‘Sailor Moon Crystal,’ Season 3: The Final Verdict

Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon Crystal, Episodes 34 to 39. Toei Animation, 2016. Approx. 144 minutes. Available on Crunchyroll.

Viz Media has finally, after taking its sweet time, produced the full, uncensored release of the first half of Sailor Moon S, the 1990s anime series that roughly follows the third, “Infinity” arc of the Sailor Moon manga. So now seems to be a good time to finish up our review of the third season of Sailor Moon Crystal, which came out this year and follows the same arc.

Character design comparisons: manga, 1992 anime, and Sailor Moon Crystal, swiped from Impact Books.

I had previously been reviewing Sailor Moon Crystal an episode at a time, but I stopped because … well, frankly, I got bored. Hey, it’s not like anyone pays me for this.

And truth is, there’s little to say. You want to know what the third season of Sailor Moon Crystal is like? Go read the manga. With variations almost not worth mentioning, the cartoon is a frame-by-frame retelling of the comic. (I like saying “cartoon” and “comic” when discussing anime and manga because it triggers the weeaboos.)

Getting the gang back together.

Sailor Moon Crystal had to happen. Sailor Moon is, after all, one of the biggest international pop culture franchises of all time, one that still does profitable business more than twenty years after it came into existence. The original anime takes a lot of liberty with its source material, so a new anime that hews closely to the manga is an obvious next step in the franchise’s development. But, unfortunately, it in the end looks more like an inevitability than like a worthwhile project: Toei apparently assumed that it was an automatic success and didn’t give it the funding or attention it deserved.

Let us for a moment take off our fanboy goggles and appraise the whole franchise as dispassionately as possible. We instantly see a lot of flaws. The manga-ka who created the series, Naoko Takeuchi, is a one-hit wonder who has never produced another successful title, and when I read Sailor Moon, I think I can see why. The artwork is sketchy and hard on the eyes. The scene transitions are abrupt and disorienting. Takeuchi-sensei takes the complexities of shoujo manga layouts to a new level, and not in a good way: she uses large panels for close-ups of characters’ faces, but then wedges action shots into tiny corners. It is also plain that she pantsed the entire story, doing her worldbuilding as she went.

The sailors have probably the vaguest superpowers in the history of superheroes. They have some kind of wire-fu skills, though they don’t seem to have the super-strength or hardened bodies to go with them—which means they should be maiming or killing themselves if there were any consistency. In the early chapters, it’s passably clear what each can do: Sailor Mars is a living flame thrower, Sailor Jupiter shoots lightning bolts, Sailor Venus has an electrified whip-chain, and Sailor Mercury creates fog … and everyone is too polite to tell her that her power is hella lame. Sailor Moon has what is basically a magic-powered chakram, which is a razor-edged Frisbee in case you don’t know (and yes, that’s totally a real weapon).

But then they start powering up, and after that it’s impossible to say what the hell they’re doing. Sailor Moon leaves behind her deadly Frisbee and instead fights by pointing a wand and shouting random strings of English words. There’s no way to know what her spells do, except kill stuff.

The action is often vague, so it’s hard to tell where the characters are or what’s going on. Some scenes are nearly indecipherable. Sailor Moon Crystal reflects this difficulty; especially in its first arc, it sometimes depicts characters floating in the air, apparently because the animators simply didn’t know what else to do with them to make the scenes work. This in spite of the fact that flying is not, apparently, one of the the sailor scouts’ superpowers. Or at least I don’t think it is … is it?

But despite its flaws, something else becomes clear to me as I read the series: Sailor Moon is a bottomless well of creativity. Takeuchi-sensei throws everything onto the page; some of it works, and some of it doesn’t, but she’s never out of ideas. Reading Sailor Moon is like watching a fever dream, or like directly observing the work of a muse without the medium of an artist in between. Most every motif (“trope” in internet-speak) in the magical girl genre is present in Sailor Moon, even if undeveloped. In fact, when I read the manga’s fifth arc, I said to myself, “Holy cow, it’s Madoka.” Even the most innovative magical girl series of the last two and a half decades ultimately gets its ideas from Sailor Moon. I like to say that Sailor Moon is the Lord of the Rings of magical girls: it influenced everything that came after it, and nothing that postdates it has entirely escaped its shadow.

