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Review: Sailor Moon

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14 volumes of moonlight romance

As a Sailor Moon fan, or "Moonie" of 15 years, it's kind of amazing that I never got around to reading the entire manga until now. I guess it's not that weird when you think about it; early on, I was all about anime and had little interest in manga, then by the time I was interested, the old Tokyopop editions of the manga were out of print. I did buy the Japanese editions at Kinokuniya a few years back, but that was more for the sake of having them as collectibles; my rudimentary Japanese knowledge only provided me with tiny bits and pieces of the story.

Still, all this time I've been hearing from fans that the manga is far superior to the anime. The manga's alleged quality has almost reached mythic status: "Tuxedo Mask is so much more useful in the manga," Moonies whisper reverently in my ear. "Rei's character is so much more interesting. The tone is so much more mature than the anime. The end of the last arc actually makes sense," etc. etc. etc.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that while I'd like to approach the manga with fresh eyes, and avoid the mistake of constantly comparing it to the anime, I really can't help it; I'm a fan who's seen all 200 episodes of the TV series (and all three movies), and I can't pretend otherwise. I can only say that I've endeavored to avoid comparing the two in a way that seems unfair. That bias acknowledged and out of the way, were the fans right about the superiority of the manga: the original, unadulterated Sailor Moon story? To be honest, even as I sit here the proud owner of 14 volumes of Naoko Takeuchi's fantasy opus, I'm still not sure.

Volume 1

Sailor Moon (volumes 1-14)

Published by: Kodansha Comics

Written by: Naoko Takeuchi

Illustrated by: Naoko Takeuchi

Translated by: William Flanagan, Mari Morimoto

Release date: Nov. 26, 2013 (date of last volume's release)

MSRP: $10.99 (each) 

If you're super-new to anime and don't know about this famous series, let me just get the premise out of the way real quick: Sailor Moon is about a lazy, ditzy middle-school girl named Usagi Tsukino who becomes a fighter for justice when a magical cat gives her the ability to transform into a sailor-suited warrior with superpowers. Usagi meets more and more Sailor Guardians, and together, the girls use their planet-themed powers to defeat all manner of evil and save the world multiple times. There is one token male named Tuxedo Mask, who is very handsome and also mostly useless, in a nice reversal of the typical damsel-in-distress trope. The early '90s series is notable for introducing many of the concepts that became staples in magical girl shows (and anime for girls in general) going forward.

Probably the biggest surprise to me about this manga was how fast it moves. The anime was notorious for its monster-of-the-week format, but the Sailor Warriors in the manga have exactly zero patience for that silliness. Enemies aren't just defeated, they're vaporized, usually after only one or two appearances. Only the major arc villains get the luxury of tangling with the heroes for any extended period of time.

In fact, battles tend to be of the curbstomp variety-- usually in the heroes' favor, but that gets reversed at times. Compared to boys' manga epics, where a single fight can span chapters upon chapters of manga, it's kind of amazing just how efficient everyone is in Sailor Moon. There's very little of that "Hah, let's see how you can counter this special attack!" cat-and-mouse game between the heroes and villains; everyone here is playing for keeps right from the word go. Personally I find it interesting that Sailor Moon, which many would consider to be a quintessential "girls" manga, is so brisk and businesslike compared to the likes of Naruto or Bleach, which are hugely drawn-out, unabashed supernatural soap operas. There's got to be a message in there, somewhere.

The manga's pacing, however, is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the accelerated pace makes the characters seem a lot smarter than they do in the anime, and not just because they defeat their enemies faster. Plot twists that were dragged out for dozens of episodes on screen are dealt with very quickly on the page. For example, in the anime, it takes Tuxedo Mask and Sailor Moon ages to find out each others' real identities (which is kind of painful to watch, considering how poor their disguises are) whereas in the manga Tuxedo Mask logically figures out that Usagi is Sailor Moon almost immediately, and she finds out about him not much later.

V-chan!

However, I felt like the manga could have used some breathing room; as soon as one enemy is defeated, it's time for the next one. At times, I actually found reading it to be kind of exhausting for that reason. I found myself wishing more time was spent on just the characters interacting, rather than always preparing for the latest and greatest threat to Planet Earth. The side stories, which Kodansha released in two volumes called Sailor Moon: Short Stories after volume 12, feature more character interaction, but are still bogged down with battles.

