How Sailor Moon Crystal Has Failed Me, And What It Could Do Better
This weekend Sailor Moon Crystal officially and finally wrapped up the Dark Kingdom arc in order to begin the next story arc. You’re probably expecting a recap now, right? Well, no. I’m officially dropping the series, and here I offer my long-winded explanation as to why.
This is probably no surprise to anyone who read my last recap of episode 13 (which many of us, myself included, mistakenly assumed would end the Dark Kingdom Arc despite the fact that the manga also ends on a cliffhanger). In fact, one commenter noted, “I don’t think I’ve ever read something that made me feel the writer’s frustration and disappointment so thoroughly.” I didn’t set out to depict my own frustration, but it’s totally true—despite how on board I was in the beginning, I’ve been more and more dissatisfied with the series the longer it goes on, and haven’t even watched this recent episode because it just isn’t fun for me anymore. But it’s also Sailor Moon, which is my favorite thing, so in order to account for the cognitive dissonance of not-liking-a-Sailor-Moon-thing, I’ve pulled out a lot of frustrations I’ve mentioned in previous recaps and fleshed them out here in longer form.
Before we begin: this diatribe (I really don’t know how else to put it, frankly) is intended for those of us who know the franchise fairly intimately, so if you’re just getting started with Sailor Moon and you’re worried about spoilers, Susana Polo has an excellent set of recaps for the original anime to start you off. Also, If you love the crap out of Crystal and don’t understand why anyone would be upset with it, that is wonderful and I sincerely wish you nothing but the best—but if reading someone else’s personal interpretation of how Crystal completely failed to live up to their expectations might upset you, maybe this is not the post for you. I totally wouldn’t blame you. We’ll even keep doing open threads on The Mary Sue if enough people request it so they can talk about the series without listening to me whine about how it’s not working for me.
First of all, let’s go ahead and knock off the most obvious thing that everyone’s complaining about:
I think it’s pretty safe to say that most of us watching Sailor Moon Crystal are in it for the childhood nostalgia and aren’t usually the sort of people who watch anime series upon their first airing. Because of this, there’s been a lot of back and forth about the quality of the animation, with regular anime watchers pointing out that many series have problems with quality control at first and are eventually cleaned up for DVD and Blu-Ray releases (like Sailor Moon Crystal is, as a matter of fact).
However, even for a first run anime it seems like Sailor Moon Crystal is a little sloppier than expected, which many have theorized is due to the reportedly low budget it got from Toei. Despite the franchise’s international fame, it hasn’t always exactly been the ratings bonanza that we’d expect—the original anime’s viewership basically tanked during the last two seasons, and the ratings for the live-action Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon weren’t much to write home about either. However, it still has massive amounts of name recognition, which is mostly likely why Toei decided to release the series as an ONA (online net anime) instead of a regular TV release—they know people will tune in, and by putting it online cheaply, they can use their resources to focus on merchandise licensing instead, both for Crystal and the original series.
Now, this wouldn’t be the most terrible thing—after all, the only reason the original Sailor Moon anime was made in the first place was to capitalize on the success of the Power Rangers formula while targeting a different demographic, and it still managed to create what was overall a pretty compelling story with an unremarkable budget (hello, stock footage attacks!). For the most part, I can overlook poor quality animation when it’s not too distracting. The problem with Sailor Moon Crystal is that it is getting distracting, because the series also has issues with the pacing and quality of its storytelling—which gives you a lot of downtime to criticize all of its visual flaws. So instead of being bored with the episode but acknowledging that it least it looks gorgeous, we get stuff like this.
Speaking of those pacing issues:
Overreliance on the Manga
While the manga is sometimes referred to as the “original” form of Sailor Moon, it was actually being written simultaneously to the anime, and Naoko Takeuchi often struggled to keep up with Toei’s demand for more material. As a result, the two iterations have very different strengths and weaknesses; the anime spends much more time differentiating its characters from one another, but often shoehorns itself into confusingly formulaic plots that are then conveniently dropped once the manga catches up (the role of the Holy Grail and Talismans in Sailor Moon S are completely different, for example, and don’t even get me started on all the weirdness in Sailor Moon SuperS—anime director Ikuhara was basically doing his own thing there). The manga, meanwhile, has a much more streamlined plot and less manufactured relationship drama (Mamoru and Usagi never break up for no reason, and she gets along much better with Rei and Chibiusa, the two most contentious anime portrayals for those who prefer the manga), but tends to focus primarily on Usagi for the first few arcs.
