I swore never to speak of such things again. But there’s no way I can get out of talking about this, is there?
This past week, as of this posting, was the 25th Anniversary of the premier of the first animated adaptation of Bishōjo Senshi Sailormoon, or, as it’s better known in the west, Sailor Moon. Like most Japanese pop media, Sailor Moon actually started as a manga first, and thus the *true* 25th Anniversary of the series was last year. But the first anime is considered by the overwhelming majority of fans to be the definitive version of the story, and is certainly the most well known internationally. So this is the date that’s going to be seeing the most widespread attention and acclaim from critic and fan circles. Sailor Moon is one of those huge anime shows that even people who aren’t familiar with Japanese media will instantly recognise. It, along with Dragon Ball Z and Ranma 1/2, defined the anime landscape of the early 1990s and was an integral part of the international anime breakout. It was also far and away the most interesting of the three to my eyes, which is what I thought when I was looking to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of Japanese media a few years back. Quite simply, you can’t claim to fully understand the history of global pop culture without looking at Sailor Moon.
And thus I’m spending Women’s History Month writing about one of the most infuriatingly fraught examples of Mirror Darkly female empowerment in all of pop culture history.
But I get ahead of myself. As if it wasn’t clear, Sailor Moon and I have a history. I have a special relationship with this series, and, in this case, “special” does not entirely mean “good”. I was drawn to Sailor Moon after coming off of a high spent writing about Dirty Pair for Vaka Rangi, and it seemed to me at first glace that Sailor Moon was the natural and fitting, if slightly counterintuitive, successor to Dirty Pair in terms of mass-market young adult Japanese fiction targeted primarily towards girls. It also served as a curious contrast to that series: Whereas Dirty Pair came out of the otaku scene of the early 1980s and was thus heavy on the hard (or hard-ish) science fiction (and failed somewhat spectacularly), Sailor Moon came out of a later generation of Japanese nerd culture, dropped the science fiction altogether and was unique in the sense it was the first large scale manga-to-anime franchise helmed by a woman who wasn’t Rumiko Takahashi to gain universal success and acclaim.
Like I do with all such series, I sat down to read the manga first before I checked out the anime to get a feel for creator Naoko Takeuchi’s original intent. And things promptly went downhill from there.
There is no other franchise I have ever followed or studied that has caused me as much grief, anxiety, confusion, self-doubt, anguish and pain as Sailor Moon. I wanted more than anything to adore it, yet I despised almost every moment spent with what I found to be a seemingly willfully incoherent, juvenile (and at times shockingly bigoted) piece of sequential art, aesthetically and creatively compromised even by pulp serial standards. Reading Sailor Moon was a simply miserable experience for me, made altogether worse by the franchise’s hit squad of a fandom, who used my every comment about it (almost all of which of which were at the time deliberately praiseworthy in an earnest and sincere attempt to stay positive, for my own mental health if nothing else) as basis for unceasing personal attacks. Privately, I chronicled my slow descent into hopelessness on now-abandoned social media profiles, pushed to the depths of desperation and self-loathing at my utter inability to see what everyone else in the world saw in Sailor Moon.
And yet, even so, in the years since I have been utterly unable to leave Sailor Moon behind. It remains a permanent fixation in my pop culture lens and has remained with me longer than almost all of the other series I’ve studied, even the ones I’ve said I’ve actually enjoyed. I keep coming back to Sailor Moon to sift through its ashes over and over and over again in the way I gather some people do (or at least did) with the Star Wars prequels, desperately searching for answers. Because, as awful as it most certainly can be, it also does some absolutely miraculous things nothing else I’ve seen in pop culture has ever done. It is quite possibly the greatest Curate’s Egg in all of manga and anime. As a result, as much as it hurt me, I’ve come to know Sailor Moon better then a lot of other things. It’s gotten to the point of becoming a series I almost love to hate…and perhaps hate to love. In its own terminology, Sailor Moon is an Enemy. But it’s my Enemy. It is my greatest rival, my equal and opposite, and no-one else is allowed to fight it with as much lust and intimacy as I am. The second anime adapted a story arc about a traumatic apocalypse that literally killed the future in 2016, and it was, and still is, the only thing that’s been there for me.
