A sweet, somewhat ditzy blonde teenager reluctantly accepts her birthright, becoming a champion of good destined to defend mankind from unspeakable supernatural forces, and despite her desire to be an ordinary girl, she rises above her immature foibles in crisis after crisis, becoming a true hero for whom her own epic series is named.
To what popular, trailblazing heroine of the ’90s does this description apply? Most Americans’ first answer would be Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and they wouldn’t be wrong. Buffy was an instrumental figure in the Girl Power movement of the late ’90s, inspiring countless writers to not only introduce stronger, more complex female characters, but place them at the center of their narratives. Indeed, every word of that description fits Buffy to a T, but what many don’t realize is that the exact same description, word for word, applies to none other than anime legend and underground girl power icon Sailor Moon.
Sailor Moon aired in Japan from March 7, 1992 (nearly five months before the release of the Buffy: The Vampire Slayer film) to February 8th, 1997 (over a month prior to the premiere of the Buffy TV series). The point of mentioning this is not to get into some kind of fanboy cockfight over which work is derivative of the other. It’s to note the synchronicity of their production timelines in order to illustrate the timeliness of both franchises.
Both Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Sailor Moon came along at a time when their respective cultures were calling out for a new kind of female hero, creators Joss Whedon and Naoko Takeuchi merely tapping into the zeitgeist to create their own culture’s version of what would become the template for an entire generation of action girls. As such, while far from carbon copies of one another, the parallels between the two series are legion, due not to either’s plagiarism of the other, but by virtue of the logic of storytelling, dramaturgy, and the construction of an ensemble narrative.
So, with that little disclaimer out of the way, we begin with our heroines.
Buffy Summers was conceived by Joss Whedon as a subversion of the horror trope of the doomed blonde victim. Rather than be the girl who is cornered in an alley and killed, she not only survives but kicks the monster’s ass. As the Slayer, Buffy is empowered not only to defend herself but to protect others by holding the forces of darkness at bay. The line of Slayers goes all the way back to the dawn of humanity, passed to each subsequent girl upon her predecessor’s death. Traditionally, the Slayer lives a life of solitude and duty under the guidance of her Watcher, a man or woman educated in demonology and combat tactics.
Buffy Summers broke that mold in several ways, all due to the fact that she was found by her Watcher years after her training should have begun, affording her the opportunity to become an ordinary teenage girl, and arguably the most vapid and shallow of the lot. Even long after her adventures have tempered her into a thoughtful, compassionate hero who has accepted her responsibilities, she’s still irreverent, willful, and invested in maintaining an ordinary life. She still wants to hang out with her friends, go to prom, fall in love, and just plain be a kid. In fact, the central conflict of her character throughout the series is the drive to reconcile her own personal needs and desires with her responsibility to the world.
Usagi Tsukino AKA Sailor Moon was not so deliberately feminist in her conception, but the end result was more or less the same: a vapid, shallow, blonde* teenager whose world is turned upside down by the revelation of her destiny as a champion of good. Like Buffy, Usagi refuses to let her calling define her and clings to whatever shreds of normalcy possible.
Both girls are the last person their exposition-spouting mentors would have chosen for the role of Earth’s savior. And yet, despite having none of the empirical attributes of a warrior, when pushed to the brink, these girls displayed truly heroic qualities like courage, loyalty, profound empathy, and a nearly limitless capacity for self-sacrifice that would, in time, elevate them to near messianic status.
But the parallels don’t end there. Oh, I’m just getting warmed up.
There’s not much of a parallel between Giles and Luna aside from fulfilling the role of the mentor whose arcane knowledge provides the heroine with some direction. One is a bossy but cute and relatively young female cat, and the other is a stuffy but lovable, middle-aged Englishman. Sure, they are made slightly more similar by the English dub, in which Luna’s voice can be summed up in four words (poor man’s Angela Lansbury), but other than that, there’s not much to say.
So, you have an unlikely heroine struggling to find her way between ego and super-ego, her ass constantly ridden by her buzzkill guardian/mentor. You know what this story needs? A dark, mysterious, well dressed older man who’s as charming as he is morally ambiguous. Sure, he seems to have some kind of shady agenda of his own, and her mentor doesn’t trust him, but it’s kind of hard to care because he’s just so damn dreamy.
While not identical, vampire sex symbol Angel and closet fashion whore Mamoru/Tuxedo Mask perform the exact same function in their respective narratives: to provide the heroine with encouragement and support, fighting at her back while allowing her to take the lead and shine, all the while introducing an element of danger, which only makes him all the more enticing a love interest.
