Dark clouds roil over a city scape, bells chime. The silhouette of a girl and her cat leap in front of the cloudy moon! This is it: this is the cartoon you’ve heard about from your older sister, your 90’s-kid cousin, or that girl two lockers over who watches too much anime. This the epitome and triumph of all magical girl shows. This is Sailor Moon.
As celebration for the 20th anniversary of the icon series, Hulu is offering the original and uncut series in clean subtitles, which I’ll be recapping for new fans. No spoilers for the future, I promise! Already they’re off to a good start; it’s nice to see the opening credits uncut, with the Japanese-language theme song. Even now the English lyrics are bouncing around my skull from childhood. This was my very first anime series, and Sailor Moon was my first costumed superhero (yes, even before Superman or Batman.) Created by manga artist and writer Naoko Takeuchi, the character is more internationally famous than Wonder Woman. Sailor Moon is up for a full adaptation reboot this July, set to stream online simultaneously in multiple countries. So let’s get to it!
“The Crybaby Usagi’s Beautiful Transformation”
Right off the bat we meet the 14 year old Usagi Tsukino, of the 8th grade. I’ve no idea how grades work in Japan, but in America a 14-year-old is more likely to be in 9th grade, though it would depend on season I guess. Usagi (translation: Rabbit, Bunny) is a bit of a klutz and a crybaby. Yep, she was klutzing her way into the arms of dashing boys before Bella Swan was born. Some tropes never die.
Usagi lives with her parents and brother, and always rushes out of her house at the last minute. That was exactly how I woke up every morning in eighth grade, no wonder I identified with her. Usagi is anime-cute, kinda short with big blue eyes. Her blond hair is done up in two buns with four foot long pony tails hanging from each. Don’t ask how long her hair has to be to achieve this, no one knows. She’s the Japanese version of Rapunzel.
On her way running to class, she sees a huddle of younger children (why aren’t they in school?) harassing a black cat. She scares them off, and picks up the stray. She sees a band-aid on the cat’s forehead, and pulls it off. Why she thinks this is a good idea isn’t explained – what if that band-aid was holding back a bleeding head wound?
It’s not. Underneath is a strange birthmark shaped like a crescent moon. The cat squirms out of her arms and watches her run onward to school. Like all superhero stories, this small gesture of integrity (rescuing an animal from torment) kick starts the events that will change Usagi’s life forever. Due to this neighborly detour, she gets to Juban Middle School late to class and is made to wait in the hallway like a delinquent.
Because nothing phases Usagi for very long, she takes this as an opportunity to sneak some snacks from her lunchbox. Her teacher brings her back into the class with a stern reprimand for getting 30% on her last exam. During class break Usagi bemoans her terrible grade to her best friend Naru, a sensible ginger-haired girl who points out that a little self-discipline would fix many of Usagi’s problems.
Umino, a boy from their class with coke-bottle glasses and a massive crush on Usagi, walks over and discusses his 95% score. This scene – well, this entire show – makes liberal use of the anime ‘sweatdrop’ effect, which conveys shame or social embarassment. It’s the visual equivalent of walking slowly backwards and hoping nobody notices you.
They chat for a while about Sailor V, the costumed crime fighter who recently caught a jewelry thief in their area. This leads to a lot of girl squealing about jewelry; one thing this show does is be unapologetically girly. Naru invites Usagi to check out the sale at her mom’s jewelry shop after school, and they wander off, having entirely forgotten Umino was standing there.
Deep in the underworld pits of the Negaverse, the solitary Queen Beryl sits on a hellish blue and black throne that would make even Joffrey Baratheon a little uncomfortable. Beryl has a fabulous costume: a midnight blue gown, a menacing headpiece, flowing mermaid-red hair, and nails that appear to be filed to points then dipped in blood. Or, you know, red nail polish. Probably both. Floating before her is a scepter with a crystal ball that she likes to wave her claws at in scary, melodramatic gestures.
Facing her court of hundreds, if not thousands of monster minions, Beryl demands, “Has the Legendary Silver Crystal been found yet?”
Her minions offer up a pathetic, “No.”
Well, Queen Beryl is an enterprising woman. She informs them that, “Our great ruler needs a massive amount of energy. Until we locate the Silver Crystal, we’ll have to make due by offering human energy to our ruler instead.”
Jadeite, the first of the Four Generals, volunteers to send his monster Morga to collect human energy. Jadeite is blond, wears a grayish uniform, and looks like the anime version of Bradley James from Merlin. He’s feeling pretty confident on this whole human-energy-stealing plan.
