Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon: The Super Live Comes To America

by Cindy Sibilsky,

For eager American otaku with a penchant for stage productions, anime and manga fans interested in experiencing more visceral, live adaptations of their favorite characters in person --- so close they could almost (and in some cases, can literally) reach out and touch them --- or to anyone who's curious to simply see what the all hype is about for the explosion of 2.5D plays and musicals previously only available in Japan or on DVD, the wait is officially over.

“Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon” The Super Live was the first of this relatively young, exciting, constantly evolving and expanding phenomenon from Japan to be performed to audiences in America with one show on March 24th at the Warner Theatre in Washington D.C. and three over the span of March 29-30th at the PlayStation Theater in the heart of Times Square. Called “2.5 Dimensional Musical Entertainment”, this new genre of stage performances are based on Japan's ubiquitous and profitable cultural exports — anime and manga. The memorable moniker bestowed upon the style infers the mashup of 2D animation and graphic novels with live 3D entertainers and is rumored to have been a referential title originally circulated by early fans of the genre themselves.

The decades-long, multi-generational devotion and popularity of the Sailor Moon series proved to be the right choice to introduce American audiences to this new brand of Japanese entertainment. All four shows in both cities sold out within a couple of weeks and crowds flew in from over 40 states to see the Pretty Guardians up close. The show brought to vibrant, rainbow technicolored life the charming characters from Naoko Takeuchi's endearing shōjo (girl-centric) manga published by Kodansha and the mega popular anime series that debuted in the early 1990s, and has since found almost continuous success and many incarnations. Top executives at Kodansha who have been working with the series for years, even decades, were eager with anticipation on how fans of the manga would respond to seeing their favorite characters in the flesh. Lauren Scanlan, Senior Managing Editor of Kodansha Comics USA felt as excited as any superfan, “I grew up with Sailor Moon and got interested in anime and manga because of it. Now new generations are drawn to it because of the classic themes and relatability. She's not the brightest or most mature but Usagi fights for her friends and what's right.” Fumio Osano, Editor-in-Chief for Kodansha, has been involved with Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon since its inception in 1991 and has witnessed its many evolutions over the decades. “Though immediately popular in Japan, oddly, the series did not initially do very well in the U.S. But when it was reintroduced and finally took off, it was unstoppable and has been a beloved fixture in America and worldwide.”

Much like Scanlan, to some (especially those who grew up in the '90s) Sailor Moon was one of the first manga or anime series they discovered, sparking their interest and serving as their introduction. For those budding otaku, encountering these distinctive offerings inspired them to further investigate and explore other varieties and Japanese culture in general. The eager attendees could not restrain their enthusiasm and broke into hysterical squeals of exuberance when favorite characters appeared, iconic interactions occurred or epic battle scenes of girl power and good overcoming obstacles and evil forces unfolded. Admittedly, I was one of them, for Sailor Moon was my own introduction to anime and it was glorious to watch cherished characters such as Queen Beryl, the Sailor Guardians and especially, Tuxedo Mask --- the first crush of many young female (and male) otaku --- in action.

The uncontrollable reactions were both an unexpected and heartwarming surprise to the Japanese production staff and cast, who are used to the much more polite, reserved responses from fans on their home turf. Even with the show's European debut in Paris November 2018, fans were much more demure in their affections. “The audience and the show became one,” beamed producer Takaharu Uera of Nelke Planning.

“Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon” The Super Live follows the foibles, fantasies and fights of Usagi Tsukino aka Sailor Moon (played by Tomomi Kasai with as much contradictory childishness, quirky charisma and courage as her cartoon counterpart) along with her four friends who comprise the Sailor Guardians (so-called for their schoolgirl-inspired superhero uniforms): the brainy Ami Mizuno aka Sailor Mercury (Momoko Kaechi), the fiery, passionate Rei Hino aka Sailor Mars (Yui Hasegawa), tall and powerful Makoto Kino aka Sailor Jupiter (Kanna Matsuzaki) and dreamy Minako Aino aka Sailor Venus (Yu Nakanishi), soldier of love and beauty.

The five friends with secret superhero alter-egos may spend their days as typical junior high girls, but their after-school activities include fighting evil forces, especially the sinister yet seductive Queen Beryl (Makoto Aikawa), her loyal right-hand man, Kunzite (Reo Sanada), and their minion of demons (the ensemble: Atsumi Matsubayashi, Izumi Niihashi, Ayumi Higashikawa, Moeko Koizumi and Hinako Aikawa performing acrobatics and dance in multiple roles). And what junior high schooler's life would be complete without a crush? For that there's Mamoru Chiba --- he may be cool, aloof and dismissive of Usagi in the light of day, but by the moonlight he masquerades as the heroic heartthrob, Tuxedo Mask (portrayed with exquisite perfection by Riona Tatemichi whose gravity-defying, flowing silken cape alone deserves applause and recognition). Speaking of costuming, “Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon” The Super Live is not simply cosplay paraded onstage. The authenticity is represented down to the most minute detail faithfully, but there is a also good dose of creativity.

