Around the Internet: “Why You Shouldn’t Start With Sailor Moon Crystal”

Hey, readers! Long time, no see!

I’m eternally frustrated by my inability to maintain this blog on a regular schedule, but I’m trying a new approach. If I can’t think of a more substantive post, I’ll write some commentary about something elsewhere on the Internet that I like. This time, it’s this video that’s been floating around the Anime Internet, about Sailor Moon Crystal:

YouTuber CJ outlines why newbies to Sailor Moon should skip the reboot series, and stick with the classic anime and manga. It probably isn’t a surprise to anyone that I agree with her. I tried to be positive about Crystal at first, but ended up coming down pretty harshly on it as of my Twelve Days of Anime post about the franchise. There’s simply not much to recommend about it to newbies or diehard fans–or, really, anyone other than hardcore completionists. (Which might be me; I couldn’t finish the second cour, but it lingers on my Hummingbird “on hold” list.) Apparently there’s some disagreement in the fandom about that, though–not as much as I think she makes it out to be, but maybe we’re not hanging out in the same places. CJ does a great job of explaining her points while addressing those disagreements–such as the issues with the 1992 anime and original manga. They have them! That still doesn’t make Crystal good.

There are lots of posts about this around the Internet, though, so here are two specific things I really appreciated about CJ’s video:

  1. I love that she gives a good word for the live-action series. I don’t agree with her in recommending it to Sailor Moon newbies, or at least ones who aren’t already familiar with anime or live-action Japanese television. Its cornball acting and bad special effects are pretty big hurdles for people who aren’t expecting them. However, if you can get past that, there is some really strong writing in there. I wholeheartedly agree it’s probably the best version of the “Dark Kingdom” plot (the first arc of the anime and manga)–even if there’s none of my beloved Zoisite/Kunzite. All the Senshi’s full personalities and home lives are explored, making them and their episodes just as interesting as Usagi’s to a degree beyond even the original anime. It’s also the best version of the Usagi/Mamoru relationship, making them truly star-crossed lovers and integrating their romance into the central conflict. Sure, there’s also some silly stuff like the plushie cats and “Sailor Luna,” but at least it totally owns those. Highly recommended if you’re at all interested in Sailor Moonand you know what “tokusatsu adaptation” entails.
  2. Other Sailor Moon fans will probably kill me here, but I enjoyed her recommendations of more modern magical-girl fare at the end. I haven’t seen Yuki Yuna is a Hero (and I’ve heard mixed things), but I loved Puella Magi Madoka Magica and, endless arguments about its “feminism” aside, it’s probably more relevant to the modern anime viewer than Sailor Moon is. It’s actually hard to know who to recommend Sailor Moon to these days. Even as someone with strong nostalgia for it, I can acknowledge even the best versions of the series still feel pretty dated. It’s a super-popular classic that every anime fan should probably have some familiarity with, and if you’re a credits-chasing sakuga type, it’s cool to see what Ikuhara, Junichi Sato, Enokido and co. were doing back in the day. But if you just want to get into the magical girl world, there are better places to start now.

What do you think about Sailor Moon Crystal and its merits/lack thereof? Which parts of Sailor Moon would you recommend for new fans? Let me know in the comments!

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Ranking the Anime: Spring 2015 Week 7 (May 15-21)

I’m putting Plamemo on hold until it stops getting mired in rom-com shenanigans. Frankly, I need to put something on hold if I’m going to keep doing this, because I’ll be really busy over the next week or so. I’m heading to a film music conference in New York next weekend, to present a paper on Michiru Oshima’s score for Fullmetal Alchemist! I am really excited, but it means a lot of prep ahead of time. I am probably going to take Week 8 off to focus on my work and having fun at the conference. See you all then!

Blood Blockade Battlefront: Don't you love Zapp?

Blood Blockade Battlefront: Don’t you love Zapp?

1. Blood Blockade Battlefront episode 7: I’d recently come to the conclusion on revisiting Trigun that music can do a lot to make up for a low budget and otherwise sloppy visuals. Well, Blood Blockade Battlefront delivers on those fronts, and yet its music still adds so much to each episode. I especially like that each episode has so much stylistic variety, and it still matches so well to every moment. Like this week, where we had operatic strains accompanying Leo meeting with Black and learning about White, and comparing her to his sister’s plight. (I’m not fully convinced White isn’t actually his sister on some level.) And then we had the hard rock for Zapp getting trapped and Klaus coming in to fight. There’s a lot to love about Blood Blockade Battlefront from week to week, and the soundtrack is no small part of that.

