Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon

Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, 美少女戦士セーラームーン in Japanese, is a television program about a group of teenage girls who fight evil while wearing sailor suits, substantial variants on the standard Japanese girl's school uniform. I watch it every week, often on video because it shows at 7:30 in the morning, and I've bought the DVDs as they've come out. The target audience is four-year-old girls. What on earth am I doing?

First, I would like to make it absolutely clear that I am not watching it because the main characters are a group of very attractive young women in extremely short skirts. (Voices off: So, you watch it for the pretty boys in sparkly suits, then?) OK, the attractive young women aren't the whole reason I watch it. If that was what I was after I could watch hot spring review programs and see attractive young women in short towels. I watch Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon because it's good.

The nominal plot and backstory, as I understand them, are as follows. A long time ago there was a kingdom on the Moon, where the Moon Princess was guarded by four Sailor Senshi representing the four Inner Planets. (Jupiter gets to be an Inner Planet.) There was also a Dark Kingdom, with Four Heaven Kings (四天王) leading their Youma (long 'o', like 'sew') troops. (The 'Four Heaven Kings' is a reference to Japanese Buddhist mythology.) There was a war, which ended in a big disaster with everyone dead.

Now, everyone has been reborn in Tokyo. Most of them are currently in their early to late teens, and they are slowly waking up to their powers and memories of the previous time. The Dark Kingdom, led by Queen Beryl and the mysterious Queen Metallia, are raising Youma to steal energy from human beings and increase their power ready to attack again.

At least, that's what I think is going on. I never saw the manga or anime the live series is based on, the story has changed anyway, and I'm extracting this from something I've seen entirely in Japanese. Serious misunderstandings are a real possibility.

However, I don't think that's very important, because I don't think the nominal plot is the important one. Certainly, the Dark Kingdom sends Youma (generally people in silly rubber suits -- well-made silly rubber suits, but silly nevertheless) to do something bad every episode, and the Sailor Senshi get to fight the Youma-of-the-week. But that's generally a distraction from the main plot of the episode; or, rather, it's a narrative tool to generate the tension needed for the real plot.

The real plot is about the characters, about their relationships, personal growth, and personal choices. This is not really surprising. Good fantastic fiction is almost always about people. The fantastic elements allow you bring certain things into focus more easily, have people deal with situations they wouldn't normally face, and, most importantly, provide an entertaining escape from reality. I like, and write, fantasy because I enjoy that sort of story, not as some sort of substitute for realistic fiction.

There's more going on in the series than I can summarise in this essay, so I'll just talk about some of the plots, themes, and character development going on around the five main Sailor Senshi. The main driving theme of the series seems to be friendship. Four of the five Sailor Senshi are friends, and the vicissitudes of that relationship are very important to the show.

Sailor Moon, played by 沢井美優 (Sawai Miyuu), is the central character, and the reincarnation of the princess. Thus, many of the plots, although not all, revolve around the other characters' relationships with her. While the story is in favour of friendship, this is not addressed in a simplistic fashion. Being friendly does not magically solve all the problems that the characters face. Obviously, they can't solve all their problems with their magic, either. In the first episode, Sailor Moon (Tsukino Usagi when she's being a normal girl) discovers her powers because she wants to help her best friend, Naru. But Naru is not a Sailor Senshi, which means that the strains arising between Usagi and Naru because Usagi has new friends whom Naru cannot simply join are a continuing theme. Things do get resolved, but the storyline makes something of the fact that your old friends won't immediately accept your new friends just because they're your new friends.

In the second episode, Usagi discovers that her classmate Mizuno Ami, played by 浜千咲 (Hama Chisaki), is Sailor Mercury, the second Sailor Senshi. Usagi immediately wants to be friends, because that's just the sort of person she is, but Ami hasn't had any real friends before, and thinks Usagi only wants to be friends because she wants Ami to be another Senshi. (The scene where Usagi explains herself to Ami strains suspension of disbelief a bit, because Ami's reaction isn't "You're barking mad. Stay away from me, mad person.". But anyway...) Usagi wanted to be friends before she knew Ami was a Senshi, and Ami wants to be friends as well, but she isn't at all sure how to go about it. Thus, there's an entire episode revolving around Ami being insecure over whether she has real friends or not, and trying rather too hard to be a real friend.

The third episode introduces Hino Rei, played by 北川景子 (Kitagawa Keiko), as Sailor Mars. Rei is very independent, and rather scared of making friends. She is ultimately convinced that it would be a good idea, but unlike Ami she doesn't immediately become enthusiastically friendly. Indeed, six months later (time in the series matches real time) she's still rather stand-offish, although she is getting better. It's obvious that she hasn't previously had anyone she can really rely on, and that it is taking her some time to get used to the idea that she can rely on the other Senshi.

The fourth Senshi, Sailor Jupiter or Kino Makoto, played by 安座間美優 (Azama Myuu -- although the kanji for her given name are the same as Sawai-san's, the reading is slightly different) is quite explicitly used to being abandoned by everyone in her life, so that in the end she is always alone. Her parents died when she was young, and she lost most of her friends when she had to change schools. She's still more willing to be friendly with the other Senshi than Rei, but I'm not sure that she's still completely convinced that they are going to stay around. That may have changed after the latest episode, when she regained more of her memories.

