The Mike Toole Show Hey There, Sailor!
by Michael Toole, Jul 15th 2012
In the fall of 1995, I was studying at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. I was a lousy student, and my enrollment wouldn't last - but at the time, I was doing well enough. One morning I was finishing up filling in for an absent radio DJ (I was very into broadcasting, and had my own show at the time. It was about ska. Hey, remember ska?! Well... maybe best you didn't.), and right outside the radio station was a lobby with a whole bunch of comfy couches and a television. Because that's what's really conducive to studying, right? Nap-inducing furniture and television. Anyway, by an astonishing coincidence, an episode of Sailor Moon was starting, so I settled in to watch.
Yeah, this one's about Sailor Moon, which has been grabbing some headlines lately, thanks to a much-publicized forthcoming remake. But the story of the Sailor Moon phenomenon in North America is a rocky one, full of interesting twists. When I sat down in that student lounge to watch, for example, I was soon joined by a completely ordinary-looking girl-- one of my classmates, actually. She wasn't part of the anime club, she didn't frequent the Sci-Fi library, and she didn't participate in NJAC, the student-run annual sci-fi con. In other words, she didn't have any nerd-bingo characteristics that would suggest she liked anime. And yet, here she was, watching the show avidly. She seemed totally engrossed, in fact. “You... like this stuff?” I asked, pointing at the screen. She nodded enthusiastically, and it was then that I got an inkling that maybe anime's appeal could stretch beyond SF con viewing rooms, mail-order fansubs, and weekly club meetings.
In subsequent years, it would become obvious that Sailor Moon spoke to a much larger, broader demographic than the animation and science fiction dorks who flocked to anime in the 70s and 80s. But at first, Sailor Moon’s future was anything but guaranteed; it launched, in the fall of 1995, with two other shows-- Dragon Ball, which was also syndicated, and UPN's own Teknoman, a casual adaptation of Tekkaman Blade. The previous summer had yielded an off-season fill-in series by the name of Ronin Warriors, which generated a decent amount of buzz amongst my friends, but it didn't stick around for long. UPN didn't really have their shit together on Teknoman, but did manage to hang in there for a full year. Both Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon were far more developed, with toy and other product tie-ins to help capitalize the TV airings.
But they failed. Despite action figures on the racks, Dragon Ball hobbled along and collapsed after just 13 episodes, with fledgling production company FUNimation wisely opting to shift focus to the more action-packed Dragon Ball Z. Sailor Moon, which was adapted by DIC, was a bit more robust - the entirety of season 1 and part of season 2 were dubbed to facilitate 65 episodes of weekday airing, albeit not without some extensive editing and the usual litany of name changes, and the line of toys supporting the series was much more diverse, including this beauty of a product.
I watched the entire damn show waiting for this to show up, but it never did! Yeah, see, I watched any and all anime that made it on TV, because I'm a hopeless nerd, and Sailor Moon was no exception. Since I was an anime fan, I was aware that it was popular in Japan, and to me, its merits were obvious-- it was flashy and different, it was funny, it had a surprisingly sprawling, complex plot, and the direction of skilled auteurs like Junichi Sato and Kunihiko Ikuhara helped sell the characters and story. But these positives, paired with a TV airing, won't really put a series over the top. See, the entire reason Sailor Moon was aired in North America was because Bandai was hoping to sell lots of Sailor Moon toys; for a lot of kids daytime TV animation, this is the desired result. The show sells the toys, the toy company gets fat and rich and eager to bankroll more TV cartoons to sell more products, and wonderful people like you and me waste a whole lot of time in front of the tube, playing with dolls and Sailor Cycles. But Sailor Moon didn't quite catch on in the United States, so Bandai dropped the toy license in 1996. That was it, right? Without toys, the franchise had no legs.
Two factors kept Sailor Moon going. Firstly, the broadcast rights were acquired by Turner, who dropped the show into USA Network's afternoon cartoon airings. It wasn't a blockbuster, but prior to that, Sailor Moon aired between 6 and 7am in many markets, so it got the series some much-needed visibility. Secondly, something interesting was happening north of the border. YTV's broadcast of Sailor Moon was drawing far stronger ratings than the grab bag of terrestrial stations that had carried it in the US, and the toys, which were distributed by a partner company called Irwin, sold just fine. In fact, when Bandai pulled the plug, Irwin stepped right in, acquiring the rights to continue producing toys independently of Bandai. They sold the shit out of the toys, producing their own Sailor Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto dolls, and continually revising and improving their line of dolls through the early 2000s.
