You’d be hard pressed to find an anime fan who doesn’t have some knowledge or familiarity with Sailor Moon, whether it’s from watching the original 90’s anime on Saturday mornings or reading Naoko Takeuchi’s manga way back when the manga section of Barnes & Noble was tiny. Beyond that, it has been a hugely influential franchise not only to the magical girl genre, but to anime and otaku culture at large. It’s no surprise, then, that people were very hyped for Sailor Moon Crystal, which premiered in summer 2014 as part of the 20th anniversary celebration of the franchise. A year later, Crystal has wrapped up and left its mark on the Sailor Moon fanbase - but it’s turned out to be very divisive. As are most polarizing things in the internet age, there isn’t much middle ground in discussions of the show. Is the animation really that hellish? Are 90’s fans too wrapped up in their nostalgia? We’re going to try to deliver a balanced review, courtesy of two longtime Sailor Moonies: Sub Judice, a life-long, diehard fan of the original Sailor Moon manga, creator of terrible Sailor Moon OCs as a child, and present day over-analyzer of the series, and Morie, who was raised on the original anime, never finished the manga, and was scolded by her parents in 4th grade for reading teen-rated Sailor Moon fanfiction.
All in the Moon Family
Morie: The most important thing about Sailor Moon is, well, Sailor Moon, or Usagi Tsukino by day. Luckily, Crystal’s Usagi delivers. I know some anime fans find her annoying, but I still think she is a great character, and all the things I love about Usagi are here: her kindness towards her friends (yay girls supporting girls), her perseverance in the face of self-doubt, and even her tendency to be an emotional mess. I always liked having a heroine who may not always be on top of things, but she gets the job done anyway (like a lot of real life). Tuxedo Mask/Mamoru Chiba is also done very well in Crystal. I remember reading that Naoko really wanted Mamoru to be different than the asshole boyfriends that pop up so often in shoujo manga. The original anime wasn’t really faithful to that, because 90’s Tux could definitely be a jerk. Aside from some mutual jabbing banter in early episodes, Usagi and Mamoru have a touching and believably loving relationship, and he really is a good, supportive guy (as he should be, as the past and future prince/king Endymion). The last member of the moon family, Chibiusa, was to my shock one of the most well-developed characters in Crystal - shocking because I hated her terrible 90’s iteration!
Sub Judice: Oh God, I totally hated her too. But here, she’s so much more sympathetic, maybe because we aren’t subjected to so many filler episodes of her being a brat before we find out what her story is. And speaking of Mamoru, it’s like I am finally watching the Mamoru we were meant to have all along. The 90’s anime never really did anything with him, probably because the almost all-male staff is rumored to have not liked him. Instead of being another member of the team who fights along with the Senshi, the 90’s anime demoted him to someone who just shows up every once in a while to give Sailor Moon a pep talk. Not to mention that the 90’s anime turned him into a college student! A college student dating a really childish and emotionally immature 14 year old girl. Gross. In Crystal, he’s back to normal as a second-year high school student, which makes their relationship way more acceptable and believable, and he contributes much more to the story than just being the Dude in Distress. And he doesn’t throw a single rose in all of Crystal.
Strong second arc and ending
SJ: Although SMC had some story problems, which we will get to, it’s really worth watching for the second half and the ending. You may not remember the series’ second arc very well, or you may be very familiar with it, but I’m gonna come out and say that this is the best telling of the Black Moon Arc to date. Of course, that’s not saying too much since it has always been one of the best arcs in Sailor Moon. But we’ve got a more sympathetic, less annoying Chibiusa than what we see in the 90’s anime, no filler episodes, and Pluto’s storyline is preserved. On top of that, it just looks beautiful in Sailor Moon Crystal, from the characters to the backgrounds to the framing, and yes, the animation (which we’ll also get to).
M: The second arc made a Crystal believer out of me. If there were animation issues at that point, I honestly didn’t notice them because of the compelling story and characters. The thing the second arc does that the first arc doesn’t always succeed in doing is create a strong emotional pull with the audience. Chibiusa and Pluto especially have touching dialogue and storylines. I will admit I teared up a few times in the last episodes. Beyond the feels, the Black Moon Arc is just a fascinating story. The conflict, world, and villains are interesting, and it makes the actions of Usagi and crew that much more exciting to watch. This arc also excels at portraying Usagi’s continuing journey to rectify her image of herself with that of Princess Serenity and now the beautiful and determined Neo-Queen Serenity.
