Japanese Title: Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon
Related: Sailor Moon R, Sailor Moon S, Sailor Moon SuperS, Sailor Moon Sailor Stars (seasons 2-5 – included in review)
Sailor Moon Crystal (remake – review further down)
Watched in: Japanese & English
Genre: Contemporary Fantasy Romance
Length: 200 episodes (5 seasons) & 3 movies
- Villains are on theme
- Knows its target audience
- Crystal: less filler
- Several minutes of repeated animation each episode
- Original Japanese and first dub aren’t good
- Villain of the week structure throughout
- Crystal: adopts the manga’s shortcomings
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My interest in revisiting Sailor Moon piqued with all that I had heard about the edits and censorship of the original dub. I had seen a fair amount of scattered episodes as part of the morning cartoon block for the “big three” – the original big three of Pokémon, Dragon Ball Z, and Sailor Moon.
What was quite few years ago now, I tried the Japanese version to see it unaltered but I couldn’t make it more than two or three episode before I had to stop. The acting was bad and the audio quality was so tinny that it was an uncomfortable experience. Usagi in particular was a cheese grater on my eardrums. With an intolerable original track and a censored dub, that seemed it. However, Viz Media swooped in, snatched the English rights to the franchise, and re-dubbed the whole thing, including the movies, with higher fidelity sound effects as well. Add in the remastered visuals and this is a worthwhile revival. Viz gave Sailor Moon the Funimation One Piece treatment, which I’m sure is a delight to fans.
Before I dove into the remaster, I tried the Japanese to be sure – yep, still bad – and watched about a season’s worth in episodes of the old dub to establish a baseline for the remaster. I’ll talk about the old version first.
Wait – the premise! I forget that no matter how popular a series, someone will know nothing about it. Sailor Moon follows crybaby middle schooler Usagi (called Serena in the old dub) who receives the power to transform into the titular magical girl. Four other Sailor Guardians soon join her fight against evil creatures (more guardians join in later seasons) – the smart Ami as Sailor Mercury, the popular Minako as Sailor Venus, the disciplined Rei as Sailor Mars, and the strong Makoto as Sailor Jupiter. The two cats Luna and Artemis guide the girls in their missions. All of the girls – and many villains – have different names in the old dub for marketability reasons, which are usually similar to the original (e.g. Rei = Raye, Ami = Amy).
If you were to watch the old dub without knowing it was censored, you wouldn’t notice much wrong. This isn’t like One Piece, where it’s obvious that that pirate is supposed to have a gun to someone’s head, not…whatever that is. The Sailor Moon edits are mainly in dialogue, which is easy to blend in – renaming steamed buns to donuts was a stretch though. When a male cross dresser already looks like a woman, it’s as simple as changing a few words here and there to say it was always a woman. The most infamous edit is the relationship between Sailors Uranus and Neptune, changed from a lesbian couple to cousins. Everyone has heard of this change, so when watching the remaster, I was most curious to see what all the fuss was about.
What a letdown! This relationship is so tame that most kids would have no idea that they’re a couple. Censors overacted over nothing. Not to mention they are some of the least interesting characters in the series.
The only thing I like about the old dub was making Luna a bossy older woman like a British governess, reminding me of Professor McGonagall, which is always a good thing. Alas, it is not true to the source material, so it must go.
Enough of the old; let’s begin on the new.
Sailor Moon uses a villain of the week structure for 95% of its 200 episodes. The henchmen descend upon Earth like Rita’s cronies from Power Rangers, each tapping into a vice, theme, or activity often associated with girls. It was a good idea to make the subjects relevant to the target shoujo audience. Usagi and her friends care about jewellery, dating, friends, exams (begrudgingly), dancing, clothes, marriage, fitness, and so on, and so does the shoujo audience. Also, notice how they make the characters seem more mature by giving them activities and interests for girls a few years older than 14. This plays to a girl’s fantasy of looking up one age group. A villain’s plot will generally involve corrupting the good quality of a person and turning it against the girls. For example, a tennis student becomes hyper-competitive to the point of destruction. This is a good angle to take rather than summoning some monster to fight each episode. It feels more relevant. Sailor Moon R does away with this until the variations return in later seasons.
The main Sailor Moon S villain is hilarious. Mad scientist over the top but also has to do regular things like shop, but stays in mad scientist character. Direct quote, “That took longer than I thought. So hard to find a good gluten free snack these days.”
One early plan involves stealing people’s love (a strange, human concept) by hosting a late night radio show where women send in secret confession love letters, in return for a corsage that drains the energy and love of the woman who wears it. Having some evil handsome villain reading saucy letter on air is so corny. Quite nostalgically charming. However, there is only so far this format can get you and let me tell you, it grows tired well before the first season is over at episode 46.
Much of season one goes something like this: introduce theme, escalation, girls transform, Usagi throws tiara, and win. Oh, let’s not forget the useless Tuxedo Mask who shows up to spout some platitude before he buggers off. That meme of “My work here is done!” “…But you didn’t do anything,” is too accurate.
