Sailor Moon Crystal Episode 1 Review: Act 1 - Usagi - Sailor Moon

Review Michael S. Mammano
7/5/2014 at 10:24AM
Sailor Moon 2014

The Sailor Moon Crystal premiere has arrived. Here's our in-depth review of the first episode.

So, it’s finally here, and after all the anticipation, did the premiere of Sailor Moon Crystal live up to its hype? Mainly yes, with a side of no.

Much like with Superman, Batman, or Spider-Man, there isn’t much room to deviate from that origin story without veering into the realm of blasphemy, so this story is pretty much the same opening chapter depicted in every other iteration of Sailor Moon. This isn’t a bad thing. Sailor Moon’s origin is kind of perfect. When tweaking it, it really becomes a case of “less is more.”

As the premiere of the live action Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon showed us, too liberal an interpretation of the text, while somewhat refreshing in the moment, ends up becoming rather off-putting upon repeat viewings. Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon's mission statement of updating everything to match the current teen trends of 2003 really only serviced it positively in, well, 2003. Once time marched on and those trends went out of style, all the emphasis on how MODERN! an interpretation Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon was ended up seeming dated at best and pandering at worst. What we really craved was something timeless, and that’s something that Sailor Moon Crystal definitely accomplishes by taking the franchise back to its roots while still making subtle updates.

I don’t care that video arcades have all but gone the way of the trilobite here and abroad. That’s a huge part of the Sailor Moon mythology. Turning Crown into a karaoke place was all well and good, and certainly current with Japanese teens in 2003, but it just didn’t have the same vibe as a video arcade, a place where Usagi both stood out and was accepted, as arcades were a rather male-dominated area. It was a subtle way of showing that Usagi broke with convention and didn’t fall in with every gender stereotype she was assigned by her culture, which would be mirrored on a much more epic scale in her assumption of the role of action hero. And yeah, outside of a boardwalk, I haven’t seen (much less set foot inside) a bona fide arcade since junior high.

Don’t care. Don’t care. Don’t care.

Seeing Usagi in a video arcade didn’t break my suspension of disbelief for a second. It just felt right. At the same time, we see her mother, Ikuko, still wearing an apron, an obvious tell of her domesticity and status as a homemaker, but gone is the 1950’s-style retro dress she wore in almost every scene in which she appeared. She’s now a contemporary mom in a shirt and pants. It’s a small touch that accomplishes the goal of updating the story without violating it.

The outline of the story itself is the same. Usagi is a klutz who oversleeps and is late for school. She happens upon Luna and helps her out, gets chewed out by her teacher for being late and flunking her English test, goes to Naru’s mom’s jewelry store, then the arcade, and then runs into Mamoru, who picks on her a little. She goes home, gets crap for her shitty test score, is given her brooch by Luna, becomes Sailor Moon, and saves Naru with a little encouragement by Tuxedo Mask. Works for me. So, what’s different?

Well, true to its promise, this anime does go back to its manga roots. And while that’s a good thing in the “filler” department, let’s just say Naoko-sama was not the best when it came to suspense or mystery. All the plot twists are telegraphed at the first available opportunity. The first time we meet Mamoru, he’s in a Tuxedo and we’re hearing his thoughts about looking for the Mystical Silver Crystal and how it might be at Osa*P, Naru’s mom’s store. And then Tuxedo Mask shows up there later. And his mask isn’t even opaque. I mean, sure, in the original anime, it wasn’t too hard to figure out Tuxedo Mask’s identity if you were paying attention, but it wasn’t baldly obvious.

Same thing with Usagi’s past life identity. Sure, in the '90s anime, it was pretty clear from the moment we saw Princess Serenity’s silhouette in Mamoru’s dreams, but there was still some wiggle room for it to have been the twin sister of Usagi’s past life or maybe just a popular hairstyle of the era. There was still a chance Usagi could have been a red herring. Here, not so much. We get Usagi experiencing one of my favorite tropes, the past life dream. In fact, it opens the episode, which I will admit makes for a stronger opening than a girl waking up in the morning. I just don’t like how it spells everything out from the very first scene, though I will admit that Usagi’s second past life dream sequence in the episode getting mixed up with a video game and then Luna was a nice way to keep things light. Which brings me to my next point: the humor.

It’s ironic that coming to Sailor Moon as a teenager, I found all the SD (super deformed) depictions of the characters and the little cartoony pop-ups within the frame irritating, and now having grown up with Sailor Moon as it was, I feel the absence of all that schtick rather acutely. I miss it. And sure, the style of Sailor Moon Crystal is much more graceful, but it feels like something is missing. I can’t help but feel that without the funny faces and the crybaby fountains, Usagi is just a blander character. She’s a little too everygirl.

In the original, she wasn’t. She wasn’t some idealized shoujo heroine with flawless beauty and poise. She was a real girl, but she wasn’t an average girl. She was a lazy, shallow, gluttonous crybaby. She wasn’t just an unlikely heroine; she was the last person you wanted in charge of saving your life and your planet. And they still give her some good klutz action here, falling down the stairs on her ass and the like, but it feels too toned down for my taste. The only thing really tethering her to the character I know and love is Kotono Mitsuishi as her voice, which was probably the smartest move the casting director made.

