So we’ve finished the 26 episodes of the reboot of the first magical-girl-mixed-with-sentai-elements series.
While rumors swirl of a continuation, I explain why I felt let down by the revival of my first anime and manga. UPDATE: Season three confirmed.
Spoilers for the original anime, Crystal, and manga are below. However, most information is pretty much common knowledge by now. More importantly, long post ahead!
Let me start off with this: I am a Moonie. Like many fans, I started with the original English dub, and from there I picked up the Tokyopop manga. Over the years, I have collected many Sailor Moon-related goods, the highlight being all the artbooks (including Infinity). It was this series that started my love for anime and manga, and it will always have a special place in my heart.
Like many others, I was very, VERY excited to learn a reboot was coming as part of the 20th anniversary celebration. For a while there, I was checking every day for news of the reboot. Then the news dried up. The original release date came and went, and even news about the new artbook didn’t emerge. Finally, Crystal was announced, and now it has been completed.
First, I’d like to talk about expectations. People say that all disappointments are the result of expectations. Their solution? Don’t have expectations. I must say, that is one of the stupidest responses. I expect the sun to rise. I expect when I go to a restaurant the meal will be good. I expect not to be injured going down the stairs. If I don’t expect anything, then any day must be a good one. Sorry, but that is not how people live. Let me vent. Let me have a bad day without turning it into a competition. And if you don’t expect anything, then aren’t you almost expecting something bad?
So let’s talk about expectations for Sailor Moon Crystal. I don’t think my expectations were unreasonable. I wasn’t expecting the original voice cast to come back. (A good portion are retired or only work semi-regularly.) I knew Moonlight Densetsu wouldn’t return as the opening. I figured Usagi’s crybaby habits would be toned down because of Mitsuishi’s age. I knew it was going to be different from the manga. I own the manga. I’ve read the manga. Several times, several versions. I know the story. And this was not the anime I wanted nor what the series deserved. It is because of the art and animation? Well, partly yes, but the story was a big factor as well.
Before I delve further, I would like to remind everyone of how the Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon manga was created. As you probably already know, the series is a spinoff of another series, Codename: Sailor V. Codename: Sailor V was only intended to be a one-shot, but it was turned into a series. TV executives approached her for an adaptation based on her work. The new series would be serialized in monthly Nakayoshi instead of the bimonthly RunRun. For a year, she worked on a concept with the executives before coming up with the final version.
The first chapter debuted only a month before the anime premiered. The titular character’s name “Sailor Moon” was only finalized the month before the manga’s first chapter. Her original intention was the have Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and Venus die. Osabu, her editor, rejected it. In addition, according to a recent interview with Takeuchi’s editor Osabu, it was the sales of the toy Moon Stick that made the show continue. Takeuchi struggled to come up with the plot until Osabu suggested including Usagi’s future daughter.
I also want to add that Takeuchi was hardly a well-known mangaka at the time she started Sailor Moon. Her longest series was only three volumes long. And while Sailor Moon is incredibly influential and a fan-favorite, Takeuchi herself is pretty much the definition of a one-hit wonder. All her post-Sailor Moon series have been canceled, and she hasn’t started any new manga in years.
Regardless, there are two major points I am making here. First, the manga was not designed to be a long-running series. This was a series Takeuchi was making up on the fly. She did not plan on the series going beyond the battle against the Dark Kingdom, and even her some original plans were not used in the manga. (Diana the Moon Fairy.) Secondly, the whole purpose of the project was cross-exposure; the manga was not designed to be independent. It’s barely the first version, and it is hardly well-acknowledged as the best.
The Definitive Version
Before Sailor Moon Crystal, fans spent years going back and forth over which version of Sailor Moon is superior. Most fans, including myself, would agree there is no one “definitive” version. The manga has the better overall storyline (especially in the later arcs) while the anime adds characterization and world-building. The live action focuses heavily on the characters, while the musicals include a lot of teamwork and the full group scenes not available in the other media. They each have their own strengths and weaknesses. The manga moves too quickly, the anime too slowly. The live action has some…strange choices but excellent character development, and the musicals have to pack an entire arc into a couple of hours but is still accessible to newbies.
While some people call Sailor Moon dated (and many of its aspects are not nearly as impressive 20+ years later with numerous spiritual sequels), the series is still loved to this day. Fans all across the world were clamoring for rereleases of the anime and manga, so the series must have done something right for it to be remembered so fondly years later.
That being said, there was no reason not to give the new anime a nice treatment. Firstly, nostalgia sells. A good reboot can attract the original audience while bringing in new fans. For a show like Sailor Moon, this could be huge. Toy and merchandise sales make up the bulk of an anime’s profits. Even now the series sells little gashapon (capsule toys) of the series’ wands and yet also sells $100 USD models of them. Candies sell for less than a dollar yet a $3,000 USD tiara is available to purchase. Potential buyers of merchandise for a series with an established fan base is much wider than when launching a new show.
