This is the first in a series on the original Sailor Moon anime.

How does one even begin to start to review Sailor Moon? It’s kind of like trying to explain your childhood crush to someone as an adult. At the time, it meant so much to you and all the emotions and attachments you had are still within you, but with time and maturity, what you see in retrospect and what you still feel don’t quite match up anymore. So it is when watching something from bygone days with fresh and significantly older eyes, or in this case so it is with old school magical girls.

I think I was as excited as most of the internet was when we all found out that a new, true-to-the-manga anime for Sailor Moon was being created. Sailor Moon, along with Dragon Ball Z, was my first encounter with anime, with any kind of media outside of the western influenced sphere I had grown up in. I remember, way back in 1997, knowing that this insane show full of magical girls and absurd monsters wasn’t for me, a barely teenaged boy, yet for some reason I still loved it. Its narrative structure was off the wall. Its animation was so far above any cartoon. Its characterization like nothing I’d even considered plausible. It was a turning point, my foray into a world of otakudom and Japanese insanity. So when the fiancée and I decided that we should re-watch all of the original series to coincide with Crystal’s release, I knew that a part of me was coming home. Home to a house full of absurdity.

The first season of Sailor Moon is the one I think most people are familiar with for a multitude of reasons: the plot is the most straightforward of all the arcs, the characters are all introduced, most of the episodic nature of the show can be overlooked, etc. But I think for the most part, it is because this was the first season that was widely available to an American audience. DiC brought the first season and half of the second season of Sailor Moon over in heavily edited form for a run as an early morning show on FOX and USA for a while before it was picked up by Cartoon Network for their new Toonami project. I happened to find it on Toonami along with a couple other cheap, old, animes at the time. And it wouldn’t be for over a year or two in syndication run on Toonami that anyone had the gumption to bring over any other seasons. Most folks that grew up in the 90’s would have caught it at this time and even if they did not keep up with the show it at least entered into the public consciousness at the time.

 

Classic

Classic

 

If for some reason you don’t know, the first season of Sailor Moon is about how a whiny school girl named Usagi meets a cat named Luna who gives her magical powers and the mission to find the other sailor senshi and protect the moon princess who seems to have gone missing. Usagi, now Sailor Moon, finds the other senshi, Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter, and together they fight against the Dark Kingdom forces under the rule of Queen Beryl. Turns out that Usagi is actually the moon princess reincarnated, as are the other senshi. This happens as a result of the fall of the Silver Millennium when Queen Serenity sends their spirits to the future (and no, that’s not a spoiler because the Dub decided to reveal all of this in the first five minutes of the first episode). The senshi must find and destroy present Queen Beryl before she revives the spirit of Queen Metallia who plans to take over the world. Good standard fare.

Where to even start with this show? Let’s go with overall theme.  It must be mentioned that the original manga was definitely not a tale written for the same audience as the series. The manga is more succinct, darker, and contains themes intended more for an audience who can handle violence and the occasional death (read: teens). By contrast, the anime is never really pinned down on where it wants to direct its attention and it shows. In some episodes it buckles down and tries to tell a story that is straight out of the manga, something to do with character development or some weighty message like how hard it is for fourteen-year-olds to be thrust into their position. In others, it ignores any sense of realism and journeys into the absurdly ridiculous where there is no way anything like the situation you’re witnessing could ever happen. In still more it feels like the same old same old of monster of the week monotony. And finally it ends up with two of the most intense, thematically out-of-left-field and dark episodes that I’ve seen, even as an adult. It’s a serial that wants to be a drama, a comedy that wants to be action, a kids show that wants to be about teenage problems, a romance that wants to be a sentai. The point is, it is all over the place and trying to pin down exactly that the first season wants to be is like trying to ask a teenager what they want to be when they grow up: it depends on which day you ask.

 

"Usagi, do the thing!"

“Usagi, do the thing!”

