Anime Review: ‘Sailor Moon S,’ Part 1

Better than it has any right to be.

Sailor Moon S: Part 1 (Season 3). Directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara et al. Written by Sukehiro Tomita et al. Story by Naoko Takeuchi. Starring Kotono Mitsuishi, Michie Tomizawa, and Aya Hisakawa. Toei Animation, 1994-1995. North American re-release by Viz Media and Warner Bros., 2016. 19 episodes of 25 minutes (approx. 475 minutes). Rated TV-14.

Long have I desired to discuss Sailor Moon S with you, mostly because I get to write the word “Uranus” over and over again. I highly recommend that you take every sentence in this essay containing the word “Uranus” and read it aloud, preferably in the presence of someone who doesn’t know the context.

Sailor Uranus turns the power of her perma-scowl on some unsuspecting guardians.

The setup

As a rule, the middle part of a story is the weakest. The beginning gets everything established and introduces the characters, and the ending brings all the payoff, but the middle part, even when essential, can sometimes seem pointless and interminable. Hence the common phrase of book reviews, “saggy middle.”

The Sailor Moon S animated series, which broadcast from 1994 to 1995 in Japan, and which is now becoming available in the U.S. in subtitled but uncensored Japanese thanks to Viz Media, is loosely (very loosely) based on the “Infinity” arc of the Sailor Moon manga. “Infinity” is Sailor Moon’s saggy middle, being as it is the third arc of five. Naoko Takeuchi, the manga-ka of middling talent who bit off more than she could chew when she blended magical girls with Super Sentai as a joke and then had a global phenomenon on her hands, attempts to prop up this saggy middle with fan-pandering gimmicks. As with Sailor Moon generally, the result is more entertaining than it has a right to be.

Like every magical girl series, Sailor Moon is a coming-of-age story. It opens by introducing us to the clumsy and scatterbrained Usagi, who reluctantly becomes a superheroine, learns that she has a tragic past, makes four friends who are also superheroines, and fights over again a battle she previously lost, with the fate of the Solar System at stake. While the first arc deals with Usagi’s past and present, the second deals with her future: thanks to some time-travel phlebotinum, she learns that she’s destined to marry her dreamboat boyfriend, and she meets her future daughter, Chibi-Usa. The fourth arc focuses in on Chibi-Usa and establishes her future much as the second arc establishes Usagi’s. Then the fifth and final arc breaks the heroine by taking everything away.

So the first story deals with friendship, the second with marriage and family, the fourth with dynasty, and the fifth with the fear of loss and failure. What, then, can the saggy middle, the third story, possibly concern itself with?

Takeuchi’s answer: lesbians.

The manga version

In the “Infinity” arc, Takeuchi takes a big risk by dumping new sailor scouts on the audience. The Sailor Moon manga begins as a Super Sentai-inspired band of costumed and color-coded heroines, who in their roles and personalities follow the standard formula of action teams everywhere. As many franchises have discovered, five is the optimal number for such a team, so there are five sailors, plus Usagi’s boyfriend, who’s just sort of hanging around. The second arc then introduces two new heroines: it gives us Sailor Pluto and also ends with Chibi-Usa transforming into Sailor Chibi Moon. But those two play peripheral roles and don’t impinge significantly on the original five-girl team.

The third arc, however, introduces two more sailors, Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune, who pretty much take over the place. Not only that, but with Sailor Chibi Moon hanging around, Sailor Pluto reappearing, and Sailor Saturn showing up by the end, Takeuchi-sensei, in this one arc, gives us enough sailor scouts to make another whole team. The effer’s setting up franchises.

I consider “Infinity” one of the weakest arcs in the manga for several reasons, but I can sum up all of those reasons in two words: Uranus. Uranus makes this weak. Uranus ruins everything. There is too much of Uranus in here. Uranus got all over the place, and it’s disgusting.

