Usagi Tsukino is a Japanese schoolgirl with the brains of a peeled grape and the self-control of a pack of starving hyenas. She's also the saviour of mankind. One day, a talking cat called Luna comes to her and says that she's in an insultingly cheap anime for pre-pubescent girls that's apparently made by lunatics and perverts... whoops, sorry, that's what the audience is thinking. No, Luna really says that Usagi is Sailor Moon. Little do they know that she will fight "monsters of the week", have a nude transformation sequence and go into such frilly girlie overload that you'd think she was deliberately trying to kill every male in the audience.
Oh, and did I mention that this show is a global phenomenon? 200 episodes over five seasons, not counting specials, movies and the live-action versions. No anime show ever made it bigger in the West than Sailor Moon, which is doubly impressive since it was often re-edited by the American distributor. There have been other shows that made it as big (e.g. Gatchaman, also known as G-Force, Eagle Riders or Battle of the Planets), but Sailor Moon is special. However the first time you watch it, you could be forgiven for thinking it's "special" in the "wearing rubber underwear and dribbling a lot" sense of the word. Obviously for me it was a must-watch.
The great thing about Sailor Moon's first season is that the studio didn't care about it. It was just something to make money and sell toys. Objectively it's pretty bad. It's a formulaic monster-of-the-week show with cheap and nasty animation. Lots of time is lost to transformation sequences and stupid battles. However precisely because no one cared, the showrunners got away with murder. These people perpetrated some jaw-dropping shit and established a deranged precedent for Sailor Moon to spend two hundred episodes blowing the minds of anime fans worldwide. It may be throwaway rubbish for eight-year-old girls, but even by anime standards it stretches the confines of its format to breaking point. Repeatedly this show discards a perfectly good formula and strikes out afresh, almost giving the impression that the showrunners hadn't decided what kind of show they wanted to make. More importantly, it's also impressive.
It starts out as a Buffy clone, albeit five years before Joss Whedon met Sarah Michelle Gellar. It's unfair to compare anything to a show that came out several years later, but here the parallels are so heavy that it's unavoidable. Both shows star a bimbo who becomes a superhero and must grow up in a hurry, except that Usagi's journey is more extreme than even Buffy's in the original 1992 movie. She isn't a sixteen-year-old from California. She wishes. No, she's fourteen and immature even by the standards of real schoolgirls. She's a self-indulgent, lazy crybaby who can't even do her homework or get up to go to school on time. Her reactions to the weird shit in episode one mostly involve attempts to pretend it's not happening.
The Buffy parallels keep coming. There's a Whedon vibe to the classroom scenes, while Giles becomes Luna and Angel becomes Tuxedo Mask. Even the plots are similar, with evil possession of schoolchildren and so on. At this stage, the show's fun but still finding its feet. Tuxedo Mask is stupid and annoying, while's Usagi still inexperienced at combat and her first few attempts are lacklustre to say the least. In fact almost all the fight scenes in Season One are dreadful. Usagi runs around, screams like a girl and then gets her arse saved by either her magical attack or Tuxedo Mask. Even fans of the early episodes like me admit that the action scenes improved beyond measure in later years.
Style is the biggest difference between this and Buffy. Joss Whedon created a cool show full of wit and irony, while Sailor Moon looks like a pastel-hued girlfest guaranteed to kill anyone stone dead with either a Y-chromosome or a double-digit age. Usagi's Wonder Woman transformation sequence into Sailor Moon will have you rolling in the aisles, while episode one has enough posing and girlishness to make it embarrassing to watch in company. And as for Tuxedo Mask... bloody hell he's annoying.
However just when you think you've got the show pegged, it slides out from underneath you. It still looks and feels like a Saturday morning kids' show, with its cheap visuals and monster-of-the-week baddies, but under the fluff it's developing into something more interesting (and often funnier than most comedies).
For starters, the bad guys seem to have burst in from a different show. Like Buffy, Usagi must fight monsters that wouldn't need tweaking to fit into a straight horror anime. They're dangerous and sometimes even downright creepy. I could cite one or two shock moments to give even adult audiences a frisson. When Usagi whines that she's scared, you sympathise! She's also less blase about fighting than Buffy, liable to react with panic, pain or outright tantrums during combat. She's not a martial artist, relying instead on magic items from Luna, but she quickly learns the hard way that they're not infallible against a sufficiently badass enemy. Later seasons would tone down the horror element, relying instead on surreal and wacky monster designs, but in season one Usagi's foes are bloody nasty.
Then, without changing a frame, Usagi's silly transformation sequence becomes really cool. I can even tell you when this happens. Episode six has a truly evil monster that really needs killing and suddenly you realise that Sailor Moon is about to kick bad guy arse.
You see, this show is something I'd never previously encountered: a superhero story for pre-pubescent girls. American comics ignore that demographic. There's My Little Pony and things like that, but Sailor Moon is a bona fide "costume, superpowers and secret identity" superheroine. Her stories can be as issue-driven as Buffy's, albeit even more girlish. Killer diets, love letters on radio shows... at times it's so accurately targeted as to scare male viewers. Take episode sixteen, the wedding dress episode. Our heroines go to war against each other with terrifying single-mindedness in defiance of all reality, and that's before the monster starts messing with their minds!
