This Sailor Moon Crystal review contains spoilers.
This new “Chibi Usagi” proves to be a major pain in our heroine’s ass, hypnotizing her family, insinuating herself into her life, and just being an all-around brat. And the fact that she’s on the hunt for the Silver Crystal and triggers Mamoru’s freaky-deaky psychometry powers isn’t exactly disarming. Meanwhile, some new baddies also on the hunt for the good ol’ Ginzuishou have appeared. They’re the Black Moon family, led by the douchey and decadent Prince Demande. For the time being, however, the pawns are in play, and so Koan, the youngest of the Spectre Sisters, infiltrates the fair at Rei’s school to recruit some followers, putting our girl Rei right at the epicenter of the new enemy’s first attack. Using her new enhanced powers, Sailor Mars takes on Koan and her Droids. The other Senshi arrive to provide some much needed back-up, but it’s not enough to keep Sailor Mars from getting abducted as her friends look on, helpless to stop it.
What we have in this episode is a fairly strong character story that is entertaining, makes sense, and is woven rather seamlessly into the action plot of both the individual episode and the overall arc. And all I can say is… fucking FINALLY!
This isn’t a perfect episode. There are a few small problems with it, but I will admit right up front that they’re pretty much nitpicks. We are talking incredibly minor offenses in an otherwise deftly executed episode of television. So, let’s jump right in, shall we?
First up, the opening. This is the third version of the opening animation sequence, this time with actual footage replaced. The shot featuring the story arc’s villains swap out Metalia, Beryl, and the Shitenou for Wiseman and the Black Moon Family. The Silver Millennium shot is replaced with one of Chibi-Usa, representing the chronologically distant civilization relevant to this story. And finally, Queen Serenity is replaced with Sailor Pluto, a nice, lingering shot of her, which I think she is long overdue. Her blink-and-you’ll-miss-them appearances in the Sailor Moon R and Sailor Moon S openings never quite giving the character her due. I had very little doubt some changes would be made to the opening with this new arc, and I’m glad I was right. It was a very good omen.
This episode has a lot going on, and in a good way. The narrative doesn’t feel rushed or tightly packed, it just has a lot of moving parts. There’s the Chibi-Usa factor, the festival at Rei’s school and the attack by Koan, and the brief glimpse we got of the behind-the-scenes workings of the Black Moon Family. It’s a very satisfying meal. A problem with several Crystal episodes, even good ones, is that not much ultimately happens. A lot of time is spent repeating lines of dialogue verbatim, rehashing content from previous episodes, long, artful shots of pretty things being pretty, but not a lot of new information. It’s what leads a 21-23 minute episode to feel like it breezed right along in the blink of an eye. This episode does not suffer from that problem at all. It has an interesting plot that facilitates plenty of character development because the plot itself was constructed from character. It’s part of what made “Act 8 – Minako/Sailor V” one of the best episodes of the series so far.
This episode’s title actually refers not only to the plot at Rei’s school, but Chibi-Usa’s story as well, and it’s as much about this time-traveling kindergartner infiltrating Usagi’s life and household as it is about the Koan infiltrating T*A Girls Academy. And Chibi-Usa does literally debut with a bang. Granted it’s a trick gun, but still. Rather than rehash the tag from the previous episode, this one jumps right in, which I appreciate. While having Chibi-Usa’s appearance in this world would have made for a smoother opening to the episode, simply picking up where we left off saves us some time and gives up room to play around later with elements that are pretty important.
The main plot of this episode features Rei, and that it’s cool for a few reasons that we’re starting with her. One, the brief scene of her in the previous episode sensing something a new danger approaching shows that she would be the most sensitive to these matters and would likely be the first to stumble into a situation that would require her to intervene as Sailor Mars. Two, it mixes things up. One of the problems I always had with the other anime was that you knew the order in which spotlight episodes would occur. It would just replicate the debuts of the Senshi: Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and then finally Venus, usually with the latter two being short-shrift by combining their milestones into the same episode. That being the case, I am very much loving how Rei is the first one up. Right on. Keep it fresh and interesting!
The exploration of Rei’s character here is great. The way both she and those around her have noticed changes in her behavior recently (read: since she met and befriended Usagi and the others) is a nice, subtle way of showing that she is growing as a character. She also gets to be a little humorous, which I’m all for. I know that a big part of Rei’s manga characterization is her presentation of various Yamato nadeshiko qualities, including a certain detached stoicism, so to see her being a little goofy or awkward and showing a lighter side to her character makes her feel, at least to me, a little more like a fleshed out human being and a little less like some idealized, mildly fetishized paragon of Japanese femininity.
The scene at Crown Fruit Parlor is the best, and exactly what we could have used more of during the Dark Kingdom arc. With scenes like these, I really feel the friendship between these girls. I also like that the scene accomplished multiple objectives: Usagi shares her troubles with her friends, Luna presents them with their new items, and Rei’s fair is established, as is the girls’ reason for showing up at the climax. And while I did miss the introduction of Unazuki, I understand that she’s not a very important character, and it was far more essential to give the spotlight to Asanuma, a fairly involved supporting character in the manga.
