A Magical Girl Education: Sailor Moon

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It occurred to me while outlining my article about the dark and gritty reboot of the magical girl genre that I’ve spent more time reading meta, analysis, and personal pieces about the iconic power of Sailor Moon than actually watching the show itself. While I know a lot about it, I’ve never seen all of it first hand—at least, not in order, and certainly not in its original undubbed and uncut form.

I caught the occasional episode on TV when I was a kid and was kind of intrigued but never entirely won over (thanks to that whole “it’s obviously for girls And That’s Bad” mentality), and years later, borrowed and rewatched to near memorising the DVDs from CP… the only trouble there being that CP only owned volume 1, 2, and 8. Anime DVDs seem expensive to me now, but they were practically diamonds to our fourteen-year-old selves, and a pain to hunt down as well. Skipping straight to volume 8 dumped me in season two with no context, but we all just sort of rolled with it at the time. It was fun, that was the most important thing.

A few months ago, in the midst of editing and completing said dark magical girl article, my right arm flared up with what was probably RSI. Given time off work (hooray!) but effectively forbidden to type (the horror!), I sat down and dived into Sailor Moon season one. Animelab, as a tie-in with the remastered re-release, was hosting 89 of the episodes for gloriously free, legal streaming. I, of course, wiped my brow and said “Wow, 89 is a lot! But I can commit!” before being told that 89 is only the first two seasons. I have a lot to learn, as you can see.

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So, today let’s look at the first 46 of the 300-ish episodes of Sailor Moon that exist in the world. Our heroine Tsukino Usagi is a fourteen-year-old klutz whose hobbies include snacking, sleeping, overreacting to everything, and falling in love with handsome older boys. She’s living a perfectly ordinary existence before she meets a talking cat named Luna who informs her of her destiny—Usagi is Sailor Moon, one of the magical guardians of the Moon and Earth, and must transform into a superhero in a circlet, school uniform, and sweet Wonder Woman boots, to fight monsters and the forces of evil.

She’s later joined by Sailors Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and Venus, who she befriends (though sometimes on rocky grounds, especially with Mars) and together they form a monster-fighting squad for the ages. Their enemies come in a neat tier system that they eventually battle their way to the top of, with the Monster of the Week on the bottom of the hierarchy, working for one of the Four Kings of Heaven, who in turn work for Queen Beryl, who in turn is worshipping a giant sentient orb of pure evil energy called Queen Metalia. What is Metalia queen of, I must ask, if she’s just a cloud of literal pure awfulness? These political intricacies are not delved into.

I’m obviously late to the party, and everyone and their mother has already written about Sailor Moon and its iconic nature, so I’ll just zero in one some things that stood out to me from season one that I personally feel like discussing…

You’re a Wizard, Usagi!

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“I wish someone would make an anime about me…”

Usagi, upon learning of her cosmic heroic destiny (added to later by finding out she’s also the princess of the Moon Kingdom reincarnated) does the sensible thing and proceeds to freak out a solid 80% of the time. The premise of Sailor Moon runs on the idea that all girls want to be princesses, but the plot zeroes in on what happens when you really, actually don’t. Usagi’s journey is one big long Refusal of the Call where she flails and cries and can’t deal with the pressure of fighting monsters, and on several occasions actively avoids her destiny to have fun (and walk straight into the trap of the week). She has to be rescued by Tuxedo Mask even after the other Guardians show up and she has some more experience, she gets scared, and she crashes and cries under the weight of the pressure of the duty she never asked for.

And this should, by all means, get annoying, because who wants to watch a whiny fourteen-year-old ignore her duty to save the world? But some magic formula is in place so that every time I feel inclined to be irritated with Usagi, I am reminded that I’d probably do the same in her position. I’d be frightened and would just want to go back to sleep and hide from responsibility! It’s a fairly effective metaphor for the sudden push of the pressures of adulthood, and Usagi handles it, frankly, perfectly reasonably. People have been saying this for years, of course, but Usagi is a legitimately flawed and relatable hero, and not just flawed in pretty and acceptable ways either. She genuinely screws up and even her tripping and weeping isn’t played as girly and cute, just wild and emotional and cartoonishly wacky.

Luna, like a long-suffering high school teacher, is infinitely glad when they meet the other Sailor Guardians, who all seem to have their crap together more than Usagi. Especially the weirdly mysterious and underdeveloped Sailor Venus, who I wanted to learn more about—the idea of a Guardian being adopted into pop culture as a real-life superhero was really interesting, and it would have been great to have at least one episode exploring how she felt about that, or, you know, her origin story about how she found her own magic moon cat and started on what is apparently an international crime-busting monster-fighting career. We did get a backstory episode, but alas and alack mostly focussed on her broken heart after the guy she liked fell for her best friend. Which brings me to my next point…

The Miracle of Romance!

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“Oh wait, do evil organisations give you days off on Sundays?”

Everyone gets a romance—that’s fine. This is a show about love and justice after all, and the focus is most heavily on “the pure love of a girl”, whether that’s for her friends, family, or handsome chiselled men that are way too old for her. Granted, in real life teenagers get crushes on older guys all the time, and one of the only examples we get of a fourteen-year-old boy is the spiral-eyed annoyance Umino, so it makes sense that they’d be looking beyond their own age group. It’s when these dudes that are four or five years older than the main characters (a massive gap at this age) or in Nephrite’s case, however many hundreds of years older, are totally okay with accepting a middle schooler’s affection that I reel back from my screen in shock.

Mamorou and Rei are, it seems, actually dating for a while there, despite it being mentioned that he’s in college, and Rei also collects that mullet-toting admirer who comes to work at the shrine. While he’s played for laughs a lot, his crush on Rei is treated as a totally serious love interest, to the point where Rei wistfully mentions him as she’s dying (more on that in a bit… the dying, not the wistfulness).