For quite some time, it seemed like that initial 65 episodes was all we were going to get. On the rapidly-growing internet, Sailor Moon fandom was visible and well-connected, anchored by hubs like alt.fan.Sailor Moon and a website by a group called Save Our Sailors. SOS was simply the Sailor Moon version of the group of Star Trek fans that banded together to keep the show from being canceled; they ran petitions and approached the show's North American sponsors, eager to convince them to commit to more Sailor Moon. One of their most notable stunts involved urging fans to partake in a “procott” (the opposite of boycott, see?), where they'd buy Kellogg's Pop Tarts on a specific day and this would somehow prove that there was a market for more Sailor Moon, and the rest of Sailor Moon R would be dubbed and broadcast. I never quite understood how this worked, but apparently a lot of pop tarts got sold as a result. Unbeknownst to SOS, however, Irwin Toys had already ponied up the money to get those 17 episodes finished. I feel like, after Irwin stepped in, Sailor Moon’s future was secured, but even so, Save our Sailors was a good rallying point for curious fans and a highly visible cheerleader for the franchise in the late 90s.
Irwin's underwriting of the rest of Sailor Moon R had a snowball effect. In the US, the TV series was kicked from USA Network over to Cartoon Network, where it fit in astonishingly well with their new Toonami block. Response was strong enough that Cartoon Network execs were left asking for more; and there was, and those 17 episodes hit airwaves as “the lost episodes” in 1998. But CN knew that there was even more, so they contacted Toei's American liasion company, Cloverway, and arranged to have even more episodes dubbed. Over the next year, both Sailor Moon S (season 3) and Super S (season 4) were dubbed and broadcast.
While all this was going on, the manga business plugged along at a much lower pace; the boom years of the 2000s were still a long way away. The rights to Naoko Takeuchi's original Sailor Moon manga were snatched up by a company called Mixx, who ran it in their new manga anthology magazine, Mixxzine, in 1998. Yep, this was right when anime fandom was starting to explode and interest in Sailor Moon was at a fever pitch. In other words, it was practically a license to print money. So what did Mixx do? They flopped the pages, which was still standard at the time, so we'll give ‘em a pass on that. Their retouching job wasn't that great. They abruptly moved Sailor Moon from Mixxzine to Smile, a teen girl magazine that was so awful and repellent that I wrote an angry editorial about it for my old Anime Jump website. And while they managed to get the manga released, their editions were undersized, and with spines that would snap if you opened the books all the way. Mixx sowed a lot of confusion and ill will with this approach. Then they changed their name to TOKYOPOP. Yep.
So it took awhile for Sailor Moon on TV to come together, and the manga was iffy at best. How about home video? Well, that's a fairly happy story - ADV got the rights to the first two seasons from DIC, releasing first dubbed and edited single discs, and then two great big subtitled DVD box sets of Sailor Moon and Sailor Moon R. There were probably some VHS releases in there at the time, as well. Pioneer won the bid to release the three Sailor Moon movies, a trio of neat featurettes, and when those did well on VHS and DVD, they went ahead and released Sailor Moon S and Super S, all bilingually. If you really wanted four fifths of Sailor Moon, it wasn't too tough to get it.
Here's the thing: despite the fact that I see people cosplaying as Sailor Moon even today, the comics and videos went away very rapidly in 2004. Licenses lapsed, and Toei simply opted not to renew for several years. What this means is that an entire generation of anime fans pretty much couldn't get their Sailor Moon fix legitimately. It kinda blows my mind, especially when I look at eBay for Sailor Moon DVDs, which are all STILL out of print, and find that counterfeit DVD copies are pulling in more than $2000 per week for companies that are not Toei. But that's a bitch session for another column.
