Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Sailor Moonby Jason Thompson, Mar 3rd 2011
Episode XLI: Sailor Moon
"I really wanted to write a story with a sexy girl, a good-looking guy, some romance, video games, and cute school uniforms! Of course Bunny is strong, too…we've got to be strong for our boys! Right, girls?"
Sailor Moon is out of print in America. Tokyopop used to have the license, but it expired with time like most licenses and they never renewed it, and now the books are hard to find. The rights are now owned by the original Japanese publisher Kodansha, so I have to ask, when are they going to do an English reprint? Or for that matter, since Kodansha recently bought 46.6% of Vertical Inc., maybe the publisher of Peepo Choo and Osamu Tezuka's works could branch out into the Sailor Scouts? How long are English speakers going to be deprived of Sailor Moon, the manga that made a million fangirls?
I have to admit, I didn't like the anime much when I first saw it at the Cal-Animage Beta anime club way back in the '90s. Even for me, a guy who loved rom-coms and Here is Greenwood, Sailor Moon was too…hyper. Too girly. Although my roommate Dan Bongard liked it, many of the older generation of American otaku, which back then was a male-dominated demographic, were skeptical. When large numbers of Sailor Moon fans started appearing at anime conventions, some of them acted like cranky old men annoyed to have girls at their private club. It's the same as how fanboys love to hate on Twilight, and it's just rude, not to mention stupid, since you'd think male anime fans would want to encourage more female fans. (As filmmaker Kevin Smith said at San Diego Comic-Con in 2009: "That's the next generation of fans! How dare you pass judgment on those 12 year old girls who like vampires? They need to be encouraged because in six years they'll be 18 year old girls who like vampires!")
But amazingly, years later, when I reread Sailor Moon, I realized it's actually not even that shojo. Oh sure, it's got hearts and kisses and accessories, but it's also got a heavy dose of shonen manga, from the melodramatic fights and deaths and reincarnations to the earth-shattering explosions to the touching friendships. Sailor Moon is shojo for the era of Dragon Ball Z and Saint Seiya. The heroines of series like Wedding Peach and Tokyo Mew Mew can't match the Sailor Scouts for self-discipline and steely fighting power. By the standards of magical girl manga, that ever-popular genre of manga which is part girl power and part short skirts and pink things, Sailor Moon is butch.
Sailor Moon is one of those series where more people know the anime than the manga, so pretend for a second that you have no idea what the plot is. Usagi (aka "Bunny" in Tokyopop's English edition) is a ditzy teenager who sucks at school and loves sleeping. She's a bit of a tomboy; she loves playing video games, and she dreams that the cute boy who works at the arcade would get imprisoned in a dungeon so she could rescue him from the bad guys. But unbeknownst to Usagi, there are real bad guys at work in Usagi's neighborhood, dark forces that are kidnapping people and draining their energy for some evil purpose. Usagi is unaware of the bad guys' sinister scheme until one day she meets a mysterious talking cat with a crescent moon mark on its forehead. The cat tells her its name is Luna and it's her guardian from a past life. Its mission: to awaken Usagi to her true nature as Sailor Moon, a superpowered Champion of Justice!
With Luna's guidance, Usagi shouts the magic words "Moon! Prism Power! Make-up!" and changes into Sailor Moon, in a sparkly costume transformation which leaves her in a sailor suit, a tiara and elbow-length white gloves. In addition to her new clothes, she also has mighty punching and kicking abilities, cool gadgets which can shoot energy, and lots of other unspecified but mighty powers. Despite her amazing new powers, Usagi is still a klutz, but she blunders into battle with one of the bad guys and wins. The bad guy, in disguise as Usagi's friend's mom, turns out to be a monstrous witch! Usagi kills the witch, and the stolen energy returns to the people it was stolen from. But, as Luna tells her, this is just the beginning of her mission: she must find her fellow Sailor Scouts, other girls like her, and together they must protect the mysterious Princess and prevent the all-powerful Silver Imperium Crystal from falling into evil hands. ("We've got to find your fellow warriors! Then we must protect the princess!") So Sailor Moon, aka Usagi, starts to gather her friends, who like her are the reincarnations of ancient cosmic warriors. With a shout of "In the name of the moon, I will punish you!" (or as Tokyopop translated it "On behalf of the moon, you're punished!") she leads her comrades into afterschool battles between good and evil.
