In The Name Of The Moon: On Subversive Feminism & Magical Girls
TuSo, with the new Sailor Moon anime coming out, and easy access to the classic series, I gotta say, it's a very good time to be a magical girl fan. And man, I can't wait to see how they handle things, and if it's gonna be more like the manga, or- wait, you're wondering what I'm talking about. Well, alright then, let's dig into this.
Part 1: So What Is This Sailor Moon Thing, And Why Should I Care
Created by legendary mangaka Naoko Takeuchi, Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon, literally 'Beautiful Soldier Sailor Moon,' often westernized non-literally as 'Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon,' is one of the most influential and important series in the history of Japanese comics and animation. It was a massively popular manga property, which ran continuously from 1992 to 1997. It served as the foundation for a staggeringly long five-season anime series, which itself was the foundation for spinoff movies, video games, stage plays, musicals, and even a live-action TV series. It spawned countless imitators and copycats, and has been localized in some form or another into a range of languages including, but not limited to, english, italian, french, spanish, greek, german, polish, swedish, portuguese, russian, thai, chinese, korean, hebrew, and tagalog.
So what's the big deal here? Lots of shows have had tons of spinoffs and merchandise. American shows get translated into other languages all the time. What's so important about one girly anime? To answer that, I'm gonna have to ask you to undertake a little thought experiment: when I say 'magical girl show,' what's the first thing to comes to your mind?
If you answered, as did 90% of the people I asked this, 'a show with a girl in a cute dress who fights monsters,' then chances are very good the REASON YOU EVEN THINK THAT is because of Sailor Moon. It may come as a bit of a shock, but most magical girl shows... don't have monsters. Or fight scenes. Or any of the stuff most of us find SYNONYMOUS with magical girl shows. Or at least they didn't, before Sailor Moon. And even now, most of them don't do it the way Sailor Moon did.
To really understand WHY Sailor Moon changed the rules, though, we first need to understand what the magical girl genre was before it showed up.
Part 2: A Brief History Of Magical Girls
In point of fact, we know precisely what the first magical girl TV series was. And the funny thing is, if you're an English-speaking person over the age of 30, you may be more familiar with it than you even realize. I am, of course, talking about the 1960s American sitcom 'Bewitched.'
I realize some of you are probably now looking at me like I'm a crazy person. But this isn't just wild conjecture on my part; it's a matter of historical record.
The basic premise of Bewitched, for those that are unfamiliar, is that a young-looking witch named Samantha tries to give up her magical powers and marries the mortal Dennis Stephens. The pair are antagonized by Samantha's mother, the wicked witch Endora, who disapproves of Samantha falling in love with someone beneath her station, and Samantha must frequently resort to her magical abilities to undo the damage Endora causes as she attempts to break up the happy couple. Now, try another thought experiment: if Samantha and Dennis were named Sakura and Daisuke instead, would this or would this premise not sound EXACTLY like an anime? Bewitched was actually a tremendous hit in Japan, particularly with young girls and housewives. Samantha's 'silk hiding steel' personality and Endora's cackling, hammy antics, with the attractive male lead as the rope in their game of tug-of-war, appealed to Japanese sensibilities and inspired a number of creators.
Among them was was Mitsuteru Yokoyama, who, in 1966, created what is generally thought of as the first animated magical girl series, 'Mahoutsukai Sally,' known in english as 'Sally the Witch.' Like Samantha in Bewitched, Sally is a powerful being from another world, who comes to Earth to seek affection(in this case, 'friends her own age' rather than 'a hot lover'). Unlike Bewitched, which focuses on the sitcom duel between Endora and Samantha, Sally the Witch focuses on the ways in which Sally uses her extraordinary powers to help people, with very little in the way of an actual antagonist to be found. Much of the drama within the show revolved around Sally attempting to do good with her powers while keeping them a secret, out of fear others would judge her for them. Many elements within Sally the Witch, such as the protagonist being the princess of another world forced to stay on Earth, a talking animal sidekick, the transformation sequence into her magical outfit, and the necessity of keeping one's powers hidden, would eventually become genre staples.