Still, both versions of the story share a fundamentally common aesthetic—the senshi are bright, bubbly, and occasionally silly, but they’re also quite capable of getting serious and laying down a smackdown on their foes. There are jokes and sight gags, but there are also moments of deep emotional resonance and empowering imagery. It’s Sailor Moon is my point, I suppose.
So when it was revealed that Sailor Moon Crystal would reportedly follow the manga more closely than its animated predecessor, expectations were high that the show would be able to faithfully capture the spirit of both originals, combining the condensed narrative of the manga with the strong friendships of the anime. Admittedly most of those expectations were predicated on the assumption that the show would spend its full 26 episode run on the first arc of the manga, but that doesn’t mean it would be impossible to do even in the 13 that the Dark Kingdom got—after all, the actors in the recent La Reconquista musical did an impressive amount of character work in only three hours, and that’s including the time they spent on that weird Ami/Zoisite love story—but we’ll get to Shitennou stuff in a minute.
What we actually got was an almost exact shot-for-shot remake of the manga, save for the small moments where they did choose to deviate (again, we’ll get to that). As I’ve stressed in previous recaps, this does a huge disservice to the dreamlike, spatially vague manga, which works precisely because it is meant to be read rather than viewed. Scenes where the senshi are floating in the air, for example, are easier to overlook in a static medium, because we tend to be more invested in the emotion of a scene—for as long as it takes each of us to individually read it, of course. In a dynamic medium like animation, we’re held at the mercy of the pace that the show sets for us, so Usagi’s long inner monologues and the constant flashbacks and expository scenes hold both us and the characters back.
And, since we’re talking about the characters now:
Lack of Characterization
As I mentioned previously, the original anime has a much stronger grasp of its characters’ personalities and gives them more time to shine individually than the manga does. This doesn’t mean that they’re completely devoid of personality in comic book form, however—it just means that we have to look a little more closely at the details:
This is one of my favorite little moments in the manga because you can really see the different personalities of the senshi shine through—Usagi is panicking, Rei is haughty, Ami’s embarrassed, Makoto is exasperated (and patting Usagi on the head, poor dear), and Minako finds the whole thing hilarious. The comparable Crystal scene is a little different in that they’re all appealing to Minako to hang out with them—which, I’ll admit, is one of the few changes to the manga that I think works very well, given how quickly it sets up an arc for Minako—but if one scene that was the only part of Sailor Moon you’d ever encountered, you’d honestly have no idea what any of the rest of the senshi are like.
Except for Usagi, they’re all wearing the exact same expression (though Makoto’s later changes—to completely match Usagi’s). In fact, they tend to mirror each other pretty exactly in most group scenes, and because there’s barely any dialogue between the four that isn’t entirely centered around how important Usagi is to them, it’s harder to get a read on how they interact with each other—or even with Usagi, save for when the plot requires them to be generically supportive or call her their “very special friend.” Then the show constantly flashes back to the first time they met Usagi to demonstrate that, rather than giving us new moments of friendship. In doing so it both tells rather than shows, and the friendship we’ve been told about is the most interesting thing about them, rather than their own strengths and weaknesses as people.
Unless you think the most interesting thing about them is them being in love with some men we don’t know anything about! Does that sound completely antithetical to exactly to the core themes of Sailor Moon, right down to the lyrics in Crystal‘s opening theme? Because it is—and it’s exactly the mindset the writers of Crystal had, evidently.
Here is the biggest issue I had with the series, my reincarnated elephant in the room—the time Crystal spends (or doesn’t, really) on the shitennou and their “love story” with the senshi. There are people who love these pairings, and though I am not one of them, I’ve even seen versions that treated all the characters with respect as separate, individual people, and I’m totally down for that (like, I think anime!Jadeite and Rei go together like oil and water, but if a well-written fic full of Indiana Jones-style hate-filled sexual tension were to pass my way, I would not say no to that). But both SenShi shippers and critics alike were immensely disappointed by how the relationship went down in Sailor Moon Crystal. You know, mostly because it really didn’t, save for the times when the senshi refused to do their jobs.
