Watson Watches: Sailor Moon

sailor moon cast
Welcome to the third article of Watson Watches (the Retro Edition). As a brief intro to anyone reading this series for the first time, this is actually the follow-up to a bunch of interview-style articles published in 2014. The idea was to introduce Watson – who at that time knew almost nothing about anime and had never watched it himself – to some specific titles and then ask him some hopefully interesting questions about them. This current series is basically the same thing but with one unifying factor: all the anime I’ll be getting Watson to watch were released before 2000.

Just for fun, we’re also going in reverse chronological order. Previously we tackled the 1995 landmark show Evangelion, and this week we’re going with another hugely popular title that even non-anime fans have probably at least heard of: 1992’s Sailor Moon. As usual, Watson watched everything on his own and was told not to look up anything online beforehand. The following questions were given to him afterwards. (Note that as Sailor Moon contains a ton of filler, we ended up agreeing that he watch the episodes introducing each of the main characters – for reference, that’s episode 1, 8, 10, 25, 33, and 34 of the original Japanese version.)

Same first question to start things off: as an anime first released in 1992, how well do you think the sound and visuals in Sailor Moon have aged? Do you think you would have guessed just from watching that it was an early 90s production?

Oooohhh yes. I definitely get a 90s feel from it in most respects. Jerky animation, less movement, relatively simple visual effects, less detailed characters and backgrounds… it looks a lot like a 90s show. In terms of sound it feels similarly dated. I’m not an audiophile so I can’t say precisely what qualities give rise to that but the clarity and crispness of the sounds is noticeably lacking, and the complexity is also lower. I think there’s also a difference in style of music too – it seems less electronic and more “real” than I’m used to with anime. Credit should go to the Japanese voice actors, they sound just about right for their characters’ age and social place. Perhaps this could also be applied to some of the visuals, now that I think about it. I noticed several times that the backgrounds resembled paintings more than a cartoon. So although the show definitely seems dated in those respects, there are some things I liked about them.

Though there was of course a large amount of variety, a lot of anime shows released in the 90s – the former half in particular – had a very distinctive look. The outlines were thicker, the eyes bigger and sparklier, the noses sharper. What’s your personal take on this older style of artwork?

I’m not a fan of the sparkly eyes. I feel it detracts from the depiction of the characters. The sharp noses don’t do it for me either, but that’s a fairly minor thing. As for the rest, it’s neither here nor there for me. I think the thicker outlines suit the simpler visuals and colour schemes but that might be simply because it’s what I’m used to. My ¥2 worth is that it generally works in the show’s favour, given the low resolution of TVs back then – if you want to show definition you do need a thicker line and that’s more or less the end of it. It is fairly distinctive, but not unique to Japanese animation.

sailor moon
Though Sailor Moon was not the prototype of the magical-girl genre, it did massively popularize and revolutionize it, both in Japan as well as overseas. The anime’s original run lasted until 1997, and it developed an enormous following among a wide audience demographic. Why do you think the show was so successful?

I have no absolutely no idea. My usual guess about such things is that it must have offered audiences something they couldn’t get elsewhere, that it was so significantly different from anything else available that people flocked to it. But I don’t have any special insight into what that might have been. There are a few things that might have stuck out, though.

For one thing, the characters are appealingly flawed. This is especially true of the main character, who is something of a coward, lazy, and not particularly motivated (the way the other heroes talk about and to her had me sniggering pretty regularly). Giving the heroes relatable qualities is a nice nod to the audience. And all the main characters are female too, which must have been something of a novelty in a show which is all about kicking evil’s ass. Apart from that, however, nothing jumps out as demanding massive popularity as a response. Can someone tell me what’s going on here?

sailor moon usagi
The main character herself is now recognised as being one of the most culturally significant and iconic female superheroes of all time, while the series has often been associated with
the feminist and Girl Power movements. Do you feel that Sailor Moon, both as a character and as an overall show, is empowering to women?

I’m amazed that feminists want anything to do with it. In fact there were quite a few moments when I found myself thinking it must have received some harsh words on that score. It isn’t even because of the gender roles that female characters end up in, the clothing they wear, or the open expressions of admiration some of the male characters make. The main characters are all slim and conventionally attractive, these qualities are regarded positively, they literally fight evil with the power of makeup (!), and several of them seem interested in pursuing heterosexual relationships. A new feminist manifesto it ain’t.

But if we relax a little and think in terms of empowerment, I think there might be more to it. For starters all the main characters are female, and although there are male characters none of them seem terribly important (with the essential proviso that, in the Japanese version at least, almost all of them treat females with respect and don’t try to take control away from them – the exceptions are clearly intended as minor characters). It is the female characters who make all the significant decisions, take the most important actions, and achieve the goals of the show. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that this is a fairly empowering view of female roles in the show.

