Sailor Moon Crystal Episode 1: Usagi – Sailor Moon

SAILOR-MOON-CRYSTAL-GROUP

In 2012, the Sailor Moon franchise celebrated its 20th anniversary by announcing that the series would have an updated re-release. Somehow, I completely missed it. So imagine my surprise when the first episode debuted on CrunchyRoll this past weekend. The nostalgia hit me like a freight train; it was as if my inner ten year-old burst forth like a shaken can of soda. It was like the weekday afternoons of yore, in which getting home from school meant being treated to hours of awesome and creative cartoons. Once it wore off, the cynicism set in. I’ve seen plenty of anime, and stuff like Madoka has changed how I look at at this particular genre. How well does Sailor Moon hold up against modern expectations?

****SPOILERS FOR A 22 YEAR-OLD SERIES AND ITS UPDATED REMAKE****

The episode starts with a panning shot of a drawn solar system. It’s obvious foreshadowing of the characters to come; each Sailor Scout is designated one of the planets (except for Earth), though what’s curious is that only the planets between Mercury and Saturn are shown. Does this mean the anime is going to include the events of Sailor Saturn’s arc? What about Sailors Neptune, Uranus, and Pluto? Before that fully sinks in, the camera closes in on Earth and the moon. I doubt it’s drawn to scale, but I appreciate that the animators display a fair amount of distance between the two. They share the screen, implying their connection despite being so far apart. The background music and choir swell up, and we’re given a closer view of the moon, with its realistic glow mostly hiding its craters and natural formations. Then a lingering shot of Earth as seen from orbit (someone must’ve watched Gravity), before it shifts to a bird’s-eye  view of the Silver Millennium kingdom. A young woman – we don’t see her face, just her ornate white gown – runs down a flight of stairs to a dark figure in a cape. Fans already know it’s Princess Serenity and Prince Endymion, but props to the animators for making it seem beautiful and mysterious. Arms outstretch, and the silhouetted vision of two people closing in for a kiss…

Then the alarm goes off.

A mother calls out to her daughter, Usagi, saying she’s going to be late for school. A bundle of blonde hair shuffles under the covers. A panicked screech, and Usagi Tsukino’s unmistakable high-pitched whining takes over the audio. She scrambles to get dressed, and promptly falls down the stairs. It’s a nice contrast to the previous scene, and it highlights the supposed differences between the dreamy, idealized young woman with the clumsy, awkward teenaged girl. Kotono Mitsuishi reprised her original role as Sailor Moon’s Japanese voice actor, and it shows. I grew up with the English version – I still catch myself calling Usagi by her dub name, Serena – but there’s no mistaking who the character is. Everything we need to know about Usagi (as a normal girl, anyway) is established in that moment: she’s unorganized, lacks composure, irresponsible, whiny, prone to mistakes, but still sweet. She has yet to become the woman she was meant to be.

Before the scene ends, Mrs. Tsukino sighs and glances back at the newspaper she was reading. We’re given a huge foreshadowing moment with the article about Sailor V (aka Venus), a crime-fighting heroine who’s recently appeared in town. If I recall correctly, Venus was the first Scout found and activated, but was the last to be introduced in the series due to the story being told from Usagi’s perspective. She was doing her own heroics for about a year before joining the rest of the team. What I’m wondering is how this is going to be reflected in the airing of the episodes. Crystal is supposed to be truer to original manga than the 90s anime, which means pacing is going to be sped up considerably. It took 8 episodes for another Sailor Scout to show up in the original run, and 33 before Venus joined. How long will it take this time?