I am not going to be doing an in-depth review or analysis of Sailor Moon. Not here, and possibly not anywhere. Ever. Sailor Moon almost transcends critique for me and, frankly, if I can avoid its fans, I’d prefer to. But I do feel obligated to share a few thoughts and observations on this drawn-out and entirely appropriate Silver Anniversary. Like a lot of manga-to-anime adaptations, the original version of Sailor Moon is far less well known then the animated series that displaced it. Unlike a lot of similar franchises, however, the original manga-ka is still held up as the singular creative visionary of Sailor Moon, in spite of her actual comparatively diminished creative role in the anime. While Rumiko Takahashi is certainly beloved and well respected, most fans of Urusei Yatsura, Ranma 1/2 and InuYasha seem quick to admit the anime adaptations generally improved on the source material to some degree or another (indeed, in the case of Urusei Yatsura, it’s the movie Beautiful Dreamer that is held up as the greatest thing the franchise ever did. A film that was directed and envisioned primarily by then-up and coming filmmaker Mamoru Oshii, and which Takahashi herself is rumoured to have actually despised).
And in truth, while they won’t slag off the original manga, almost every Sailor Moon fan (at least in the West) will have indescribably formative nostalgia for the first anime adaptation, and probably won’t have a lot to say about any of the other versions of the story (which, aside from a second anime series the fandom only seems to begrudgingly accept, also includes a live-action TV series, several stage musicals, a bunch of actually-not-terrible video games and even an AU written by the original manga-ka herself). It is exclusively this interpretation of these characters and this story that most people seem to prefer to remember and headcanon as the definitive ones. This is particularly interesting, because even by manga-to-anime standards, the original show changes a *lot* about Sailor Moon. To someone coming to the show from the manga, these characters are simply unrecognisable, and I’m sure anime fans feel the same way about the manga. Most of the time this helps, because Naoko Takeuchi has a terrible habit of writing her characters as so stock and two-dimensional they become actually indistinguishable from one another, a problem exacerbated by her own art style.
So for example, from what I can gather (oh by the way confession time: I have not watched this series all the way through. It’s fucking long for one thing, but also, after finishing the manga I had negative desire to do so), Rei, Sailor Mars, a character who, near as I can tell, basically spends the series as “generic shrine maiden” and “programmatically aloof” is transformed into one of the most multifaceted and beloved characters in the franchise. Meanwhile, Ami/Sailor Mercury is “the bookish nerdy one”…That is, unless the plot requires someone to hold the idiot ball and act like a dumbass (well more of a dumbass than usual anyway) to facilitate a plot contrivance, at which point it will inevitably be her. The anime gives her a lot more interiority and time to form a close bond with Usagi (the titular Sailor Moon) before the other Senshi show up. This is a problem all of the non-Usagi Sailor Scouts have: In the manga, they’re all introduced within the span of literally pages and are never really given the chance to become distinct characters in their own right, never ascending beyond the rank of Usagi’s doting supporting cast. Similarly, anime fans would be shocked to learn how superfluous and forgettable the iconic Queen Beryl really is, who in the source material is merely the first in a parade of increasingly indistinguishable Cackling Evil Queens.
The expansionist approach taken by the anime does, however, have its disadvantages. Haruka/Sailor Uranus and Michiru/Sailor Neptune, who debut in the third story arc, are in my view arguably the greatest idea Sailor Moon ever had. Introduced as a pair of grown-up, “big sister” Sailor Scouts who have a different mission and get their powers from a different source then the core “Inner Senshi”, Uranus and Neptune are based on Takeuchi’s belief that Takarazuka, all all-female musical Revue in which women play both male and female roles, is “the highest form of empowerment” a woman can aspire to (a debatable claim, but one that explains the multitude of tie-in soundtracks to the first anime, the existence of the Sailor Moon stage musical and the heavy emphasis on Takarazuka-style melodrama, music and imagery in the second anime) and are also in a committed romantic relationship with one another (now is not the time to discuss what *kind* of relationship Haruka and Michiru have. Suffice to say blood has been shed on this topic. Mostly mine). Haruka, Sailor Uranus, is even explicitly stated to be “both man and woman”, and that this is where her power comes from.
