Review: Sailor Moon: Crystal, Season 3 Episode 1

Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon: Crystal, Episode 27: “Infinity, 1: Premonition.” I hope that’s enough nouns for you. Toei Animation, April 4, 2016.  24 minutes.  Available on Crunchyroll.

Sailor Moon: Crystal has just begun its third season. Closely based on the Sailor Moon manga by Naoko Takeuchi, Crystal is in a sense, a remake of the anime that began airing in 1992, but hews much more closely to its source material. That’s not to say that Crystal doesn’t take a few liberties; in particular, in its first arc, it fleshes out some interesting backstory at which the manga only hints, and it also makes nods to the old anime with the transformation sequences and hammy catchphrases. But for the most part, a person could follow Crystal with a copy of the manga in hand and watch the show reproduce the comic almost panel by panel.

Now I have to interrupt myself to do something awkward: coming into this story in its third arc, I have to spoil it for the half of you unfamiliar with Sailor Moon, and bore the other half by telling you what you already know. Bear with me, and I’ll make this brief: these schoolgirls find out they’re reincarnations of semi-divine warriors who guard the solar system from invading monsters, and then they fight monsters.

Boom. That was relatively painless. Anyway, there are five main “sailor senshi” (variously translated as soldiers, scouts, or guardians), though a bunch of others eventually show up. They’re all named after planets, except Pluto (zing!), and the story is divided into five arcs, during which they fight different monsters.

I was quite enthusiastic about Sailor Moon: Crystal when it first began, and I wrote a glowing review of the first arc on another site, but my passion cooled and my opinion almost reversed itself during Crystal‘s second, “Black Moon,” arc. At the time I wrote that review, I was diving headfirst into the Sailor Moon mythos; I had recently acquired a complete set of Kodansha Comics’ wooden yet exhaustive translation of the manga series, and Viz had released the first two seasons of the 90s anime, uncensored, to iTunes. So when I first reviewed Crystal, I was getting my bearings and was greedy for any and all Sailor Moon stuff. On top of that, I was struck by Crystal’s slick design.

To give you an idea of what I mean by that, let me make a comparison. First, here is what is probably the most striking image from the manga. I believe this is originally from an art book, but the Kodansha Comics release prints it, in full color, as a pinup at the beginning of volume 6, which, by coincidence, is where season 3 of Sailor Moon Crystal begins:

Go on, guess.
Super Sailor Moon hangs with her posse.

This image shows both Takeuchi-sensei’s skill and her limitations. The character designs are highly stylized, to the point that if they weren’t color-coded, you wouldn’t know who was who. They have almost the same face, and they have the exact same Barbie doll figure. Even the five-year-old (she’s not literally five, but still) looks like a miniature version of the older girls, except with a larger head. In fact, if you didn’t know, you couldn’t guess the age of any of these characters. Sailor Moon is supposed to be fourteen or fifteen here. One of the other girls is supposed to be twelve. Go ahead and guess which one that is.

For a contrast, here’s an image of the central cast from the 90s anime:

I mean it.
I already used up my witty caption on the last one, darn it.

This image, probably off the cover of something, is less rough than anything you’d actually see in the show, but in any case, it remains basically faithful to Takeuchi’s design while making some small alterations. For one thing, in this version, Sailor Moon actually looks plausibly like she might be fourteen. In fact, she looks positively stubby in comparison to the willowy mannequin who stars in Sailor Moon: Crystal:

Now with 90% more leg.

You can see that the old anime took Takeuchi’s design and made it more realistic (using that term loosely), whereas the new anime goes the other direction, exaggerating even further until the girls look to be built almost entirely out of arms and legs.

Anyway, the design appealed to me, and Crystal has any number of beautiful visuals. Some still frames are quite lovely:

After all these years, Jupiter is still best sailor senshi.
Lucky bastard.

Sigh. After all these years, Jupiter is still best sailor scout … uh, where was I? Anyway, since the first arc finished, Crystal’s flaws have become more apparent to me. Suffering from a miniscule budget, it features a lot of stiff animation. Although I have a fondness for both its character designs and its overall art style, it lacks the creative environmental designs of the 90s anime. In the first arc, the sailors battle the Dark Kingdom, which in the 90s version consists of monsters peeping and muttering in the dark around sculpted architecture that looks like something out of Lovecraft while the gruesome Queen Beryl slouches on her macabre throne and broods over her crystal ball.  In Crystal, however, the Dark Kingdom is just five people hanging out in a big, empty cave.  Considerably less impressive.

Also, the sailors’ transformation sequences in Crystal, done in CGI in an apparent bid to top the famous transformations of the 90s cartoon, look really awful:

The rewrite to the first arc makes what in my opinion are mostly good moves, at least partly because the fleshed-out backstory puts a new spin on a well-known tale, but then it brings the story back into line with the comic in probably the most awkward way possible, so the side-trip into new backstory ends up being little more than a cheat.

