailor Moon and make a mini-series based on this book.

So then, if you are in the market for a dark, gritty tangled-web of magic, murder and mayhem which centers around teens in short skirts leveling large sections of Tokyo in huge, incandescent fireballs, if you are interested in mind games, space aliens, demi-gods, and enough blood and guts to make a butcher blush, then my friend, have I got a book for you.

My copy of the original DDFA site for UID. (recommended)

Rich text version.

Fanfiction.net version.

Rating: ★★★★★

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