2. My Love Story!! episode 7: Full review here. This was probably the single cutest and most romantic episode of My Love Story!!, and that’s no small feat. Most episodes of this show are pretty adorable. This one did a lot to show you just how invested in each other Yamato and Takeo are. The answer: even more than you thought. I’m a little worried about how long My Love Story!! can run on this particular engine, but as for now I’m more than enjoying the ride.

3. Heroic Legend of Arslan episode 7: Full review here. This episode was a huge step up! It really fleshes out the Lusitanian side of the conflict, and gives us a bunch of new, fun characters and dynamics. I’m feeling good about where this show is going in a way I haven’t in weeks, and that’s awesome. Arslan has a ton of potential it needs to stop squandering.

Heroic Legend of Arslan: The king's exasperated brother.

Heroic Legend of Arslan: It’s hard being the brother of an idiot king.

4. Sound! Euphonium episode 7: This episode focused largely on the older students, showing how hard they’ve worked to keep the band alive when the previous seniors quit. Yet for some of them that isn’t enough to keep them in when the band starts interfering with their other dreams, like getting into a good university. This leads Aoi, tenor saxophonist and one of the leaders of the band, to quit. The band is finally the powerhouse she wanted it to be, but it also really doesn’t have room for her anymore if her sax isn’t going to be a priority. Sound! Euphonium in many ways is like the anti-K-ON!: it’s the real-world workings of a school music group, not the fantasy version that show serves up. It’s very refreshing, and the rich character interaction should make it work even for people who aren’t deep into the high school band world. We’ve all struggled with the trade-off between our goals and the things we do for fun. Some people take band as their top priority, like Asuka. For some people, it’s always going to be second fiddle, even if it’s still big enough to fight for it.

5. Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders episode 43: When was the last time Jojo’s was this straight-up dark? Vanilla Ice sure knows how to bring the terror. Polnareff is probably one of my favorite Stardust Crusaders, but he can be frustrating when you’re expected to take him seriously. Still, this was a strong, interesting battle, especially in watching him and Iggy put aside their differences to defeat such a formidable enemy. I kinda know how Stardust Crusaders ends, but I’m still a little worried for our Boston terrier there. Vanilla Ice and his stand Cream are a terrifying pair, and he and Polnareff are pretty stuck. This is Jojo’s, though, so I’m sure they’ll get it out of in some bonkers way with a rocking soundtrack.

6. Sailor Moon Crystal episode 22: I can’t believe it, but I think this week Crystal was actually kind of good? The plot was easy to follow and the characters had personality (Venus even expressed regret that she’s so powerless during this arc). Usagi actually cared about her friends as much as her boyfriend. I could actually feel for the villains as they got frustrated over their Prince Demande going insane. And Black Lady is already a menacing, mysterious presence. I also think the show saved pretty much all its art and animation budget for this episode, as there was a noticeable lack of mistakes and upgrade in the visual quality. I especially liked the design for Wiseman, Neo-Queen Serenity and the other non-physical “projections,” with textures that reminded me of the character designs in Gankutsuou. Not a comparison I ever thought I’d be making for this show! I hope Sailor Moon Crystal can keep up this level of quality in the last few episodes. I might actually be pumped to watch them now.

Fate/stay night: Poor Lancer. As doomed as this show.

Fate/stay night: Poor Lancer. As doomed as this show.

7. Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works episode 19: This episode falls into one of the franchise’s major weaknesses: excessive talking that doesn’t translate well to film. I wasn’t as negative on this episode as Gabbo was—in fact, I mostly enjoyed it, apart from the creepy Shinji stuff—but it does make it clear how much they’re stalling for time. Now that we’re coming down the wire to our true, final antagonists in the form of KK and Gilgamesh, I’m not sure how this show expects to fill its remaining episodes. I surely hope it’s not all with Archer monologues.

8. Wish Upon the Pleiades episode 7: Full review here. Well, that sure wasn’t promising. Wish Upon the Pleiades gave itself a tall order last week, but one it could at least take some steps toward delivering. And it…didn’t even try. With the exception of a few moments hinting that something is seriously wrong with Minato, it was all meaningless friendship hijinks. Oh well. Better luck next time? Maybe? I don’t really know what to expect from this show anymore. I’m not sure if it even wants to try.

Ranking the Anime: Spring 2015 Week 5 (5/1-5/7)

I put Assassination Classroom on hold out of boredom, so we’ll be skipping that this week. Luckily, there’s lots of other, (not always) better anime to pick apart!