And yes, I know Toei isn’t the highest-quality studio. I know they spend most of their female-targeting budget on Precure. But Crystal‘s budget does not explain or excuse its significant downfalls.
When Crystal was confirmed to be 26 episodes, some people assumed a manga act-for-act adaptation, but this was not the common belief. I also thought this series would solely deal with the battle against the Dark Kingdom. And I truly think it should have.
“Well, it was known from the beginning!” some claim. That’s simply not true. Yes, it was pretty much confirmed by the time the first episode aired. (The eyecatch, the images of the charms in the limited edition, and the episode titles.) Early interviews confirmed it was a new story, but no where did they reveal “Act-by-Act with some changes as we see fit”. And no where in the previews hinted at a mysterious young girl arriving or a time trip into the future.
Based on my quick calculations, the average chapter for the Dark Kingdom arc was 44 pages in length. Given that an episode of the anime has about 22 minutes of actual story, this means the manga has to cover two pages a minute. While this would probably be considered a pretty fast reading speed, this is much more difficult when having to voice the lines. While some pages — which are close ups with no dialogue — are easy to read and voice in 30 seconds, the more dialogue and action-oriented scenes are harder to wrap up in about 30 seconds. The characters also transform instantly in the manga. Magical girl transformations are a common staple in anime, and this also takes away time from that precious 22 minutes. Throw in speeches (now another staple), and more seconds are stolen away.
If the series continues as a “direct” adaptation, they’re going to run into even more problems: the Infinity arc averages closer to 50 pages, some almost 70. Plus it introduces additional Guardians. That means Crystal could include even more transformations, speeches, attacks, and character speaking. So this could push the average time per page down to around 20-22 seconds. It needs room to breathe, and not just to include all the scenes in each chapter in the manga.
“Filler” in anime is somewhat subjective. Is any story or episode that is unique to the anime automatically a filler? Is any episode or chapter with no major revelation or development filler? Or is “filler” reserved for several episodes of no major story development in a row? Cross Game, for instance, has a couple of episodes not in the original manga. The events in those episodes were vaguely referenced in a chapter, so is it a filler or an expansion?
The Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon manga does not always pick up immediately after the previous chapter; time passes in between some of them. How much time is hard to say. In fact, no where in the manga does it say that the only battles the Guardians face are the ones in each Act. The manga includes the side story Casablanca Memories and later Chibi-Usa‘s Picture Diary, so these prove other things do happen between Acts.
There was no reason to do an Act-by-Act adaptation. I believe it would have been rather simple to stay almost perfectly faithful to the manga while bringing in its own additions and expansions, such as the Guardian x Shittenou love story (as much as I dislike it). A two cours anime would be 26 episodes, but 23 to 25 could also be done. Subtracting the 14 main acts of the manga leaves a manageable 9 to 12 episodes of “filler”. The aforementioned side story reduces these episodes by one. So somewhere between 8 and 11 episodes could have addressed any of these:
- Minako’s time as Sailor V (easily an episode or two);
- Shitennou love story (at least one episode, one could have easily tied it back to the ending of Codename: Sailor V);
- “Getting to know you” and “welcome to the team” episodes, especially featuring the more standoffish Rei and shy Ami, neither of which are social butterflies;
- Dividing chapters into two episodes (Acts 13 or 14, for instance, could be easily divided into two episodes).
If each of these added one episode, that’s four. Have each one cover two, and we’ve got a full 23 episodes. And outside of the Shitennou love story, none of these would affect the canonical manga storyline. Magical girl tale St. Tail has many unique stories and episodes, yet despite its additions, it comes back and covers the manga’s ending.
Personally, I always felt one of the biggest let-downs in the Dark Kingdom portion of the manga was how short the “Sailor V is the princess” deception lasts. I always felt like it should have spent a little time showing the readers Minako is not just mysterious but she has a hidden agenda. Minako and Artemis know who Tuxedo Mask is. Do they let him keep approaching the Princess, or should they separate him from Usagi in hopes of Princess Serenity reclaiming her throne on the Moon? What should their backup plan be when their enemies starts wondering why the Sailor Team hasn’t launched a counterattack with the “Legendary Silver Crystal”? Crystal did include a scene showing Minako and Artemis discussing their plans, but with Crystal‘s tight schedule and insertion of its own anime-exclusive relationships, this idea of a leader Minako didn’t lead to much. Which pretty much proves my point.
The show also has five major story arcs, so a successful adaptation could have easily turned this into well over 100 episodes. There’s a reason sequels are so popular: they’re cheaper. The company has most of the staff hired already, and they already have much of the artwork completed. It is pretty typical for viewership to drop the longer it goes, but the loss is offset by the savings from not having to create a new show from scratch. Plus fans would be happy to see the later arcs adapted, which are the manga chapters most significantly different from the original. The bi-monthly schedule would stink, as Minako would likely not have appeared until almost Christmas, but the extended schedule would allow Bandai and other companies plenty of time to market merchandise.
