Well, It’s About Time.

So, the United States Supreme Court finally decided in favor of same-sex marriage. It’s not surprising, really; it’s been a foregone conclusion for a couple of years now. It was like a poorly-paced novel or show; the outcome is inevitable, but it drags on for so long that you almost don’t expect it to happen. But when it finally does, it feels like the most satisfying thing ever. That kind of statement probably warrants the assumption that I’m neck-deep in the politics at hand, but I’m utterly apolitical; if you’re looking for a debate, don’t bother posting. I lack the time, patience, and energy for that kind of thing. I doubt I’d change your mind regardless.

For me, it’s not a question of parties or other inherently limiting affiliations. Anyone can make promises and tell you what you want to hear. People can change sides and make concessions whenever it’s convenient. All that matters to me is if it works. I consider myself a student of all subjects, though history is among my favorites. I find traditions fascinating, but I’d be foolish to ignore how society changes with times. Knowledge, technology, expectations, roles, beliefs, goals, prejudices, businesses, friends, enemies…It’s all connected in one huge, ever-shifting reality. All we have are the memories from which we can hopefully learn.

If I traveled back in time 20 years and told 1995-Me that same-sex marriage would be made legal, he’d…Well, he’d probably grab a kitchen knife and chase me – the 30-year-old stranger that suddenly appeared – out of the house. That aside, he’d likely be confused and uncomfortable. At that point, my only exposure to anything remotely homosexual were Uranus and Neptune, the lesbian couple from the Sailor Moon anime who were infamously dubbed as “cousins” in the American broadcast. I’ve always been amused by younger viewers saying how “groundbreaking” recent shows like Adventure Time, MLP: FIM, and The Legend of Korra have been with regards to their implied same-sex romances. Japan has had that market cornered for decades; there are whole genres devoted to them! It’s just that mainstream American media – until quite recently – has had a huge, often hypocritical hang-up when it comes to portraying sexuality. What we have now is not so much a leap forward as it is slowly playing catch-up.

Sorry, went on a tangent. Point is, back in 1995 I was just a child a San Francisco Bay Area suburb. I was a classic latchkey kid, the kind who’d spend afternoons watching TV, finishing homework, reading, and doing chores before (hopefully) seeing a parent at dinnertime. I still get surprised reactions when people – mostly women – find out I know how to run a household. Not exactly quantum mechanics, folks. Being isolated so much never struck me as odd. What did, however, was how the other kids were treating me. I’ve mentioned how much of a bookworm I am; even as a child, I was intelligent, short, effeminate, shy, awkward, lacked confidence, skipped a grade, wore glasses, and was a late bloomer. That’s some prime bullying material, and everyone seemed to know it. But it went beyond that, and I didn’t understand what it was until much later:

I was different.

It wasn’t something that could be pinned down to just intelligence and whatnot; the others could sense that something was “off” – and therefore wrong – about me. I think it had mostly to do with my appearance; I still get mistaken for a woman sometimes. I’m now awesome and confident enough to roll with it. But in 1995, I was a nervous, quivering, prone-to-crying wreck who was bullied all the way through freshman year of high school. California might have a reputation for being progressive, but that doesn’t work so well in real life. I got crude jibes about shaving my legs, putting on makeup, my time of the month, you name it, they said it. I’ve been called every homophobic epithet you can possibly think of, usually from kids on bikes or passing cars as I walked home every day. I’ve had stuff thrown at me, been beaten up, all of it. Unlike the supposed politically-correct era we live in today, nobody – adult, kid, or otherwise – stepped in to help me. There was no “It Gets Better” for me. People only cared when I started fighting back; a ruthless temper can end a fight very quickly. It can also isolate you, and not in a good way. I was respected as a potential valedictorian for the rest my high school days – I was even nominated for the Every 15 Minutes Program and to give a speech at graduation – but I didn’t make any friends.

The problem wasn’t limited to school, though. Much of my family are devoutly religious; my grandfather was a minister, and his emigration here to preach was the reason I was born in America. I went to Sunday school, attended church twice a week, the whole bit. I’m still pretty good when it comes to Biblical topics on Jeopardy.  Growing up like that isn’t too bad; there’s a sense of family, community, and purpose. It’s all fine…as long as you follow whatever you’re told. That’s a real problem when it comes to someone like me, who constantly searches for answers, questions explanations, and strives to see the bigger picture. Or someone who so blatantly doesn’t conform to gender roles and sexuality, for that matter. There’s a lot of guilt involved with that kind of upbringing: the constant fear of disappointing your elders, the paranoia of being caught and judged, the logic that God doesn’t answer your prayers to stop the bullying because you’re a sinner, hating yourself for not wanting to be masculine etc. Never mind being smart, responsible, and having perfect grades; if you don’t conform, you’re a rebellious outcast. Needless to say, I wasn’t popular with the kids my age, either.

I’m not going to deny the importance of religion – people need to believe in something to survive, be it spiritual, philosophical, technological, whatever – but I can’t abide by it. The human mind is far more stubborn and creative than any religion can fully encompass, and we’re just starting to understand how it works on a psychological level. The centuries of violence, bloodshed, and oppression, all for what? They’re all the same stories, told in different ways. It’s like the human race; many branches, one tree. We should be learning from and helping each other survive. Yeah, I know it’s naive and it’ll probably never work; we as a society are still too foolish to make it happen. We’ll probably never find whichever beliefs – if any – are accurate. That’s a two-way street, by the way. Extremism is bad regardless of what side it’s on, and the messages from some well-meaning social media groups outright terrify me. I’m celebrating the same-sex marriage victory with the rest of you, but remember, popular beliefs and morals change over time. In another 40 years, we’ll be the ones considered old-fashioned and mocked accordingly.

