Saturday 18 July 2015

Anime REVIEW: Sailor Moon Crystal

Sailor Moon Crystal

Mention magical girls to any anime fan (or even just animation fan in general) and there's one name that'll usually spring immediately to mind more than most. While she wasn't the first entry into this long and illustrious genre, Sailor Moon certainly played a big part in defining it. Following the franchise's 20th anniversary back in 2011, Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon has received a revival of sorts - however this hasn't just been limited to a surge in new merchandise. Over the past year Toei Animation have been carrying out their own celebration with Sailor Moon Crystal - a reboot of the series intended to be more accurate to Naoko Takeuchi's original manga. Despite a rather strange schedule of new episodes twice a month, the series was simulcast worldwide on Niconico and covered the first two arcs of the manga across a total of 26 episodes.

Sailor Moon poses
Fighting evil by moonlight, winning love by daylight~

It's a story that most are probably somewhat familiar with by now in some way or another but here it is for the sake of all the newcomers. Usagi Tsukino is your average 14-year old girl. One day she meets a talking cat named Luna, who gives Usagi a brooch that allows her to transform into a Sailor Guardian - Sailor Moon. Using these powers Sailor Moon fights against the evil forces of Queen Beryl, who is searching for something named the Legendary Silver Crystal. In her fight against evil Usagi is slowly joined by new friends Ami, Rei, Makoto and Minako (Sailors Mercury, Mars, Jupiter and Venus respectively) as well as the mysterious Tuxedo Mask (who unbeknowst to her is Usagi's crush Mamoru Chiba) . As the Sailor Senshi come together, more is revealed about the connection between them and how the blossoming love between Usagi and Mamoru may be more important than either of them thought.

Together they battle against Queen Beryl and her master Queen Metalia, before receiving an unexpected visitor from the 30th century. The battle isn't over yet, and this time the team will learn more about the future that awaits them.

Usagi and Mamoru
OTP'd since 1991

Before we begin this review let's make one thing clear - I am a newcomer to the Sailor Moon franchise. Of course I've been aware of the show almost my entire life and know the impact it had on anime both in Japan and the West, but it wasn't part of my childhood nor have I ever sat and watched the original series or read the manga. With the announcement of Sailor Moon Crystal I thought this would be the perfect time to find out what the fuss was about. Cutting the filler out to produce a manga-accurate remake seemed like a big appeal to me, and it was my hope that this would be something of a cross between Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood and a more ambitious Dragon Ball Kai. After all, a 20th anniversary isn't just an opportunity to celebrate a franchise with its existing fans, it's a chance to reach a whole new audience.

The end result however isn't quite what I expected. As mentioned in the introduction Sailor Moon Crystal is compromised of the first two arcs of the overall story (the Dark Kingdom and Black Moon arcs), covering in 26 episodes what the original series did in around 80. The arcs are split evenly at 13 episodes each, and roughly work out with each episode covering a chapter of the manga (each episode is also named after said chapter which is a nice nod). It sounds like a pretty rigid schedule to adhere by, and unfortunately it bleeds into the story telling quite a lot. After each Sailor Senshi is introduced through their own titled episode, the main story kicks off in a manner that seems to just jump from one key moment to the other. All the battles are formulaic and predictable, and the narrative seems more preoccupied with just advancing rather than letting the characters grow. Whether this is a reflection of Naoko's writing style I couldn't tell you, but judging by the show alone it turns something that could be really exciting into a series of tick boxes. There's evidence of a really rich world in Sailor Moon (especially during the Black Moon arc) but the only realisation it gets is through expo dumps and a couple of visuals here and there. To put it simply Crystal invites you into this wondrous world that you genuinely want to know more about, but then doesn't deliver anything following that.

The Sailor Senshi
All in a day's work for the Sailor Senshi

Of course the biggest victims of this style of storytelling are the characters. The only character in the entire series who gets any sort of real development is Chibi-Usa, and she doesn't even show up until the second half of the series. The romance shared between Usagi and Mamoru is about as cliche as they come, which wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing if the franchise didn't seem to be actively trying to paint itself as anything but cliche. You'd be under the impression that a series following a team of female superheroes would feature strong female leads, and an opening song with lyrics along the lines of "We will fight on our own, without leaving our destiny to the prince" do nothing but reinforce that. But after their initial introductions the Sailor Senshi (minus Usagi of course)'s sole purposes seem to be getting kidnapped or having their butts kicked. Usagi constantly proclaims that life simply isn't worth living without Mamoru (taking it to rather extreme levels at some points), and Mamoru is hailed as being the source of his strength while his role seems to largely be standing around looking like he's doing a lot more than he actually is. Mamoru isn't that much use either given he gets brainwashed on two separate occasions. I'm sure in the 200 episodes of the original series there was a lot of pointless filler to wade through, but I refuse to believe that any of that filler didn't develop those characters in a more meaningful way than they were here.