In Juban district of Tokyo, Usagi is hanging out at the jewelry store, where Naru’s mom has put everything on sale. These ladies be going nuts for jewelry. And turns out that’s not just weird – it’s unnatural. The gems the women are buying are enchanted to invisibly drain one’s life energy, all of which is being gathered up by…Naru’s mom! This power is in turn being passed to Jadeite, who has a surprisingly spiffy jazz leitmotif goin’ on.
Still masquerading as Naru’s mom, Morga invites the girls to look around. However, the place is too busy, and their pockets too empty, so Usagi leaves. She stops on the sidewalk to look at her test score again, knowing that her dad won’t pay for any jewelry if she shows him a low grade. Disappointed in herself, Usagi scrunches the test into a paper ball and tosses it behind her.
Because Usagi is Usagi, her aim is spectacular when she’s not looking, and the test hits some guy behind her on the forehead. He calls her bun-head (other translations: dumpling-head, meatball-head), but before Usagi can apologize for hitting him with her litter, he enrages her by opening up the test and reading her score aloud.
Indignant, Usagi takes the test back and tells him it’s none of his business. We get a brief look at the guy, and oh is it a 1992 fashion disaster. Gray slacks, black shirt, wrap-around sunglasses and a forest green blazer. Yeesh. He’s about a foot taller than Usagi, with black hair and a droll voice actor. As she leaves in a huff, calling him a weirdo, the young man takes his sunglasses off to narrow his blue eyes thoughtfully at the sign on the jewelry store.
We catch up with Usagi at the local arcade, where she sees a new video game dedicated to the crime-fighter Sailor V. I guess in Japan the vigilantes get PR teams and marketing deals instead of criminal indictments. Looking at her new idol, Usagi’s feeling pretty sorry for her own lack of life success, and glancing at her test again, begins to cry. I know the title warns us that Usagi is a crybaby, but I kinda feel for her here: thirty percent is heart-sickening. I’d bust out weeping too. As she walks off despondently, Usagi doesn’t notice the cat from earlier stalking her. The cat watches the girl and says in a female voice-over: “I’ve found you, Usagi Tsukino.”
Usagi gets home and her mom’s already heard about Umino getting a ninety-five on the test. When she sees her daughter’s score, she flips out and banishes Usagi from the house for the afternoon. Meanwhile, at the evil jewelry store, Naru’s finally clued in to the wonky behavior: customers fainting against the stock cabinets and her mother snickering in the corner and babbling like a full-on villain. Dramatic head turn reveals… Morga’s crazy eyes!
At her house, Usagi’s upstairs recovering from another cry session. She’s so tired from crying that she doesn’t have the energy to do her homework, in fact. Just as she dozes off, the black cat jumps onto her bed and introduces herself as Luna.
Yes, the cat talks. No, Usagi is not prepared for this development.
Making a full effort to be formal, Luna thanks Usagi for the rescue. The bandage had obscured her crescent moon mark, rendering her powers limited to that of an ordinary cat. Herself once more, Luna’s excited because Usagi is just the girl she’s been looking for. But the girl doesn’t want to hear it, and assumes it’s all a dream.
Luna’s good mood disappears in about three seconds, and she goes from ladylike kitten princess to lecturing mom voice. Sensing Usagi is the bribe-able type, she jumps into the air and magically summons a broach. While Usagi tries on her new broach over her uniform bow, Luna tries to tell her about the strange circumstances occurring over the city.
“You are the one who can defeat this enemy! You are the chosen guardian!” Her second mission, Luna claims, is to find a princess and other guardians like herself. Usagi’s just nodding along with whatever the crazy cat says. On Luna’s instruction, she says the catchphrase to trigger her magical girl transformation: “Moon Prism Power Make Up!”
Pink swirl ribbons, sparkly dazzle bubbles, swag boots: ahh, my childhood. Striking a pose in her new outfit, Usagi realizes that her clothes just transformed on her body and gets properly freaked out. Magic is all good on principal, but in practice it would be unnerving, and a new wardrobe is a little tougher to wave off as a hallucination than an animal sidekick. Business just got real. Still, she only falters for a moment. In fact, Usagi’s general willingness to go along with the advice of a magical talking cat while displaying fairly low skepticism is part and parcel of hero narrative. Plus, she lives in a suburb of Tokyo. These things happen in Tokyo.
