Thursday, June 10, 2021

A fairy tale of blossoming womanhood in Sailor Moon Eternal

This new animated adaptation covers perennial themes of growth and self-discovery, and arrives at a curious moment for the superhero landscape

To the Western viewer, Sailor Moon must feel like a very strange breed of superhero. Although she draws from narrative elements shared in common with Power Rangers, Saint Seiya and the original She-Ra, she handles her battles in a decidedly different manner. She is completely inept in martial arts, has no idea how to use weapons, and doesn't even like to fight. Rather, she wages philosophical war over the worth of human life, with her victories fueled only by the strength of her empathy.

Instead of punching muggers, like Batman does, or punching Nazis, like Captain America does, or punching meteors, like Superman does, or punching gods, like Thor does, Sailor Moon fights against nightmares, twisted memories, forgotten promises, curses born of jealousy, and abstract representations of cosmic chaos. Sure, she may obliterate each low-level Monster of the Week with a colorful magical blast without a thought, but when it comes to her major enemies, she doesn't aim to destroy them. She saves them. In the world of Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, evil is not to be vanquished or crushed; it is to be healed and forgiven. Western superheroes draw their idea of evil from the Biblical model of two opposed factions out of which only one must remain, but Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon follows a Shintoist outlook where evil is a symptom of a world thrown into disorder that, instead of more violence, needs understanding and restoration.

This is an interesting time to be watching a Sailor Moon story. For good or ill, superheroes are everywhere, but it would be impossible to give Sailor Moon the grim and gritty makeover every other superhero has received this side of the ocean. She is unapologetically cheerful and goofy, with a shining sincerity that would burn to ashes any drop of irony a Western producer might want to add. Grown-up fans of Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon don't feel embarrassed by its silliness and childliness the way Western superhero fans are about enjoying content targeted at kids. We don't start demanding a "grounded" or "realistic" Sailor Moon as we grow older; we stay with the sparkling tiaras and heart-shaped gemstones, because that's exactly what we love about it. But one thing we do wish is that there were more story to tell.

Whereas Western canonical characters like Wonder Woman or Spider-Man have an endless catalog with decades' worth of printed volumes and multiple reboots and continuities that scriptwriters can use to create virtually infinite movies, Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon only has five comic book arcs in one single continuity. Its 90s animated adaptation, which set the undisputed and unsurpassed gold standard for the magical girl genre, follows the entire manga storyline, with few significant deviations (and a staggering amount of filler). Three animated films were made at that time, set in the same TV continuity, but unconnected to its events. Also, there is a separate live-action adaptation of the first arc that follows its plot more loosely. On stage, Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon has dozens of live theater musicals with new plots, but on screen its productions have been limited to following the events established in the original comic books. So when a new animated series was announced for release in 2014, called Sailor Moon Crystal, it came as no surprise that it would, once again, tell the same story as the manga and the 90s series. There is literally no other canonical material to use.

Sailor Moon Crystal was a narrative misfire because it tried to overcorrect the creative liberties taken in the 90s anime. That earlier show had cleverly used its filler episodes to explore the entire supporting cast, so that when the season finale came and Sailor Moon had to save everyone, we understood why she cared about them. Moreover, one-shot villains became season-long threats with ample space to develop a personality and an emotional relationship with our heroines. One last beneficial consequence of adding so much filler was that it helped disguise how mind-numbingly formulaic the plot was in the manga. I'm saying this as a lifelong diehard fan: Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon has wonderful worldbuilding and fascinating characters, but an incredibly dry story structure. The 90s anime did the franchise a favor every time it deviated from the manga's rigid railroad of a plot. Upon translating the original story into the animated format exactly beat by beat, Sailor Moon Crystal laid bare all the narrative defects in the manga (including every little weird plot point that wasn't really thought through) while taking advantage of none of the tools intrinsic to the audiovisual medium.

And then there was the music. If you ask me to point at one single feature that set the 90s version of Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon apart from any other possible interpretation of the material, and the reason why I keep returning to the show over and over, it's the music. While the look of the show stood on the shoulders of all the progress accumulated at the pinnacle of the final era of hand-made animation, the soundtrack by Takanori Arisawa blended a classical orchestral sound with a 70s jazz vibe, which made the show feel timeless. In contrast, Sailor Moon Crystal relies on a generic form of J-pop that falls short of the franchise's prestige.

It was as if the producers had forgotten that Sailor Moon has a reputation to live up to as the quintessential example of the magical girl, the absolute queen above them all, and ended up delivering a bland, unremarkable shadow of every other magical girl. The franchise that had singlehandedly created its own subgenre (Magical Girl + Super Sentai) had become a follower of its own imitators, with none of the spark and excitement that used to define it. Not even the switch to digital animation saved it from the choice to use lackluster colors and lifeless facial movements. After three seasons of the new version, it felt pointless to hope for an improvement in quality. The legacy of Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon deserved better than Crystal.

The choice to adapt the fourth arc as two movies, released this month by Netflix under the title Sailor Moon Eternal, amplifies to an even more drastic degree the pacing problems this plot had in the comic book. Events that the 90s anime could pretend happened organically are structured here as boxes to tick off a predetermined list, so the mandatory "new powers as the plot demands" trope robs the characters' growth of its emotional impact.

