Wednesday, July 16, 2014

A New Spin on an Old Favorite - Review of "Sailor Moon Crystal, Act 1: Usagi"

Sailor Moon Crystal Review - Act 1, Usagi

Phew - I’m here for this finally!

I wasn't sure how I was going to properly review something like Sailor Moon Crystal. It’s got a lot of nostalgia for me and I wondered if I’d be able to critique it properly, or if I’d crack good-natured jokes about it at random times, or if I’d just end up fangirl flailing all over the place.

Actually - I think I’m going to end up doing some combination of all three. You all know me - if I love something, then by damn I’m going to LOVE ALL OVER IT! and totally ignore all the little ticky-tack hang-ups that most fans let themselves get blocked with (why let little nit-picky details ruin your fun? It’s just kind of sad to me that there are so many fans that are saying “Well, if they do X then I won’t watch” or “If they do Y wrong, it’s total deal-breaker for me!” Seriously, guys - give the series a chance to get going!) There’s is plenty to squee and get excited about, so hold onto your tiaras - we’re heading in!

Sailor Moon Crystal premiered on Saturday July 5, 2014 at 7:00 pm Japan Time, with concurrent digital releases all over the world through distributors like NicoNico, Crunchyroll, Neon Alley, and Hulu. Which meant that it would be available for me at 4:00 am Mountain Time. To set up some background of Where Were You When... - I was visiting my family for the 4th of July weekend. I was sleeping on a couch in my parents’ basement with two of my younger sisters sleeping in adjoining rooms. I knew many Moonies were planning on watching the first episode pretty much as it went out (for the North American English speaking fans, that meant Insane O’Clock In the Morning). I figured if I was awake at that time, I would join the festivities. But if not, it’d be there in the morning, which is usually when I catch up on my Hulu Plus viewing anyway (I have an odd TV watching schedule, by virtue of my unorthodox work schedule. It’s just something that works for me).

Well, my internal clock was more excited than I was, for I achieved consciousness precisely at 4:01 am. I just kind of woke up and thought “Hm - wonder what time it is?” Checked my phone and, sure enough, it was time. And it wasn't like I was in the groggy half-awake state. Oh no - I was alert and ready to get up and go (well, I was alert enough to want to check my phone, at least). So, I pulled up the Hulu app and looked to see if the episode was live - yes, indeed it was. And there I was - in the basement, in the middle of the night, unbeknownst to anyone, with the volume turned down low (well - I had my headphones on), with my sisters in the next bedroom, watching Sailor Moon (which is something I used to do Back In The Day - except it involved sneaking out of my room with a manky recorded VHS tape of the Sailor Moon R movie and turning the TV volume waaaaaay down low so my sister in the next room wouldn't wake up and find out what I was doing. It was easier than watching it in broad daylight when my family would inevitably wander in and give me dirty looks and snarky comments about what I was watching).

So, I pretty much had the nostalgia factor covered. What did I think about the actual episode?

First off - I had no illusions that this would be anything like the original anime. Which I am eternally thankful for. Not that I don’t love the original '90s anime - trust me, I adore the original Sailor Moon anime! (even the English dub that seems to get so much vitriol for simply being a product of its time. Good grief, people!) Now that Viz has been re-releasing the remastered episodes on Hulu Plus, that’s the first thing I do on Monday mornings anymore! But I wanted Crystal to be it’s own thing. There have been several adaptations of Sailor Moon throughout the years - the anime, live action, musicals, video games. You can even throw in fan-created media if you like (though it is certainly unofficial). And just from looking at the initial promo pictures and animation in the trailer - I thought Crystal looked absolutely gorgeous. I mean, the original anime had a comedic quality to it and that was reflected in the animation styles. Sure, there were serious and dramatic moments, but at its core, the original Sailor Moon anime was about fun - it didn't get bogged down in the drama as much. Which was totally fine - people love that. Hell, I loved that!

But with the promise that Crystal would follow the tone and style of the original manga, I knew we would be getting something totally new. If you've never read the Sailor Moon manga, the story is much darker, but also possesses a more ethereal beauty. The story deal with princesses of the planets in our solar system who also become superheroes and fight against dark forces in the universe. It deals so much in contrasts of light and darkness, hate and love, ordinary people learning to achieve their utmost potential - whatever that might be. There are some deep and thought-provoking themes in this story that - I will be 100% honest - I think the only season that came close to doing full justice to those themes is the Sailor Moon S season, when one of the Sailor Guardians’ most deadly enemies is actually someone who should be a friend and ally. But the rest... yeah, they don’t really reach that level of depth (this is NOT a bad thing! It’s just different).

