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“Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon” Volume 1 Eclipses the Competition

by on September 16, 2011

Kodansha Comics’ republication of Naoko Takeuchi’s Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon manga marks nothing less than the long-awaited return of a giant. For those with any amount of serious interest in anime or manga, Sailor Moon should need little introduction. The anime series televised for years in syndication and on USA Network in the 90s before getting a substantial run on Cartoon Network, and to this day it stands as the epitome of a girl-targeted superhero program. The publication of Naoko Takeuchi’s manga in English precipitated Tokyopop’s emergence as a major publisher and perhaps did more to spearhead the boom in the U.S. manga industry than any other title. More to the point, its success was defined by the hordes of female readers that it got into reading comics, many of whom stuck around and looked to Japanese manga for a fix that mainstream publishers like DC and Marvel were generally neglecting to offer. America was hardly the end of the title’s success outside Japan; it made inroads all over the world and is now in the midst of a comeback via the efforts of Toei Animation.

But Sailor Moon’s undeniable past glory is, well, in the past. What’s relevant today is the question of whether it’s just as worthwhile and enjoyable now as it was back then, and happily the answer to that is a resounding yes. This first volume of Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon is a quality printing that will undoubtedly please established fans, but it’s also a genuinely fun book that certainly deserves to find a fresh audience.

The crux of this manga’s plot starts out as a zero-to-hero story for one Usagi Tsukino, a subpar middle school student that identifies her hobbies as “…eating, sleeping, and taking the easy way out.” Her idea of a good time is hanging out at the local arcade, crushing on the young boy that works there, and admiring the mysterious costumed hero “Sailor V”. You don’t get much more unremarkable than that, but fate infringes on this carefree existence when Usagi crosses paths with a black cat and gives it a helping hand. The cat shadows her and ultimately confronts her at her house, but instead of presenting misfortune it reveals its ability to talk and presents Usagi with a magical broach. For she is a chosen guardian, one who must gather kindred spirits for the sake of finding a lost princess and defending Tokyo from malicious supernatural forces that the authorities can’t hope to deal with. She’s doubtful, but as in the anime series Usagi is taught to transform into the titular heroine and rescues her friend Naru from an evil monster sent by the nefarious Dark Kingdom. Led by the evil Queen Beryl and her four commanders, the so-called “Four Kings of Heaven”, this Dark Kingdom attempts a variety of schemes to gather energy in order to establish their realm in the world as we know it. Key to this struggle between good and evil is the search for the “legendary silver crystal”, a missing macguffin of limitless power that would secure total victory for the bad guys.

This basic plot is quite simple and consistent with the anime series, but those that simply know Sailor Moon by the cartoon should consider this manga essential reading; there are so many differences in the execution of the narrative that reading this story is an act of rediscovery. No development works out quite the same way, and no particular story in the book was copied wholesale for the animated series. Its narrative moves at a very brisk pace, quite unlike how the anime spends plenty of episodes on one energy-gathering plot after another before there is any progress. Six chapters occupy the first volume’s 240 pages; by the end of chapter five Usagi has met her friends Ami (Sailor Mercury), Rei (Sailor Mars) and Makoto (Sailor Jupiter), and two of Beryl’s henchmen are already vanquished! Ami and Makoto are rather close to their animated counterparts; Ami is an elite student and the brains of the group while Makoto is a tomboy transfer student with a softer side. As a shinto priestess Rei is spiritually aware and the mature one, her big issue being how others tend to mistake her for being aloof when she is in fact anything but indifferent. Compared to this the animated portrayal of Rei as a hot-tempered foil to Usagi in the sailor scouts’ earlier days did this character a severe disservice, though in fairness the English dub probably exacerbated this.

The most positive differences here lie with two critical characters, Sailor Moon herself and the dashing heartthrob high schooler Mamoru. By day he occasionally runs into Usagi and makes light of her at first; by night he explores Tokyo as Tuxedo Mask. The identity is exactly what it sounds like; he’s a masked man in a tux and a cape that constantly gets himself involved in the battles between the sailors and the Dark Kingdom. In the anime this developed into a rather banal routine; Tuxedo Mask was the guy that threw implausibly powerful red roses and dropped cheesy one-liners. Here though he’s fixated on seeking out the silver crystal just as the Dark Kingdom is trying to, heeding the pleas of his relentless dreams. Nary a rose is seen and he doesn’t take direct action against the forces of evil, though he does make time to offer a kind word to Sailor Moon at every encounter and help her out when necessary. This doesn’t always mean a rescue; on one occasion, for instance, Tuxedo Mask simply leads Usagi to where a monster is accosting Makoto, making him indirectly responsible for the discovery of Sailor Jupiter.

The emerging relationship between these two provides the story’s dose of idealized romance, and here too the manga seems to have the edge. In any iteration the power to smite evil lies with the ladies, but in the animation the number of times Tuxedo Mask interrupts a losing battle that then immediately turns for the better are almost beyond counting. Combined with the running gag of our heroine’s clumsiness and awkwardness as Usagi or Sailor Moon, there’s an implication that without this guy she simply wouldn’t have gotten very far. Here though Usagi’s greatest weakness is her lack of self-confidence in these early days, even as she becomes more competent and several degrees more serious than irresponsible middle schooler that we met in the first chapter. In answer to that Mamoru is a source of inspiration first and foremost, a fact most clearly established on an occasion where the Dark Kingdom has already stolen energy from many people and even threatens to do the same to Usagi and her friends. Usagi is on her own for the first time and feels unable to save anyone, believing that she lacks the potent powers that her friends have. But Tuxedo Mask, who had inadvertently discovered her identity some time ago, appears to take her hand and practically begs her to transform, openly admitting that there’s nothing he can do about the problem. But he has witnessed someone who does have power that he lacks. “You’re the only one who can come to the rescue!”, he declares. She takes solace in those words and his strangely familiar, comforting, deep eyes (oh yes, there are romance tropes!), throwing hesitation and caution into the wind; her ensuing display of power not only enables victory but also brings the victims back from the very brink of death. In truth she is not only powerful but a healer as well, putting her a step ahead of the other sailors and handily justifying Luna’s decision to designate her the leader. And the role of Tuxedo Mask was not to be a rescuer, but to motivate our heroine to rescue herself and others and realize that she was always much stronger than she thought she was. With storytelling like this, it’s no wonder that the feministic merits of Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon are acknowledged and discussed so much.

This edition of the book draws on a recent reprint that was published in Japan, which raised the quality and featured retouched artwork. Takeuchi’s art isn’t the most detailed you’ll find but it’s quite appealing and attractive, and for fans that only know the anime the lithe beauty of the girls is a stark and stunning contrast to Toei’s character designs. There is action though not too much actual battle choreography, since everyone is fighting via energy and inner strength. These displays are striking though, and the sailors are quite willing to kick an evildoer in the face. In truth anyone picking this up for action is largely missing the point, but there’s enough to it here to get the job done.

The return of Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon aptly demonstrates the truism that a good classic is never outdated. Even today it blends superhero and sentai tropes with femine appeal and even more feminine heroes to a successful degree that perhaps no other shoujo manga or anime has really replicated, and today I’m thankful that this manga is how the English-speaking world has been first reintroduced to Sailor Moon. It encapsulates everything good about the Sailor Moon animation and more besides while lacking the silliness and formulaic storytelling that occupies so much of it, and groundwork seems to be laid for characterization and relationships that run deeper as well. Fans of the animation, I think, will pick this up and discover a work that enriches the story they thought they knew, while skeptics or those that look back on Sailor Moon with amusement will find themselves pleasantly surprised by what this has to offer.   

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