This is also a little bit later than I would have preferred to get it out, now that most of the first half of my next week post is out. Sorry about that! I’m working on a series review, so it’s been a busy weekend.

sailor moon crystal black lady

1. Blood Blockade Battlefront episode 5: Will this show ever not be my no. 1? Not if it keeps the good work, it won’t. The whole ketchup sequence alone earned it its top spot here. But so does the story: “monomaniacal” girl creates The Perfect Boyfriend only for the two boys she merged to fall in love with each other. So do the bouncy, colorful visuals, and the music to match. It’s really hard to talk about this show because it’s always good and it’s always because every single element is working in tandem to make it perfect. One specific thing that’s getting clearer with every week is how much this is a Yazuhiro Nightow creation: his very American-comic-books sense of style combined with humanistic values. It makes me wish we could get that Trigun manga reboot one of these days. But we won’t, so I’m happy to “settle” for BBB, which isn’t even really settling because it actually might be better than Trigun after all. Whoever thought I’d say that?

2. The Heroic Legend of Arslan episode 5: Full review here. We meet another exciting character this week in the form of master archer and musician Gieve. If Arslan keeps introducing fun supporting players with the potential to shake up the story, I’ll stay pleased and keep giving it good reviews. I know this isn’t really an “Arakawa story,” but a lot of what made FMA so appealing was her big cast full of bigger personalities. Arslan shows some other similarities even with a different writer, and that’s one I’d really like to be true for it, too.

3. Plastic Memories episode 5: Yep, this was exactly what this show needed. This episode is spent almost entirely with our characters on the job, and we finally see what happens to Giftias when they start to degrade with Marcia’s devastating breakdown. I felt like it pulled out some of my interest in this larger world that it was just “oh they go senile and go on a rampage,” but we also saw that there are competing organizations with perhaps more nefarious plans for them. Hint hint: That’d be a great place to explore in future episodes as much as you can, Plamemo. Keep on this track of plotting and you’ll stay golden.

plamemo marcia week 5

4. Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works episode 17: Yay Lancer, and Archer returning to the right side! Or not really, I guess. The show is making it clearer and clearer who Archer’s true identity is, and I’m eager to see how he got there. How he became so bitter and cruel, especially toward someone…who may or may not be… oh come on, you all know what the deal is here, right? Anyway, I know Unlimited Blade Works is one of the routes where that’s revealed, so I was glad to see that built on this week. And Lancer is always entertaining. A solid episode.

5. My Love Story!! episode 5: Full review here. This slipped a little, because I’m really not liking our new character, Ai, or what she might mean for the show going forward. She’s unnecessary and more than a little creepy. But the episode’s still largely solid, funny and cute, so how can I complain too much? Ai better not let it slip any further, though.

6. Sound! Euphonium episode 5: This episode is pretty much pure band-nerdery. Maybe that’s why I personally found it less appealing, since marching band is one of the few experiences I haven’t had (though I’ve known many who were really into it, including my sister). I play cello and bass, what can I say? There are some important character moments for Kumiko near the end, when she realizes why her current school band is so important to her. She’s given the opportunity to hang out with middle school friends, but refuses it to focus harder on their performance. That’s an important step forward for her, but just one moment in an episode filled with marching band minutia and high-school hijinks. (And for all that focus, we only got to see a tiny slice of their actual performance!) I didn’t mind it, but Sound! Euphonium has done better.

At least their uniforms are really cute.

At least their uniforms are really cute.

7. Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders episode 41: It’s crazy, I should love a baseball episode. And there was a lot to enjoy this week (even if Jotaro really should have chosen to bat second. C’mon, dude). But D’Arby the Younger is just so tepid compared to his older brother. I’m sure he’d love to hear that, given his smoldering resentment toward said brother, but the show doesn’t even really develop that beyond one flashback, either. Granted, this is Jojo’s, I don’t exactly expect deep character writing. What I do expect is entertaining characters, especially villains. Or failing that, to make them shit-your-pants terrifying. Younger D’Arby is neither. So it’s time to move on, Jojo’s.

8. Wish Upon the Pleiades episode 5: Full review here. This episode wasn’t nearly as good as last week’s, but it’s still better than the first few. I think fleshing out its cast is a good move for Pleiades. At the very least, it’ll be more engaging to watch for me. This is the stuff I loved growing up about Sailor Moon and other magical girl series, and if it can at least stay in the neighborhood of that, I’m happy.