Again - this is NOT a rant about “This Thing Is Better Than That Thing and That Thing Sucks.” There has been plenty of that going around fandom and I don’t want to get dragged into that. But I do want to talk about what I loved about Crystal and a big part of that is how much of the spirit of the original manga story shines through here.

So, personally, I’m thrilled to get to see a new side of Sailor Moon in an animated version. And episode 1 did not disappoint.

Most of the different versions of Sailor Moon start out with the same storyline with very little variation - Usagi being very late for school, tripping over a mysterious cat with a crescent-shaped bald spot, getting to school, having to stand in the hallway as punishment for being late, getting a 30% on her test, being pissed about said test, going to her best friend’s mother’s jewelry store where Ultimate Evil is lurking, then going to the arcade to play the Sailor V game, being followed by the cat from earlier, still being pissed about her test, chucking it away where it hits a handsome stranger in the face, said handsome stranger gives her grief about it, she yells at him because she’s frustrated, but gives him a second glance Because Reasons, she goes home, her mother finds out about her test, kicks her out of the house, she cries until her mother lets her back in, the cat from earlier jumps in through the window and gives her a Magical Item that turns her into a Pretty Guardian for Love and Justice, she uses her newfound powers to discover that Ultimate Evil has attacked her best friend’s mother’s jewelry store, she cries because being a superhero is hard, her crying defeats bad guys (mostly), she gets encouragement from a mysterious figure who may or may not be associated with the handsome stranger from earlier, she defeats Ultimate Evil, and the next day the school is all hyped up about a robbery and assault being foiled by a young girl in a sailor suit using magical powers to defeat her enemies.

That’s it. That’s the show.

The Final Frontier (wait...)
In those broad, sweeping strokes, Sailor Moon Crystal follows the same formula there. However, there are small things that set it apart and, while most of that is design, there are two key scenes that are obviously setting up for future plot points (these plot points are well-known to longtime fans, but this will be a big-time spoiler for anyone who isn’t familiar with the story, so proceed with the appropriate caution). The first scene is at the very beginning where we see SPACE and planets and all manner of pretty things in the galaxy (accompanied by lots of beautiful “OOOOHHH-ey” music). Little by little, the focus moves into our solar system and eventually to the moon and earth where a beautiful young woman is secretly meeting a handsome man and they’re obviously in love and I’m certain this a completely innocent and sweet occurrence and nothing bad is ever going to come of this.

(all you long-time Moonies know I’m being sarcastic).

Turns out, that little sequence was a dream that Usagi was having right before her mother calls up the stairs that she’s going to be late for school. So, already we've had the “pretty, ethereal” side of Sailor Moon followed up immediately by the “hey, I’m living in the drudgery of reality where I have to go to SCHOOL” appearance of the clumsy-yet-endearing crybaby Usagi Tsukino.

Our Heroine, everybody
I've got to talk about the choices they animation team made in the character design, but to do so, I have to fly the SPOILER flag since I have a theory about this that deals in some pretty hefty reveals that are coming later. If this is your first foray into the world of Sailor Moon and you don’t know the backstory, I would advise you save this part for later because That Reveal is pretty incredible and what I wouldn't give to experience it brand new all over again. So - SPOILERS - proceed with caution!

I feel like Crystal balances both sides of Usagi quite well (again, SPOILERS if you don’t know the story). On the one hand, she’s an ordinary girl who (in the grand tradition of protagonists in magical girl anime) is a crybaby klutz who is hopeless in academic pursuits, but has a good and kind heart and loves everybody she meets. On the other hand, Usagi is the reincarnation of the princess of the Moon Kingdom who is absolutely gorgeous and perfect and beautiful and everyone loves her (except for the Dark Kingdom, who despises everything beautiful and good, so they just hate her on principle). With this is mind, the animation style coupled with the voice acting and the writing captures the essence of Usagi’s character. She is a mess, she’s all over the place, she hates school, she cries because her mother’s mad at her for not studying harder and the class nerd rubs her face in her failures. All this time, she has the pretty, pretty princess look that is a bit of a nod to her future destiny. Personally, I think that’s a bold and brilliant move on the part of the animation team and that design is going to fold in beautifully when they get to the part of the story when the Whole Big Backstory Reveal happens (and, yes, I get that not everyone is enamored of those stylistic choices and I’m probably going to get some flack for suggesting this theory of the Whys and Wherefores, but that’s okay).

