This Sailor Moon Crystal review contains spoilers.
With three Senshi captive behind enemy lines, it’s down to Sailor Moon, Sailor Venus, and Tuxedo Mask to get them back and get to the bottom of all this Black Moon business. The last of the Spectre Sisters, Calaveras, uses her powers as a medium to draw the Senshi out so she can get a little revenge, and it’s up to Venus to take her on, since Chibi-Usa has swiped Usagi’s brooch. Tuxedo Mask, feeling a little useless, uses his own psychic powers to have a chat with his fallen friends, the Shitenou. After a little pep talk, he looks within himself to discover a new attack of his own just in time to take on Rubeus. Venus manages to avoid abduction, and when the dust settles, Chibi-Usa finally reveals just where she and the Black Moon have come from: the future.
All right, before we actually go into the episode itself, I’m just going to throw out a couple of disclaimers right up front.
1) I analyze and judge the quality of an episode on several criteria including narrative structure and cohesion, pacing, character development, and presentation. And while I do take fidelity to the source material into account, it does not trump bad storytelling. If I don’t think something worked particularly well in the manga the first time around, fidelity to that flaw just becomes a liability.
2) I am going to talk about Sailor Moon R. It’s going to happen. I find it a fun and challenging exercise to compare works of fiction, particularly differing versions of the same work, to debate in a civil, friendly fashion what works and what doesn’t. Some may find such comparisons off-putting, but that’s what’s on the menu.
And now, onto the review:
This episode doesn’t do much that’s new in terms of story. It’s true that we get some progression with the analysis of the earring and Chibi-Usa’s reveal at the end of the episode, but the only thing that really distinguishes the action plot from being more of the same is that Venus is the first of the Senshi to escape abduction. That’s okay, though, because where this episode really shines is characterization. Holy crap, there is character development all over the damn place, and it’s magnificent.
Despite the fact that she doesn’t really get a lot of action in the episode – Rolling Heart Vibration aside, there’s not much to her fight with Calaveras – she really does shine. Most of our time with her is spent showing her determination, her dedication, her ingenuity. We really get the sense that she’s been doing this for a while, only underlined by the fact that of the four Inner Senshi, she’s the only one that does not get captured by the Black Moon. This was a really smart move on a couple of different levels.
In addition to highlighting her experience and bad-assery, it gives her some alone time with Usagi. Venus didn’t join the team until well into the Dark Kingdom Arc and has had the least amount of time to bond with Usagi, so eliminating the other three provided a solid opportunity for her to “catch up” to the others. It also allows for some jumbling with the team dynamic. As of now, our ensemble consists of Sailor Moon, Sailor Venus, Tuxedo Mask, and Chibi-Usa, with Sailor Pluto entering the mix in the next episode. It’s kind of cool.
I can’t help but notice how much more useful Luna and Artemis are in this iteration than in the other anime. Like Mamoru, they kind of fall into obscurity and uselessness after a while, and I always liked how much more involved they were in the plot in the manga and now here in Crystal. It sure as hell beats them getting an episode or two per season, episodes that tend not to have much of anything that even resembles relevance, no less. So, bravo for that.
I have the same feeling about Mamoru, who is vastly more important in the manga than he is in the ’90s anime. Even in R, where he still retains some story value, it pretty much just turns out to be artificial, manufactured drama for the sake of it. If someone can explain to me how that whole “being tested by his future self” story make any kind of actual sense, you get a gold star. By the time Sailor Moon S rolls around he’s just The Artifact, some vestigial aspect of the series that while once relevant is only around because it would be blasphemy to just get rid of him altogether.
Thus, Crystal’s Mamoru is a much better put together character. He’s not living off a bottomless inheritance (which conveniently affords him a nice apartment full of nice things and a car and a motorcycle so he can look like a dreamy, sophisticated adolescent fantasy); he’s clearly got some money from his parents, but he’s not living in luxury. His psychic powers, rather than being some random quirk that is conveniently forgotten most of the time, are a well-developed aspect of his character that are utilized in service of the plot, rather than to remind the audience every few episodes that Chibi-Usa is from a far-away land of crystal spires. And, as I’ve mentioned previously, he’s got his own supporting cast.
The cameo of the Shitenou was more than just a nice little bit of continuity. It helps to keep Mamoru fleshed out and relevant, not just to the main plot but as a character. If he communed with them all the time, it would make their deaths pointless, but to have him touch base with them every once in a while reminds us of how he and Usagi are both alike and different.
Like Usagi, he had a quartet of guardians in his past life. Unlike her, they are now dead. He’s been separated from his soul brothers (there’s a Motown joke in there somewhere) while she still has her girls by her side. Luckily, through his psychic powers, he can talk to them when he really needs to. It’s a bittersweet kind of reunion that really gives him a vibe that no one else has.
Mamoru’s psychic flashes aren’t some random bullshit. They play a crucial role in the plot. This scene also serves to highlight a problem many have with Tuxedo Mask: his lack of offensive potential. I’m not sure exactly what Tuxedo La Smoking Bomber is supposed to be, but it’s certainly an effective attack. By having Mamoru finally address the fact that he’s kind of peripheral to the action and doesn’t have much to contribute that’s tangible, it opens the door to have him actually develop an ability in response, inspired by his fallen friends, which makes their appearance far more than mere fan service.
