Why The Powerpuff Girls Is Not Feminist

Featured image: “The Powerpuff Girls” by OZartwork

I absolutely adore The Powerpuff Girls, Craig McCracken’s cartoon series that ran for six seasons on Cartoon Network starting in 1998.

Because I adore the original, I’ve not had the courage to begin watching the new version. There have been a lot of remakes, reboots, and sequels to things from my youth lately, and most of them have taken something fun, entertaining, and beloved, and turned it into a dreary vehicle for faddish political grandstanding. Disney actually dared to take a live-action dump on Sleeping Beauty, and more recently made a Star Wars sequel; I forget the title, but I think it was something like Ensign Mary Sue Does It Better than Everyone Else in Space, because heaven forbid that the “strong female character” should have any weaknesses or need to grow into her role.

All the press I’ve seen about the new Powerpuff Girls has been bad press. Everyone talking about it is all feminist this and feminist that, as if children’s cartoons should be about identity politics instead of explosions and gross-out jokes. Everyone’s talking like it’s a big deal that the show’s protagonists are female, as if it’s unusual for superheroes to have innies instead of outies.

That’s all nonsense. Superheroines have been around as long as superheroes. The Powerpuff Girls were not unique because they were female, but because they were female and in kindergarten. If you do not understand that, you do not understand The Powerpuff Girls.

Japan doesn't understand the Powerpuff Girls.
Japan doesn’t understand The Powerpuff Girls.

Indeed, the early clip of the new version that appeared on YouTube feels less like a freewheeling retro action-comedy (what the original was) and more like a scolding lecture:

Just look how much schoolmarmish finger-wagging they managed to pack into those forty-six seconds: masculine bad, hippie good, you can’t say “princess” for some reason …

Also, Buttercup’s new voice sucks.

I’m highly suspicious of that princess thing in particular, as that has apparently become a feminist shibboleth of late, as witness the YouTube shock video (link NSFW) that made the news a year or so back with little girls in princess outfits screaming cuss-words they probably didn’t understand. Because vulgarity empowers women. Or something.

Somewhere around the same time, I heard an interview on National Public Radio with some guy from Pixar. The NPR talking head, after taking a few hits off his bong to get that signature public radio voice, asked the Pixar dude if he thought it was “problematic” in some way that Pixar made movies about princesses.

The Pixar guy laughed nervously and said by way of reassurance that Pixar made movies about princesses, but it certainly didn’t make movies about, y’know, princesses.

This fascinated me. Neither of these two bothered to define what he meant by the word princess, nor to explain why there’s anything wrong with princesses. It was pure virtue-signaling: the Pixar guy was not actually saying anything meaningful, but merely reassuring the empty suit that he was one of the tribe.

I have not watched a Pixar movie since. If Pixar doesn’t like its own material, why should I? I realize the interviewer probably caught that poor slob by surprise, but what he should have done was boost his product instead of apologize for it. He should have said, “Hell yes we make movies about princesses. We love princesses at Pixar, which is why we make movies about them. Our next movie has ten princesses, and the movie after that will have twenty princesses. We are set to double our princess growth rate every year for the next fifteen years.”

Then I would have run out and bought a Blu-Ray of every Pixar film in existence while shouting, “Suck on this, NPR prudes! What kind of a name for a man is Ira, anyway?”

Getting back to the subject of The Powerpuff Girls, let me just say that the idea of a five-year-old girl getting offended at being called a princess is ridiculous. No little girl gets upset at that unless an adult has coaxed her into it, because getting offended at innocuous words is a grownup hobby, and it’s high time the grownups knocked it off.

"Power Puff Girls" by overdoor.
Power Puff Girls” by overdoor. Somebody tell those brats to get their shoes off the bed.

Over on Polygon, Allegra Frank, who may or may not be a bluntly worded allergy medication, discusses her history with The Powerpuff Girls, and she has missed the point. She has missed the point so completely that if the point suddenly exploded, she wouldn’t hear the sound for three days.

She claims, “Girl-starring cartoons remain few and far between.” This is an oft-repeated falsehood, though it’s one Frank might actually believe if she’s not paying attention. Presumably, she has never heard of Teen Titans, Winx Club, W.I.T.C.H., Strawberry Shortcake, Dora the Explorer, Legend of Korra, My Little Pony, My Life as a Teenage Robot, Kim Possible—and I did that off the top of my head without looking, and without even pulling out any Japanese titles.