SJ: The poor thing has such severe identity issues. She’s a girl, she’s a superhero, she’s an ancient princess, she’s the future ruler of the entire world... and then she has to be a mother to Chibiusa on top of it. She matures a lot during the Black Moon Arc, learning to be less selfish and understand that Mamoru is a person who is going to have other important relationships in his life aside from the one he has with her. It’s a really great message to see in a show aimed at girls, which usually just focus on the girl getting the guy and everything being perfect afterwards. And that lesson gets contrasted perfectly with the subplot between Usagi and Prince Demande...
M: Both arcs have villains who end up being possessive and/or having a romantic motive behind their actions, but Prince Demande’s story was so much more developed and his obsession with Usagi felt more real than Queen Beryl’s thing for Mamoru. Demande’s actions also serve as a foil to Mamoru/Endymion, showing the folly of thinking you can rule through controlling others instead of being compassionate. The other members of the Black Moon Clan have more memorable personalities than the first batch of villains as well. And of course, I have to mention Black Lady. She’s just a fascinating character because although she’s being manipulated by Black Moon, her persona is a manifestation of real insecurities that Chibiusa has.
SJ: The Black Moon Clan are some of the best villains in the series! You’ve got Demande, whose ideals and goals have been twisted by Wiseman, and then you’ve got Saphir and Rubeus and Esmeraude. Saphir doesn’t seem to care that much about his brother’s ambitions - he just cares about him. Rubeus believes in Demande but he doesn’t seem to take their enemies seriously enough. The four of them together feel like more of a close-knit group of people with their own interpersonal actions, which makes their battle with the Senshi, and their demise, so much more interesting than “oh I guess we also had past lives too.”
Opening, Ending and Eye-Catch Art
SJ: That ED.
M: Both songs were pretty great, and very in the spirit of Sailor Moon to me. It’s hard to follow “Moonlight Densetsu,” since it’s such an iconic song, but I think “Moon Pride” stands out very well as an excellent OP.
SJ: Going with “Moonlight Densetsu” wouldn’t have worked, if you ask me, because SMC is trying to be its own thing. That would have just made people think this was a remake of the 90’s anime, which it isn’t.
M: And the eye-catch! I know it’s a small detail but they really were beautiful, and they made an impression on me. I loved the almost Art Nouveau look they had, which you could also see in the backgrounds when the Senshi do their catchphrases post-transformation.
SJ: It points to them going into this with a really strong design sense. The watercolor backgrounds used in the show also look very feathery and beautiful. One of my favorite moments from the opening is at the end, when there’s those cut-aways to the Senshi’s faces and they do the final pose. That part with the guitar in the OP is just great. It didn’t take long for me to start singing along to “Moon Pride” like the 28 year old adult professional who pays her own bills that I am.
M: LALALA PRETTY GUARDIAN...ahem.
M: Sailor Moon is obviously a franchise that is and has been loved by people of all ages and genders, but come on...it was originally targeted at girls. The lame thing is that the merchandise from the original show didn’t always reflect that, and most diehard Sailor Moon fans can tell you how hard it can be to get your hand on good merch. Crystal has been a godsend on this front. There has been a consistent influx of awesome stuff, from school supplies and jewelry to new figures.
SJ: And almost all of it targeted towards women. It may sound stupid to the people reading it, but I found this so refreshing since so much of Sailor Moon has been marketed to men in the past. There isn’t a single body pillow in sight here. While you can ogle the underwear on a few figures, a lot of that kind of merchandise seems to be released as part of the 20th anniversary of the series (which SMC itself is a part of) and they aren’t sexualized anyway (i.e., no nipples visible through their clothes or anything like that). As for actual Crystal merchandise though… it’s mostly makeup, handbags, candy, dinnerware, little trinkets, stuff like that. And pads. lmao.
M: But honestly, that’s awesome. Talk about being for your core demographic amirite ladies? I’m going to be over here with my Sailor Neptune pen, feeling kind of bitter about not being able to justify the price of the Moonstick…
SJ: I couldn’t justify it either, but damn it, I wanted it. Along with all the new figmas, especially the one of Sailor Moon that came with the hilarious crying face.
Loyal to the manga, for better or for worse
SJ: I have a lot to say on this one, haha. Mostly because I think this is the source of all of SMC’s faults, and the source of why I enjoyed it so much. Morie and I have talked about this a lot between ourselves, but it mostly comes down to this: Sailor Moon Crystal is a faithful adaption of the original manga. Extremely faithful, often lifting entire swaths of dialogue word-for-word. And with that comes all the good and bad things about the manga, specifically its story and characterization.
