Sailor Moon Crystal Act 14 – Conclusion and Commencement / Petite Étrangère review

Sailor Moon Crystal begins to make the transition into the Black Moon arc. Here's Michael's review...

Sailor Moon takes her final stand against Metalia — you know, the one promised in the previous episode — and focuses for the mark between her eyes. And… it doesn’t work. She and Luna (whose human form is nice little addition here) throw a few prayers to the newly reformed crystal spire in the prayer room of the Moon Castle, and it does the trick. Metalia is destroyed, but Usagi’s brooch is shattered in the process. Sensing the other Senshi are dead, Usagi heads up to the moon to make one last prayer in person.

Usagi heals the destruction caused by Metalia, resurrects her friends, and even restores the Silver Millennium, but she decides not to remain there to rule (I’m assuming she’d repopulate it with citizens of Earth who could use a change of scenery), but rather to live on Earth with her loved ones. She gets a new and ugly as hell brooch for her trouble, transforms back to Sailor Moon with a brand new transformation phrase, and returns to Earth where she reunites with her friends. This new peace and happiness is short-lived when Rei senses a new threat looming, and Usagi and Mamoru’s romantic rendezvous in the park gets interrupted by a massive interdimensional vortex that drops a kid on them, a pink-haired girl who pulls a gun on Usagi, demanding the Silver Crystal.

This episode certainly isn’t weak, but it’s not particularly strong, specifically as a narrative, because it doesn’t really have a story; it has three. And it’s not even that they’re poorly stitched together. They flow into one another easily enough. But this episode on the whole is far weaker than it could have been with some more mindful organization. Let’s look at the three stories in play here: Sailor Moon’s Victory over Metalia; the rebirth of Sailor Moon, the Silver Millennium, and the healing of the Earth; and a tease of the Black Moon Arc.

The final battle with Metalia on its own is kind of uneventful and boring. I like that it had a few different moving parts (Sailor Moon figuring out what she has to do, Luna doing her thing up on the moon, the spirits of the Senshi lending a hand), and that was all well and good, but the whole thing is over about 1/3 of the way through the episode and lacks the momentum it needed to really drive it home, momentum that could easily have been provided by the events of the previous episode. If all the Metalia fight from Act 13 and Act 14 had been in the same episode, it would have worked much more effectively. Instead, it feels like the cherry was just lopped of the top of the sundae and saved for tomorrow’s dessert. And it’s all the dessert you’ll be getting. By breaking up this final battle, you’re taking one satisfying event and cleaving it into two far less satisfying ones.

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The second part of this episode focuses on the restoration of Silver Millennium, Usagi’s abdication of her crown, the healing of the Earth, and the creation of Usagi’s new brooch. This story, which takes up the majority of the episode, is really, to me, what the episode is about: recovery, healing, and rebirth. This theme resonates in several ways, and a quiet, reflective episode can be a necessary balm to soothe battle fatigue, provided that it’s a character piece that actually explores the characters instead of just spinning its wheels and keeping everything soft and shallow and pretty. One of the best moments of this episode? Rei’s premonition of the Black Moon and her quiet prayer that the peace they’ve earned can last. If there had been a few more of those touches, of showing the girls going back to their civilian lives and really looking at the world through different eyes, having lived through their adventure, there is no reason this episode couldn’t have stood well on its own without any of the Metalia business.

The last segment of the episode is really just the first few minutes of the Black Moon Arc. It’s odd that this episode is called “Petite Étrangère” and the étrangère in question doesn’t really have anything to do with the episode until the last two minutes. This little vignette gives us Rei’s premonition, Usagi and Mamoru’s rendezvous in the park, and the first appearance of Chibi-Usa. It works well enough as a cliffhanger, and to the animators’ credit Chibi-Usa’s hair has never looked better. Had the episode been strictly the recovery story, it would have worked very efficiently, but with the Metalia fight and the Moon Castle business preceding it in the same episode, it just feels like too many different threads and stories being jammed into one place. Naoko, honey… what up, girl?

Now, I’m not opposed to a breather episode between major story arcs, as such an episode can give the audience a well-deserved break after several episodes of narrative intensity. I also like codas and closure, and the idea of a quiet meditation on the events that just transpired can work really well. Buffy did it exquisitely with its Season Four finale, “Restless,” which followed up the big two-part climax of the season with a stand-alone character piece that looked at how far the characters have come and foreshadowed where they’re going. The Sailor Moon franchise did something similar with the end of Sailor Moon S, ending the story of the season with two episodes to spare, episodes which explored the consequences and fallout of the season and showed us where the characters would or at least might be going from there. So, it’s not that I’m bothered by an episode of this type, it’s just that it doesn’t feel very well put together.

Once again, this is a problem that is pretty squarely laid at Takeuchi’s feet. I’m all for serialized storytelling and plots that overlap, but I continue to be baffled by the plot points which this author chooses as chapter breaks. And it really all comes down to the rhythm of narrative, something that Naoko Takeuchi has proven herself time and again not to be a master of. Her breaks in the narrative seem almost arbitrary and really hurt the flow of the story. If things had been scheduled differently and the whole of the fight with Metalia had been confined to one episode, allowing for this one to be all wrap-up and reflection capped off with a tease of the next arc, it would have worked far more effectively.