She also, whether she knows it or not, utters what are almost certainly falsehoods about her own childhood:

My kindergarten teacher shuttled the other girls in my class and me to opposite corners away from the boys, encouraging us to play house while they got to destroy their building block skyscrapers.

Baloney. Nobody discourages girls from playing with blocks. More likely, this is something someone taught her in college, and that she projected back onto her childhood. If the teacher separated girls and boys, it was probably a wise move to keep order in the classroom. She could play with them after school or at recess instead.

This misinformation is forgivable, because few if any adults can say they remember kindergarten clearly, but for that very same reason, Frank should refrain from accusing her kindergarten teacher of things she likely didn’t do.

Frank reveals here the sad truth that some people are never satisfied. She claims that the new version of the show is insufficiently feminist, but it’s not as if its creators aren’t trying to pander to her. Here’s from the Huffington Post‘s interview with the crew of the new version:

“One of my favorite things about this journey with the show is, as a woman, how far feminism has come since the last show ended,” said [Haley] Mancini on how she’s approached writing the series.

But the show isn’t a woman, it’s a cartoon. Or did she mean feminism is a woman? Ah, never mind. And again:

The staff behind the new Powerpuff characters felt lucky that feminism is integrated into pop cultural spaces far more than audiences permitted during the run of the original series. “I think girl superheroes were a bit of a novelty then,” said [Bob] Boyle. “Girls are really embracing their geekdom and I think it’s also OK for boys to be into girl superheroes. That whole dynamic has changed from when [the show] first came out.”

As an aside, I’d like to note that only someone with a non-STEM college degree can say “integrated into pop cultural spaces” with a straight face. But besides that, Boyle is either a liar or embarrassingly unfamiliar with the genre he’s working in. This is the co-executive producer of the show, folks, and he doesn’t know that there were girl superheroes before 1998.

"Powerpuff Senshi"
Powerpuff Senshi

An acquaintance recently told me that he disliked ye olde Powerpuff Girls because he saw it a few times and thought it was nothing but feminist propaganda. It was that libel that inspired this post in the first place. I just marathoned the entire thing in order to write an essay about its ethical philosophy, and I can say with confidence that the original series waded into the muddy waters of so-called identity politics (a place it really didn’t belong) only twice in its six-year run. Once, it made fun of masculine posturing in a more-or-less standard “let the girls play too” fashion. Then, in the episode “Equal Fights,” it mocked feminism.

The villainess of “Equal Fights” is a man-hater named Femme Fatale who robs banks but only wants Susan B. Anthony coins because paper bills have men on them (and that’s freaking hilarious). She escapes the two-fisted vigilante justice of the Powerpuff Girls by convincing them that all the men in their lives are oppressing them. The girls turn into man-haters themselves until their schoolteacher and the Mayor’s secretary sit them down and talk sense into them by pointing out that, in fact, all the men they know treat them quite well.

Bet the new version won’t have an episode like that. If it did, the Tumblrinas would be up in arms, and the creators wouldn’t get invited to any more mutual stroking sessions at Huffington Post.

The “Equal Fights” episode ends with an homage to Susan B. Anthony, so it is feminist in a certain sense: it embraces the old feminism of the women’s suffrage movement, but it explicitly rejects Second Wave feminism in the person of Femme Fatale.

Allegra Frank, in the article linked and quoted above, claims the old show is subtly “deconstructive” of commonly accepted notions of girlhood. Even if the series clearly didn’t openly embrace feminism in its current forms, is there merit to Frank’s claim? That’s hard to say, partly because, as with “princess” in the NPR interview, Frank doesn’t say what she means by “deconstruct.” So although I’m not sure I understand the question, my answer is, No.

Bear with me. We can find this in many forms of entertainment, but it appears to me to be most readily visible in cartoons: a certain appeal can be created by presenting the audience with contrasts. The more violent are the contrasts, the more memorable they are. I believe DuckTales, which was big when I was a kid, was popular partly because the cartoonish characters appeared suited for a small, gag-oriented show, but instead went off on big, multi-episode adventures. The character type contrasted violently with the plotlines.

Jeff Smith employed this same contrast effectively in his famous (and timeless) Bone comics. The contrast between the goofy cartoon characters and the sword-and-sorcery adventure they find themselves in extends even to the character designs:

Fone Bone and his hot girlfriend.
Fone Bone and his hot girlfriend.