Never mind, the opening theme and animation finally show up. The original five Scouts stand side by side in a field of flowers, with the moon dominating the background. Then, individual character profiles and some attack displays. The art stunning; the hair flows in the wind, their signature moves look so much better. Especially Mars’s flame attacks, which are given some impressive shading and highlights. Their eyes, while much bigger and shinier than before, make me wonder about the extent of their expressiveness; Toei’s animators are going to have a tough time making sure the girls can emote with those doll-like faces. Queen Beryl and the other villains are only seen in fleeting glimpses, but even they have more definable facial expressions. On the other hand, the new song is much better. It doesn’t have the grace and sweetness of the original; it’s faster, louder, and much more direct. It spells out what Sailor Moon has always been about: badass, determined superheroines who aren’t waiting for someone to save them. There’s even a line about them not needing men’s protection, but that statement itself isn’t needed. Unless they’re completely oblivious, viewers should be able to figure it out pretty quickly. I do appreciate the shot of old-school version of Silver Millennium accompanied with the line, “A new legend begins right now.” It’s an unspoken reassurance to older fans that, despite the new look, some things haven’t changed at all.

Back to Usagi frantically running to school. She introduces herself via voice-over (I seriously can’t believe she’s only 14!), admitting she’s a little clumsy and a crybaby. She steps on a black cat, AKA Luna, the being that will inevitably grant her Sailor powers. It’s a good thing this encounter happened in a highly idealized magical girl anime, because Luna would’ve broken her back and died from the injuries otherwise. Despite being in a rush, Usagi takes the time to make sure Luna is okay, and removes the band-aids covering the cat’s moon-shaped forehead mark. Not only is this the first indication that something’s weird about Luna, but it demonstrates a couple of Usagi’s other qualities: she’s easily distracted, but cares about those around her. Luna should’ve been able to speak at this point, but Usagi hears the school bell and runs off. The scene ends with Luna staring pensively after her, implying their business isn’t over.

The scene changes to what appears to be a castle in the midst of a snowstorm. Pale, almost sickly color scheme. A young man – we can’t see his face, but savvy viewers know it’s probably Jadeite – summons some kind of evil monster from the ground. The shifting mass of flesh and whatever else takes the shape of a woman, and Mr. Faceless commands her to find something called the “Legendary Silver Crystal.” She bows and vanishes, and the scene ends. That’s all. Queen Beryl isn’t mentioned by name, but Mr. Faceless refers to serving a master. It’s enough to imply that this guy is middle management at best; enough power to summon Monsters of the Week, but still has to answer to someone higher up on the evil food chain.

Back to Usagi’s adventures at school. She didn’t make it on time, so she has to stand outside of the classroom as punishment. As she starts monologuing, there’s a brief shot of her entire body standing next to the door. Is it just me, or do the characters’ proportions seem off? Specifically, the legs. They’re way too long. The girls were pretty leggy in the original anime, but they at least seemed better fleshed-out. This version of Usagi has long, narrow, spider-like limbs; I can’t tell where the knees actually are, and she looks too tall to touch the doorknob. Then again, it’s not that far off from the manga…Usagi thinks back to the dream she had at the beginning of the episode, wishing that she could be a princess so she wouldn’t have to attend school. The main character of an escapist superhero fantasy is her having own escapist fantasy! Never mind the responsibilities of ruling a kingdom and the burdens of authority.

Usagi tries to sneak an early lunch, but gets caught and reprimanded by her English teacher. We get to see her latest test results: a solid 30/100, with a page full of red marks! Even if you don’t like her at this point, you can still feel the sting of a failing grade. She’s then lectured a bit by her classmates, Molly and Melvin. Er, Naru and Umino! Their names are Naru and Umino. Sorry, the English dub his hard to shake. These two characters are remnants of series long past. Umino is a little guy with huge, swirly-patterned glasses that cover up his eyes. If this was a modern show, his glasses would likely be transparent to give viewers a better look at his youthful face. He’d probably be more serious, aloof, and shy. Here, he’s much friendlier and slightly annoying. Naru is explained to be almost as smart (scoring 85 to his 95), is pretty, and comes from rich family. In more recent anime, she’d probably be a class representative, arrogant, and snooty. But here, she’s down-to-Earth and kind, and sociable.

