This post has been corrected, as detailed below.
Twenty years ago this week, a new face debuted on Japanese television: ditzy, often klutzy, the 14-year-old Serena had a disdain for homework, often overslept and seemed forever hungry, especially for desserts — hardly a prepossessing heroine.
But Serena’s arrival on “Sailor Moon,” based on the manga by Naoko Takeuchi, would alter the course of animation and fandom on both sides of the Pacific. The manga and the original 43-episode program “Bishojo Senshi Sera Mun” (variously translated as “Pretty Soldier, Guardian” or “Scout, Sailormoon”) spawned sequels, movies, video games, stage musicals, a live-action TV show and countless licensed products, from dolls to Cosplay costumes. “Sailor Moon” also sparked an interest in shojo (girls’) manga and anime in America.
Serena thinks of herself as the ordinary girl she appears to be until the talking cat Luna explains she’s really the Moon Princess, whose mother arranged for her and her protector-friends to be reborn in the future, away from the evil forces of the Dark Kingdom. (Serena’s name, Usagi or “Rabbit,” emphasizes her link to the moon; in Japanese folklore, there’s a Rabbit, rather than a Man in the Moon.) With Luna’s help, Serena re-discovers her long-lost friends: Amy, Mina, Raye and Lita are Sailors Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter. Also on hand is Serena’s heartthrob Darien, who appears as the debonair Tuxedo Mask. Later in the series, they’re joined by Sailors Uranus, Neptune and Pluto, and Serena’s future daughter, the ultra-cute Rini.
The Sailor Scouts must defeat a variety unsavory villains, whose schemes involve pillaging the delicate feelings of others to gain energy and power for their dark overlords. Professor Tomoe and his assistant Kaorinite unleash shape-shifting “daimons” to steal the crystalline hearts of the pure. When the eerie Dead Moon Circus appears in Tokyo, Ringmaster Zirconia sends out the Amazon Trio to find a “mirror of beautiful dreams” that will enable them to capture the magical Pegasus.
The series presents a message of female empowerment in a candy-colored wrapper. When Serena makes her transition to her alter-identity Sailor Moon (a sequence as essential to every episode as Clark Kent ducking into a phone booth to emerge as Superman), she keeps her mini-skirted schoolgirl’s uniform, which resembles a sailor suit, and acquires gloves, a tiara, a magic wand and high-heeled boots on her impossibly long legs: Supergirl meets Heidi Klum, with a stripper’s version of Shirley Temple fashions. But when she announces to malefactors, “For love and justice, I am the pretty sailor-suited soldier Sailor Moon! In the name of the moon, I will punish you!” it’s no idle threat. Even the dashing Tuxedo Mask sometimes needs rescuing.
“We believe that part of the lasting appeal of ‘Sailor Moon’ comes from the empowerment that it provides,” says Yasumasa Shimizu, President of Kodansha USA Publishing, which publishes the English translation of the manga in America. “It is a story that encourages young people to stand up for themselves, be independent, and fight for what is right. Sailor Moon’s journey is one of friendship, determination, magic and love.”
Like many classic fairy tales, the stories show seemingly frail young girls drawing on hidden reserves of power to defeat an array of powerful villains from the Dark Kingdom. Takeuchi had originally planned the manga as a brief, 14-chapter tale, but it proved so popular her editors convinced her to expand it to 52 chapters. In Japan, the anime enjoyed a similar popularity and helped to revitalize the “magical girl” genre.
Until the animated “Sailor Moon” appeared in the U.S. in 1995, there was little interest in anime series aimed at girls. Although DIC substantially reworked the storylines to make them more appropriate for younger viewers, the program proved popular enough to compel its young female audience to buy the manga, DVDs and related products. Many of these girls hadn’t frequented comic book stores or the small import shops that deal in anime paraphernalia. But as American girls shared “Sailor Moon” with their friends, the audience grew rapidly, leading to the release of more shojo series and a boom in anime fandom among girls and young women.
Frederik Schodt, the author of “Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics,” comments, “I remember going to anime conventions in the U.S. and seeing lots of little girl fans in ‘Sailor Moon’ outfits—and lots of big, burly middle-aged men wearing them for fun. It was proof to me that Japanese animation had really gone completely, absolutely mainstream. I also marveled at how entertainment properties can be reinterpreted in completely novel ways across cultures, and provide even more entertainment than the creators ever imagined.”
The influence of “Sailor Moon” can be seen on numerous series involving magical girls, from “Fushigi Yugi: The Mysterious Play” and “Cardcaptor Sakura” in Japan to “The Powerpuff Girls” in the U.S. In the current best-selling fantasy-adventure “Fairy Tail,” the redoubtable wizard Erza dons her magical armor in a transition scene that recalls Serena in “Sailor Moon.” Never underestimate the power of a pretty girl in a sailor suit.
For the record, 8:55 p.m., March 8.: An earlier version of this post said Serena’s future daughter was named Chibiusa. In the U.S. version of “Sailor Moon,” she was named Rini.
— Charles Solomon
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