Think about it.

So, where does the legalization of same-sex marriage leave me? Pretty much where I was yesterday, honestly. Despite numerous assumptions to the contrary over the years, I’m not gay. I’m 1.5 at most on the Kinsey Scale. I’m not too keen on the whole categorizing thing, though. I’m far more interested in gender fluidity; biological sex and gender are now considered separate, and the latter has its own spectrum. That explains a lot for me, even if the concept is still being developed. 1995-Me could’ve really used that term and had a better childhood. The human mind is too complex to be limited to society’s expected gender roles, which is something that our culture is only beginning to understand. As for all those lost, bitter years? I’ll never get them back. But I can take solace in the fact that while I may be different, the times have (temporarily, at least) shifted in my favor.

As for the rest of you, congratulations. You’ve earned this victory.

Daily Prompt: LEGOs For Life

Hey, folks. Yesterday’s Daily Prompt was all about toys. Specifically, the ones you played with as a child, and the ways they affected your adult life. I could spend all day writing about how video games have shaped me; I learned how to use an Atari 2600 joystick around the same time I learned to walk, I could speed run through Mega Man X like a record-setting pro, and I’ve played just about every Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and major fighting game released in America. I don’t play as religiously as before – though I have a tendency to play Tetris as I’m watching Jeopardy – but the 90s gamer geek culture is thoroughly engrained in my personality. However, it’s not all that I am, nor is it my only influence. Besides, video games aren’t actually toys; they’re part of an emerging medium, much like films were in the last century. When it comes to toys, I can think of only one thing:

LEGOs.

I don’t think I need to expound of the virtues of those amazing building blocks; it seems like common knowledge. It even got its own feature length, award-winning movie in 2014! It makes you think and create, limited only by the extent of your imagination and patience. Unlike video games, it allows you to play and build with something tangible; you can see and physically touch the fruits of your labor, and thus feel accomplished for it. On my fifth birthday, I was given the Black Seas Barracuda. Even by modern LEGO standards, it’s an amazing, massive piece of work: 865 pieces, eight characters, cannons that actually fire, the folding stern that lets you see inside…So good. The adults apparently didn’t care that it was supposed to be for kids aged 9-12; they just set up a table, opened the box, handed me the instructions, and let me work. It took a couple of weekends – my parents were divorced – but I built that ship myself before I started first grade. It’s still sitting in storage somewhere, a remnant of a childhood long past.

Needless to say, building it (and many others to follow) played an important role in how I turned out. For me, it was another puzzle to solve; I grew up noticing the little pieces that made up life. When I read, I could understand things like characterization and theming long before I knew those were even words. When I drew with crayons, I didn’t just choose random colors; I asked how we knew that the colors we saw were the real ones. Yeah, I’m pretty sure I freaked out a few adults with that. The more I learned, the more pieces I found, the more I could understand reality and how it all tied together. As an adult, I have so many interests in both nature and the sciences; I love a great sunset, and even more because I understand the physics and astronomy behind it. I can walk on the beach and feel the sand between my toes, and imagine the time it took for the waves and wind to grind the particles down. There’s so much out there, and so few see it…

By the way, I never outgrew LEGOs. No one should. I have a few vats of assorted pieces at home, and I’ve made a tradition of getting one of the Architecture sets every Christmas. A shelf in my room has the Empire State Building, John Hancock Center, Seattle Space Needle, Burj Khalifa, Sydney Opera House, Big Ben, and Leaning Tower of Pisa. They’re not quite as grand as the old sets, but they’re a nice reminder of my travels and places I’ve yet to see. In that sense, LEGOs are inspiring me in a completely different way now. It doesn’t get any better than that.

Soundtrack Saturdays: Donkey Kong Country 2 – Stickerbrush Symphony

Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest had a lot to live up to. With only a year since the release of the original DKC – one of the finest and visually stunning games on the SNES – it was a ridiculously tough act to follow. Rare stepped up to the challenge by introducing even more collectible items, tons of hidden rooms and secrets, more allies and enemies, even better graphics, more varied platforming and level designs, and a new character with a more unique abilities and jump physics.

It also boasted one of the finest soundtracks on the SNES, if not any console of that generation. David Wise put a lot of effort into the composition, and it shows. Other 16-bit games could only dream of having its intricate layering and epic tone. “Stickerbrush Symphony” is arguably the most famous track in DKC’s already impressive musical library. It’s strangely fitting that such a relaxing song plays during one of the toughest levels in the entire game.

If you want more DKC2, you can find the full OST here.

Good gaming, good music.

Soundtrack Saturdays: Donkey Kong Country – Ice Cave Chant

With Christmas just around the corner, I wanted to find a video game song to fit the season. Last year, I went with the iconic “Phendrana Drifts” from Metroid Prime. Many games have snow-themed levels, but finding one with a good song is a little trickier. The Flanoir theme from Tales of Symphonia was a close choice this time, but I decided to go with Donkey Kong Country again. There are actually two winter themes; the “Northern Hemispheres” track is much better known and more atmospheric, but the “Ice Cave Chant” is far more upbeat. The brief melody in the middle only hints at the underlying danger and difficulty of its stage.

If you want more Donkey Kong Country, you can find the full OST here.

Good gaming, good music.

Soundtrack Saturdays: Super Mario 64 – Devastation’s Doorway Remix

Super Mario 64 was one of the most important games ever made. It embodied what the gaming industry strove for at the time: the transition from 2D levels into 3D, fully-realized worlds. Every 3D game that followed owes something to it. By no means was it perfect; the graphics were decent at best, the camera angles were awkward, and there were several glitches. But in 1996, all anyone cared about was that Mario was in 3D. I can still remember the first time I saw Princess Peach’s castle and being completely swept away at the sheer size and scale of it. It controlled so well; Mario seemed so…lively, as if even the slightest press of a button could make him do something awesome. Though not a hard game, the Bowser-themed boss levels were intimidating to new players. Sole Signal’s remix of the classic stage music captures the feeling and pacing of those moments perfectly.