The kids get together during lunch and discuss the recent crime wave. Someone’s been targeting jewelry stores, and Sailor V’s been busy apprehending thieves. It’s unclear what Sailor V actually is; Umino mentions a rumor that she’s a special police officer, but I doubt the NPA would allow a masked heroine into their ranks. At best, it’s probably something along the lines of Batman’s vigilantism in Gotham: an illegal necessity. V is clearly more fabulous, though the practicality of a sailor fuku in combat is questionable. The same goes for some of these schoolgirls’ priorities; some say they relate to to the robbers, because “jewelry is shiny and gorgeous.” A commentary on cultural materialism? A breakdown of morality? I don’t know, but if Usagi is anything to go by, I wouldn’t let these girls anywhere near my bling. Naru would, though; her mom owns a local jewelry store, so she invites everyone to shop without committing larceny.

Cut to the store. The girls ogle at some gems in the window, and Naru points out one worth a billion yen…Wait, what? One billion yen?! I don’t doubt the translation, but has that price been adjusted for inflation? How can something that valuable be sitting in a storefront display?! It’s not like this is some high-brow exclusive establishment; it’s a place where anyone can walk in and check the selection. And there are indeed a lot of people here; Naru’s mom has started a 95% off sale, and she offers the schoolgirls even more of a discount. Naru notes how weird her mother is acting and wonders what’s going on. She’s right to be worried; as the crowd shuffles through the goods, we hear the mother’s inner musings. She observes the scene with a sinister smile, thinking how she needs the youthful energy of her eager customers.

Knowing all too well that she won’t be getting any allowance after her poor test performance, Usagi calls it quits and starts to leave. She crumples the proof of her miserable failure into a ball and throws it over her shoulder, because ignoring problems makes them go away. She accidentally hits a guy that was standing right behind her. Tall, dark, handsome…and wearing a tuxedo and shades. He calls her out, makes fun of her hair (I wish he would’ve called her Meatball Head!), tells her to study more, and shoves the paper back in her face. There’s a sweet, love-at-first-sight moment when they make eye contact, and suddenly the chattiest character on the show can’t speak. An obviously flustered Usagi walks away, thinking, “Who wears a tuxedo in the afternoon?” That’s actually a very good question. Newcomers to the series will undoubtedly connect him with the prince from the dream, but older viewers know it’s Mamoru/Darien/Tuxedo Mask. As in, the male hero/love interest who frequently helps the Scouts by throwing roses and looking classy. So, why is he wearing a tuxedo? He states in a monologue that he’s looking for the “Legendary Silver Crystal” in the jewelry shop. But doesn’t he realize how much he sticks out? If he’s trying to be incognito, then why is he dressed exactly like his alter ego? That’s like Superman trying to pass himself off as Clark Kent while wearing a Superman costume!

Sigh. Usagi and Mamoru truly deserve each other.

In an attempt to forestall the inevitable showdown with her mom, our heroine takes a detour into the local arcade. She sees a Sailor V video game, and wishes that she too were a superhero; she’d get to skip school and kick bad guy ass. Be careful what you wish for, Usagi…Also, how in the name of the Moon did developers make a video game about Sailor V? She’s only been active for a year. Did someone follow her, take notes of how she fights, and program the game accordingly? Also, V’s detailed likeness is all over the media. Why did she allow her picture to be taken? That gaudy domino mask doesn’t hide anything. Does she want someone to figure out her identity?  At least the video game looks like a decent arcade beat’em-up; no game in 1992 was that complex or well-animated. We’re also introduced to Motoki, the part-time worker at the arcade who serves little purpose other than being a potential/ultimately hopeless love interest.

He’s promptly forgotten when Luna reappears. Either she’s got a ridiculously strong sense of smell, or she’s been tracking Usagi all day. I’m betting on the latter. There’s an awkward moment in which the  two characters stare at each other. Why does Luna, a little black cat that doesn’t talk (yet), have a more expressive face than the main character? Usagi just stares back with a vacant look in her eyes. It’s kind of creepy. It’s quickly forgotten when our heroine finally makes it home and has to face the music. Maybe it’s because a I’m a huge bookworm, but I totally identify with Mrs. Tsukino in that scene. She puts up with her daughter’s shenanigans, but flunking class is pushing it. However, she doesn’t suggest finding a tutor or study group; she just kicks Usagi out of the house for a while. Not exactly a productive punishment, mom. This apparently happens so frequently that Usagi’s little brother (I completely forgot he existed) mocks her as he enters the house. Our heroine responds maturely by performing a patented Sailor V Kick on the closing door, stubbing her toe in process.