9. Sailor Moon Crystal episode 21: The perennial underperformer continues to underperform. Shocking, right? It wasn’t for lack of strong material this time: The whole Black Moon arc is some of the strongest stuff from the manga, but particularly when we get into Chibiusa’s character development. She got the short shift in the anime, so I was eager for Crystal to impart some of what made her so compelling in manga form. She’s a scared but curious little girl robbed of the chance to grow up by fate, and the Black Moon Clan gives her that golden opportunity. Crystal, of course, destroys most of that powerful emotional resonance in presentation. It’s as lifeless and by-the-book as ever, where the original anime often livened up listless material with color and creativity. You aren’t even trying anymore, are you, Crystal? And that stinks, because this stuff could be good, but who would know from the way you’re dealing it? I continue to wonder if I’m going to suffer through the sequel series or not, when this show turns the franchise’s strongest stuff into such a snooze.

Ranking the Anime: Spring 2015 Week 3 (4/17-4/23)

So I got sick of making separate posts for my ANN reviews pretty quickly, and felt like they highlighted how little of other, Real Content I was writing for this blog. Instead I’m going to compile them–and my thoughts on other anime this season, since I always watch a lot–into a longer “Week in Review” post. I know, I know, this is something every anime blogger ever does. It’s not particularly original, but it’s fun if you’re watching enough shows. So hey, why not me too?

Here are my rankings for the third week of Spring 2015, from best to worst. This is usually when I drop something if I’m not feeling it, but the only one that qualifies is one I’m assigned to cover for ANN, Wish Upon the Pleiades. Oh well!

Illyasviel's skeletons (well, evil zombie moms) in her closet.

Illyasviel’s skeletons (well, evil zombie moms) in her closet.

1. Blood Blockade Battlefront episode 3: So far clearly the best show of the new season, Blood Blockade Battlefront just keeps improving. This episode follows and fleshes out Klaus V Reinherz, as he gets to use his Prosfair skills in dealing with an unscrupulous alien. I’m glad this isn’t just going to be Leo’s story, but it’s going to play around with all its colorful characters. Frankly, there’s not much I can say about this show that hasn’t been said better by others, but I will say that I’m loving even more how well it uses its music. It was fantastic to start with, but it keeps improving week by week. I’m not just talking about the Beethoven 9 in the episode’s climax (though a great use of that always thrills me), but the trippy Indian wailing and the blocky techno. It all sounds awesome and it’s all so expertly placed. Everything about Blood Blockade Battlefront is perfect and makes me eager to watch more by Rie Matsumoto.

2. My Love Story!! episode 3: Full review is here. My Love Story!! takes a bold step forward that could spell doom for it later, but in the moment I’m just wowed by what a thrilling turn this was. And Suna and Takeo’s adorably strong friendship.

3. Sound! Euphonium episode 3: This is a great show, and I love how rooted it is in the struggles of actual high school musicians. Other moe shows that focus on this sort of thing–like K-ON!, the most obvious comparison as another KyoAni work–always present some idealized version of this. But the frustration and lack of cooperation in here relates so well to my own high school orchestra days. We had a big group, that ran the full gamut in abilities and interest, and there were always issues with those who didn’t take it seriously holding the rest of the ensemble back. It feels especially weird to have that in an after-school club, though–at least with a required “arts elective” course, you don’t have a choice. I love music shows, and I love ones focused on plucky underdogs who may not always be the most motivated, and on the sad, passionate feelings of high school musicians. Sound! Euphonium’s mains are a particularly well-written, realistic bunch, especially for a KyoAni school club show. This continues to be right up my alley.

Asuka sure loves her instrument-based innuendos.

Asuka sure loves her instrument-based innuendos.

4. Fate/stay night: Unlimited Blade Works episode 15: This was a strong episode in many ways, and that’s largely due to anime-original material. Like with Caster the previous week, ufotable adds to Illya’s backstory here to better explain her motivations. It makes her a richly compelling character, but I agree with Nick that it’s too little, too late. If like me, you’re somewhat familiar with the original visual novel, this is understandable to a certain extent: Illya gets more focus and development in other routes, and this just happens to be the one where she cuts out early. If this is meant to work as a stand-alone series or as a sequel to Fate/Zero, though, it’s a problem that she gets the shaft so soon. And her extra material feels a little superfluous when the show’s unable to go anywhere with it. I get they’d risk the eternal rage of Type Moon diehards if they didn’t follow the VN for the major plot beats, of which character death is certainly one. That doesn’t make it any less frustrating for those of us who are primarily anime fans.

5. Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders episode 39: I loved the whole Pet Shop battle, though the previous episode was a little stronger. I mean, little shit of a Stand-wielding bird faces off against little shit of a Stand-wielding dog? What’s not to love? It was still plenty of fun, though, especially with Iggy’s fake-out at the end. And even though it only lasts for half the episode, the rest of it was great, too, with Kakyoin’s return and the set-up for meeting DIO. We’re in Egypt now, and with only a few days left before Holly kicks it. It’s time for the boys to get their heads in the game. And Jojo’s got us there as best it could.