One of the reasons I’ve always been fond Asanuma is that he, like Motoki and Reika, helps to flesh out Mamoru by giving him his own supporting cast. He’s not just some one-dimensional dreamboat who’s always hanging around his girlfriend and her friends, but a real person with his own life and his own friends (and his own stalker), who doesn’t just blink out of existence whenever he’s out of Usagi’s line of sight. And also, well, like him or not, Asanuma is certainly very well characterized. You know exactly who this kid is and what he’s about the first time you meet him, and he conveys that personality consistently every time he shows up. In fact, considering that Sailor Moon R is so different from the Black Moon arc of the manga because they had to work with whatever Takeuchi could give them up front, it’s surprising Asanuma and Kotono (another fun, distinct character) didn’t make it into R, considering they’re introduced right away, have significant ties to major characters, and — at least in Kotono’s case — have interests that are thematically relevant to the plot.
Come to think of it, a lot of characters are introduced in this episode, (even more in the manga chapter from which it’s derived), and yet it totally works. Their visual designs are distinct and interesting, the ones that speak tend to convey their personalities rather efficiently, and the one who don’t speak still effectively establish their presence. It really does evidence the fact that Takeuchi didn’t really find her groove in terms of characterization until Black Moon. Even then, it’s not her strongest suit, but at least she starts showing a lot more than telling.
I didn’t expect them to debut all five of the new henshins in the same episode, and to be honest it might have been better for them to limit it to spotlight character, but the whole sequence is handled very well. First off, the little changes of adding the new transformation devices are clean, and the abbreviations of the individual henshins are expertly edited. They’re seamless.
As for the big fight itself, it was awesome. There was a lot of back and forth between the Senshi and Koan’s forces, different stages to the fight, the cutaways to Prince Demande observing it all. Moon Princess Halation was a little underwhelming (not that I was hoping for the interminable stock footage from R, but something a little grander than what we got), but Burning Mandala was beautiful, and I like that Mercury actually used Shine Aqua Illusion to put out a fire. Often in Sailor Moon — any version of it — attacks are fairly interchangeable and don’t really have a lot of practical application. I don’t usually see Jupiter use lightning to short out a mechanical system or Mars use fire to burn away ice. I’m happy as a clam whenever Venus actually uses the Love Me Chain like a chain to lasso shit or pull someone to safety. So to see Mercury use her powers in an attempt to put out a fire, which doesn’t happen nearly enough, was a real treat.
And here we end on a cliffhanger, which is great, because it’s a GOOD cliffhanger. A lot happened in the episode, the story at hand was dealt with, and then one loose thread got pulled out, leaving us rabid to see what happens next. Yes. That is how you cliffhanger.
Now, while we didn’t see a body, I’m pretty sure Koan’s dead. There’s no reason to think they’d keep her alive. The pardons granted to the Shitenou in Dark Kingdom were basically a means of having a more consistent rogues gallery, developing their relationships with the Senshi, and having a full house for the big finale… none of which applies to the Spectre Sisters. They’re not love interests and we already have four (five with Wiseman) antagonists who will be around for the long haul. In fact, this is one area in which I think the manga was much stronger than Sailor Moon R was. One of the problems I’ve always had with the Black Moon arc in R was that it felt somewhat fragmented. There were two rounds of villains, the Rubeus round and the Prince Demande round. By having Rubeus present as a commander, giving orders to an entire group of villains only to turn around and reveal he’s actually low in the ranks of the real power players, it adds a degree of continuity to the villains and actually grants Rubeus some dimension he otherwise lacks. So, yeah. I think Koan’s dead, and I’m totally fine with it.
Okay, it’s time to start talking about the new magical items. I’ve always liked these wands. Much as I’m fond of the original henshin pens, I always felt it was kind of silly that they were actually pens. Like, the caps could come off and the girls could write with them. I would just imagine that the little clips on the side weren’t there. Now, I’m well aware that a huge part of Sailor Moon’s premise and appeal was the mystical and symbolic empowerment of the everyday items a Japanese schoolgirl would have at her disposal, school supplies like pens and calculators as well as cosmetic and fashion items like compacts, lip gloss, high heels. And, of course, the sailor fuku. I get it. I do. And I can get behind most of it, but I still think the henshin pens being actual pens is stupid. So, when the “star power” wands were introduced, I kind of loved them. They’re straight up magic wands, mystical items. They also have a really nice design. It’s stylized without being overly complicated and better features their signature colors. I like them.
The communicators, on the other hand, are fucking awful. First of all, while the henshin pens were destroyed in the fight with Metalia, there was no mention (nor would there be, as it wouldn’t make sense) that the communicator bracelets were destroyed or even damaged. And they were great. They seriously could have passed for watches or charm bracelets. They were sleek, fairly inconspicuous, which is definitely helpful with the maintenance of a secret identity. They don’t even have any kind of design issues that would clash with the new wands. And then, for no logistic or narrative reason, they are just forgotten and replaced with these loud, bulbous, unflattering, and immensely conspicuous merchandising opportunities that scream “I’m a super-hero! Ask me how!” I say thee nay.
One other small thing I noticed: The manga does refer to how the Silver Crystal hasn’t released any energy. Here it says Usagi’s adjusted the power level. Granted, my Japanese is pretty rusty, so I don’t know whether or not this is simply a matter of poor translation, but if Usagi actually talks about consciously adjusting the power of the Silver Crystal herself… when did she learn to do that? She just barely acquired the skill to release its power fully let alone consciously manipulate it. I’m going to give this the benefit of the doubt and chalk it up to a faulty translation, because otherwise… bullshit.
Other than those points, though (and some awkward animation in spots, but you know… Crystal), I can’t really complain. This episode had a solid, well structured, well paced story that was rich in character development, accomplished several plot points to set up the arc, and even gave us some humor. And from the preview, it looks as though this trend will continue. Win. Bring on the next.