And thus began a super-megahit manga and anime franchise. Naoko Takeuchi had been drawing manga for a couple of years when she started Sailor Moon in 1992, but Sailor Moon took her to a new level of success. Its mixture of superheroism, astrology, astronomy, gemology, romance, and shonen-style battles made it a hit, and made lots of money. The money thing wasn't an accident. Nakayoshi, the magazine where Sailor Moon ran, was infamous for its heavy "media-mix" strategy of making manga which could be turned into anime, toys, and so on. (For more information, read the interesting section on Nakayoshi in Frederik Schodt's Dreamland Japan.) In North America, the Sailor Moon anime was syndicated on American and Canadian TV in 1995. It wasn't an immediate hit; the American version was soon canceled, although it did all right in Canada, partly because of a better timeslot. The voice actors received so little fanmail that Toby Proctor, the voice of Tuxedo Mask in the early episodes, looked up the phone number of one girl who wrote him a letter, called her up and thanked her in his Tuxedo Mask voice ("Hello, banana head!"). But gradually, the show picked up steam. The fact that the show was canceled just made the fans more hardcore; when they couldn't see it anymore on TV, they went online in search of info and found out about all the stuff that was censored in the American dub: all the lesbian relationships, sailor suit fetishism and fanfic. In 1997, Mixx Entertainment (the company now known as Tokyopop) started publishing the Sailor Moon manga in English, along with CLAMP's Magic Knight Rayearth, and the American shojo manga market really took off. And by 1998, the guys were in on it too, and Barenaked Ladies were singing about it in their hit song "One Week," "Gotta get in tune/With Sailor Moon/It's the cartoon/With the boom anime babes/That make me think the wrong thing."
One thing about Sailor Moon was, both women and men liked it, even if the men probably liked it for the wrong reasons. The high number of female characters meant there were lots of girls to look at; for every sexy bishonen in the series, such as Usagi's beloved Tuxedo Mask, Sailor Moon has exactly 1,482 girls. Sailor fuku are an incredibly enduring fetish in Japan; even badass girls in sailor fuku have been around for a long time. I've always liked the 1981 film Sailor Suit and Machine Gun. But Takeuchi is still writing for a female audience, and she's careful never to throw in the kind of fanservice that would be gross to the core fans; almost every female character in the series wears an incredibly short, flimsy skirt, yet they never blow back to show a single panty shot. Similarly, the nude transformation sequences from the anime aren't in the original manga; Takeuchi blamed the male animation staff for the extra skin, although the animators were probably inspired by the nude transformations in Go Nagai's original pervy magical-girl manga Cutie Honey. After all, Sailor Moon already has Cutie Honey's power to change costumes at will: she doesn't do it much as the series goes on, but early on she changes into a nurse, a stewardess, a princess and other mildly kinky and mildly useful outfits.
The fights in Sailor Moon also feel influenced by shonen manga, even if they're missing many of the traditional shonen features. There are no training sequences (can you even imagine what that would be like?). There's rarely any of the complicated and/or incomprehensible "Ah-ha, gotcha!" fighting strategy that characters use in some shonen manga. There's also not much actual punching and kicking and all that physical contact stuff; instead, nearly everyone shoots energy; in other words, the good guys make poses, the bad guys make poses and (usually) the bad guys go "AGGGGHH" and explode or fall to the ground. (Although Sailor Moon does chop a few baddies' heads off with her Moon Frisbee.) Normally when manga artists draw fights this way it's a cop-out, but in Sailor Moon it makes thematic sense; the fights boil down to their purest form of a clash of wills, in which there are tremendous explosions and bursts of light, there are dramatic poses, and then (usually) the noblest character wins. They're fight scenes stripped down to their most basic elements, and yet, Takeuchi makes it work. The tagline for the 1978 Superman movie was "You'll believe a man can fly!"; the tagline for Sailor Moon could be "You'll believe that the power of love is enough to split atoms and vaporize your enemies!"
And even if it's mostly about abstracts like love and beauty, even if the Sailor Scouts and their opponents don't roll around on the ground punching each other in the teeth and shouting "Taste the curb!", Sailor Moon is pretty rough. People die; heroes sacrifice themselves; bad guys shout "Nooooo!" as they get decapitated and blasted into atoms. The fights are intense. Sailor Moon isn't one of those manga where the bad guys are all just misunderstood and they end up apologizing and making friends with the hero and being tamed and everyone goes home happy. It isn't one of those ghost-busting/monster-hunting manga where the bad guys aren't even really people but just bugs or aliens or possessed jewelry or vague blobs of screentone which must be 'exorcised' and turned into happy animals or whatever. Basically, it doesn't totally drain the excitement and passion from the fighting, like some other manga which shall remain nameless. It reminds me a bit of Saint Seiya, without the blood and guts, but with an almost similar sense of melodrama. Both manga also share a love for shimmering screentone and wild poses and cosmic imagery, in which cosmic principles are embodied by human characters, and by the end of the series, the characters are basically fighting the gods.