If you want more Super Mario 64, you can find the OST here. If you want more Sole Signal remixes, you can find his work here.

Good gaming, good music.

Robin Williams, And Why We Need To Talk About Depression

When I started writing this, I was going to focus on the death of Robin Williams. But looking over all the coverage in the last 48 hours, I’ve realized that such an article would just be repeating the same stories already out there. I could talk about watching Mork & Mindy reruns on Nick at Nite as a kid, or how I saw Aladdin, Jumanji, and Mrs. Doubtfire enough times to memorize every line. I could talk about how legitimately creepy I found him in One Hour Photo and Law and Order SVU. I could talk about how the phrase, “It’s not your fault” still makes me tear up. But you’ve read – and likely experienced – all of that already. It’s amazing how one man can bring together millions of strangers with a common experience of laughter. I wish I had a better story to tell you, that I was trapped in an elevator with him for an hour, or that he held a door open for me one time. But I don’t. I’ve lived in the Bay Area for 30 years, but I never met him.

And now I never will.

If there’s anything positive that can come out of this tragedy, it’s that more people are talking about depression and suicide. It needs to be discussed. Our culture has many proverbial elephants in the room, but depression is one of the biggest and deadliest. Psychology has developed leaps and bounds over the last century, but there’s still so much we don’t know. Lobotomies aren’t a form of treatment anymore, though all the medications and their innumerable side effects aren’t much better. Most folks haven’t bothered to learn anything about depression; if something’s uncomfortable, it’s much easier to sweep it under the rug. There’s an unspoken stigma – especially for men – about mental health. Oh sure, we all know it’s there, but who wants to think about that? It’s so much easier going about your daily life, catching a movie, playing a video game…whatever it takes to keep you distracted from the darker, lesser-known aspects of our existence. Because there’s no way anything like that could happen to you, right?

I know better.

I know what it’s like having that little twinge of doubt consuming your every action and decision. It builds with each passing day, filling and weighing your down like molten lead. I know the burn of stigma and shame, that sense of worthlessness and isolation. That no one could possibly understand. That you’re different, broken, maybe a lost cause. That you shouldn’t bother asking for help, because it’s nothing, it’s all your fault, and no one would want to help you anyway. That you have to pretend and put on a smile, and how exhausting it is. That you can’t fall asleep sometimes, because your brain is spinning like a tire stuck in mud. That you occasionally dread getting up in the morning because it’s yet another day bereft of meaning. That every aspect of your life is conspiring to make you more miserable. That things are so bad now, and the future is a terrifying prospect.

Look, I know you’re out there. You’re sitting in front a screen somewhere, and you’re feeling trapped and alone. I don’t know you, your background, age, sex, gender, ethnicity, circumstances, none of the above. I’m not going to pretend that I get everything about what you’re going through, but I know enough. Depression isn’t just a habit you can kick; it’s there, and it’s a serious, potentially deadly problem. It doesn’t make you a bad or weak person. But leaving it untreated is like putting a rock in your shoe and running a marathon. So, let me ask (and you don’t have to answer, but just think about it): What’s stopping you from getting help? Is it fear of rejection? Insurance coverage costs? Guilt? Whatever it is, are there ways around it? Also, let’s make one thing clear:

There is nothing, nothing wrong with asking for help.

I’m not going to romanticize therapy, either; it’s difficult in ways you’d never expect. It makes you take a long, hard look at yourself, and there’s no instant cure. For some, a couple of pills a day isn’t going to solve your problems. But if you’re going to do anything, then at least talk about it. If you can get therapy, go for it. If not, talk to your trusted family and friends. If not them, support groups and hotlines. Possibly all of the above. If you need to call someone, there are plenty waiting to listen. People can and will help you, but they’re never going to know unless you tell them. And for those of you who know someone in need, be there for them. It’s not about politics, taboos, or whatever else; someone you care about needs your help. I don’t think you’re going to leave them hanging. If you want to learn more about depression and suicide, there are several resources online. Try starting with the entries on WebMD, Wikipedia, and TV Tropes.

I don’t know if this post is going to make any difference. If it helps someone struggling out there, then I’d consider it a success. I’m typically reserved and quiet, so all of this preaching about seeking help from others and whatnot might sound hypocritical. Despite that, I am living proof of my argument; I wouldn’t be here otherwise. I’m not an optimist, but I’d rather fill an empty life than throw it away. Look, I’m not idealistic enough to think that we can change everything about depression overnight; despite all our advancements, we’re barely scratching the surface. But the first step is talking about it. Too many people have lost their lives in the silence already.

I’ve been on the soapbox long enough. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll be on a Robin Williams movie binge.

Soundtrack Saturdays: Donkey Kong Country – Fear Factory

Pretty sure I’ve mentioned Donkey Kong Country before. It was one of the finest games of its time; it had challenging platforming mechanics, intricate level designs, and graphics that pushed the Super Nintendo to its limits. However, it’s the soundtrack that everyone remembers. Fear Factory captured the pacing and tone of its levels perfectly. Not only did you have to outmaneuver all kinds of hazards, but you had to do it quick reflexes and the utmost precision. Listening to this now, the fact that Rare managed to get this performance on a cartridge – not a CD – is still absolutely mind-blowing. After 20 years of sequels and spinoffs, the original soundtrack has yet to be topped.

If you want more Donkey Kong Country, you can find the OST here.

Good gaming, good music.