I'm not a 6-10 year old girl, but I thought this was fantastic. Any focus is better than no focus, and Sailor Moon often has dazzling clarity about what it's trying to do. Check out episode seven. Usagi and her equally talentless friends abandon shame, decorum and intelligence as they fight to become pop stars and get on TV. You're laughing your head off... until suddenly we get character development and depth as Luna squashes poor Usagi's dreams for the sake of her responsibilities as Sailor Moon. Then come the sinister monsters! I was in awe.
But then the show evolves again! Luna finds additional Sailor Senshi and the Buffyness disappears, along with most of the school and family scenes. Buffy was always The Slayer (TM), but Usagi becomes just one of a team and not even the smartest or most powerful of 'em. She's always at the show's heart, but she's not placed on a pedestal above her peers. It's a different dynamic, more like a superhero comic book than the Scooby gang. The comedy also acquires new dimensions!
This kind of experimentation could come across as a show that's flailing for ideas, but here it feels like confidence. From Buffy to Justice League America to Maison Ikkoku to parody central... Consecutive episodes take the piss out of Power Rangers and Sailor Moon itself, with a hilarious Luna-centric episode. However things get serious, at times poignant, with Usagi's friend falling in love with a villain and eventually the heavyweight bad guys coming to raise the stakes. This show isn't afraid to kill important characters, so the courage of our heroines when they're really up against it can get to you. They may be bickering schoolgirls, but despite their inexperience and their personality flaws they're fighting a war.
The characters are strong. I prefer Usagi Tsukino to Buffy Summers. Buffy was designed to be iconic rather than flawed, while Usagi's moments of heroism are more stirring for the fact that she's having to overcome her own cowardice, incompetence, childishness and stupidity. She cares about her friends, often to a fault, but she's also a complete headcase who drives Luna and the other Senshi to distraction. She's particularly goofy when playing matchmaker, regarding herself as a grizzled veteran in matters of the heart.
Furthermore, despite first impressions, Luna isn't just a four-legged Giles. She's more like a big sister, chatting about girly stuff but also capable of teasing Usagi for the hell of it or even threatening her. She wants her charges to be the best warriors possible and thus gets pathetically depressed by everything Usagi says and does. Giles always believed in Buffy. Luna's hilariously scant shreds of faith in Usagi are more like prayers.
For twenty-odd episodes the weak link is Tuxedo Mask, who serves no purpose except to be handsome and mysterious. Usagi thinks he's dreamy. I wanted him dead. He slowly becomes interesting as we learn more about him, but in those early episodes he's a cardboard cut-out whose only plot function is to be an annoying deus ex machina and save Usagi. However in fairness he won me over later, getting cool stuff to do and some bizarre backstory. It's also a laugh to see Rei and Usagi fighting over him.
But forget the men! This show is about its girls and they're all great, from Naru and her eye-popping romance to the comedy interactions of the Sailor Senshi. The cast keeps growing, but it never gets unwieldy. The show handles its superhero team deftly, giving everyone their turn in the spotlight without crowding out the others. What's more, their interaction is one of the show's strongest features, feeling like real teenage girls with all the warmth, bonding and bickering you'd expect.
Oh, and in case you'd forgotten that this show was Japanese... eh, naked fourteen-year-olds? It's nice to see that not everyone thinks girls need protecting from the horrifying sight of their own bodies, but the American distributor went apeshit. As well as rewriting the nerve-shredding apocalyptic season ending and turning a homosexual villain into a woman, they cut things like skirt flips, bathtime shots, Naru nude in bed, Sailor Mercury getting her clothes torn off and Usagi losing her towel in a hot spring. Oh, and the Sailor Senshi get naked in every single episode during their transformation sequences, albeit in glowing silhouette.
You know, I think Usagi does nearly everything a fourteen-year-old shouldn't do on children's TV... sneak into a bar, get drunk, get kissed, hit on guys and flash her cleavage in the bath. Most of these episodes shouldn't be a problem for non-American audiences, but things definitely got creepy when an adult male started making moves on one of Usagi's friends. Yes, he's evil. Yes, he has ulterior motives. That doesn't mean he won't give you the willies.
Oh, and those skirts. I mean, really.
Suspension of disbelief takes a pounding regarding the Sailor Senshi's secret identities. Even Superman wore spectacles as Clark Kent, but not only does Usagi not wear a mask or disguise herself in any way as Sailor Moon, she even keeps that stupid hairstyle! Ah well. That's the superhero genre for you. Maybe those skirts are to distract attention from the girls' faces?
This is a fascinating show that can be enjoyed on all kinds of levels. It has comedy, drama, girlie kitsch and occasionally even outright parody. There's even a RoboCop in-joke with Sailor Mercury's computer! It also has a headfuck of an ending so startling that it's almost a shame to start watching Season Two. Later seasons were more settled and consistent in the kinds of stories they told, but this first year's variety and freshness was charming in itself. It's crude, but that crudity is precisely why it's my favourite season of the show. I also love the electric guitars that accompany Usagi's Season One transformation sequence. Electric guitars rule.
Overall Sailor Moon has fun characters, badass monsters and far more wit and grit than you'd expect on first glance. Compared to ordinary Saturday morning fare, which at the end of the day it is, it leaves everything I watched as a child in the dust.