Is season two any different? Well, the Guardians do receive a new attack each, which they will use every episode right after they transform. Several minutes of each episode is repeated animation sequences: transformations, catch phrases, and special attacks. The more Guardians that join the series, the more time we lose to these animation sequences. Nice animation, sure, but it’s the same thing over…and over…and over…and over.
Sailor Moon only deviates from the formula for the first few and last few episodes of each season, where the entire plot occurs. The final season, Sailor Stars, does have a little more going on than the others. Not much more. One thing to note is that the finales are largely the same. A cataclysmic phenomenon will blanket the world (a.k.a. wherever the girls live) and all seems lost until Sailor Moon uses a super move to reverse the effects. Repetition is the name of Sailor Moon’s game. Each season may introduce new Guardians and new villains, but like the animation, there are levels of recycling here that no environmentalist could hope to compete with.
So, do I recommend Sailor Moon? It is dated in many ways by today’s standards. There is the animation, of course, and the formula, but then we have the power progression, which consists of being handed new powers without effort, and the character work. Take Usagi and Mamoru’s (Tuxedo Mask) relationship. This romance spans almost the entire 200-episode runtime, yet jack all happens. The relationship only exists because the story tells us they’re destined to be together. Creepy age gap aside (excused by the whole destiny lark), nothing about Usagi would recommend her to this guy. Meanwhile, he has the personality of dead wood.
I had hoped that the introduction of Chibiusa (Usagi’s time travelling future daughter) would mature Usagi, that realising she has the same maturity as an infant makes her grow up. Alas, this would deviate too much from the formula.
As for the rest of the Guardians, most viewers would expect more depth from the full cast. They are better than any run-of-the-mill high school anime cast found today at least. Sailor Jupiter is my favourite of the group, as she is the most well rounded in terms of humour vs. seriousness, contributes her part without overshadowing others, has brains unlike Usagi, and I like her personality. They aren’t bad characters. However, the rigid formula for each episode means that we can never truly explore these people because the villain of the week has to show up at this point, everyone has to transform at that time, and all must go back to normal before the credits roll.
Classic Sailor Moon is best when seen in the context of its release – a girls’ cartoon meant for one episode each morning. The repetitive nature wouldn’t feel so bad there. To watch it today, in the binge sphere? Not a chance. Only powerful nostalgia can tempt viewers into these 200 episodes.
Sailor Moon Crystal
Sailor Moon Crystal is the recent remake of the franchise, promising to stick close to the source manga. This has resulted in a near polar opposite adaptation of Sailor Moon that is possible while remaining recognisable. The ~40-episode seasons are now 13 episodes each (fourth season will be two movies) as all filler falls to the wayside.
For those wanting a better main plot – the Usagi and Mamoru thread – without padding, then Crystal is better. However, the manga, and therefore this adaptation, do a poor job with the supporting cast. The old anime filled its seasons between openers and finales with standalone stories often focused on a side character. One episode might show us one of Jupiter’s hobbies (the episode’s villain relates to this hobby) and in the process, develop her further. Next episode, we’ll see what Venus is up to with a guy she crushes on (99% chance he’s a villain in disguise). These episodes improved on weak parts of the manga despite being formulaic and non-canon. By returning to the original blueprint, Crystal loses a quality of the original in exchange for a faster pace and more central focus.
The other notable change when staying truer to the manga is the art. Crystal, in terms of design, is closer to the original art except with a new paint job. It does not look good. I don’t know if it’s just me, but Usagi’s tiny mouth with fat lips (relative to the size of her mouth) and giant eyes creeps me out. The director also loves close ups of her face, making me recoil each time. Then we have the shading. If it looks like someone did it in MS Paint for a DeviantArt OC, then please don’t use it. There is also the general lack of cinematography. Season 1 doesn’t feel storyboarded, as if they went from one shot to the next without planning. And let’s not forget the crime greater than anything a Sailor Moon villain could have dreamed of! The CG transformation sequences. How did anybody look at those rubber puppets pirouetting on screen and say, “Ship it!” without a hint of irony? Furthermore, these sequences see almost as much use per episode as in the original, so I must ask, why not dedicate the appropriate resources?
Crystal’s art does improve in time with a big leap forward for the third season. Gone is Usagi’s devil mouth. Gone is the MS Paint highlighting. And gone are the CG transformations. Crystal should have looked like this from the start. Many manga styles simply don’t translate well to animation.
If I were to pick just one adaptation to watch, I would pick neither – one is too long and repetitive, the other is quite an eyesore, and neither has anything I consider brilliant. But if you twisted my arm and I had to watch one, it would be Sailor Moon Crystal. Brevity makes all of the difference. Or I would watch just one season of the original – Sailor Moon S, most likely. I find them to be overall around the same quality.
Overall Quality – Medium
Recommendation: For young girls and nostalgia. You need something as strong as nostalgia to draw you into Sailor Moon in this era or you can recommend Sailor Moon Crystal to young girls (they won’t care about the art issues).
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