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Anime Attempts – Sailor Moon: Crystal Ep.1

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In which I talk about my initial thoughts on Sailor Moon

If you’ll allow me a bunch of generalizations – Sailor Moon is the biggest anime series of all time.

Now before you all flame me to HFIL, hold on a sec. I know you loved watching the five episodes of Krillin gasping about power levels and then the one episode where they started punching but Dragonball, especially in its Z and post-Z years, has never had a lot of weight. Maybe, as a show, Sailor Moon isn’t too different. But Sailor Moon is a bit special because of the simple reason that were few other animated shows about women*. And none of them were nearly as iconic as Sailor Moon.   

*Other girl-centric (Western) animated shows I can think of from the same-ish period:  Jem She-Ra Strawberry Shortcake and the pre-Lauren Faust My Little Pony.

Now here’s the thing: I’ve never actually watched an episode of Sailor Moon.

Shocking, I know. It wasn’t on TV when I was growing up and my interest in children’s programming is… variable at best. I know I was probably not giving the series the shot it deserved, but there are many other things (like Rev., you should go watch all of Rev.) to occupy one’s time.

But then I heard about Sailor Moon: Crystal and dammit if it isn’t the perfect choice for an anime attempts article. So here we are, episode by episode write-ups of Sailor Moon: Crystal, for as long as my interest holds out.

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Episode I: Usagi – Sailor Moon

In which a new challenger appears!! and I try not to write about other things I’e been watching and fail

I’ve got nothing against re-makes. At least in theory. In practice things are a bit more complicated. But most re-makes tend to be attempts to cash in on the goodwill people have for the original property and rarely put in the effort to be, you know, good.

With Crystal (not typing the whole thing every time, sorry) things are a bit different. I actually have no idea how good the original is. And that’s definitely going to color these reviews. I can’t compare the series to its predecessor, but I can look on it with a fairly untinted eye.

I did say “fairly” though. I’m still aware of the series’s place in pop culture and its status as a re-make. And that can’t help but color my reaction to the opening moments:sm-1

A bunch of planets and portentous music. And then a woman in a shiny dress falls into the arms of a be-tuxedoed guy and stars and stuff. It turns out to be the dream of 14 year-old girl Usagi who is currently running late for school.

I have to admit that right off the bat the show had me a bit worried. The dream sequence, prophetic as it might have been, was a bit slow and then it decided to segue into our character introduction by doing this:sm-3

If you can’t tell, that’s the directors holding back on showing Usagi’s face to set up the “reveal” of her character design. It’s a bit of a wink and nod to the show’s dedicated fanbase, but it’s also something of a misstep. As someone who only knows the character through cultural osmosis, I don’t know much about the character. I don’t particularly care about the re-design or its revelation. What I need is to be engaged by the character as soon as possible so that I can be invested in the story. And preventing me from seeing the character’s primary mode of expression doesn’t help*.

*It’s anime. I can’t even understand the dialogue. And let’s not pretend it’s Noel Coward.

Thankfully once that scene is over the show decides to settle down and actually build the story from the ground up. Usagi runs into a stray cat and helps it, she gets berated at school for her grades, has to deal with the douche-y nerd kidsm-5

Urge to kill…rising

And is introduced to a friend’s mother who runs a jewelry shop

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And is also made out of gunk by shadowy evil forces, apparently.sm-7

She also manages to run into this guy who’s taken the words of Justin Timberlake ft. Jay-Z to heart.sm-8

It’s all the calm-before-the-storm stuff and I have to admit I have a weakness for this stuff. Even when it takes up an unreasonable amount of the opening of Kingdom Hearts II. Crystal does it pretty well actually, sketching Usagi as a fairly regular seeming person with enough flecks of character to make her an enjoyable protagonist to follow.

I also found myself quite taken with the baddie-of-the-week who feeds off of the energy of young girls through the sale of magical jewelry. In a nice little twist of the regular formula, Usagi isn’t immune to the charms of the jewelry, it’s just that she’s flunked in English and thinks her Mom won’t be too forthcoming with the presents.

Or the basic parental responsibilities.sm-9
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There are really only two big concerns. The first is the show’s design which I’m not happy with. The shadows on the lips of the “hunky” guys is particularly off-putting:sm-11

And the animation is pretty stiff and workmanlike. The transformation sequence, an important trope (and flashy money saver) in magical girl anime is also not particularly good looking. It’s done in 3D and the thin leg design looks pretty creepy when computer generated into being:

As a person who finds careless animation grating this could become a pretty big problem.

But the other point is probably the more worrisome: despite the fact that I was entertained while the show was on, it really didn’t stick with me. There’s a lot of good TV animation on the available at the moment and without a stronger hook I don’t know how likely I am to stick with the series.

For a simple comparison I’d like to refer back to one of the earlier posts I made on the blog, the one about Revolutionary Girl Utena. Utena’s pilot has a definite spark and sets up a world of interesting and unusual ideas and associations with heavy stylistic flair. I couldn’t wait to tear through the rest of that show after watching it. Crystal though, I can take or leave for now. It’s more laid back and rote and though that could pay off later in a way Utena couldn’t, it’s still not particularly enticing. But at the very least, the episode works, achieving its most basic goals. I’d stack it favorably against the first episodes of Baccano! and Steins;Gate. I’ve heard those shows are good, but I’ve never finished them. Why? The first episodes are so frustratingly obtuse that I just kinda gave up*.

*Your show is in trouble when I’m reconsidering my decision to watch its pilot instead of Jeanne Dielmann, okay?

But I haven’t given up on Crystal. And maybe the main reason for that is something that hasn’t even happened yet: the gathering of the team.sm-12

One of the few things that legitimately surprised me about Crystal was that the show didn’t start with all of the recognizable characters at the forefront, already having become friends. In fact, aside from Usagi and Tuxedo Mask, I didn’t know any of characters who showed up in the first episode at all. It seems from the preview of the next episode that the team of Sailor Guardians is going to be gathered together one by one. And that makes me legitimately excited. Films, books and TV often have to use narrative short-hand to bring together the characters so that they can move on to the exciting part of the plot. But when handled poorly this can lead to some pretty underdeveloped character dynamics. I’ve been watching FX’s The Strain recently and that show’s subplot about the father-son dynamic is a bland, boring and juiceless slab of meat. The show just assumes that we’ll be emotionally involved because it’s a father and his son and we should assume they love and care for one another without doing the hard work of building that relationship.

In contrast, Crystal chooses to start its story at a point before the main cast knows one another. This means that we get to see the relationships between the characters grow and develop. If they screw it’ll mean that there’s a run of slow episodes before we get to the meat of the show, but if it works it’ll form a really strong base for the show to build upon. And that kind of strong character base is how you get ten seasons of Friends and nine of How I Met Your Mother, despite the bumps along the way. It’s a difficult thing for the show to try and I’m very curious to see how successful they are.sm-2

Well, that’s it for my thoughts on the first episode of Sailor Moon: Crystal. Check back soon for more rambling non-analysis. But before we go, let’s do the Smiley Rating:

Generally Liked It

Generally Liked It: A competent start that will, hopefully, be built upon. But there’s nothing too exciting happening just yet.

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