It's probably worth noting that the first story arc (which runs through volume 3 of the Kodansha release), has the best pacing. This was the story Takeuchi originally set out to tell, before the series proved so popular that her editors demanded a continuation. After the first arc ends with the defeat of the evil Queen Metalia, Takeuchi does a capable job finding new ways to keep the Sailor Guardians on their toes, but by the final arc, I think you can tell she was getting tired of it; major characters get unceremoniously killed left and right (some even die off-panel) and the whole thing feels massively rushed. I've read that Takeuchi found the process of creating Sailor Moon very stressful, and by the last few volumes, I think you can really feel it.

Speaking of the artist, Takeuchi's art can be hard to get a handle on. She draws some absolutely breathtaking pictures, but she isn't necessarily a great visual storyteller. Some panel-to-panel transitions were confusing, leaving me unsure what happened, or even flipping back a few pages to make sure I didn't miss something. Of course, this could be partially due to the fact that I thought I knew what was happening because of my experience with the anime, only for the manga to take a different route. Also, it doesn't help that so many of the characters look very similar; sometimes it's hard to tell who's doing what to whom.

Of course, in the end the details don't matter too much since we know how every arc is going to end: Sailor Moon will whip out the Silver Imperium Crystal, the most powerful thingamajig in the galaxy, and save the day. The greatest weakness in the manga is that the Silver Crystal is so powerful that it robs us of anticipating how the good guys are going to triumph over evil; the details may change a bit, but in general, Sailor Moon will always use the crystal, powered by her love, and the world will be saved. To me, this is the flaw that keeps the title from being something that can fully satisfy adult readers; the win-button nature of the Silver Crystal just isn't up to the level of the other concepts on display, some of which are actually quite sophisticated.

All that said, the title is full to the brim with creativity; in fact, it's almost impossible to appreciate just how innovative Sailor Moon is in 2013, since other creators have been ripping it off for 20 years now. It's hard to imagine how exciting it must have been as a reader to see some of these things go down for the first time. I've never been the huge fan of the so-called Outer Senshi (Sailors Uranus, Neptune, Saturn and Pluto) that some Moonies are, but all of their choices take the characters in different, interesting directions. The series' use of time travel is also surprisingly well-done; instead of descending into a confusing mess, the time travel in Sailor Moon actually makes logical sense and doesn't hurt your brain when you try to think about it in detail. Maybe I've just been watching too much Doctor Who lately, but personally, I appreciate that.

From a production standpoint, Kodansha did a great job with this release. A minor nitpick is that sometimes dialogue seems to disappear into the spine of the books, but I only noticed this a few times during my reading of the entire series. Also, the dialogue doesn't always sound as natural as it could (and the decision to leave in certain honorifics will always be controversial), but I didn't have any major issues with the translation. The color illustrations at the beginning of the volumes look great, and the included translator's notes always prove an interesting read. The final volume, Sailor Moon Short Stories 2, also includes a series' timeline of both in-universe and real-world SM events, which is a useful little bonus. 

She has awakened

So, in the end, were the legion of manga fans right? Is the manga indeed "so much better" than the anime? Don't kill me hardcore Moonies, but I don't think so. The manga is an artistic, elegant portrayal of a very ambitious, romantic and idealistic story, but suffers from a lack of character development for basically everyone except Usagi (and Chibi-Usa, but God, let's not even talk about her.) The anime, while loaded with filler and generally much lighter and sillier in tone, does a better job giving you reasons to care about these characters-- and arguably, a better job of disguising the deus-ex-machina nature of the Silver Imperium Crystal. If only the manga existed and not the anime, I think that today, the title Sailor Moon would perhaps be more respected, but nowhere near as beloved.

All that said, I still think the complete manga is a stunning artistic achievement, and pretty much a must-read for any fan of the magical girl genre-- no, fans of manga period. Takeuchi's magical world oscillates from super-cute to downright creepy to wonderfully surreal, and there's something here for virtually everyone. There are significant flaws, but that does little to take away from the fact that this work is the product of a unique and exciting creative vision.

Rating:

8.0 – Great. Beautifully drawn, well-written, with a loving attention to detail. Among the best of its genre.

 

 

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Sailor Moon reviewed by Karen Mead

8

GREAT

Impressive effort with a few noticeable problems holding it back. Won't astound everyone, but is worth your time and cash.
How we score:  The Japanator reviews guide

 
 
 

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Hi, I'm a former newspaper journalist who got tired of having a front row seat to the death of print. There probably could be some interesting story there about a disenchanted reporter moving on ... more + disclosures


 


 


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