That’s Thorn and Bone, the protagonists from the series. They crackle in every panel they share together, and it’s due in large part to the difference in how they’re drawn.

In The Powerpuff Girls, there is a violent (literally) contrast between what the characters are and what they do. The show effects this contrast by making the characters hyperfeminine (yes, even Buttercup, who’s tomboyish, not mannish) and making them kindergartners.

This is an exaggeration of something we can see in a lot of superhero or magical girl stories, in which the character tries to live a normal life while having an obligation to fight crime, and possibly maintain a secret identity. The Powerpuff Girls don’t “deconstruct” girlhood, but implicitly affirm it: if they were not girls in the conventional sense readily grasped by the audience, the show’s central gimmick would fall apart.

The Powerpuff Girls do not try in any fashion to attack, subvert, or alter their girlhood, but rather wish they could be normal little girls like their classmates. In the episode “Superfriends,” they play in an entirely conventional and girlish fashion with the little girl next door, but must frequently leave in order to fight monsters destroying the city. In the jaw-dropping rock opera episode “See Me, Feel Me, Gnomey,” they are content to lose their powers, pass their responsibilities onto someone else, and “play all day.”

Art by Insanity_plls_plz.
Art by Insanity_plls_plz. And for the record, I totally ship this.

The Powerpuff Girls also had a clear understanding of the differences between boys and girls. Unlike the stupid “Man Boy” from the new series (somebody phoned that one in), the original presented us with the girls’ Rule 63 counterparts, the Rowdyruff Boys. The episodes in which the boys appear are subtle and humorous commentaries on the interactions between little boys and little girls. During their first encounter, the Powerpuff Girls and Rowdyruff Boys wreck much of the city as they punch each other through buildings and throw busses at each other. In spite of the large-scale destruction, the battle has much the character of a playground spat, like boys trying to get the attention of the girls they like by pushing them down and rubbing dirt in their hair. The boys are stronger than the girls are, so the girls fear they can’t overcome them until Miss Sara Bellum gives them a hint. Then they at last defeat the boys, not by using their fists, but by playing kissy-face, which causes the boys to explode from a case of terminal cooties.

When the boys come back for a second round, the villain Him has given them a cootie inoculation, so the girls’ kisses only cause them to grow bigger and stronger. After another rough battle (and the show’s most gag-inducing gross-out jokes), the girls finally win when they realize they can weaken the boys by questioning their masculinity.

Lying under all of this, though hinted only in small ways, are suggestions that the boys and girls on some level actually do like each other. So it’s no surprise that a lot of fans ship it.

Tongue-in-cheek though all of this is, it is a surprisingly complex and, more importantly, true depiction of the dance between male and female. For the most part, boys and girls really are disgusted with each other at a young age, or pretend to be, and prefer the company of their own sex. Those opinions, of course, change as they age, as when the Rowdyruff Boys become immune to cooties and instead come to like getting kisses from the cute girls. And, of course, nothing takes a man apart more effectively than a woman attacking his masculinity, at least if it’s the right woman.

"Together Forever" by BiPink Bunny. I TOTALLY SHIP THIS!
Together Forever” by BiPink Bunny. I TOTALLY SHIP THIS!

Deconstruct girlhood? It is to laugh. If the show did not have a clear understanding of what girlhood is, it would lose what makes it special and turn to mush. The image of cutesy little girls beating the snot out of a supervillain or kaiju sticks with us and appeals to us exactly because we know that’s not how things usually go. The show rides on the contrast between the cutesiness and the violence.

Although The Powerpuff Girls takes its inspiration from American superheroes, this same basic idea underlies the “magical girl warrior” concept. Naoko Takeuchi dreamed up Sailor Moon right around the same time that Craig McCracken first created his superheroine tots under the ill-advised title of Whoopass Stew (which Cartoon Network wisely changed). Sailor Moon offers the same contrast, in perhaps more exaggerated form: it’s about hyperfeminine girls with superpowers.

