Sunday, February 1, 2015

The New 'Sailor Moon' Is Awesome


I don't get it.  I do not see a single instance of sailing in this entire cartoon.

Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon Crystal.  And seriously, throw another noun into that title, because it doesn't have enough.  Starring Kotono Mitsuishi, Ryo Hirohashi, and Kenji Nojima.  Story by Yuji Kobayashi and Naeoko Takeuchi.  Toei Animation, 2014.  Ongoing (14 episodes at time of writing).  Unrated.  Available online.

Now is a good time to be a magical girl fan, for Sailor Moon, the massively famous Japanese franchise that redefined the genre, has been reinvigorated in celebration of its twentieth anniversary in 2011:  the original manga is out in a new (and rigidly literal) translation, the complete and uncensored anime is steadily being released in English, and now we have a brand new anime series as well.

Voice actress Kotono Mitsuishi has returned to reprise her role as the lazy, whiny, and iconic teenager who discovers that she's a reincarnated space princess with superpowers.  This new series, Sailor Moon Crystal, is not a continuation of the original Sailor Moon, but a brand new interpretation:  with an updated look and without filler, it maintains a rapid pace and follows the manga closely—but not slavishly.

As might be expected, fans are divided:  some who remain dedicated to the old Sailor Moon anime have expressed dislike for this new interpretation, whereas others have shown enthusiastic approval of Crystal's faster pace, tighter storytelling, improved visuals, and faithfulness to the source material.  Myself, I see much to praise and much to dispraise in both animated versions; I like them both and cannot choose between them.  Which one a viewer thinks is best will depend on personal taste:  if you've seen the old Sailor Moon and love the sheer girlishness of it all, then Sailor Moon Crystal's grittier, no-nonsense approach will feel too flat, too soap-operatic, and too violent; however, if you're the type who watches Sailor Moon and wishes the Sailor Guardians would spend less time bickering and giggling, and more time kicking ass, then Sailor Moon Crystal is for you.


New look, new soundtrack, same Usagi.

Sailor Moon might be second only to Hello Kitty as the most famous pop cultural franchise out of Japan.  The magical girl genre can be roughly divided into the phases Before and After Sailor Moon:  with this title, Naoko Takeuchi, a pharmacist turned manga-ka, reimagined the magical girl concept by dosing it with tropes borrowed from Super Sentai:  Sailor Moon is the first "magical girl warrior," the magical girl as superheroine, the type of magical girl who has figured out that the best way to spread love and friendship is to beat them into you.

The 1992 anime series, only loosely based on the manga, is more padded than a Sailor Jupiter cosplayer's bra, to the point that its innumerable filler episodes test the patience of even diehard fans.  But Sailor Moon Crystal trims the fat:  it has just finished adapting the first story arc of the manga in a mere fourteen episodes, whereas, to cover the same arc, the original anime takes forty-six.  Sailor Moon Crystal doesn't dink around.  And though I originally thought this was going to be only a twelve-part series, a little treat for fans, it has jumped without pausing for breath straight into the second arc, so it appears they're planning to do the whole thing.

I'm sorry, but that does not look anything like sailing.

Sailor Moon's plot gives one the suspicion that the series creator was helping herself to some of those pharmaceuticals she worked with.  Fourteen-year-old Usagi Tsukino (whose name means "rabbit of the moon," FYI) is a lazy glutton, crybaby, and all-around airhead, and her first superpower is the ability to maintain a Barbie doll physique whilst gorging on junk food.  One morning while late for school, she trips over a black cat with bandages on its forehead.  After Usagi pulls the bandages off, the cat gives her a brooch that can transform her into Sailor Moon, the pretty guardian of love and justice in a sailor suit.  This cat, Luna, also bestows on Usagi the mission of putting together a team of other Sailor Guardians, locating a missing princess, stopping some monsters preying on the citizens of Tokyo, and finding a McGuffin called the Legendary Silver Crystal.

Not a fan of Sailor Moon Crystal?  Just remember it can always get worse.
EegahInc, are you reading this?  I beg you to review this.

Usagi and Luna rapidly (or very, very slowly, depending on what version you're watching) find four other girls who, like Usagi, have the mystical ability to fight crime in high heels and miniskirts.  As would become typical of magical girls, it's never clear if they're actually using magic or just sufficiently advanced technology, since their magical gadgets range from supercomputers to cursed swords.  Opposing them, and also seeking the Legendary Silver Crystal, are the four princes of the Dark Kingdom, who need the crystal to appease their irritable queen, Beryl, who in turn needs the crystal to revive . . . oh, forget it.  Just understand that everybody's hunting for this crystal thingy.