6. Assassination Classroom episode 13: This was stronger than a lot of recent AssClass episodes. I like this show best when it’s all about Koro-sensei’s strengths as a teacher, and this was one of those–albeit, by pitting him against a straw man of a Bad Teacher and having the students duke it out for who got to teach them. The best thing about this episode was it also fleshed out and focused more on Karasuma, as the teacher the Straw Asshole was meant to displace. The material was often uncomfortable at times, moving away from the series’ typical goofiness. I wouldn’t say this is the best of AssClass, but it’s certainly among the show’s better half-hours.

7. The Heroic Legend of Arslan episode 3: Full review is here. Arslan still stumbles quite a bit, but it’s going in the direction I want it to go. It’s introducing new characters and opening up new adventures for our two mains, and moving away from talking boring battle stuff. That’s what I want. Also, more characters who don’t look like carbon copies of FMA ones, but with the new bishie-tastic Narsus, that looks like it’s happening! Yay!

I hope this guy isn't the  closest we get to a Mustang lookalike. HE HAS THE WRONG FACE.

I hope this guy isn’t the closest we get to a Mustang lookalike. HE HAS THE WRONG FACE.

8. Plastic Memories episode 3: I don’t think I disliked this as much as many others did, but along with the previous episode, it sure isn’t the show I was promised at first. None of this rom-com stuff hasn’t been done before, and better, in other series, and it’s such a shame to see it wasted here. Plastic Memories simply has too many interesting ideas and too few episodes to develop them, that we don’t have time for High School Rom-Com Hijinks. The last few minutes save it from the garbage heap, though, giving some intriguing character-building for Isla. But it’s broadcast that since episode 1. Let’s actually deliver on that next week, maybe?

9. Wish Upon the Pleiades episode 3: Full review is here. Suffice it to say, it does a lot to turn Pleiades into a real, engaging story and clears up confusion, but also confirms a lot of my worst fears for this show. (By which I mean the baby-moe fanservice. EW EW EW EW EWWWWWWWW.)

10. Sailor Moon Crystal episode 20: Why am I still watching this? I don’t know, I guess I’m just that much of a completionist with Sailor Moon. Anyway, this episode gives the reveal that Mamoru and Usagi are Chibiusa’s parents, a big, emotional moment in both the original anime and the manga. It reveals all the backstory for the Black Moon’s conflict. It’s one of the emotional lynchpins of this arc. And… it still falls flat as a pancake. And the animation and overall presentation is still horrendous. Why did I think this was going to get any better with the second half? I’m guessing because the Black Moon stuff is better in the manga, but not like that’s ever mattered a wink for this series. Its philosophy seems to be there’s nothing it can’t make boring. Maybe I won’t stick around to watch it butcher my favorite Sailor Lesbians after all.

Twelve Days of Anime #4: The “Year of Sailor Moon” That Wasn’t

sailor moon viz poster

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?

I am looking forward to the second season, though.

I am looking forward to the second season material, though.

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.

Including this one.

Including this one.

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.

Mixed Feelings About Sailor Moon Crystal

sailor moon moon moon

I’ll start this off by talking about one of my favorite and least favorite corners of the Internet: Tumblr. Shortly before the first episode of Sailor Moon Crystal aired last month, a post began circulating on the social networking site warning people not to jump to negative conclusions about the series. It mentioned that new versions could only enrich a franchise, that if you dislike it the old versions will continue to exist, and that squabbling could only make the fandom less fun and welcoming for newbies. It read: “Crystal is not here to destroy your childhood.  It’s here to add to it.  Appreciate it for what it is: something new, that builds on all that came before it.  It will be different, and that’s okay.  Every version of Sailor Moon is different, and the franchise is better for it.”

Now, it’s easy to see posts like this as the typical fan-posturing and -gatekeeping from hyperdefensive people who are terrified by criticism of any sort. And I’m sure some people reblogged it in that spirit. But I’ve been in plenty of “fandoms” where people just automatically hated things that were different from the version they came to like, regardless of quality and without thinking very much about what bothered them about the changes. Fanboys and fangirls are notoriously afraid of change; TVTropes even has a page about this mentality, and I’ve seen it ruin fandom communities I was in from Harry Potter to Fullmetal Alchemist to Skins. And you’ve seen it, too, if you’ve ever mentioned enjoying a movie adaptation to a fan of the original book/comic/whatever, and were met by them blathering endlessly about every little thing that was different. As someone who likes having multiple versions of a story I love, and prefers good original adaptations to dull faithful ones, I thought the post was absolutely necessary – and so I re-blogged it.