 

Story-wise, the classic season is a mess. The overarching plot is there and you know for a fact where it is going, even if you weren’t spoiled by the dub’s intro sequence. The show drops foreshadowing like it doesn’t even care if you know or not. Of course Usagi is the princess. Of course she’s going to get the guy. And when you have simple, laid out plot points that you got out of the story telling trope-hat, you tend to spend time making your version stand out in other ways. The obvious answer to this is to make the show about the team of senshi and their growing bond from distrust to complete loyalty and to make the romance secondary. This is what the manga did, but the series had something the manga didn’t: length. The sheer amount of episodes in the first season is what ends up killing the story. When you trot out a monster of the week and have the group band together and kill it, yet again, the familiarity begins to breed contempt. The viewer begins to stop caring as much about the main story if you keep repeating it and falls back to the secondary narrative which the series stretches into almost nothing. Usagi’s dislike of Mamoru slowly fades but the audience never really sees it buried under yet another evil thing that happens to be around them that week. By the time he’s revealed to her to be her crush, Tuxedo Mask, her sudden emotional flip-flop is almost comical rather than romantic. However, the story is still a decent one underneath if you can get past the lengthy and dreary nature of how the series was presented.

What about the characterization then? Certainly Sailor Moon is a series that is centered on it’s characters as a main point rather than a vehicle for the plot to move. Throughout the first half of the season, the team slowly builds from one to five members of the senshi collective and from there they build their trust in one another until the ultimate battle ensues. If we assume that Sailor Moon is, in fact, a kids show, then there is no real issue here. The characters presented are all archetypes and employ their type specific tropes to great effect. Usagi is an airhead with a heart of gold, Rei is a strong-headed with a soft spot, Makoto is tough but love-lorn, Ami is smart and a loner, Minako is a bit of a ditz but a natural leader, and Luna is a straight-man.

The issue then is how do these characters develop? For Usagi, she has 46 episodes before the end of the season to grow from the klutzy, air-headed, selfish, typical fourteen-year-old she is into anything else. Even Minako, the last to be introduced, has 13 episodes, a full half season, to move from a starting point to something more. But, as you can probably tell from my tone, this does not happen. Every character we meet does not change significantly throughout the course of the season. The character you see is what you get for every episode onward. That’s not to say that they are caricatures, empty of all personality or that they are bad characters, indeed not. I love most of them to death, but none of them change and it is that change that one yearns for, especially over such a long narrative.

 

Not like that!

Not like that!

 

Actually, this is not entirely true.

There are two exceptions to what I’ve just said. The first is Usagi herself. Usagi does change, but only in regards to Mamoru. Her initial reaction to Mamoru is one of abject disdain and this only lightens a bit when it turns out he is friends with Mokoti and she can’t really avoid running into him. This pales to her head-over-heels infatuation with Tuxedo Mask. When, in the course of the show, it is revealed that Mamoru and Tuxedo Mask are one in the same, her attitude towards him completely flips to being completely in love with him. No gradual softening. No sorting through feelings. Just a new status quo. When she then becomes Princess Serenity, an act that I would assume would change her most, her reaction after the fact is “Oh, I guess that’s a thing.” It adds a facet to her character, but it does not grow it.

The second exception to no character growth is the last two episodes, the climax to the series. I won’t spoil much, but there is some heavy stuff that goes down in those episodes and a lot of things change. If the rest of the series had dealt with the things that go down in the last episodes, it would have been incredible, but I get the impression that this would be true of most things, not just the character development.

I had one additional observation worth making regarding character growth outside of the main cast. One character who definitely changes throughout the course of the first season is Naru. The poor girl, the background friend character, who is Usagi’s best friend at the start of the show is almost non-existent by the end. This makes sense because she is the default monster target when all other targets fail. By the end of the first season she has been attacked multiple times, been saved multiple times, fallen in love with an evil man, turned him towards good only to have him die in her arms, and watched her best friend take up with a completely different set of friends. One bad turn after another has probably left Naru with post-traumatic stress disorder as she pulls further and further back from Usagi. This is also demonstrated in her choice of men. Before she was into all the hunky guys, something that gets her involved with Nephrite. But after his death she takes up with Umino, probably the most boring guy any of the girls could think of. Why? Normalcy, stability, you name it. Anything to keep her away from being energy-raped yet again.