Comparison of Sailor Moon character designs, from left to right: Naoko Takeuchi’s original, Kazuko Tadano’s 1992 version, and Yuki Sako’s from Crystal, courtesy of sailorcrisis.

The old Sailor Moon anime from the 1990s took a lot of liberties with the story, some good and some bad. The anime indulges in obvious pandering: it adds yaoi to titillate fangirls, and it adds panty shots to titillate neckbeards. The suicide scene that climaxed the first arc was too hot for television, so it came out, much to the story’s detriment. The fourth series, Sailor Moon Super S, departs considerably from the manga and tries desperately to appeal to a younger demographic to shore up flagging ratings.

Some changes in the anime, however, are improvements. Although the anime gays things up and obsesses over girls’ underwear, it otherwise tones down the manga’s sexual content: Chibi-Usa’s disgusting Electra complex gets replaced with a more plausible motivation, and the unneeded bedroom scenes come out. The characters also get a lot of backstory and development that the manga simply doesn’t have time for … though, speaking of inappropriate sexual content, that backstory involves a hell of a lot of jailbaiting. Still, the characters become fully realized.

Also, they’re adorkable.

Things you won’t see in Sailor Moon Crystal.

The old anime, for all its flaws (we could list many), has a certain magic. It is one of the few things, like the Indiana Jones or Star Wars franchises before they sucked, that I can watch repeatedly without boredom. There’s a lot of inventiveness in the artwork, the subplots, and the zany humor. Even as it deviates from many of the manga’s details, it successfully captures the manga’s vibrancy and creativity. One of its greatest assets is Kotono Mitsuishi, who plays the titular role. Her athletic voice performances are a sight … um, sound? … to behold. She is Sailor Moon, and I am pleased that she reprises the role in Crystal. Nobody else could do it as she does it.


Sailor Moon Crystal is almost the opposite of the old anime. It woodenly replicates the manga’s content, but can’t capture the mood. It has the same material, but lacks the spirit.

It starts off weak. Obviously under-funded, its first season, in spite of some well-arranged imagery and interesting character designs, is exceedingly stiff in its animation. I can’t explain this without video, because when it’s not moving, the show looks great. Most any still frame I could present to you will be perfectly arranged. The people working on this project clearly have the eye of an artist, but they don’t have the budget, or the time, or the something of an animator. You really have to watch it to see what’s wrong with it.

But Crystal does one good thing in its first season: it develops the backstory of the four “Kings of Heaven,” the generals of arch-villainess Beryl. These four in the manga are the former lovers of the sailor scouts from a previous life, a significant fact that gets mentioned but is left unexplored. The development of this backstory is something the old anime could have done but doesn’t, because it’s too busy turning a couple of these villains into gay lovers for no other reason than to give fangirls something to giggle over.

Most bloggers who discuss Sailor Moon fawn over its homosexual content, so I’ll be the one guy to point out not only that the homosexuality is entirely gratuitous (you could give the series a complete gay-ectomy without altering the story, as the original English dub demonstrated), but that the decision to choose beefcake over backstory leaves a significant portion of the Sailor Moon mythos unexplored. Not until Crystal did the relationship between the sailors and the four generals get any development.

The fleshing out of this backstory is, in the end, Crystal‘s one notable accomplishment. Unfortunately, it comes to naught, as the show kills off the villains in the most disappointing way possible in order to drag the story back into line with the comic. From that point forward, its deviations from the manga are insignificant and largely cosmetic. To discuss them at length would be needless pedantry.

The second, “Black Moon” arc, although rigorously faithful to the manga, has one detail I think is especially worth noting:

I am so jealous of that little bastard right now.

There is a sequence in the manga in which Sailor Jupiter, always my favorite character, has a sweet, somewhat romantic moment with a boy named Asanuma. Crystal reproduces this scene, though it lacks the tenderness of the manga’s version and has double the awkwardness.

Good luck, friend.

As far as I can remember, Asanuma never shows up again in the manga, but in Crystal, there’s a still-frame at the end of the “Black Moon” arc in which he tearfully greets Jupiter after she returns from time-travelling and battling hostile alien planets. It’s not a big scene, and in fact it’s on the screen for no more than a second, but I like it anyway because I ship it.