Is it silver or is it crystal?  It's one or the other, people!  Make up your damn minds!

The four princes use various dirty means to find the crystal and, while they're at it, drain people of their "human energy."  The Sailor Guardians fight them at every turn, occasionally assisted by a mysterious masked man in a tuxedo, who goes by the imaginative name of Tuxedo Mask.  Tuxedo Mask also seeks the Legendary Silver Crystal for his own purposes, and thus Luna distrusts him—whereas Usagi, being Usagi, falls instantly in love with him.

So you're sailors, hm?  Then tell me the difference between a gaff rig and a lugsail.

As the story develops, the heroines regain memories from their past lives, and they learn why they were born with latent superpowers:  they have been called back into the world to wage anew a war they fought—and lost—thousands of years in the past:  ruling over the Dark Kingdom is an evil force called Queen Metallia, who destroyed the peaceful kingdom of Silver Millennium on the Moon and now intends to lay waste the Earth.  Sailor Moon and her allies may be able to do over right what they once did wrong, or they may be destined to play out yet again the tragic fates of their previous incarnations.

And that . . . doesn't really explain the sailor outfits.  But whatever.

The original manga contains both humor and angst-ridden melodrama.  The old anime series focuses on the humor, but Sailor Moon Crystal cranks up the angst and focuses heavily on the tragic backstory.  Although at first appearing to be extremely faithful to the comic, it unexpectedly doubles down on the tragedy by introducing a romantic subplot Naoko Takeuchi-sensei originally had on the drawing board, but didn't use.  Although never before appearing in official material, it is well known to serious Sailor Moon fans that this particular subplot was a possibility, and I saw a lot of fans geeking out over it when it was introduced.  Indeed, it fits the story so well that I wonder why it wasn't in there in the first place.

This innovation, however, has a downside:  to bring the narrative back into line with the manga after introducing this unexpected additional story layer, Sailor Moon Crystal commits possibly the worst chump death I have ever seen.  It makes the death of Wash in Serenity look like good writing.

"Excuse me, little girl, but can you advise me on the best methods of single-handed yacht racing?"

Serious as that sounds, that's actually a minor complaint.  This is overall a well-made show.  To one familiar with magical girls, Sailor Moon Crystal does, admittedly, look generic, but that's only because everything else imitates it.  In fact, this would probably (especially since it's free and legal online) make a good entry point into the magical girl genre if you're ever wondering what I'm always on about.  Most of the basic tropes of the genre can be found here, either because they were invented or popularized here.

Keeping the story focused means that Crystal lacks the character development and interpersonal conflict of the old anime, so if you're hoping to see Sailor Moon and Sailor Mars backstab each other to gain the attentions of Tuxedo Mask, you'll be disappointed.  Because of the tight pacing, Crystal stays focused on exactly one character, Usagi Tsukino, Sailor Moon, which means the other Sailor Guardians get moved into the position of supporting cast.  Although introduced with the personalities and preoccupations with which all fans are familiar, they swiftly fall into the role of Usagi's faithful retainers.  They would be indistinguishable if not color-coded.

Though unfortunate, this has an upside:  by remaining plot-focused and avoiding distractions, Crystal also evades one of the greatest weaknesses of the old series, which is Sailor Moon herself.  Mileage will vary, and I mostly find her hilarious, but Usagi's whining, crying, and flat-out stupidity can sometimes get on the nerves of the audience almost as much as they get on the nerves of the other characters.  The rest of the sailors are paragons of competence, but Sailor Moon is a complete tool.  It is hard not to notice that many of the complications and difficulties at the climax are ones she creates herself because she picks the worst possible moment to play the lovesick tragedian.

So get back in your sloop and just fade away.

The other Sailor Guardians squabble with Sailor Moon in the original anime.  In Crystal, however, they swear undying allegiance to her and acknowledge her as their undisputed leader.  At first, I didn't like this; I wondered why in the world anyone as tough as Sailor Jupiter, as intelligent as Sailor Mercury, or as all-around competent as Sailor Venus would dedicate herself to a flake who does all her thinking with her stomach and her gonads.  But then Fridge Brilliance kicked in, and it made me appreciate Sailor Moon Crystal all the more.

The full title of this franchise in Japanese is Bishōjo Senshi Sērā Mūn, which translates more-or-less literally to "Pretty Girl Soldier Sailor Moon."  The Sailor Guardians are (as we learn when their backstory comes to light) literally soldiers, and Usagi is their princess.  They have sworn oaths of fealty to her, and they stay true to those oaths even though they swore them in past lives and in past ages.  Although the Sailor Guardians, like all good magical girls, speak of ideals like love and justice, when they get down to business, they fight for concrete things, for king and country.

