So, I think pretty much everyone knows at this point that I’m a huge Sailor Moon fan. I’ve seen most of the 1992 anime, and read the entire manga. I’ve even seen the live-action series, in fact. It’s a story I’d say I know pretty damn well, which meant I was pretty psyched when I found out about this year’s new anime and North American re-release of the old one. And I was pretty bummed when it all fell apart.
I could detail the problems with Sailor Moon Crystal endlessly—in fact, I already have—but I’m not sure if I need to at this point. As fun as it initially was just to have a new Sailor Moon anime to watch, it’s degraded to the point where it’s more of a slog than something I eagerly anticipate. It’s not even fun as a hatewatch unless you’re a diehard for the franchise. Which I am, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. Crystal’s problems now go far beyond the poor animation and soulless delivery, because it’s progressed to actively disrespecting the source material. It’s making the story all about underdeveloped romances instead of the girls’ strong friendships and emotional journeys that earned it its fanbase. Its theme song may say “we don’t need the protection of men” but week after week, the girls fall apart when they don’t have it. In truth, I think a manga reboot might never have caught on as widely as I’d originally hoped, since the manga is far more standard shojo-fare than the more creative, quirky 1992 anime. Yet the Crystal anime waters down and cuts up the manga as well, leaving just a shallow husk. If this is really what Naoko Takeuchi wanted out of a Sailor Moon anime…then I can’t help but be glad she didn’t get her way the first time around, you know?
The mistakes on the Viz re-release just compounded the despair, after the old series’ return became such a hope spot for those of us frustrated with Crystal. Even so, at least its Hulu streaming schedule allowed me to revisit one of my favorite childhood shows, and the show that first got me into anime. Sailor Moon’s filler arcs are a lot less fun and more trying as an adult, but I was still pleasantly surprised by how much fun its creators had within that premise. There was clearly a lot of love and talent put into that old series, that shines through even in its most lackluster episodes. And it has its strong characters and relationships between them that captivated me at age six and still do now. It kept me watching every week as new episodes were put out…for a while, anyway.
2014 being the “year of Sailor Moon” meant that before I started writing for ANN, when I was writing for feminist/queer pop-culture media, that was basically all they would let me cover for a while. I was the “anime person” and that was the anime-of-interest for that crowd. It was hard out here for a Moonie this year, and the constant strivings and disappointments made me more than a little burned-out. I think it finally culminated when the disappointing reviews of the Viz release started coming in last month. I was in the middle of the R season’s dire Doom Tree arc, and just so fed up with stressing over that show that I had to put my re-watch on hold. I love the franchise, but even I can only take so much—especially when, at the end of the day, it’s a kids’ show that probably doesn’t deserve its mantle of That One Really Feminist/Queer Anime to casual anime fans.
Yeah, I said it. Sailor Moon is fun, empowering for little girls, and can be quite inventive in the hands of directors and writers like Kunihiko Ikuhara, Junichi Sato, Yoji Enokido and others. And yet… maybe it’s the burnout talking, but it endlessly frustrates me that this seems to be the only girl-targeted anime that the larger feminist and queer Internet wants to talk about at all. Non-anime fans know about plenty of boy-targeted shows—Pokemon, Dragonball, Naruto, maybe even Fullmetal Alchemist or Death Note—but seem to think Sailor Moon is the only girls’ show of note. It deserves that discussion about how it’s feminist and empowering and just quality girl-centered entertainment, but it always comes with the implicit assumption that it’s exceptional among anime in that regard. Even though every single one of those guys I mentioned who were involved with Sailor Moon have given us more interesting shojo series since then.
Sailor Moon’s dealings with gender are barely the tip of the feminism iceberg. Yeah, the 1992 anime creators certainly snuck in some social commentary on consumerism and restrictive fashion trends in-between the battles. Yeah, it has a wide variety of female characters, some of them even queer and gender non-conforming. But at the end of the day, Sailor Moon’s “feminist” message is mostly just that girls can be badass and do the rescuing of their love interests, not just be rescued. That’s it. There’s a lot more to feminism than that, and a lot more that media can say about it. Far from anime purely reflecting an antiquated patriarchal value system, Japan has produced quite a lot of cartoons that delve deep into the issues with restrictive gender roles, from Revolutionary Girl Utena to the works of Sayo Yamamato. There’s also anime’s (and especially the josei genre’s) tradition of strong coming-of-age stories about women that reflect gendered problems, like Paradise Kiss.
Those other works are far more challenging, and worthy of more attention and analysis, than is the so-called “weaponized femininity” of Sailor Moon and other magical-girl shows. Telling little girls they’re powerful is great, but it shouldn’t stop there. And Sailor Moon does pretty much stop there: it doesn’t do much to interrogate gender roles other than suggesting they’re too based in consumerism that can be taken advantage of, and shouldn’t be compulsory. Girls should be allowed to choose how boyish or girlish they want to be. But when Usagi confronts Jadeite over him using jewelry or fitness centers to dupe girls, it’s usually with a message that the underlying thing is good, and him using it is bad. That’s a far cry from Revolutionary Girl Utena’s doctrine that we’re all incubated from birth in this system, that both masculinity and femininity are toxic, and only through burning it all down–“smashing the egg’s shell”–can we break free:
Not that I expect a show for little girls to advocate for radical feminism and “world revolution.” But maybe that’s why us grown adults shouldn’t put those little girls’ shows on a pedestal. It is kind of amazing to me that so many American pop-culture writers think this is really the furthest that anime goes when it comes to feminism (and is just one example among many of the reductive ways that Americans essentialize and oversimplify non-Western cultures and their approaches to progressive issues).
I really love Sailor Moon, and I know it played a big part in my own feminist and queer awakening. I just wish that the feminist conversation on anime didn’t so often stop there. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that the year of Sailor Moon was a bust. Maybe Sailor Moon just doesn’t work as well in 2014 as it did in 1992. Maybe it’ll give feminists who are casual anime fans the boost to move on, and explore the larger world of anime about women, for women.