In my recent review of Adventure Time’s sixth season, I noted that I’d “pretty well lost interest” in the show’s mythology, preferring the show’s sense of humour and unbridled silliness to its increasingly intricate backstory. A handful of episodes into Sailor Moon R – the second season of the series – I was feeling the same way about this show, especially given it spent its first couple episodes laboriously rolling back the hard reset that concluded its first season.
Like Adventure Time, Sailor Moon R’s pleasures are largely centred adjacent to any kind of continuing plotline. For instance, take the first set of villains offered up in this season’s forty-some episodes: Ail and An. Disguised as humans at the Sailor Guardians’ school, their goal of harvesting ‘energy’ for some nebulously-defined goal (something to do with the future and the Moon… I don’t know, I’m not an expert on the canon) is soon sidetracked by their respective crushes. Ail falls for Usagi – aka Sailor Moon – while An develops a liking for Mamoru (aka Tuxedo Mask aka Moonlight Knight aka Prince Endymion aka Usagi’s love interest). Before we’re a dozen episodes into the season, their nefarious schemes have given way to the pair bickering about trying to get the best role in the high school production of Snow White.
This kind of adolescent melodrama is far more interesting than the overarching storyline, and the show’s writers seem to recognise that. Even as Ail and An give way to a bevy of new villains – who, soon enough, also turn to romance-driven in-fighting – the show skims past exposition about “Crystal Points” to emphasise a lighter approach to storytelling: crushes, jealousy, fashion and all that high school stuff. It’s no surprise I found myself disinterested in the backstory when the show seemed to share my opinion.
Ah, but Sailor Moon R had a few tricks left up its sleeve. As the show frolicked towards its final episodes, interspersing the frivolity of young adulthood with stock footage of transformation sequences, it turned out to have a sting in its tail that clarified the importance of the underlying mythology. This all revolved around Chibiusa, a pink-haired miniature version of Usagi (hence the name) who plummeted out of the sky in episode 60 and hung around thereafter.
For the most part, Chibiusa feels like a twist on the Cousin Oliver archetype – a cherubic character introduced (relatively) late in a show’s run in an attempt to liven up the formula, but who is in actual fact incredibly irritating. Initially established as an antagonist dead-set on stealing Usagi’s Silver Crystal – and brainwashing Usagi’s parents in the process – her attempts at thievery are so persistently ineffective that she’s relegated to the role of hanger-on. She gets the Sailor Guardians into trouble, flirts with Mamoru (weird) and generally makes life difficult for our pretty protagonist.
The finale finds Chibiusa far more than an irritation, however, as she is transformed – by some dark magic that we don’t need to get into – as a vengeful post-pubescent version of herself who unleashes her wrath upon the Sailor Guardians. We learn – spoilers, I suppose – that she’s in fact the child of Usagi and Mamoru from the future (given the, uh, curious name of ‘Small Lady’), and manipulated memories of her past (or future? It gets confusing) render her furious at her parents-to-be. What the Sailor Guardians’ enemies are really playing upon is Chibiusa’s selfishness, her readiness to blame her misfortunes on others rather than her own behaviour.
In retrospect, this is a theme running through the entire season that this finale, and its intersection with Sailor Moon’s convoluted canon, brings into sharp focus. Sailor Moon R, even more so than the season that preceded it, is a complex representation of teenage coming-of-age, satirising and celebrating the solipsistic tendencies of youth. Through the Sailor Guardians and their increasingly-juvenile adversaries, we see how the intensity of the teenage years can form strong bonds but also strong emotions of jealousy and inadequacy that can be preyed upon. Chibiusa’s transformation is the pinnacle of these anxieties, a fearful incarnation of the worst fears we have about what others think about us – that we aren’t loved, that we aren’t special, that we aren’t as good as everyone else.
It’s also interesting to think about this in the context of the show’s sexualisation of its characters. While the queer themes that loom in the series proper are largely absent throughout this season, Sailor Moon R feels noticeably more sexualised than season 1. Many of the villains’ outfits border on fetish costumes, while the Sailor Guardians are given more frequent instances of fanservice.
That term – fanservice – doesn’t feel entirely appropriate to what the series is doing, however. Think of the transformation sequences, which render the Guardians in the nude – well, PG-rated nudity – but don’t feel like they’re pandering to a male audience. These sequences are sexualised, yes, but they’re empowering in a way that most anime nudity is not. But that empowerment comes with its own disadvantages. When Chibiusa transforms into “Black Lady” – and assumes an evil persona – she grows from a prepubescent infant into a fully-developed woman, with the animation depicting her legs lengthening and her breasts growing. Within the Sailor Moon universe, sexuality is at once exciting and liberating – but also terrifying and dangerous (there’s some synchronicity here with The Fits, a film from this year that addressed similar themes in an entirely different context).
So, as it turns out, Sailor Moon R’s mythology is critical to an appreciation of the show. Yes, it’s a light-hearted, often silly take on teenage girls who fight monsters from another universe. But it’s also a show about the challenges of growing up, of the difficulty establishing your identity while being respectful of others. Yes, this sounds a bit preachy – and sometimes it is – but there’s some real depth beneath those sailor suits.