For years, the baseline set by Sally the Witch was the standard format for magical girl series: a young, pre-teen or early-teens protagonist with special powers using them to make her life more fantastical, typically with the requirement of keeping them hidden, who must frequently depart our world or give up her powers in the finale. One of the only shakeups to the genre was Go Nagai's Cutey Honey in 1973, which actually pioneered the 'magical girl as superhero' concept, but while popular it didn't have much of an effect on the general attitude of the market. Shows like Magical Princess Minky Momo, Fancy Lala, Miracle Shojo Limit Chan, Hana no Ko Lunlun, and Magical Angel Creamy Mami completely dominated the genre for years, and indeed, the common Japanese perception of what magical girl shows are is typically of this variety for most folks.
So what happened? What turned magical girl shows from slice-of-life stories into monster-slaying epics?
I'll tell you what happened. Naoko Takeuchi and Sailor Moon happened.
Part 3: The Part Where I Actually Talk About Sailor Moon
Naoko Takeuchi is a name you should REALLY know if you're an anime fan, because chances are good her body of work has significantly altered or influenced a lot of the stuff you like, even if you aren't a magical girl fan.
Naoko Takeuchi was born in Kofu, the capital city of Japan's Yamanashi Prefecture, on March 15, 1967, just one year after the creation of Sally the Witch. When she was a teenager, she attended Kofu Ichi High School, where she was a member of the astronomy and manga clubs; girl's uniforms at Kofu Ichi were sailor suits. All of these things would be significant influences upon her work.
At the time, she wanted to be a manga artist, but her father suggested she should find another profession to fall back on if art didn't pay off, so she went off to college and earned a degree in chemistry. Her thesis was about thrombolytic actions due to ultrasound, though this, uh, didn't have QUITE the same impact on her work as a mangaka. Like, any at all. During her years in college, she held down a job as a miko, a shrine maiden, at the Shiba Daijingu shrine; this experience would later become a major influence on the character of Rei Hino, Sailor Mars.
After graduating, Takeuchi entered the manga industry by submitting her first manga, 'Love Call,' to publisher Kodansha. Love Call was exactly the sort of thing Kodansha was looking for at the time, and they hired her on the spot. She worked on a number of other stories, most notably 'The Cherry Project,' a three volume series about figure skating, before she decided she wanted to do a series about outer space and women soldiers. Her editor suggested she put the characters in sailor suits to give them a unique, recognizable aesthetic, and thus was born... Codename: Sailor V.
Yes, Sailor V. What did you think I was gonna say? Covering the adventures of Minako Aino, Sailor V told a story of magical conflict, interwoven into the life of a young teenager forced to do battle against villains and monsters, and the tragedy of love between star-crossed opponents. As Sailor V became more popular, it was planned to be turned into an anime, and to increase the broad appeal of the concept, Takeuchi reworked the series to include a larger cast and a more relatable lead character, which became the Sailor Moon we know today. The Sailor Moon manga proved an even bigger hit than Sailor V, and when the deal for the Sailor V anime fell through, Sailor Moon got the nod instead.
Part 4: You Still Haven't Explained Why I Should Care About Sailor Moon
The big reason you should care about Sailor Moon is that it's one of the most important works of feminism and feminist ideals in popular fiction. In fact, I'm going to go out on a limb and say it's THE most important work of feminism and feminist ideals in popular fiction.
Fight me, scrub.
Sailor Moon was groundbreaking specifically BECAUSE it didn't do things the same way as other magical girl shows. While it didn't actually create the 'magical girl warrior' subgenre(that honor goes to manga titan Go Nagai's Cutey Honey, mentioned earlier), it absolutely codified it. It blended elements from live-action sentai shows, such as the monster-of-the-week format, sweeping narratives of epic battle against extradimensional horrors, and the color-coded team of heroes, into more traditional magical girl elements, like fantastical romance, slice-of-life drama, and using magic to solve people's problems. And this blending gave it huge crossover appeal to both male and female audiences.