This is not even to speak of the villain Nephrite, who, again, is goodness knows how much older than Usagi’s unfortunate friend Naru (who I keep going to call “Molly” because that part, specifically, of the original dub is embedded in my brain). Again, though I don’t condone her taste since Nephrite has awful ‘80s hair and is evil, I can’t be mad at Naru for the simple act of having a crush. It’s when it turns from teen infatuation to a legitimate (but still chaste, obviously) romance that Cures His Evil With the Power of Her Pure Love that it gets strange to me. Nephrite at least has the excuse that he’s not from Earth so maybe he doesn’t know that it’s weird for a grown-ass man to go on a legitimate parfait date with a literal fourteen-year-old, but where does that leave Mamorou and Mullet Guy? Where does that leave the writers? Are we being transported to a fantasy world where girls’ pure crushes come true and thus society thinks it’s okay for them to date adult men? Is this just a ‘90s shoujo thing that I’m not fully understanding the nuances of? And does that make it any less gross??

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“Into the trash it goes!”

The only love interest I can truly get behind, ignoring the age gap, is Usagi and Tuxedo Mask, mostly because it’s not really a love plotline so much as a cluster-mess of tropes gone delightfully wrong. She and Mamorou are reincarnated lovers destined to find each other and reunite, but when they do reunite they bicker constantly. The fact that they have two totally different relationships when they’re in their superhero personas vs their civilian ones (which is again different to what they had as Princess Serenity and Prince Endimiyon in their past lives) is also delightful fun.

Tuxedo Mask is Sailor Moon’s saviour and Plot Armour for a lot of the series, but by the end he gets spectacularly damselled—he loses his memory, his agency, and basically exists to be rescued by the Guardians. If only the Dark Kingdom had given him a sexier outfit for his brainwashed evil version, I’d almost say he gets flipped into the role that’s traditionally reserved for the female love interest of the male superhero.

Also, Tuxedo Mask is just silly and fun. Who the hell taught Tuxedo Mask to drive a bus? Do you have a licence for that, my guy?

In the Name of Hammy Villains, I Will Punish You!

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The finale is just as brutal and wonderful as I had heard. Yes, everyone literally goddamn dies. But Usagi uses their love and the hope their friendship instils in her to defeat evil incarnate, while wearing a beautiful dress, showing true courage when she’s had to deal with her cowardly tendencies all series, and while that fantastically catchy and epic theme song plays. What more can you ask for in a climax? I mean, that said, I could have asked for this to have some actual consequences, in that apparently after this the cast is reborn on Earth while losing all their memories, effectively making all that character development moot…

Beryl was some sexy evil witchy nonsense and her villain squad was delightfully ridiculous, but you cannot deny that the antagonist system works. The even spread of foes makes for a neat long-running plot—the Monster of the Week formula stays, but is mixed up and altered in reliable 12-ish episode arcs that see the King of Heaven defeated at the end and prevent the show from going stale. Jadeite is the entry-level cackling blonde asshole who doesn’t get much depth to him, his successor Nephrite warps from a chunk of evil with obnoxious ‘80s hair into a moral dilemma when he learns the Power of a Pure Girl’s Love, and Zoisite and Kunzite are the resident power couple and actually genuinely tragic when they meet their respective ends. And I can’t even be mad that the openly gay power couple are the bad guys, because I know we have Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus, one of the most iconic positive portrayals of queer love in animation, coming to the same show eventually. Though not for a while. Man, 46 episodes is so many. I can’t believe this is barely the tip of the iceberg. I’m not used to this. I’m weak.

I did enjoy myself phenomenally though—you can see why this show has lodged itself in the hearts and minds of so many people across multiple generations and across the world, even with the weird beastie that was the DiC dub. It’s incredibly moreish, fun, and easy to binge, partially due its easy reliable formula, partly due to the action and drama underlying that formula that you want to pursue and see to its end. If Sailor Moon has taught me anything, it’s never to trust new stores or businesses that pop up, give out great bargains, and are stupidly popular, because there’s about a 90% chance there’s a monster behind it trying to suck out your energy for the Dark Kingdom.

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“Yes! Your carefree spirit and optimism are your true strengths!”

And indeed this is a stellar example (no pun intended) of how magical girl shows are perfectly capable of being dark without having to go all Yuki Yuna on everyone. As I said, I’d heard of the infamous scene where all the Guardians literally die, but nothing really prepares you for that, and nothing prepared me for Nephrite getting impaled either. People straight up die! There are death scenes! Queen Serenity’s death flashback even features crucifixion symbolism! The whole Moon Kingdom got destroyed and it was suitably horrible and tragic, somehow managing to coexist with the series’ cartoonishness. What’s a girl to do? If I was faced with all that, I wouldn’t want to be Sailor Moon either.

Yet there Usagi goes, gearing up for four more seasons of this. I’ll be there with you, kiddo—CP and I are actually gradually chipping through Sailor Moon R now. I’m so glad that I was able to finally experience this little slice of genre-defining joy in its original subtitled form. Less glad about the RSI, obviously, but like a true magical girl I’m employing the power of optimism.

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4 Comments

Filed under Alex Watches

4 responses to “A Magical Girl Education: Sailor Moon

  1. Wonderful write-up, as usual.

    I still have a huge soft spot in my heart for Sailor Moon. Not because I think it’s the best magical girl anime out there, but because it was my first – and because, despite its many faults, it manages to be charming anyway (and has actually aged remarkably well in many respects).

  2. I love this anime mostly because its a giant time capsule of outdated stuff. From the animation to the characters, it’s just delightfully retro. Usagi uses floppy disks here, gawd I’m so old. Hahaha.

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