M: I know I’ve been the more negative of the two of us, but I do appreciate that there is anime now that is faithful to the original, but in a new medium, I do think some deviations could have been a good thing. Now maybe the creators weren’t allowed to change much, but as you’ve mentioned to me, the first arc is just really weak in general. The show could have spiced it up somehow! Not to be too redundant from the “fantastic” section, but the second arc is where the manga’s story and characterization really shine. I just hate that so many people didn’t even make it to that point because they dropped the show in the first half.
SJ: It’s like judging an entire book just on how good the first chapter is. The first arc of Sailor Moon is the most well-known and iconic, but ironically it’s probably the worst one out of all five. This is especially true in the manga, because it’s pretty much there just to introduce the characters, explain a ton of backstory, and get Usagi and Mamoru together. And this is where SMC disappointed so many people, because I think lots of fans only know the original anime and aren’t familiar with the manga. The manga is really about three people: Usagi, Mamoru, and Chibiusa. Everyone else is there, and important, and has their little moments, but the focus is on the core Moon Family. So, when SMC is faithful to the manga and focuses on Usagi and Mamoru, at the expense of giving characterization to Mercury, Mars, Jupiter and Venus, people cried foul. But what they didn’t understand is that they aren’t very well-characterized in the manga to begin with! They don’t start getting fleshed out until after arc 1.
Now, is Crystal’s story justifiable just because it’s accurate to the manga? Not necessarily. I mean, the manga is hands-down my favorite version of the Sailor Moon series, so I mostly loved Crystal because it gave me what I wanted personally. But it isn’t some flawless masterpiece. Like you said, they could have made some much-needed edits and it would’ve been fine. Squeeze a few more character moments in here or there, let us see more of Mars’ posh upbringing and Venus’ bubbly personality.
M: I think you just shone the spotlight on the elephant in the room of Crystal criticism. Some fans, including myself, found the writing lackluster, but many longtime manga lovers have been afraid to admit that the issue originated with the manga. I appreciate the goal to have a true manga adaption in anime, but to me, every adaption is a chance to reevaluate material and make improvements if need be. Also, because watching anime just has a different feel than reading manga, it’s possible some of the writing issues were even more glaring on screen.
SJ: This one’s going under “not bad” because I think Morie is not keen on it, but for the record I personally loved the character designs in SMC. They make sense to me considering it’s heavily inspired by the manga.
M: Haha, so that’s actually the reason I had issues with it. I can see the clear inspiration from the manga designs, but I just don’t think it always translated well to the screen. Naoko Takeuchi’s style was so elegant and wispy, which is harder to portray in animation (unless we’re talking like, Angel’s Egg, and we are definitely not). While the general look and proportions of Naoko’s designs were there in the anime, it felt off to me because the anime world is much more concrete than the airy manga dreamworld.
SJ: I can agree with you on most of that, actually. I just think they translate well enough. What’s more frustrating for me are people who saw the designs, didn’t recognize them as manga-based for whatever reason, and then complained about the “backwards ankles” and proportions and big heads. That’s just Naoko Takeuchi’s artwork, folks. Imagine if the original Dragon Ball anime didn’t look anything like Toriyama’s art and then a new anime comes out that’s more loyal to the look of manga, and half the fans complain about the spiky hair, tiny pointed feet and cartoony eyes. That’s what you sound like.
M: Yeah, and if they had copied the 90’s designs people would probably have found a reason to be upset at that, too. The weirdest criticism I read when the new designs came out was that the inner Senshi looked like they had lost their personalities.
SJ: ...Just from looking at the designs? That’s kind of a stretch; the images they released early on looked like they were taken from model sheets, which show the characters in more of a neutral state on purpose. I swear, some people were going to hate SMC no matter what they did with it.
Betrayal of Nostalgia
M: Crystal has an interesting phenomenon with its viewer base, because the people most looking forward to it tended to be women in our demographic whose first exposure to the franchise was in childhood. We all conveniently seemed to forget that despite Sailor Moon’s wide appeal, the manga and show were really for kids. Crystal keeps the easy depth of the earlier works, which can strike a grown person (lol) like me as overly simplistic. It would be awesome to see Naoko or a trusted writer take a stab at a manga-faithful story with more mature dialogue and exploration of themes, but I doubt that will be happening anytime soon.
SJ: Even the original anime, some of which I’ve recently rewatched, is very juvenile.
M: Which is great for a kid, but I feel like the fansgot this mass amnesia about it. I did always enjoy how the anime didn’t take itself too seriously, but also as a child I had no concept of filler and probably thought my favorite show was going to just go on and on forever.