But Sailor Moon is much more than fighting. Each new story arc usually starts out as a mystery, with bad guys doing something sneaky in the human world, and the Sailor Scouts must work like detectives to figure out what's going on. The forces of darkness apparently love to take over local businesses: there's evil jewelry stores, evil cram schools, evil video stores (you'd think the name "Dark Video" would be a clue) and so on. A bit like how Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory tempted prepubescent kids with its food-porny descriptions of delicious candy, Sailor Moon tantalizes its (pre- or post-pubescent) readers with lots of sparkly gems and jewelry, both visually and in the jewel-themed names of the villains in the first story arc. Takeuchi is apparently also interested in shojo standbys such as astrology and ESP; in addition to the astrological names of the Sailor Scouts, there are lots of plots about brainwashing, hypnotism and crystal energy. The bad guys tend to do bad stuff with people's "energy," leaving them tired and sluggish, which is probably not so much a metaphor for chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia as a way to have the villains do evil things to people without leaving permanent side effects like decapitation. Takeuchi isn't just into the paranormal, though, she's also a fan of real-world astronomy; in the story arc when the heroes travel to the moon, Sailor Mercury, the bookish one, rattles off lots of info ("The mass of the moon is 1/80 of the Earth's mass, while its diameter is 1/4 of the Earth's"). I also like Luna the cat's secret base full of (human-sized) computers where it monitors the bad guys and wears headphones.
And then, of course, there's the romance. Sailor Moon's love interest (and practically the only male character except for a few bishi bad guys) is Tuxedo Mask, the boy with amnesia who is the reincarnation of Usagi's love from long ago. He gets his name because, well, he wears a tuxedo and a mask disguise, in the style of a kaitô "phantom thief" as seen in manga like Magic Kaito, D.N.Angel and Kamikaze Kaitō Jeanne. (It's mentioned in passing that Tuxedo Mask robs jewelry stores in an attempt to find the Silver Imperium Crystal which holds power as well as the memories of his past—is this a holdover from an earlier draft of Sailor Moon in which it was a phantom thief manga with Tuxedo Mask as the thief and Usagi as the detective pursuing him?) Tuxedo Mask is always nice to Sailor Moon when he's in disguise, but when he meets her on the street as an average high school student he's sort of a jerk (although compared to the typical tsundere love interest he's a total sweetie.) As they cross paths, they gradually regain their lost memories of one another, and remember their tragic past when Usagi was Princess Serenity of the Moon and he was Prince Endymion of the Earth. Yes, that's right—Usagi discovers that SHE'S BOTH THE PRINCESS AND THE PERSON WHO'S SUPPOSED TO RESCUE THE PRINCESS! The moral, presumably, is: you must rescue yourself—no one else can rescue you.
With such an amazingly large cast and so much going on, I could write for days about Sailor Moon, but this is what it makes me think of; this is my personal little "Why I like Sailor Moon." It was an 18-volume series, but the best part, for me, is the first seven volumes or so; like many popular manga, it feels like it was stretched beyond its length to keep making money. The later story arcs, like Sailor Moon Super S and Sailor Moon Stars, have beautiful art but they essentially recycle the same story with more and more new girls in sailor suits. Still, it is fun watching Takeuchi's art improve from its hyper, so-so beginnings to its eventual prettiness, especially in the final epic battle with Galaxia at the end of StarS. Sailor Moon isn't some pretty flower that just randomly bloomed in the garden; it was genetically engineered by the editorial department, just like Dragon Ball. But to say "it was all the editors" would be to unfairly rob Takeuchi of her credit. Even when you're working in a formula, the spirit of the creator shines through; Sailor Moon and (for another example) Cardcaptor Sakura are both magical girl manga, but they're both good in very different ways, and they're both much better than others in their genre.
Lastly, and strangely, despite all the high heels and fancy jewelry and accessories, Sailor Moon is one of the most feminist shojo manga I've read. Despite her ditziness (in one scene early on she gets sad during a fight and cries, and her high-pitched wailing knocks out the bad guys) Usagi is a strong heroine. You can really see it in the cute relationship between her and Tuxedo Mask. When Usagi falls in love with Tuxedo Mask, she is nervous and flustered, but deep down, he's just as nervous if not more. He's the one who's impressed by her, he's the one thinking "Sailor Moon…you're so strong today…" In Sailor Moon the girls are the ones with the power. Tuxedo Mask exists mostly to get kidnapped and rescued, or brainwashed and turned into a bad guy, but each time, Sailor Moon turns him back into his true loving self. He's a handsome nice guy and they love each other, something which is disturbingly rare in shojo manga. Amu in Shugo Chara! gets randomly felt up by the male lead in the first chapter like it's nothing, and Karin in Kamichama Karin loves Kazune despite the fact that he's always making sexist comments, but Usagi would never tolerate this kind of crap from her love interest. Also, both these series are more than 10 years newer than Sailor Moon. What happened, people?
Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
Banner designed by Lanny Liu.
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