I watched thirteen hours of television just to get to this moment. Now kiss. KISS, DAMMIT!

The third arc, “Infinity,” sees revamped character designs, better animation, greater attention to the humor, and, most especially, redone transformation sequences that eliminate the CGI used earlier.

With the marked improvements in presentation, the third arc is on the whole a strong addition to Crystal. The story, with its mad scientist and evil witches, is more enjoyable than that of the disappointing and interminable “Black Moon” arc, though it suffers from an idiot plot. It is largely driven by the stupid and obnoxious behavior of Haruka, a.k.a. Sailor Uranus. She macks on Sailor Moon and strings her along, but then attacks her without provocation and tells her to stay away. She’s like a lesbian Minmay on steroids.

This is one of those stories in which most of the plot conflict could have been eliminated by the characters simply talking to each other and explaining what they’re doing, as in, “You’re sailor scouts? We’re sailor scouts, too! Wanna kill some aliens?” “Yeah, we’re down.”

Boom. I just resolved “Infinity.”

Getting all Utena up in here.
Uranus or mine?

Sailors Uranus and Neptune get a lot of attention from the fandom. Kicking around the internet, it seems that most people heap praise on them because they’re lesbians, and also because … um … they’re lesbians again. So let me point out that our protagonists in this series are ostensibly soldiers in a supernatural military tasked with defending the Solar System from alien invaders bent on sucking us dry of our precious human energy. On that basis, Uranus in her sporadic, childish, and insubordinate behavior is hankering for a court martial. I still daydream of some new version of the story in which Sailor Venus, the alleged leader of the sailor scouts, dresses her down, as in the following dialogue:

VENUS: So while the five of us were dying in a final stand against the Dark Kingdom, you and Neptune were doing what, exactly? Were you too busy spooning to give us backup?
VENUS: And why did you attack us in the theater? Why didn’t you report to me to let me know about your mission?
VENUS: And why can’t you keep your filthy mitts off the princess? You know I’m in charge of her security detail?
URANUS: Sorry, I kinda got hot for her and lost my head—
VENUS: I will give you three seconds, exactly three bleeping seconds, to wipe that stupid grin off your face or I will gouge out your eyeballs and skull-bleep you.
URANUS: I’m … I’m into that, actually.

Ahem. Anyway, we move on now to the last half of the third season of Sailor Moon Crystal. Episode 34, which is act 33 of the series and episode 7 of the third arc (gyaaahh!!!) is a significant turning point. It should also be mentioned that it is dedicated to the memory of voice actress Yuko Mizutani, who was doing the voice of Sailor Moon’s mother.

The episode begins with the sailors, still under the spell of the witches Cyprine and Ptilol, fighting one another. It’s a decent fight, but it lazily recycles sequences from the episode previous. While this is going on, Hotaru the cyborg girl is having another of her episodes, and Mistress 9, the evil level boss possessing her, begins to awaken. Also, just for the record, I tend to get Mistress 9 mixed up with Kaolinite, the leader of the Witches 5. I have a tough time keeping track of Sailor Moon characters’ names, especially the villains.

Sailor Chibi Moon once again casts Pink Sugar Heart Attack, and it once again fails. She’s batting zero for three with the attack spells. However, Sailor Moon brings the Holy Grail into play, undoes the witches’ spell, and combines the power of all the sailor scouts in order to power up, transforming herself into Super Sailor Moon. This means a new transformation sequence as well as a new attack (Rainbow Moon Heartache!) and like the others in this season, they look good.

The anime belabors the point until it becomes unintentionally funny:

I’m gonna start shouting people’s names at them like an anime character and see what happens.
So I’ve heard.
Yes, we just saw that …
So she’s called Super Sailor Moon, is she?
I’m glad they repeated this because I wasn’t sure what to call her.
Whoa, whoa. Too much information there, Usagi.
Sorry, but could you repeat that? I’m pretty sure I didn’t hear you right the first time.

So anyway, after Sailor Moon’s chalice is aroused and they all become tight (did they use Google Translate for this?), the outer scouts (that’s Neptune, Uranus, and Pluto, natch) reveal their mission: they’re out to stop the reincarnated Sailor Saturn, who has the power to end worlds with her Silence Glaive. She previously appeared during the destruction of Silver Millennium, and she has now reincarnated on Earth in the form of the girl Hotaru, whom the outer scouts mean to kill in order to stop her from awakening to her power—or getting aroused, as the translators would have it.