Thankfully, we’re spared from Usagi’s blubbering via scene change. Night has fallen over the shopping district, and Mamoru steps out of the shadows. He’s still wearing a tuxedo, but he’s changed his shades for a domino mask that hides even less of his face. Who is he trying too fool? At least his over-sized top hat and cape look decent. Something evil is afoot in the jewelry store! Naru’s Not-Mom is doing some kind of evil spell. Everything sold is apparently an enchanted trinket capable of stealing the life energy out of its wearer. Okay, that’s kind of interesting. But wasn’t this baddie supposed to be looking for the Legendary Silver Crystal? Why does she need people’s energy? Is that something she just came up with on the side? How does that help her in her search? She states that the object isn’t in the shop. That raises another question: Why did she choose Tokyo to begin with? The Crystal could be anywhere on Earth. Can she sense its magical energy or something? Also, why would something that rare and valuable be in a jewelry store?  If she was the one behind the recent crime wave, shouldn’t she have enough sense to skip town for a while and search somewhere else? Whatever. Naru walks in by chance, and the thing pretending to be her mother bares her fangs.

Back to the Tsukino household. Usagi is in her room, and she decides to blow off her homework in favor of a nap. Naturally. It’s back to her dream, in which she’s running away with a dark-haired man with a cape and sword. Gee, wonder who that could be. They’re fleeing from what appears to be Godzilla. What. The Sailor V shows up, and it turns into a video game. Eh, I’ve had stranger dreams. She gets a rude awakening with a cat scratch to the face. Luna’s back, and she can talk! I know this is just nostalgia bias, but I seriously miss Luna’s stuffy, British accent from the old dub. The little cat is grateful for their encounter earlier that morning, stating the band-aids were preventing her from speaking and searching properly. Kind of a lame weakness, but still interesting. Usagi refuses to believe any of this is happening until Luna gives her a magical brooch. She’s too distracted by the pretty shiny thing to hear Luna giving her a rundown on her destiny. Priorities, young lady.

The brooch glows with a blinding light, and Usagi triggers her first transformation into Sailor Moon. The background choir is suddenly back in an epic way, along with a brief shot of a full moon. There’s an art style shift; apparently the new transformation scenes will be done in CG. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It just depends on how well it’s animated. Within the first couple of seconds, it becomes clear how much of a homage this is to the original anime. It’s not quite a shot-for-shot remake, but there are still several echoes. The same magical ribbons wrap around her torso (the big ribbon on her chest bursts into existence separately now), and there are longer, angled shots of her limbs. There’s a few seconds more of her sans skirt, probably because the censors are more lenient than they were in the 90s. Compared to stuff you see in anime these days, this little bit of fan service is downright tame. I never understood the point of Usagi arching her back as she gets the tiara; is it just to show off her figure? Also, I never really noticed how much spinning is involved; I wonder if anyone’s gotten motion sickness from watching this. When compared side by side, this new transformation is actually longer than the original. Well, at least Toei knows how to put on a show.

Back to reality. The red baubles in Sailor Moon’s meatball hair buns start flashing, and it’s unintentionally hilarious. Apparently, they can tune in to people screaming for help. It’s in the manga, and I completely forgot about it. What a weird power. It’s like having a couple of radio antennae stuck to your head. This is all based on magic; couldn’t her hearing just be enhanced? What about precognitive abilities? Whatever. Naru’s in trouble. It’s a good thing Usagi recognizes the voice, otherwise she’d be running around Tokyo all night looking for the bad guys. Speaking of whom, the Monster of the Week has given up pretending to be a human. She’s on the verge of killing Naru, yet she’s kept her mother alive for some reason. Probably because a human being murdered outright would be too extreme for this series, logic be damned. At least she’s visually creepy. Her fingernails have grown into spikes, her eyes have a watermelon color scheme, and her body has become all mottled and skeletal.  It’s kind of terrifying if you think about it; imagine stumbling across a friend or loved one late at night, and they suddenly turn into a demonic, shape-shifting monster. Paranoia, much?

