#1 THE classic magical girl show
I have enjoyed many magical girl shows over the years, but I never quite had the time to sit through THE magical girl show. A childhood anime for many animation enthusiasts who grew up in the ’90s and one of the most well-regarded entries in the magical girl genre: Sailor Moon.
This is the quintessential mahou shoujo anime which formed the new template from which dozens of other shows would spring off in the years after its release. Usagi Tsukino is a 14-year-old schoolgirl, not exceptionally smart or talented, a bit of a klutz, but very passionate and good-hearted. After saving a cat from some rascals, the cat speaks up and explains it had been looking for Usagi because she is destined to become a Sailor Guardian, one of the protectors of mankind against the forces of darkness.
The evil Queen Beryl is leading an army of monsters and seeks to harvest enough energy to revive an even greater evil imprisoned by the Sailor Guardians of old. Usagi must foil their plans by battling their monsters and protecting the people that Beryl and her servants target for their life energy. Through her adventures, Usagi begins to meet other girls who share her destiny and she is aided by the enigmatic Tuxedo Mask, an unidentifiable gentleman who sometimes helps the girls, but who has his own agenda and may one day become their enemy instead.
Between their heroics, we get to see the girls in their daily lives as they deal with school, romance, family matters, and develop their friendships with one another. It’s a now-classic formula and Sailor Moon does it exceptionally well.
#2 Endearing heroes
Sailor Moon is a long, looooong show. Its 5 seasons total a nicely-rounded 200 episodes, which is backed up by movies and specials. It might not impress fans of long-running shounen anime, but it’s steep for anybody who just watched Madoka Magica and figures they want to watch through a cornerstone of the magical girl genre next.
This length is put to great use to develop the cast of characters. The Sailors are a diverse bunch, each of them hailing from a different background. Ami is the smartest girl in school; a calm, studious, and supportive friend who figures out many of the mysteries the cast faces. Rei is a passionate shrine maiden with anger management problems, quick to lash out and start arguments, but just as quick to circle around and be the first to help out. Makoto, my favorite Sailor, is a martial arts expert(/hopeless romantic) and perhaps the most useful team member in a fight. Finally, there is the already-established superhero Sailor Venus, whose popularity is so great that there are games, manga, and even anime about her, and who eventually joins up with the rest of the Sailors as well.
The Sailors undergo a lot of character development over the course of all these episodes and movies, a lot of which is afforded a good sense of permanence. There are villain-of-the-week episodes that are technically filler, yet even those tend to pick out one of the girls to star as the main character and undergo some change. Side-characters that are created for these seemingly one-off episodes also have a tendency to return in later ones or even become semi-permanent support characters, with some even ending up as love interests for the sailors in subsequent episodes.
Backing the Sailors up are the two cats Luna and Artemis, both of which became two of my favorite magical support animal things in anime. I especially sympathized with Luna, who has to direct 4/5 Sailor guardians throughout season 1 while Artemis is off directing the one girl that is already a competent superhero. 4 Sailors who can only be said to have average intelligence because Ami is making up the difference.
later seasons expand the main cast with new protagonists that complete the solar system theme we got going on here. They are well-timed and interesting additions to the cast that nicely shake things up just as the show approaches its midway point.
#3 Progressive romance
Romance plays a big role in the story of Sailor Moon and I was positively surprised by how interesting the anime made its romances. While it would have been tempting to have its cast of heroic, cute girls pursue handsome boys, it’s not afraid to complicate the formula.
The inclusion of LGBT relationships is certainly the most prominent result of this. A select few characters have non-hetero relationships, which includes characters on both sides of the good vs evil scale. These characters are also well-developed and don’t lean on their sexuality as the one defining trait to make them interesting.
I also feel that Sailor Moon has some interesting romantic challenges. Sailor Moon R sees a protagonist going through a bad break-up and struggling to cope with the sudden shift in her life and her inability to understand where she went wrong. My favorite episode, however, came in Sailor Moon S, where Rei’s would-be boyfriend Yuichiro mistakenly comes to believe that he has lost his chances with her after seeing Rei together with another boy, only to then catch the boy again with another girl entirely. He becomes furious and wants to give this rival a piece of his mind, only to go too far and sour his relationship with Rei, potentially beyond any point where it can be repaired. Yuichiro was already a favorite side-character of mine throughout the series, so this episode acted as a wonderful pay off to his development up to that point.
As was the fate of many shows of its time, Sailor Moon found itself getting a less-than-ideal localization for Western audiences. Episodes were cut, “troublesome” story developments rewritten, and it was all finished off with a mediocre, albeit nostalgic, English dub.
And English-speaking countries were the lucky ones. I looked up the Dutch dub and it reminded me of edutainment games I played when I was like 6 years old.
Viz Media swooped in years later and remade the whole thing. They got new voice actors with better directing to reprise all the roles, they restored cut content, it’s amazing work and a proper remaster. Sailor Moon used to be a major argument against anime dubbing, but Viz turned that right around and made both audio tracks worth considering.
#5 Fantastic villains
Much of Sailor Moon follows a typical monster-of-the-week formula. Most episodes introduce some generic humanoid monster with some theme relevant to the story of that episode. These are forgettable grunts that are entertaining while they last, but won’t really leave much of an impression on you barring some stand-out examples*.
However, these grunts are always commanded or created by overarching villains that have a lot more personality and time to develop. These are stand-out characters; I constantly found myself discovering a new favorite, only for the villain of the next arc to be even more interesting. Sailor Moon R gives us two aliens who are in a relationship and have come to Earth looking to harvest its energy, but who both fall in love with a human and begin cheating on each other, eroding their trust and putting their mission in danger. Sailor Moon S has a mysterious cult surrounding a mad scientist who is always shown as a shadowy figure with a bright smile, but who has a goofy side to him and goals that may be more human and relatable than immediately apparent.
And who can top Queen Beryl, the evil overlord of the first season hell-bent on reviving the ancient evil imprisoned by the previous generation of Sailor Guardians. All these villains have amazing stories and inspired designs. They are the perfect counterparts to the lovable Sailor Guardians and I was amazed how the show kept finding new directions to take these characters in.
*Those sensitive to racist depictions may want to skip episode 20 of Sailor Moon R, which stars a monster-of-the-week called Avocadora. She is one of few dark-skinned characters in the show and is themed after fruits, making her look like a scantily-dressed island native with a leaf skirt and bananas for shoulderpads. Other dark-skinned characters don’t fare much better, but her episode stood out as particularly questionable.
#6 Apocalyptic backstory & high stakes
What adds even more punch to the already fantastic villains is how well Sailor Moon sells the danger they supposedly pose. Without mincing words, each new season clearly communicates that these are forces looking to fundamentally change the world, if not outright destroy it.
Bad guys looking to conquer the world might not sound revolutionary, but the difference lies in how perilously close they get to succeeding. It’s been a while since I have seen final battles as intense as those of Sailor Moon‘s first season and I was absolutely hooked on Sailor Moon S, the third season, which dedicated hours to hyping up the reveal of a fearsome, world-ending force it referred to only as “The Silence”.
I get why they censored this show. I am grown-ass man and even I am struggling to keep it together here.