Sailor Moon Crystal: Finale Review
Sailor Moon Crystal has reached its last act. Here's what we thought...
The Sailor Senshi, Tuxedo Mask, and King Endymion face down Death Phantom in the void. Sailor Moon takes the lead, unleashes a can of Moon Princess Whoop-ass, and she and Death Phantom vanish, Tuxedo Mask following suit soon enough. The others are transported back to the palace grounds, where they are greeted by a newly awakened Neo Queen Serenity and King Endymion. After comforting their daughter and thanking Pluto for her sacrifice, they send Chibi-Usa to their past selves, so the three of them can square off with Death Phantom together. Chibi-Usa announces herself to the big bad as the Sailor Senshi in training, Sailor Chibi Moon, and joins Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Mask in the final showdown.
Once Death Phantom is disposed of in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it battle that seems almost an afterthought, Neo Queen Serenity restores Crystal Tokyo and sends our heroes back to the past. She even, despite knowing it’s not supposed to be part of history, offers her past self some thanks and words of encouragement. Everything seems to be heading back to normal. We get some quick grace notes with Kotono, Asanuma, and Motoki, but the real final bow seems to be for Chibi-Usa, who is set to return to the 30th Century, even though she was just there and came back to the past for some reason. She and Usagi have a teary goodbye, showing just how full circle their relationship has come, and Chibi-Usa departs with Luna-P in tow. Her absence is short-lived, however, when she falls from the sky and onto Usagi’s head once again, this time offering a letter from Neo Queen Serenity, stating that Sailor Chibi Moon is to continue her training under the Sailor Senshi of the 21st Century. And then, with no episodes coming to justify a “To Be Continued…” eyecatch, we get a brief little message from the production team, telling us they’ll see us soon.
While most shows would end a series or even just an arc with the big final battle (a predictable but effective route that I rather enjoy), others will opt to have the big final battle at the beginning of the finale so that they can spend the bulk of the episode with some denouement to wrap things up. Others yet have the big climax in the penultimate episode and use the entire finale as the denouement, and you know what? I’m actually a really huge fan of epilogue episodes.
Sailor Moon S had two of them following the big final battle, and I think they worked great. Babylon 5, probably my favorite live action series of all time, had three – count ‘em, three – episodes following the series’ climax just for the purposes of tying up loose ends and showing the “breaking of the Fellowship,” if you will, followed by a finale that was pure epilogue, set nearly twenty years in the future. And it totally worked.
All of those approaches are valid options when done right. The problem with the finale of Sailor Moon Crystal was that it did none of these things. It opened with a final battle, the tension of which was immediately deflated by postponing it to the middle of the episode, and then when it finally happened, it was over in a blink. Now, at this point in the game, we all knew what we were getting. Anyone who read the manga knew that the final showdown with Death Phantom was anti-climactic in every sense of the word.
Ultimately, this can’t be blamed on Toei. They have their mission statement, and they’re committing to it: strict adherence to the manga at all costs. And unfortunately, Naoko Takeuchi – let’s be honest here – is not terribly good with action, and if you have trouble making a small battle work, a huge battle is going to be even more of an undertaking for you. The action in Sailor Moon seems more or less peripheral, something Takeuchi glosses over to get right back to the flowers and romance and crying (I can’t even say character development, because there really isn’t much) the way that Tolkien glossed over action to get to more scene description and philology porn. With the exception of the final arc, “Stars,” the big bad battles in the manga are pretty much let-downs. And even in “Stars,” the shining moment in the climax that everyone really cares about is Usagi’s cosmic death and rebirth within the Galaxy Cauldron. The actual fight with Chaos is fairly underwhelming.
Now, given how lucrative Sailor Moon is, it is all but certain (and has been from the beginning) that we’ll see the other three arcs animated, but on the chance that this 26-episode run is all we’re going to get, that this is the series finale for the anime experiment known as Sailor Moon Crystal, this would be the grand finale. The climactic battle in the episode would be all we got.
Death Phantom talked big and put on his game face, and Sailor Moon (plus Tuxedo Mask and Chibi Moon) ended the fight with a single blow. And one could go on and on about how it shows just how powerful she is or whatever apologist bullshit could be concocted on its behalf, but the bottom line is that eleven episodes of action-adventure storytelling leading up to a fight that’s over in one move is fucking boring. It’s a letdown, even for those of us who knew very well, and have for decades, that it was coming.
Look, we all know that Crystal is more or less beholden to the manga, but changes have been made here and there. Small ones. We couldn’t have swapped out some other crap to get a fight that gives us an adequate return on our investment? Over in one blow? That’s it? That’s all we get? Not even some struggling, some reversals, some table-turning? None of that? Just the same attack she’s been using throughout the entire arc and far less effectively against profoundly weaker opponents?
Aww, FUCK YOU, Sailor Moon Crystal. Fuck. You.