Even the captured Inners, who are barely seen in this episode, are given depth as we’re reminded of their three-dimensional lives by way of the new supporting characters. The brief appearances of Kotono and Asanuma were welcome returns to help remind us that Usagi isn’t the only Senshi to have relationships outside the Sailor Team. We’re further reminded that a world exists outside all the supernatural action in this story when we take a moment with Naru who is clearly aware that something is going on with Usagi, though not exactly what. It’s always nice when someone close to a superhero starts getting hip to the fact that something’s up.
The good guys aren’t the only ones to nab some spotlight. The scenes between the Black Moon Family do a particularly excellent job of showing us who these people are and what they’re about. Given how little we get of them per episode, they establish quite a presence, with one exception. It’s never really made clear in any version of Sailor Moon what exactly Esmeraude’s function is. Prince Demande is the ruler, Saphir is the scientist working behind the scenes, and Rubeus is the field commander who organizes the attacks. Esmeraude doesn’t really serve a function in this elite inner circle.
It makes me wonder why she’s there? What valuable skills or contributions elevated her to this position in the first place? Did Naoko just include her to break up the sausage party? Because that’s a worthy goal and everything, but couldn’t we give her some field of expertise that got her into the inner circle?
To the contrary, Calaveras is far more fascinating to me here than in Sailor Moon R. For one, I like how the eldest sister isn’t the one who survived the longest. I like that Calaveras is the last one in the queue. And I love that she’s a medium. In R, all four of the Spectre Sisters has more or less the same personality. They were all shallow and vain. Berthier was, by implication, smarter than the others. Petz was the only one not fighting for Rubeus’ affection. But for the most part, they came as a set. They didn’t really have very distinct personalities or functions.
By having Calaveras be a medium, especially given this arc’s focus on aliens and the occult, it really gives her a different angle with which to approach the conflict. Not only that, she shows the true grief over the deaths of her sisters to which Petz merely paid lip service in the last episode. I really believe in Calaveras’ thirst for revenge, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say she is easily the best characterized of the four. Ironic, given how flat her characterization (though obviously not her bust in that corset) is in R.
Another character who I’m rather pleased with is Rubeus, who here and in the manga is a far more complex character than the one-dimensional, cold-hearted manipulator he is in R. He actually seems to have some kind of moral code, some kind of objective beyond his own selfish ends. I have the feeling that, however much of an asshole he is, he believes in the Black Moon’s cause to some degree. His suspicion that Demande may be losing his way and his overt distrust of Wiseman paint a much more interesting picture of him than the creative team of Sailor Moon R bothered with when adapting the character. Sure, they were created more or less concurrently, but Takeuchi must have provided them with some kind of notes on their characters and dynamics. Unless of course she hadn’t come up with anything but their visual designs at the time and just started writing them with that. Which, come to think of it, wouldn’t surprise me.
The Chibi-Usa story continues with Usagi using her suspicions about the Black Moon to erroneously validate her dislike of the kid. And while some aspects of Usagi’s immaturity grate on me and seem like too much (like her romantic jealousy of a child), I actually think this is a very realistic reaction. Sometimes even adults – mature adults – will just wait for someone to actually do something wrong so that they can justify their dislike of them. And in fairness, Chibi-Usa did steal her brooch. The girl’s not exactly acting on the up and up, but her mortal dread at the sight of Petz’s earring really should clue the girls in to what side she’s on. This, however, was a great way to further the story of Usagi and Chibi-Usa’s bonding, while giving both Venus and Tuxedo Mask opportunities to shine.
By having Usagi’s brooch out of reach, it separates her from Minako, both because she couldn’t help her if she wanted to, and she has a powerful need to get it back. Thus Venus gets to take on Calaveras by herself, at least at first. Usagi catches up with Chibi-Usa, but doesn’t get her brooch back before Rubeus can attack them, giving Tuxedo Mask a chance to debut his new attack. I do have to say that Usagi’s turn as Sailor Moon in this episode was kind of unnecessary. I would have liked for Venus to have had more back and forth with Calaveras if not being the one to vanquish her. Calaveras sadly went down without much of a fight, making her the least effective combatant of the four Spectre Sisters. However, she got the strongest characterization by a longshot, so I suppose it balances out to some degree.
In fact, the only character I couldn’t stand this week was Usagi. It’s part of her personality in every incarnation of the franchise that she’s a crybaby, but in manga/Crystal, it goes beyond a little character accent to highlight her immaturity, usually for comedy and only for a few seconds; rather, she keeps collapsing into these full-on sobbing meltdowns that (at least in the animation medium) sound more maudlin and whiny than anything Kotono Mitsuishi did in the ’90s anime.
It’s not that Usagi shouldn’t feel emotions or be affected by things, especially at her age, but at this point in the story she should at least have toughened up a little. Instead, she’s just this delicate snowflake who’s always bawling into the shirt of the nearest available person. Fuck that. Maybe it’s more tolerable in print, where we see one frame of her distress and don’t have to hear her nasal whine dragging on and on and on, but I just can’t take it.
You need a hug? Go for it. A few tears? You’re only human. But Jesus… woman up, kid. You saved the planet last week. Act like it.