Chaos Arena: Crystal Fighters, Chapter 1, written and illustrated by Jen and Tyler Bartel. Digital comic. Stēla. 2016.
This is a digital comic, new within the last few months, with a magical girl theme and an unusual premise. I’d like to be able to say more about it than I’m going to, but aside from its first chapter, it is, unfortunately, available only behind a paywall on the Stēla comic-reading app, which is available only on the iPhone.
I have an Android. So I’m going to discuss the first chapter (which you can read online for free) and say what I think so far, and then I’ll leave those of you with iPhones to decide if you want to shell out in order to read further yourselves. The Stēla people need to get their act together and port their app for the rest of us.
Also, you’ll notice I don’t have a link to Stēla’s website or the free first chapter. That’s because I read the chapter on my phone using the web browser, but now that I’ve sat down at my PC to write the review, I find that my anti-malware program has blocked Stēla’s site for malicious content. That could be an error on my end, or it could mean that the Stēla people really need to get their act together. Continue reading “‘Chaos Arena: Crystal Fighters’”
Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon: Crystal, Episode 32, “Setsuna Meioh.” Toei Animation, May 2016. Approx. 24 minutes. Available on Crunchyroll.
I’m way behind on these. But oh well.
This is, on the whole, a pretty good episode, if slow-paced. The story continues to hew closely to the comic, though I notice in this case that it improves on it considerably. Throughout this chapter, the comic book version has a lot of unnecessary internal dialogue that announces the obvious, but the show simply cuts most of it out and allows the audience to read the mood. Though this series sometimes looks like a panel-by-panel presentation of the comic, in this episode, it alters the imagery for the better without altering the story. Continue reading “Review: Sailor Moon: Crystal, Season 3 Episode 6”
Wish upon the Pleiades. Written and directed by Shōji Saeki. Studio Gainax, 2015. 12 episodes. Approximately 290 minutes. Not rated. Available on Crunchyroll.
It’s refreshing to see a magical girl series made as recently as 2015 that’s simple and sincere with no traces of so-called deconstruction or irony. The girls never discover that their familiar is conning them, nor that they’re really in hell. Nobody gets mind-raped. And though it does find a flimsy excuse for a swimsuit episode, it even manages to steer clear of the more grotesque side of anime cheesecake. Continue reading “Review: ‘Wish upon the Pleiades’”
Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon: Crystal, Episode 29, “Ripples,” and Episode 30, “Two New Soldiers.” Toei Animation, April 2016. Approx. 48 minutes. Available on Crunchyroll.
I’m going to discuss what is arguably a plot twist, though if you know Sailor Moon at all, or even if you don’t, you’ll easily see it coming. I’m also going to discuss a scene that’s presented as if it’s supposed to be a shocker. So for courtesy’s sake, I’ll give a spoiler warning on this review, though I don’t think I’m actually giving much away. Continue reading “Review: Sailor Moon: Crystal, Season 3 Episodes 3-4”
They should have called it “Magical Girl Tsukasa-kun.”
Nurse Witch Komugi R, directed by Keiichiro Kawaguchi. Written by Kazuyuki Fudeyasu and Momoko Murakami. 2016. 12 episodes. Approx. 276 minutes. Available on Crunchroll.
There is a character in Nurse Witch Komugi R who, as I’ll explain shortly, should have been the central protagonist. She is (I kid you not) a crossdresser/pop idol/magical girl/cat girl/nun. And that right there tells you all you need to know about this show. To sum it up in a word: unfocused. Continue reading “Review: Nurse Witch Komugi R”
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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”
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.