SJ: I’m a bit different when it comes to the filler - I watched Sailor Moon when it was on Toonami, and it aired at 4:00 pm, which was dangerously close to when I got out of school. If I missed an episode, I’d go to school the next day asking if anything “important” had happened, and being frustrated that I even had to ask that. I hated Scooby Doo, which was always on Cartoon Network on the evenings back then, so for my favorite show to be 75% Scooby Doo-like really annoyed the hell out of me, hahaha. I think that is part of why I fell in love with the manga once I discovered it. All substance, no filler… and yet, I was betrayed a bit by Crystal as well. I didn’t realize just how flawed the manga’s story was until I watched SMC’s close adaption of it. Up to that point, I’d been acting like the manga had this clearly superior story to the 90’s anime, just based on how it tackles the overall narrative better. I’d convinced myself it was the “grown up” version of Sailor Moon and forgotten its flaws in pacing and characterization.
Animation of Early Episodes
SJ: Here we are, SMC’s biggest sin. The reason people seemed to turn on it so quickly when it started airing.
M: It’s really just a shame that Toei didn’t have it together in the beginning, because it caused a huge outcry. Part of it was that some of the worst animation happened in episodes that served as character introductions for the inner Senshi, so fans who were waiting to see their favorite scout got derp scout, and then got real mad.
SJ: You know that adage about watching 3 episodes of an anime to help you decide whether you’re going to watch it? Crystal completely fails that test. The worst animation in the whole series in is the second and third episodes. I really can’t blame people who were upset about it - we were all worried that the whole series was going to look like that. If you dropped it after a few weeks, I can’t blame you.
*note* some of the worst animation did get fixed in the Blu-Ray release, as you can see above, and it looks pretty great. It’s not an excuse for what we got in broadcast, but it’s something.
Rushed Character and Romance Development
M: AKA - am I really supposed to care about the inner Senshi and these crystal jerks?
SJ: God, that was truly awful. Can I just say, for the record, that the “Inner Senshi are the girlfriends of the Shitennou” thing is NOT in the manga, except for like 1 piece of artwork Naoko did very early on? (For anyone unfamiliar with SM terminology, the “Shitennou” are Queen Beryl’s four lackeys: Jadeite, Nephrite, Zoisite, and Kunzite.) That’s just something they made up for Crystal. So, the one way it isn’t loyal to the manga ends up being the worst thing about it. Lol, irony. I was really disappointed in their decision to do that - not just because they made that change, but because it was so incredibly pointless and added so little.
M: It was so out of left field, and I think I might know why they did it. As we’ve talked about, the Inner Senshi are not as center stage in the manga as in the original show, so Crystal decided to try and appeal to the show crowd with some extra development for them. However, they picked an awful way to do it if that’s the case.
SJ: The other Sailor Senshi, not just the inners, really are more minor characters in the manga, ESPECIALLY the first arc. They may have been trying to give a little extra characterization to the Shitennou as well, but I don’t see what the point of that would be either - they still die anyway and it didn’t add that much to our understanding of them.
M: No matter how you feel about the writing, characters, and animation, one thing that was really a drag with Crystal was the every-other-week episode schedule. It killed a lot of the story’s momentum, especially with highly emotional and tense parts of the plot that ended up getting broken up between episodes.
SJ: I have to wonder why they chose to do it this way. Was it because it was aired on Nico Nico and they needed the ad revenue to keep the show going? I find it hard to believe Toei couldn’t muster the funding for a regular release schedule. But, of course, the same can be said of its animation problems. Perhaps it was just a limit of whatever agreement they came to with Naoko Takeuchi for making a new anime.
M: “Your mileage may vary” is a trite phrase can apply to any anime, but it’s especially important to keep in mind with Sailor Moon Crystal. Depending on what your experience is with the Sailor Moon, it might thrill you or disappoint you. I wouldn’t recommend it as your entry point into the franchise, but it’s a good addition for manga fans who want to see the story they love on screen, or original anime fans who want to reexperience Sailor Moon with no filler and an attention to lore accuracy. Crysal isn’t the perfect Sailor Moon anime, but it may be perfect for you.
SJ: I would also not recommend it to any newcomers to Sailor Moon, as someone who largely enjoyed it from beginning to end. For megafans who have consumed every Sailor Moon-related media they can get their hands on - the 90’s anime, the manga, the Sailor V manga, the musicals, the live action sentai series - Sailor Moon Crystal is another entry in the franchise’s long history, with its pros and cons, just like all the rest. For more casual fans, you have to approach it with an open mind and understand that it is not a remake. For those new to the series, you’re probably better off watching the 90’s anime first.
Header and review card gifs by Tim C.