A sweet, somewhat ditzy blonde teenager reluctantly accepts her birthright, becoming a champion of good destined to defend mankind from unspeakable supernatural forces, and despite her desire to be an ordinary girl, she rises above her immature foibles in crisis after crisis, becoming a true hero for whom her own epic series is named.
To what popular, trailblazing heroine of the '90s does this description apply? Most Americans’ first answer would be Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and they wouldn’t be wrong. Buffy was an instrumental figure in the Girl Power movement of the late '90s, inspiring countless writers to not only introduce stronger, more complex female characters, but place them at the center of their narratives. Indeed, every word of that description fits Buffy to a T, but what many don’t realize is that the exact same description, word for word, applies to none other than anime legend and underground girl power icon Sailor Moon.
Sailor Moon aired in Japan from March 7, 1992 (nearly five months before the release of the Buffy: The Vampire Slayer film) to February 8th, 1997 (over a month prior to the premiere of the Buffy TV series). The point of mentioning this is not to get into some kind of fanboy cockfight over which work is derivative of the other. It’s to note the synchronicity of their production timelines in order to illustrate the timeliness of both franchises.
Both Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Sailor Moon came along at a time when their respective cultures were calling out for a new kind of female hero, creators Joss Whedon and Naoko Takeuchi merely tapping into the zeitgeist to create their own culture’s version of what would become the template for an entire generation of action girls. As such, while far from carbon copies of one another, the parallels between the two series are legion, due not to either’s plagiarism of the other, but by virtue of the logic of storytelling, dramaturgy, and the construction of an ensemble narrative.
So, with that little disclaimer out of the way, we begin with our heroines.
Buffy Summers was conceived by Joss Whedon as a subversion of the horror trope of the doomed blonde victim. Rather than be the girl who is cornered in an alley and killed, she not only survives but kicks the monster’s ass. As the Slayer, Buffy is empowered not only to defend herself but to protect others by holding the forces of darkness at bay. The line of Slayers goes all the way back to the dawn of humanity, passed to each subsequent girl upon her predecessor’s death. Traditionally, the Slayer lives a life of solitude and duty under the guidance of her Watcher, a man or woman educated in demonology and combat tactics.
Buffy Summers broke that mold in several ways, all due to the fact that she was found by her Watcher years after her training should have begun, affording her the opportunity to become an ordinary teenage girl, and arguably the most vapid and shallow of the lot. Even long after her adventures have tempered her into a thoughtful, compassionate hero who has accepted her responsibilities, she’s still irreverent, willful, and invested in maintaining an ordinary life. She still wants to hang out with her friends, go to prom, fall in love, and just plain be a kid. In fact, the central conflict of her character throughout the series is the drive to reconcile her own personal needs and desires with her responsibility to the world.
Usagi Tsukino AKA Sailor Moon was not so deliberately feminist in her conception, but the end result was more or less the same: a vapid, shallow, blonde* teenager whose world is turned upside down by the revelation of her destiny as a champion of good. Like Buffy, Usagi refuses to let her calling define her and clings to whatever shreds of normalcy possible.
Both girls are the last person their exposition-spouting mentors would have chosen for the role of Earth’s savior. And yet, despite having none of the empirical attributes of a warrior, when pushed to the brink, these girls displayed truly heroic qualities like courage, loyalty, profound empathy, and a nearly limitless capacity for self-sacrifice that would, in time, elevate them to near messianic status.
But the parallels don’t end there. Oh, I’m just getting warmed up.
There’s not much of a parallel between Giles and Luna aside from fulfilling the role of the mentor whose arcane knowledge provides the heroine with some direction. One is a bossy but cute and relatively young female cat, and the other is a stuffy but lovable, middle-aged Englishman. Sure, they are made slightly more similar by the English dub, in which Luna’s voice can be summed up in four words (poor man’s Angela Lansbury), but other than that, there’s not much to say.
So, you have an unlikely heroine struggling to find her way between ego and super-ego, her ass constantly ridden by her buzzkill guardian/mentor. You know what this story needs? A dark, mysterious, well dressed older man who’s as charming as he is morally ambiguous. Sure, he seems to have some kind of shady agenda of his own, and her mentor doesn’t trust him, but it’s kind of hard to care because he’s just so damn dreamy.
While not identical, vampire sex symbol Angel and closet fashion whore Mamoru/Tuxedo Mask perform the exact same function in their respective narratives: to provide the heroine with encouragement and support, fighting at her back while allowing her to take the lead and shine, all the while introducing an element of danger, which only makes him all the more enticing a love interest.
Both guys are loners, orphans (Mamoru gets a little more sympathy here on account of not having eaten his family) who find in the heroine’s love a sense of belonging and inner peace that they’ve long gone without. They both even turn evil for a while, forcing their ex-girlfriends into what many fans consider to be the most poignant, traumatic, and compelling confrontations of their respective series. Yes, Mamoru’s quest is about identity while Angel’s is about atonement. Mamoru is Usagi’s endgame guy, hanging around long after he ceases to be relevant or interesting, whereas Angel eventually leaves Buffy, compelling enough in his own right to carry his own spin-off, but the only real difference between the two is that one of them is the empty shadow of a man who can never be truly compatible with the woman he loves, and the other one’s a vampire.
