For as long as mankind has enjoyed the tradition of telling stories, one of the most popular and long-lasting subjects has been the story of the hero… Average, ordinary people gifted with powers and trusted with the responsibility of fighting for justice, defending those around them, and proving what the average person… AKA the reader… Can accomplish if given the chance. Usagi Tsukino, however, is not what you’d call an average or ordinary teenage girl. No, even if we don’t consider the crushing expectations of Japanese society, she’s the pinnacle of below-average. Unlike most 14 year old middle school students, Usagi doesn’t have very many hobbies or interests, and even the things she enjoys, like video games, she’s below average at. She has no ambitions, she has no real talents, she can’t cook, she’s not athletic, she hates to study, she avoids responsibility at every turn, and no matter how low you set your bar, she’s not the first person you’d expect to be granted the powers of a hero. She’s probably not even your last pick.
However, as is often the case, along came a talking cat. Baring a strange crescent moon-shaped bald spot on her forehead, this matronly feline revealed Usagi’s true calling to her… With destiny at her side, and the mysterious Queen Beryl bringing chaos to her small Japanese town, Usagi was tasked with becoming Sailor Moon, the pretty guardian of love and justice! With only her wits and a few pieces of cosmic weaponry standing between her and defeat, four other Sailor Guardians would soon join her cause. The brilliant Sailor Mercury wields the power of water. The furious Sailor Mars wields the power of fire. The strong Sailor Jupiter wields the power of lightning, and the experienced Sailor Venus, who had been acting on her own as Sailor V long before Usagi obtained her power, wields the power of… Something. Combined, they form the Sailor Guardians, and it’s up to them to battle and defeat every single threat that Queen Beryl and the Dark Kingdom throw at them in their vague quest to turn the world dark, or something, and they can only do that by finding the missing Moon Princess and returning her to the throne!
All right, folks, it’s time once again to visit the nineties, a time when animation standards had to be low enough to accommodate the technology that was available, with very few exceptions managing to break through, but trust me, Sailor Moon wasn’t one of them. This series, and every single Sailor Moon title that would follow it(as far as I know, at least) was animated by Toei, one of the most long-running and prolific companies in anime history. Their legacy stretches back to the sixties, and they’ve had some noteworthy hits such as the One Piece, Captain Harlock and Dragonball franchises, and I’ve actually discussed them before in my review of the 1975 Little Mermaid movie, but one of their biggest names is arguably Sailor Moon, a franchise that began in 1991 and continues to this day in countless variations. I’ll be perfectly honest, here… I never saw this show during it’s allegedly embarrassing run on American TV. I only saw SuperS growing up, and looking back at the OG, yeah, it really doesn’t hold up too well.
That’s not to say Sailor Moon is one of the worst looking anime I’ve ever watched, but considering the amount I have, that’s not saying much. People coming into the show blind without a lot of experience with the medium would probably call the animation awful right at first glance, and while that’s an understandable reaction, people who are used to watching older anime would more likely be able to tell that for it’s time, Sailor moon isn’t that far below average. The budget was obviously low, even by early nineties standards, but everyone stayed on model, with very rare exceptions. At it’s worst, movement can be stilted and static scenes can go on way too long, but honestly, for a magical girl show from 1991, it’s competent enough. Freezing characters who aren’t talking and reusing animation for the show’s infamous transformation sequences can also go a long way in conserving animation costs, and this is going to sound really weird… Even I don’t fully understand it… But as far as bad animation goes, this one is on the higher end of the scale.
There are two elements of the artwork that stand out to me the most. The first is the watercolor aesthetic, which… for the most part… gives the series a very soft and lighthearted feel, and the reason I say ‘for the most part’ is because that same watercolor art style is surprisingly versatile. This goes for more toned down backgrounds like the interiors of bedrooms and classrooms, where there’s enough detail to give the environment life without distracting from the character inhabiting them, but what’s even more impressive is just how dark and ominous it can get whenever we enter the realm of the Dark Kingdom, where they use just the right blend of colors to give off a sinister feeling without overdoing it. The other element that stands out is the character designs. Outside of the main cast and a handful of featured extras, the majority of the people on screen look normal enough for the Japanese setting, giving Usagi and the other Sailor Scouts the perfect backdrop to look unique against, with their assorted hair colors and alternate uniforms.
I do have a few gripes with the design conventions, of course… Since this is an old show, I can’t really get too mad at it for following old cliche trends, but I’m still waiting for someone to explain to me why old people in anime are always portrayed as little people. Do Asian people shrink with age, or something? And of course, if you’ve read my post about Astrid and Other Love Interests, you’ll be able to tell just by design which of Usagi’s two crushes she’ll actually wind up with by the end of the first episode. Not that it would have been hard to figure out otherwise. And finally you have the villains, which are every bit as crazy as the Power Rangers episodic baddies, but with the benefit of animation to explore just about every imaginable possibility. Some of them look more ridiculous than others, and I still haven’t managed to remove my palm from my face over seeing a priest turn into a boxing monster named Boxxy, but there are more than enough cool and memorable monsters to make up for it, disposable or not.
