Life, The Mooniverse, and Everything: The Sailor Moon Newbie Retrospective
A two-year-long journey through a twenty-year-old classic.
A couple springs ago, when Viz announced they’d be releasing the entirety of Sailor Moon in the U.S. with a new uncut(!) translation, I jumped on the opportunity to finally watch one of the all-time greats of the magical girl genre. And hey, as long as I was there, I figured I might as well write about it, too!
I loved Sailor Moon‘s directors’ later works (especially Ikuhara of Utena fame), and I knew a little about the series itself, but I really had no idea what to expect—whether I’d like it, or find it too childish, or get trapped in Filler Episode Hell. What followed were 24 months and 100 posts of quips, critiques, praises, giggles, feels, and flails, as I slowly fell in love with the cast, the stories, and the silliness. It was easy to see why the franchise had so many long-time fans. And, as the final credits rolled, I counted myself among them.
It’s been a fun journey, but now that I’m sitting at the destination, I wanted to take a moment to look back, talk about the series as a whole, and maybe reminisce about the characters and moments that stuck with me the most. I, er… got a little carried away, and the post ballooned like a Dead Moon Circus tent. I’ve done my best to break it up with my favorite Sailor Moon GIFs as is tradition.
Fly Me to the Sailor Moon
(And let me dance among the Sailor Stars)
Because I’ve already spent so many words talking about individual episodes and seasons, I’ve opted to keep this little series review mostly spoiler-free and to the point, focusing on the main highlights both good and not-so-much.
I think what impressed me most about Sailor Moon is how well the series holds up despite its age. The animation is limited but bright, using smart direction and expressive faces to make up for the relative lack of motion, so that it generally feels like the camera is active even if the frames often aren’t. Add to this some great voice work and a distinctive soundtrack that improves over time, and while Sailor Moon‘s production values rarely blew me away (although they still did on occasion), it was clear that the people making the show approached it with affection and energy. It still looks pretty darn good even after all these years.
None of which would matter if the show’s subject material was horribly dated, but Sailor Moon is also cheerfully feminist and remarkably progressive, which allows (most of) its stories to work for a modern audience as well. The series presents a wide variety of flawed, sympathetic, capable female characters (none of whom entirely fit traditional ideas of femininity) and celebrates them for their unique strengths and interests.
Better still, it lets those girls fight with traditionally masculine and feminine “weapons,” sometimes defeating enemies by punching them in the face, other times saving them through communication and empathy. It also does some nice things with gender and sexuality, featuring canonical queer and genderfluid characters in a by-and-large positive light (and giving some of them happy endings, too!). It’s not always perfect (the show has a poor track record with body issues, for example), and sometimes it’s a little on-the-nose, but overall Sailor Moon‘s messages of acceptance and respect still resonate 20 years later—and outshine many newer series, in fact.
While the series does a great job with its friendships and queer romances, it stumbles more often with its hetero ones, focusing too much on tired cliches and bad shojo romance tropes. Characters fight over boys, rage with jealousy, refuse to communicate, and ignore consent (kissing the accidentally drunk girl, boooo).
To be fair, most of this happens early and drops off by about halfway through Sailor Moon R (Season 2). The Sato-directed episodes (Season 1 + The Makai Arc) also at times seem to be aware of and directly addressing these issues, slowly moving the characters away from their unhealthy behavior and towards a greater understanding and respect for their loved ones’ needs rather than just their own. And don’t get me wrong, some of the little side romances are fabulously written, too! The problems are still there, though, especially the overused jealousy subplots, and serve as one of the major pain points throughout the series.
Sailor Moon‘s other pain point has nothing to do with story beats and everything to do with structure. Simply put, it’s too long, and this creates a number of small but progressively more noticeable problems.
The first is the most obvious: a lot of “monster of the week” battles and episodes that have little to do with the overall plot. A lot of these episodes are valuable, developing characters and relationships through heartwarming or hilarious one-off stories so that the dramatic moments hit harder, and I will defend this “filler” to the death as one of the things that makes Sailor Moon so darn charming in the first place. But the sheer volume of them does cause the story to drag and repeat itself, too. I can’t imagine trying to binge-watch Sailor Moon. Two episodes a week was about perfect for me, I think.