It was Haruka and Michiru that drew me to Sailor Moon in the first place, partly because it’s been claimed they were possibly based (at least in part) on Kei and Yuri from Dirty Pair, but mostly because they’re fascinating characters in their own right with or without that connection. And truth be known, as soon as they show up the Sailor Moon manga takes a *dramatic* turn for the better. Takeuchi seems liberated writing for them, and you kind of wish there was a whole manga just about them. Their introductory arc, Sailor Moon Infinity, is no less plagued by structural or conceptual problems than the rest of the manga (and even ends on some fairly disgusting heteronormativity and reproductive futurism, another *huge* problem with Sailor Moon), but when it’s actually working, simply nothing can touch what it has to say about gender. However the first anime, in its attempt to add depth to the characters, re-envisions Haruka and Michiru as ends-justify-the-means Knight Templar 90s antiheroes (and if they’re not, this is the part of them I see most praised in out-of-context Tumblr posts), which they absolutely were not in the original manga, and that makes it very, very hard to sympathize with them.
This results in an odd reversal of their intended role: In many ways, Uranus and Neptune *upstage* the Inner Senshi in Sailor Moon Infinity, and while their methods seem strange and hard to understand, Takeuchi is always careful to frame it in such a way that the Inner Senshi are our viewpoint characters. Ergo, the only reason Haruka and Michiru seem strange to us is because this is children’s fantasy and the behaviour of adults sometimes seems strange to children. But Haruka and Michiru are elders who truly have the best interest of their juniors at heart…Even if the finale shits all over this in a multiplicity of ways. Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune were clearly intended to be Naoko Takeuchi’s definitive statement on gender and female empowerment (she even calls Haruka her “ideal woman” and a role model she herself openly aspires to be like. This is in contrast with Usagi, who is an author insert character fraught with so many layers of self-deprecation it at times borders on self-parody), and this nuance is completely lost in the first anime version of this story.
But nobody in the cast gets hurt by the manga-to-anime translation worse than Sailor Venus. Venus is probably my favourite Senshi, even accounting for the Dirty Pairishness of Uranus and Neptune, but the character I love and the character Sailor Moon fans know are two entirely different people. At the root of this is the inescapable fact Sailor Venus and Sailor Moon are basically the same character, with one being the prototype for the other. Naoko Takeuchi had previously written a parody of Super Sentai-type series called Codename: Sailor V, which starred Minako Aino, the character who would later become Sailor Venus. The series was unexpectedly popular and Takeuchi was asked to turn it into a franchise, but after all the changes and revisions were made during the transition process it became Sailor Moon instead. Something that, while clearly sharing the same lineage, was manifestly a different entity altogether.
The Sailor Moon manga gets around this by writing Minako as the hero of another story and considerably downplaying her role in the series: She’s the loyal, noble, honourable and hypercompetent commanding general of the Sailor Senshi and the right-hand woman of Neo Queen Serenity (Sailor Moon’s past/future/alternate/true self. Sailor Moon Metaphysics gets confusing), but that’s about all it tells us about her. When she’s introduced in Sailor Moon, she’s already established as a hero in her own right and is always off running other errands elsewhere (much like Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune, actually). The anime, however, in its attempts to differentiate Usagi and Minako, effectively turns Minako into a giggling and comically inept airhead. While Minako in the source material did occasionally have these qualities, they were more often then not attempts at obfuscating stupidity for the benefit of her enemies…And flamboyantly, self-consciously awkward plays at fitting in for the benefit of her friends. This is a girl who knows deep down in her heart she’ll never truly belong anywhere.
Minako is always shown to have very powerful hidden depths, but they appear to be deliberately left unexplored. The most we ever get is the very subtle implications of arc 4, Sailor Moon Dream, that Sailor Venus has some unspoken extradiegetic connection to Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune as their peer (indeed in the preceding Sailor Moon Infinity she’s even the only Sailor Scout other than Uranus to take on a male alter ego), and the odd offhand comment from Minako herself that, unique among *all* of the Senshi, she is in truth the avatar of a goddess. This is as it should be, and while the anime does eventually give its Venus a character arc that, though profoundly different from the one the Venus of the manga gets, is still a satisfying development of that particular character, it loses all of these oversignified subtleties. But an argument could be made this is for the best: The first anime does cut out most of Sailor Moon’s confusion, both negative and positive, and distills the story in such a way it was able to become a global pop culture phenomenon.
