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Sailor Moon Is Darker Than You Think

by Michael Basile,

Sailor Moon is the poster child for the magical girl genre, a genre that's often associated with a younger audience and “less mature” content. But what if I told you this particular magical girl series covered topics like genocide, human experimentation, incest, and many other similar ideas. Today we'll be taking a look at the darker and weirder side of Sailor Moon and why this aspect of it seems to be so often left out of popular discussion.

To understand how Sailor Moon approaches these topics, we first have to take a look at what Sailor Moon actually is in relation to the storied history of magical girls. Magical Girls as an anime genre first came into existence in the late 1960s with shows like Mahōtsukai Sally and Himitsu no Akko-chan, and over the next two decades the genre would slowly accumulate more and more of the magical girl tropes that we know today. While Sailor Moon did draw on many tropes from its predecessors, what made it immediately different was that it also drew heavy influence from the booming tokusatsu franchises of the era like Super Sentai, and so it incorporated many of those tropes as well, such as the concept of a magical girl team with color-coded outfits and dramatic poses.

Sailor Moon's explosive success would lead to it being the one that newer shows that magical girl anime would take influence from, with long-running franchises like Precure, Ojamajo Doremi, and more sporting many of the tropes and aesthetic trends that Sailor Moon codified. As such, an outsider perspective might lead one to think that Sailor Moon would have a similar tone and plot structure as other magical girl anime aimed at an audience of young girls. But that's only part of what makes up Sailor Moon. Alongside the general magical girl trappings, the series also has an incredibly dramatic slant to its overall tone. While drama definitely isn't unknown to the genre as a whole, Sailor Moon REALLY leans into full-on melodrama to conjure up some truly captivating story beats, often crossing boundaries that even a regular anime drama wouldn't attempt.

Take the case of Chibiusa, for example. Chibiusa is the daughter of Usagi and Mamoru from 1,000 years in the future...no that isn't the weirdest thing you're going to hear in this paragraph so strap in. Despite her lineage, Chibiusa has yet to awaken any powers as a Sailor Guardian at that point, and as the story progresses and the battles become more dire, her helplessness and feelings as an outsider become more and more intense. Eventually, she is corrupted by one of the main villains and turned into Black Lady, an older version of herself that's just as powerful as the Guardians she looked up to, and the villain then tricks Usagi into thinking that Mamoru has abandoned her for Black Lady. Yeah I wasn't kidding about the incest, and the manga goes even further with it. Chibiusa's Electra Complex was a notable factor during much of her screen time, and so turning it into a serious plot point at the climax of this arc was a perfect touch in heightening the dramatic tension.

The way that this series doesn't shy away from how flawed and fallible these characters are is the main reason why Sailor Moon can create such a compelling and dramatic narrative. It leans hard into the negative elements of its characters, far more so than many other magical girl series. Yet also shows that they have the power to rise above these faults, allowing them to be both the triumphant magical girl heroes who save the day and the flawed and complicated people who make mistakes and stray onto the wrong path.

This concept sits at the core of Usagi's characters throughout the series. Some of you may remember Usagi being quite the crybaby in the face of evil, but that emotional weakness is well justified by both her character and the events of the story. Being thrust into the role of Sailor Guardian pretty much against her will and having to fight demonic entities trying to kill her on a regular basis, constantly worrying that her friends and family may fall victim to the plot of some extraterrestrial threat and her not being powerful enough to protect them, literally watching her friends die in the line of duty just so she could live on. Yes, main characters die in Sailor Moon. Granted most of them are eventually brought back through some magical resolution, but those deaths are very real for Usagi and affect her just as much as a more permanent death, and the way Usagi develops as a result of these events makes her trauma feel that much more real and impacting.

Drama and trauma certainly are the order of the day with Sailor Moon, especially when we get into the Infinity arc with one of my personal favorite characters, Hotaru, aka Sailor Saturn. Hotaru, having barely survived a fire during her early childhood, is only kept alive by her father's genetic research, which he is secretly using in order to create a host body for a dark entity known as Pharaoh 90, as well as a series of monstrous creatures developed from human experimentation. His obsession with this research leads him down a path of darkness that causes him to become emotionally distant from Hotaru, further worsening the emotional instability she already suffers from as part of her physical condition and being a victim of bullying in her school life.