You see, EVERYBODY watched Sailor Moon. It's one of the most far-reaching and broadly-appealing works of fiction in Japanese media. Young girls could watch it for the pretty outfits; teenage girls watched it for the romantic fantasy; older women watched it for the tight, nuanced characterization; boys and men of all ages could watch it for the cool fight scenes and pretty girls in skirts. It simultaneously hit every single popular demographic at the time of its release and has remained inescapably popular to this day. And this is a good thing, because Sailor Moon is really, really, REALLY subversive when it comes to typical 'girl's show' tropes. For the purposes of this essay, I'll be discussing the Sailor Moon anime, and not the manga, since the two have a number of differences between them in characterization and plot-course, and I'm much more familiar with the show.
The basic premise of Sailor Moon goes thusly. 14-year-old Usagi Tsukino(yes, I'm going to be using the Japanese names of the characters, get over it, weeaboos) is a clumsy, lazy, spoiled crybaby, whose primary obsessions are eating, sleeping, and reading comic books. Things get weird when a talking cat named Luna reveals to her that she's actually the reincarnation of a warrior princess from a lost, ancient civilization called the Moon Kingdom, and that someday she is destined to unite the entire world into a harmonious magical utopia. Until that day, her job is to defend humanity against extradimensional monsters, wicked villains, and the darkness in the hearts of men and women. Usagi takes this about like you'd expect, which is to say that she -freaks completely the fuck out.-
Wait, that seems weird, doesn't it?
See, Sailor Moon gets in on the subversions early. Normally in magical girl shows, the heroine loves her powers and her ultimate test is being forced to give them up. In Sailor Moon, we have the reversal: Usagi doesn't WANT to have to deal with all this crazy ancient aliens crap, she just wants to be a normal teenager with a normal life. Her test, instead, is to accept the burden of power and make it her own. Magic doesn't make Usagi's life better; it makes it more complicated and difficult, even as it empowers her, but she takes on this power for the benefit of others; she's gonna be Queen Serenity someday, after all, and if the world is counting on YOU to bring about utopia, well, even a whiny brat like Usagi can't just ignore the call to heroism.
This is another way that Sailor Moon subverts expectations; Usagi is honestly kind of a dweeby loser. She self-describes herself as a chubby, flat-chested layabout who spends all her time either eating, sleeping, or crying because she isn't eating or sleeping. And yet, it's Usagi who's the hero of the series, because it is those very weaknesses and flaws that are the source of her strength. Usagi may be a wussy dork, but she's a wussy dork who cares about her friends and defends them unto the death because she's known what being a friendless loser is like. Usagi takes her flaws and uses them to empower herself, by owning and accepting them. Someone who's scared out of their mind but KEEPS FIGHTING ANYWAY has a lot more strength than someone who simply doesn't comprehend fear.
Over time, Usagi assembles the rest of the Sailor Senshi: Ami Mizuno, Sailor Mercury, a bookish, overachieving nerd and Usagi's closest friend, who frets over her lack of ability at fighting; Rei Hino, Sailor Mars, a hot-tempered, belligerent shrine maiden from a wealthy noble family; Makoto Kino, Sailor Jupiter, a hulkingly tall, rowdy delinquent with a secret feminine side; and Minako Aino, Sailor Venus, returning from the Sailor V manga as the most experienced fighter and leader of the group as whole, despite being a goofy, overambitious fruitcake. Usagi is aided not only by Luna, her feline mentor and trainer, but by Minako's cat Artemis, and the cool, mysterious superhero Tuxedo Mask(real name: Mamoru Chiba), with whom she is fated to fall in love. Yet more allies show up later in the series, but we'll come to that.
Part 5: A Pretty Soldier In A Sailor Suit
I brought up Tuxedo Mask, and I'd like to focus on this, because in the anime version, this is one of the most subversively feminist aspects of the series. Mamoru/Tuxedo Mask is introduced early on as Usagi's love interest, and throughout much of the first season, he proves instrumental to many of the Senshi's victories, being an experienced fighter and skilled in a huge array of mundane skills. But where it gets interesting is that after a certain point... the girls surpass Mamoru completely, and his role shifts away from being Japanese Batman and into being a convenient target for villains to exploit to get at Usagi.
9 times out of 10, when Sailor Moon wants to do a 'damsel in distress' plotline, which is 'frequently,' it's the GUY in the role of the damsel, with the job of saving him up to a team of more powerful women. Before he finally just stops showing up, Tuxedo Mask gets brainwashed or kidnapped in just about every single major plot arc, and he must be either saved or have the sense knocked back into him by Usagi. About the only time somebody other than Mamoru gets kidnapped or brainwashed, it's Usagi's daughter from the future.