Director Kunihiko Ikuhara, who directed much of the Sailor Moon anime and then went on to distill its central conceit in Revolutionary Girl Utena, once said that he believed the popularity of Sailor Moon was due not to the romantic elements, but to the violence, and I believe he’s correct. There is a startling image in both manga and anime that I believe might be almost solely responsible for the huge popularity of the series; it is Sailor Moon’s confrontation with her first monster. At first, the show presents us with a girly heroine who is combination genki girl and crybaby. But then she slices a monster’s head off (in the manga) or confronts a creature that twists its head around backwards Exorcist-style (in the anime). Even when you know it’s coming, it startles. In the same way, the Powerpuff Girls slugging a villain or taking down a monster startles. And that is why they are popular.

For this reason, neither Sailor Moon nor The Powerpuff Girls “deconstructs” notions of girlhood. It simply can’t. These stories are ill-equipped for such a task because, without girlhood, they have nothing on which to base their appeal. Without girlhood, they would be indistinguishable from other superhero shows.

And if the new version really is trying to turn the franchise into a feminist screed, that might explain the negative reviews and bad press. It’s lost sight of its core concept.

Moral Development of the Powerpuff Girls

Featured image: “Powerpuff Girls” by Sakimichan

So I lied. I’ve got my hand in too many projects at the moment, and I won’t be able to finish my review of Nurse Witch Komugi R tonight.

I want to spend my writing time tonight working on chapters 12 and 13 of Jake and the Dynamo. I got in contact with my cover artist today, and I think I can estimate probably two to three weeks before the series starts. It’ll update on a weekly basis, and I need to build myself as much of a buffer as possible.

I’m also finalizing an essay that I’ll be sending off to Sci Phi Journal. The essay is on the subject of the increasing moral complexity over the six seasons of The Powerpuff Girls. By which I mean the original one. The good one.

If you don’t know Sci Phi Journal, check it out. It runs science fiction with philosophical themes as well as popular-level philosophy essays referencing science fiction.  I’m spending much of my weekend reading Jean Piaget’s classic Moral Judgment of the Child, which forms the backbone of my essay.

Art (and Update)

Featured image: “Magical Girls” by Yu-nicorn.

I’m slacking off today and giving you another artwork because I’m spending the evening working on the twelfth chapter of Jake and the Dynamo, the novel I’ll begin serializing here shortly. Twelve chapters should be sufficient buffer.

I recently finished up Nurse Witch Komugi R, and should have a review up tomorrow evening. I’m still deciding what I think of it, besides that it’s unfocused and has the wrong protagonist. When it first appeared, I was hoping it might be a sign that the genre is finally getting out of the Goth phase it’s been in since 2011’s Puella Magi Madoka Magica. And maybe it is, but this series is a misfire. We’ll talk about it tomorrow.

Review: Sailor Moon: Crystal, Season 3 Episode 2

Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon: Crystal, Episode 28: “Infinity, 1: Premonition, Second Part.” Toei Animation, April 11, 2016. 24 minutes. Available on Crunchyroll.

In spite of myself, I’m impressed by what I’m seeing in this third season of Sailor Moon: Crystal. Somebody must have thrown money at it.

Oddly, it’s almost as if someone working on the project read my last post between that episode and this one. That didn’t happen, obviously, but it feels as if it did, because I see a lot of changes addressing my criticisms. All of a sudden, Sailor Moon makes the kind of cartoonish faces she used to make in the old days:

Squinchy eyes.
At least they’re trying.

The humor still plods, but there is an obvious attempt to make it snappier. It’s not sharp, but it’s certainly within the range of acceptable. The episode also shows evidence that the English translator looked up the Kodansha Comics release of Sailor Moon since the last episode, since “reversion” (the name for the monsters) has been changed to “atavism.” The word “Hoste,” which the comic uses for what the villains are trying to steal from people (souls, basically), also shows up. That too is from the comic, where the translator goes to some length in an endnote to justify it.

At this point, some fans are saying, "Destroy her!"
Sailor Moon knows a threat when she sees it.

This episode finishes off the first chapter from the “Infinity” arc of the manga. The episode focuses, as much of the series will from this point forward, on Chibi-Usa, also known as Sailor Chibi Moon, the little pink-haired girl. The excuse for her existence is that she’s Sailor Moon’s daughter who traveled back in time from the future, but in practical terms she is, as her name implies, Sailor Moon’s Mini-Me. She’s also Sailor Moon’s Minmay, a divisive character on whom many fans have a hate-crush. I don’t find her particularly obnoxious myself, but she does have a tendency to take over everything even though she’s better suited to a role as sidekick or mascot. In fact, the next arc after “Infinity” will be all about her … her and her magical pony boyfriend.