Uranus crossdresses as a dude when she isn’t fighting monsters in her sailor fuku, and, like other crossdressing shoujo manga heroines before her, she is inspired by Takarazuka Revue, the all-female theaters in which women who play male roles, play them exclusively. Before Sailor Moon was even a twinkle in Naoko Takeuchi’s eye, Takarazuka had already inspired Oscar de Jarjayes, the fictional heroine of the groundbreaking historical romance Rose of Versailles, which defined the look and themes of shoujo manga and anime for decades to come. Oscar is a noble soul, torn between her vocation as a warrior and her yearnings as a woman. But Uranus is no Oscar: Takeuchi-sensei attempts to give Uranus a similar internal conflict, but flubs the execution and delivers a snippy, vacillating character who appears to be motivated primarily by a desire to get in Usagi’s pants.

And I’m going to tell you right now, Uranus does not belong in her pants. (That’s one you can read aloud.)

On the one hand, Uranus wants to fulfil her mission as a sailor scout, so she fights off the other sailors, who she believes (correctly) would attempt to thwart her. On the other hand, she makes repeated attempts to seduce Sailor Moon. If we read the manga closely, we might therefore interpret Uranus as someone torn between duty and desire, which is in keeping with one of the manga’s overarching themes: the sailors are reluctant heroines who would rather be ordinary teenage girls, but are repeatedly called back into the fray by the chthonic monstrosities that threaten the Earth. Seen in that light, the behavior of Uranus begins to make sense.

However, although the manga teases out these themes with some of the other girls, particularly Sailor Venus, it never does so with Uranus, so a straight reading gives us a character whose behavior is simply illogical. After she’s gone back and forth between attacking Sailor Moon and macking on her, Uranus near the end of the arc delivers a two-sentence explanation of her behavior: “I just wanted to protect her with these hands. That’s all I wanted to do.”

Unfortunately, she apparently doesn’t know the difference between “protect” and “sexually harass.” Frankly, the line comes off like a child molestor trying to justify himself to the cops.

I just wanted to protect her with this tongue. That’s all I wanted to do.

Wait a minute … Moon with Uranus? Butt that’s impossible!

Anyway, Takeuchi-sensei clearly thinks very highly of her creation as well as the source that inspired it. According to Ye Olde Wikipedia, which is never wrong, “Takeuchi stated in an interview that she feels Takarazuka is ‘the maximum level of feminine emancipation. These actress cover all roles of the plays, even the male ones. I was inspired by them to create Haruka.'”

Man, I hope that’s a translation error. Did she really say “maximum level of feminine emancipation”? Scotty! Raise feminine emancipation to maximum!

Also, I have to ask: why is acting like a dude supposed to be “emancipating”? I wouldn’t think that you could emancipate femininity by suppressing it.

But whatever. This is perhaps ironic because Takarazuka Revue was not created to maximally emancipate anyone’s feminines. On the contrary, it was created to allow for romantic stage plays in an earlier, button-down Japan in which a male and female kissing on stage would have been scandalous. Or so I have read.

The Haruka named in the above quote, so you know, is the alter ego of Uranus. In the manga version, she is disguised as a boy, and most of the characters think she’s male for most of the arc. Takeuchi cheats a bit to make this plausible: while in her “male” form, Haruka has a longer face, squarer jaw, and flatter chest. According to the over-analysis of Tuxedo Unmasked, she also switches from masculine to feminine personal pronouns depending on whether she’s in her boy disguise or her sailor costume. When I read through the manga, I was actually fooled into believing she was a hermaphrodite who could switch back and forth from male to female like one of those characters from Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness. But the further I read, the more I began to suspect that I was in error, so I poked around on the internet and read that the Kodansha Comics translation of a particular scene is excessively literal, thereby distorting the intended meaning of the Japanese and leading to my misunderstanding. Here’s a reproduction of said scene, taken from Moon Kitty, which discusses this matter in some detail:

“Uranus is both male and female.” You can read that one aloud also.

At least according to the internet, by “both male and female,” the comic doesn’t actually mean both male and female. It just means she’s butch. This is one case in which Kodansha Comics’ painfully wooden translation inadvertently improves the story.

Besides her rapey interactions with the heroine, Uranus is an irritant because of her extreme Mary-Sueness. To emphasize how awesome she’s supposed to be, perhaps because her feminine emancipation is cranked to maximum, Takeuchi-sensei makes Uranus better than everyone at everything, to the point that it’s obnoxious. Disguised as a boy, she’s a world-famous racecar driver while still in high school. She’s glamorous and filthy rich. And not only that, but she has her own helicopter, which she can apparently fly anywhere she wants without even filing a flight plan. More than anything, it’s the helicopter that breaks my suspension of disbelief: after all the other silliness in the comic, that’s a bridge too far.