The more detrimental issue with the length, though, is the lack of continuity. I think a lot of this comes from the shifting staff—Sailor Moon goes through three series directors along with multiple writing staff changes, which can lead to redundant character or thematic beats and individuals backsliding in terms of growth (some of it’s realistic, but some of it just seems like a new director/writer not knowing what to do with the story).
This also means that, whenever the director changes, a lot of the little elements built into the story—like the supporting cast—all but disappear. So that budding romance between one of the guardians and a recurring character? Gone, never to be mentioned again! It only really causes issues twice (during R and Stars), but it means there’s always that uncertainty when beginning a new season, as if you never know when the creators might hit the “reset” button and all those subplots you enjoyed will disappear forever.
But despite the disjointedness of the entire series, and despite the finale being something of an anticlimax (due in large part to those continuity issues), Sailor Moon is still, I think, a really excellent long-running magical girl series, well deserving of its title as a “classic.” At its best, it’s a warm, optimistic, and deceptively smart coming-of-age story, touching on all the major issues of adolescence—personal identity, responsibility, friendship, romance, empathy, the expansion of one’s world and role within it—with humor and heart.
It’s packed with lovable protagonists, sympathetic villains, and magnificently goofy comedy (the creators really lean into the inherent absurdity of the monster fights, much to the show’s benefit). The story arcs take a while to build but usually lead to tense, resonant finales, and the series even occasionally flirts with outright artistic or thematic brilliance (particularly during portions of S and SuperS).
While I’d be hard-pressed to recommend it to an adult who’s not already an anime fan (it’s very much a YA project, and very much embedded in its magical girl/shojo genres), I think it’s still a great show for kids and young teens, full of positive messages about balancing compassion with confidence and coming into your own as a young adult.
And, if you’re a grown-up anime fan like me, there’s a lot to take out of this series from a historical angle, particularly in terms of (1) the impact Sailor Moon has left on the magical girl and shojo genres, and (2) getting a chance to see the early work of some of anime’s signature directors. It’s a fun series and in many ways an important one, the kind of show that has left a distinctive mark on its genre, its creators, and its many viewers from all over the world. I’m very happy to say I’m now one of them.
The Phases of the Sailor Moon
With a series this beloved and this dang long, it stands to reason there’s a lot of chatter about “best of”—best seasons, best characters, best episodes, and so on. That’s, uh, not what this is. These are just personal favorites: a loving look back at the series and the people and moments that left the greatest impression, either through laughter, tears, or a little bit of both. Hopefully you’ll find some moments in here that will leave you smiling all nostalgic-like, too.
The obligatory season hierarchy! I’m cheating a little and splitting some seasons into parts. It’s my list. I can totally do that.
1. Sailor Moon S: The original retrospective is here. Hands-down my favorite season, packed with enough character development, new cast members, and well-timed plot points to justify pretty much every episode. Director Ikuhara (Utena, Mawaru Penguindrum, Yurikuma Arashi) was confidently in the driver’s seat for this one, and it shows in the strong visuals, ridiculous sight gags, nuanced conflicts, and thematic cohesion, leading to a finale that hit all the harder because of its willingness to acknowledge trauma and loss. Great, thoughtful, hilarious, emotional stuff.
2. Season One, Part 2 (Zoisite & Kunzite): It took Series Director Sato (Princess Tutu, Aria) most of two cours to find his groove, but once he did Sailor Moon went from being a mildly enjoyable weekly blogging venture to an engaging, smart, and frequently hilarious series I looked forward to each week. The Seven Great Youma Arc particularly stood out, as it introduced some of my favorite supporting characters (Reika! Rhett! Ryo! Teddy!) and featured some of my all-time favorite episodes both silly and serious. Plus, Zoisite and Tuxedo Mask sniping at each other? Priceless.
3. Sailor Moon SuperS: The original retrospective is here. While SuperS featured some of SM’s most maddening episodes and a loooong stretch where nothing plot-related happened, it also had the best Big Bad, best minions, best visual motifs, best monster battles, best finale, and an excellent exploration of adolescence, change, and the price of eternity. It was also, I think, my favorite season to write about, because there was so much going on (both positive and negative). I appreciated SuperS‘s willingness to do something different than what had come before, even if it didn’t always succeed; and it pretty much always evoked some kind of emotion out of me, even if it wasn’t always a positive one. I’ll take that over a season that leaves me saying “meh” any day of the week.