Sailor Moon Crystal Episode 3: Rei – Sailor Mars

Episode 3 begins with a familiar scene: Jadeite, our first recurring bad guy, being chewed about for his failures. Queen Beryl has let him lead the last two schemes to find the Legendary Silver Crystal, and both ended abysmally. Judging by her tone – and the ominous way she slams her magic staff into the ground – Beryl doesn’t tolerate stupidity. A shadowy figure appears behind Jadeite, explaining how the monsters in the previous episodes were weak because they were made from clay. The camera pans up to reveal Nephrite, another king of the Dark Kingdom. Of all the villains thus far, he’s benefited the most from the 2014 redesign; his long, curly hair looks much better with modern animation. He offers to take over operations and find the Crystal himself. Another figure appears in the background, pointing out that the Sailor Guardians will just get in the way again. Another pan up reveals Zoisite, whose long ponytail and androgynous design make all the other male characters look utterly macho. Though there’s still no sign of Kunzite (the last of the Four Kings), I wonder if the series will retain the relationship between him and Zoisite. For now, the three villains are implied to be competing for Beryl’s favor. When asked about the exact nature of the Legendary Silver Crystal, she explains that it grants its bearer enough power to take over the universe. Instead of focusing on finding it, Beryl tasks the group with killing the Sailor Guardians first. Good, she knows her priorities. Looking to save face, Jadeite vows to get the job done at any cost.

Meanwhile, a young woman peers into a small fire. You can’t see her entire face yet; just a bit of purple hair and the flames reflected in her eyes. Kneeling with her hands clasped in meditation, she muses that something outrageous is coming. As the camera retreats away from her, it’s revealed that she’s inside a shrine of some kind. Unlike the cold, bluish tint of the villains’ castle, this place is cast in the natural glow of the fire. It feels warm and inviting, if a little lonely. Whoever this mysterious lady is, she’s not affiliated with the bad guys. Of course, the opening theme immediately spoils it with its animations of Sailor Mars, whose huge purple eyes and red fire motif are unmistakable. After the scene changes, we’re given a brief exchange between her and a little girl. The new character is named Rei, and she works as a miko at the shrine. The child waves goodbye and heads for the Sendaizakaue bus stop nearby. As the bus appears, it’s accompanied by some voiceover gossip. Supposedly, whoever takes the Demon 6:00 PM Bus at Sendaizakaue will disappear without a trace. I’ve had my share of bad public transit, but a bus that vanishes into another dimension is pretty crazy. If people know that particular vehicle is evil, then why hasn’t anyone tried to find out more about it? Why don’t they track its route? Interrogate the driver? Aren’t there any witnesses? What about camera footage? Smart phones? Anything?

Usagi doesn’t seem to be taking the rumor seriously. Or her duties as Sailor Moon, for that matter. She’s perfectly content to nap the day away until Luna coaxes her into meeting Ami at the arcade. It’s not very productive; she spends the entire time playing video games instead of planning and talking strategy. Ami and Luna are left to the technical details and stand nearby a Sailor V poster for blatant foreshadowing purposes. Ami is still adjusting to the idea of being a superhero, but at least she has the presence of mind to ask Luna for advice. Rather than coming up with a concrete plan, Luna just spouts the same explanation she gave Usagi: protect the princess and find the Legendary Silver Crystal. Once again, she doesn’t go into any of the details of how exactly that’s supposed to work. You’d think Ami would press her for more information, but it’s sacrificed for the sake of pacing. At least Usagi’s gaming skills have improved; she’s won a pair of watches that will probably have some kind of special power or ability later on. Ami has to leave for another cram school session – hopefully one that doesn’t involve demonic brainwashing – and Usagi decides to tag along.

As they wait for the bus, Ami mentions a beautiful girl she occasionally sees on the commute. Usagi notes that they’re boarding what’s supposedly the Demon Bus, but forgets about it as soon as she sees Rei. When I watched the original anime as a kid, Rei was always my favorite Sailor. Not because she was brash and prone to anger, but because she was intelligent, powerful, badass, mysterious…and utterly gorgeous. Not going to lie, she was the first fictional crush I ever had. It was something about her confidence, and the way she seemed aloof and different from the others. Whatever it was, Usagi certainly agrees; she spends the rest of the ride blushing and ogling at Rei, complete with huge hearts in her eyes. It’s a little creepy and hilarious at the same time. Rei just stares back until she gets a vision of Silver Millennium – apparently the links between the girls aren’t just limited to touch – and gets off at her stop. Usagi quickly follows her in a bout of pure infatuation and eventually comes across the shrine.

Inside, Rei is clearly aware that something’s up. She can feel a demonic presence coming her way, and resolves to protect the shrine from evil. There’s an ominous shot of Phobos and Deimos, the two crows she keeps nearby, attacking the intruder. What’s interesting about the monologue is that the visions accompanying it are presented through a magenta filter; I’m not sure if it’s supposed to represent Rei’s thoughts, or a manifestation of her powers. She opens the doors armed with an ofuda (a small scroll with the power to ward off evil) and defiantly slaps it down…across Usagi’s face. Not quite the demon you’re looking for, young lady. After an apology and a formal introduction, we’re given a bit of insight into Rei’s situation. Not only does she seem more in tune with her surroundings – she notes how Phobos and Deimos normally leave humans alone, thus hinting at Usagi’s secret – but that she has full-blown psychic powers. Of course, that means people think she’s some kind of freak and try to avoid her. A few women stop by and tell her that the little girl from earlier vanished on the Demon Bus, then leave in fear of her. Rei is clearly hurt by this (those quivering eyes from Episode 2 are back), but doesn’t say anything. It’s just like Frozen, but with fire instead of ice, and Shintoism instead of musicals! Rei elaborates a little more on the Demon Bus rumor, referring to it as being “spirited away.” That’s probably something the translators threw in as a nod to the Miyazaki film, but it’s still appreciated.