The music is a bit generic, but not in a bad way. It’s the kind of music you’d expect from a show about heroes of justice protecting the innocent, and even the tunes you have to listen to ad nauseum are at least catchy and memorable. Sailor moon’s transformation music never wore on my nerves, with it’s heart-pounding beat calling you to action. The whole orchestration is epic, even if it blends into the action way too well to be noticeable in context. Even the background music that plays in school when there’s no real action going on, which would be annoying and repetitive in most anime sounds pretty cool in this show, with a kind of jazz-like swing to it. I actually noticed that there are a lot of tracks in this show were kind of like analogues of the opening theme, either played in different ways or with different instruments, and can you blame them? With an opening theme that good, who wouldn’t want to get more use out of it? The animation for the opening gets a lot better in season two, of course, but they keep the same song.
Fun fact: I actually bought the soundtrack to Sailor Moon classic on Ebay, and not for a cheap price, just so I could have… Well, let’s avoid spoilers and just say “A certain violin track from the later episodes.” If you’ve seen it, you know what I’m talking about. It’s to die for.
There have been two English dubs for this series, and I’m ashamed to admit that I’ve never seen the old Dic one. I’ve seen some clips of it, and if I’m being honest, none of it really inspired me to check out more. As I’ve said, my initial exposure was SuperS, and I distinctly remember the actor for Sailor Moon in that show being unlistenable, so for me, Stephanie Sheh is nothing short of a step up. I’ve gushed about her talent and range in previous reviews, but her abilities may have been a bit too good for this role, because Usagi is supposed to be an annoying and childish character more often than not, and of course, Stephanie delivers a childish and annoying performance… I’m not saying it’s not accurate, but intentional annoyance is still annoying. She does capture all of the characters positive attributes too, of course, which goes a long way in portraying the character’s growth, so props to Sheh on doing a solid job that does, occasionally, backfire in unavoidable ways.
The rest of the main female cast is rounded out by industry veterans, and while Kate Higgins and Cherami Leigh don’t have that much to do in their roles as Mercury and Venus… I’ll talk more about them later… They still do fine jobs with what they were given. Amanda C Miller hasn’t done as much anime work as her peers, as she’s only really been active since 2011, but she is fantastic as Sailor Jupiter, evoking strength, compassion and vulnerability on par with Christine Auten’s portrayal of Sakaki-san in Azumanga Daioh. She’s also not afraid to get whimsically goofy when her character gets lost in another boy-crazy fantasy. Cristina Vee is a name I always look for in a dub, and she doesn’t disappoint here with the character of Sailor Mars, which easily could have been written off as a stereotypical tsundere. Even with these names in the cast, however, my favorite performance is from Michelle Ruff as the herald of the Moon Kingdom, Luna, a talking black cat whose motherly tone conveys both the endless patience and long-suffering good humor that living with someone like Usagi would inevitably breed in someone.
Of course, Johnny Yong Bosch also plays a cat, the male named Artemis, and he does fine despite not having as much screen time. The rest of the cast is made up of both veterans and newcomers, with the most noticeable extras being Vic Mignogna as a boy with ESP, Wendee Lee as Princess Serenity’s mother, and a handful of appearances from Veronica Taylor in small roles. speaking of newcomers, Robbie Daymond had his official anime debut in this show as Mamoru Chiba, who would eventually be revealed as Tuxedo mask(If that’s a spoiler, then you’re too young to be reading my work), and he’s had a major career boom ever since, which he fully deserves. He plays both a normal sardonic teenager and a heroic boy-scout just fine, but he especially shines as a villain in the latter story arcs. That’s no easy feat, of course, when the villains of this show are being played by experienced VAs like Todd Haberkorn and Liam O’brien. The writing of the dub is also extremely faithful, from what I can gather from the subtitles, so it’s a dub I highly recommend checking out.
So, this is normally the part of the review where I’d start getting into things like the depths and themes of the writing, but Sailor Moon is a little different from the shows I’d normally tackle, as there really isn’t any depth of theme to it. Instead, I’m going to start off by addressing a very recent criticism of the series… That it exploits the sexuality of teenagers. If you haven’t seen the Nostalgia Critic’s review of the series, he talks about the ethics of using 14 year old characters for fanservice, and uses that as a platform to discuss the issue of underage sexuality in Japan. Don’t get me wrong, that IS a topic worthy of discussion, and he does a really smart job of it, but I can’t help feeling like Sailor Moon didn’t really deserve to be the focus. It’s practically a rule that in order to get deep into anime, you have to come to terms with the sight of underage characters being displayed in revealing outfits, or even less than that, sometimes full-on nude. That doesn’t mean you have to be okay with it, although it’s kind of easy to rationalize them as fictional characters drawn by the hand of an artist, or you can just get used to condemning and criticizing it. Your reaction is your own to discover and own.
