Sailor Moon Crystal: Act 9 Serenity/Princess Review

Like the "Serenity/Princess" title says, the history behind Sailor Moon Crystal is revealed, as is its many flaws.

In her distress over Tuxedo Mask’s wounds, Usagi awakens to her true identity as the reincarnation of Princess Serenity during this weekend’s Sailor Moon Crystal, revealing Minako to merely be a decoy and in truth Sailor Venus. Usagi’s tears crystallize into the Silver Crystal, a portion of which goes into Tuxedo Mask, who is captured by the enemy and brought back to the Dark Kingdom, where Beryl orders he be kept alive until the crystal fragment can be extracted from his body. Jadeite, Nephrite, and Zoisite find his unmasked face familiar, but Kunzite denies any such recognition. Meanwhile, Luna and Artemis help the girls to remember their past lives in the Silver Millennium and their tragic deaths during their kingdom’s war with the same forces that threaten Earth now.

Okay… okay… I have a lot of feelings about this episode, and all of them for a wide range of reasons, but let’s start with the basics and work our way into the big picture from there. A warning: I will be dropping more than a few F-bombs in this review so consider yourself notified.

Point blank: I was not a fan. The script for this episode was a sloppy mess, practically identical to the manga chapter on which it is based. I understand that was the point. It’s also the problem. While the events that transpire in this episode certainly make sense, the pacing and sequence of them is just all wrong. On the page, a story presented like this works much better, but in an audiovisual medium, having the climax in the middle of the story is, to put it mildly, unwise. Dramatically, it just goes against everything that makes sense and satisfies. Please note that I said the climax of the story, which is not necessarily the most action-heavy part of any piece, but in this particular instance absolutely is. It would have been one thing to have a breather episode without any supernatural element, but that’s not what this is. It’s an episode with a dramatic structure that is essentially backwards.

The first half of the episode is where everything really happens. Sailor Moon is revealed to be Princess Serenity while Minako is revealed to actually be Sailor Venus. Usagi and Mamoru’s past lives as star-crossed lovers Serenity and Endymion are shown, and Mamoru is abducted by the enemy. That’s really the main event. Everything that follows is more or less fallout from this major revelation and very little of it meaty. It mostly consists of a lot of meaningful glances and choked up sobbing. By the time Usagi passes out — that is, the first time she passes out — the episode is essentially over and the rest of it is more or less an extended teaser for the episode to follow. And again, on the page, this works pretty well, but on the screen? Not so much. The narrative just feels disjointed and lost, wandering in a fog of tone and rhythm, and it just feels wrong.

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Now, I’m all for experimenting with format, style, and structure. You get some of the best episodes of television that way. Look at Buffy’s “Restless” or Battlestar’s “Lay Down Your Burdens, Part 2.” The first is a complete experiment in style and tone. The second sticks its middle finger in the face of traditional structure by making a 100 percent canon, irreversible one-year jump in story time roughly three quarters of the way through the episode. What about Babylon 5’s “The Illusion of Truth,” the first half of which is a straight narrative, while the second half is a documentary-style propaganda piece recounting the first half’s events?

These experiments in episodic storytelling can be done, but it’s a delicate operation. It’s not so much about what the writers did as it is about how and when they did it. “Serenity/Princess” does not come off as a deliberate narrative experiment; it just comes off as sloppy and lazy writing.

See “Minako/Sailor V” and its corresponding manga chapter got it right. They picked up from where the previous installment’s cliffhanger left off, had a lull in the second act that overlapped the recovery from the previous episode with the build-up of the current episode’s story, allowing both the heroes and villains to reflect and regroup, and then ended on a new confrontation between the two sides that tied into the emotional/character through-line of the episode. That was precisely the way to do it, and it elevated the episode beyond its source material. That was not what happened here, and the worst part is… it could have been.