The next day, our heroines hear more about the Demon Bus. Several people have gone missing over the past week. While Usagi gives Ami the spare watch from the arcade, Luna muses over Rei. Mysterious powers, a noble face, and a shrine maiden? She might be the princess they’re looking for! Wait, what? Luna doesn’t know what the princess she’s seeking looks like? How does she even know what she’s supposed to be doing? Does she have repressed memories or something? Usagi decides to visit Rei again and boards the bus. She and Luna discuss how Ami has to go to cram school, and how the girls’ watches are actually communication devices. This again makes me wonder why Luna hides their special tech inside arcade machines. Why doesn’t she just give the girls equipment instead of making them play a video game? Before this can be addressed, Luna panics and pretends she’s a normal animal. Mamoru is sitting right next to them (finally wearing something besides a tux), and has obviously heard their conversation. He doesn’t call the cat out for talking again, which is surprising. I’d have many questions if I were in his position. I like how Mamoru lampshades how often they run into each other; he must be sick of Usagi’s antics by now. At least he takes the time to introduce himself, complete with his private high school ID card. He was a college student in the first anime, but this version is only in his second year. Usagi tries to make conversation by talking about the Demon Bus, but becomes flustered and fails miserably.

Back at the shrine, a mother and her friends are still looking for her missing daughter. They beg Rei to use her powers to locate the kid, but she’s nowhere near as psychically strong as they think. Judging by what we see of her later, she’s severely underestimating herself. However, she advises the crowd to consult the police, which is actually the practical thing to do. The bus is a physical object; you’d think the authorities would’ve stopped it by now. The people turn on her in disapproval, and even accuse her of being the culprit. Usagi shows up and defends her, and Rei orders them to leave. There a few angsty moments in which she admits to having powers, and how people shun her. It’s pretty heartbreaking; imagine having to grow up with everyone thinking you’re monster. Unlike Frozen’s Elsa, Rei didn’t have the luxury of being a princess. She’s just a normal girl driven to isolation. Usagi offers to help her find the missing child, but is rebuked. Rei heads back inside and meditates just long enough to get a vision of Jadeite attacking Usagi. She dashes out of the shrine, only to be cut off by the Demon Bus. The doors open to reveal Jadeite behind the wheel, who promptly hypnotizes and kidnaps her.

Wow, stuff just got real.

Usagi happens to see the bus pass by, and notices an unconscious Rei slumped near one of the windows. It looks like the bus is going to drive straight into a wall, but it’s actually rolling into another dimension. There are some interesting visuals, particularly how the fabric of reality seems to twist and bend around the vehicle. However, no one else seems to be around to witness it. How is that possible? They’re in the middle of a city, near a large intersection, within sight lines of several buildings. How has someone not noticed this?! Usagi rushes forward to save Rei, using her transformation to change into…a flight attendant? Why? If you’re trying to run after a speeding bus, the last thing you want to wear is a tight skirt and heels! She’s even toting a rolling suitcase! Amazingly, she jumps and clings onto the back of the bus. She drops Luna, but Tuxedo Mask makes a timely catch. Before they can catch up, Usagi vanishes along with the bus. Uh oh, looks like Sailor Moon might have to save the day solo this time. Good thing she had that communicator handy! So much for her learning to do things herself. While she’s busy panicking, Luna and Ami are tracking her location on a laptop. Apparently, there’s an app for tracking magical girl energy signatures. Neat. A throwaway line reveals that the girls have the power to teleport, which is convenient for storytelling logistics. Can you imagine having to run through a city in those costumes?

Meanwhile, Jadeite has a mildly disturbing moment in which he’s looking over Rei’s unconscious body and admiring her natural beauty. Before he can go into full-on creeper mode, Moon and Mercury show up and challenge him. After introducing himself, he wastes no time in kicking them around. Unlike his summoned monsters, Jadeite knows how to fight. He knocks Moon down first, probably wary of the power of her boomerang. When hit with Mercury’s mist, he simply freezes and dissipates it. He briefly taunts them before unleashing dual freeze rays on them. This attack is probably the closest anyone has come to killing the Sailors thus far. Unfortunately, Jadeite succumbs to the idiocy that plagues most villains: he spends so much time talking trash that he forgets about his hostage. Rei wakes up and recognizes Usagi, and the latter tries to cover her civilian identity. It’s a completely ridiculous gesture (Luna looks especially embarrassed), and Usagi finally admits she isn’t a normal person. I get that the exchange was to help Rei realize that there are others like her and that she shouldn’t be ashamed of her powers, but they’re bantering while the girls are being frozen to death. Rei grapples with Jadeite, who tries to freeze her arm off. There’s an awesome exchange:

“Don’t you dare, ordinary human.”

“I’m not! I’ve got powers, too! I won’t let you hurt them anymore!”

So awesome. She’s got such a determined game face the entire time. And at the end of that quote, she busts through the ice and activates her Mars powers. Luna tosses her another pen (Rei gets to bypass the arcade games, apparently) and instructs her how to trigger the transformation. Of the sequences seen thus far, Sailor Mars has the most noticeable improvement. In the original, she was surrounded by flashy red rings that kind of resembled fire. In this version, she takes the phrase “wreathed in flames” literally. Her body is wrapped in a surprisingly realistic inferno as her uniform takes shape. While the CGI still hasn’t won me over in terms of the character models and faces, it works well with the lighting and layering of the flames. She assumes a battle stance and gets her own catchphrase, but is still shocked at the change. Jadeite tries to get the upper hand while she’s distracted, but she’s completely immune to his ice. Sailor Moon uses the tiara boomerang to restrain him (apparently it can change size as well as kill monsters), while Mars winds up for a finishing blow. She pulls out another ofuda, but this one is supercharged with spiritual energy and fire. Jadeite calls her a rascal – seriously, that was the subtitle – before vanishing into the flames. In the manga, Jadeite was roasted to death. This time, it’s unclear if he died or teleported to safety.