That's a real pity, because, of all five arcs that compose Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, the fourth one is the richest in symbolic imagery and thematic depth. This franchise has always told a tale of girl power that affirms and embraces the feminine virtues, but the fourth arc does so from the viewpoint of the Small Lady Chibi Usagi, a preteen princess and superheroine in training who had previously appeared as a pesky semiantagonist in the second arc and a supporting character in the third, and here steps into the central role. The issues of female identity that have always been at the core of this story become now issues of childhood versus adulthood, namely girlhood versus womanhood. The unspoken key fact going on behind the scenes is that Chibi Usagi is approaching puberty, and her sense of self starts to waver and blur as she struggles to maintain her grasp on who she is meant to become. She is suddenly confronted with pressing expectations about her future as a mature protector, all while the symbolic expression of her sexuality starts invading her unconscious.

You know a story is entering heavy Freudian territory when a little girl starts dreaming of horses. In oneiric language, riding a horse is an oblique allusion to the sexual act, distorted and disguised for the mind yet unready to deal with the real nature of the desire. Chibi Usagi dreams of a unicorn, which adds an obvious phallic element to an already erotically charged creature. Not only that, she expresses envy for her mother's fully developed body as part of a classic Electra complex (the plot actually grants her this wish for a brief period). Her insecurities are exacerbated by the visitations from Helios, her future lover, who keeps urging her to find her own power and defeat an evil queen who represents a twisted form of femininity consumed by jealousy and resentment.

The tension between the present self and the possible future selves is mirrored for all the Sailor Guardians, each of which harbors a dream that symbolizes a version of womanhood: Ami wants to become a doctor (the caregiver archetype), Rei wants to become a Shinto priestess (the maiden archetype), Makoto wants to become a bride and bear many children (the homemaker archetype), and Minako wants to become a famous pop star (the seductress archetype). The plot explicitly links the discovery of inner power with the realization of the meaning of each personal dream. As for Chibi Usagi, her search for a purpose is resolved when she makes peace with the fact that her adulthood is still in the future and she needs to let time progress at its natural rate (quite tellingly, this arc starts with the failure of her attempted jump to the 30th century).

Throughout this journey, characters are confronted with false mirror selves and distorted forms of womanhood that maybe should have been revised for a present-day adaptation. Specifically, the members of the Amazon Trio are depicted with a false appearance of womanhood, but the fact that they are false humans first of all may make the implied gender normativity a tad less distasteful. Much more symbolically interesting are the members of the Amazon Quartet, who embody the failure state of Chibi Usagi's journey: they are destined to be her sisters in battle when she grows up, but they were awakened before their time and forced into adulthood against their nature.

The one responsible for this deformation of growth is Nehellenia, a character who plays a role akin to the witch in Sleeping Beauty as bringer of calamities for a girl about to become a woman. If Chibi Usagi is the archetype of the immature girl who envies her mother's sexual power, the witch in Sleeping Beauty is the archetype of the old woman who envies a girl's sexual potential. The specific nature of the curse, which dooms a princess to be pierced and to bleed, couldn't be more Freudian in allegorical content. In Nehellenia's case, out of pure spite, she dooms Usagi's kingdom to fall before she can inherit the throne, which in the coded language of fairy tales means she's prevented from completing her puberty. Her future daughter, Chibi Usagi, defeats the curse by giving up her Electra fantasy and setting her sights on Helios, who will wait for her when she reaches adulthood (again, a throne). The tool with which she fights this evil is a magical bell, yet another erotic symbol, in this case of the female anatomy.

Finally, as an example of fully realized womanhood, the Outer Sailor Guardians are living placidly in a shared home, raising a daughter and pursuing careers, having found a balance between the various feminine archetypes. Their lives contrast with that of Nehellenia, the embodiment of frustrated womanhood, beautiful yet unloved, powerful yet unacknowledged, and ultimately transformed into dust, as must all things in time.

Today's Western superhero properties would have no space for a tale like this. They've become too obvious, too literal. Sailor Moon Eternal is so sexually charged that its content can only be expressed indirectly, through an aesthetic of cuteness. This Netflix adaptation keeps the symbolic elements more faithfully than the 90s anime, and thus is worthy of attention as an exploration of the anxieties that always surround female puberty (disguised as a magical battle in school uniforms), but its structural problems leave all the narrative seams visible and distract from the underlying themes. It was a good try, but the results are a very mixed bag.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10.

Bonuses: +1 for finally letting us have a transformation sequence for Sailor Saturn, however lazy and simplistic it turned out to be, +1 for composing a decent earworm for the transformation scenes, +1 for keeping the more interesting elements of the original material.

Penalties: −1 for not addressing or challenging the ageism in the original material, −1 for slavishly following a narrative structure that doesn't really lend itself to an animated format, −1 for redoing shot by shot animated sequences we all saw three decades ago, −1 because when it does invent a new animated sequence for the transformation of Sailor Venus, it looks just horrendous.

(I almost want to fault the entire production of Sailor Moon Crystal for failing to measure up to the majestic music of Takanori Arisawa, but then I'd have to fault every animated show that exists.)

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10.

POSTED BY: Arturo Serrano, multiclass Trekkie/Whovian/Moonie, accumulating experience points for still more obsessions.