For my money, this episode is really about its middle segment, the one about healing, rebirth, and new beginnings. That central story could either have been accompanied by what preceded or followed it, but not both. If it had begun with the last phase of the battle with Metalia, expanded it just a bit, and then ended on the girls reuniting for that big group hug, it would have worked fantastically. Or if it had begun with Mamoru awakening Usagi after the defeat of Metalia and ended with Chibi-Usa falling from the sky, it would also have been very strong and narratively cohesive. But cramming those three different movements into the same space just makes it feel sloppy and schizo, and they emotions evoked by each phase of the episode cancel each other out.

There are, of course, some logical concerns, questions raised that are never quite answered. For instance, the Moon Kingdom has been restored, and not just as some kind of elaborate vision. It is ready to go, physically there, glass and stone, all set for Usagi to move in and rebuild Silver Millennium. And she doesn’t, which… fine, whatever… but it’s still up there. It wasn’t like some kind of magic was sustaining it. It was a one-and-done rebuild. So it’s still there, where NASA can just spot it through a telescope. I wouldn’t call that a very strategic move.

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While I understand Usagi’s decision to remain on Earth rather than repopulate and rule the newly restored Moon Kingdom — after all, Serenity always was drawn to Earth — I find Queen Serenity’s easy, go-with-the-flow reaction to this decision a little too convenient. I mean, the dying thoughts of this monarch are the essence of this little holographic vestige, and sure she wants her “daughter” to be happy, but she also wants the legacy of her kingdom, a kingdom she died protecting, to endure. You’d think she’d at least push one or twice for Usagi to just relocate all her loved ones to a castle where they could live in splendor for the rest of their lives before she caved and graciously accepted the true loss of her beloved kingdom to the pages of history.

The appearance of the new brooch at this point is sloppy storytelling. If the Dark Kingdom has been destroyed, why would Queen Serenity feel Usagi even needed a new brooch? The threat has been neutralized, and the Sailor Moon persona didn’t even exist in the past. This seems more like the author just getting all her ducks in a row for the new arc to begin, despite the fact that the gifting of this new brooch at this point in the story makes very little sense. This is not at all helped by the fact that I’ve always hated this brooch. It’s my least favorite by a wide margin. It just looks like a cookie. You know, one of those really puffy, dry, dense ones your parents pick up in some strip mall bakery at the last minute on the way to a family function, the kind that you can only safely eat in the presence of someone who knows the Heimlich Maneuver. Death cookie. It’s a death cookie.

Furthermore, the oddly variable size of the Silver Crystal is kind of glaring. One second, this lotus-shaped crystal could barely fit in Usagi’s hand, now it’s small enough to fit inside the brooch with room to spare. We didn’t see it change size or shape. Sloppy work, animators.

And how the hell does Luna just magically know what the transformation phrase is? This isn’t an artifact from the past. This is a brand new item that was just created in front of her.

This is definitely a place where Classic improved on the manga by having the new brooch come in shortly into the season. We see the return of the original brooch, then we see that its powers are not only insufficient in the face of the new threat, but that the brooch is destroyed, and then the Silver Crystal merges with the ruined brooch to form it anew. Now, of course, someone’s going to bring up the fact that this all happened in the Classic-exclusive Makaijuu arc, and that by the time the Black Moon arc rolled around, Moon Crystal Power was up and running, as it was in the manga, but there’s no reason Usagi’s brooch couldn’t have failed in the presence of the Black Moon Clan. Just sayin’.

I can dig Usagi’s healing wave resurrecting people and healing the land and all that, because it’s all part and parcel of her healing powers, but the reconstruction of non-living things like building and infrastructure just feels a little too… I don’t know… nice. They’re healing powers, not fixing powers. I can totally accept the expansion of that definition to include resurrection, the reanimation of living things that have died, but not this sort of all-purpose fixing of inanimate objects.

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And, of course, it wouldn’t be Sailor Moon Crystal without some kind of animation fail. Oh, my god, those shittily animated birds really distracted me from what is supposed to be a beautiful reunion scene. We have the girls in this adorable, heart-warming group hug, and I’m totally feeling it until the choppy, chicken scratch bird silhouettes stagger across the screen. And then, to cap it all off…

Fly! Fly, majestic seagull of triumph and hope! Soar on the wind!

This episode was fairly enjoyable and most of the scenes in it worked on their own, but they failed to be more than the sum of their parts. The episode’s patchwork nature really just rubs salt on the open wound of the show’s overall mediocre to poor pacing. I spent most of Act 14 thinking to myself, “All this stuff works and it should be happening… but why is it happening here and now?” Especially when some minor pacing adjustments could fix ALL OF THESE PROBLEMS. But, whatever.

I’m a firm believer that when it comes to adaptation, success shouldn’t so much be measured by which version told the story first, but which told it best. And for me personally, adjusting the schedule of events so that the episodes are individually stronger not only fails to hurt the manga, it improves upon it. And where exactly is the harm in that? Purists may denounce any changes simply because they’re changes, but from where I stand, a change for the better is a change worth making. Sailor Moon Crystal could be much stronger for taking even the smallest of liberties in how it adapts the manga, but by now we know it won’t, that most, if not all, of the narrative hiccups of the manga will be faithfully rendered onscreen regardless of how much a few tiny changes could elevate the work.

More’s the pity. Because would the awesome story of Sailor Moon be so damaged beyond repair if everything we just saw had occurred over the course of sixteen episodes rather than fourteen? Would it really be such heinous blasphemy? I will never understand the people who would answer “yes.”

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2.5 out of 5