Having said that, I’m sorry, I don’t get why Sailor Moon was the anime chosen to lead this discussion. Maybe it’s my asexuality talking, but I really don’t find anything sexual about this series, let alone it’s underage characters. Nothing sexual ever happens or even gets alluded to. I’ve seen a ton of anime that featured underaged nudity, from tasteless examples like Strike Witches to surprisingly tasteful examples like the last episode of B Gata H K. Okay, the transformation sequences kind of count, but they’re just featureless outlines, no more explicit than the Tempur-Pedic logo before it had it’s ass crack removed. Aside from a relatively tame beach episode, the girls never shove cleavage in our faces, and only once or twice shown bathing in G-rated fashion. I get westerners finding the sailor outfit sexy, but they’re just ordinary schoolgirl uniforms in Japan, and their actual hero-versions of those uniforms go one step further by being leotards, so even a skirt-flip like the one that freaked Doug out are no more revealing than watching a ballerina dance.
There’s a LOT worse out there in the anime world, but more to the point, there’s a lot worse in America, too. Let me just try out my cringeworthy Joker impersonation here… “When 14 year old Morty gets buck-naked, nobody panics because it’s all part of the plan. When the Simpsons movie shows us a ten year old’s uncensored penis, nobody panics, because it’s all part of the plan. But put one 14 year old girl in a sailor suit with a short skirt, then everyone starts losing their minds!” I’m really sorry if you actually imagined the voice for that. Anyway, rather than sexuality, it would make a lot more sense to use this show as a jumping-off point for a discussion about sexism, which isn’t a HUGE problem in this show, but it does exist. In a lot of cases, Tuxedo Mask does have to step in when Usagi starts to fuck up, and while I don’t think the writers intended to insult an entire gender here… They were probably just building up to the future reveals about the two, and Usagi does start to become much more confidant and self-sufficient down the line… It can get a little annoying, and understandably offensive to some viewers.
Honestly, the sexism in the series is at it’s worst when the writers seem conscious of it, and try to subvert it. The first really great episode of the series(And to be fair, there are no shortage of really great episodes) took place on an enchanted love cruise, and not only did it feature some of the best character writing for everybody present, but the girls managed to save the day all by themselves in spectacular fashion. And yet for some reason, one episode later, they aired the worst episode of the series, where they have their final encounter with Jadeite, and they actually TRIED to be non-sexist in the most blatant and on the nose way possible. Not only is the episode brain-breakably stupid(Seeing the sailor guardians running away from planes instead of turning around and taking advantage of their bulky size was pretty hilarious, IMO), but they had Jadeite call out the ineffectiveness of female heroes, despite never showing any signs of sexism, just to set out a very vocal girl power message from the heroes, who wind up rescuing Tuxedo Mask, who didn’t even need to be there in the previous episode.
And yeah, the show is really fucking stupid. It’s usually not too obvious a problem… lapses in logic in a show like this are largely forgivable… But there are exceptions. People not recognizing Usagi as Sailor Moon despite her face and hair always being the same is something you get used to really quickly, but when they do a story arc where the villains are trying overly-complicated methods to find out who she is, you start to wonder why her frisbee throwing skills and clumsy dancing are considered easier targets than literally everything going on above her neck. You do not solve problems by calling attention to them, especially problems we were already ignoring. But the biggest crime that the show’s stupidity causes is with the introduction of Sailor Mercury, who was supposed to be the smart character in the group, but then again, you need to have smart writers to write smart characters. Usagi may have grown as a character throughout the series, but the other characters were still needed to pull the series along.
Sailor Mercury has the same problem that Maka from Soul Eater had… She was brought in to be the smart character, but since the series itself wasn’t up to par on writing intelligence, we pretty much have to take their word for it. She spouts exposition, operates technology to reveal more exposition, gets good grades and studies a lot, but she doesn’t add any intelligence to the show or the dynamic of the group. Honestly, in practice, she’s more brave and self-sacrificing than smart. Rei, on the other hand, instantly makes the show better with her introduction. She’s meant to be the passionate character, and she does add some resolve to the group, and since passion conflicts with Usagi’s easy-going nature, she provides a desperately needed foil for her. She also brings perception, which is MUCH easier to write than intelligence, as her communications with spirits and ability to sense auras help the group to avoid threats and identify traps more often. She doesn’t always save the show, just look at that Jadeite episode, but she does way more good than harm.
