When the first anime based on Naoko Takeuchi’s Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon aired over 20 years ago it started something of a phenomenon. Its popularity was unparallelled and worldwide, stretching far beyond Japan. Sailor Moon was one of first anime programs to find a market in U.S. and quickly – along with other Toonami staples like Dragon Ball Z, Gundam Wing, Tenchi Muyo – launched America’s anime craze of the early 2000’s.
Since then, anime has retained an ever-growing fanbase in the U.S. with TV channels and internet streaming services entirely devoted to the content. There have been several magical girl series in the years since Sailor Moon, but none have ever come close to capturing its popularity.
Sailor Moon is the OG magical girl and she returns this weekend in an all-new series, Sailor Moon Crystal. This series isn’t a continuation of the original anime nor is it a total reboot. Instead, Crystal is a new adaption of Takeuchi’s manga that will adhere more closely to its plot and design.
Crystal‘s faithfulness is apparent right from the get-go, with the first episode “Act 1: Usagi – Sailor Moon” lifted almost entirely from the manga’s first issue. However, changing things up just a little is an opening dream sequence that hints (a little too hard, actually) at the star-crossed love story at the heart of Sailor Moon.
Not that Sailor Moon was ever subtle, but Sailor Moon Crystal is clearly more interested in pleasing fans who’ve been aching for a less silly, more sincere adaptation than it is in setting up any suspense or surprise over who these characters truly are. Because of this, it will be interesting to observe whether Crystal will earn the franchise more fans or simply keep the many it already has invested for its 26 episode run (airing bi-weekly).
As origin stories go, Sailor Moon’s is iconic. Usagi, a 14-year-old middle school student who’s a klutz, a bit of a crybaby, always running late, and terrible at school is told by a talking cat with a crescent moon on its forehead that she’s the protector of love and justice, Sailor Moon. Initially unsure of herself and believing it’s all a dream, Usagi transforms into the pretty sailor-suited soldier and after some encouragement from the mysterious Tuxedo Mask, defeats the her first yoma (translation: monster) and rescues a dear friend.
The first episode of Crystal does very little to mess with this established formula, which while on the one hand is exactly as expected given the series’ stronger adherence to its source material, doesn’t do much to distinguish itself from every other version of Sailor Moon. Although, seeing as we’re only on episode one it’s a little too early for criticizing the show for not taking enough risks.
And in fact, Crystal has already made sure to distinguish itself in the only way that matters this early on: its visual style. Gone are the over-the-top 90s anime expressions and characterizations as the look of Sailor Moon Crystal is far more elegant, much like Takeuchi’s original artwork. The animation is, simply put, breathtaking. Everything’s drawn with clean lines and given vibrant colors, yet there’s an ethereal glow used at the appropriate times, adding to the fantasy, almost fairy tale feel of a few of the episodes reflective moments.
Though, not all is exactly perfect. A magical girl series requires a transformation scene and Sailor Moon practically invented the dynamic transformation from mild-mannered girl to kick ass superheroine. Yet in Crystal, Usagi’s transformation into Sailor Moon leaves something to be desired. Perhaps it’s that such a staple of 90s anime feels out of place with the series’ updated, more modern look, but the choice to go with computer generated animation for the transformation wasn’t a good choice. It clashes with the 2D style of the rest of the show and Usagi’s movements throughout are stiff and her limbs rubbery.
It’s a minor complaint, but considering how large a part the Sailor Scouts’ transformations played in every iteration of the series it’s a bit of letdown to find Crystal‘s transformation looking off. Though again, it’s only the first episode and time will tell the new transformation will appear better after a period of adjustment or if it will always be a little weird.
Returning to voice Usagi/Sailor Moon is her original actress, Kotono Mitsuishi and it’s as if two decades haven’t passed since she first cried out “Moon Prism Power, Make-up!” Mitsuishi’s performance has always been a crucial part of Usagi’s character and having her involved legitimizes Crystal in ways that even Takeuchi’s blessing couldn’t. Also heard in this episode are Kenji Nojima as Mamoru Chiba/Tuxedo Mask and Ryo Hirohashi as Luna. Both are fantastic, sounding similar but not exact to the original anime’s actors.
[Quick fangirl sidebar. I didn’t believe it was possible for Mamoru to be more of a pretty boy, but damn, does Crystal‘s Mamoru make the original look like an ugly schlub or what?]
As premieres go, Sailor Moon Crystal is off to a very strong start. With a quicker pace, a more timeless feel, catchy opening/closing themes, and luscious visuals, Crystal could very well become the definitive version of Sailor Moon’s story. All the expected cues and beats are here, but this is very much Sailor Moon for a new generation.