Oh right, by the way, Usagi has a daughter from the future. That's as good a segue as any!
Another way Sailor Moon messes around with the formula is dealing with actual women's issues, albeit in a fantastical way. When Chibiusa, Usagi's daughter, comes to the past to ensure Usagi hooks up with Mamoru so she'll be born(yes, I am not even kidding), it opens a whole range of themes in the plot, from fear of parenthood, the complexities of teenage romance, child endangerment, and being forced to grow up too early. And that's just through ONE CHARACTER, who shows up in SEASON 2. Out of 5. You're starting to get a sense of the complexity here, I hope. But we've only scratched the surface.
I think the most subversive thing Sailor Moon does, though, is the way it reframes the presence of femininity. Unlike 90% of Everything Ever Made, being girly in Sailor Moon does not make you LESS capable. If anything, it means you should be taken more seriously, because chances are good you can shoot magic energy bolts out of your charm bracelet or something.
Take the most basic design motif throughout the series, the sailor suit. Let's be blunt: traditionally-speaking, sailor suits represented women LACKING agency. It's a uniform; it says 'you are not any different from anybody else.' School uniforms are a major factor in the feelings of depersonalization felt by many Japanese youths. And then along comes Sailor Moon, and rebrands this image of cultural and social conformity into a sign of individuality, self-determination, and strength.
Sailor Moon does this with NEARLY EVERYTHING. Makeup compacts give you superpowers. Tiaras are throwing weapons. School uniforms with short skirts make you superhumanly tough. High heels let you run FASTER. Literally every single thing about 'stereotypical' girl stuff is recontextualized to be empowering, rather than limiting: girliness is treated as cool and exciting and powerful on its own merits, not treated as something you have 'in addition' to being a badass. By making feminine presentation the beating heart of mystical power, the whole premise of what it means to be a badass warrior is turned on its head.
And what makes this all work is that none of this is ever done to enable Male Gaze. At no point are any of these things used to objectify or dehumanize the characters. Their sailor suits aren't sex objects for you to ogle; they're COMBAT UNIFORMS the Senshi put on to go to war. As a sidenote, Takeuchi has gone on-record that her chief inspiration for Usagi's appearance as Sailor Moon is Wonder Woman. They've even got the same boots. Which I happen to think is pretty cool!
And as the series goes on, it gets progressively more and more and more inclusive in the topics it covers, including a pair of lesbian lovers as major supporting Senshi and eventually an entire trio of gender-bending Senshi who turn into guys when they're not fighting. Yes, Sailor Moon even rocks support for queer people, not only at a time when doing so was unfashionable, but within a DEEPLY conservative culture like Japan. Go on with your bad self, Takeuchi.
Part 6: Romance & Miracles
Sailor Moon is, justifiably so, considered a modern classic. It was a game-changer for the genre; suddenly everyone wanted to make shows where women kicked butt while looking good. It's become a cultural icon for a lot of people, myself included, and is probably one of the most widely-recognized anime worldwide, thanks to the huge amount of localizations it received. Trying to list every single way Sailor Moon affected the anime world would be a vast undertaking, and one I don't quite have the energy for. But more than anything, on a personal level, it altered the way I think about gender as a whole.
I'll be blunt; I'm male-to-female transgender. I grew up in the American South, as a nerdy, shy, chubby queer kid. A lot of very bad things were done to me, and I don't really need or want to toss out the details. But when I was at my worst, one of the things I took comfort in, felt secure and safe and happy watching, was Sailor Moon. Yes, that goofy-ass dubbed version where they made the lesbians into cousins(thus making them into incestuous lesbians, because I guess that's better).
Watching it growing up, the idea that girliness could be transformative was something I took a lot of solace in. Some of my fondest memories are of curling up under a blanket in the afternoon and turning on the TV to go see girls kick serious monster butt. And even if I now know that the english localization was a butchered-up hackjob, enough of its merits shined through to move me deeply. Hell, even the goofy American theme song got in on it. ~Fighting evil by moonlight, winning love by daylight! Never running from a real fight! She is the one called Sailor Moon!~
When I was feeling really low, I'd imagine I was Sailor Jupiter(she was my favorite because we had the same hair color), and I'd just zap everything that was upsetting me with JUPITER THUNDER! from my imaginary tiara. As silly as they may be, these fantasies kept me going when it would've been too hard to cope with.