I also found it interesting that many of the villains’ schemes to harvest “human energy” targeted females or their assumed interests. Out of the six episodes I watched two stick out in particular. One was based around a jewelry store and the other went after young women buying tokens at a shrine. I seem to recall something Sailor Moon said during one of these showdowns berating the villain du jour for using young girls’ dreams against them, which is a level of awareness about how things are targeted in the real world that should strike a chord.

And although it isn’t necessarily related to gender roles, the fact that the Sailor Senshi are friends speaks well of them. They are snarky to each other at times but the relationships seem to be portrayed as realistically as you could reasonably expect, and the fact that it is females who work together to defeat evil could also be viewed as empowering. So I would say that yes, the show is empowering to women.

sailor moon attack
The moment of truth: who is your favourite character and why? And how about least favourite?

Honestly I quite liked the lead character, Sailor Moon herself. I mentioned above that she is appealingly flawed, but she’s also good natured and has a kind of indefinable charm which really worked for me. All the Sailors seem refreshingly genuine, and Usagi-chan typifies that quite nicely.

Least favourite? Sailor Mercury, who edges out Tuxedo Kamen by a button-like and barely-noticeable nose. Ami suffers from an almost complete lack of characterisation – her only identifiable quality is being “the smart one”, and that’s basically the kiss of death as far as having a distinct personality goes (this is hardly a problem distinct to anime, of course). It’s a great shame because I think there was a fair bit of scope to make her just as much an individual as any of the others. But no, instead we get nothing. As for Tuxedo Kamen, he verges on irrelevance most of the time. But he is occasionally useful and we do get to know a bit more about him as an individual, which ends up making him a more sympathetic character than poor Ami.

sailor moon ami
You picked one episode to re-watch in English for a quick comparison. How did it go?

The usual problem I have when I watch an episode in English is that I have trouble thinking of them as the same characters. I get used to the Japanese voice actors, so when I hear them in English they just don’t sound right. The fact that the English voice actors often sound a lot older doesn’t help matters. Sailor Moon suffers from that, but it also suffers from having changes made to fit in with the presumably American audience that they were doing it for. The episode I re-watched (10) had several significant changes made to the dialogue which changed the sense of some scenes quite dramatically.

For example even small Japanese towns usually have one or more shrines, so there’s nothing particularly unusual about visiting one. The Japanese version was consistent with this, treating it as a commonplace occurrence and the mystery of the episode was based around what happened afterwards. The English version made a big deal out of going to “the weird temple up on the hill”, and I found this put quite a different complexion on what the characters were involved in (and made their decision-making seem considerably dumber).

I do wonder, however, how much of this is because I have lived in Japan and have some familiarity with how people sound, what is common to find in towns, usual behavior, and so on. I think the characterisation differences would come through regardless, but a good deal of the context would be absent. Without that, maybe the difference would be less pronounced.

Characterisation was also something that was noticeably different between the versions. The Sailors in general seemed much brattier, other characters less effectual and convincing, decision-making was more arbitrary, and all in all it was quite obviously intended for a different audience. Also, I have a question: who the fuck is responsible for that idiotic Sailor Says segment? If there was one thing that hacked me off above all else about the English version, it was the nauseating pointlessness of that last segment. I can’t see what purpose it’s supposed to serve, since anyone watching the show with even the tiniest amount of self-awareness will instantly recognize it as irrelevant. But this is an example of a kind of shoe-horned-in morality that just doesn’t gel with the rest of the show. Our lives would be richer without it.

sailor moon sailor says
You watched 6 episodes of this. Do you think you’ll ever go back and watch through from the start?

I can’t see it happening. I quite like some things about Sailor Moon, and it isn’t painful to watch. But it scratches an itch that I just don’t have. What I saw didn’t make me think it had anything much to offer in terms of what I want from my entertainment, so I don’t feel any impulse to slog through all of it. If it happened to be on while I was doing something else then I wouldn’t feel upset, but I wouldn’t seek it out deliberately.

Question of the post: Got any other questions for Watson, or just comments in general? Let us know your thoughts! As always, anything aimed specifically at Watson will be replied to by the man himself.

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13 thoughts on “Watson Watches: Sailor Moon

  1. Long time no comment on these things–hello again! You really struck a chord with the “scratches an itch I don’t have” comment, because as much as everyone knows what a fan I am of shoujo manga, I am not a follower of Sailor Moon. I tried reading/watching it a few times for the sake of being on the same page as so many other people I know for whom it was life-changing, but I could never get very far. Despite not minding it and generally enjoying the cast, it’s not something I feel driven by. At least, not as an adult.