4. Sailor Moon R, Part 1 (The Makai Tree): Sure, it’s pure filler, but it’s really good pure filler, dang it! This little arc served as something of an epilogue for Season One’s ongoing conversations about love, as well as a prologue for the Moonies’ Super Friendship Powers. Ail and An were likable brats who went through gradual, meaningful growth, and their arc set the stage for the long line of “villains” who would come to understand compassion and respect thanks to the scouts. What can I say? It just worked for me.
5. Sailor Moon R, Part 2 (Black Moon Clan): The original retrospective is here. To me, this arc always sounds fantastic when I summarize it; it just wasn’t very well done in practice. The central plot is quite strong, and the Black Moon Clan are (for the most part) compelling, sympathetic antagonists. But the character episodes tended to retread a lot of ground from the first season, the smaller cast led to limited (and stale) interactions, and Chibiusa was insufferable for a good portion of it. I remember almost nothing from this season outside of the main story line, Saphir being a precious cinnamon roll, and one very weird filler episode. That lack of memorability is the main reason it’s as low as it is.
6. Sailor Stars: The original retrospective is here. I would have enjoyed Stars a lot more if it hadn’t been the final season, and I’m forever bummed Director Igarashi (Ouran High, Star Driver) didn’t have a chance to do a movie or another original arc so he could build on the confident voice and sense of purpose he finally brought to the last few episodes. Ultimately, as with R, I find myself remembering very few specifics—but unlike R, I finished this one a few weeks ago, not a year and a half ago. It slots lower because of that.
7. Sailor Moon, Part 1 (Jadeite & Nephrite): If I hadn’t been blogging about it, there’s a decent chance I would have dropped Sailor Moon during the Nephrite episodes. The show stalled out badly here, trapped in interactions that relied too heavily on repetitive bickering (Usagi/Rei, Usagi/Mamoru), unable to introduce new characters or move its current ones forward, and stuck with a minion who was so, so dull. The Nephrite/Naru romance does, fortunately, mark the show’s first foray into character complexity and moral uncertainty, and is really the moment when Sailor Moon goes from being a decent kids’ show to a great YA series. I’m glad I stuck with it, but the early episodes don’t make it easy at times.
To keep this from getting out of hand, I limited myself to two(…ish) from each season, and I didn’t review any lists or summaries. Instead, I trusted that my memory would hang on to the ones that were worth hanging on to. Also, I’m using my own episode titles, because I have no idea what the real ones are at this point.
- R: “Lunchboxes Bring All the Boys to the Yard” (Makoto’s crush on An) and “Le Morte d’Saphir.” Although y’know, the R episode that sticks out most clearly in my memory? The one with the damn dinosaurs. Stupid dinosaurs.
- S: This was impossible. I juggled about half the season before finally cheating and settling on four: The back-to-back one-two punch of Makoto/Haruka and Ami/Michiru bonding, the absurd masterpiece that is Episode 117, and the big Episode 125 Climax. These together neatly summarize what made S so great: New character dynamics forwarding individual growth; a strong balance between off-beat comedy, action-packed tension, and punches to the heart; and a willingness to touch on difficult subjects of salvation and sacrifice, allowing for more bittersweet conclusions. Plus, I mean, let’s be real: No moment in Sailor Moon history can or ever will top Professor Dad and the Witches 5 playing Twister.
- SuperS: “Highway to the Amazone” (The Amazon Trio) and that stunning season finale. There were some other great episodes this season (“Take My Dance Dance Revolution” certainly comes to mind), but these were two of (if not the) best episodes of the entire series, so, as with Season One, it’s really no contest.
- Sailor Stars: “Dancing with the Sailor Stars” (Iron Mouse) and… oh, “Sailor Star-Crossed Lovers” (HaruMi’s gambit), I s’pose.
Favorite Everything Elses
Just a little fangirling for the road.