And on top of all of that, she’s the strongest fighter. That means an inevitable redundancy, because the main team already has a heavy, Sailor Jupiter, whose super-strength was touted—though never demonstrated—in previous chapters. In one of the manga’s most irritating scenes, Uranus tosses Jupiter around like a rag doll and then delivers a smarmy lecture afterwards just to show how OP she is. This is meant to elevate Uranus (another one you can read aloud), but it just brings Jupiter down instead.

It’s not like I’m complaining about this because I have a crush on Jupiter or anything! Baka!

Oh, and I forgot to mention: since Sailor Uranus is mostly famous on the internet for being a lesbian, and sometimes also for being a lesbian, she has to have someone to be lesbians with, and I mean besides the protagonist she tries to rape. That would be Sailor Neptune. There’s not much to say about Neptune in the manga version: she basically plays second banana to Uranus, and she very nearly gets cuckolded.

Sailor Moon S

Now we come to the animated adaptation. Did you think those images above came from the vintage 1990s anime? No, those came from Sailor Moon Crystal, because I am a lazy son of a bitch. But the third arc of Crystal reproduces the manga with only inconsequential variations, so if you too are lazy, you can opt to watch that instead of reading the book.

There’s a blinding light coming from Uranus.

According to the aforementioned Wikipedia, Takeuchi-sensei was shocked by the changes that Sailor Moon S made to Uranus. I can understand that, since she’s the creator, but my own reaction was something more like “pleasantly surprised.” The animated adaptation gives us a Sailor Uranus whose motivations and actions actually make sense. In this version, Uranus has a refreshing clarity of purpose.

The previous animates series, Sailor Moon and Sailor Moon R, had already taken a lot of liberties with their source material, but they mostly added padding and character development while keeping the basic concepts intact. By contrast, Sailor Moon S, although it makes references to the manga on which it’s allegedly based, has an almost entirely different plot. In this case, that is a good thing. At least in its first nineteen episodes, which are all we currently have available in the uncensored sub, Sailor Moon S is every bit as entertaining as its predecessors, and a few of its episodes are among the best so far in the franchise.

Sailor Moon S: Emancipating slapstick comedy to the maximum.

The animated series, to keep its episode count up, is obligated to reformulate Takeuchi-sensei’s relatively brief manga arcs into monster-of-the-week McGuffin hunts. The McGuffins for this third series are three “talismans,” powerful magical objects said to reside in the pure hearts of certain unidentified individuals. Our villain is the conniving scientist Dr. Tomoe; in the manga, Tomoe is a cool, calculating, one-eyed psychopath, but the anime reimagines him as an exceedingly goofy mad scientist whose face is always in shadow and whose glasses are always glowing Gendo-style. His lab assistant and sidekick Kaolinite has the handy ability to teleport, so he entrusts her with his “daimons,” magical eggs that can infest inanimate objects and turn them into corny monsters capable of sucking out people’s hearts. In the typically inefficient fashion of magical girl villains, Dr. Tomoe sends Kaolinite out to attack random pure-hearted people to see if they’re carrying these coveted talismans.

Doctor, how can you talk with all that scenery in your mouth?

By sheer coincidence, everyone Kaolinite attacks happens to be someone the sailors have been hanging out with that week. And unlike in Sugar Sugar Rune, getting your heart sucked out is not harmless: anyone who loses his heart will die soon after if he doesn’t get the heart back, so the action sequence climaxing a typical episode is a race against time as the sailors battle a daimon to return a stolen heart to a dying victim.

Also seeking the talismans are two mysterious new sailor scouts, Uranus and Neptune. Because Uranus and Neptune are willing to take the talismans when they find them even though that will mean the deaths of the talismans’ owners, they quickly come into conflict with the original five scouts and end up in a relationship that moves back and forth from cooperation to antagonism.

Well, if you really need it, I guess it’s okay.

