These reviews are to examine the feminist-friendly elements of each series as well as the problematic elements.
In other words,this is simply meant to be a guide to recommend anime feminists like me might enjoy and also give warning of any elements that might disturb or affect someone. I am also aware I am limited by my white, Western feminist context in these reviews and thus, can’t really give anything other than the perspective of a Western feminist fan on various themes. I can only say what these series mean to me and what I take away from them as an outsider who is not the primary audience. If I get something wrong or if you are aware something has an entirely different connotation in Japanese culture that I am not privy to, I would love to hear about it so please feel free to tell me about it.
Don’t worry, this part is relatively short and I’m going to try hard to restrain myself for the other part. I figured I’d go ahead and do this in light of some…other stuff.
Plot: Fourteen year old Usagi Tsukino is a normal Japanese schoolgirl, though she’s clumsy, impulsive and a bit of a crybaby. Her life changes completely when she meets a talking cat called Luna, who tells her she must fight evil as Sailor Moon and find the princess who she must protect. Though reluctant at first, Usagi fights the newfound enemy, on the way gathering allies in other girls with blessed with the same destiny, encountering a mysterious masked man and learning the truth about herself, her past, her future and her identity and depths of courage she never knew she had.
There are several different mediums and continuities to Sailor Moon and each are worth checking out. I’ll have to introduce them all, and I’ll be outlining the different strengths and/or weakenesses in each one for each category.
The manga is the original, created by Naoko Takeuchi. The strengths of the manga are best illustrated by the words of Takeuchi herself, it is by a woman, for girls and about girls. The plot of the manga is very tight and generally provides more backstory and thematic focus than the anime. The main character herself develops very quickly and consistently, growing as an independent, capable and confident young woman, and is treated as such. Her boyfriend and the character Chibiusa are also given a lot of consistent development, and her boyfriend unflinchingly acts as her support, making his respect for her clear in all of his actions. Usagi’s friends get less story focus compared to other continuities, but more backstory and some clear and positive character development. The bond between the girls is strong. However, the villains are a lot less developed than other continuities, sometimes not lasting more than a single page.
The anime differs wildly from the manga on several plot points, and the plot is generally less tight and consistent than the manga. There’s a lot of filler, however this is also a good thing as it’s generally enjoyable and gives us a lot more time to get to know the non-Usagi girls, see their daily lives and strong bond and see why they are invaluable to the main characters in battle. They get more focus, even though for some of them a large portion of their manga backstory is never explored or even mentioned, which is frustrating. Usagi herself definitely develops and is still a wonderful hero (in my opinion), but it’s a lot slower, shakier and less consistent than the manga. Sometimes she seems to “reset” or they forget what she’s learned for a cheap joke. However, some find her anime self more relateble and human than her manga self. Chibiusa and Tuxedo Mask also receive some less developed characterization, Mamoru in particular pulls some paternalistic stuff he never does in the manga and his trust and respect for Usagi is less prominent in the character, though they still have sweet moments and still defy gender roles a lot. The villains, on the other hand, receive infinitely more development and screen time. There’s a lot of awesome, moving scenes and character moments that weren’t in the manga, but of course there’s also a lot of great scenes in the manga that didn’t make it in the anime as well. You can definitely feel some “male influence” occasionally, as a lot of the animators were men, which Takeuchi complains about. For instance, all of the girls were significantly more obsessed with boys (barring the ones who only liked girls)! And I feel the show relied on manufactured conflict between characters in a way that was annoying sometimes (see: exaggerating the conflict between the younger Soldiers and older ones, when in the manga the older ones acted more as awesome big sisters after some sensibly resolved conflict) There’s a lot more camp too, but for the most part it’s great camp.
Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon is the live action version. There’s the cheesiness and low budget effects and initial awkwardness, but it really takes off come episode six and gets better as it goes along. The characters have their manga backstory explored wonderfully and are developed consistently with the relationships between them well explored, in much greater depth than other versions. They are treated with respect and the villains are given complexity. However, this only adapts the first arc of the manga, so some beloved characters aren’t present. The plot is well-paced and the villains well developed, though the ending was rushed due to budget/cancellation reasons. There’s also the fact it engages in some cliché “women in power are dangerous” tropes the other series completely averted, though it’s still partially subverted.
Finally, there’s the Sera Myu musicals. There are a TON. I confess I’ve only seen a few, but you can expect a campy mix of anime and manga elements (mostly anime) doing their own thing, which characters abound and some pretty cool songs. The feminist bent remains intact.
I’d ask the viewer/reader to consider the original context of Sailor Moon too. This was the trope codifier for the Magical Girl Warrior genre. It had a lot of imitators and even basically really launched that genre. A lot of things you might find cliché basically originated with this franchise. Consider all the woman-positive and queer-postive stuff in this show and then remember it was the early nineties. This story broke a LOT of barriers, some that media still struggles with (example: positive portrayal of lesbians and other non-binary people, women not being ultimately punished for their power) pretty hard twenty years later. It’s enjoyable and feminist even if you don’t consider the context at all, but context helps you fully appreciate that!
Expect Part Two where we will cover this story’s presentation of Women and Gender, Race and Culture, LGBTQ, Disability, Weight, Triggers and other Negative Things and Awesome Things!