Inner Guardian: I’m sure you are all just SHOCKED to learn that the answer is Ami. Honorable Mention goes to Minako, who grew on me a whole lot over the course of the series, and probably has the most complex, complete character arc out of everyone.
Outer Guardian: Hotaru. Honorable Mention to the other three. Don’t make me choose just one, you jerks.
Supporting Player: Tuxedo Mask. I ended up liking Mamoru all right, but I freaking loved that dapper, rose-slinging dork in the top hat. Honorable Mention to my other favorite doofus, Kumada “Teddy” Yuuichirou.
One-Off: Rhett Butler! I mean. Obvs. Honorable Mention: For whatever reason, I really loved that little samurai girl from SuperS.
Monster of the Week: Pooko The Balloon Lady, a.k.a. The Best Thing That Ever Happened to Sailor Moon. Honorable Mention: All of her ball-themed relatives. Special shout-out to the one who got deflated by Tuxedo Mask’s rose.
Minion: One for each season! Zoisite, Saphir, Mimete, Fish’s Eye, and…uhhh…Iron Mouse, I guess. For her final episode if nothing else. Honorable Mentions to Esmeraude, Professor Dad, Eudial, and Tiger’s Eye.
Big Bad: Nehelenia (SuperS only; I wasn’t a fan of her Stars arc). Honorable Mention to Galaxia, who had a good story even if it wasn’t executed as well as it could have been.
Friend ‘Ship: Can I just say “Usagi and all of the inner guardians”? Her Friendship Powers were a thing of beauty. But if I have to pick just one, I really loved Usagi/Minako. Outside of the main cast, I gotta give some Honorable Mention love to my Ami/Mamoru brOTP, Chibusa & Hotaru, and the Siren/Crow “rivalry.”
Hero ‘Ship: He may have been written out of the show, but Ami/Ryo will live on forever in my heart! Honorable mentions to Haruka/Michiru and Luna/Rhett Butler (sorry, Artemis).
…And Ami/Makoto, the non-canonical ‘ship that dances joyously into the sunset.
Villain ‘Ship: You’d think the answer would be Zoisite/Kunzite, but you’d be wrong. It’s Tiger/Fish. Zoisite/Kunzite are totally Honorable Mention, though, no need to worry about that.
Biggest Laugh: I’m not sure I ever laughed harder than I did during the Jadeite Showdown when Tuxedo Mask stepped up to actually fight for once, circled Jadeite all dramatically… and then fell into the ocean. In fact, I’m still laughing about that. Honorable Mention goes to Professor Dad locked out of his house dumping bags of chips into his mouth while two talking cats discuss Moonie Business right in front of him. This show truly was a gift.
Biggest Gasp: The SuperS finale. Too much beautiful art and animation for me to take. Honorable Mention to Beryl executing Zoisite (ZOISIIIITE!). I knew it was coming, but it still shocked the hell out of me.
Most Feelings: The Amazon Trio’s last episode. Honorable Mention to pretty much everything with Professor Dad and Hotaru. My heart forever breaks for that family.
And I’m all out of likes to like! I reckon now’s as good a time as any to doff my top hat, swoop my cape, and vanish into the rose-petal-strewn night. As I said in my Stars finale, through all the highs and lows, writing about Sailor Moon these past two years has been a blast. It’s also been a learning experience, as it helped me find my bloggin’ voice, get used to a regular schedule, and meet and chat with a lot of seriously awesome people along the way. So thanks for hanging out with me, and I hope to we’ll be able to flail over great shows together in the future, too!
I leave you with my all-time favorite Sailor Moon gif. Moon Prism Power—signing off!
Want more stories like this? Become a subscriber and support the site!
Dee is a nerd of all trades and a master of one. She has bachelor’s degrees in English and East Asian studies and an MFA in Creative Writing. To pay the bills, she works as a technical writer. To not pay the bills, she devours novels and comics, watches far too much anime, and cheers very loudly for the Kansas Jayhawks. You can hang out with her at The Josei Next Door, a friendly neighborhood anime blog for long-time fans and newbies alike, as well as on Tumblr and Twitter.
—The Mary Sue has a strict comment policy that forbids, but is not limited to, personal insults toward anyone, hate speech, and trolling.—
Have a tip we should know? [email protected]