Sailor Jupiter doesn’t really add anything specific to the group, at least not that’s obvious. She’s characterized as the Strength girl, and yeah, the group does subtly get stronger with her in it. Even if you don’t notice this, she’s a very well written and fleshed out character, much like Sailor Mars and Sailor Moon. From the research that I’ve done, her and Mars are the most popular characters out of the main five, what with Mars being mature and responsible and Jupiter being the gentle giant with a heart of gold, both having distinctly unique identities outside of the team, and also having unique relationships with Usagi, so it makes sense they’d be at the top of the list. But then you have Sailor Venus, who you THINK is going to have a major story surrounding her on account of her posing as Sailor V and technically being the first active guardian, but no, she’s just dropped into the cast and immediately absorbed into it, and I cannot for the life of me describe her in any way other than a little bit of plot relevance.
Almost everything I know about her, other than her hair color and length, and the few scant facts mentioned above, I had to get from outside sources. Apparently she’s the empathetic character and her element is Metal, none of which was ever made apparent to me in the show. Yeah, she gets developed a lot more in other media, but that’s beside the point. You can’t have that much filler and tell me you didn’t have time to make me care about one of your biggest characters. And of course, speaking of filler, we’re about to dive head first into one of my biggest problems with this series… Not how formulaic the episodes are, oh no, I can deal with that. I’m so far beyond used to that kind of thing. My problem is with the structure of the series. I don’t know this from personal research… I actually learned it from another reviewer… But apparently, the first three volumes of the manga are represented by the first 66 episodes of the anime… Which is all 46 episodes of this series plus 20 from it’s sequel series, Sailor Moon R.
I have no problem believing this, because my God do they take their sweet ass time with the story. Before I even learned this tidbit, I had formed a working hypothesis that they planned out the episode length of the series, picked out where each special event or plot development would happen, and filled the empty spaces with repetitive, formulaic filler, each stretch of episodes having it’s own basic plot idea. This is why unlike most shows, where there’d be a couple of bad episodes… Even Cowboy Bebop had one… Sailor Moon has bad STRETCHES of episodes, about three of them by my count. The first stretch began with the first episode, and ended with the introduction of Rei. The second stretch began with the final Jadeite intro and ended when Nephrite finally became interesting, and the final one happened between Venus’s introduction and when they gave up trying to figure out who Sailor Moon was. But honestly, out of 46 episodes, that’s not the majority of the series. Far from it.
If you can get over the repetition and formula, there’s a lot of good material here. While some of the characters fall flat, like Sailor Venus in particular, the rest of them are well written and fully realized. Usagi may not be as likeable as a main character and leader like Luffy, but she has just as many personality-based weaknesses that keep her from ever feeling like a Mary Sue or an over-powered badass. I loved the villains in particular… Well, at least the ones serving as Queen Beryl’s henchman. Yeah, they were definitely evil, but they were also three dimensional, with personalities and motivations of their own, as well as their own connections and relationships beyond their job. Nephrite’s story arc in particular was one of the main reasons that I was able to have such a major soft spot for this series, allowing me to forgive all of it’s obvious problems. It’s also perfectly safe for younger viewers, although the younger male demographic might not get as much out of it. I’d say at the very least it’s worth checking out.
Sailor moon is available from Viz Media. There have been various home video releases in the past, but to my knowledge, this is the first one to present the series the way it was intended, so I don’t think those ones count. There have been countless sequel series and OVA and movie spin-offs and I dare not name them all here, but they’re easy to look up. A side manga called Codename Sailor V, which carries the bulk of Sailor Venus’s character development and identity, is available stateside from Kodansha Comics. A recent remake of the original series called Sailor Moon Crystal is also available from Viz, and features the same cast, but I’ve heard it’s not as good. What a surprise, a more manga-accurate retelling of a previously successful anime isn’t as good. The live action series is NOT available stateside, but the original manga is.
Getting into this anime 25 years after it’s release, and watching with the eyes of a 31 year old man, I was expecting it to be the cringiest thing ever. I was expecting something along the lines of a ghetto super hero version of Super Gals! Which was the last anime I can remember dropping. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Even the bad stuff, of which there was a considerable amount, was campy and awkward enough that I could get a good laugh out of it. I’ll admit that I went easy on it, compared to other titles that have crossed my path, but that’s because I was having too much fun to focus on nitpicking. It could get dark and serious when it wanted, and thankfully it did so at all the right times, taking a shockingly Wolf’s-Rain-esque turn towards the end. I don’t know if I’d be willing to watch it a second time, but I’m glad I watched it once, and I’d be happy to watch the sequel series, in order to see what happens next. I am Naru the Narcissist, lazy guardian of sloth and pretension, and in the name of the moon, I give Sailor Moon a 6/10.