Thus, I felt like it was important to set all that fanwank aside right out of the gate here. I’m not someone who came in determined to find Sailor Moon Crystal lacking. In fact, I really wanted to see this anime succeed. I am a dedicated Moonie in every version I’ve encountered it in (anime, manga, even the live-action), and I was really excited when I heard that we’d have a new series coming out. I was apprehensive about the ultra-manga-faithful character designs and Usagi’s tentacle-pasta hair, but I was still bouncing up and down with excitement, staying up until 6 am to watch the first episode of the new series. I wrote about it positively both on my article about the franchise for Bitch, and my Summer Anime blog post here. I saw some things that gave me pause, but I decided to remain optimistic, to give the series a few episodes to find its footing.

As of episode 3, though, it’s hard to maintain my optimism anymore.

This series already had some issues with visuals and direction. My friend Gabbo detailed many of its issues in her post here about Sailor Moon Crystal, while comparing it to the original anime. As she shows, the series already had many problems in the first two episodes, but “Act 3: Rei – Sailor Mars” brings a lot of them into even sharper focus.

Let’s start with some positives. I really love the backgrounds on this show. The first anime had a lot of great ones as well, but the watercolor ones here look like something out of a storybook:

Also, hi, Phobos and Deimos!

Also, hi, Phobos and Deimos! You look a lot more distinctive this time around.

But when one zooms into the individual characters, the positives dwindle. The character designs are flat, generic and, to be frank, pretty clunky. My first thought with this moment (when Usagi first meets Rei) was, “wow, they aren’t being remotely subtle about her girl-crush! Cool!” My second was (as Zac Bertschy pointed out on Twitter), “…what are those EYEBROWS?”

sailor moon crystal 3 eyebrows

Luna continues to look more like a horse in her body shape than a cat, but even characters who were doing fine in previous episodes, like Mamoru, apparently change their face shape with every scene, when it’s not falling into the generic big-eyed pointiness that this series favors for everyone:

Poor boy, you were so much cuter back in the day.

Poor boy, you were so much cuter back in the day.

Rei (Sailor Mars) fares the worst, though. Plenty have already detailed how her eyes are oddly spaced, but it’s possibly even more alarming how often she goes completely off-model – to the point where it sometimes seems like the series doesn’t have a consistent “model” for her. It’s one thing to have your characters look a little “meguca” when they’re in the background or in motion; it’s another in a still shot where they’re the focus, like in Rei’s slogan scene here:

Also, is that a Jojo pose?

Also, is that a Jojo pose?

And while the backgrounds can be impressive, the series simply lacks the impressive direction and attention to detail that characterized the original. It could be simply due to its lack of talent – the first Sailor Moon anime boasted such directors as Kunihiko Ikuhara and Junichi Sato, the masterminds behind Revolutionary Girl Utena and Princess Tutu respectively – but you don’t need a genius director to just not be lazy here. And these directorial and cinematographic choices are just that: lazy, hoping the viewers will be entranced by the modernized style and ignore how sloppily it’s applied. Observe the lighting choices here, where the leaf shadows are applied so broadly as to appear unrealistic:

Even Usagi knows!

Even Usagi knows!

Sailor Moon Crystal‘s story may be just as engaging as that of the original – if it keeps following the excellent manga – but the presentation leaves a lot to be desired, and could make or break this series that can already be experienced in so many other forms. Toei just doesn’t seem like they’re bringing the budget and/or talent necessary for this project, which is a shame for something as heavily-anticipated as this series was.

Overall, it’s interesting to compare Sailor Moon Crystal with another “manga-faithful” reboot of a classic anime series: Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood. I’ve never been particularly fond of FMA:B, though a lot of that lies with my finding the manga story far less compelling than the one in the first Fullmetal Alchemist anime – which takes a much sharper departure from its source material than the original Sailor Moon anime did. (FMA 03’s degree of departure is closer to what the Sailor Moon live-action series did with that first season arc’s plot, but that’s a story for another post.) With Sailor Moon, I had less reservations, since I like the first anime and the manga’s stories about equally at this point. I was excited to see the manga version of the story get an anime adaptation, with its much darker plot and greater protagonist-focus giving it the potential to pull in a different audience to one of my favorite anime franchises.

But I’m finding a lot of the same problems I did in FMA:B.