There are other problems too. Naoko Takeuchi is praised very highly for her attention to detail when it comes to symbolism: Like most anime characters, the cast of Sailor Moon all have birthdays and blood types that are supposed to give us hints about their unique characterizations, provided you follow the framework of Japanese astrology (an appropriately syncretic system combining elements of both Western and Chinese astrological symbolism). In the case of Sailor Moon, the Senshis’ birth dates were chosen not just based on Zodiac signs, but what their associated element is and where their ruling planet would be. So, Sailor Jupiter is born on December 5 because that makes it so her Zodiac sign is Sagittarius, which is supposed to be a clue as to what her personality is like, and also because it makes Jupiter her ruling planet. The associated element for that combination is wind, so Sailor Jupiter has wind-based powers.
The problem is, none of this actually makes sense or holds together in practice. Sailor Mercury’s astrological symbolism gives her water powers…But Neptune is the god of the sea and Sailor Neptune has control over the ocean. Sailor Neptune and Sailor Mercury never interact, in case you were wondering, even in Sailor Moon Dream where the “Inner” Senshi are paired up with mentors from the “Outer” Senshi (except for Sailor Moon, who gets her True Love Tuxedo Mask and Sailor Venus…who gets nobody). Similarly, both Sailor Jupiter and Sailor Uranus have wind powers and never interact (though Uranus’ is supposedly more “sky” based, but really), and Sailor Pluto and Sailor Saturn are both associated with death.
(This would almost work given the reading that Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune are heroes from another story, so there might be some expected redundancy in that case, that is if they weren’t swiftly retconned into being generic Sailor Senshi after their debut story arc.)
Sailor Pluto is also retconned to have a very vague and ill-defined connection to Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune, who were introduced later than her, seemingly just because they’re all “Outer” Senshi and are thus “supposed” to go together. There’s a handwavey invocation of the Imperial Regalia of Japan (Uranus’ sword, Neptune’s mirror and Pluto’s…staff with a sparkly bit at the top. That’s like a jewel, right?) to link them together, even though what the Three Talismans, as they’re called in Sailor Moon Infinity, do has absolutely nothing to do with what the actual artefacts of Amaterasu-ōmikami-sama are supposed to do. And none of this has even the remotest connection to the underworld, which is what Sailor Pluto was originally the guardian of.
And while it’s a cheap shot bringing in Sailor Venus again as she was created so much earlier than everyone else for a series with an entirely different set of symbolic and mythological associations, she was retconned in and thus we have to acknowledge how she complicates things. Sailor Venus’ astrological symbolism is a mess, apparently being *both* a Libra (which would fittingly make her ruling planet Venus) *and* a Sagittarius (which wouldn’t) depending on which point in the series you start reading. The earliest drafts of the manga have Minako’s birthday as November 22, while all later materials retcon it to be October 22. However, it’s seemingly back to November 22 in the graphic novel The Lover of Princess Kaguya (written and taking place after Sailor Moon Infinity, a good *three years* into the run of Sailor Moon), because the Senshi throw a party to celebrate Christmas *as well as* the joint birthdays of Minako and Makoto (Sailor Jupiter), apparently because Naoko Takeuchi simply forgot she changed it.
Sailor Venus even complicates the symbolism of the other Senshi too. Mars is linked to war and has fire associations, and while Sailor Mars *does* have fire powers, it’s Sailor Venus who, apart from being an actual military commander, actually says she is “the goddess of love and war”. And while I’m sure this gives Mars/Venus shippers one more tool in their arsenal to beat the drum of a ‘ship that, like so much else fans seem to like about this series, is for all intents and purposes exclusive to the first anime, we have to grant this was a later expansion to the franchise. Speaking of Venus, funny thing about her is that while her powers are ostensibly love-based, she seems to use light- and sun-based attacks just as much, if not more so: Some of her powers also involve a lot of Star and Crescent symbolism, which can represent the admixture of Solar and Lunar just as much as it can the Moon and Venus. Also, the Sun is evil in Sailor Moon for some reason.
So the goddess of love and light is retconned into subservience to the exalted messianic lunar feminine. I’ll just leave that there. Do with it what you will.
The first anime, to its credit, changes and streamlines all of this, removing any and all ambiguity when it comes to the astrological symbolism of the Sailor Scouts. Sailor Venus is explicitly and definitively a Libra born on October 22, for example, among other things. And while this and other such changes to the story (such as savvily using filler arcs to add a Dragon Ball Z-style Wandering the Earth tone to an otherwise hypercompressed serial) certainly makes the mythology less confusing and more cohesive, from a critical standpoint it also makes the series a bit less interesting. Granted much of what makes the Sailor Moon manga interesting is due to sloppiness and general screwups, but still: Sailor Moon’s noble failures are crucial to understanding what it really is and what it’s really about, and they shouldn’t just be glossed over or ignored. You must ask yourself what you’d rather have: A tight and cohesive story you can sit down and watch for entertainment uncritically as a discrete package, or something that forces you to think about its implications and symbolism, both positive and negative? Do you want to *enjoy* Sailor Moon, or do you want to *know* Sailor Moon?
