The Sailor Saga

Let’s talk “feminism”.

Assuming you haven’t decided to ignore this piece because of that sentence, I should note that feminism, like racism and Zionism, is one of the most frequently-maligned and least-understood “isms” out there. Feminists are shafted for being "greedy" and "dominating" by dude-bros who fear the desire for equality amongst the sexes will “ruin all that’s pure in this world”, when this isn’t the case at all. Feminists really want women to treated respectfully, yet this resistance has led to many straw-man representations in media. Feminists are so frequently written as jerks that need to be humbled by men that the few instances where they’re treated with respect is refreshing.

This leads me to Sailor Moon, a 1992 anime series based on the Manga by Naoko Takeuchi. I once wrote a piece on Infinite Rainy Day stating I’d never discuss this show because of how insanely long it is. I still hold the latter to be true, but I have to renege my words because Sailor Moon refuses to leave me alone. I frequently listen to its theme song, both dub and original, and I find myself stumbling upon clips of the show on YouTube when I’m bored. So while I refuse to openly review it, I guess it’s only fair to discuss what keeps attracting me.

Sailor Moon is about Usagi Tsukino, a diminutive, over-emotional 14 year-old with bad grades and a short-attention span. Usagi spots a cat being tormented by some boys one day on the way to school, which she helps out of the goodness of her heart. The cat then tracks her to her home and catches her while she’s sleeping, only to surprise her by being able to talk. The cat’s name is Luna, and she’s the messenger of a celestial goddess of whom Usagi’s believed to be the reincarnation. After an awkward exchange, Luna gives Usagi a magic pendant that transforms her into Sailor Moon, which she promises to use to fight evil.

From there, the show becomes a traditional action series. Usagi ends up teaming with several girls that also are bequeathed pendants and they become The Sailor Scouts, which adds an interesting dynamic akin to Sentai shows of the time. Sailor Moon became the girl’s Sentai series, with each of the main heroines, Usagi, Minako, Rei, Ami and Makoto, working together to fight baddies with their powers, all of which were based on planets in our solar system. But the show also focused on the mundane, everyday lives of these girls, showing them growing up, going to school, dealing with bad hair days, flirting with boys, going to the mall, playing video games and being teenagers.

I think that’s why the show resonated strongly with young girls, even with a butchered dub from DiC Entertainment. Far too often in entertainment, boys are given more attention than girls when it comes to character writing. They’re either the only ones getting development, or they’re getting more. Girls, in contrast, are relegated to the sidelines/secondary tiers, being damsels-in-distress, love interests or window dressing. It’s a shame because girls deserve their share of adventure, role models to look up and relate to, and they’re not getting that. So having a show that directly catered to them is a plus.

I’m not kidding when I say that Sailor Moon was a big hit with little girls. Similarly to how boys had Dragon Ball Z to keep them entertained after school, girls had Sailor Moon. I remember my next-door neighbours having two daughters, and whenever my younger brother and I went over the show was always on. They were obsessed, and while I didn’t quite get why at the time, in hindsight it makes sense. It was to anime what The Powerpuff Girls was to Western animation: a show that appealed to girls of all ages.

But time can be unkind to children’s entertainment, so the adult me initially wondered if Sailor Moon was based purely on the novelty factor of girls as main characters. It’s not like being a novelty hasn’t backfired before, I don’t think Toy Story holds up, so the expectation isn’t unreasonable. But Sailor Moon, the uncut version, actually does hold up. It’s not “fantastic”, it has its share of issues, but its timeless appeal is reliant upon three factors:

Firstly, the background characters are interesting. There’s a common trap many power fantasy stories fall into, being that the side characters are either window dressing, or downplayed to make the heroes look better. This is doubly the case for feminist empowerment, which relegates the men in the stories to idiots or cut-out stereotypes. It’s a shame because although many male-centric stories do this to women, it doesn’t make it right. If feminist tales are to endure, they have to show that they’re better than that.

Sailor Moon avoids this. Sure, the side-characters aren’t the focus, but they’re not window dressing. Usagi has a defined relationship with her mother and younger brother, as well as her best friend Naru. She also has a defined relationship with Mamoru, who’s equally as interesting as she is. And that’s the case all around with the scouts: each of them have clear connections to families and friends, all of whom are interesting and relatable. Like Digimon, the inhabitants of Sailor Moon are fully-realized.

Secondly, the show has believable drama. It’s, again, a common trope in fantasy to make the stakes silly and cheap for the sake of keeping the audience entertained. It’s a frequent issue even in many modern-day anime, and it’s lazy. Sailor Moon is guilty of it to an extent, see the episode revolving around Minako nursing her friends to health, but it also avoids it when the situation calls for it. There’s even a plot thread surrounding Naru and one of her kidnappers, Nephrite, developing romantic feelings for one another, culminating in one of the show’s most heartbreaking moments. This is the kind of investment you want from a power fantasy series, and Sailor Moon has plenty of it.

Finally, this is one of the earliest anime, let-alone cartoons/shows, to feature a lesbian couple. The original dub tried to awkwardly skirt around the subtext by making them “cousins”, but there’s no hiding that Haruka and Michiru are in a relationship. That the show treats this maturely means that Sailor Moon can also appeal to the LGBT community, which it did. Not only did the show help young girls embrace their identities, it also helped queer individuals. That’s something the West is only beginning to understand, making Sailor Moon years ahead of its time.

Of course, this isn’t to say the show is flawless, as it isn’t. Ignoring the cheap animation and goofy sound effects, Sailor Moon spans 200 episodes and 5 movies. The show also has mundane and obnoxious filler episodes, including the aforementioned one with Minako being a nurse. And, of course, the show keeps treating death in a such way that none of the scouts stay dead long enough to actually feel the weight of their loss. These annoyances, when imbued with the suggestive transformation scenes, make it hard to fully appreciate the show.

But I still respect it. Sailor Moon, like Dragon Ball Z, Pokémon and Digimon, paved the way for anime in North America. It also made a huge impact in Japan, allowing writer Kunihiko Ikuhara to spread his wings before working on Revolutionary Girl Utena in 1997. Overall, it holds up as a show for girls, something really needed in a male-centric medium. So while I might be unable to fully embrace it, I still have no problems recommending it…so long as you're aware that it’s 200 episodes and has 5 movies.


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