Sailor Moon and her friends must fight a new set of villains, the Death Busters (Professor Tomoe, Kaorinite, the Witches 5, Mistress 9, Pharoah 90). These baddies plan to steal the pure heart crystals of innocent victims and use the energy from them to rule the world. Naturally Sailor Moon must stop them, but a further complication for her are the new players in town. Neptune, Uranus and Pluto are the Outer Senshi and their methods can be almost brutal. In their opinion, Sailor Moon and her friends are bumbling amateurs. Then there's Sailor Saturn...
Popular opinion seems to be that this is the darkest and best Sailor Moon season. Mmmm... maybe. Season One will always be my favourite, but I couldn't in all honesty call it the best. Sailor Moon S is certainly a good year. It's not the greatest thing ever or anything like that, but it rings a few changes on the usual formulae. Most of the episodes still revolve around a monster of the week (this year they're called Daimohns), but there's a shake-up in the regular cast and a story arc which goes from silliness to an epic Big Bad confrontation. That's as stirring as anything we've seen in the show, but it's not even the real ending. Two more character-based episodes follow, resolving relationship stuff that had been left dangling and giving the year a truly satisfying conclusion.
The season starts off tongue in cheek. Usagi gets her silliest transformation sequence to date and a new magic weapon: a sceptre that shoots giant pink hearts. I think it's called "knowing your audience", or possibly "driving all male viewers screaming from the room". There will also be rainbows and butterflies. Do you think I'm joking?
However at last the girls have been allowed to age. They're now in the last year of middle school and facing entrance exams. Usagi should be studying! Yeah, right. What are the odds? I suppose it's theoretically an improvement to be ogling naked fifteen-year-olds instead of naked fourteen-year-olds, while I was thanking my lucky stars for the surprising modesty of six-year-old Chibi-Usa's nude transformation sequence into Sailor Chibi Moon. Little did I know. Just watch the second movie. Oh, and in the final episode Usagi propositions Mamoru, though perhaps fortunately he's not listening. We never learn exactly what she wanted ("warm me up" are her precise words) but they've kissed before and that's quite a blush Usagi's sporting. Hmmmm. They also know they'll get married some day, thanks to visiting the future last year.
This year's villainesses have particularly sleazy outfits. Again there's that touch of silliness, with the show teetering on a knife-edge of taking the piss out of itself. Some of these monsters are practically parody, with their leader being flat-out ridiculous and not at all scary... until about three-fifths of the way through the year, when their objectives get nastier and relationships suddenly get complicated. Things get increasingly serious as things build towards the final confrontation, by which time the stakes are very high indeed. It helps that the villains get backstory to demonstrate where they're coming from.
However the biggest change is the new regulars: the Outer Senshi. We met Sailor Pluto last year, but Haruka (Uranus) and Michiru (Neptune) are all-new. What makes them interesting is the fact that they've wandered in from a different show, a more hard-edged one. These girls want to save the world and they're not too particular about their methods. They're basically good guys but their ruthlessness can at times verge on ghoulishness. On one occasion they hang out all day with Mako-chan, playing at being her friend and waiting for the monsters to pull out her heart, while they become downright scary when they try to murder a little girl. There's also a Sailor Saturn with out-and-out "destroy the world" power levels.
Understandably this causes friction. The Sailor Senshi are horrified by the Outer Senshi's attitude, while Haruka and Michiru see Usagi and her friends as foolishly sentimental. Perhaps most impressive is the way the show juggles a dangerously swollen cast list without feeling overcrowded. There's Sailor Moon, Tuxedo Mask, Chibi-Usa, the other four Inner Senshi (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter) and the three Outer Senshi (Uranus, Neptune, Pluto). If you include Luna and Artemis that's a dozen heroes, although the cats are non-combatants.
Civilians completely drop off the radar. We glimpse Usagi's brother twice and her parents not at all, while Naru and Umino get significant roles in one episode and that's about it. Even the individual Sailor Senshi get less and less time in the spotlight as the year progresses. It's the Inner Senshi versus the Outer Senshi, without much personal story time for Mercury, Venus, Saturn and Mars. However that was probably inevitable given the large cast and we've had plenty of such stories in the first 100 episodes. The show's evolving again.
I should mention the lesbians.
The American dub famously turned Michiru and Haruka into cousins. Apart from the silliness of censorship in general, this was surely a mistake because the characters' saving grace is their charming love for each other. The full truth only emerges gradually, but it's clear from the start that Haruka's a gender-bender. The voice actress is playing it so masculine that you'll think she's male, while the character enjoys dressing up as an attractive man and making girls swoon. Amusingly some of Usagi's friends still surreptitiously fancy Haruka even after learning about her true gender, particularly Venus. Last year Jupiter got a comedy episode where she fell for the alien villain, so this year she briefly does the same with Haruka! It's episode 7.
The season's first half has a theme of love which is actually interesting. Sailor Moon's always had a strong romantic element, thanks to its shoujo nature, but making it an actual theme allows a more detailed look at love than you'd expect even in this show. Lesbianism is just one example. However this changes in the season's second half, thanks largely to Chibi-Usa. She's unpopular with some Sailor Moon fans, but I thought she was great. She's a catalyst for low comedy with Usagi and Mamoru, while her relationship with Hotaru provides dramatic focus too. The earlier theme of romantic love becomes the love of parents for their children, or that between friends.
Visually the show is much better. Sailor Moon's first season looked rubbish, but by now it's reached a level comparable with normal anime. They're spending money on it at last! The comedy episodes are as show-stopping as they've ever been, with Usagi accidentally getting rat-arsed, trying to speak English or playing matchmaker. The ending's strong too, especially the last two episodes. We'd been waiting all year for a showdown between the Inner and Outer Senshi! Overall, a strong season. One of the most impressive things about this show is the way it's kept itself fresh and dynamic even after 120-odd episodes so far. Watch a random episode and you'll see girlie candyfloss with a monster of the week, but there's so much more to it than that.