Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Sailor Moon

If you were a young man when this classic anime debuted in the United States, it was the show you weren't supposed to like. That wouldn't have been a problem if it weren't so good. Watching it for the first time on some lazy afternoon after school turned into a habit, a dark secret I had to keep from my classmates. Ironically, it had a lot in common with another show that was big at the time and could be watched without embarrassment - Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers. Both had a "monster of the day" approach to individual episodes and both had lengthy transformation scenes that were shown every time. But in Sailor Moon, the heroes were all women, so men were forbidden to enjoy it. If you did, you were gay. In the fascist dystopia of middle school in the 1990s, where conformity was strictly enforced by the constant threat of public shame, being called gay was the ultimate defeat. However, the few times when I did let it slip that I knew something about the show, I was surprised how familiar other dudes were with it. I think this covert male fandom spread well beyond my house and yet I'm still a bit nervous about it. This is one of the few blog entries I don't feel comfortable sharing on Facebook...make of that what you will. I've gone back to it recently because of the release of a remake, Sailor Moon Crystal. I might have watched that, if not for the news that uncut versions of the original show were now available for streaming. Given the choice between old and new, I totally wanted to take a walk down memory lane. They've been coming out with two new ones every week and I've been following it faithfully.

If you've never watched the show, here's a rundown. Middle-schooler Usagi Tsukino meets a talking cat named Luna and is given the power to transform into the superhero Sailor Moon and defend the Earth from evil monsters from the "Dark Kingdom." Eventually, four other girls join her - feisty, bullying Rei (Sailor Mars), rough and tumble Makoto (Sailor Jupiter), glamorous Mina (Sailor Venus) and sweet, brilliant Ami (Sailor Mercury). I had a dorky crush on Sailor Mercury back in those days, even if she had the lamest powers (shooting bubbles? really?). Eventually, they would meet other girls to round out the Solar System, but my most vivid memories are of the first story arc, where the girls have to fight the minions of Queen Beryl. Beryl preferred to give orders rather than get her hands dirty, so most of the time the Sailor Guardians faced off against her four generals - whiny, incompetent Jadeite, suave, calculating Nephrite, vain, vindictive Zoisite and experienced tactician Kunzite. In most episodes, a mysterious male hero named Tuxedo Mask would show up to bail the girls out of a jam so they could finish off the monsters with their signature techniques.

Like other shows transported to American television in the 90s, Sailor Moon was heavily censored and altered by the US distributors. Names were Americanized and a GI-Joe-esque "Sailor Says" segment was added to the end of each episode to tell kids to eat their vegetables or whatever. Zoisite, the villain who wears a long blonde ponytail and disappears in a cloud of rose petals, was changed to a woman because of a visibly loving relationship he had with Kunzite. Having a gay romance in a children's show was ridiculously progressive for the time period and I guess the guys behind the dub didn't think American kids were ready for it. Although, now that I think of it, if Zoisite did identify as a woman, perhaps everyone treating her as such was the more progressive way to go! Just kidding, I highly doubt that was the rationale. In any case, the lack of prominent breasts on an anime "woman" should have been a dead giveaway.

The storyline that really grabbed me was the unexpected tragic love story between the villainous Nephrite and Usagi's friend Naru. On one level, it's all kinds of skeevy - she's in middle school and he's a grown-ass man - but I would challenge anyone not to be moved when he dies heroically to protect her and she lets out an agonized cry of pain. The dub couldn't reduce that moment's power and from then on, the show adopted a much tighter continuity between episodes and went from just a curiosity to something I eagerly awaited every day. It all leads up to an emotionally wrenching climax where four of the Sailor Guardians are killed in battle, leaving Sailor Moon left to face Queen Beryl on her own. The American distributors were clearly shocked by the intensity of the episodes. They cut so much content from them that the season finale went from being two episodes to one. Even with the dialogue altered and the darkest moments omitted, the power of those episodes was unmistakable and it was easy to intuit what was really going on. When she finally defeats Beryl, Sailor Moon is able to restore everyone to life on Earth although they can no longer remember each other and their adventures...until the next threat to Earth arrives, at least.

It's clear to me now that this has aged a LOT better than Power Rangers. Obviously it can't compare to more revered anime like Death Note or Paranoia Agent or Monster, but for a kid's show it's quite enthralling. I may write a follow-up to this one in a few months when I've seen more of the episodes. At some point, the series is sure to go beyond what I saw as a kid and into the later episodes which I am totally unfamiliar with. Consider me excited.

1 comment:

Sailor Sedna said...

This anime is better than Death Note, in my opinion, it's such a wonderful classic!