Despite the action element of the episode being a complete failure, there was actually a lot to like about it. True, the Inners were pretty much neglected, but at this point that’s old news. Hell, Pluto spends this entire episode dead and cold, and her corpse gets more love and attention from the script than they do, but whatever. The characters who were going to actually get some attention got some really nice closure.
I’ve always really loved the dynamic between Usagi and Chibi-Usa. It’s very unique, and their partings, both here and in “Stars,” are incredibly bittersweet, because even though they will meet again someday, it’ll never be the same. During Chibi-Usa’s time in the 21st Century (20th in previous iterations), she and Usagi are more or less sisters, with all the boons and baggage come with that kind of relationship. Usagi doesn’t have the experience of bearing and raising this child from infancy, and Chibi-Usa doesn’t associate this hormonal, adolescent commoner with the stately, graceful queen whom she calls mother. While they may be intellectually aware of each other’s identities, that they are in fact mother and daughter, they don’t socialize that way, the way they will when Chibi-Usa returns to the future. And when she does return there for good, they’ll both lose a sister whom they’ll never get back. It’s very beautiful and very sad, and while their relationship in Crystal is a little more saccharine than I’d like, it’s just as effective. I love seeing these two in scenes together, and the Chibi-Usa of Crystal has been portrayed both in design and performance very well.
I have mixed feelings on Usagi’s whole “I can only access the Silver Crystal’s power in your presence, Mamoru” thing. On the one hand, I know what Takeuchi was going for, that the two of them are stronger together than apart, that their love is a power that can work miracles, that Mamoru’s presence and his support are what enable Usagi to be the truest version of herself, and all that is great, but… there also this little voice in my head that really doesn’t love the how it undercuts Usagi’s own empowerment and the overall feminism of the piece. Sailor Moon is this cosmically powerful being, able to work miracles through a cosmic artifact that is tied to the power of her heart and spirit… but only when her boyfriend’s around. I mean, that’s a roundabout way of saying that without him, she’s nothing, and I think the reasons for me not loving that message, especially when it’s being aimed right into the developing psyches of impressionable young girls, should be fairly obvious.
Still, that doesn’t mean I don’t like Tuxedo Mask’s involvement in the final battle. One of the areas in which I prefer the manga to the 90’s anime is that Tuxedo Mask is far more relevant both to Usagi’s character development and to the overall plot. Having Tuxedo Mask and Chibi Moon working with Sailor Moon as funhouse mirror version of their family unit not only ties in well with the plot on a thematic level, it just feels right. And I have no shame in admitting that I got a little tingle when Sailor Chibi Moon announced herself for the first time.
Another highlight of this episode was Neo Queen Serenity. Really. Just everything about her. The scene between her and Sailor Chibi Moon is really sweet, and is paralleled nicely by the scene later in the episode between Chibi-Usa and Usagi. I also dig that she wakes her husband from his enchanted sleep with a kiss. It’s a clever and deeply satisfying reversal of standard fairy tale tropes. This woman is amazing. Even her looks are a treat!
I’ve said this before, but I’m a huge fan of having Neo Queen Serenity’s hair be white or at least a whiter shade of its original tone. In certain lighting in this episode, it appears to be platinum blonde. It really helps to differentiate her visually from her younger self, her past self, and her predecessor. It also adds continuity by implying that the queen of the Silver Millennium’s hair turns white or near white at some point, probably in relation to her assumption of the throne, implying that when Chibi-Usa steps up, her hair will become a pale, frosty shade of pink, which… cooool.
Neo Queen Serenity’s initial refusal to meet with her past self but later cracking and doing it anyway was a really effective way to show that for all her experiences and growth, this woman is still Usagi Tsukino underneath it all. She’s still a sentimental and emotional person who just can’t resist the temptation of validating and reassuring her younger self, because she knows how much that insecure girl needs it. She may be the queen of the world and the cosmic guardian of all creation, but she’s also a person, long-lived but still mortal, and even now she’s flawed. She doesn’t go always go by the book, and for better or worse her heart will always win out over her head. It’s a subtle little bit of characterization, but it’s fantastic, one I prefer and find far more effective and palatable than a grown woman and queen still not knowing how to use kanji very well.
In fact, I’d have to say that my only complaint with Neo Queen Serenity in this episode is that once again we have the instantaneous reconstruction of an entire civilization. Apparently even the rotting corpses that had littered the ground are fully resurrected and healed with shiny new duds. And I understand that the Silver Crystal’s power is life and creation and all that, so I can’t call this out for inconsistency. It all fits within the rules of this story’s world. I’m just not a fan of the effect it has. It basically renders all the damage moot. There are no lasting effects, no consequences. Neo Queen Serenity can just put everything back the way it was and bring everyone back to life.
Except Pluto for some reason.