Soon enough, she hears Naru’s voice in the distance, almost as if a signal being picked up from the two giant red gems on her hair buns. Although she’s not sure about being Sailor Moon, Usagi is instantly determined to help her friend.
In the store, Naru’s “mom” has revealed herself to be a monster, with the real store owner locked in the basement. She’s decided to choke Naru to death to get her out of the way, but is interrupted by… Sailor Moon! Like a good superhero, she ad libs a speech on the spot.
“I’m the pretty guardian who fights for love and justice… Sailor Moon! In the name of the Moon, you will be punished!”
“Never heard of you,” says Morga, then re-animates the collapsed customers to attack Sailor Moon as a brainwashed army of urban shoppers. Usagi just dodges around, afraid for her life, but Luna encourages her to fight back.
“Why? Why is this happening to me?” she wails, which is a pretty fair complaint from an eighth grader. The tears start in, but before Morga can deal a killing blow on the newly named superhero, something sails through the air to cut the monsters hand, distracting her.
A red rose.
“Who are you?” Morga snarls, and turns to find a man standing in on window balcony looking down on the scene. He has a black cape with a red lining. He wears a top hat. A white mask covers just his eyes, and his vigilante outfit is a double breasted tuxedo. Folks, lemme introduce you to the most fashionably self-aware crimefighter in animation history: Tuxedo Mask!
He’s ridiculous looking, but whatever. It’s the 90s.
Tuxedo Mask’s special power is to give inspirational commentary. His opening salvo: “Crying won’t solve anything, Sailor Moon!”
Thanks, dude, for that totally useless contribution to the fight. Usagi’s response to his advice is to cry even more. Because her superpowers are unchanneled, her wailing resonates through the gems in her hair and sends out a sonic wave that disorients Morga’s army of brainwashed customers. Effectively proving that yes, crying will solve at least one of her problems. Go shove a rose somewhere useful, Tuxedo Mask. My girls have got this.
Luna hisses at Sailor Moon to take off her magical tiara, throw it, and yell “Moon Tiara Action!” At least the cat mentor has something relevant to add. All things considered, she might’ve mentioned that before the fight started.
Sailor Moon does her battle cry and throws the tiara, which becomes a glowing discus that smashes into Morga and burns the monster into moon dust. In his lair far away, the energy flow to Jadeite terminates, and his face takes on the same hateful expression you get when lose your wifi.
In the jewelry store, Sailor Moon watches the dust from Morga vanish. “Well done, Sailor Moon,” says Tuxedo Mask from the rafters. Mother-eff-er’s still there? He didn’t even help! “I won’t forget what happened here tonight.” With a swirl of his cape, he disappears into the night like a Phantom of the Opera cosplayer.
“He’s so cute!” Usagi gushes after an awkward pause. Ahh, teenagers.
The next morning at school, Naru and the other girls are gossiping about their ‘strange dream’ of being rescued by the pretty guardian Sailor Moon. But Usagi, the poor thing, is passed out at her desk. Looks like staying up all night to fight evil is tough on a girl’s sleeping habits.
That’s it folks, the origin of Sailor Moon! She was the ultimate girl’s superhero of the 90s, a feminist icon, and the inspiration for 40,000 stories on fanfiction.net alone. She and her fellow Sailor Soldiers arrived on western cartoon channels in at a point in time when the idea of an all-girl’s superhero team that saves the world was simply not in the popular consciousness.
In 1992 you had the mixed bag of Marvel cartoons, and old episodes of She-Rah (spin-off of He-Man), but nothing in female classic superhero mold. The Powerpuff Girls were not even a glimmer on the horizon for another six years, and absolutely would not exist without their magical anime predecessor. Buffy The Vampire Slayer wouldn’t air until 1997. Maybe, if you go back far enough, you have Rainbow Bright, but even Rainbow Bright, while certainly a magical girl, was not a classic superhero vigilante along the lines of Superman, Wonder Woman, or Spiderman.
Then Sailor Moon is dropped onto the afternoon cartoon cycle. She fights monsters and the forces of evil in a colorful costume. She has a magical destiny, an animal sidekick, and must maintain a secret identity at all times. Over the years she recruits a team of other super-powered women, and together they become the most powerful warriors on the planet. She suffers, she grows, she loves and loses. Girlhood, friendship, love across gender, and different styles of femininity are celebrated over two hundred episodes. None of it comes easily, but in the end, Sailor Moon saves the whole damn universe.
You’ve got a long road ahead, Usagi Tsukino.