It's the 21st century remake of the revered, daft, world-conquering Sailor Moon, this time sticking religiously to Naoko Takeuchi's original manga (except when it doesn't). Compared with everyone's expections, it failed. The fans tore it to shreds. A ton of merchandise was licensed in anticipation of a repeat of the 1990s, to underwhelming effect.
Personally though I quite liked it. It has plotting and characterisation issues, while it hardly needs saying that it's not a patch on its 1990s predecessor. However I don't really care about art hiccups (the worst of which are being fixed for the Blu-ray release anyway) and it fixes some massive issues from the old series. It's decent. It's a worthwhile variant.
(For the purposes of this review, incidentally, I'm going to call the 1990s anime 'Classic' and the 2014 anime 'Crystal'. I'm not trying to say anything with this. It's just nomenclature, less clumsy than saying "the 1990s/2014 series" all the time.)
WHAT'S BETTER IN 2014
1. The pacing. 'Classic' ran for 200 episodes and about 180 of those were monsters-of-the-week. That's ninety per cent filler. Personally I think it happens to be rich and entertaining filler, with lots of comedy and emotion, but that's still the main reason why one might hesitate to recommend the show to adults. The filler kiddifies it. It's Saturday morning cartoon stuff. Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, basically, but with emotional content, feminism and explosive characters.
'Crystal', on the other hand, has a plot. That's not to say that its grip on plotting can't be eccentric, but at least every episode feels as if it's moving things forward. Its episodes never feel interchangeable.
2. The characters. More specifically, the annoying ones. 'Classic' had its Scrappy Doos, in the form of Tuxedo Mask (who's more of an anti-character) and Chibi-Usa (aka. "Gomi-Usa", according to my wife). You don't need a translation. It's not complimentary. 'Crystal', though, brings them alive as characters in their own right, rather than one-dimensional foils/annoyances for Usagi. They work. I liked them. Mamoru feels like a human being from the beginning, which is something 'Classic' took nearly a hundred episodes to crack. Chibi-Usa doesn't make you want to drown her in a bucket. Amazing.
Admittedly both improved from those rocky starts, but still.
3. The fight scenes. The senshi don't just repeat the same attack over and over again, in stock footage that didn't even look like combat moves in the first place. They have multiple attacks. It actually works as a sentai show, although admittedly 'Classic' again improved this in later seasons.
WHAT'S BETTER IN 1992
Most of the things I just said were better in 2014.
Let's face it, 'Classic' was in its way one of the greatest anime ever made. Cheap, goofy, repetitive and all that, but you don't conquer the world with just a cute character design. (Unless you're 'Hello Kitty'.)
Unsurprisingly, I think those filler episodes were great. Particularly important, I think, was their gradual introduction of the other senshi, with Sailor Moon being forced to fight on her own for several episodes before Ami showed up in ep.8, Rei in ep.10 and Makoto in ep.25. That was a huge part of Usagi's character development, I think. In 'Crystal', though, it's as if everyone Usagi bumps into is fated to be a fellow warrior. We meet a new one in four of the first five episodes, if you include Usagi herself.
Another downside of this more businesslike story progression is the downgrading of Ami, Rei, Makoto and Minako. I've heard it said that 'Classic' basically invented their personalities, with the manga for a while tending to treat them as a group of similar people rather than individuals. 'Crystal' is based on the manga. Whoops. The other senshi are good when they get a spotlight episode, but they only get two each of those. (The first is their introduction and the second is during the Black Moon Arc when being singled out by one of the Specter Sisters.)
When we do get to spend time with them, mind you, they're likeable. Rei gets a good introduction. Makoto is charming and is an interesting combination of toughness and vulnerabilities (although the former quickly gets forgotten).
Broadly speaking, 'Crystal' is better at not being bad. Its cast manage to be people rather than cardboard cutouts, even tiny supporting roles like Usagi's school friend Naru. However, on the downside, it's also more bland. Usagi's gone from "unforgettable" to "fairly good", although I do still like her and there's a lot to be said for this calmer, more mature incarnation. She can still be inspiring. She's just less so, with far less contrast between her goofiness and her heroism. The other senshi tend to be a group rather than individuals, with the partial exception of Sailor Venus. The characterisation of the five main girls had been probably the original show's greatest strength! Admittedly this apparent change is merely following the manga, which took a while to start fleshing out the girls' characterisations, but that doesn't mean it's not still comparatively a weakness. Even the villains are indistinguishable from each other.
Then there's the plotting.
It's distinctive. It's a style in which conventional plot progression is liable to take second place after exploring your heart and how everyone feels. The show's big MacGuffin, the Legendary Silver Crystal, is a big Power of Love amplifier and the bad guys are erring in trying to get their hands on it. They wouldn't be able to use it. They're evil. It wouldn't do anything for them. Dramatic finale turning points are liable to hinge on transformative emotional experiences in which Usagi's feelings unlock the power of love and there's a big light that changes the world.
(If you're paying close attention and you're a veteran 'Crystal' viewer, you might even realise that that baddie you briefly saw fading into the light was actually being destroyed by it.)
In principle, I admire this. What's more, sometimes it works. The human moments between friends who love each other can be some of the show's most powerful scenes. It's also interesting to have big boss battles that are effectively subverting the fighting. Unfortunately, though, that's less effective if it leaves the audience wondering what the hell just happened.