"I can't see your mom through your hair!"
Sailor Chibi Moon upstages Sailor Moon … as usual.

The villainous organizations whom the sailor guardians battle tend to be similarly structured. At the top is the final boss, usually some sort of chthonic monstrosity from beyond space and time, and under the final boss is a lieutenant, and under the lieutenant is a group of level bosses. Under them is an army of faceless mooks. The villains this time are called the Death Busters. Their master is some sort of formless monster called Pharaoh 90, whose lieutenant is Mistress 9. The level bosses are the Witches 5. Don’t ask me to explain the numbers because I can’t. They come from another star system and have apparently arrived on Earth to snack on human souls, or something like that (I admit I couldn’t quite get a handle on their motives when I read the comic). Complicating matters are a mad scientist, his sickly daughter, a couple of teenage celebrities with ambiguous motives, and mysterious dreams prophesying three talismans that will lead to destruction.

I don't think kids should be hearing this.
Those villainesses are such potty-mouths.

Also, there are the “atavisms,” which are black globs that latch onto people or animals and turn them into rampaging monsters. Those are the faceless mooks.

In this episode, Sailor Moon uses her transformation pen to go undercover to investigate the Mugen Academy, a ridiculously posh private school where the atavisms appear to be coming from.

Nice glasses.
Usagi in her Mugen Academy Uniform.

Meanwhile, Mamoru (alter ego of gentleman thief-turned-superhero Tuxedo Mask and Sailor Moon’s heartthrob) has to take Chibi-Usa and her school friends to an amusement park, which brings Chibi-Usa into contact with Hotaru Tomoe, a mysterious girl with a mysterious disease, and probably the most interesting character in the arc. The old Sailor Moon S anime altered the details of Hotaru considerably, so I’m looking forward to Crystal’s visual interpretations of some revelations about her later on, as well as the reactions of fans who only know the franchise from the previous animated version.

I mean she WON'T GO AWAY.
That’s Hotaru in the foreground, and that’s Chibi-Usa in the background because Chibi-Usa WON’T GO AWAY.

While this is going on, the other sailor guardians are just sort of hanging out. In the manga, an atavism attacks while Usagi and Chibi-Usa are meeting Hotaru, so they transform and dispatch the monster. Crystal, however, finds an excuse to have the other guardians arrive as well, and then it presents an impressive battle sequence.

It first treats us to the same transformations and hammy catch-phrases we got in the last episode, which is a lot of transforming to get twice in a row, but they are, at least, really good transformations. Crystal here pays homage to the previous anime; when she’s done transforming, Sailor Moon does her “in the name of the moon” speech, complete with all the hand gestures. The other girls also get in their cheesy lines.

Nobody could say that with a straight face.
You can punish me with love anytime you want, sweetheart.

The battle proceeds with further well-animated homages. Sailors Moon and Chibi Moon comically run from the monster just like in the old days while the more competent guardians fire off their called attacks. Of particular note is the new animation for Sailor Mars’s fire mandala, in which she machine-guns fireballs out of her fists.

Sailor Moon finishes the monster off with the Moon Spiral Heart Attack. Compare these two videos, and you’ll see how the new animation was designed to be a souped-up version of the old:

Finally, the episode gives us more of these two:

Wut?
Shouldn’t you be way in the background without too much detail showing?

I’m not sure what to say about these characters at this point. In the comic, these two are, at this time, completely mysterious. In the comic, they appear in the background so you can’t make out details, and the reason one is wearing a mask and cape is so the reader can mistake her for a man. But Sailor Moon: Crystal works on the assumption, probably correct, that everyone watching knows who these characters are anyway. So heck with it (spoiler warning), that’s Sailors Uranus and Neptune. And if you can’t tell already that they’re the same people as teenage racecar driver Haruka and prodigal violinist Michiru, then you probably also couldn’t tell that Darth Sidious was the same as Palpatine.

The animators are so unconcerned with protecting these characters’ identities until the reveal, they’ve dedicated the end credit sequence to the two of them wallowing, Revolutionary Girl Utena-style, in rose petals and ambiguous lesbianism:

Getting all Utena up in here.
Wallowing like you wouldn’t believe.