Both guys are loners, orphans (Mamoru gets a little more sympathy here on account of not having eaten his family) who find in the heroine’s love a sense of belonging and inner peace that they’ve long gone without. They both even turn evil for a while, forcing their ex-girlfriends into what many fans consider to be the most poignant, traumatic, and compelling confrontations of their respective series. Yes, Mamoru’s quest is about identity while Angel’s is about atonement. Mamoru is Usagi’s endgame guy, hanging around long after he ceases to be relevant or interesting, whereas Angel eventually leaves Buffy, compelling enough in his own right to carry his own spin-off, but the only real difference between the two is that one of them is the empty shadow of a man who can never be truly compatible with the woman he loves, and the other one’s a vampire.
In addition to her irreverent tone and unconventional methods, Buffy is noted by allies and enemies alike as being unique among Slayers in that she has family and friends. While Buffy’s mom, Joyce, has no direct counterpart in Sailor Moon (Usagi’s parents and brother, however sympathetic, are basically one-dimensional cyphers who receive little to no development), Buffy’s philandering, absentee father, Hank, is mirrored in Sailor Moon not by any one character, but rather a leitmotif of paternal abandonment.
Usagi’s dad is seen quite a bit throughout the first two seasons, and Professor Tomoe, father of Hotaru/Sailor Saturn, plays a pivotal role in the third, but the father of every other major character goes unseen due to being either negligent or dead, if ever mentioned at all. How Mamoru learned to be the perfect father to Chibiusa is anybody’s guess, but in terms of being a believable character vs. being the author’s own diddle aid, he’s got a serious case of the Cullens, so we’ve just got to let a few things slide.
In addition to family, Buffy’s support system included the Scoobies, her friends (well, most of them) who in time developed their own skills with which they fought at her side.
First up is Xander, who existed primarily to invert the trope of the damsel in distress. Xander was the helpless guy without any superpowers for our action girl to come in and save, a character premise which ran out of steam after the first few seasons, but that’s a whole other essay. Xander’s role was pretty much to be the victim, the dupe, the butt monkey.
His obvious analogs would be Naru and Umino, Usagi’s civilian friends who would often get attacked by the monster of the week so that Sailor Moon would have a personal stake in fighting in the early days before her heroic spirit began to really gel. Much like Naru, Xander was a monster magnet, and like Umino, he started off with a doomed crush on the heroine. Xander does differ in that he is aware of Buffy’s identity, able to involve himself directly in her adventures and even assisting when he can, whereas Naru and Umino remain in the dark.
While it is eventually implied that Naru has pretty much figured out Usagi’s alter-ego, she never forces the issue. She and Umino remain outside Usagi’s secret life, representing the ordinary life she craves, fading further and further into the background as she progresses into the world of the supernatural. Xander, by contrast, is in on Buffy’s secret from the beginning, thus remaining a prominent (if sorely underutilized) character throughout the series’ entire run.
Ah, Willow… sweet, shy, bookish Willow. The sensible voice of reason who, like Ami/Sailor Mercury, is always trying to get the heroine to study more, to listen to their mentor (by whom she is clearly preferred over the designated protagonist), and yet occasionally falls prey to her unlikely friend’s urging that she just loosen up and have a little fun. Both pairs were brought together by a school transfer (at least in the Sailor Moon English dub), and while the carefree heroine isn’t always the best influence, her friendship and support have given our brainy beauty the self-confidence to grow into the powerhouse she becomes.
The parallel between Willow and Ami is one of the strongest in this entire equation. In fact, with the Dark Mercury arc of Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, the live action adaptation of the original manga, even Dark Willow gets a nod.
Then there’s Cordelia, Buffy’s bitchy rival and civilian nemesis. While Rei/Sailor Mars was never a typical high school bitch and certainly not shallow by any means, she was bossy, at times rude, and by far the most verbally caustic and short-tempered of the Sailor Senshi, especially when it came to Usagi. Her brief courtship with Mamoru was not unlike Cordelia’s pursuit of Angel, which lasted well into Buffy’s second season. Neither crush was truly reciprocated, though Rei saw some degree of success while Cordelia never had a prayer (until years later on the spin-off, Angel).
Also of note is the fact that Rei is a miko (shrine maiden) with psychic abilities. Though it didn’t come to pass until after she’d left Buffy, Cordelia did develop psychic powers halfway through Angel‘s first season, and the resulting emotional and spiritual development would remain an integral part of her character for the rest of her tenure in the Buffyverse.