It doesn't help either that they're being family-friendly. 'Classic' had to be censored for American TV, with the Dark Kingdom finale losing the equivalent of an entire episode. Nudity, lesbians, fourteen-year-old girls in the bath... the 1990s had it all. Japan, gotta love it. Even the manga has death scenes and arterial blood sprays. 'Crystal', though, is distressingly safe for kiddies. (Is this a result of more censorious modern attitudes, even in Japan, or just the wish to protect a money-spinner?) Thus I'd often realise only in hindsight that Usagi had been killing her enemies, thanks to dialogue from the others about avenging their comrades. Instead of impaling someone on a broadsword, now Usagi just knocks off the villain's magical necklace. Another baddie got beaten in such a throwaway fashion that afterwards I was wondering why everyone was now going home.
Sometimes they're not even dead, mind you. There's one band of villains who keep fighting the senshi one by one and getting killed... in the manga. In 'Crystal', though, they always teleport away at the last minute and end up falling foul of the Big Bad instead. The latter's another "blink and you'll miss it" killing, by the way. It's supposedly a big, dramatic scene, especially given the characters' backstories, but you'd have assumed they were still alive if it weren't for the references in later episodes. Do we actually see anything happen? Do we see bodies? That's a "no" to both questions.
There's one exception to 'Crystal''s kiddie-friendliness, though. A daughter hypnotises her father into becoming her new boyfriend, complete with petrifyingly inappropriate kissing. Splendid, of course. That's the Sailor Moon I know.
The plot problems can't all be blamed on anticlimax and bowdlerisation and anticlimax, though. The Dark Kingdom arc is fine, except for the finale seeming a bit dragged-out. (It's not. In fact that's the first episode of the Black Moon story arc, which picks up where the first arc ended.) That Black Moon story arc, though, is plotted like porridge. Fantastic imagery. Dazzlingly memorable ideas. Story development so muddy that it made 'Classic' fans bash its pacing. (That show had anti-pacing!) 'Crystal' fails to make a clear dramatic narrative out of 21st century heroes travelling to the 30th century and interacting with themselves, interspersed with flashbacks to different past future eras that haven't happened to them yet. What's happening and why? Don't ask me. The baddies' motivations get murky. Sailor Moon can't transform, then she can again. Um, okay.
The concepts really are stunning, though. This show will improve in the memory, as the ideas ferment and you forget the forgettable plotting. The parental revelations are fantastic, not to mention funny. The near-immortality of this distant future is beautiful, utopian and disturbing all at once, especially the idea of Chibi-Usa having stayed that way for 900 years. Brrrr. (Did these people's minds fossilise in an immature state, or is that what happens to you when you've been alive that long?) And then when she returns to meet that ghost/projection... that's horror, surely. Wiseman is a staggering foe to face, just for what he is. Sailor Pluto, though, gives me the screaming heebie-jeebies. Is she human? What is she? Other cast members are a thousand years old, but she's been guarding her gateway since the dawn of time. Just her and a white void. How did she not go mad? And Neo Queen Serenity asked her to do it! I'm going to hypothesise that the gateway exists outside time and so Sailor Pluto isn't actually 14 billion years old, but... yow.
Furthermore, what's she guarding us against? What's lurking outside time, so bad that a girl has to stand guard in a void for all eternity to stop it getting in?
Irrelevant note: what's the significance of the Roman numerals on that casket? They say MDCCCXXXII(I), depending on which episode you're watching. That's 1832/3. Well, I suppose we'll never know.
Then there's the art. They're trying to reproduce Takeuchi's manga art, which means it's capable of being elegant and beautiful. However it also has the art's anatomical issues, i.e. limbs like spaghetti, and some frankly sloppy quality control. I believe the worst shots are being cleaned up for the DVD, but the first few episodes in particular look as if the producers simply didn't bother with anime character design and keeping everyone on model. Ep.1 looks so beautiful that it's a bit lifeless. Ep.2 looks godawful, with for instance the worst kind of soulless computer-drawn line quality. Ep.3 is different again. Ep.4 is at last starting to get it right. Ep.6 gets sloppy again.
This is despite a two-year delay and being released fortnightly online, instead of on TV weekly. They had more time to get it right.
It's also more po-faced. Usagi and her friends don't pull cartoonish super-deformed faces. This, for me, is a far bigger crime than Noodle People or the much-hated CGI transformation sequences. It's a change from the manga, not just from the 1990s anime, and it's another example of the show back-pedalling away from fun and silliness.
Fundamentally, though, it's still Sailor Moon. I enjoyed it. It's still got something. I like its characters, I admire its heart and I think there's power in its "once and future queen" mythology. It still has a barmy grandeur. I never got bored and I found it refreshing for once to have a Sailor Moon series without filler. The other four senshi are still good, when they're allowed to be, while the LGBT fanbase liked the faint lesbian undertones even though Uranus and Neptune aren't due to show up yet. (They'll arrive in the Infinity arc.) That's another important part of Sailor Moon that people are emotionally attached to.
It's good. It's all over the place at times and I think it's clearly a lesser, more timid work than 'Classic', but it's perfectly good. It's smoothed out both peaks and troughs and there's no longer any reason why adults couldn't watch it too. Sadly, though, I don't know if it's quite strong enough for a recommendation.