We all want to think that who we are is awesome, and powerful, and beautiful. Sometimes, it isn't always easy to believe that. But stuff like Sailor Moon, things that tell us that what we want and desire don't have to make us weak or debase us, are the things that stick with us, that endure across time. I think that somewhere inside everybody, there's a little part that wants to wear a cool costume, shout silly attack names, and make fabulous poses when we think nobody is looking.
Things like this give us the courage to do so, even when somebody is.
Coda: Further Experiences In Girly Stuff
As a follow-up, I'd like to discuss some of the more notable works influenced by Sailor Moon.
Wedding Peach: Probably the earliest copycat of Sailor Moon, not least of which because it had the same character artist as the Sailor Moon anime. Wedding Peach often gets a lot of flack for being about GETTIN' HITCHED TO DUDES, but I think that's a little unfair. It's definitely above average as Sailor Moon imitators go and you could do way worse if you want to give someone a dose of magical girl warrior tropes all in one go. This one takes its tropes and rolls around in them.
Futari Wa Pretty Cure: One of the first and most entertaining of the deconstructions of magical girl warrior shows. Pretty Cure(or just Precure) is noteworthy for its biting sense of humor about its own tropes, its excellent animation, and awesome fight choreography by veterans of the original Dragon Ball. Precure, and most of its sequels, are definitely worth a look if you're into a sardonic, cheerful take on the genre.
Magic Knight Rayearth: This is CLAMP's first shot at the genre, and typical CLAMP disclaimers apply. Rayearth focuses more heavily on the classical-fantasy elements than most, being set on a magical alternate Earth. The character interactions are fantastic and it's got a great story arc, but if you can't stand people with weirdo noodle-arms and rail-thin bodies, you'll probably want to skip it.
Revolutionary Girl Utena: This one hews closer to basic shoujo high school drama... with lots of bizarre Gnostic elements, extremely warped fairy tale symbolism, genderqueer stuff out the wazoo, and a plot so nuanced and dense you pretty much need a guidebook to make sense of it. This is definitely the Advanced Course, but if you can get past its impenetrable weirdness, it's extremely rewarding.
Cardcaptor Sakura: CLAMP series number two! Luckily, this one avoids most of CLAMP's usual visual shortcomings, with a frankly dizzying variety of outfit designs and an exciting, intriguing plot. It's also relatively short, and doesn't overstay its welcome. This series is a nice, easy beginner course for someone new to magical girl shows.
Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha: Nanoha is a bit of an oddball; it began as a spinoff from a hentai game, of all damn things, but eventually outstripped its source material in popularity to a degree that is frankly hilarious. While it starts out as a fairly typical monster-of-the-week show, it quickly finds its footing and morphs into an insanely badass magitek military science-fiction drama that just happens to have a predominantly female cast. Nanoha has had a ton of spinoffs at this point, and it's really more of a sci-fi show now, but it wears its influences on its sleeve.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica: I would be remiss in my duties if I didn't mention this one. To be completely frank; I really don't like Madoka Magica. It's an extremely cynical deconstruction of magical girl tropes and I think that narratively it goes for tragic cheap shots over genuine character development. But it's extremely popular and I admit that I tend to be biased against negativity in magical girl series. Plus, the production values are unassailably good, with a fantastic soundtrack by Yuki Kajiura to boot. If you don't mind things being pretty grimdark, Madoka might be up your alley.
Kill la Kill: This is another very recent one, but given the huge focus on sailor suits as articles of power, transformation sequences everywhere, girl-centric narrative, and crazy otherwordly enemies, it's hard to say KLK ISN'T a show influenced by Sailor Moon's legacy. I feel like it probably owes more to Cutey Honey though, thanks to the rampant fanservice and generally high levels of perviness. I don't personally feel that DETRACTS from it, however, and as a rookie studio's first outing, Kill la Kill shows a lot of promise.