The second arc, “Black Moon,” stays rigidly in line with the comic and fixes none of Crystal’s flaws. The animation is still stiff, and the arc drags on interminably, though, to be fair, I had a similar opinion about that arc when I read the manga. “Black Moon” has some of Sailor Moon’s most interesting ideas (time travel, pod people, a tenth planet in the solar system), but never makes full use of them. The old anime altered the story considerably when it adapted this arc, and though I don’t think everything it did was for the best, it improved some things. In particular, it removed some implied incest and replaced it with a much more plausible motive for one of the story’s villainesses. Crystal keeps the incest and makes it, if anything, more awkward and uncomfortable than the comic’s version.

And speaking of awkward, that brings me around to Crystal’s greatest flaw: it’s not funny.

Eleanor Tremeer over at Moviepilot has compiled a helpful collage of screenshots to explain, and after the manner of bloggers, I’ve swiped it. On your left is Sailor Moon: Crystal. On your right is ye olde Sailor Moon:

The two Sailor Moons.

There’s something magical about the 90s Sailor Moon anime.  It has endless rewatchability, in large part because it’s hilarious.  The manga, although it’s comparatively gritty and violent, is still quite funny at times. But the 90s anime dials the funny up to eleven.  Crystal can’t even dial the funny up to where the manga has it.

Some of what Tremeer has to say about the show is downright silly. Complaining that Crystal altered the story slightly so some guys rescue some girls in one scene is simply ridiculous, considering that the 90s anime reinterpreted the efficient and deadly sailor senshi of the manga as bubbleheaded incompetents who get rescued by a guy all the freaking time. And girls also get rescued by guys sometimes in the manga.  This is not contrary to the spirit of the franchise, and I don’t know how she could arrive at the idea that it is.  But she is right about Crystal not being funny.

The visual representation above, comparing the 90s version’s manic humor with Crystal’s comparative dullness could also be reproduced in the voice performance. Kotono Mitsuishi plays Sailor Moon in both the original and the new version. She owns this role, playing it so well that it’s hard to imagine anyone else doing it. In the original, she delivers an athletic voice performance in every episode, releasing innumerable weird noises to keep up with Sailor Moon’s ever shifting facial expressions, going from giggles to grunts to loud sobs in the space of seconds.  In the new version, although she flawlessly reproduces the voice, she simply doesn’t have the same material to work with. Her performance is flat, and we know it’s not from lack of talent.

Although Sailor Moon: Crystal doesn’t have the same over-the-top cartoon humor as the old version, it certainly has jokes. But the timing is off, and the latest episode demonstrates that there are no plans to address this problem. The episode opens with Usagi (Sailor Moon’s alter ego) dreaming of the wedding bells at her marriage to her dreamboat boyfriend Mamoru, but then awakens to discover it’s actually the sound of her alarm. She meets Mamoru in the park and tries repeatedly to steal a kiss, but is repeatedly thwarted by Chibi-Usa (the alter ego of Chibi Sailor Moon, the aforementioned five-year-old). In the comic, it’s a funny scene. It could have been funny in the anime as well, except the whole sequence has a plodding, deliberate pace that drains away the humor.

One thing the show has certainly improved, and it deserves a mention: the third arc of Sailor Moon: Crystal has brand new transformation sequences that have done away with obvious CGI. They look really, really good.  All of the five main sailor senshi transform in this first episode, and the whole scene is quite impressive:

Although the story of this episode follows the first half of the first chapter of the sixth volume (whew!) of the manga very closely, it makes a few worthwhile alterations. The story opens with news that schoolgirls from an elite academy are randomly mutating into killer monsters, which the newsman explains away as being caused by some sort of devolution (which the anime subtitles translate as “reversion,” but which the manga translates more precisely as “atavism”).  One of these girls mutates in front of our heroines while they’re ending their usual afternoon slack-off at the arcade. They immediately transform into their sailor senshi forms (in front of everybody, apparently) and fight the monster off.

The sequence adds some clever details not in the comic.  The scene of the girl mutating involves a sequence in which a black egg-like blob latches onto the girl, reminiscent of some early scenes in Shugo Chara! Sailor Mercury activates her high-tech goggles with the heads-up display to scan the monster, and she finds that the girl is trapped inside of it.  This helps explain the relationship between the monsters and their hosts, something the comic doesn’t make clear.

Though much of it will no doubt be recycled in future episodes, the whole sequence has good animation overall.  It does appear that Sailor Moon: Crystal is trying to address the problems it had in earlier seasons.  If only it could figure out how to tell a joke, it would be great, but unless that happens, it must remain forever the inferior of its predecessor.