Despite growing up at pretty much exactly the right time to be exposed to Sailor Moon on a daily basis, the recent remaster rerelease of the show on Australian DVD is actually the first time I’d seen a whole episode of the show, let alone a whole season.
As a child I’d always dismissed this seminal magical girl anime as a frothy trifle – no doubt for somewhat sexist reasons – and sitting down to watch Madman’s release doesn’t convincingly dissuade me from that point of view. The first few episodes, in particular, offer a klutzy protagonist who, despite gaining the superpowers that go with the title ‘Sailor Moon’, is unable to succeed in her initial battles with evil without the assistance of the mysterious Tuxedo Mask. Combined with primary school platitudes, I wasn’t convinced – despite the show’s winning warmth – that my initial dismissal was inaccurate.
But as Sailor Moon’s first season continued, it began to win me over. The introduction of new characters helped, with Usagi/Sailor Moon (voiced by Stephanie Sheh in the new English dub) joined by Ami/Sailor Mercury (Kate Higgins) and Rei/Sailor Mars (Cristina Vee) then, eventually, Makoto/Sailor Jupiter (Amanda C. Miller) and the underdeveloped Sailor Venus (Cherami Leigh). The expansion of the Sailor Guardians goes hand-in-hand with the evolution of the show’s tone, theme and narrative. It remains a kid show, but I quickly began to understand why it became such a cultural phenomenon.
The first dozen or so episodes are the show’s slightest, but upon reflection there’s a not-insignificant subtext running through this first quarter of season one. Almost all of Usagi’s opponents – creatures from the Negaverse/“Dark Kingdom” trying to ‘steal’ people’s – usually children’s – souls with schemes that prey on their consumerist impulses. These monsters disguise themselves as vendors for jewellery, love letters, Westernized weddings or get-skinny-quick scams, inevitably fooling dozens of civilians and, more than often, Usagi herself.
Maybe it’s a weird comparison, but I was reminded of Yasujirō Ozu’s Late Spring, a family drama filmed mid-Occupation that bristled at the encroaching modernity brought on by American culture. While Sailor Moon is hardly on par with Ozu’s masterpiece, it shares with his film a scepticism about the benefits of an at this stage ubiquitous American culture. It’s never made explicit, but the monster’s frequent disguises all align themselves with the kind of tacky, capitalist culture that engulfed Japan after World War II, and the subtext enriches what is, essentially, pubescent girls fighting gnarled monsters with re-used transformation sequences.
That last bit is a cheap blow, I’ll admit. The second half of most Sailor Moon episodes are dominated by repeated footage of the same transformation animations, granted, but the animation demonstrates an obvious evolution over the course of the first season. Character interactions become freer and more expressive, while the conception of the Negaverse developed from generic hellscape to some twisted fusion of Francis Bacon and a psych-rock album cover. This is all faithfully represented by Madman’s impressive transfer; while it’s SD only (not many animators were thinking about Blu-Ray in the ‘90s) and bears the occasional pockmark, it’s the best you’ve ever seen Sailor Moon look.
The new dub is impressive, too. While it’s modernised to an extent – there are in-jokey references to IQs “over 9000” and the internet as “a series of tubes” – largely it captures the manic overacting that defined the show’s original incarnation without getting too silly with it. Sheh, in particular, walks the fine line between absurd and believable, doing a great job with Sailor Moon’s trademark wails and whining. Most importantly, though, the rerelease allows for Western audiences to view the original, uncensored, uncut version of the show.
You see, the Sailor Moon that made it to Aussie and American TV screens in the ‘90s wasn’t quite the Sailor Moon its Japanese creators intended. This is made increasingly obvious as the series matures in its back half, introducing tragic romances and deaths along with the revelation of a tragic backstory. Elements that might’ve rankled Western audiences – a romance between a ‘Nephrite’ and a schoolgirl, a homosexual affair and, most notably, a climactic series of deaths – were minimised, misrepresented (that homosexual romance became hetero- when one character was reimagined as a woman) or omitted altogether. This release restores these elements intact and in English.
I mean, let’s not get too carried away. This is still a show with dialogue like “I’m a champion lovely punch!” While it does offer some substantial, serialised plotting across its sprawling first season – particular in its final quarter – it’s mostly best consumed as it would’ve been on television in the ‘90s. Something colourful to put on the background of an afternoon. Having brought myself up to date on the show, though, I must admit – I’m very much looking forward to seeing season two.