Eventually, Hotaru is possessed by Mistress 9 and attacks Chibiusa, one of the few people in the series who made a genuine attempt to become friends with Hotaru. Through a constant back and forth struggle of who's in control of her body, Hotaru eventually awakens as Sailor Saturn, far and away the most powerful Sailor Guardian with the power to obliterate entire civilizations. But, rather than use this power to completely end the world as Neptune and Uranus feared, she ultimately uses her tremendous power solely to defeat this arc's main villain, intent on sacrificing herself in the process, which leads into yet another emotional climax for Usagi as a character in her suicidal attempt to rescue Hotaru at the last second. Realistically, Hotaru deserves her own separate video and I simply can't do her justice here, but suffice to say that her character arc forms one of the most dramatic and unhinged sections of this entire story in a way that is completely enrapturing.

Even the imagery and general aesthetic of Sailor Moon conjures up a much darker atmosphere than most other magical girl anime. Villains take on a more ghastly and unsettling appearance than is typical for the genre. The color direction and lighting are filled with extreme contrasts and play heavily into darker tones, and you can even see legitimate bodily harm done to different characters. I mean how often do you see blood in a magical girl series? There is some genuinely disturbing imagery in both the anime and the manga, with the baseline laid by author Naoko Takeuchi, and then exaggerated even further by anime auteurs like Kunihiko Ikuhara. Now I don't want to completely exaggerate the tone of this series. It still has its lighter and fluffier moments to create contrast against the more unnerving elements, but, on the whole, Sailor Moon is notably darker than a lot of other shows from this genre.

So why is it that these aspects of the story are so often underplayed or just completely left out of general discussion when people talk about Sailor Moon? Well, a big part of it is how the anime adaptation is structured. Much like other long-running anime adaptations, the Sailor Moon anime isn't just a beat-for-beat retelling of the manga. Instead, it relies heavily on anime-original material that tends to be much more episodic in nature, especially during the early episodes of the series. For example, Sailor Mercury isn't introduced until episode 8 of the anime even though she shows up in chapter 2 of the manga, and the intervening episodes are entirely built around self-contained episodic stories.

Additionally, a lot of these episodes tend to lean more towards wacky magical girl hijinks that one might associate with stuff like Precure rather than the darker or more somber elements of the base Sailor Moon story, be it fortune telling, radio shows, or even weight loss regiments. The main plotline and the darker elements that go with it are still there, but they're not as dominant as they are in the manga. This isn't to say that this is a bad thing. Many of the filler episodes do a great job at strengthening the core personality traits of the cast and even adding in finer details to make them feel more complex, and, in general, these filler episodes are entertaining to watch on a moment-to-moment level, but it undoubtedly does have a somewhat diminishing effect on the perceived tone of the story. Again, not for the worse.

There's also the matter of Sailor Moon Crystal, which, in theory, was supposed to be a more faithful adaptation of the manga. While that part certainly is true, it's also one of the most lackluster works to ever come out of the Sailor Moon franchise, from a totally barebones summation of the manga's original storyline devoid of a grander artistic vision to unwieldy character models that barely move. While later seasons have gotten better, likely as the result of a different director, it never fully recovered from stumbling out of the gate and, as such, could never be the “definitive” adaptation that some fans might be hoping for.

Then of course there's simply the manner in which Sailor Moon was released in the West. Executive editor Lynzee Loveridge already has an entire article dedicated to this, but, to put it lightly, the exposure of Sailor Moon to the western audience has been a never-ending series of licensees dropping the ball and spilling their spaghetti. Whether it's the heavily censored and off-script DIC dub, a succession of subpar manga releases, or just a general lack of access to later parts of the series, Sailor Moon fans have been getting the short end of the stick for the past two decades, with only Kodansha's recent Eternal Edition of the manga not being marred by some kind of fatal flaw that could turn potential new fans away from the franchise. This might not seem like a huge deal in the era of streaming, but Sailor Moon was created decades before the concept of unlimited Internet access became commonplace, and so tearing down all the misconceptions that have piled up in those decades is a monumental task that might never be fully completed.

Regardless of its past reputation, I hope that anime fans will be able to see Sailor Moon for what it truly is. Yes it's a magical girl series with goofy episodic stories and many of the general tropes we associate with the genre, but it's also a gripping tale of drama, romance, and the deep bonds of friendship that occasionally delves into macabre and bizarre ideas that are exciting and interesting to explore, and this duality is what makes Sailor Moon one of the most fascinating series to come out of the magical girl genre.

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