I also place much of the blame on the head writer. While only two people did the scripts, he wrote more of the weaker episodes like the horrible Act 12. Plus he’s the head writer, so he has more seniority over the other one.
Art and Animation
Of course, no critique of Crystal would be complete without commenting on the art.
“Stop hating on the art!” many of you are crying. There are blogs dedicated just to “hate” on the art, and Toei does make a lot of changes to the animation for the Blu-rays.
Sorry, but whether it’s an anime or manga, art is a key part of the visual experience. I know animators are underpaid and overworked, and this isn’t a high budget release. I know the art and animation are both touched up –at times heavily fixed — in the Blu-ray releases. But these don’t excuse Crystal‘s subpar visual experience.
I actually wanted to give Crystal a chance. I didn’t freak out in horror when I first saw the character designs, although they weren’t what I was expecting. I do feel there were reason the original anime altered some of Takeuchi’s art. I was not expecting a carbon copy of the original anime’s character designs, as this is a new show. But perhaps a less stylized style would have been easier for artists to replicate. And for as much as these are supposedly manga-faithful designs, why do the men in the original anime look closer to Takeuchi’s art? And some of the artwork is horrible. Sometimes it’s faces that look like they dropped in from another show, but even the official key art is less than stellar. (What is up with Mars on the third disc cover?!) Yes, I know not all of the art is great in the original anime, but did you miss the fact that it was released 20 years ago? If you seriously have to explain why the art is better in a show 20 years newer, you’ve lost.
The other part of the art is the actual animation. However, the motions are not well-done. Many times, Crystal feels like a vomic rather than an anime. Characters are stiff with only mouths moving. Wands twirling involve a whopping two frames. While I really don’t care for the CGI transformations, I could have dealt with it.
I’m sorry, this series has been around for 20+ years. Someone should have spotted the fact that a character is given the wrong haircolor in the opening or is wearing the wrong dress. Most of all, let’s not forget the epic fail in Act 17. This is more than just forgetting to color something in; the staff obviously is not as intimately acquainted with the show as they should be. Someone should have a) realized the staff looks completely different and/or b) have the actual stock footage clearly labeled. How the heck did they pull a one-instance attack footage and use it for something else?!
The Fan Split
I will say that no adaptation would have pleased everybody. One of my favorite sayings is from Whose Line is it Anyway?: “Nine out of ten Americans agree that out of ten Americans, one will disagree with the other nine!” And I certainly can’t fault anybody for liking Crystal. But I really believe the show could have — should have — been stronger. And I am prepared to argue this point further.
“That’s how the manga did it!”
This is not an excuse, as Crystal takes plenty of liberties. Yeah, it made so much more sense for Usagi to randomly run away since others warn her about Tuxedo Mask, and then she collapses from exhaustion from running rather than she falling into a trap, scolding herself and questioning her abilities as leader since she was dumb enough to get her energy stolen. Or the fact the Queen doesn’t summon her minions while being attacked. Or that no one — including the genius girl — says, “Hey, you know how our old boyfriends are brainwashed? Maybe that lookalike we’re seeing is actually Usagi’s boyfriend brainwashed!” Ami’s episode against Berthier adds some nice characterization to the plot without being either too much of a copy or too independent.
It also takes cues from the 90s anime: the ending catchphrase, transformations, poses, even the watch scene in Act 12. So it’s not like it couldn’t have taken more inspiration from the first anime.
I will say the Black Moon arc is much better than the Dark Kingdom arc. The writers don’t try to force new storylines, and characters are generally more consistent in each episode.
So while many fans point to Crystal‘s story as “being how Takeuchi intended it”, it was. And just because something was her original intention means it’s superior.
“You’re just blinded by nostalgia!”
It wasn’t too long ago Kodansha USA rereleased the manga. I enjoyed the plot almost as much as when I first read it. (Except for their horrible translation, but that’s another rant for another time.) So why do I not feel that same thrill when I sit down every other week or so? Sorry, but if wasn’t a fan, I’d have dropped it a long time ago. I probably would have collected the manga and that’s it.
I don’t think it was unreasonable to expect for a multimedia juggernaut to take inspiration from other series. While many of us, including myself, wanted to see a more manga-faithful version in anime form, we didn’t mean Act by Act!
Crystal also eventually recruited some members of the original anime metaseries. So someone must have realized it need more of the 90s touch.
“Well, my friends have never seen the original anime, and they love it!”
Good for them.
