Sailor Moon Crystal
by Gabriella Ekens,
Well, that was a non-conclusion. This episode ends right before Usagi launches the finishing blow, but the next episode preview acts like they've won already. The amazing suspense of Sailor Moon Crystal! It's like the editors don't care at all. This episode begins with Usagi choosing to die for love, unable to stand the world anymore after striking down her brainwashed boyfriend, Mamoru. Queen Metalia then absorbs them into herself alongside the Legendary Silver Crystal. As she engulfs the world in darkness, the Senshi give up their powers to summon the anti-Metalia moon sword. Witnessing her friends' sacrifice, Usagi finds the will to resist and activates the Legendary Silver Crystal. The Shitennou use the remnants of their souls to revive Mamoru and point him to Metalia's weak point. With Mamoru's support, Usagi accesses its full power to fight the dark queen head-on.
At this point it feels like all I can do is elucidate on continuing problems. For example, this show sure does put all its guns toward a romance that doesn't work. Usagi and Mamoru's relationship seem like the opposite of a power couple: two people who suck out each others personalities - the little that they have to start with - when they're near each other. Harping on one failure in this show's storytelling feels futile, though. This narrative is "not-written" in the same way that stories in language learning textbooks aren't. They're beat-by-beat narratives with no personality beyond what they're trying to teach, and often exist outside criticism because they're more functional tools than works of art. In this case, Sailor Moon Crystal is a tool of marketing, but it unfortunately has found itself within the realm of artistic criticism. The best I can say is that it's neither offensive nor incoherent, and it has also lead me to reevaluate the source material.
I hate to poke at a sacred cow here, but I can't say that all of Crystal's failures originate from poor adaptation. I've been going back to compare it to the original manga, and found that many of Crystal's flaws of story and characterization do originate there. I still consider Sailor Moon a good manga, but many of the things that I loathe in Crystal are just amplifications of content present in the original. The romance is bland, the story generic, and the Senshi's well-known personalities were mostly invented by the 90s anime. Queen Metalia's personality is about as detailed as her smeary stain of a character design in both versions. Worst of all, Sailor Moon has always been about Usagi's relationship with a man, not her friends. In that respect, Crystal is depressingly faithful.
This raises a few questions, however – what makes this all stand out so much in Crystal? I do think that this material works better in Naoko Takeuchi's manga. There, the narrative seems more “archetypal” than “generic,” and this fairytale-like quality allows me to excuse much of what I've condemned in Crystal. I've already gone over how the difficulty in adapting her art style to motion resulted in Crystal's tremendous trouble in keeping characters on-model, and I think something similar is going on between Takeuchi's panel arrangements and Crystal's pacing. She rarely includes backgrounds, which lets her skip between locations and time periods without the reader noticing. You can't do this in film, where progression through a work is depicted temporally rather than spatially. (You read further in a manga by moving your gaze across the pages. Films progress independently of your gaze. Comics progress only as quickly as you read them, while films occupy a fixed amount of time. Thus, they have different mechanisms, limitations, and freedoms when it comes to space-and-time relationships.) In the Sailor Moon manga, you don't notice that a scene's location has shifted from the moon to Earth without warning, since you're fixated on the progression of Princess Serenity escaping her guardians to visit Prince Endymion. You don't know how much time has passed since Serenity's departure from the moon and her arrival on Earth – all that matters is that the two ideas connect. In film however, you have to at least make nods to this connective tissue, or else the viewer will be taken out of the work. As a consequence, filmmakers have developed an extensive repertoire of tools to signal changes in location, chronology, and even pacing to viewers. You'd need to add a ton of this stuff to Sailor Moon Crystal, since the original manga is littered with complex or ambiguous shifts in space and time. They try, (still frames are a simple and cheap way of signaling flashbacks) but fully adapting the floaty, atemporal quality of Takeuchi's manga was beyond either the showmakers' ambitions or abilities.
In terms of story, I consider the Sailor Moon manga an important relic of the 90s. It's become somewhat dated as sentai-style magical girl shows became more prominent, and many of Sailor Moon's once-groundbreaking elements became staples of the genre. Now we're flooded with long-running derivations like Pretty Cure!, mature genre-benders like Puella Magi Madoka Magica, and seasonal installments like Yuki Yuna Is a Hero. There's no denying that the premise of “teenage girls become color-coded superheroes” has seen a lot of wear over the past ten years. Sailor Moon seems like a casualty of that expanding market. Better writers arrived on the scene after Takeuchi (some adapting her own property) and they've colored our expectations of her signature work.
In terms of feminism, the popular conversation has diversified since Sailor Moon's release. Back then, its poppy, dude-centric image of female empowerment stood out more, especially within the landscape of children's entertainment. Now, even family media has "Strong Female Characters" galore for the English-speaking world, and Sailor Moon is less exceptional. It doesn't help that Crystal has so far dulled the manga's most progressive elements, like its positive depiction of adolescent female sexuality. The much-vaunted lesbian couple doesn't even appear until the third arc. Sailor Moon is an important work in the history of women's anime, but its feminism works best only according to specific lenses and with heavy contextualization. Crystal finds reproach for simultaneously trying to sell itself on feminist credentials and downplaying them in an effort to play to a broader audience. The theme song expounds: “Ah, even for girls, certain pride can't be given up-- / the determination to not put their fates in princes' hands, / but to fight for themselves,” but they've deviated from the manga to make the Senshi's corresponding "princes" dependent characters for the girls.
This episode was also ugly even by this series' low standards. At one point they try to animate Sailor Moon twirling a staff but it just looks like she's wobbling it back and forth between two frames. Queen Metalia is a blob of purple CG. I miss the different settings and use of color, for as little as they were present. The experience fails in pretty much every way.
Sailor Moon Crystal is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
Gabriella Ekens studies film and literature at a US university. Follow her on twitter.
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