See, the main problem with this episode and quite a few episodes of Crystal is a problem inherited from the manga. Quite simply, not much happens. Not much of substance, anyway. While visually lovely, there is so much lingering on repetitive glamour shots. It just eats up time that can be better spent on, you know, the plot. People decry Classic for being stuffed with filler, and they’re absolutely right about that, but it’s not like there’s no filler in Crystal or the manga; it’s just a different kind of filler. There’s something to be said for cultivating a certain aesthetic and visual style. After all, we’re working in a visual medium where that kind of thing certainly matters, but there’s just so much repetition. I’m all about establishing a mood and a tone, but this isn’t an experimental image film that’s going to sweep the Cannes Film Festival. It’s an episode of a supernatural action-adventure series. The artsy fartsy bullshit, while enjoyable, is there to enhance the story, not the other way around. And while Usagi certainly looks magnificent, floating against a pastel backdrop, her hair flowing, every sound echoing through the void… that’s not why I showed up to the party. And yet, it is everywhere, eating up time that could be better spent keeping the narrative moving along.

This right here is the inherent hypocrisy of “trimming the fat,” and I have readily and often called out the creative team behind The Legend of Korra for the same bullshit, particularly during the show’s second season. Because I get it. You don’t want a lot of filler in your series, and I applaud that. It’s a noble goal, but if you’re going to make such a big fucking deal out of how lean your story is, how you don’t waste any time… THEN DON’T WASTE ANY TIME.

If you’re dead set on a shorter episode order or an otherwise more compact timeframe, then your story better be dense as fuck. I better come out of a 22-minute episode saying, “That was only 22 minutes?!” and not feeling like I paid a premium for a buffet that’s all Jell-O and potato chips. I want to feel like I just gorged myself at Thanksgiving. I want a banquet. That is not what this episode (and more to the point, this show) is.

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And that is Crystal’s main problem. Its creative staff and loyal fans insist that its storytelling is lean and compact, but it’s not a compact story; it’s a skinny one. It rushes through its plot points, it rarely gives the audience a moment to catch their breath, and on the rare occasion it does, all we’re treated to is a whole bunch of nothing! Long, lingering pans and zooms, the constant repetition of names and statements as the story spins its wheels for minutes on end, characters constantly regurgitating and rehashing the same information multiple times within the same episode.

The narrative priorities are completely reversed. We’re rushing or flat-out skipping the material we’d do well to spend more time on and lingering on all the bullshit that doesn’t matter. It’s fucking ridiculous. It’s like when someone cuts you off halfway down the block just to beat you to a red light. What’s the big fucking rush if you’re not actually going anywhere?

Plenty of people will nail me for this criticism, saying “Jesus, Michael! All you ask for is character development, and now here’s a whole episode of it!” And to that, I say… eh, kinda’ but not really. Sure, Usagi clocks a lot of screentime in this episode, making sure we know exactly how she’s feeling at every moment, but each reminder is hardly a revelation. It’s the same thing each time. She just keeps moaning, whimpering, or screaming one of her beloved’s three names over and over, and over again. We get it. She’s sad. But what does that mean for her now? How have these revelations impacted her? From what I can see, all that’s changed is that she’s gained a tendency to pass out.

In Classic, that whole Usagi blacking out thing was over and done halfway through the episode, and once she wakes up again she has a full-blown meltdown. She’s heartbroken, she’s scared, she’ angry; homegirl has had it up to here with how much her sacred calling has fucked with her heart and mind and feels like she’s got nothing left to give. And in spite of all of that, she pulls it together to kick Kunzite’s ass. Now, that is a satisfying meal. Certainly more than a brief bit of past life regression, a whole mess of sighing, moaning, and crying, and two fainting spells.

To Usagi’s credit, at least she resolves by the end of the episode not to ever be a tragic princess again. That’s at least some kind of development, but there wasn’t enough process to earn that result. Again, we see a character go from Condition A to Condition B without allowing for any of the journey that got them there. It’s just an on/off switch taking a character from one state of mind to another instantaneously. One minute, Usagi is traumatized, practically in a fugue state. The next, she’s then passionately motivated toward a new goal. Same thing with the love story. She and Mamoru run into each other a few times, only about a minute or two each, and then the switch is flipped and suddenly they’re love. True love. For reals. And that’s just my beef with their present life romance.