You’re sitting in the office, pulling an all-nighter as you’re doing a last-minute translation, and sometimes you get bored …

Mixed in here are some flashbacks to the destruction of Silver Millennium. They expand on panels from the manga, and they have exactly the eerie, melancholy feel that they should. The soundtrack also does a good job of setting the tone for this sequence.

Enjoy the silence, mother-bleepers.

However, the outer scouts’ plans for Hotaru get cut short, as Hotaru is possessed by Mistress 9, who attacks Chibi Moon and steals her Legendary Silver Crystal, putting her in a coma.

And then we see more of this:

Can they fly? I thought they couldn’t fly. I’m so confused.

This arc had mostly avoided this nonsense, so I’m surprised to see the sailors once again hovering in midair like the animators don’t know what to do with them. This is shortly after we see Chibi Moon making wire-fu leaps over rooftops, too. Why didn’t she fly instead if she can do that? I don’t get it.

It’s not even like they’re flying, really. It’s more like they go up in the air sometimes and just get stuck there. They don’t fly; they glitch.

And the fanboys rejoiced.

The next episode, “Infinite Labyrinth 1,” is the first of two parts. So this is the first part of “Infinite Labyrinth,” the eighth part of “Infinity,” the thirty-fifth episode, and the thirty-fourth act … damn.

This is the moment Uranus has been waiting for.

This is largely an action episode. The sailors rush into the Death Busters’ stronghold and do battle. The action here is heavily dependent on stock attack sequences, of course, but it looks quite good, and Sailor Moon has one excellent if brief wire-fu scene.

I think she’s getting aroused again!

While the battle is happening, Tuxedo Mask has to sit this one out, as he’s using his magic to keep Chibi-Usa alive until they can retrieve her crystal and her soul from Mistress 9. He is, after all, the designated useless boyfriend. However, though he doesn’t get to fight, he gets to feature in the end credits, which has a catchy new song and a montage dedicated to beefcaking him. It’s hilarious.

This is, alas, funnier than the show’s actual jokes.

By this episode, the translation has really gone weird. There are a lot of typos and a lot of awkward phrases, as if maybe somebody did a rush job.

What you say!!

The story then develops much as you might expect. In episode 36, the sailors continue their invasion of the Death Busters’ stronghold. Sailor Moon and the outer scouts head down to the laboratories where Dr. Tomoe, the resident mad scientist, awaits.

Tomoe gets more backstory here, and it’s expanded from the brief scene in the manga. Like any good mad scientist, Tomoe intends to show them, show them all. His life’s work is to produce a race of cyborg supermen, a goal of which the Death Busters, upon their invasion, were able to take advantage. Kaolinite, whom Sailor Moon recently offed, was originally his lab assistant. In the manga, an alien simply takes over her body, but in Crystal, Pharaoh 90 appears to her and offers her power if she will bow the knee to him.

Kaolinite and Pharaoh 90.

This is a minor alteration, but I think it is a slight improvement. In the manga, the sailors have a decidedly pragmatic approach to protecting the Earth: if you threaten the Earth, you get dead. The old anime softened this considerably, and the new version has also softened it, but in more subtle ways. At the climax of the previous arc, we had a member of the Black Moon Clan redeem himself at the last moment, and in this arc, Kaolinite is not merely a victim of alien invaders, but one who chooses to cooperate with them when tempted, so her death is not a necessary tragedy, but rather her just desserts.

On the other hand, while this improves the story thematically, it arguably does harm to the worldbuilding: Kaolinite has been “vesselized,” which based on what we’ve seen earlier, apparently means that her soul’s been stripped out and devoured and replaced with an alien parasite. If that’s the case, Pharaoh 90 shouldn’t need to tempt her with power, as she’s literally a shell of her former self … or at least I think that’s how it works.

Never mind all that. Internal logic and Sailor Moon don’t mix. In any case, Dr. Tomoe gets to ham it up in this episode, again probably in homage to the 1990s anime:

They said I was mad! Mad, they said! No man can create life!

I’m really impressed with the action sequence in this episode. The characters get to do a lot of acrobatic stuff when Tomoe and his monsters attack them, and it’s quite well-animated, a refreshing change from Crystal‘s generally stiff look.

