‘Sailor Moon Crystal’ Is 75% Eyes, 100% Awesome [Review]
I'm not even close to kidding when I say that one of the most exciting things about life in 2014 is that we're experiencing an amazing renaissance of Sailor Moon. Not only has the manga been reissued in its entirety from Kodansha, and not only is the classic series being released uncut with two episodes every Monday on Hulu, but Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon Crystal, a new series based on Naoko Takeuchi's original series, made its worldwide premiere last weekend.
This is, for someone who loves Sailor Moon as much as I do, a pretty big deal, and Crystal's first episode lived up to the hype by being an absolutely gorgeous new version of Usagi's first outing as Sailor Moon. The thing is, Crystal was designed to be a far more strict adaptation of the source material, and while it definitely succeeds on that front, that's also its biggest problem.
Crystal represents the fourth version of Sailor Moon's first adventure -- in which she oversleeps, meets a talking cat, gets super-powers and battles her friend Naru's mother, who has been replaced by a monster who sucks energy out of people by selling them affordable jewelry -- that I've seen in the past six months. With the original 1992 anime coming back out, I've been excited enough to dive back into the manga, too, and I even ended up watching the live-action tokusatsu version that was made back in 2003, and they all lead off with this story.
On one level, that's understandable, since it's basically the anime equivalent of Uncle Ben getting shot or baby Superman being shoved into a rocketship and shot headfirst into Kansas, but at the same time, it invites comparisons, and unfortunately, Crystal's version comes in at fourth place.
Don't get me wrong -- my least favorite version of a Sailor Moon story is still going to be something that I like more than like 90% of other things in the world, but still. And really, when you get right down to it, it's not actually all Crystal's fault. As frustrating as this might be to the Sailor Scout purists among you, Takeuchi's original manga has always been the version of Sailor Moon that I like the least. The manga has a lot going for it with its wispy figures and instantly engaging characters, but the anime wasn't just the first version I ever encountered, it's also justifiably iconic and has voice acting that really holds up -- probably the reason that Kotono Mitsuishi was brought back to reprise her role as Usagi 22 years after she voiced the original series.
The live-action version, of course, has a Luna Puppet, and is therefore amazing all on its own merits.
What I'm getting at here is that the entire, explicit point of Crystal is to hew as close to the manga as it possibly can, and while it succeeds at that in a very entertaining and interesting way, it's still sticking close to what was, until last Saturday, my least favorite version of this story. Added to that is the simple fact that a strict adaptation of a story into another medium has its own set of problems, particularly when it comes to the character designs.
Takeuchi's original design for the Sailor Scouts involved a lot of detail that ended up being streamlined away for the original anime. Twenty-two years later, however, animation has evolved to the point where all the filigree on that sailor suit can be animated, so for those of you who were missing Usagi's feathery eyebrow barrettes and those extra spirals of hair, I have some very good news. At the same time, while those design elements, along with Takeuchi's willowy, exaggerated figures, look great on the page, translating them directly into animation creates a pretty weird effect.
I mean honestly, "ha ha anime characters have giant eyes" is a gag that was killed when a Strong Bad Email put the exclamation point on it, but Crystal's character designs have eyes that are almost Powerpuffian in how much facial real estate they take up.
Even Luna looks weird, and she's a talking cat from the moon. It's hard to make a talking cat from the moon look weirder than that sentence would already imply, but here we are. The transformation sequence, too, something that's as much of a signature as anything in Sailor Moon, has this weird combination of CGI that seems distracting when you compare it to the original -- which, again, is pretty hard to do, since that show's being re-released right alongside the new one.
What might be Crystal's biggest failing, though, comes from the monster. Again, it looks exactly like it does in the manga, but it's just not as scary as it is in the original, which is to say completely terrifying.
Which, while it takes liberties with the source material, is actually way more effective at getting across the sense of terror that comes from the manga:
In the few days since Crystal went up, I've already seen a few criticisms from people blasting it for not being as expressive or energetic as Sailor Moon '92, but it's not that the producers of the new show toned things down. Crystal is the one that's more faithful, while Sailor Moon cranked things up to the studiously cartoonish level that we're all familiar with. Takeuchi's manga doesn't have Usagi shooting fountains of tears from her eyes when she gets upset, or flames shooting out of Rei's mouth when she calls Usagi a crybaby, so neither does Crystal. It's as faithful as you can get.
It's just that you might not realize that if you're not sitting in front of the TV cross-referencing shots from the original with a copy of the manga -- which is actually what I was doing, if only to find textual justification for Mamoru just straight up dressing like Dracula for no reason in the middle of the afternoon, right down to the amulet.
What it comes down to is which style you prefer, and for me, it's obviously the slapstick exaggeration of Sailor Moon '92, which is what made me a fan to begin with. If, however, you can separate Crystal from the comparison with its predecessors, it's pretty fantastic on its own merits. Despite the difficulties with literal translations of the manga's designs to animation, it's a beautiful show, and the animation is crisp and smooth -- and for the record, Usagi's Moon Tiara Action attack looks better here than it ever did in the original. There's a lot to love here, and more than that, there's a lot to want to love. Getting to experience these stories in a new medium is at least going to be interesting, and if they're all done as well as this first episode, it's going to be good, too -- even if I don't necessarily consider it an improvement over the (basically perfect) original.
There's one thing about Crystal that's an undeniable improvement, though. That theme song is the #1 jam of the Summer, and that's real.