It's been a long half-a-year, but last episode, Sailor Moon Crystal wrapped up its first story arc. And while it is no doubt a flawed anime on several levels — especially by today's standards — for many of us, it is a nostalgia trip like none other.
The Nostalgia Goggles
While I've talked about my anime viewing origins before, let me do a brief recap so you know where I am coming from in this review. After seeing my first anime (Record of Lodoss War, for those wondering), I was starved for more. The problem was, in the bleak world of 1996, there wasn't exactly much available — especially not on TV. Really, I had two options: Sci-Fi Channel's Saturday Anime block and, well, Sailor Moon on USA. Knowing full well it was "for girls," I still watched it religiously every day I could until it was discontinued. Then, needing more of it, I saved up money from my paper route, went to Toys 'R Us and bought the entire six-tape VHS run — complete in sparkly pink boxes. That's right: Sailor Moon is the first anime I ever purchased.
Needless to say, I was, and still am, a fan. And as one, I found myself having a blast while watching Sailor Moon Crystal. It is, more than anything else, an anime built on nostalgia. Heck, more than that: It's an anime whose sole purpose is to wallow in its own nostalgia — not that that's an inherently bad thing. The original Sailor Moon was made for middle school girls. Sailor Moon Crystal was made for those exact same girls but 20+ years later.
If you enjoyed the original Sailor Moon in either its animated or manga form — which this anime closely follows — you'll likely have a blast with Sailor Moon Crystal. The nostalgia will take you by the hand and never let go. However, if we lay aside our nostalgia goggles, we see an anime with both strong points and weak points.
Note: From this point on spoilers for Sailor Moon Crystal abound.
A Middle School Girl's Dream
Why Sailor Moon was so influential is easy to see. The plot is a wish fulfilment fantasy of your average middle school girl — turned up to eleven.
To start with, the central character is Usagi, a normal (if klutzy and lazy) middle school girl — i.e. the perfect audience proxy character. She is more concerned with boys, clothes, games and sweets than anything else. Then she gets a new pet: a cat. But more than that, it's a cute talking cat that grants her superpowers and also gives her a device that lets her look like a grown-up. From there she gathers around her a collection of badass friends who also get superpowers and together, they all fight evil — oh, and she gets to be the leader, too.
Then comes the romance angle. She falls for an older, mature boy who also happens to fight evil — and in a tuxedo to boot — and who literally whisks her off her feet whenever she's in trouble. But more than that, they're destined lovers from an ancient magical kingdom whose romance ended tragically enough to make you weep.
Oh, and did I mention she's a princess, too? Yeah, she's a princess, too.
Basically, Sailor Moon pulls out every well-worn cliché in the book to hook its target audience — and does so quite effectively.
Of course, just because Sailor Moon Crystal is pure female adolescent wish fulfilment doesn't mean that it is a poorly constructed tale — especially when it comes to its lead. Usagi herself goes through an excellent character arc.
To start with, she is very much the average girl she purports to be and responds realistically. She finds herself thrown into situations she is not the least bit prepared for and wants nothing more than to give up. But soon she meets far more competent allies to help her in her battles. Of course, with strong allies, it is no wonder that Usagi has such an inferiority complex to those around her. She is so sure she is "just normal" that she is unable to see what makes her really special — her ability to make friends who compensate for her own personal weaknesses. Moreover, she is then thrust into the position of leader, making her feel even more inadequate despite the lack of complaints from the rest of the Sailor Guardians.
Of course, just as she is getting a handle on all that, she is flooded with memories from a past life, finds out she's a princess, and watches the man she loves die in her arms before he's stolen away by the bad guys. To the anime's credit, all this trauma is not something she gets over easily. She spends a good amount of screen time in a full-blown identity crisis and is plagued by what appears to be PTSD. And from there it only gets worse for her with with the seeming return of her dead lover.
All in all, her arc as a character is believable and touching — it's easy to sympathise with her feelings of inadequacy as well as her emotional pain over the tragedy-filled love story.
Little Development of the Supporting Cast
Sadly, the rest of the cast in Sailor Moon Crystal do not get even a fraction of the development given to Usagi thus far. The other Sailor Guardians get practically no development outside of their introductory episodes. Venus specifically gets even less than the rest — all we know about her is that she was Sailor V and has a secret duty. Likewise the villains get next to no development, with Queen Baryl getting a single quick flashback and her generals getting perhaps two. The only other character to have any sizeable arc besides Usagi is Tuxedo Mask — but that's mainly because it is so closely tied with Usagi's own.
This is all the result of a simple problem: Sailor Moon Crystal moves fast — too fast for its own good. While it does hit all the necessary plot points, that's pretty much all it hits. Everything from character histories and motivations to ongoing growth and inter-group interaction all are left by the wayside so that the story can continue at its breakneck pace. Nowhere is this more evident than when it comes to the world Sailor Moon Crystal is set in.
The World at Large
I often talk about world building in my anime reviews — how the author fleshes out the numerous details of society at large and makes the setting feel like it has a life all its own. Sailor Moon Crystal does not even try to do any of that. The world of Sailor Moon Crystal is a strange place where students are often attacked, people disappear in large groups, and the populous at large is regularly mind controlled into rioting. The police are practically non-existent, and the most worried the average person gets is to mention these strange events as if they are nothing more than idle gossip.
As this is clearly supposed to be set in a world much like our own, this is even more odd. While Sailor Moon and her friends are fighting to save the world, the world itself is practically a non-entity in the story. And even when interesting concepts are touched upon — like that Sailor Moon becomes somewhat of a celebrity or Sailor V is popular enough to have a video game based on her — they are never explored in any meaningful way. It makes the world feel like an empty shell more than anything else.
The Animation Quality
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the infamous animation quality of Sailor Moon Crystal in this review. While the character designs and overall art style are excellent, there are whole websites out there dedicated to showing off the dubious quality of the in-between frame animation. But those are only minor blips on the viewer radar when compared to the blatant mistakes in sequential storytelling. There are times when key objects disappear in between cuts only to reappear later and there are even full costume changes in between quick cuts. And though most anime have these problems to at least some minor degree, most other anime don't have a two-week production window between episodes to get them sorted out. On the plus side, many of these gaffs are being fixed in the Blu-ray releases, but anytime animation mistakes pull your viewer out of the story, you have a major problem that needs to be addressed.
As I stated near the beginning, Sailor Moon Crystal is an anime clearly aimed at a specific audience: people who already love Sailor Moon. Thus, if you are one of these people, you'll likely be able to get lost in the nostalgia of it all — ignoring things like lack of character development for the supporting cast, a shallow setting, and dubious animation quality. And make no mistake — it's totally ok to do that. If Sailor Moon Crystal is one thing and nothing else, it is a love letter to all Sailor Moon fans past and present.
Sailor Moon Crystal can be watched for free and with English subtitles on Crunchyroll.