On the technical side, this episode was, well… okay. I didn’t have any egregious animation flaws, nothing that distracted me from the narrative, but there wasn’t really anything particularly jaw-dropping either. It’s beyond clear that the production team totally busted their nut on the animation for the penultimate episode and said fuck it with this one, which is fine, I suppose. The previous episode needed it more. Still… it’s the finale, guys. Maybe you need to rethink your budgetary distribution process. As for how it sounded, the performances were solid, and the music cues, while nothing new, were used effectively. I have to say the track which I’ve come to refer as “Triumphant Seagull” works way, way, waaaaaay better here without the ridiculous juxtaposition of the image they used for it last time, only reaffirming my stance that the seagull shot wasn’t bad, and the music cue wasn’t bad, but together they were ridiculous.
And that was the episode. So, let’s take a giant leap, ignore all the signs, and assume this is the end of Sailor Moon Crystal. How does it hold up as a series? Well, let’s look at it from a distance.
To understand Sailor Moon Crystal, one first has to understand the manga. For me, reading the manga was a lot like when I finally read the original run of X-Men from the 60’s and realized that my idolization of Stan Lee had been tragically misplaced, because while he had created the premise and the characters, his writing was not the strongest. The characters as I knew and loved them and the stories that had captured my heart and imagination were all courtesy of Chris Claremont and his sixteen-year run on the book from 1975 to 1991. And I’ll always be grateful to Lee for planting that seed, but Claremont was the steadfast gardener who crafted the work of art that touched and changed my life.
Similarly, the Sailor Moon manga has my respect as the basis of a franchise I hold very dear to my heart, and it certainly has its moments, but on the whole it’s not the best told story in the world. Naoko Takeuchi’s strength lay in her artwork (most of the time, anyway; sometimes her grasp of anatomy was… problematic), her premises, and her character construction. I emphasize construction, not portrayal, as the bullet list of facts about each character in their official profiles and design art hint at rich, complex personalities of which we ultimately see very little in the narrative itself. And this is Takeuchi’s and Sailor Moon’s major weakness, getting from Point A to Point B (or in one particular instance, Point D). The actual telling of a story and the mastery of the rhythms of narrative are not tools in this woman’s belt. The pacing is terribly uneven. Several elements and scenes that should go by rather quickly are drawn out and often repeated, while other elements that could use more time and attention often get glossed over.
The mythology is inconsistent, contradicting and retconning itself at several points, and making it all too obvious that Takeuchi was basically throwing in stuff that looked or sounded cool without taking any time to really think about how it fit into the world she created and the story she was telling. And while world-building is not every writer’s strong suit, and that’s valid, if you’re going to do it, do it well. You don’t have to be Tolkien or Martin or Rowling to take a few hours to sit down and set the boundaries of your story’s world. I have created entire cultures and histories literally in one sitting. It’s not that hard.
Lastly and most importantly, the characterization is incredibly shallow. We spend a lot of time seeing the characters emote, but we’re rarely given much of a basis for their feelings and thus a reason to care about them, so even their most gut-wrenching pain rings kind of hollow. It’s like seeing that classmate you don’t know very well crying at her locker. You’re sure she’s got her reasons, and you sympathize because you’re not a monster, but you can only care so much about someone you barely know anything about. And you’re sure as hell not interested in watching it all day, certainly not when two of your close friends are duking it out in the classroom across the hall.
So, there you have it. The manga is what it is: beautiful to look at with the occasional strong moment or meaty plot point, but for the most part shallow and not very well paced. And being the Mileena to the manga’s Kitana, (a slightly divergent clone), Sailor Moon Crystal was a mixed bag, and how much you enjoyed it depended entirely on what you were coming to it for.
If what you wanted was fidelity to the manga, to see Naoko Takeuchi’s original story animated more or less as it appeared on the page, you were likely to walk away happy, your objections limited to the few changes made. This was purist porn, plain and simple, and to a purist this show was gold.
If you were hoping for something that took the blueprint of the manga and adhered to it for the most part but deviated just enough to fix certain problems like uneven pacing and threadbare character development, you were likely to come away disappointed and frustrated a great deal of the time, as a not small portion of the audience did. It is a surprise to no one who has been following these reviews that Yours Truly falls into this camp.
If you were in the “hoping for better story” camp, but were willing to forgive in light of strong visual and musical presentation, you were also probably going to come away disappointed, because let’s face it: large swaths of this show looked like crap, and the music, while pleasant, was not terribly memorable or inspired. Except for the opening and closing themes. They were fucking boss.
And lastly, if you came to Crystal expecting it to resemble the original Sailor Moon, you clearly did not pay attention to any of the promotional material, and you have no one to blame but yourself.
And there it is. Thank you for joining me on this journey. Hopefully, we’ll all be back again for a second season of Crystal, and until then it’s back to my reviews of the 90’s anime. Hope to see you all there!