20 Years of Sailor Moon: Codename Sailor V

It's safe to say that Sailor Moon is back in a big way. The old series has been rescued at long last, and we can now not only enjoy it on Hulu, but can look forward to a DVD release that will not look and sound like digital ass. Finally, the new series Sailor Moon Crystal is days away from its premiere.  Thus, now is as good of a time as any to look back on the manga series that inspired it all, starting with Codename Sailor V and ending with the short story collections. It will be interesting to examine this series with fresh eyes to determine what works, what doesn't, and maybe just how a 20 year old shoujo series can still resonate with so many people today.

The year is 1991. Naoko Takeuchi was an up-and-coming manga creator, having a couple of stories under her belt. None of them were anything major, but it was enough to get her published in the shoujo magazine RunRun. One day, she approached her editor with an idea - how about a series with girls in outer space? It would be something cute, something fun, and something that would let her use her own knowledge and interest in astronomy. Her editor suggested that the girls in question wear sailor fuku, because her editor clearly knew that any form of media can be made more successful with the addition of schoolgirls. Eventually they worked these ideas into the series we know as Codename Sailor V. It was never meant to be some huge breakout hit, just a one-shot for a spring break issue. No one could have anticipated just how far the series and its creator would go.

Codename Sailor V is the story of thirteen year-old Minako Aino. She's your typical ordinary middle school student until the day she stumbles upon a talking white cat named Artemis. After observing her for sometime, he determines that she is the perfect candidate to receive a special power. He gives her a magic pen, and with it she can transform into a masked champion. With her newfound powers, Minako fights not only everyday evils, but those who seek to exploit the energy of humans for dark purposes.

You probably got a bit of deja vu reading that summary and I can't entirely blame you. It does bear a great deal of resemblance to how Usagi Tsukino became Sailor Moon. Many people, myself included, dismissed this series and this version of Minako on first glance for being little more than a prototype for Sailor Moon. It's only when you read beyond those first few chapters that you beging to see Minako is a character in her own right.  

Yes, like Usagi she's a blonde with a hearty appetite, not a lot of interest in her schoolwork, and a fondness for video games. On the other hand, she's also more athletic, less emotional, and far more boy-crazy, to the point that there's a running gag about how every cute guy she meets becomes her 'first love.' While she fights with Artemis often about her responsibilities, she takes to being a Sailor Scout far more willingly and more than once fights bullies and such without being asked.  Sailor V's style is far more physical than the Sailor Scouts, interspersing high kicks in with all the fancy magical beam attacks, and I suspect that her fondness for fighting games is more than a bit of influence. She also gets a lot more use out of her magical accessories than Sailor Moon ever did (excluding her tiara).  In particular, her magic pen not only serves as a costume pen, but also a communicator to let her and Artemis communicate with the mysterious "Boss" who gives them orders and the odd bit of exposition.  What I'm trying to say is that there are some superficial resemblances, Minako is more than just the beta version of Sailor Moon.

I wish I could say that the rest of the cast got so much time and effort put into them. Artemis is the exception to all this, as he serves as the put-upon mentor always trying to push Minako towards focusing more on the task at hand instead of boys or idol singers or whatever. Takeuchi puts him to very good use at the beginning of most chapters, as he tries to deliver the usual introductory monologue and having it almost always devolve into Minako teasing him or arguing with him. It's sometimes snarky, sometimes a bit meta, and overall it's a clever touch to a feature that was often forced on manga creators by their publishers. Everyone else, civilian and villain alike, are portrayed far more broadly.  There are also a lot of familiar faces amongst that crowd, thanks to Takeuchi recycling some of the character designs for Sailor Moon.  Minako's best friend looks suspiciously like Sailor Mercury.  The police inspector general/secret Sailor V fangirl bears a strong resemblance to Sailor Mars. Most blatantly, Minako has a geeky classmate name Amano who might as well be the same person as Sailor Moon's Umano.  This only becomes more disorienting once the Sailor Scouts start popping up in cameo appearances, always just missing meeting Minako by seconds. Sailor V even gets a Tuxedo Mask-esque figure of her own, Phantom Ace. He's more of a plot device than anything else, though, as it takes Takeuchi a long time to decide whether he's just a costumed actor/idol or something else altogether.

Codename Sailor V is a very episodic sort of manga. Some evil version of a mundane thing threatens to drain the energy of others, Minako and/or Artemis discover the plot, they fight, they win, and everything returns to normal in time for the next chapter. Takeuchi certainly got very creative with her choice of villains, as over the course of these two volumes we have:
  • Evil idol singers
  • Evil video games
  • Evil tour guides
  • Evil department stores
  • Evil catgirls
  • Evil blood donations
  • Evil puppies
  • Evil karaoke
  • Evil Chinese people (?!)
To say that these villains can be kind of ridiculous (and occasionally a little offensive like the last one) is an understatement. Thankfully, the story is pretty silly and light-hearted to begin with, so they never feel out of place. I also get the feeling that this series ended up being the dumping ground for all the villain ideas Takeuchi could no longer use in Sailor Moon after the reveal of all the Silver Millennium backstory. We do start seeing little bits of it slip into the story midway through the second volume, but it doesn't really make any impact until the very end. Admittedly, the revelation of Venus's past is well done, even a little sad, but it's such a radical change in tone that one can't help but feel a little whiplashed. While it's a good lead-in to Sailor Moon, it also leaves a lot of things hanging. We never learn who the "Boss" is, and while a well-informed reader can connect this and the villains here with those in Sailor Moon, a newcomer would just be left wondering who they were and why was draining energy so dang important.

There's isn't any sort of drastic shift in the artwork, which is surprising when you consider that Takeuchi took many years off of the series because of the popularity of Sailor Moon. Some of the early chapters are a bit rougher around the edges, but even then she has a clearly established visual style. It's a combination of sparkly delicate shoujo style and a frenetic, cartoony sort of squiggliness, a style where wispy hair and willowy limbs can be combined with big, flappy cartoon mouths and wacky screentones.  It's a combination that sounds strange on paper but works beautifully in practice, and it's a perfect fit to the story.

Despite being the first one on the scene, Codename Sailor V ended up being the afterthought to its sister series, even if they wrapped up at roughly the same time in 1997.  Takeuchi, along with her editors, took many of the ideas here and refined upon them in Sailor Moon.  Indeed, Toei originally approached them about creating a Codename Sailor V series, and it was their idea to make Sailor V part of a sentai-style team of Sailors.  Still, as the series goes on you get the sense this one was much more fun to Takeuchi to work on.  There was no mythos to work around, no grand story arcs to follow.  It was just about a girl and her talking cat beating up bad guys with magic and some well-timed kicks.  Maybe that's how both the seasoned fans and the newcomers need to look at it.  It's not the rough sketch for another series, it's the fun and silly spin-off to the main series. As such, I would give Codename Sailor V a rating of:

Next time, I'll be looking at the first few volumes of Sailor Moon, and see what happens when Takeuchi is given room to expand both her cast and her storytelling.


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