That wasn’t a rhetorical question, and I truthfully cannot answer that. That’s up to you to decide for yourself.
But all this is a roundabout way of addressing the elephant in the room here. If the anime *just* streamlined the manga’s story and made it more accessible a la Urusei Yatsura that would be one thing. But at least in the case of that series, almost everyone eagerly acknowledges, accepts, and indeed embraces, the differences between Rumiko Takahashi’s vision for the series and Mamoru Oshii’s. This does not happen in Sailor Moon fandom. Naoko Takeuchi is treated like James Cameron, or perhaps more fittingly Gene Roddenberry or George Lucas: The singular visionary behind the entire franchise and absolutely everything it ever does. And that’s simply not the case.
Takeuchi is certainly actively involved in everything Sailor Moon, but to say she’s directly responsible for all of it is misleading. It is far more accurate historically speaking to draw a line between the original Sailor Moon anime and that of Revolutionary Girl Utena (which was helmed by one of the series’ directors and is in many ways a *direct response* to it) than it is to draw one from the original Sailor Moon anime back to Naoko Takeuchi’s manga. This is something I think Takeuchi herself would even admit, as she’s said a number of times she was shocked by some of the changes made to the first anime and freely admits she doesn’t think she could capture the look of the show with her own drawing style. Disregarding the influence of Kuniko Ikuhara (director of the first four seasons of the original Sailor Moon anime and Revolutionary Girl Utena) is being willfully ignorant of history and unfair to both him and, frankly Takeuchi: This move to deify her in spite of everything seems like a deliberate attempt to paper over her own quirks and eccentricities as a writer in an attempt to attribute only the best of Sailor Moon to her…while conveniently pretending the worst doesn’t also exist.
The absolute most egregious and unforgivable example of this is the vitriolic reception the second anime, Sailor Moon Crystal, has received from hardcore fans of the first show. It is positively raked across the coals for being incoherent, at times deeply objectifying and sexist, and reliant on stalling techniques to hold up its really weird pacing, which seems to give almost no time for important things like character development and altogether too much for exposition. And this is, in many ways, true, but it’s only a half-truth. What *nobody* who has critiqued Sailor Moon Crystal has *ever* been willing to admit is that *every single* criticism that’s been hurled at Crystal could be, and should be, raised against the original manga as well.
I’ll admit I’ve only watched the third season (again, I have absolutely no desire to go any further with this than I already have), but from what I can tell, Sailor Moon Crystal is a *fiercely loyal* adaptation of the manga. Far more loyal, in fact, than the original anime, and far more loyal, it would seem, than Sailor Moon fans are comfortable with: I saw zero appreciable difference between the manga and Crystal versions of Sailor Moon Infinity (in fact, the Crystal version felt noticeably tighter and more coherent to me, though critically without losing one drop of the intended symbolism of Infinity‘s story), with the plot being instantly recognisbale at a shot-for-shot level. The backlash against it strikes me as being born of a mixture of rose-tinted nostalgia and insecurity: A desperate hope that we can justify our childhood tastes in media to ourselves, and a desperate wish to not have to blame Naoko Takeuchi for anything.
And I get this, in part, anyway. It is very hard to say unkind things about Naoko Takeuchi, who by all accounts seems like a perfectly sweet lady who only wants the best for everyone. *I* hate having to be mean to her, and I *especially* hate having to eviscerate her magnum opus, which seems to have done so much good for so many girls the world over. But I simply cannot condone this latent desire to scrounge together a liberal fandom canon comfort zone around it with a (Female) God at the head. Not being honest with Naoko Takeuchi, and with ourselves, is doing her an even worse injustice: Not truthfully engaging with her positionality and the material reality of her work, choosing to selectively remember only the parts of it we like and granting only our happiest memories to her at the expense of everyone else who was involved in a multi-billion-dollar international franchise, is nothing short of the height of irresponsibility.
After all, isn’t Sailor Moon, in spite of everything else it may or may not have done, ultimately a series about being true to yourself?