Super Sailor Moon dodges tentacles. Tentacles and magical girls don’t mix.

Moving into episode 37, “Infinite – Upper Atmosphere” … (I’m getting really tired over here) … the sailors come face-to-face with Mistress 9. During this sequence, they get stuck up in the air again. In the manga, there’s at least a thin excuse: they’re within Sailor Pluto’s “Garnet Ball” spell, which apparently enables them to float. In Crystal, the Garnet Ball dissolves, but they’re still floating. Apparently, in the world of Sailor Moon, if you jump high enough into the air, you can stick.

Hanging out in midair.

Although the last episode looked good, the fights in this one look silly and rushed. They use flying bands of colored light to represent characters’ movements, and there are some big explosions that aren’t all they could be, as if the studio’s time and money are getting tight again.

During the battle, Hotaru’s soul fights Mistress 9 from within. She manages, via fantasy phlebotinum, to rescue the sailor scouts and to return Chib-Usa’s soul and crystal. Not a bad day’s work for a dead girl. Mistress 9’s attempt to take over Hotaru’s body involves some halfway decent body horror.

Start with the eyes and move from there.

There are some well-constructed poignant moments in the sequence as Hotaru heads, apparently, toward death—as in all-the-way-dead this time. There’s a nice moment with Chibi-Usa, again pretty much exactly like in the comic.

Just die already.

Shortly after this, Chibi-Usa transforms into Sailor Chibi Moon, and then she flies off to … wait a minute …

What the … ?!?

Yes, she unambiguously flies. So they can fly. I guess. I dunno, man, I’m so confused. I think the rule is that they can fly only when the story has painted them into a corner they can’t otherwise get out of, or when not flying would mean extra work for the animators.

Seriously, the flying looks lazy, but then again, Takeuchi-sensei frequently pulls the same thing in the comic. What I don’t get is why Chibi-Usa is flying in this scene. The comic just has her jump out a window, and that’s all you see. A few episodes earlier, she was bounding over rooftops like Donnie Yuen, so why is she pulling this Mary Poppins stunt now?

After she joins the battle, she uses Pink Sugar Heart Attack on Mistress 9, and it finally has its effect. I didn’t notice when reading the comic that this is the first time Sailor Chibi Moon successfully casts an attack spell, but now I see that it’s fitting, since she uses it to slap down the enemy who just killed her bestie … also, she’s still flying.

How’s the weather up there?

The episode ends with the gang all back together to fight the final boss. Sailor Moon once again arouses herself to become Super Sailor Moon, and Chibi Moon, never one to be left out or to go away when she’s not wanted, transforms as well, becoming, I kid you not, Super Sailor Chibi Moon. Say that three times fast.

It’s so … so pink!

We move now into the penultimate episode, in which the two super sailors cast their new attack spell, Rainbow Double Moon Heartache. This fails to stop Pharaoh 90, however, who begins to combine with the Earth in order to take it over, so Sailor Moon, who just can’t stop committing suicide, dives headlong into him with the intent of releasing the power of the Moon Chalice inside him.

It pours on the cheese, but everything stays nicely framed.

Crystal here expands on the material in the manga. The manga breezes through all of this in a few panels, but Crystal is loaded with reaction shots and swelling music.

No! My side girlfriend! You killed her!

During the smarmy reactions, the show especially focuses in on Sailor Uranus and delivers a series of flashbacks of her interaction with Usagi earlier in the season, interspersed with images of Uranus angsting over Usagi’s death. This does a little to tie the story arc together and make some sense out of Uranus’s idiotic behavior.

“I just wanted to protect her with these hands,” she says. “That’s all I wanted to do.”

Yeah, I’ll bet. That’s what she told the court, anyway.

Okay, okay, I kid. This line of dialogue actually is in the manga, though in a slightly different location. The manga dedicates about three panels to this, though, so Crystal‘s belabored version is definitely an expansion.

Uh oh.

Then comes the moment we’ve all known was coming since a few episodes back: Sailor Saturn, goddess of death, at last awakens … or maybe she gets aroused.