And in both FMA:B and SMC, the key to most issues is the manga-faithfulness. FMA:B struggled to adapt 109 manga chapters to 64 episodes, and that includes some truly sloppy pacing, especially in its beginning and end. But even then, it keeps so much manga material it could have easily left on the cutting room floor, that it fails to give the proper time to the essentials (as with the Ishval flashback episode). Worse, its visual adaptation is almost panel-by-panel, to a degree that shows serious ignorance for what works in animation vs. print comics. This is most evident in its comedic moments, where it repeats the same SD visual gags from the manga as literally as possible – but while they worked there, they’re just over-the-top and corny in anime. The first anime succeeded by rendering these same jokes with more subtlety.

But SMC’s issues here, at least as far as visuals, are far, far worse. FMA:B had a manga-inspired art style and character designs, but it did adapt them with an awareness for how things work differently in a three-dimensional plane. (It helped that Hiromu Arakawa’s more rounded, cartoonish character designs work better for this task, anyway.) SMC’s characters hew so close to its manga art style, though, that this goes right out the window. Gabbo puts it well in her aforementioned post:

Naoko Takeuchi is a great artist, and one her art’s most distinctive features is that she draws eyes to look like they exist on a flat plane. She doesn’t account for the curvature of the face, just changing the direction that the eyes are curved in order to indicate which way a character is facing, and it looks great in 2D. However, this choice doesn’t translate well into animation, where character models will often need to turn around or shake their heads or make other onscreen shifts in perspective. It just isn’t easy to transition one facial shot to another in a way that looks recognizably human.

 

The Senshi in the manga...

The Senshi in the manga…

sellamun crystal

…and the new anime. Can you spot the similarities?

To SMC’s credit, it does seem willing to deviate from the manga plot as necessary to make the anime plot more engaging, unlike FMA:B. But it does this by hewing closer to what the first anime already did differently, as in Ami’s episode – which is basically the same exact story as her introduction in the first anime, with some technology updates (a haunted CD-ROM instead of a haunted floppy disk!) and taking into account Usagi’s different characterization here (kinder and more cooperative, instead of competitive and argumentative).  It isn’t much of an argument for SMC being able to stand alone, as its own work separate from the first anime and the manga.

Those differences, though, do at least make SMC a curio worth observing for those who are already invested in the other Sailor Moon canons, and anyone interested in the art of adaptation. I, for one, like that Rei’s episode shows more signs of the manga version of her characterization and relationship with Usagi, even though I prefer her anime incarnation. (Competitive, snarky Rei was my first fictional crush and basically my role model as a sassy little girl, okay?) Both the cooperation emphasized in the manga/Crystal story and the spiritedness/assertiveness emphasized in Usagi and Rei’s first-anime characterizations, are valid approaches to empowering and mentoring young girls through entertainment. I’m glad that the latest generation of little girls, who might be put-off by the ’90s flavor of the original anime, have a new version of the story that they can call their own.

But for anyone other than youngsters and diehards, this series still leaves a lot to be desired.

Summer 2014 Anime: First Impressions Part 1

It’s not often that I find myself watching more anime in a winter/summer season than I am in spring/fall, but here we are! I stuck to five series in the spring: Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure: Stardust Crusaders, Mushi-shi Season 2, The World is Still BeautifulCaptain Earth and Haikyuu! (I tried Ping-Pong and found it wasn’t for me.) And yet, I find myself following a lot more in the usual drought that is anime’s summer season.

Granted, many of these are continuations of spring series; Jojo’sCaptain Earth and Haikyuu! are all soldiering on for the next several months, at least. But there were also a number of new summer series – or sequels of previous series I enjoyed – that intrigued me. Let’s look at some first impressions.

I’ll be starting with the second seasons/reboots, and get to the brand-new stuff in a future post after I have two or three episodes to discuss.

FREE! ETERNAL SUMMER: Episodes 1 and 2

Haru (right) and Sousuke, a new rival for Rin’s affections?

Like a lot of anime viewers who are attracted to men, I had a blast with Kyoto Animation’s effort last summer to even the fanservice playing field a bit. I deliciously drank up both the sexist fanboy tears over its existence, and enjoyed the hell out of its homoerotic ab monsters, as they shed their clothes and glistened with pool water. Free! is far from ground-breaking television, but it does what it’s trying to do pretty well. Its characters are simple but never feel stereotypical, and are always entertaining and fun. And its storylines may be well-trod ground for anime about school clubs, but they’re written and directed well-enough that you’re drawn in anyway. Plus, it has the top-notch visuals one expects with any KyoAni effort. Needless to say, I was more than ready for season two this year.