Now that I've talked about the Sailor Moon stuff that we got, let me talk about what we didn't get. Most glaringly, we didn't get Sailor Stars, the fifth and final season of Sailor Moon. If you talk to Cartoon Network or anyone who worked at the now-defunct Geneon/Pioneer, they'll simply tell you that Toei opted not to offer Sailor Stars to them. Even with its tricky bits, which involved gender-bending cosmic scouts, companies like Geneon were eager to at least secure a home video release. But it wasn't to happen. We also didn't get Sailor Moon stage shows, which look awesome:
Did you know that Daily Show regular Samantha Bee got her start in entertainment playing Sailor Moon for mall shows and birthday parties? I imagine they weren't quite as elaborate as the above. You can eyeball a costume that's probably a lot like the one Ms Bee wore here. We also didn't get any of Japan's Sailor Moon video games, which is a real shame. None of the ones I've played were that great, but at one time, there was an astonishing array of several dozen console games, an enormous pile composed mostly of side-scrolling beat-em-ups and 2D fighting games. Instead of that on store shelves, we had this:
We didn't get Sailor Moon sneakers, like the ones depicted here. I like commercials like this, because they remind us that, despite some surprisingly complex themes and story, Sailor Moon is ultimately meant for kids. We didn't get licensed makeup, or breakfast cereal, And perhaps most importantly, we didn't get an American-made, live-action Sailor Moon TV series, which is what a company called Toon Makers was attempting to put together as the show and its toys were shopped around in North America. If you haven't yet seen it, watch this amazing trailer.
By way of explanation: This clip, from Anime Expo 1998, features Allen Hastings, a programmer who created the Lightwave 3D modeling software, introducing a hilariously dumb and weird-looking Sailor Moon pilot, featuring a mix of live-action footage and American-made animation. Watching it over a decade after I first saw it, I feel bad for Allen, who pleads with the audience to give the awful pile of crap he's introducing a chance. Allen's software was used to create special effects in great productions like Babylon 5 and Space: Above and Beyond, but it got used for this crap, too. I do have to hand it to Toon Makers for being imaginative, though - their concept featured not just sailor costumes, but crazy magic windsurfers. That's taking the motif to the next level!
You know, I've talked endlessly about how Sailor Moon got sold here, but I've only barely touched on the appeal of a series that, while ostensibly about a dumb teen girl who turns into a slightly older girl with magical powers and just enough sex appeal to woo her college-age beau, contains a vast storyline that involves millennia-long royal succession, time travel, and devastating intergalactic battles. Sailor Moon has all the attendant transformation sequences and goofy magic wands, but when these girls attack, the bad guys are engulfed in elemental pillars of water, fire, wind, and other crazy stuff. The title character is forced into a role she's not really prepared for, and even as she fights the bad guys, she gets to watch her best buddy fall into a doomed romance. Sailor Moon was edgy enough that, even in slightly more relaxed Japan, the first season's finale drew angry letters from parents, upset that their little girls spent three Saturdays in a row watching Sailor Moon's buddies struggling and dying before the good guys finally won and the reset button got pushed. Take daring storytelling elements like these and put them under the auspices of the aforementioned Sato and Ikuhara, and you've got some very watchable stuff. I'm not sure I'd jump headfirst into Sailor Moon at this point, but I watched a large majority of the anime. My favorite is the Sailor Moon R movie, which perfectly captures the appeal of the franchise in a neat 40-minute package.
That brings us to the present day, 20 years after Naoko Takeuchi took up her pen and drew stories of not just a single magical girl, but a whole team of magical girls. The franchise's importance to American anime fandom is obvious: its colorful depiction of a team of strong, friendly heroines opened anime up to North American female audiences in a way that no series prior had done. It's safe to say that, without it, our anime fandom would smaller, and would possibly have more beards.
Nowadays, Sailor Moon is undergoing something of a renaissance. The show has been remastered, and while you still can't get DVDs in these parts, Toei are trying to get the show back out there; they were flogging a 200-episode TV package at the MIPcom licensing show last year, and they managed to arrange a broadcast of the new remaster in Italy. There was a live-action Sailor Moon TV drama a few years back, and while I wouldn't exactly call it good, it wasn't that bad. Kodansha Comics have replaced the substandard old Mixx books with new, larger, and better reprints of the comics, which happen to be, at this point, unquestionably the most popular and best-selling manga in the US, a perennial New York Times bestseller with more than 100,000 copies of the books sold. Even teen girl shopping mall headquarters Hot Topic is getting into the act, with a new line of Sailor Moongoodies, including this costume:
So, that's the twisty history of Sailor Moon in North America. As we wait patiently for more news of the anime remake, which will feature a new song by girl group heavyweights Momoiro Clover Z, I have to wonder: will the series inspire a whole new wave of fans, as its predecessor did? I hope it does. Now tell me, readers: who's YOUR favorite Sailor Scout? I've long heard that Sailor Mercury, with her expressive eyes and sharp mind was the favorite, but I'm more of a Sailor Venus guy. That's not because I find the character cute, although I kinda like her infectious smile, but because she kills bad guys with a fucking laser. If you have that, who the hell needs the power of love?!
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