Of course, no show is complete without its villains.
The Master, a vampire patriarch who leads the Order of Aurelius has several parallels in the Sailor Moon universe. The whole “Sealed Evil in a Can” trope applies to Metalia, Pharoah 90, Nehellenia, really any big bad who can’t openly attack the heroes and must send minions in their stead. All these characters are insanely powerful entities who were defeated (though not destroyed) long ago and are biding their time until they can be freed again.
The only way in which the Master differs is that he’s not some disembodied being, but he is nonetheless trapped, sending his servants out to bring him sustenance.
The most notable and favored of the Master’s followers is Darla, who—fashion sense aside—shares more than a few parallels with Queen Beryl. While Darla is clearly the Master’s lieutenant whereas Beryl gives her subjects the impression that she’s more or less running the show, both women are the malicious, spiteful counterparts to the heroine, jealous of her relationship with the central love interest. Darla has a little more claim, actually being Angel’s ex-girlfriend while Beryl merely nursed an unrequited love, but Beryl does manage to create a false relationship when Mamoru is brainwashed into her service, and who knows how many ways she had him service her?
Regardless, both Darla and Beryl threaten the heroine with their carnal knowledge, be it of the boyfriend himself or just in general as well as physical violence. They are dark reflections of the heroine, gatekeepers that must be bested before the final battle with that bigger, darker, more ancient evil can transpire.
I have to admit, I’m hard pressed to find a counterpart for The Anointed One, but if anyone can think of one, I’m all ears.
Kendra: The Vampire Slayer = Sailor Venus
The by-the-book reflection of the less than ideal heroine. She started her training earlier, lacks most of the character flaws of the designated chosen one, and is immediately preferred by the mentor, whose frustration with the heroine is palpable.
Still, in the end, despite her on-paper superiority, she doesn’t have the unique x-factor that makes the heroine the true hero. Thus, in the end, her technical “perfection” turns out to be a liability.
Daniel “Oz” Osbourne = Urawa Ryo
The brainy girl’s love interest whose intellect is the only one that matches hers. He’s sweet, noble, and appreciates the subtle charm of a shy honor student, but he’s not without a touch of danger; there’s a monster inside him that he wrestles to keep under control, lest he hurt his beloved and her friends.
Oz definitely wins as being a werewolf is definitely more sexy and scary than being a… um… math monster?
Spike and Drusilla = Eiru and An
The sexy, decadent lovers who come to town to wreak all kinds of depraved havoc. They’re insanely jealous of one another, but still threaten to come between our main couple, on whom they’ve got their eyes. Later in Buffy, it’s revealed that Spike and Dru formed a quartet with Angelus and Darla not unlike the Shitennou—Jadeite, Nephrite, Zoisite, and Kunzite—the four generals who led Queen Beryl’s demonic army.
Spike especially being an expy of Nephrite, the evildoer whose love for a human turned him toward redemption that ultimately came at the cost of his own life. When Angelus returns, Spike’s alpha dog status becomes threatened, as Kunzite’s was when Tuxedo Mask was brainwashed and joined Beryl’s forces, taking the lead.
Anya = The Ayakashi Sisters
One character represents four.
Like the sisters, Anya was a supernatural force on the side of evil or at least morally neutral vengeance. However, once defeated by the heroine and stripped of her powers, she eventually falls in with the good guys, enjoying a new, fulfilling life in the world of retail, eventually managing and owning her own specialty shop.
For Anya it’s magic, and for the sisters it’s cosmetics, but an entrepreneur is an entrepreneur.
Faith the Vampire Slayer = Sailor Jupiter / Sailor Saturn
A bit of a reach, I will admit, especially considering that Sailor Jupiter never lost her shit and started killing people for fun.
That said, both are strong, brassy girls who enabled some of the heroine’s baser impulses, and both had a rather conspicuous eye for the fellas. Granted, Mako-chan remained more in the chaste-but-boy-crazy, romantic A.D.D. category, while Faith was not above satisfying her needs with the nearest warm penis, but the principle is the same. When Faith turns to the dark side, she is a clear parallel for Sailor Saturn, the Messiah of Silence (read: anti-Christ) as opposed to the Messiah (original flavor) who turned out to be Sailor Moon.
While several women in the Buffy mythos are dark reflections of Buffy in one way or another, none typifies this role so well as Faith. Especially in the context of…
The Mayor = Professor Tomoe
The seemingly gentle, somewhat avuncular figure who also happens to be the father of the anti-Christ and in league with primal dark forces.