Coming from Japan, one would expect a high-tech spectacle and the show does not disappoint. There's interactive projection mapping (which also pays tribute to the manga) and a multi-colored moving LED apparatus that creates the appearance of light rays and power beams. Fans swooned for the outrageous musical numbers with winks to Japanese pop culture and iconic Sailor Moon scenes. Notable moments were when Usagi's usual tardiness to school turning into an encounter with possessed classmates (thanks to Kunzite's spells); her first blush with Mamoru and subsequent love fantasy complete with winged angels, heart-shaped goggles and Tuxedo Mask gift-wrapped; the flirtatious battle between Usagi and her unmasked crush at video game arcade; a girls-day-out in the famed Harajuku fashion district of Tokyo; and, of course, plenty of high-heeled, butt-kicking, hair-flipping girl-power action resplendent with superhero effects you could both see and hear --- all to make the cartoon and comic come to vibrant multi-colored life. And that's only the first part. The second portion of the show is a concert where fans brandished colored penlights in honor of each Guardian's representative color. Here the company showed off their characters' spirited personalities with a variety of musical numbers. The fan frenzy reached a fever pitch for the finale when the cast (and the audience along with them) sang the iconic title song “Moonlight Legend” from the anime series and descended into the hysterical crowd, giving high-fives to outstretched hands.

This fantastic fusion of performance styles adds another dimension to what a theatrical experience can offer. To pull it off well, however, a show needs an amalgam of entertainment magicians. Akiko Kodama, who wrote the book that propels the action and story, has also written and directed for the uber-successful ultra-glamorous, all-female Broadway-meets-Vegas extravaganza style Takarazuka Revue Company (which may explain a few things including the women-only cast and their slick, sensual portrayals of the male characters). Director and choreographer TAKAHIRO created the moves for Madonna's Sticky and Sweet Tour and Pretty Guardians shared the same music video feel and high-intensity dynamics as a pop diva concert. Rounding out the creative team was HYADAIN, a J-Pop composer who has written songs for numerous acts including the all-girl J-Pop idol group AKB48, was responsible for the multifaceted electro-pop and rock score with influences as varied as video game-style “chiptunes”, eerie gothic high soprano vocals, Asian elements, Latin flair and tender piano ballads.

Live theatrical performances have been taking off in Japan since the early 2000s, when Makoto Matsuda, currently the Chairman of Japan 2.5-Dimensional Musical Association and Nelke Planning Co, Ltd., transformed the sports manga, Prince of Tennis (hailed TENNIMU by fans) into a musical. Before that, there had only been a couple of live anime/manga adaptations, including Saint Seya which was onstage at the time the Sailor Moon series was launched in 1991 and the first of such shows Matsuda worked on as “the lowest-ranking staff member.” But the seed was planted and he saw great potential for the future.

Matsuda's vision and fearlessness to take risks has certainly paid off---Musical: Prince of Tennis (in various incarnations over its span) has been playing to sold-out audiences for 16 years and company has now produced and toured multiple other 2.5D shows. When shaping a new kind entertainment that would attract fans of anime and manga as well as regular theatregoers, Matsuda knew an old Japanese theatre standard of utilizing performers of same sex to play both genders (employed by kabuki for hundreds of years with all-male casts and by the 105 year old all-female Takarazuka Revue Company) would be a formula for success. He also took inspiration from Takarazuka Revue's tradition of ending their productions with a lavish concert extravaganza and noted, “When you see their shows, you feel that you are given so much added value in the entertainment experience as an attendee.” His reputation has granted him the exclusive rights to major properties such including “Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon” The Super Live. “There was no choice other than Matsuda and Nelke Planning for whom would produce this,” confirmed Osano, “He has the creativity to make it come to life and honor the original authentically.”

The success of this new style of live entertainment attracted a loyal fanbase and other anime and manga adaptations followed, including two from Shochiku Co., Ltd, the most respected producer and promoter of kabuki (a 400 year old art form): NARUTO and Super Kabuki II: One Piece. Next up for Matsuda and company is another U.S. fan favorite, “MY HERO ACADEMIA” The “Ultra” Stage, which opens in Tokyo in April, travels to Osaka and on to Shanghai in June. Given the pedigree of titles like this, it was only a matter of time before the stage spectacles would arrive on U.S. shores.

High risks performed with a lot of heart, belief and a good dash of luck (not to mention a built-in fan base of millions for the brand worldwide) can reap remarkable rewards. The question now is not if, but when and where the next showing of these sensational spectacles will occur? Just like the anime and manga industry itself, the world of 2.5D stage adaptations is a growing, evolving and relatively new genre of entertainment. But demand creates supply and there is already a plethora of outstanding stage spectacles in Japan ready to be imported if the audience is there to support them. Now it's up to the otaku to ensure this phenomenon is not a passing trend or a one-tour wonder. Which begs the question: what Japanese anime, manga or video game adaptation would you most like to see live on stage?

Photo credit for all images: ©Naoko Takeuchi・PNP / “Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon” The Super Live Production Committee


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