In this episode, we get another brutal murder of the principle of “show, don’t tell” as Usagi describes the relationship between Serenity and Endymion. We don’t actually see them falling in love. Serenity stalks Endymion for five seconds, and then we’re told they’re in love. And while this sequence is exquisitely designed and animated, it’s pretty hollow. To be fair, this is not a complaint exclusive to the manga and Crystal. It’s an issue I’ve had with this past life romance in every iteration of the story. It has no substance. It’s basically two pretty young people whom we’re supposed to just accept are in love. We know practically nothing about either of them, who they are as people, what they see in each other, and why they’ve fallen in love. But they’re in love because the author says so.

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Sure, if you want to talk realism, they’re both teenagers, of marrying age in that era, but still physically teenagers nonetheless, and with that heady combination of hormones and inexperience, it’s a lot easier to think you’re in love even when you have nothing in common.

However, a simple, adolescent amour fou is not what we’re being sold. We’re being sold a profound and eternal bond, an immensely powerful emotional force that transcends death and motivates the entire mythology of this story. And rather than see that relationship unfold, or at least see the qualities in those characters that would be the basis for their feelings, we’re just shown a few brief flashes of them in picturesque poses and are asked to take the author’s word for it that they’re in love and proceed to have some kind of investment in that relationship. Sorry. I can’t.

This isn’t the only questionable distribution of time and focus. An entire sequence is spent on Luna having a huge pity party of her own. What exactly is she so ashamed of? Did she not accomplish her mission? She found Usagi, saw to it that she became Sailor Moon, and trained her. And bonus, she found three other Sailor Guardians as well. How exactly did she fail? She says she should have trusted Usagi more, but trusted her to do what? Be the princess? How the hell was Luna supposed to know that? At least in Classic, Luna was constantly riding Usagi’s ass and giving her grief for not being good enough, behavior a person would have good reason to feel guilty for under these circumstances. But here? What is that shit?

Another point of contention… in the manga, Kunzite is the only one alive to remember the Four Heavenly Kings’ history with Endymion. In Crystal, all of them are alive and only Kunzite denies any recognition of Endymion. What’s more, the scene where the four of them confronted, Endymion in the past was completely cut.

Why are the writers even bothering to keep these characters alive if they’re just going to cut what little material they do have. What’s the point? In fact, the treatment of these four is like a microcosm for everything wrong with this adaptation: we’re getting more screentime with them in which they’re doing absolutely nothing to justify their continued presence! We are lingering in empty calorie moments. Why?!

Same with the Sailor Guardians. More fucking repetition. During the scene in Usagi’s room, the girls’ are repeating what Artemis literally just told them seconds ago. You know, I love me some talking heads. I’m a Sorkin fan for gods’ sakes. I adore dialogue-heavy scenes in TV and film, so when I, of all people, think your characters are talking too much, they are talking too damn much. And yes, I know the whole repeating what you just heard thing is a convention of anime, and a common trope.

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Well, you know what? It’s a stupid trope. It is. I’m fucking sorry, but it makes the characters look and sound slow on the uptake, and makes me feel condescended to by the writers. Yes, I like information to be reinforced within the text, but not several times in a row. And like, really? The Sailor Guardians survived that whole battle, heard Usagi screaming “Endymiooooon!” at the top of her lungs for like ten minutes, got all the way back to the base, and they still require help putting the pieces together? So… Ben is Glory? What the fuck, writers?!

And on the subject of the Sailor Guardians… this episode only perpetuates another huge problem with their treatment in Crystal. They are practically devoid of personality. When Usagi has her little breakdown in her bedroom, it lasts for all of a few seconds, because her friends are able to quickly reassure her with completely generic statements that aren’t even remotely tailored to the characters who speak them. Ami, Rei, Makoto, and Minako have, at this point, become completely interchangeable.

In this episode’s Classic counterpart, Mars went off on Sailor Moon for several reasons, not the least of which was that she was dealing with some major heartbreak of her own on multiple levels. It starts with her telling Sailor Moon to pull herself together, then unintentionally revealing some of her own heartbreak about Mamoru, then finally an acknowledgement of mutual respect and affection between the two girls.