Not the favourite character I was expecting to have

Finally there's the subject of the art direction, which has probably been the most contested point among fans during the show's run. Sailor Moon Crystal gave the characters a rather extensive overhaul, transforming them into tall, thinly-limbed figures. Initially it may seem like a bit of a shock, but the designs themselves really work with the ornate, regal aesthetics that dominate the show. It's the animation that's the problem. Toei Animation are a studio with a long and rich history behind them, but art arguably isn't something they're fondly known for. With Sailor Moon Crystal coming out primarily as a web animation on a completely ridiculous schedule (two episodes a month) as well as supposedly being a 20th anniversary production, one might expect some real effort being put into it to make things as special as possible. Yet while Crystal at it's best produces some really gorgeous artwork and scenery, at it's worse it's a lifeless production littered with the pitfalls of corner-cutting weekly shows. One look at animation is enough to tell you the kind of aesthetic the show has, yet for the all-important transformation sequences the show drops it in favour of stock CGI footage with unsettling character models and painful limb contortions. Moments like that may be more tolerable in the PreCure franchise, but here they are woefully out of place.

Usagi's transformation
Would it REALLY have been so hard to animate this like the rest of the show?

On a more personal note - while hiring original voice actress Kotono Mitsuishi to reprise her role as Usagi might sound like a wonderful tribute on paper, in execution it isn't quite as ideal. With the rest of the cast all receiving new voices Mitsuishi sounds painfully out of place throughout the entire production, providing a shrill voice that arguably fits Usagi's childish demeanour but isn't always pleasant to listen to. Respecting where you came from is an important thing and I admire Toei for getting Mitsuishi back for the show, but I'm not 100% sure that a lead role was suitable when an equally fitting tribute could have been handled in a different way instead.

I don't bear any hatred toward the Sailor Moon franchise or fandom over this. If anything, suffering through Crystal has made me even more determined to check out the original series at some point. This whole experience has given me a new-found appreciation for filler and artistic license. Filler might instantly seem like inane nonsense whose sole purpose to pad out a show while the source material produces new content, but it's actually much more than that. Filler is chance to make a cast feel like actual characters, and a world feel like more than just a setting. These are things essential in creating a classic series, rather than the shallow checklist of events that Sailor Moon Crystal feels like. It's unsurprising that the final episode teased more in the future, but Toei Animation are going to have to try a lot harder if they want this to be a remake really worth celebrating.


Anonymous said...

Perfectly agree. After the first arc, the other sailor senshi literally meant nothing to the overall plot. You couldve made them leave after the first arc and it wouldve changed nothing. The whole final battle was very anticlimactically. It reminded me of the sentai maskman and other showa sentai, in which the final villain is taken down by the same final attack that has been done to the other henchmen. It completely ruins all suspense that the final episode was saving up for. Tbh, it hurt watching the second arc because the more episodes I watched, the less I wanted to see. The characters really werent characters but rather plot devices that failed to do anything at all. All of the conflict that occured in this show was thrown away quickly when you realize that the only villain that was an actually threat....was no one. To sum up this show, I must say two words that epitomizes this show: WASTED POTENTIAL

Sailor Sedna said...

Art isn't something Toei is fond for?

What? The original Sailor Moon anime, when Toei really cared about Sailor Moon there, has some of the best art I've ever seen.

But I agree with everything, this was just a disappointment. The fans of Crystal also from my experience are terrible too, in a nutshell, they're bullies...

Alex said...

To clarify I meant "animation" more than art there, so apologies for the confusion. And while I'll agree that Toei have produced some great looking things in the past, I'd still argue that they aren't a studio specifically remembered for producing works that were especially noteworthy in terms of visuals. Modern Toei especially.

AS de Espadas said...

You should definitely watch the original anime, it had its flaws, that's for sure, but it gave us memorable characters, interesting interactions, backstory villains and even the secondary characters had their moments to shine and a rich and vast world to explore.

AS de Espadas said...

You should definitely watch the original anime, it had its flaws, that's for sure, but it gave us memorable characters, interesting interactions, backstory villains and even the secondary characters had their moments to shine and a rich and vast world to explore.