The first episode makes it clear this new season is a show for existing fans, with many shot-by-shot visual references to the series premiere. I still found myself enjoying it, but wondering where the show was going. Well, with this week’s episode, now we know: The series introduced two fun new characters, a cute but somewhat mysterious boy from Rin’s past named Sousuke; and departed Samezuka captain’s energetic and even more girl-crazy younger brother. The former seems to be setting up for fresh tension between Rin and Haru now that Rin’s softened a bit, and both give us reasons to care about the Samezuka team beyond merely being the Vocal Adrenaline to Iwatobi’s New Directions, if you will. (Yeah, I haven’t watched Glee in a few seasons, either.)

SAILOR MOON CRYSTAL: Episode 1

Gaze in wonder at them pretty backgrounds. Ignore that Usagi’s hair kinda looks like tentacle spaghetti.

You could say I’m a pretty dedicated Moonie. I’ve read the entire manga, seen most of the old DiC English dub and I’m now making my way through the original anime as it gets released by Viz on Hulu. I’ve even seen the infamous live-action series. (I don’t think it’s quite deserving of said infamy, but that’s a whole ‘nother post.) I’ve written endless posts for Autostraddle and now, Bitch about its feminism, and how its queer characters helped me come to terms with my own sexuality.

So you could also say I’m pretty well-prepared to review this first episode of the reboot series of Sailor Moon Crystal, and yet, in many ways that extra level of familiarity is a handicap more than a helper. I’ve seen this first episode’s story so many times, in so many forms, it’s hard to talk much about it on its own. So let’s instead talk about the presentation of this first episode, and what it indicates about the different beast this reboot might be.

Sailor Moon Crystal is a Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood type of reboot; it faithfully follows the manga plot where the original anime diverged (albeit, not as much as in FMA’s case). It’s clearly inspired by the manga’s art style in its character designs, which were my least favorite things visually about this series; they look clunky and misplaced given the modern high-quality of all the other visuals, especially the backgrounds. More interestingly, the tonal and character-focus differences between the two main versions of Sailor Moon are already clear from this first installment. As I said in the Bitch article, there’s less camp and visual gags here than in the original anime, and the music is more dramatic, replacing the sleazy jazz of the old series. Usagi is also at the center of the story, with Tuxedo Mask merely looming imposingly in the background rather than saving her as he did in the previous anime.

It’s a little less fun than the old series, but should be just as, if not more, epic in its action-adventure with the eye-popping visuals. And the darker manga plot should reward adult fans of the series as much as the silliness of the first series did. Regardless, I know I’m too much of a Moonie not to stick with this one.

SPACE DANDY SEASON 2: Episode 1

SO MANY DANDIES!

Space Dandy is a series that I’ve always wanted to love more than I do. It’s a sci-fi parody show from one of my favorite anime auteurs, Shinichiro Watanabe. Its particular brand of sci-fi parody is cut from the same cloth as others I already adore (more on that in a moment). It already has a top-notch English dub airing at the same time as the Japanese version, something I love and hope to see more of as a dub fan (especially dubs from Funimation, like this is). So why does it feel like it doesn’t always land for me? Why, sometimes, am I glued to the TV, whereas other weeks it feels more like a fun background distraction while I get some writing done? Luckily, the show is episodic enough that that doesn’t matter too much if one doesn’t grab me a particular week. It effectively reboots itself the next week just fine.

All that said, this first episode in the new season shows some pretty strong promise for the show going forward. It’s a similar idea to the Family Guy “Road to the Multiverse” episode, except, of course, good, and not loaded with tired references. This week, when Dandy contemplates switching careers (which…about time, bro), he finds out that there are versions of his crew (him, Meow and QT) in every universe with differences in occupations and species, but from the same basic molds. It leads to the kinds of zany hijinks you would expect when they get all jumbled up in each other’s worlds, and endeavor to find ways back to their proper places. It includes some references (mostly to other anime, like Attack on Titan) but the real pull of the episode is looking at how all the different versions of these characters bounce off each other, and their madcap attempts to each get back home.

Space Dandy‘s episodic parodic nature makes it seem more like an American adult animated comedy than a Japanese one, which is why I’ve always thought it should have an even bigger U.S. audience than it already does. Its brand of affectionate sci-fi parody seems more indebted to classic Futurama and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy than most other anime. But it has enough wit and craziness, and memorable characters, to charm you even if you don’t get the references, to anime, sci-fi clichés or anything else. All that means it’s the best pick this season to bring in non-anime fans, and luckily, they can check in anytime they want. This strong season opener suggests that there’s never a better time than now.

Up in Part 2: Terror in Resonance, Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun, Love Stage and possibly more!