In addition to her irreverent tone and unconventional methods, Buffy is noted by allies and enemies alike as being unique among Slayers in that she has family and friends. While Buffy’s mom, Joyce, has no direct counterpart in Sailor Moon (Usagi’s parents and brother, however sympathetic, are basically one-dimensional cyphers who receive little to no development), Buffy’s philandering, absentee father, Hank, is mirrored in Sailor Moon not by any one character, but rather a leitmotif of paternal abandonment.
Usagi’s dad is seen quite a bit throughout the first two seasons, and Professor Tomoe, father of Hotaru/Sailor Saturn, plays a pivotal role in the third, but the father of every other major character goes unseen due to being either negligent or dead, if ever mentioned at all. How Mamoru learned to be the perfect father to Chibiusa is anybody’s guess, but in terms of being a believable character vs. being the author’s own diddle aid, he’s got a serious case of the Cullens, so we’ve just got to let a few things slide.
In addition to family, Buffy’s support system included the Scoobies, her friends (well, most of them) who in time developed their own skills with which they fought at her side.
First up is Xander, who existed primarily to invert the trope of the damsel in distress. Xander was the helpless guy without any superpowers for our action girl to come in and save, a character premise which ran out of steam after the first few seasons, but that’s a whole other essay. Xander’s role was pretty much to be the victim, the dupe, the butt monkey.
His obvious analogs would be Naru and Umino, Usagi’s civilian friends who would often get attacked by the monster of the week so that Sailor Moon would have a personal stake in fighting in the early days before her heroic spirit began to really gel. Much like Naru, Xander was a monster magnet, and like Umino, he started off with a doomed crush on the heroine. Xander does differ in that he is aware of Buffy’s identity, able to involve himself directly in her adventures and even assisting when he can, whereas Naru and Umino remain in the dark.
While it is eventually implied that Naru has pretty much figured out Usagi’s alter-ego, she never forces the issue. She and Umino remain outside Usagi’s secret life, representing the ordinary life she craves, fading further and further into the background as she progresses into the world of the supernatural. Xander, by contrast, is in on Buffy’s secret from the beginning, thus remaining a prominent (if sorely underutilized) character throughout the series’ entire run.
Ah, Willow… sweet, shy, bookish Willow. The sensible voice of reason who, like Ami/Sailor Mercury, is always trying to get the heroine to study more, to listen to their mentor (by whom she is clearly preferred over the designated protagonist), and yet occasionally falls prey to her unlikely friend’s urging that she just loosen up and have a little fun. Both pairs were brought together by a school transfer (at least in the Sailor Moon English dub), and while the carefree heroine isn’t always the best influence, her friendship and support have given our brainy beauty the self-confidence to grow into the powerhouse she becomes.
The parallel between Willow and Ami is one of the strongest in this entire equation. In fact, with the Dark Mercury arc of Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, the live action adaptation of the original manga, even Dark Willow gets a nod.
Then there’s Cordelia, Buffy’s bitchy rival and civilian nemesis. While Rei/Sailor Mars was never a typical high school bitch and certainly not shallow by any means, she was bossy, at times rude, and by far the most verbally caustic and short-tempered of the Sailor Senshi, especially when it came to Usagi. Her brief courtship with Mamoru was not unlike Cordelia’s pursuit of Angel, which lasted well into Buffy's second season. Neither crush was truly reciprocated, though Rei saw some degree of success while Cordelia never had a prayer (until years later on the spin-off, Angel).
Also of note is the fact that Rei is a miko (shrine maiden) with psychic abilities. Though it didn’t come to pass until after she’d left Buffy, Cordelia did develop psychic powers halfway through Angel's first season, and the resulting emotional and spiritual development would remain an integral part of her character for the rest of her tenure in the Buffyverse.
Of course, no show is complete without its villains.
The Master, a vampire patriarch who leads the Order of Aurelius has several parallels in the Sailor Moon universe. The whole “Sealed Evil in a Can” trope applies to Metalia, Pharoah 90, Nehellenia, really any big bad who can’t openly attack the heroes and must send minions in their stead. All these characters are insanely powerful entities who were defeated (though not destroyed) long ago and are biding their time until they can be freed again.
The only way in which the Master differs is that he’s not some disembodied being, but he is nonetheless trapped, sending his servants out to bring him sustenance.
The most notable and favored of the Master’s followers is Darla, who—fashion sense aside—shares more than a few parallels with Queen Beryl. While Darla is clearly the Master’s lieutenant whereas Beryl gives her subjects the impression that she’s more or less running the show, both women are the malicious, spiteful counterparts to the heroine, jealous of her relationship with the central love interest. Darla has a little more claim, actually being Angel’s ex-girlfriend while Beryl merely nursed an unrequited love, but Beryl does manage to create a false relationship when Mamoru is brainwashed into her service, and who knows how many ways she had him service her?
Regardless, both Darla and Beryl threaten the heroine with their carnal knowledge, be it of the boyfriend himself or just in general as well as physical violence. They are dark reflections of the heroine, gatekeepers that must be bested before the final battle with that bigger, darker, more ancient evil can transpire.
I have to admit, I’m hard pressed to find a counterpart for The Anointed One, but if anyone can think of one, I’m all ears.
One would think all this would be enough, but this is just the start. That was only the first season of Buffy. The six seasons that follow are rife with comparisons of their own. Head to page two for the rest!