Sailor Uranus is an interesting albeit not very likeable character. She’s inspired by otokoyaku, the women who play male roles in the all-female Takarazuka theater. This brand of theater has inspired a lot of manga and anime, the most notable and influential being the historical drama Rose of Versailles, which has itself been adapted into a Takarazuka show, in which a girl raised as a boy implausibly grows up to become the captain of Marie Antoinette’s royal guard. Rose of Versailles was big in the Seventies and shaped the direction of shoujo manga and anime after it. Uranus can be understood as a spiritual descendant of Oscar de Jarjayes, Rose of Versailles’ crossdressing heroine, as she pretends to be male in her alter ego, and even packs a sword that looks vaguely like a rapier.

Sailor Moon is the Lord of the Rings of magical girls; every magical girl story after it, even the most original, falls under its shadow one way or another. Particularly of note, Sailor Moon directly inspired the aforementioned Revolutionary Girl Utena, a dense, ambitious, and influential series I’ll roll up my sleeves and try to unpack in a later post. The still frame above looks to me like Crystal’s acknowledgement of that influence.

To my mind, the one thing really missing from Crystal is the feel of the manga. Its attempts to be more like the original anime are probably wise at this point, but the 90s anime and the manga on which it was based had very different feels to them. Reading the manga, with its undisciplined artwork, crazy plots, abrupt scene transitions, migraine-inducing layouts, and general lack of internal logic, is like reading the chronicle of a dream, or maybe an acid trip. Crystal is a deliberately paced and often flat-footed attempt to replicate the imagery of the manga frame-by-frame, correctly capturing the design elements but missing the manic inventiveness that was probably largely responsible for its popularity. That being said, I appreciate the improvements Crystal has made this season. It is worth watching for the transformations, the called attacks, and some of the new designs, at least.

But in every version, Sailor Jupiter is best pony.
But in every version, Sailor Jupiter is best pony.

Microsoft’s Magical Girls

 

I learned something new today while browsing the web. I didn’t know that turning out magical girl mascots was a regular thing for Microsoft.

I do however remember that back in 2013 there was a little buzz over the video featuring a personified Internet Explorer:

If this personified Explorer was more realistic, her transformation sequence would take fifteen minutes to load, and she’d crash unexpectedly right in the middle, only to find herself standing in the street, completely naked. Heck, even Microsoft has now given up on Explorer: they’ve replaced it with something called Edge. I bet nobody actually uses that one, either.

 

Review: Evergreen

Cruel but beautiful.

Evergreen, story by Yuyuko Takemiya. Art by Akira Kasukabe. Translated by Adrienne Beck. Seven Seas Entertainment, 2012-2015. 4 Volumes. Rated Teen.

I grabbed up the first volume of Evergreen to assuage my disappointment when I was browsing the manga section at the local Barnes & Noble and couldn’t find the volume of Shugo Chara! I was missing. I’m glad I did.

I was unsurprised, after finishing that first volume and hunting up where I could get the rest, to learn that the authoress, Yuyuko Takemiya, is also the creator of Toradora!, which is the Casablanca of Japanese high school rom-coms.  Like that famous film starring Bogey, Takemiya-sensei’s work is good not because it avoids clichés, but because it uses all of them, and it makes them feel shiny and new. Continue reading “Review: Evergreen”

Happy National Unicorn Day

Featured artwork: Artist and title unknown.

Today, it seems, is National Unicorn Day, so have some Sailor Moon Super S fan art featuring Super Sailor Chibi Moon and Helios. Unfortunately, the site hosting this astonishing image hasn’t bothered to name the artist or title, so if anybody recognizes it, let me know and I’ll provide proper credit. In the meanwhile, I’ve included a link.

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:

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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:

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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.

The Magical Girl Workout Routine

I don't have the self-confidence to wear this to the gym.
Source: Active Apparel

I stumbled across this and found it amusing.  Someone named Hythe has revealed exactly how magical girls keep their girlish figures by proposing a magical girl workout routine.

The routine consists of several exercises, which a person is supposed to perform while listening to a musical work chosen from a set of mahou shoujo anime.  The musical selections have a sort-of logic to them.  For example, the leg routine comes, appropriately, from Princess Tutu:

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And the “burnout” at the end comes from Revolutionary Girl Utena:

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I think most of her links to the musical numbers aren’t legal, but it’s a pretty good workout. Never mind the music, since I’m out away from home a lot for work, I like to see a good workout routine I can do in a motel room. If I make a habit of this, maybe soon I’ll fit into that dress.

Not that I have a … um, I need to go work out.