It doesn’t matter either way. Evil was defeated, the kid and the other Demon Bus victims are safe, and now there are three Sailor Guardians. Hooray! Usagi and Ami welcome her wholeheartedly, and we actually get to see Rei smile for the first time in the entire episode. Now she has awesome powers, and she doesn’t have to be alone anymore. Anyone that’s felt different or ostracized for not being “normal” will probably relate to her happiness. Of course, now she has to fight demonic beings and maybe save the world, but hey, nothing’s perfect. The girls head off into the night, with the unspoken promise of more friendship and danger ahead. Meanwhile, a high-profile group has landed at the airport. The entourage is under heavy guard with what appears to be Secret Service agents. In the middle of the crowd, an elderly man carries a plush jewelry box. What’s the secret? Is it the Legendary Silver Crystal? We’ll find out next time!

Sailor Moon Crystal Episode 2: Ami – Sailor Mercury

Episode 2 opens with Class 2-5 at Juban Middle School. The entire room is filled with students, and each of them is gaping in wonder at the chalkboard. Every available inch of the board is covered in what appears to be Precalculus. It’s too blurry to see if all the equations are correct, but given who’s writing it out, I’m willing to believe it. It’s a short, silent girl with blue hair. She comes up to teacher’s desk to receive her graded test. The subtitles read, “Ami Mizuno, perfect.”

The scene changes to outside the school. Ami is slightly hunched over a book, twirling a pen as she works. We don’t see her face yet; she’s absorbed in her studies. Two male classmates saunter by as they leave soccer practice, gossiping obnoxiously about our newest main character. The pen stops mid-twirl the second Ami hears her name. The boys mention how she’s always studying, and that she’s rumored to have an IQ of 300. Since the highest measured IQ in real life is supposedly in the low 200s (a quick Google search offers no definitive answer), I’m taking that story with a grain of salt.

There’s no doubting Ami’s intelligence, though. There are plenty of visual cues in her design; those huge glasses, small frame, stiff posture, and the presence of a book are stereotypical enough to get the message across. There’s also her blue hair, which is such an overused trope that it’s easy to take for granted. Not only is it a reference to Ami’s latent powers – water is blue, after all – but her personality as well. Unlike temperamental redheads or energetic blondes, blue-haired characters are typically shy and introverted. Having cooler, calmer personalities allowed them to do more thinking and introspection. Characters like Ami (and Evangelion’s Rei Ayanami, among others) popularized the concept, though it certainly isn’t limited to anime. Take a closer look at Violet Parr in The Incredibles sometime. Or Spock, for that matter. The idea is much more common than you might think.

Ami demonstrates one more quality: loneliness. It’s not fun being the shy, smart one; people think you’re being arrogant and standoffish, but you’re just not used to social interaction. It kills self-confidence and drives you into further isolation. Everyone feels like that at some point, regardless of personality. The guys notice that she’s heard their gossip and leave, because an apology would require more maturity than they can muster. The damage is done, of course; the pained, bitter expression on Ami’s face sums it up perfectly. I’m still not a fan of the new series’ doll-like eye designs, but the animators manage to capture her sadness surprisingly well. Ami is on the verge of tearing up, but she never quite makes it that far. She regains her stoic façade long enough to observe Usagi and her posse chatting nearby.

After the opening theme, the scene shifts to a familiar castle in a snowstorm. Jadeite, the monster-summoning baddie from the first episode, is being chewed out for not getting the Legendary Silver Crystal. We’re finally given a good look at Queen Beryl, the main villain of the first arc. Her eyes are shrouded, but her pale skin gives her an almost corpse-like pallor. Her muscular arms, full lips, and mass of red hair suggest otherwise, though. But it’s her open hand that draws the most attention. The fingers are long and graceful, each topped by what looks like a razor-sharp nail. It could easily be mistaken for a claw, and that’s the point; Queen Beryl’s beauty hides something far more unnatural and dangerous. Or it could be an animation error, as the hand looks too large in proportion to the rest of her body. Either way, Jadeite doesn’t waste time with excuses. He states that he’s of the Four Kings of the Dark Kingdom, which is a double-whammy of foreshadowing and danger. Not only will there be more evil on the way, but the number four is associated with death in several Asian cultures. Jadeite summons another monster and tells it to find the Crystal. He does this despite knowing the existence of Sailor Moon, a bumbling heroine who killed his last creation single-handedly. You’d think he’d do the dirty work himself after that kind of embarrassment, but anime logic dictates otherwise.

Back at the Tsukino household, Usagi drops face-first onto her bed. She’s weary after a long school day. You’ve got to wonder what Luna is thinking; this whiny, pouty girl is destined to be a superhero? As far as we know, she hasn’t spent any time as Sailor Moon since the showdown in the previous episode. Judging by her reaction, she clearly has no interest in fighting again. Instead of lecturing Usagi about laziness and responsibility – she’d probably just tune it out – Luna gives a little exposition. The Evil (and that’s capitalized in the subtitles, without the Dark Kingdom specifically named) are “spirits that are not supposed to exist in this world.” It doesn’t really provide any insight into their nature or how and why they’re suddenly showing up in Tokyo. What exactly are they trying to accomplish? Are they supposed to be aliens? Creatures from another dimension? Can they be reasoned with? What are their weaknesses? Do they have to be killed? Even YuYu Hakusho explained this stuff better. Luna just tells her to find allies and save their princess. In a bout of not-so subtle foreshadowing, Usagi assumes Tuxedo Mask and Sailor V are on her side.

