based on the manga by Naoko Takeuchi
1992-1993 • 46 episodes • Toei Animation/Viz Media
When the first major wave of anime hit the United States in the early nineties, I was a small child, both in the sense that I was both young and in the sense that I was not already five six, as I would be before hitting middle school. Already entranced by the television, I began watching fits and snatches of cartoons, although the serial nature of television went over my head. It completely eluded me to the point that I would just turn on the television whenever, which was usually at four in the morning. Madame McBride was not amused. When she came across me watching The World of Richard Scarry at an ungodly early hour, she took it for Are You Afraid of the Dark? and made sure I never lay my hands upon a remote before noon again, so help me God.
This might be why I didn’t understand how television worked until I was fifteen.
But that was how I saw Sailor Moon for the first time. I’ve, in the course of my fits and starts to more personal writing, tried to pinpoint the exact airing schedule of it when I came across it, and have only come to the conclusion that being on the west coast helped. It was DiC’s now infamous American dub of the show, neatly glossing over any cultural inconsistencies, providing neat moral lessons in the Sailor Says segments, and, of course, frantically erasing any violent and queer content, from the first season’s villainous Kunzite and Zoisite to Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus. While I didn’t watch it religiously, Sailor Moon fit neatly into my haphazardly lady-centric view of the universe, even as it faded into the rearview mirror when we left California.
Ever since college, I’ve been threatening to actually sit down and watch it, but it was only with Viz Media’s new subtitled (and dubbed) version of the classic anime that I’ve actually gotten the chance. It’s not the same as it would be had I been reared on it—Captain Cinema won’t watch it, preferring to keep to her beloved memories of DiC’s iconic and hilaribad dub—but I also wouldn’t have had the faculties to willfully read Sailor Moon against context. In anime, Sailor Moon is one of the codifiers of the second stage of the Magical Girl genre, where Sentai elements were added to create a Magical Girl Warrior subgenre. But revisiting it as a superhero show, especially during Marvel’s current cultural ascendency, yields some interesting fruit.
Namely, that a shoujo anime from the nineties treats its female characters better than Guardians of the Galaxy does. That’s because Sailor Moon filters so many superhero tropes through the lens of preteen girls. The monsters of the week, especially at first, are all predicated on that audience’s fears, from failing in school to becoming famous to losing friends. And roll your eyes all you want at Usagi’s friend Maru falling in love with a villain much older than she is (because I was), the show still takes time to respect her depression after he dies.
More importantly, the show lets our protagonist, Usagi, be a pretty unlikable character. She’s a highly emotional, selfish, and scheming preteen girl, and even her fellow Sailor Guardians despair of her behavior. But there’s something wonderful about how broad Usagi is allowed to be, able to be both someone with enough moral authority to police her younger brother and someone narcissistic (in the way of teenagers, not sociopaths) enough to use her magical powers for her own benefit. True, Usagi does develop as a character over the course of the first season, slowly circling the role of leader of the Sailor Guardians before being, in a wallop of a season finale, forced to take things into her own hands, but the show, Luna’s constant catty remarks excused, does not punish her for being every inch of her.
This works because Usagi is just one star in a constellation of other teenage girls. There’s Maru, her aforementioned best friend, her classmates that she’s friendly with, and the other Sailor Guardians. While they’re archetypical, their flourishes are wonderful: hotheaded Rei, Sailor Mars, is also a Shinto shrine maiden who would be fighting evil anyway, while Makoto, Sailor Jupiter, is a brawny, romantic foodie. (Accordingly, she is my favorite.) While their personal conflicts may seem petty, the show is more interested in affirming female friendship than anything else, resisting villains who insist that girls can’t be friends and having Usagi actually actively seek out the friendship of Ami and Makoto. This comes to a head in the devastating season finale, where Usagi refuses to resolve her romantic arc out of respect for her friends.
Some aspects of Sailor Moon haven’t aged as well. Mamoru, Usagi’s love interest and secretly Tuxedo Mask (a secret to him, not us the audience, thanks to his distinctive musical cue), is a college student in his twenties who apparently hesitantly dates fourteen year olds. As much as it embraces the mindset of preteen girls, it often assumes some infuriating stereotypes instead of doing anything else with them. Witness “Learn How to Be Skinny from Usagi,” where several characters, including Luna, constantly insult Usagi’s eating habits and supposed weight gain. Even Zoisite, who is otherwise an intriguingly Machiavellian villain in a steady relationship with fellow bad guy Kunzite, manages to fit in stereotypes about gay men being femme, vain, and fastidious about their persons. (Pro-tip: if you have a queer character who is also those things, consider having other queer characters in your text so they are not the only commentary on queer folk you provide!) However, I trust that this will improve, especially when we get to Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus.