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Review: “Sailor Moon” A Moonlight Night’s Dream or Nightmare?

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Sailor Moon

Sailor Moon Set 1 Box ArtFighting evil by moonlight, winning love by daylight, reignited for a new fight: it’s the series called Sailor Moon. It’s been years since four-fifths of the iconic pretty guardians appeared on American shores, and while their impact on American pop culture and the animation industry left a definite impact, many fans feel that the series never had a proper release in America. VIZ has swooped in, like the heroic Tuxedo Mask, but have they saved the day with a proper restart of the franchise, or is this a chapter of franchise that needs to not see another moonrise?

For a little bit of a recap of the franchise in America, the meta-franchise Sailor Moon consists of five sequential animated series, a live-action series, a reboot series (currently airing in Japanese digitally, with a dub forthcoming), three movies, countless musicals, and the comic series that started it all. In recent years, the comic was re-translated and re-released, and the same treatment has come to the original animated series. A new dub (with a new cast) is going over all 200 original episodes with a new script, eventually including the never-dubbed Sailor Moon Sailor Stars. The original dub may have had some charms that longstanding fans may chuckle at and miss on a surface level (Brooklyn accents, Sailor Jupiter’s “talent,” gender-swaps, an iconic theme song, and even the PSAs), but all of them were inaccurate to the source material. Say goodbye to Serena, Amy, Raye, Lita, and Mina, and say hello again to Usagi, Ami, Rei, Makoto, and Minako.

The plot is rather straightforward. It’s an episodic children’s cartoon from the early 1990s, after all. When klutzy Usagi saves a cat from some tormentors, the cat speaks up. As thanks, she gives Usagi the capability to transform into the sailor-suited warrior of love, Sailor Moon. Her mission is the defeat the forces of the Dark Kingdom, find a certain crystal, and save a princess from the clutches of evil. Over the course of the first 23 episodes, she’ll face off against two generals in the Dark Kingdom, countless monsters of the week (well, 23), and meet two of her partners, the super-studious and shy Sailor Mercury and the hotheaded psychic Sailor Mars. Every once in a while, she’ll be saved by the mysterious Tuxedo Mask, but be aggravated by the annoying Mamoru, a college student who hangs out with middle schoolers way too much.

It’s not a complex plot (this early at least), and yet the show seems nigh-unrecognizable to later incarnations. There’s no drama about the heroes future or past lives, and the first half-dozen episodes mainly consist of Usagi being berated by Luna before Ami joins the cast. Rei soon makes it a trio, and the show finally starts to find a groove. Much of the supporting cast in these early episodes fall by the wayside later on (as Usagi’s friends become primarily marketable heroines, characters like sweet Naru and nerdy Umino, alongside her birth family, just can’t fit in the plot). Later on, the plot will get more complex from daughters from the future, brainwashed boyfriends, daughters of the bad guy, and more. As it stands, half these episodes are about a bad guy stealing energy, while another one turns people into hyper-focused, thematic monsters (the artist becomes obsessed with drawing, the gardener bans all from the park, etc).

Sailor MoonThe series does hold up, and it’s charm is in the fact that you can watch most episodes without having to marathon them in a row, or need a refresher to find out what’s going on. It’s been over a decade since these have aired in America, and yet, they still feel as memorable as before (even if they’ve had new scenes not in the western airings). Sailor Moon has earned a legacy for a reason, and many of the reasons why are cemented in these early episodes. Sailor Mercury may be nerdy, but she’s easily one of the most reliable heroines on TV (especially at the time). Sailor Mars may have what we’ve now colloquially called “Resting Bitch Face,” giving a tough edge to anyone, but she shows that a heroine can be gruff and confident, despite wearing a miniskirt to battle. Sailor Moon, at the heart of the franchise, is at her most-awkward here. She’s obsessed with her weight, she pines for the wrong boy, she’s klutzy, she can be cruel and teasing, but she’s a good girl at heart, and invariably steps up to do the right thing. She’s not an epitomized perfect woman, like Wonder Woman or She-Ra. She has her flaws, but standing up at the end of the day to do the right thing makes up for them. If any character is just weak at this point, it’s evil antagonist Queen Beryl; she’ll get her moments in the spotlight in the second half of the first series, but at this point, Rita Repulsa had more impact on the actual weekly fights against color-coordinated heroes, and most of that time was spent complaining about a headache.