[SPOILERS are over. You’re safe now]

I have no reason for including this, other than it was funny
Enough theorizing - Sailor Moon Crystal, episode 1 was about establishing characters and plot and get things set up for the remainder of the series. Some have called this a shot-by-shot recreation of the manga and, to be perfectly honest, I am 100% on board with this. Don’t get me wrong - I love the original anime. But when I discovered the manga for the first time, I was immediately enchanted by it. For me, Sailor Moon was all about the romance. Yes, the friendships were fun and I enjoyed the Sailor Senshi (Ami Mizuno/Sailor Mercury is my favorite character, for crying out loud!) But damn if that Miracle Romance plotline wasn't compelling as hell. I can’t even really put my finger on why I love it so much, but I do. And that was front-and-center for most of the manga storyline, so when it comes down to which adaptation I love the most, the manga’s going to win that battle (unless it’s also in the live-action one, which... yeah, I haven’t mustered up the gumption to subject myself to that. Not yet). So, with this promise that Crystal is going to follow the manga pretty closely - you’re damn right I’m excited about it!

I believe in it. *cheesy grin*
(What can I say? Destiny’s kind of a fun thing to play around with. The idea of having big life choices already mapped out for you sort of appeals to me. I mean, you get the big stuff handled, but then you have to deal with the mid-sized/smaller issues that arise. So it’s not like you get off scot-free. Besides - you’re off saving the world. Wouldn't it be nice to have built-in loved ones already set up so you don’t have to deal with the messiness of dating and relationships and whatnot?)

(I probably just pissed off a huge swatch of the fandom that’s all “F*** This Romance Shit!” Which is their prerogative - but it’s funny when they get all indignant about it. I just enjoy poking that particular fandom bear).

I have to gush about the Dark Kingdom - at least, where I think they're going to go with the Dark Kingdom. Even though the Dark Kingdom scenes were brief and didn't contribute more to the plot than "New superhero needs villains to fight!", there was a lot packed in that scene for those who cared to look for it. This version of the Dark Kingdom is going to be so much, well, darker than in the original anime. I feel like there's a more sadistic twist to these bad guys and we're going to get to see that. Without going into spoilers - there is some evil, twisted stuff that comes out of the Dark Kingdom

Let me talk about Usagi's transformation sequence. I love it! Now, I'm not really "hip" to all the latest and greatest anime style and techniques, so I really don't know how CGI has factored into the anime industry as a whole, though I'm sure it's used just as much as in any other field of animation (and we would be foolish to think that Sailor Moon Crystal wouldn't use CGI at all). As far as updating a recognizable sequence that we fans know and love, I think it looks quite good. Um... yeah. Those are my deep and insightful thoughts on a visual medium. I know what I like. (If you'd like a direct visual comparison of the original vs the Crystal version, go here)

We're pretty, we're leggy, we're girly, and we're here to kick your ass!
The opening theme song is stellar (ha ha - I made a funny). It's a nice blend of the old stuff while also giving it a bit of an action-y sort of edge - plays into the characters' personalities that (I felt) were inherent in the original manga. The ending is quite beautiful too - great visuals with some gorgeous soft music that lets you come down off the non-stop action of the episode (I can only imagine how that contrast is going to feel after some of the heavier episodes that no doubt will leave even us veteran Moonies with our jaws on the floor).

Anyway - the idea of an animated version of the original manga is lots of fun for me. No doubt, they will throw in some new twists and details to make Crystal its own unique thing, but as it stands right now, I’m quite pleased with the story we got. And I quite eager to see where this all ends up going - if they truly will stick to the manga story or if there will be enough deviations to make a completely new storyline (the major elements will still be kept, I’m certain). We've only had one episode so far, so it’s way too early to tell, but I’m as excited about this as I was in July 2012 when they first announced Sailor Moon was getting a brand new anime series.

THERE'S my girl! (I hope Crystal gives you more reasons to smile, my friend)
Saturday is Sailor Mercury’s introduction episode (YAY!) so I may have that recap/review thingy up sooner than I had this one.

(Credit: All screencaps from Sailor Moon Screencaps)

No comments:

Post a Comment