Luna has a better idea, though. As our heroine slumbers, the cat handles the real legwork. Apparently, she can open up some kind of pocket dimension that contains a staircase and a magical computer. You’ve got to wonder about a computer designed for cat paws; how does Luna get any work done on that thing? Also, is this how she’s able to find other Sailor Scouts? In the first episode, she states that the moon-shaped mark on her forehead is what helps her search. Does that mean the mark lets her access this pocket dimension? Or does she use both? Also, the data displayed includes name, photo, birthdate, astrological sign, age, and blood type. That’s really specific; if Luna knows all this, shouldn’t she be able to find where these people live and just wait for them to come home? And if she knows that information, then why does she explain things to Usagi in such a vague and roundabout way? It would be much easier to say, “Hey, there’s a girl nearby that we need to recruit. Her name is Ami. She’s at your school, and she looks like this. She always eats lunch alone, so meeting her in private shouldn’t be hard.”

The next morning at school, the latest tests results are up on the bulletin board. Ami, as usual, has a perfect score. Umino (yes, they haven’t forgotten him yet!) mentions that she’s attending the Crystal Seminar, a supposedly high-profile local study program. There’s also talk of her mother being a doctor, which is an early reference to Ami’s interest in earning of a medical degree. Someone makes an offhand remake about their star classmate’s lack of friends and, speak of the devil, Ami is shown standing alone at the end of the hallway. She stares at the crowd warily, but backs off. She’s barely off school grounds before she runs into Luna, who pounces from a tree and gets up close and personal. It’s a good thing Ami isn’t allergic and doesn’t scare easily. Usagi takes the opportunity (seriously, why didn’t Luna just tell her about the potential recruit?) to meet and befriend the other girl. Their hands touch for a second, and Ami gets a vision of Silver Millennium. If this were a more cynical anime, she’d probably panic, back away, and refuse to be anywhere near Usagi again.

Instead, she’s merely flustered and gets talked into playing at the arcade. We’re treated to the familiar images of the Sailor V video game, as well as Usagi’s feeble attempts at playing it. Once Ami gets behind the controls, however, it becomes apparent that academics aren’t her only forte. Her fast reactions, pattern recognition, and knack for strategy let her dominate a game she’s never played. This is a clever way to demonstrate the difference between Usagi and Ami. The former doesn’t bother with planning, and is easily distracted and overwhelmed by emotions. The latter approaches combat in terms of tactics and analytics; she understands all the tools and powers she possesses, the limitations of her foes, and the necessity of precision over raw power. For the first time, Ami cracks a smile and allows herself have fun. She plays well enough to win a special pen, prompting Usagi to shake the arcade cabinet until it spits out a second one. Because vandalism for the sake of jealousy is totally heroic. The girls become friendly enough to be on a first-name basis, but Ami realizes she’s running late for the Crystal Seminar and leaves.

The seminar is just as ominous and dehumanizing as you’d expect. Drab, gray cubicles seemingly stretch on forever. The overhead fluorescents are off, leaving only the computer screens as the only light sources. Mouse clicks and keystrokes break the deathly silence. Then there’s the instructor, whose shadowy visage and narrowed eyes mark her as the episode’s monster in disguise. She gives Ami a Crystal Disk, promising that it’ll help her achieve her doctoral ambitions. It’s worth noting that the object in question is actually a CD; along with the flat-screened desktops, this is the first direct evidence that the series is set in the current time. Ami starts the program and is hypnotized within seconds. Apparently, the monsters in this show have the same modus operandi: enchant an everyday object, gain control over people, and build an army to search for the Legendary Silver Crystal. Fair enough, but why would they need to use a special CD to spread the spell? Is the magic limited to small objects? Why not infiltrate a major ISP or social media platform and distribute it from the source? It’d certainly reach more people. If the goal is to create an army of brainwashed humans, then why bother with just the brightest students? Wouldn’t the removal of their free will hamper their judgment and supposed intellectual superiority?

It’s certainly done something to Ami. She looks fine – she’s even smiling as she uses her new pen at the library the next day – but that changes as soon as Usagi offers an afterschool ice cream outing. There’s a flashback to the evil instructor lecturing her about studying, and her eyes glaze over in a surprisingly creepy animation. She shuffles away in an obvious zombie-like stupor, leaving Usagi to wonder what happened. She notices the Crystal Disk on the desk (you’d think Ami wouldn’t be so careless regardless if she’s brainwashed), and takes it home. On the way, she notices the instructor handing out Crystal Seminar pamphlets at the train station. Ami is apparently so into the program, she’s allowed them to use her likeness for the advertisements. Rather than using the paper to learn more about the seminar, she crumples it up and throws it over her shoulder…and right into Mamoru’s face. Gee, where have we seen that before? Is this going to be a once-an-episode kind of thing? He’s still wearing his impractical tux and sunglasses, too! He’s understandably miffed about being treated like a trash can, but he’s focused on something more important: the fact that Luna can talk. Usagi grabs the cat and frantically runs away, yet Mamoru doesn’t bother chasing them. He just stands there and stares. Why? If you were confronted with a talking animal, would you just let it get away? Maybe he didn’t want to mess up his suit.

Usagi makes it home and tries to figure out what the Crystal Disk really is. She pops it into what looks like a pink Samsung laptop (hooray for more technology updates), only to find it looks like a normal study and quiz program. Unsurprisingly, Usagi knows none of the answers. Instead, she just types randomly…and it cracks the code. Seriously, she button mashes (much to Luna’s incredulity) until the hypnotic message starts playing through the speakers. What kind of evil spell is this? Who designs a brainwashing program that can be defeated through randomness and sheer stupidity? What happens when someone at the seminar gets too many questions wrong? Do they accidentally activate the message before they’re hypnotized? That’d be pretty awkward. Is the instructor banking on the students getting perfect scores to become fully entranced? Also, Usagi seems to be completely immune to its effects. Is that due to her super powers, or did she just break the program that badly? Whatever, Ami needs to be rescued.