One thing to note about the series that (completely lost on the new iteration, Sailor Moon Crystal), is that it has tons of visual slapstick and humor. If Crystal is obsessed with making everything and everyone pretty, the original series will let characters go super-deformed for a joke, tears pouring down their face, or contort in odd poses in the background. It’s a lot more reactive and entertaining than the modern one, thanks to a bit of silliness.

Sailor MoonThe highlights of this set are primarily audio and visual. If you watched the old airings on Toonami, USA Network, YTV, or syndication, you only got most of the first four series; you missed whole episodes and the entire final season, along with numerous cuts and trims here and there. This release is completely uncut with a new translation and new cast. This would naturally come with a more accurate translation, right? If the redub in Dragon Ball Z Kai lost the infamous “over 9,000” mistranslation, it seems to have slid into this franchise, with Umino reporting that Ami’s IQ has to be over 9,000. Coupled with a comment that the Internet is “a series of tubes,” and questions must be raised on how much the series decides to be accurate versus updated. Quirks like this might gain a laugh, but invariably date and weaken the accuracy, which is half the purpose of a new dub. The voice actors are great in their new roles… for the most part. The first set only features Sailor Moon, Mercury, Mars, Luna, and Tuxedo Mask, members of the regular cast that will survive until the end of the franchise, as well as cast members that will be gone soon enough. The Bronx accent of Naru is gone, but it seems like Umino’s gathered all the annoying voice quirks they could have used. Given his relevance at the early parts of the franchise, it’s a bit dismaying to hear a character with the vocal intonations of the Revenge of the Nerds cast mixed into one. It’s an appreciable dub job, but future scripts would hopefully be more accurate, and any glitches in voice characterization will hopefully slowly melt away, either via character changes or the actors growing into their roles.

At this point, the biggest issue with this release is the video. To the untrained eye, the set looks okay. It looks better than it did on television in the 1990s, but it does not look as good as a Blu-ray release of original hand-drawn animation should. There’s a whole world of technical reasons why, and a person intimate with video technologies and no horse in the race, Jose Argumedo, has covered what did and could have happened (to make clear, he has not seen this release). It largely seems to boil down to VIZ Media not having the original film footage available and doing the best with what they had. The show does not look bad, but it could look better. Of note, a spot-check of the DVD (used for the images in this review) shows that black borders have been added to the side, retaining the standard aspect ratio artificially.

Does the video quality break the set? No, but it puts an undeniable blemish on it.

Sailor MoonThe special features in this set includes a bit of the panel where they announced the license for America at ACEN, the trailer for the announcement, a behind-the-scenes featurette over the production of the dub, fan reactions, coverage of events from Anime Expo, clean opening and endings, trailers, and galleries featuring character designs and special images. An 88-page booklet included in the limited edition combo pack includes an episode guide for the entirety of the first series (only half of which is included here), character descriptions, and art). While you can knock out all the extras in less than an hour, the sheer inclusion of them (and production effort put into them) really does set the release apart from many others. Viz knocked it out of the park with their Ranma ½ sets, and that trend continues with Sailor Moon. It’s not hard to imagine that Season 1 Part 2 will continue the on-disc extras, and Sailor Moon R will come with an equally-nice box and booklet (and wash and repeat for the rest of the 200 episodes, three movies, and specials). Truly, if you look at the extras, this will be a very nice box set to have on your shelves next to the Dragon Boxes, especially if you have an “Awesome 1990s Shows That Aired On Toonami But Are Now Uncut” shelf. Fans could vie for the original dub, commercials from Japan and America, and more to be included, but with the original dub stated to be unavailable, it’s not hard to imagine other such miscellanea lost to time.

The show is great. The dub is above acceptable, but not perfect. The video may be a strike-out for many, but perfectly acceptable for others. If you want a low-cost entry point, you may want to just go for the DVDs. You’ll get the same show and the same dub, but hey, it’s DVD. You wouldn’t expect it to look amazing. Looking past the video quality issues, Sailor Moon is an amazing series and a hallmark of the era that deserves a spot on your shelf. It’s legacy and impact on international superheroics, especially for girls, can’t be ignored, and VIZ has done their best to hail this queen.