 

If fainting equals concussions, Naru is brain dead by episode 26

If fainting equals concussions, Naru is brain dead by episode 26

 

Which brings me to probably the second biggest problem in the season. So far I’ve dwelt heavily on problems that could easily be fixed if the season was about half as long and with a quarter the weekly monsters allowing things like plot, characterization, and story telling to mature in way that seems plausible but not constantly dwindling on life support. The other problem though is something more fundamental: no one in this series thinks about anything they do.

To be fair, many of the stupid decisions made by the sailor senshi can be chalked up to the plainly told (but not so obvious in practice) fact that the team is made up of fourteen year old girls in junior high. All of Usagi’s flakiness over Mamoru and her 180º flip on how much she loves him can be hand waved away as the flight of a naive waif’s fancy. So too can one dismiss Makoto’s obsession with a ne’er seen and often dubious former senpai who scorned her, Rei’s overall bad attitude, Minako’s failure at having a social life, and Ami being a cram school student. However, the poor judgement of the senshi in the show pales in comparison to the astounding lack of brain power being utilized by literally anyone else.

Take Mamoru for example. In this series, he is a college student, aged nineteen, who discovers that the girl who has annoyed him for so many episodes turns out to be Sailor Moon, a girl his interests in so far amount to just “I feel the need to save her.” As soon as he finds out shes also the princess that’s been haunting his dreams, he too flips 180º and falls in love with her, a child, for no discernible reason other than “fate.”

 

 

Another good example is the Dark Kingdom. The goal of the Dark Kingdom is to, initially, collect energy from humans to feed to their Queen Metallia so that she may awaken. When it becomes clear that the senshi keep ruining their plans to take this energy from the Juban district of Tokyo, not one of the generals decides “I should move to this other side of Tokyo” or “Maybe Africa would be a better target” or “I should kill that guy with the roses.” It is proven time and again that the four generals could easily kill Sailor Moon and her senshi escort, but they always fall back either because Tuxedo Mask can throw flowers into the ground or because their Queen Beryl is the worse strategist ever. Honestly, no fewer than three of her generals discover the civilian identities of Sailor Moon, and she knows this, yet she kills them because they’ve “failed one too many times” without even extracting the information. Why!? Convenience for a weekly series, that’s why; because if there is another reason, like she’s blinded by hatred or power or something, it’s never explained in the season.

I think what gets me most about Sailor Moon Classic, is that it squanders so much on so few results. Sure, the season got to be 46 episodes, but at what cost? Bland characters, trite story telling, and horrible decisions made for seemingly no reason other than plot convenience or character incompetence. There is so much there to love, but it’s coated with this thick veneer of dumb. And I think that’s why the series remains such a force of good in our minds. Since we all saw this show as children or teens, we remember all the cool things about it: the girls being in positions of power and change, the silly romances, the fate that binds them all, the overarching evil that can be defeated by friendship. As we’ve aged, we look back at those great things and we forget all the bad. It’s like how we remember how great our childhood pet was; never mind that it wet itself and shed everywhere and tore things up and woke us up at all hours of the night, it was our pet and it loved us back.

Sailor Moon Classic is just that. An old favorite that we remember well because we have the capacity to forget nonsense with the passing of time. We remember a distilled version of Sailor Moon, one that isn’t stupid and long and burdensome to slough through. We remember a show that was so much better that the one we watch as adults. Though, I’m not sure thats all it. There’s a part of me that looks at this season as an adult and sees all the awful he’s ignored for so long mixed in with all of the good, but could it be that at least some of that awful is just me looking back and laughing at the same kind of stupidity I had myself in my youth? Could it be that Sailor Moon Classic is a mirror in which I could see my childlike self and point and laugh saying “What a lovable fool I was?” Maybe. Then again…

"Whats that over there?" "Doom tree."

“Whats that over there?”
“Doom tree.”

Rating: ★★★½☆

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