Thirty years ago (December 28, 1991 to be precise), Naoko Takeuchi’s “Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon” debuted in the pages of Kodansha’s Japanese girls’ magazine Nakayoshi, and the world was changed forever: Takeuchi’s superheroic/sentai take on the magical girl subgenre, along with its anime counterpart from March 1992, paved the way for the likes of “Cardcaptor Sakura” and “Pretty Cure,” as well as non-Japanese superheroine series like Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir, W.I.T.C.H., and many, many more. To mark the anniversary, we’ll be looking back at the manga via the current “Eternal” editions, which reprints roughly seven (of sixty) chapters per volume.
Created by Naoko Takeuchi
Translated by Alethea Nibley & Athena Nibley
Lettered by Lys Blakeslee
Teenager Usagi is not the best athlete, she’s never gotten good grades, and, well, she’s a bit of a crybaby. But when she meets a talking cat, she begins a journey that will teach her she has a well of great strength just beneath the surface and the heart to inspire and stand up for her friends as Sailor Moon! Experience the Sailor Moon manga as never before in these extra-long editions (about 300 pages each).
The first seven “acts” of the series, which comprise half of the initial ‘Dark Kingdom’ story arc, feature the origin of Sailor Moon (Usagi Tsukino) herself, as well as Mercury (Ami Mizuno), Mars (Rei Hino), and Jupiter (Makoto Kino), and the start of Usagi’s relationship with the mysterious Tuxedo Mask (Mamoru Chiba). The villainous Queen Beryl, her four generals, and their master Queen Metalia are all present, while Sailor V, from Takeuchi’s earlier manga of the same name, enters the fray at the tail end of this portion.
As someone who grew up with the original anime, and saw the slavishly faithful reboot Sailor Moon Crystal, it’s difficult to critique the plotting choices in these seminal chapters: they are, for better or worse, canon, and lack all the filler invented for the ’90s show because of its monthly (as opposed to weekly) nature — the manga reads like a greatest hits compilation, introducing most of our favorite Sailor Guardians within five chapters, instead of 25 episodes. For now, it’s a breezy, fast paced way to relive the saga, a jog down memory lane for those who haven’t watched the cartoon in years.
When it comes to the storytelling, it’s striking how much the art style fluctuates across each page, from the iconic, glamorous renderings of the lead characters transforming, using their powers, or merely brooding; to the comedic, chibi-style renderings of the girls for lighter moments; and panels where they’re somewhere in-between.
That’s not unheard of in Japanese animation, where characters become “chibi” to emphasize a change in tone, but we see it here for various dialogue moments, freeing up space for the aforementioned Sailor spectacle. Being cartoony isn’t what most people think of or see when they’re imagining or looking up “Sailor Moon” art, but it takes up a significant amount of it.
The series also saves space by using emojis: that’s right, an emoji of a rabbit (Usagi’s namesake in Japanese) is often used to provide further insight into her thoughts and feelings, a quirky touch that frequently reminds you who exactly this comic was intended for. Similarly, sound effects aren’t just limited to onomatopoeia, but often act as descriptive captions to clarify what’s going on to a young reader: for example, in one scene where Luna, Usagi’s cat mentor, beams in, the sound effect reads “BEEEAM,” or when Makoto blushes, it says “BLUSH.” (Full credit must be given to Lys Blakeslee for ensuring the original Japanese lettering could sit side-by-side with the translated sound effects in the “Eternal” edition.)
Speaking of clarity, it is weird to revisit “Sailor Moon” as a monochrome manga: sure, almost all manga is black-and-white (though for the record, “Sailor Moon” was originally printed in pink), but the absence of any interior colors is a major contrast with the anime, which is renowned for its sparkling lights and pastel hues (which even inspired the backgrounds in Pixar’s Turning Red.) The art generates the illusion of light by avoiding fully inking aspects of characters like their eyes and hair, while dots of varying tones and density ensure pages never become murky, so they always remain visually appealing.Continued below
Rereading the comic from the perspective it had to work with only one type of ink, I gained a greater appreciation for how distinct Takeuchi made the hair, the heights, and the school uniforms for the main girls (I feel now that’s probably the real reason Makoto has a different outfit from Usagi and Ami), so you could still tell them apart without their signature colors. It really speaks to Takeuchi’s skills as a collage artist, which is also evident here with the patterns decorating the borders or characters on every page, and the use of underexposed photos or stock images for backgrounds, the latter of which proves to be particularly dazzling and surreal during the introduction of Queen Metalia.
Two more notes on the art before we conclude:
– The Dark Kingdom’s demons are surprisingly grotesque given the target audience, although I think the level of gore fans joke about whenever the Guardians annihilate their foes is a little exaggerated — when they vaporize a handsome general, they’re arguably exposing their true form.
– Luna is a very strangely drawn cat: it may be a bit much to expect a realistic kitty from a series this stylized, but you only need to compare her to her much cuter anime counterpart to realize she looks like a noseless Kit-Cat Klock.
Finally, given how famously queer the franchise is, we need to acknowledge there’s not much here in this respect, as it’s still early on and the emphasis is on Usagi and Mamoru’s romance; however, one of Beryl’s generals (Zoisite) appears on TV disguised as a woman, and when Usagi sees Rei, she’s besotted by how “pretty” she is, complete with heart eyes — make of that what you will.
We’ll return with the second half of the ‘Dark Kingdom’ arc next week.