Now, I’m not suggesting this exact exchange appear in Crystal, because the two relationships motivating it (Rei/Usagi and Rei/Mamoru) do not exist in this version, and that’s fine. The point is that it was an exchange that no one but Rei could have had with Usagi. There was no other character present in that moment that would have said the same things with the same choice of words in the same tone of voice. Even if another one of them had stepped up in Rei’s stead, they would have approached Usagi very differently.

Ami would have appealed to her gently, with logic and reason (which would have likely been ineffective in such an emotionally volatile moment). Makoto would have sympathized with Usagi’s heartbreak and used strong, encouraging sentiments. Minako, not knowing her very well, would have probably played the destiny card, sympathetically of course, but still all business since that’s the only relationship they had thus far established. Luna would have pleaded, and Artemis would have been a dick. Every single character in that scenario would have approached the situation in their own unique way. Here in Crystal? You could have put any of those lines in any of those girls’ mouths, and the scene would have played exactly the same. That is lazy, writers. Lazy.

Now, this basic story was handled quite differently in the manga (and thus, Crystal) and Classic. Several dynamics are very different, such as the physical setting, the antagonists involved, and certain relationship between characters. They weren’t going to be identical, and no one’s saying they should have been. Take Zoisite, for instance. In the manga, he’s already dead. In Crystal, he’s still alive but hasn’t taken the actions to warrant his execution at Beryl’s hands. Either way, his death would not be a plot point in this episode. And that’s perfectly fine. But make the most of the content you have. This episode didn’t do that. It was basically divided into two parts:

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1) Usagi freaking out and leveling up, complete with flashbacks to the Silver Millennium, followed by:

2) Usagi crying about it for the remainder of the episode, punctuated by a bland cliffhanger.

In Classic, we get all that revelation and emotion with plenty of time left over for:

1) Usagi’s breakdown

2) Usagi and Rei’s breakthrough

3) The final judgment and death of Zoisite

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4) Kunzite attempting to kill the Sailor Guardians, which forces Sailor Moon to get over her shit (at least in the moment) and step up to save the day. Which, incidentally, provides us with a proper climax in Act 3 of the story.

Even if we’re not dealing with points 2 and 3, as those elements do not appear in Crystal, that’s still a lot of content that would enrich the episode far more than Usagi sobbing and wailing for the umpteenth time as we pan across for a nice, full shot of her fluttery princess dress.

But really, this episode itself didn’t bother me so much as what it represents.

Up until this point, I’d been holding out hope for Crystal to go its own way, for the butterfly effect that had seemed to have really taken hold with “Minako/Sailor V” deviating subtly but effectively from the manga chapter on which it was based. Because, yes, I’d seen the charms included with the Japanese DVDs, but that’s just merch. There are only so many characters and so many items, and it’s just bad merchandising to repeat yourself in a scenario like this, so the inclusion of some Black Moon items didn’t concern me. Like I said, it’s just merch.But then there was that interview, that fucking interview where it was all but flatly stated that they were sticking to an act-for-act adaptation, that they wanted to delve further into the backstory but couldn’t. What the fuck do you mean, you couldn’t?! You decide what the story is! It’s completely up to you! If you wanted to delve into the backstory, just do it and save Black Moon for the second series, which will almost certainly be greenlit in the wake of the monumental success of this first one!

As you can see, I got quite upset. I was already upset… and then I saw this episode, and it all became very, very clear. My theory, that Crystalwould follow the manga far more closely up until the full formation of the team, only to telescope out and really enrich the characters and the mythology as the story headed toward its conclusion… that theory has been all but shot down, and it is my shamelessly biased opinion that Sailor Moon Crystal will be the worse for it.

Because as flawed as Classic was —  and holy crap, it was! — the manga was far from perfect. It is not the superior version just by virtue of coming first. It was deeply flawed, rushed and thin on character, with more than one ass-pull plot twist and regular injections of retcon, as Takeuchi was pretty much making it all up on the fly. And while I certainly don’t want an encore of Classic’s vast stretches of filler, I’d rather have too much of something than not enough. Frankly, if all they’re doing is animating the manga, I don’t see the point.

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2.5 out of 5