What, you think I’m going to go over to your friends are start lecturing? If they — and you — like the series, that’s fine. But liking it doesn’t mean it couldn’t have been better. And there is no way to prove you and your friends wouldn’t have also loved the series if all 26 episodes were dedicated to the battle against the Dark Kingdom.
“Just be grateful!”
I don’t believe the fact that a new anime was produced is enough to give it a pass. Otherwise any movie, TV show, or book that is given a new form should automatically be given the same pass: “At least fans got a new [insert story/movie/show].” Should I not be allowed to critique a sloppy translation because it’s finally available in English? Movies like Jurassic World because a new sequel was finally released? Anime adaptations of manga or light novels? Should nobody be allowed to voice their opinions on a movie or TV show since the companies were, to have some people tell it, “so kind enough” to make one?
Of course not, that’s ridiculous.
What Crystal Does Right
So am I a hater? Some people would probably argue yes. I don’t hate Crystal, but I don’t think I love it. That doesn’t mean I don’t recognize its successes.
The voices are well-done. Some are obviously copycats of the original, but they are still very good. (I’ll always hear the original cast when reading the manga, though. I’ve heard them in my head for too long to change now.) Out of the new cast, I really like Koshimizu’s Jupiter. I know a lot of people praise the BGM, but I admit I usually don’t pay too much attention to the music in the background of any show. Moon Pride is strangely addictive (but I still think it fits the 90s series better). The Easter egg in Act 14 was wonderful.
Overall, the Guardians’ debut episodes are excellent, combining the main manga’s plot with the metaseries’ overall focus on how Usagi is love personified. Act 5 is loved by many (including me) for showing Crystal‘s visual and story quality. It’s a shame that team has never returned. And the Black Moon episodes are much better without the two writers trying to force in their own ideas.
Some point to Takeuchi as the problem, but without evidence, this is mere speculation. I have absolutely no doubt something went haywire in negotiations after the anime was approved and announced.
Personally, I think something big went down between Takeuchi and Toei. My first guess would be the return of Mitsuishi, but I imagine there were other issues as well. Did Takeuchi want a more direct adaptation, or did Toei want to essential create Sailor Moon Kai? Who knows. But I do believe something went down, enough that this supposed artbook (well, artbooks — several versions for different regions) has still not been released. Toei, knowing they couldn’t cancel the project, hired newbies to lead the project. They gain experience, are cheaper than experienced staff, and Toei just wanted to get it done.
I also believe they probably took some fast money in a deal with Nico Nico. I do not believe that a series that can release lingerie and feminine pads and even $3,000 wedding tiaras could not get a TV sponsor. It eventually did, but I think they could have gotten a TV broadcast sooner if they wanted to.
Things I would have Done
- Make all 26 episodes about the Dark Kingdom fight. Enough said. Filler is not necessarily evil.
- Throw in more Easter eggs, references, and/or hints like Luna in Act 14. For instance, I might have added a poster of Haruka and/or Michiru somewhere on a billboard. How exciting would it have been for fans to see a shout-out while also making it seem like the two were not just suddenly written in to the story? Or perhaps showing the Guardians who live in Crystal Tokyo their “eternal” forms.
- If they (or Takeuchi) wanted a SenshixShitennou love story, make it more believable than 4 way (8 way?) love at first sight. Jupiter and Venus, okay. Mercury and Mars? Uh-uh.
Rumored Third Season
Before you say anything, Toei considers “season two” to be the Black Moon arc despite them saying Crystal is 26 episodes. Regardless, Toei needs to take the time and make some changes. UPDATE: Both the character designer and director have left Toei, so I imagine there will be some big changes.
- Incorporate the manga designs, yet make them streamlined. Takeuchi’s art is very stylized, and obviously the animators have difficultly keeping them on-model. I’d rather have less faithful designs and more consistent faces from frame to frame.
- Better animation. I mean actual movement and not just a couple of frames in a loop that looks like a gif. Hire more key animators to help.
- Drop the Act by Act adaptation. Chapters are simply too long to adapt faithfully without either rushing or eliminating scenes. The crunch would only get worse from here. You cannot take 50, 60, 70 pages, cram it into 22 minutes, and still expect the story to be good and clear.
- I would make the battle against the Death Busters last a good 20+ episodes. At the very least, the exam battles should be included. But fillers are not evil. Include them. With several new Guardians entering the scene, the original four’s individuality becomes even less obvious.
- Get writers who can make good changes to the story. The alterations the writers made in the Dark Kingdom arc were terrible. Inconsistent, senseless, and terrible.
- Clearly mark your stock footage. Good grief.
If you love Crystal, that’s fine. Good for you. I am not trying to take away your love for the series. That being said, I believe there was little reason for this show not to one of the best adaptations of this schoolgirl-turned-superhero series. It had 20 years of inspiration, and it has little to show for it. The fact that it doesn’t makes Crystal a huge disappointment.
How do you feel about Sailor Moon Crystal?