Getting inside the Crystal Seminar is trickier than it looks, however. Since there are armed guards at the entrance, Usagi needs a disguise. Apparently, the pen she “won” at the arcade is imbued with the power to change her appearance. Now, is it the pen itself that has the magic, or could any object be enchanted to do the same? Also, does it just change clothes, or can it alter bodily features as well? It’s not explained. Usagi decides to change herself into a doctor, even though it wouldn’t make sense to do so. When you have the ability to change into any outfit you can imagine, why would you choose something so out of place? Usagi tells the guards there’s a medical emergency in the building, and they let her go in. Wouldn’t that just raise the alarm that something bad is happening, thus alerting the rest of the security team? Also, this is supposed to be a place for people to study; she could’ve just pretended to be a newly-recruited student and walked right in. Depending on the extent of the transformation power, she could’ve posed as the evil instructor and done some reconnaissance. But hey, Usagi looks cute in the nurse’s outfit, so the fans probably won’t complain.

Meanwhile, Ami has gotten worse. Her eyes have this sickly green shade, and she doesn’t notice how much the instructor is pressuring her. When she is demanded to solve the questions faster, she can barely murmur an apology. Apparently, Ami is so intelligent that the evildoers plan to use her to conquer Japan. Though it raises the question of how effective a brainwashed strategist could be. The instructor notices Ami’s special pen, causing the poor girl to look up from the monitor and remember Usagi’s words. When the pen is flung across the room, she actually gets up from her chair to retrieve it. That’s telling of how much Ami values it; her newfound friendship and fond memories are enough to (at least partially) break the spell! Amazing what a little humanity can do. If that’s all it takes to overcome the brainwashing, the monster’s plan would’ve fallen apart before long. Ami briefly struggles to get away, and gets a well-timed assist from Luna. Usagi pretends to be a doctor and confronts the instructor, though she only succeeds in making her angry.

Knowing that the jig is up, the instructor drops the disguise and assumes her true, monstrous form. She’s not as scary as the first – there are no fangs or corpse-like flesh – but the gigantic claws and green skin tone are still intimidating. That goes double for the dozens of paper sheets she can telekinetically throw around the room. To her credit, Usagi doesn’t completely panic; she briefly hesitates to transform in Ami’s presence, and then does so anyway. Sailor Moon bravely stands up to the monster, yells at her for hurting Ami…and frantically dives for cover against the monster’s deadly paper barrage. She even tries her ultrasonic crying attack, but the enemy is immune to it for some unspecified reason. Our heroine gets hit head-on by a torrent of paper and gets pinned to a wall. The monster doesn’t waste time; she busts out her claws and goes straight for the kill, prompting Ami to finally kick the brainwashing spell and trigger her latent super powers.

The new Sailor Mercury transformation hasn’t changed much from the 1992 version. By no means is it as extravagant as Sailor Moon’s, but it has its own charm. Mercury’s power is water-based, and the sequence has a distinct skating theme. After waving her pen around and spouting CGI liquid, Mercury glides around with the grace of a figure skater. She does a quick spin, enveloping herself in water and sending a ripple through the floor. After a few lingering shots of her costume and the formation of her tiara, Sailor Mercury is ready for combat. Her phrase, “Douse yourself in water and repent” and accompanying pose are way more intimidating than Sailor Moon’s antics. Rather than attack directly, Mercury fills the room in fog to disorient the monster. I used to dislike Ami’s lack of a direct attack, but I appreciate now. Keeping enemies confused and leaving them wide open is a much smarter tactic than trying to overwhelm them with sheer power. Especially when you don’t know the extent of their capabilities. Unfortunately, Sailor Moon isn’t ready for the finishing blow; she’s still trapped against the wall, requiring Tuxedo Mask to swoop in the nick of time and carry her to safety. One Tiara Boomerang later, and the day is saved. Tuxedo Mask vanishes (thankfully without doing his silly parkour from the previous episode), and Jadeite is revealed to be observing the scene nearby.

As the sun sets over Tokyo, Usagi and Ami walk home and chat about what happened. If Jadeite were a competent villain, he’d attack them right there and then. Or at least follow them to find out their civilian identities. He should certainly know who Ami is, given how much time she spent under the evil spell. The girls probably don’t even realize they’re being watched. Instead, they talk about how the pen Ami won from the arcade turned out to be her transformation trinket. Apparently that was Luna’s plan, even though it makes no sense. Luna already knew Ami was a potential recruit; why did she go through the process of planting a magical object inside an arcade game? Does that mean whoever beats the game is Scout material? Why didn’t she just give Ami the pen in the first place? Whatever, Usagi and Ami are best friends now. They walk off into the city, happily planning their next move. In a candlelit shrine nearby, a young woman scowls into the darkness.

Gee, I wonder who that could be.

Thus ends the second episode of Sailor Moon Crystal. Though it primarily serves as Ami/Sailor Mercury’s introduction, it was done in an interesting way. Now that I’m older, I appreciate the subtle ways in which the characters are conveyed; when a show can explain so much about its cast with minimal exposition, you know they’re doing it right. Unlike Usagi, Ami is a more realistic take on the pressures of being a young, intelligent student. The subtext is rife with commentary on the high standards and expectations of the Japanese school system, though the extent of Ami’s character development is still unknown. Hopefully the next episode will keep the momentum going.

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.