Welcome back to Mooniversity, our column for everything “Sailor Moon.” Today we’re looking at the reboot of the anime series, Sailor Moon Crystal, which ran for three seasons (totaling 39 episodes) from 2014 to 2016, as well as 2021’s two-part movie Sailor Moon Eternal, that was produced in lieu of a fourth season.
Intended as a faithful, filler-free adaptation of the manga, Crystal had a troubled start: its first two, back-to-back seasons, which adapted the ‘Dark Kingdom’ and ‘Black Moon’ arcs for a new generation, landed after years of delays to a divisive response, with many slamming its pacing and error-ridden animation. Like those fans, I was excited for the return of Sailor Moon, but found the first two seasons an increasingly tiresome obligation, especially as its biweekly schedule made it even slower. Would it improve as a bingewatch, and after the animation was cleaned up for the DVD and Blu-ray releases?
The Munehisa Sakai Era: Crystal Seasons I and II
Unfortunately, no: the first two seasons remain a largely lifeless affair. Series director Munehisa Sakai and character designer Yukie Sako stifled the animators with overly faithful character models based on Naoko Takeuchi’s designs, with oversized, glass-like eyes, sharp chins, and long limbs that cause her heroines to behave stiff and awkwardly: it’s like watching someone try to put on a production with the show’s action figures. However, it’s not Takeuchi’s fault: the show could more accurately described as trying to slavishly emulate one of her styles, ignoring every moment from the comic where the characters became “super deformed,” greatly limiting how expressive they could be.
Make no mistake, Crystal‘s first two seasons are essentially Zack Snyder’s Sailor Moon, an adaptation so preoccupied with being a darker take, and afraid of looking silly, that it becomes mindnumbingly tedious. The show’s lighting is either very saturated, overly bright, or overly grey, and the score by Yasuharu Takanashi is overbearingly epic, relying heavily on choir and electric guitar in a backfired attempt to give the series more gravitas than its predecessor. And then there’s Momoiro Clover Z’s theme song “Moon Pride,” which is so over-the-top that I do skip it:
This overly serious approach even extends to moments like Makoto’s joke about Usagi being a rabbit on the Moon getting completely excised, and what comedic moments do remain are rendered unfunny by the dull animation. These seasons also minimize the more graphic moments from the manga, leaving you with an anime that does not embrace its comedy or horror, but a CliffsNotes of the story.
Was the decision to adapt each chapter into a single episode a mistake? Perhaps, although deciding to spread each chapter over two episodes, and weave in original scenes (plus the story of ‘Casablanca Memory‘) to flesh out these versions of the Sailor Guardians, could’ve made the show feel even slower as a result of the unengaging character animation.
Speaking of changes, the most interesting part is how the first season canonizes an idea Takeuchi established after the original series ended, which is that the Shittenou — Beryl’s generals Jadeite, Nephrite, Zoisite, and Kunzite — were Mars, Jupiter, Mercury and Venus’s lovers in their past lives. Venus reveals the truth during a confrontation with the four villains, who survive their comics counterparts’ deaths (even outliving Queen Beryl, ironically enough), in “Act. 10.” They remain brainwashed until the Inner Guardians defeat them two episodes later, only for Metalia to kill them all out of spite. This heartbreaking loss is never brought up again, proving to be a waste of time – much like these two seasons.
The Chiaki Kon Era: Crystal Season III and Eternal
When it came time to adapt the ‘Infinity’ arc, director Chiaki Kon and character designer Akira Takahashi revamped the show with a simpler look for the cast, and the difference is night-and-day: suddenly the characters are actually alive and emotional, and the show as a whole is far more watchable. Kon ensured a balanced tone by embracing the manga’s more lighthearted, cartoonish art, meaning the growing darkness in the storyline, and the grotesque moments of Daemonic possession, actually have an impact – by the end of the season, I actually felt a quiver of emotion when Hotaru’s spirit told Chibiusa she loved her as she finally died.Continued below
The lighting and storyboarding was similarly much more sophisticated than its predecessor, even though the action relied more on stock footage attacks (something that might’ve been a result of having to spend time redoing the transformations after ditching the previous seasons’ designs.) Takanashi’s score also benefitted from the new direction, getting to compose more playful cues, as well as the time to create entirely new leitmotifs (something the ‘Black Moon’ arc really suffered from a lack of.)
Season III’s opening theme, “New Moon ni Koishite” (lit. “Fall in Love with the New Moon”) is an especially lovely song, nostalgic, wistful and rousing, and a much better track to distinguish this generation of Sailor Moon. It seems Kon was aware of how integral pop music was to the success of the original series, and really prioritized it, between three separate recordings of the opening (no, really), and three end themes, each focusing on Uranus & Neptune, Chibiusa, and Mamoru.
Now if there is one major issue with the season, it’s that Akira Takahashi’s Sailor Guardian designs are perhaps a little too cute and dainty, resembling his work on the Pretty Cure series (another major Japanese girls’ franchise) more than Sailor Moon. Tellingly, for the Eternal movies, Kon brought on Kazuko Tadano, who worked on the first two seasons of the ’90s anime, to give the characters a more traditional look – it’s ironic given how this endeavor started trying to be 100 percent Takeuchi, but also fitting seeing as it was the characters’ return to the big screen.
The Eternal movies themselves are fun, although — several shots aside — the leap in quality from the transition to theaters isn’t sizeable compared to what happened during Crystal. The first movie suffers from faithfully following its episodic source material’s throughline, instead of intercutting Mercury, Mars and Jupiter’s encounters with the Amazon Trio like you would if you were adapting it freely. The change in format was understandable given how huge the climax of the third season was (it was so thrilling that I was skipping the intros, even though I like the theme song), but Eternal would’ve been fine as another season.
All in all, the reboot’s been a very mixed bag, but one I look forward to finishing when the Cosmos movies — directed by Tomoya Takahashi — retelling the final arc are released outside Japan. Until then, join us next time for a discussion of the future of the franchise as a whole.