Obvious to the viewer but unknown to Sailor Moon and her friends, Uranus and Neptune are the same as Haruka and Michiru, two talented and upscale high school students who’ve recently moved into the area. Unlike in the manga, Haruka is not deliberately disguising herself as a boy, though she sometimes gets mistaken for one and usually dresses in a boy’s clothes. The manga asks us to take her crossdressing seriously, but in the anime, the misunderstandings over Haruka’s sex are a vehicle for comedy.

Yes you did, you magnificent bastard. I read your book.

As in the previous two series, Sailor Moon S piles on a lot of slapstick, but in the process loses the manga’s dark tones. The villains of “Infinity” are among the most frightening in the Sailor Moon comics, a race of pneumophageous aliens who’ve come to Earth to eat people’s souls, and who can transform their victims into bloodthirsty abominations covered in tentacles and fangs. By contrast, the villains of Sailor Moon S are silly and, though entertaining, not particularly frightening.

A typical “daimon.”

What they do have going for them, even though they’re not exactly menacing, are some great visuals. Tomoe’s underground lair is full of all kinds of crazy equipment with glass beakers and vials and dark shadows and low-lying fog. It’s everything a mad scientist’s hideout should be.

After several episodes, the sailors finish off Kaolinite (who dies much later in the manga), so Tomoe gets on his old-fashioned ’90s telephone and calls up the Witches 5.

It’s hard to science when the light’s so poor, so let’s witch instead.

In the manga, the Witches 5 are a group of evil magical girls who attack the heroines with various magical spells. In the anime, they’re a collection of white-coated scientists who act like mean schoolgirls and work in an underground lab where they bend over vials and microscopes and rats with glowing eyes. The first of the five to go after the sailors, and the only one we meet before the first half of the season ends, is Eudial, who drives around in a white van and packs a goofy-looking gun that can blast people’s hearts out of their chests. She creates daimons by taking various objects and sticking them in an industrial microwave to combine them with Dr. Tomoe’s magic eggs. To make sure that the hamminess is as maximal as the feminine emancipation, she has some sort of high-tech launch system that can send her white van shooting out of various random places around Tokyo, such as canal beds and subway entrances.

Eudial preps for her mission.

At the same time that Eudial makes her appearance, the fans’ worst fears are confirmed: Chibi-Usa returns.

In the manga, Chibi-Usa becomes Sailor Chibi Moon at the end of the second arc and is still hanging around at the beginning of the third. In the anime, however, Chibi-Usa never becomes a sailor scout in Sailor Moon R. At the end of that series, she goes back to the thirtieth century and stays there.

However, she returns from the future in episode 14 of Sailor Moon S. She has become a sailor, though there is no explanation of how that happened, so her mother—Sailor Moon’s future self—has sent her back in time for her training.

I sensed a great disturbance in the Force, as if a million fanboys suddenly cried out in terror.

In the manga, Chibi Moon is as formidable as the other scouts, but in the anime, she is mostly a joke character. Her attack consists of a beam of pink hearts that act like a repeated slap. Although a lot of fans hate her guts, I think this version of Chibi Moon is pretty funny.

The irony, of course, is that this is more effective than what the other girls do.

All of this is amusing and enjoyable, and because it’s so different, it’s possible to read the manga and then watch the anime without feeling as if you’re retreading the same material.

As mentioned above, Uranus is greatly improved here. In this version, she’s not as ridiculously glamorous as in the manga. She’s still into motor sports, but she mostly does motocross instead of auto racing, and mostly races against men because there’s apparently no women’s motocross or something. Though she’s competent and successful, she’s not world famous. Also, she doesn’t fly a helicopter—at least not yet (helicopters will show up later). She does, however, drive a car, and the anime gives an amusing handwave to explain how she can do that as a first-year high school student.

This is not even the worst explanation I’ve seen an anime give for a kid driving.

Uranus, as in the manga, is conflicted, but now her conflict makes sense: she and Neptune, like Dr. Tomoe, want to find the talismans, and they’re willing to take them even though it means killing their hosts, because they’re on a mission to stop something called the “Silence,” which can destroy the Earth. Although Uranus angsts over the need to kill in order to save the world, Neptune, who’s been a sailor scout longer, is more hard-bitten. This is a clever flourish in the anime’s interpretation of the characters: Neptune is the more overtly feminine of the two, but under the surface, she’s also the more callous.