For that reason, even though they are not developed or spotlighted the same way Usagi is, it is the other Sailor Guardians who are the real stars of the story.  They fight on while Usagi is weeping over her boyfriend.  When she breaks down, they keep going.  When personal tragedy strikes them, they have a good cry, and then they get back on their feet and kick more ass.  When the chips are down, they fight and die like soldiers.  Meanwhile, their mistress is doing her darndest to die like a teenage drama queen.

"No, you can't die!  You were going to buy me a new monohull!"

In terms of technical quality, the soundtrack is good, though the opening theme is not as toe-tapping as the original.  The animation is of course superior to that of the 1992 version, though it's only average for the present day.  Crystal does a good job of keeping the bright, watercolor appearance of the original while at the same time developing its own look.  For reasons incomprehensible to me, they've updated the story to the present, so the girls now have cell phones and laptops, though these items do not become intrusive.

Probably the biggest misstep is in the transformation sequences, or henshin, in which the girls change from their regular selves to their magical forms.  The original series has elaborate transformation sequences (and when multiple characters transform at once, they can last for several minutes).  Traditionally, the same animation is used for the henshin in every episode, so when a magical girl heroine utters her famous catchphrase and starts glowing, that's usually a good opportunity to get up and get another beer.  Anyway, the henshin sequences in the old Sailor Moon are famous, and Crystal was apparently under pressure to top them somehow, so they decided to do them in CGI, which was a major blunder.  The change in animation style is jarring, and the CGI just doesn't look good.


Thanks to the magic of Youtube, you can make the comparison between old and new yourself.

You might not want to grab a beer when the girls transform in this version, though.  In keeping with changes in the magical girl genre over the years, the complete sequences are shown only occasionally.  There's one climactic episode in which all the Sailor Guardians transform with their complete sequences . . . and fans actually complained.  It used to be that you had to sit through that every week, but times have changed, and otaku don't have the patience for these things anymore.

Overall, Sailor Moon Crystal is really an excellent series.  I recommend it as an entry point for either the Sailor Moon franchise or the magical girl genre as a whole.  To the newbie, watching fourteen episodes of Sailor Moon Crystal is probably a less daunting prospect that fidgeting through forty-six episodes of the original series in the hopes that it's going somewhere.  It keeps the pace up, throws a few good plot twists at the viewer, and praises loyalty, patriotism, and fortitude.  The big climax even emphasizes the power of prayer . . . though they appear to be praying to a building, so take that as you will.

Content Advisory:  Caveat:  my comments are limited to the first story arc, which amounts to the first season of the original anime series, which is the only complete season that is at present readily available in the uncensored Japanese version, and I'm still working my way through it.  Only the first arc has been completed in Sailor Moon Crystal as well.  The entire manga series is available in a new English version, but I only have the volumes covering the first arc.

There is a reason they call Sailor Moon the cartoon that's got the boom, but that reason has been grossly exaggerated.  For years, Sailor Moon was not readily available in the States except in a version that had been edited for American children's TV.  People knew about the editing, but not about what was edited, so it led to wild rumors:  back in my college days, I had a friend who was a Sailor Moon enthusiast, but she had seen only the American dub, and she was convinced the original version was pornographic, which it is not.  In a similar misrepresentation, people annoyed by the editing have exaggerated the importance of what was taken out, as if the series is somehow ruined because the water has been rendered opaque in a bathing scene.

It's true that they cut whole episodes, but most of those are filler anyway.  In the 1992 version, there are some bathing suits and occasional panty shots, and a couple of the henshin sequences are slightly risqué.  There are also two heavily implied homosexual relationships, one in the first arc and another that will show up later.

Sailor Moon Crystal, at least so far, has shown no interest in any of that.  Aside from miniskirts that are an inch away from being downgraded to belts and characters who appear to be constructed entirely out of leg, it contains no fanservice to speak of.  The homosexual relationship (in the first arc) got deleted to make room for the new romantic subplot, which also improves the story, as I already mentioned, or at least would have if they weren't obliged to force the original conclusion.  The second such relationship will presumably still be there when the time comes.

One thing that never made it from page to screen is the blood (or at least I think that's blood; the manga can be hard to interpret).  Sailor Moon Crystal has frequent cartoon violence, but is bloodless.


The new soundtrack is unorthodox, but I like it.
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