The final Senshi, Sailor Venus or Aino Minako, played by 小松彩夏 (Komatsu Ayaka), is a special case. Minako is a pop star, and Usagi, Ami, and Makoto are all big fans of hers. By episode 31, Usagi still doesn't know that Minako is Sailor Venus, although all the other Senshi know who everyone is. Minako is, obviously, somewhat outside the group. There are two reasons for this. One is that she is really famous. The other is that she is dying of a brain tumour. This being a Japanese children's TV show, it is entirely possible that she will actually die at some point. This being a fantasy TV show, it's entirely possible that she will come back from the dead as well. Actually, I believe that everyone dies at least once in the anime.

Anyway, Minako's isolation from the group provides a valuable nuance to the theme of the importance of friendship. Minako isn't portrayed as hopelessly crippled by keeping herself to herself and staying aloof, although there are hints that it would be better if she did trust the other Senshi more. Friendship is important, but not essential.

The last couple of episodes have also introduced a new character, Kuroki Mio, played by 有沙 (Alisa). Mio appears to have some supernatural powers, but primarily she is trying to make Usagi's life hell by pretending to befriend her and then betraying her at critical moments, hoping to drive all Usagi's other friends away so that she has to rely on Mio, who hates her. This is more convincingly evil than most of the monsters in rubber suits, and, of course, an excellent counterpoint to the friendship theme. Usagi is being relentlessly nice and trusting, even though Minako, who got dragged in, has warned her about Mio's character. I'm not entirely sure how I want this story to play out. On the one hand, I, personally, tend to act as if I believe that the Usagi strategy works. On the other hand, I don't really believe it.

That should convince you that the story has rather more to it than 'kill the monster, find the treasure, become more powerful'. The script seems good, although I can't speak to the technical execution of the language. I barely understand some parts, still, particularly when the Dark Kingdom people are talking. (They use different speech patterns, ones I'm not so familiar with. I suspect they're very harsh speech patterns, given that they're the baddies...)

The cast are also surprisingly impressive. The eldest of the Senshi actresses is seventeen, and the youngest is still fifteen. Most of them had no prior acting experience at all -- they were models, for the most part. Nevertheless, they have certainly grown into the parts. They are much better now than they were in the first episodes, and I suspect that they will continue to get better over the second half of the series. There's now enough character development, and enough acting skill, to support purely character-based comedy, which was used very effectively in the most recent episode. All the Senshi have magic keitai (cell phones) which can change their clothes, hair, and make-up to match anyone photographed using the phone's camera. Makoto was (reluctantly) going on a date, so they tried to pretty her up by using the clothes in the other Senshi's cameras. Usagi's clothes didn't suit Makoto. Rei had a policewoman's and firefighter's uniform in her phone, which was completely in character -- she had things she thought might be useful. Ami had sixties-style mini dresses, which really didn't match her public image. The comedy there came mainly from the expressions on everyone's faces, particularly the shift in Ami's expression when she realised how her friends were looking at her.

Basically, the girls (none of them is eighteen yet, I can call them girls) can all act, and seem to be coping pretty well with the punishing filming schedule. The show did take a week off, which was explained on the Toei website (Toei is the production company) as being due to the need for the cast and crew to take a break, and reset the schedule to allow a bit more time for rehearsals and the like. They have to go to school as well, and attend various promotional events, although not too many of those. I am sure that I couldn't cope with that sort of schedule, but then I'm a complete wimp when it comes to long days anyway. I guess that makes me a fan. (Favourite actress? Difficult, but I think Kitagawa-san is just ahead. Most days I think she's the prettiest (always on Tuesday, of course), and she lists reading as one of her hobbies. Clearly a major good point, even if I can be virtually certain that she's never read my books, and thus doesn't know what she's missing. The thing is, they're all good, all pretty, and all far too young for me...)

The mention of comedy and the Toei website brings up another reason I like the series. It doesn't take itself solemnly. It isn't a comedy, but It has deliberately funny moments, and, I think handles them well. The Toei website also doesn't take things solemnly, pointing out that one episode's plot had a hole large enough to drive a truck through, and then discussing the truck they drove through it. They do, on the other hand, clearly take it very seriously. It's a major project, and they want it to be as good and popular as possible. But there's a limit to how earnest you can be about a show that, every week, involves teenage girls in microminiskirts fighting rubber-suit monsters, and Toei stay within that limit.

The original author of Sailor Moon is Takeuchi Naoko, and she is, it seems, closely involved with the TV series. The henshin keitai (transformation cell phones), for example, weren't in the original series, which was written ten years ago, but were added to this version by Takeuchi-sensei. I'm not clear on just how much of the script she writes (reading Japanese credits takes a lot of time for relatively little reward), but she's obviously very good, as is anyone helping her. (Ooh, found a credit I could read. Other people are helping. They're good too.)

OK, so the last few paragraphs have degenerated into me saying that I think everyone's doing a great job. (Set designers, directors, cameramen, all them too.) But I think they are, and my experience of doing similar things (Buy My Books!) has convinced me that it's worth saying that, especially since there's an established and fanatical Sailor Moon fanbase, some of whom are doubtless sending hate mail to the actresses for not going nude like they "should" during the transformation sequences. Unfortunately, I doubt most of the cast and crew can read English fluently.


Right, that covers the remote possibility that they actually find this page.

Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, despite being aimed at four-year-old girls, is really well done, with enough character depth and good enough acting to be appreciated by adults. Unlike most of the thirty-something men I've seen posting to message boards about it, I don't need to claim very young daughters to justify my interest. The show is good enough in itself. I would recommend that you watch it, but, er, it's in Japanese...

David Chart
17 May 2004
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