Professor Tomoe sold his soul to dark powers to save his daughter’s life. Mayor Wilkins’ intentions were hardly that pure, but sell his soul he did. While Faith is not his actual daughter, he does come to see her as one and, in turn, becomes a father in her eyes.
Does Tomoe ever become a giant fucking snake? Not so much, but watching your little girl heed the forces of darkness and slaughter the innocent, a father couldn’t be prouder. Tomoe also does touch upon the character of Maggie Walsh in the superficial sense that they are both mad scientists that the good guys initially trust and even admire but come to loathe once their true intentions are revealed and battle lines are drawn.
Riley = Motoki
Sweet, benign, fair-haired, and ultimately… kind of boring; a love interest for the heroine that never quite panned out, though in Motoki’s case, he was never meant to. A noble but unforgivably bland character whose only distinguishing characteristic was who he was not: the dark, sexy, dangerous true love of the woman he adored.
The only real difference between the two is that Motoki was largely ignorant of Usagi’s crush, which he thankfully did not reciprocate (dude was in college, and she was fourteen), while Riley was hopelessly in love with Buffy, who, even if she did genuinely love him, didn’t realize how much until he was already gone.
By extension, Riley’s eventual wife, Sam, is an easy analog of Reika, Motoki’s college girlfriend who exists solely to piss the heroine off.
Tara = Sailor Pluto
The slightly older and wiser (and helluva lot quieter) friend of the core group. Both Tara and Pluto were attuned to cosmic forces long before the others got their feet wet and both share a special relationship with the group’s little sister.
And, of course, when paired with Willow, we see shades of Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune; not so much the individual characters, but in the presence of a strong, committed, and frankly adorable lesbian couple who work in concert to fight evil and are counted among the heroine’s most powerful, most devoted, and most cherished allies.
The Primitive (The First Slayer) = Queen Serenity
I know. I know. One is the wise and elegant ruler of an advanced civilization who can whup an entire army’s ass and effectively end a war by waving a scepter; the other is a girl from the dawn of mankind who was force-fed the soul of a demon to turn her into a superhumanly strong and subhumanly social killing machine that smears mud on her face.
On the surface, these two could not be more different, but hear me out. Both are a spiritual ancestor of the protagonist who, in times of crisis, is sought out to bestow wisdom and illuminate the nature of their powers and purpose, possibly even gifting her with some kind of power-up.
See? I told you.
Dawn = Chibiusa
Dawn may not be from the future nor is she Buffy’s literal daughter, but she was “made” from Buffy, constructed from her essence, sharing her blood, and thus she is, in a sense, Buffy’s offspring.
Both girls are initially ignorant of their connection to the heroine. Both are made a member of her household by brainwashing the family into believing she was one of them the whole time. Both develop an antagonistic but loving, sisterly relationship with the heroine. Both are pursued by the villains, thus coming under the heroine’s protection in the first place, because they hold some sort of mystical McGuffin that the baddies want.
Chibiusa has a magical dimensional key that can open the gates of time and space. Dawn is a magical dimensional key that can open the gates of time and space.
Chibiusa means “Small Usagi.” Spike eventually takes to calling Dawn “Bitty Buffy.”
While originally pivotal characters whose main role was to be protected, both girls eventually come into their own as part of the heroine’s inner circle, though Dawn was foolishly never made into a potential Slayer (the brief moment of subversion gained from that narrative choice doesn’t come close to making up for all the story lost because of it) while Chibiusa became Sailor Chibi Moon, in training to take over for her mother as the Sailor Moon upon her return to the future, once her training is complete.
I have to admit, this one is really the motherlode (no pun intended). It’s all downhill from here.
Glory/Ben = The Sailor Starlights
Yes, Glory was a straight-up villain while the Sailor Starlights were merely heroes whose mission brought them into conflict with Sailor Moon and her team, but it’s hard not to draw a parallel.
A hot, new guy shows up in the heroine’s life in the wake of her boyfriend’s mysterious disappearance. He’s easy on the eyes and has his own kind of charm. There is the whole part where, due to mystical forces beyond our understanding, he becomes a woman when he powers up, but… need I say more?
The Trio = The Amazon Trio
Three dudes who work together, one of whom is a lot more fey than the others. They serve evil, but not very effectively, all while creeping on women. Except for the one who is obviously into men.
The Potentials = The Amazoness Quartet / The Asteroid Senshi
A set of younger girls who are equally cute and annoying, and tend to cause trouble for our heroes. In Buffy, the potential Slayers ended up gathering at Buffy’s house and were all about Dawn’s age (with the exception of the nigh universally reviled Kennedy).