So first off, allowing the shitennou to live after every encounter with the senshi when they weren’t supposed to originally has the unfortunate side effect of making the girls less badass. As it is, the senshi spend a lot of time on the ground during Crystal—not counting their introductory episodes, the senshi are helpless for 21 minutes and 54 seconds of the Dark Kingdom arc, compared to only 6 minutes and 29 seconds where they’re actively fighting (As the blogger who compiled this data noted, “You could literally make an entire episode from the Senshi — living warrior goddesses and personal bodyguards to the Moon Princess — rendered completely unable to act by Sailor Moon Crystal.“) But in each encounter with a a shitennou, the senshi are supposed to kill one of them. If they aren’t allowed to do that, and then spend the majority of the series so far getting their butts kicked, then what kind of warriors are they, exactly?
It’s even worse when you find out the reason they kept the shitennou around for as long as they did, according to one of Crystal‘s production staff—it’s because they needed a quick and easy way to differentiate the senshi from Usagi, and they figured a barely-alluded to romance would do that. No, really. Script writer Yuji Kobayashi literally said that in interview printed in the Crystal visual art book (as translated by a fan of Crystal):
Moreover, we have made vast changes in how the Shitennou are treated this time. You know, in the manga they were quickly defeated after they made their debut. Many big fans of the manga or the musicals may already know, the four were deeply involved with the 4 Senshi in their past lives. From the standpoint of already knowing the end, this can’t be separated from the story’s “worldview” (general setting). If they are just wiped out in split seconds, it would be difficult to make the Guardians except for Usagi to stand out (in the story). If there was enough space regarding the number of episodes, I wanted to write the episodes of the interactions between each other in their past lives. But I tried to do what I could to flesh out (this concept) here and there so please look forward to it in future acts.
So rather than put any time or effort into differentiating the senshi’s personalities from one another or giving them more opportunities to bond with Usagi and each other, the writers chose to waste time half-assedly telling us about a past relationship involving a bunch of people who are only barely fleshed out as characters—and I’m not even talking about the senshi right now, I’m talking about the shitennou. They give the four guys all of this attention in the narrative to establish their connection to Mamoru, and at the end of the day, can you describe any of them without dipping into what their original anime portrayals were like? How are we supposed to care about them or the senshi in relation to them when they give us literally nothing but some static visuals of beautiful people looking at each other?
How To Fix It
Despite the fact that I’ll no longer be watching, the universe does not revolve around me, and Sailor Moon Crystal will still be chugging along. That’s fantastic for the people who don’t have the same criticisms as I do and can enjoy the show for what it is; but, if Crystal is ever going to capture the thing that really, truly made Sailor Moon special as a franchise for me, it has to be more attuned to all the characters who aren’t Usagi, both visually and narratively. Yes, that is difficult to do in a smaller amount of time than the anime had, but it absolutely is not impossible, because the manga managed just fine in places where Crystal hasn’t. Change up the stilted dialogue and give each character their own lines that aren’t just a part of a single sentence; make sure that they’re not making the exact same open mouthed face at each other or standing all in the same position (heck, let Rei fold her arms and act better than everyone else once in a while); let them have small conversations with each other that aren’t about Usagi; basically, treat them like they’re important.
However, I have the sneaking suspicion that the circumstances that have made Sailor Moon Crystal so lackluster for me to begin with are probably not going to change. I mean, based on what I remember of the next arc trailer it seems to me like the animators did a better job drawing the gun Chibiusa is holding than they did with her entire face, and given how focused the second arc is on Chibiusa’s relationship to her future parents, I suspect that the senshi are going to get shafted yet again (save for Minako, given how the manga plays out with ). But the good thing about a bad adaptation is that you can always go back to those versions of the story that enthralled you in the first place, often with a better appreciation of how they work as narratives. Sailor Moon Crystal might not be what I wanted, but at least it’s given me that much. Hopefully it’ll still manage to make some people happy, too.