She looks so pouty about it. Seriously, this is Uranus’s permanent expression.

The manga does not give any backstory for these two characters: presumably, they were ordinary schoolgirls before they “awakened” to their superpowers and the knowledge of their past lives. The anime gets the chance to flesh that backstory out in episode 17, “The Bond of Destiny,” which depicts how Haruka and Michiru first met. It’s one of the best episodes thus far in the franchise.

They went all sketchy, so there must be intense emotion or something.

This episode depicts Haruka as having been plagued by memories of her past life as well as premonitions of the destruction of the world. Though she tries to escape her destiny, destiny comes calling in the form of Michiru, who has already been Sailor Neptune for some time. Michiru, though suffering some internal conflict of her own, tells Haruka that she’d be willing to kill if it’s necessary to save the world.

Also, as an easter egg, this episode contains a daimon that looks like the ones in the manga.

Maybe doing this every week would have been too scary for TV.

People tend to make a big deal out of the homosexuality in this franchise, probably bigger than it deserves. In the manga, the gayness is entirely gratuitous, having very little bearing on the plot. In the anime, it’s mostly played for laughs when it’s not being played for yaoi fan service. Based on what I’ve seen, I suspect a lot of fans mischaracterize Haruka and Michiru. Their relationship has more the character of a passing teenage crush than a permanent state of life. Michiru hints as much when she tells Haruka that there are “a lot” of girls at her all-girls’ school obsessed with Haruka, and then reveals toward the end of the episode that she’s one of them. Takeuchi-sensei has hinted something similar: according to a handy collection of her comments at the Sailor Moon wiki, “In an interview in Italy she said that adolescence is a very emotional time and that Haruka and Michiru have more time than the average teenagers.”

But before moving on to a different subject, I have to quote Haruka’s final line from this episode, a line she delivers after taking on the role of a sailor and joining Michiru on her mission to save the world, a line that probably gave somebody at DiC heart palpitations back in the ’90s:

*MIC DROP* Thank you, she’s here all night. And so is Michiru, apparently.

Lastly, I have to discuss the handling of Uranus and Jupiter. As I said above, the scene where Uranus tosses Jupiter to the hardwood is one of the worst moments in the comic. The improves it considerably.

In the manga, Makoto (alter ego of Sailor Jupiter) gets all fan-girly over Haruka because she thinks she’s “strong,” which presumably means “stalkerish, arrogant, and ill-tempered.” The animated version of Makoto, however, would never be so base as to admire a character as dislikeable as … erm …

No! No, anime Makoto! Not you, too!

Sigh. Well, anyway, Makoto develops a big girl-crush on Haruka in episode 7, though there’s no clear reason as to why, since Haruka hasn’t done much of anything by that point except crossdress. This crush of Makoto’s leads the other sailors into some comical misunderstandings that echo a similar misunderstanding in Sailor Moon R: The Movie.

Considering that, up to this point, Mako has chased anything in pants, and Haruka wears pants …

At the climax of the episode, a daimon of course attacks. When Sailor Uranus stands aside to allow the daimon to extract a heart in order to see if it contains a talisman, Jupiter develops an anger toward her as strong as her admiration for Haruka, unaware that they’re the same person.

Jupiter wants to kick Uranus.

Uranus and Jupiter fight. Although Uranus wins the conflict, she does so only with superior technique. While she and Neptune are making their escape afterwards, Uranus looks down at the hand with which she struck Jupiter and realizes she’s injured it. Then she mutters, “She’s strong.” Thus, the anime version still allows Uranus to be the superior fighter, but without Jupiter losing her status as the “tank” character.

Anyway, I look forward to the release of the second half of this series. It’s impressive that Toei kept the quality and entertainment value as high as they did. We’re over ninety episodes into this franchise, but there has been no noticeable loss of quality in either the writing or the animation. The pacing is still good, the characters are still entertaining, and the jokes are still funny. However, the villains have lost what little air of menace they had in previous seasons, and the animators have gone a bit overboard with the cheesecake, as if they’re afraid of losing the audience’s interest. Also, the addition of a couple of homosexual characters is more of a cheap gimmick than anything else, but these new characters do no real damage, and at least in the animated version, they’re rather likeable.

What a waste.