    I found your analysis of it as a female empowering–or not–were interesting, because when I was a kid and wanted to watch it because all my friends were into it, my mom was very opposed to it. When I pressed her for a reason, she said it was because of the short skirts and fighting in high heels and stuff. At the time she said it was because it was a show for “perverted men” (certainly not the show’s intended audience in either its Japanese release or its US dub), but it would have made more sense to me if she reasoned it out like she did for not allowing me and my sisters to play with Barbie dolls when we were little—she specifically said at some point that she didn’t want us to see impossible body standards and revealing clothes as normal and admirable, and she didn’t want us to base our self-worth on appearance. This is be more justifiably applied to Sailor Moon than confusing it with anime that are indeed aimed a mature audience. She never gave it enough of a chance to see that the possible positive aspects you pointed out, and Sailor Moon was always the alluring forbidden fruit of my childhood. Had I watched it regularly as a kid, it probably would have had just as much of an impact on my life as it did for many other girls in the target audience.

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    • Hello again to you too! 🙂

      It sounds like Sailor Moon has the most effect on people who watched it regularly as children, which is in itself an interesting point. What is the impact that it generally seems to have?

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      • As a kid, the big impact was that a large number of my friends were very, very bigs fans. The video covers had pretty art more mysterious than any cartoon I was used to. It was that thing I knew was epic but never saw more than a few episodes of, but the sense of drama was alluring. (I’ve since figured out that a couple movies that gave me the same feeling in earlier childhood turned out to be anime all along. It was destiny.) For me, the visual sense of drama and mystery in the fight scenes was what captured my imagination, but perhaps for other girls who followed it more regularly, it was the core group of girls–a cast in which they could find someone to relate to (a big draw for me in other shoujo series), someone surrounded by healthy friendships, and no limits on what a girl can do. Out of the many adults I know who claim it had a significant impact on their lives, I’ve never asked exactly what it was. Sailor Moon changing (or taking over?) girls’ lives was simply a given as I was growing up.

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        • Interesting. Thank you for going into that. The fight scenes didn’t really stick out to me as particularly dramatic or mysterious, but then again I’m a lot older than most people probably were when they encountered it first. The fact that it was simply a given for so many people makes curious about why that is – as I said, I don’t really get it myself.

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    • It definitely had a huge impact on me, but I doubt I’d be into the show anywhere nearly as much now if I hadn’t first watched it when I was about 10. I didn’t know what anime was back then of course, but I basically credit Sailor Moon with inspiring my huge passion for the medium even so. As a result, it’s still very close to my heart to this day even although it’s faults are pretty easy to see.

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  2. Some viewers who watched the original Sailor Moon say they’re quite disappointed with the plot pacing and structure of the newer ones, which more faithfully follow Takeuchi Naoko’s manga storyline. They state how the newer ones storylines seem more rushed and the enemy’s motivations are less mysterious and are more like stereotypical villians of other shoujo anime.

    What do you and Watson make of this? Do you think they have a point, or is a case of nostalgia goggles?

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    • I only watched 6 episodes of the original series, so I can’t really comment on any of the others. That being said, while nostalgia goggles are a thing a precedent has also been set by previous entries in the milieu. In cases where an audiences expectations have been shaped by those entries and a new arrival goes against them I’m reluctant to dismiss the point out of hand.

      An audience which is expecting something from a show that has been established in previous instalments can be justifiably disappointed if that thing is removed or changed. There’s an implicit contract being made with fans of the older works: “we’ll give you more of that thing you liked, so watch this show”. If they feel that contract is being under-delivered on its only natural they might feel unhappy about it.

      One argument that gets used against this is the integrity of the creator’s artistic vision – they are the ones telling the story, so they can say what they want and how they want. Which is profoundly true, but also rather avoids the point made above. If the story they want to tell is at odds with what has already been established, then wouldn’t a new creation serve it better? If the characters, plot, setting and so on have to be changed in order to accommodate the latest entry in the series then it isn’t really much of a continuation in any case.

      All of which is a long-winded way of saying “they may have a point”. I don’t have the background to form an opinion in this particular case, but there’s no shortage of precedent for these issues.

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    • I watched some of the first season of the Sailor Moon remake and hated it. I don’t really have anything against altered material of older franchises and normally I’d probably be happier with less filler, but almost everything about the first season of Crystal rubbed me the wrong way, from the pacing to the terrible scripting and even more terrible CG. However, I’m happy to report that Crystal’s third and currently airing season is a major improvement in just about every area. It ain’t perfect, but the staff changes worked wonders. Better direction, better artwork, much better show all round.

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  3. Pingback: Watson Watches: Ranma ½ | OTAKU LOUNGE

  4. Pingback: Watson Watches: retro wrap-up party | OTAKU LOUNGE

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