Similarly, the Amazoness Quartet, while antagonists in league with the villains, do eventually turn to the side of good and become the Sailors assigned to guard Chibi Moon in the same way the Inner Senshi guard her mother. They’re promoted to proper Sailor Senshi in much the same way the potentials are, in Buffy’s finale, promoted to full-fledged Slayers.
The First Evil = Chaos
At last we come to the single greatest bit of ret-con in both series. The First Evil was briefly introduced in Buffy in the middle of the third season, only to become the central antagonist four seasons later. While Chaos wasn’t mentioned until nearly the very end of Sailor Moon, both serve the exact same function. They are the great and ancient enemy, the primal evil from which all evil—and thus, all the former villains—sprang. It was kind of a cheat, and it cheapened to the other villains to some extent, but it’s hard to think up a more daunting antagonist than the source of all evil ever, so there you are.
In addition to the obvious similarities in characters and interpersonal dynamics, even the structures of the shows were alike. While Sailor Moon was indisputably more fertile ground for filler episodes and long stretches of them at that (of the first season’s forty-six episodes, roughly half are actually vital to the narrative), both series had long-running arcs that spanned the length of a given season, no more, no less. There was some flexibility when it came to character arcs, such as Buffy/Usagi’s journey from shallow girl to heroic young woman, but in terms of the villains, there was one major antagonist faction per season, the notable exception being Sailor Moon R, which began with the short Makaiju arc before jumping into the Black Moon arc that would dominate the season.
In both series, there is a notable hierarchy within the villains’ camp, the main difference being that Buffy’s monsters of the week often had nothing to do with the main plot, whereas every Sailor Moon baddie is sent by the Big Bad through the chain of command. Despite this difference, however, a season of either show is basically an ascent through villains’ hierarchy.
Monsters of the week lead to their direct superiors, a first wave of recurring villains who are usually vanquished or otherwise defeated mid-season, only to reveal or give rise to a superior set of henchmen. Once this crew is disposed of, all that remains is the Big Bad, who might even be the herald of an even Bigger Bad that usually comes in the form of some disembodied Eldritch abomination that will merge with the villain we’ve been following all season, providing us with an emotional connection to the enemy our heroine faces in the final fight, while sufficiently raising the stakes for the sake of precious Nielson ratings.
Look at Queen Beryl. She’s the one we’ve seen all season. She’s the demon bitch queen we’ve grown to love to hate. And yes, she does get her moment in the sun. She and Sailor Moon do meet, but they never really throw down. It’s Metalia who’s been the real threat this whole time, manipulating Beryl like a freakin’ puppet. But fuck it! We don’t want to see Sailor Moon do battle with a huge, blobby cloud of evil. We want to see her kick Beryl’s ass! So… Metalia possesses the dying Beryl to form a kind of titanic super-Beryl. It’s Beryl’s form but the coloring is different.
Meanwhile, over in the Buffyverse, you have Buffy squaring off with Angelus, the demon who wears her boyfriend’s face, but he’s just a vampire. He’s an exceedingly smart, vicious, and powerful vampire who has an emotional effect on Buffy, but just a vampire in the end. That’s why we have Acathla, the eleventh hour demon whose eleventh hour awakening (on the heels of his eleventh hour introduction) will suck the world into hell. And what’s the only thing that can close said hell portal? Angelus’s blood. So, Buffy has to drive a sword through her ex-boyfriend and into Acathla; personal connection, epic stakes. Hee-hee… stakes.
More can be said on this topic—I suspect a lot more—but this is the heart and soul of it. It’s no surprise that as both series progressed, developing their own identities, the parallels grew fewer and thinner, but it is impossible to ignore the glaring similarities between them.
Did one copy the other? Obviously not. But it is certainly remarkable how similarly two completely different cultures can interpret the same idea, though the details do vary. Which show is better? That’s entirely subject to personal opinion, and in my personal opinion, it really depends on which day you ask me. For a definitive answer, all I can say is…
In the name of the moon, she is the Slayer.
* It is generally accepted that all Japanese characters in anime actually have black hair unless specifically noted in-universe, and that the Crayola explosion that is anime coloring is simply an artistic convention for the purposes of character distinction, as having a cast full of brown eyed people with straight, black hair could potentially get very confusing with the limits of art style. Thus, while Usagi is not canonically blonde, for the purpose of aesthetic comparison, she is.
This article originally ran on February 18th, 2014.