There are other unfortunate implications of taking things back to the source material. For all her big picture vision, Naoko Takeuchi was not the best when it came to character development. She pretty much defined someone when they were introduced in the manga, and they tended not change much. Nearly every member of the supporting cast (i.e. anyone whose name didn’t begin with Sailor or Tuxedo) remained rather static and one-note, often being disposed of before they could develop in any significant way. Characters were introduced and eliminated at breakneck speed, and you barely had a chance to get to know villains before they were gone. I’m speaking here mainly of the recurring villains, but this also applies to the youma of the week, who while they may not have been well developed at least put up a good fight. At least in the early seasons before the Sailor Senshi’s swelling ranks and growing power rendered the youma outnumbered and outclassed before the battle even began, but that’s a whole other topic.

In this episode, Sailor Moon shows up to save Naru, throws her Moon Tiara Boomerang, and destroys the youma Morga in one hit. And that’s it. In the original, she shows up, gets freaked out, gets attacked by zombified patrons, some bitch comes at her with a broken bottle, she bleeds, and nearly gets killed by Morga all before Tuxedo Mask throws the first of many, many iconic roses (which are painfully absent here) and urges her to stand and fight. And even then, she busts out crying, stunning Morga and her servants by accident with her amplified soundwaves. And then she throw her tiara for the kill shot. The fight in this premiere was just a one and done. It was a more or less hollow victory. All Sailor Moon learned about herself was that she could follow instructions. She fell down once, got chased around a jewelry case for like three seconds, and then came the soundwave-platitude-tiara combo, and we were done. The fight just went by way too fast, and that’s another issue: the pacing.

Sailor Moon Crystal has a substantially bigger budget than the original. This is obvious from the quality of the animation (with the odd exception of the some CGI-esque stiffness in Sailor Moon’s bows during the transformation sequence for some reason). For all that people complained of the wealth of stock footage used in the original, it served a practical function. Animation is expensive to produce, and the best way for Toei to get the most bang for their buck was to create a greater number of episodes, a goal serviced by loading each one with stock footage. Well, that’s not so much a problem here.

We have the transformation sequence because you need to have the transformation sequence, but “Moon Tiara Boomerang” was fairly short, and half of it was episode specific animation, not stock footage at all. So, that right there is already time you’re getting back. You’d think that would open each episode up for more content, and we do get some, like the past life stuff inserted here and the introduction of Motoki, who doesn’t appear in the original until Episode 2. And yet, the episode went by in the blink of an eye. Everything seemed shorter…because it was.

Usagi’s interaction with her classmates, with her mom and her brother, with Mamoru, with Luna. Basically, the first introduction of every relationship Usagi has gets short-shrift. Both this episode and the premiere episode of the original have the same dry time, each clocking in without opening and closing themes at about 21 minutes, and yet it feels like this time around a lot less happened.

As beautifully animated as the dream sequences are, they aren’t necessary and, in fact, only serve to undercut any mystery to the story when placed right up front. Yeah, it was true to Act 1 of the manga, but that’s the problem. The manga moves too damn fast, and so far Sailor Moon Crystal is following that trend. We’re already getting a cameo of Ami at the end of the first episode, seemingly indicating that Sailor Mercury will be called to action in the next episode. I, for one, hope she’s not. I don’t think she should be held over until Episode 8, but give Usagi another two episodes to fumble her way toward a little more competence. Crystal has a 26-episode order. There are 14 acts to the story arc they’re covering. I see no reason why they can’t let the story breathe a little and every reason why they should, but that’s just me.

So, if all it seems I’ve done is bitch for the last for the last 1,700 or so words, why would I designate my reaction this episode as mostly good with a side of bad?

Because it was kind of totally awesome. The music is fantastic, the character designs are great, the animation is clean and smooth, and the vocal performances are right on point. It was a finely chosen cast, especially in the case of Umino, whose voice in the original sounded a little too rich and full for such a nerdy character. The higher, crackier register he has here just suits him better. I approve.

The design of the Dark Kingdom really makes it seem like a place where people live, a true subterranean kingdom and not just a massive labyrinth of caves with some occasional furniture. And, as stated earlier, the subtle updates in fashion do the show a great service by being, well, subtle. It’s the timelessness of Sailor Moon that has played a large part in its enduring popularity, and that’s one count on which Crystal succeeds.

And that’s really the bottom line. Sailor Moon Crystal, however flawed it may be so far, is still loads of fun. It has a kick-ass opening theme, a quieter, more introspective closing theme, and everything in between presents the show to be its own animal without committing the flagrant deviations from the canon that PGSM made. Hopefully, it will continue to do so. Having this episode cleave closely to the manga is all well and good -- you just don’t tamper with an origin story that perfect -- but keep in mind that we’ve got nine episodes worth of wiggle room. Let’s hope they make the best of it!

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3/5