Before Tuxedo Mask can step in, Sailor Moon makes her grand, awkward entrance. Usagi has been transformed for a few minutes at best; she doesn’t even have a proper superhero name yet. She gives the classic In The Name of the Moon introduction, and it is gloriously cheesy. Way to show that super sentai influence! While such exchanges are essential to the franchise, I always found it funny how none of the monsters ever attacked the girls while they were spouting off their speeches. This particular monster is confused more than anything else, and promptly summons a horde of mind-controlled women to the battle. Apparently enchanted jewelry can do more than consume your soul. Hey, Usagi! Remember how you wanted to be a superhero because it would be fun? Now’s your chance! Oh wait, you’re bleeding? Yeah, this isn’t a video game. You don’t know how to fight, do you? Whoops.

In true Usagi style, our heroine stumbles around the store in a frantic attempt to escape. When she’s cornered, she starts crying like she’s been doing all episode. But thanks to her new power-up, her whining produces supersonic waves. Seriously. I’m torn between being offended that Sailor Moon’s first attack is tied to her emotional instability, and the awesome fact that the mangaka weaponized one of her defining character traits. I completely forgot this was a thing, but it was in the original version as well. There are some awesome visuals of the power emanating through the building, shattering windows and wreaking havoc. It stuns the monster long enough for Sailor Moon to learn how to use her Moon Tiara Boomerang. There’s a nice moment when the tiara starts floating and glowing, and Usagi just blankly stares at it because she has no idea how to use it. She finally throws the thing, and the monster collapses into dust in a nightmare-inducing death sequence. You saved the day, Sailor Moon!

Tuxedo Mask finally comes out of hiding. Why was he just standing there the entire time? Didn’t he see Sailor Moon could’ve used some backup? What was he doing? He didn’t even throw a rose! Whatever. He introduces himself from a distance, then extreme-parkours his way into the night. The flowing cape and flat facial expression make his exit strangely hilarious. Hopefully the animation improve over time. Also, I really hope these two recognize each other; it’s not like their costumes hide their faces. I appreciate that the scene ends with Sailor Moon looking off into the moonlit sky, along with Tokyo Tower in the background. The building exists in real life, but it’s iconic to this and several other anime series. The camera zooms out to display the image in the villain’s crystal ball. There’s a second or two of this-isn’t-over-yet hinting before the screen fades to black.

The next morning, and it’s back to school as usual. Naru conveniently passed out when the battle started, which means she didn’t get a good look at Sailor Moon. Good thing, because she would’ve recognized Usagi in a heartbeat. Speaking of whom, our heroine is now hiding in a corner with Luna. She’s still too shaken up about what’s happened, and even she knows talking about magic powers publicly is a bad idea. I like that the anime takes a moment to show her pondering over her future; it demonstrates that someone as unlikely as Usagi can be introspective, and her new powers have given her an inkling of responsibility. She’s still far from what she’s destined to be, but she’s made the first step in the right direction. The episode ends with a lingering shot of another schoolgirl with blue hair. She feels rainwater on her hand, and quickly runs for cover.

Gee, I wonder who that could be.

Thus ends the debut of Sailor Moon Crystal. So far, it’s delivered everything promised: the return of a classic series with the benefits of modern animation technology. I’m still on the fence in terms of facial expressions and overall proportions, but it’s nothing that ruins the experience. Though the nostalgia is strong, it’s fun looking back at the old series with a fresh perspective. There’s stuff – both good and bad – you don’t notice or appreciate when you’re younger. When I was a kid, I was ashamed to admit I liked Sailor Moon; boys were shamed and shunned for liking girls’ shows, after all. But looking at how the Internet has reacted to its return, I’ve realized that I was far from the only one. The next episode is in two weeks, hopefully this is just the start of something great.

*Header image taken from the Huffington Post.

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