Whatever. Anyway, here the story again sticks closely to the manga, so you can follow along with the book in hand, which in fact is what I’ve been doing. Saturn has a short transformation sequence when she first appears, and it looks as good as the others this season. She casts the spell Death Ribbon Revolution, apparently in order to destroy the Earth now that Pharaoh 90 is overwhelming it. The imagery here, drawn directly from the manga, is beautifully rendered:

The characters just can’t stop announcing the obvious.

That, of course, brings us into the final chapter, and here is where my play-by-play review ends. Suffice to say, the final episode continues to hew closely to the manga’s storyline. Same climax, same wrapup.

It’s unfortunate that Sailor Moon Crystal got off to such a rocky start. This third season, while still struggling, is a great deal better than what came before it. If it were any other title, I’d probably declare it a success, a reasonably good if flawed magical girl show.

But this is Sailor Moon. It has big boots to fill, and it can’t fill them. Although it sounds in theory like a good idea, Sailor Moon Crystal all too frequently flubs the execution. The images of girls hovering in midair, which I’ve harped on repeatedly in this overlong post, is symptomatic of Crystal‘s primary problem, which is a tendency to take shortcuts, probably due to financial hampering.

I don’t know what the accountants are thinking, but from the fanboy’s perspective, the shortcuts don’t seem to be excusable. Is this not Sailor Moon? Surely Toei had money to throw at this. It’s a perennial cash cow, isn’t it? So why does it look so damn cheap?

The second problem is an uncreative (if pretty) and wooden presentation. The manga bounces around like a pinball, but Crystal prefers to plod. It is perhaps ironic that Sailor Moon Crystal is always at its best when it deviates from its source material: the filling-in of the four villains’ backstories in the first arc, the redemption of a villain in the second arc, and the expanded action sequences and Sailor Uranus’s reaction to the death of Sailor Moon in the third arc. All of these are original to Crystal, and they are also among its best moments.

The third problem, which stems from the second, is that it isn’t funny. Both the manga and the original anime can handle slapstick humor or hand-wringing drama as circumstances require. Crystal can only handle the latter, and even there it tends to overdo it, allowing characters to say the obvious repeatedly until it gets unintentionally absurd. The montage of “Super Sailor Moon!” screenshots above is one example, but I could have easily put together several similar compilations from the season’s most dramatic moments.

These latter two problems together can be summed up as poor pacing.

Other things work well. All of the voice cast is excellent. I like the character designs, both of this season and the two previous. The third season’s character transformations and called attacks are gorgeous and, by themselves, worth the price of admission to a mahou shoujo junkie. The soundtrack is appropriate, if unremarkable, and correctly sets the mood. Individual screenshots, as I think this post adequately witnesses, are well-arranged. I take my screenshots on the fly, and during a typical anime, I have to throw out most of them. For example, in spite of my praise of its action sequences, I couldn’t hardly get a good action shot from Magical Girl Raising Project. By contrast, I can hardly get a bad shot from Sailor Moon Crystal, though the actual movement is often stiff. Even so, in spite of the obviously competent art direction, it lacks the creative environmental designs of its predecessor.

This is a show that is really best for someone who is already a Sailor Moon fan. It makes for a supplement, in some ways likeable and some ways not, to the manga. For the newcomer, however, I would probably recommend the 1992 anime as an introduction to the franchise, as it is probably more accessible to an American audience than the comic is. The comic was my own introduction, but I wouldn’t suggest it to anyone who doesn’t already enjoy shoujo manga.

The old anime is the way most fans outside Japan have been introduced to Sailor Moon anyway. It will probably remain the most beloved version for the foreseeable future, as Crystal certainly doesn’t have what it takes to supplant it.

I will add, though, that the final scene contains a joke that’s actually funny. It took a long time, but Crystal, in its last moments, delivers a well-timed punchline. It’s based on a panel from the manga that’s ineffective because it’s overcrowded, too, so this is one instance where Crystal‘s sense of comedic timing is superior to Takeuchi-sensei’s.

Also, of course, there’s a teaser for the next season. No word on whether there will be a next season, as this teaser is also in the manga. Actually, the manga has more of it. Crystal cuts to black before the reveal.

Anyway, speaking of the next season, as a final note, you know why the infamous Sailor Chibi Moon is so annoying? You really wanna know why?

Because she gets to date a magic pony.

And I don’t.

I am so jealous of that literal bastard right now.