The Moonies, as the fans are sometimes called, aspire to a vocal level of fandom akin to that of Trekkies; the massive Internet campaign to "Save Our Scouts," the many, many web sites dedicated to the show (according to one count, 30,000!) and the widely circulated fan fiction.
So what is this show, and why does it inspire such fervor?
Sailor Moon is the story of a handful of friends -- all junior high school girls -- who are also warrior princesses of an ancient time and secret defenders of Earth against alien invasion. There is comedy and romance as they go to school, hang out at the arcade, take part in school plays, and so forth. Then, as monsters attack, they transform into their costumed alter-egos and, well, kick butt.
What sets it apart from other costumed-hero epics is the youth of the protagonists and the depth and continuity of the stories. The struggle against the Negaverse, for instance, develops over most of the first season and ends with the heroic deaths of almost the entire cast.
The star-crossed romance between Serena and Darien, once Princess of the Moon and Prince of Earth, is also a long and complex thread throughout the narrative. One complication, first appearing in the third series, is their time-travelling daughter from the future!
Sailor Moon first appeared as a manga (the black-and-white and often lengthly comic books of Japan) by Naoko Takeuchi, in a girl's magazine. The shoujo manga (girl's comics) are aimed at a 8-12 year old audience and are typified by complicated bittersweet romances, young heroines, and a strong fashion sense.
The once-rigid lines between shoujo and the warriors, sports heroes, and giant robots of shonen (boy's) manga have in recent years broken down. Boys have been seeing romantic plotlines (and larger eyes) and girls have been seeing heroines no longer so passive, but heroines willing to fight for sports trophies, university entrance exams, or their beau's heart. Sailor Moon came in on the crest of this new wave, showing a group of girls who were also a costumed super-team.
When Biishojou Senshi Sailor Moon made the leap to animation, as had so many properties before it, it was with a finely orchestrated blitz. Announcements, previews, merchandising, all were calculated to a fine degree and released on a rigid schedule. It worked; "Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon" was a huge success in Japan.
The American company Dic didn't try for such levels of orchestration. Fortunately, they also avoided the excesses of Carl Macek (who lumped three different shows together to create Robotech). Still, many subtleties of plot and language were lost and most cultural references were glossed over in translation. The elaborate word play and puns of the original are echoed feebly in the American dubbing by poor jokes and grating topical references, and many of the voice actors are, well, weak.
There is little to say about the original animation, either, which at times rivals that of the unlamented "golden age" of Hanna- Barbera. Fortunately the pictures, stiffly animated though they might be, are quite pretty.
But, somehow, something filters through the grab-bag plot and the crass commercialism of Toei Studios and the slapdash American adaptation. Something mythic, something resonant, something that makes a fairly ordinary TV show into a cult hit.
I agree with super-fan Hitoshi Doi in catgorizing Sailor Moon as a "Magical Girls" story. Most of that genre feature a single young heroine who transforms into a more active, powerful, and often older alter-ego; it is a fairly obvious metaphor for growing up. Indeed, when Serena transforms to Sailor Moon she goes from a rather gawky child (often drawn in a sketchy funny-papers style) to a svelte young woman. It is almost as if she transitions from thirteen years to fifteen with one flip of her make-up-compact shaped brooch.
When Serena uses the Disguise Pen to sneak up on the bad guys she invariably disguises herself as someone older. Also, as a young professional woman; a teacher, a reporter, an office lady, and similar. Obviously she is testing out what being an adult might feel like; testing from the safe haven of being able to transform back to her more helpless child self.
As the show progresses Serena moves from a child's helplessness to being master of her own fate -- with the concurrent responsibility. She is given the power of Sailor Moon and the task of defending Earth. She is made unwilling leader of the Sailor Scouts. She begins a mature relationship (with the prince she was betrothed to in a different time). And she must choose in the final battle against the Negaverse to sacrifice her own life in battle -- and to endure the sacrifice of her best friends; to watch in pain and sorrow and pride as they die one by one defending her so that she might arrive at the final deadly confrontation with Beryl and Metallia.
A real attraction is just how unsuited Serena seems to her task. Her responce to the monsters in one early episode is to lock herself in the bathroom! What is so very wonderful about the character, however, is how she faces her fears and manages somehow to transform and raise her weapons against the things that threaten her friends. It is never easy for Serena to be a hero -- that, in my eyes at least, makes her all the more heroic.
Back before Stan Lee and Marvel Comics the costumed super-team acted like an Andy Warhol gallery of the same hero in different outfits; they thought alike, talked alike, operated as one uncomplaining team. Sailor Moon fortunately follows the feuding Fantastic Four in the strong personality clashes among the Sailor Scouts -- particularly, the fiery arguments between Serena and Raye (Sailor Mars).
Each of the Sailors stands out as an individual; the brainy, always-studying Amy (Sailor Mercury) with her cute mop of short blue hair and her watery Mercury powers. The hot-tempered Shinto priestess Raye, karate-chopping fire-ball-tossing Sailor of Mars. The perfect blond Mina who fought in England from behind the mask of Sailor V before joining the scouts at the Sailor of Venus. And the big girl; the strapping amazon Lita who weilds the lightning bolts of Sailor Jupiter (she also loves to cook).
Even out of costume the girls have an admirable poise and confidence. Raye runs her grandfather's Shinto shrine for him with an iron hand (and looks striking and elegant in her traditional hakama). She has the drive to organize a big New Year's bash and music event at which she makes herself the star to sing ballads from her own pen. Lita can't abide bullies and has been known to beat up a few; she may be big and tough, but more importantly, she has never in her life backed down from anything. Even the bookish Amy is strongly competative, pulling in A++ grades and the coveted place at the very top of her class.
These are strong, confident young women who don't wait for the world to come to them. They study and practice and work hard. And when they want something they aren't afraid to say it.
Sailor Moon has, then, a sprinkling of classical elements of both shoujo and shonen . The Sailor Scouts have colorful costumes and neat powers and get to fight all sorts of strange monsters. The girls make a tight group, their arguments and personality differences only serving to draw them closer as they explore their strong and unique friendship. Then there is the romance of Serena and Darien, between their alter egos the heroic Sailor Moon and the dashing Tuxedo Mask (in his opera cape and top hat he flings red roses at his opponents!) and their slowly awakening memories of their long-ago betrothal as Prince and Princess; a romance full of longings and passions and fate and kismet.
Other details add to the effect; from the humor that ranges from bad puns to pratfalls to some of the wackiest monsters ever to attack Tokyo. Or the astrological/mythological references linking the Sailors to their various planets. Or the references or in-jokes that sometimes appear (and are generally inexplicable to the American audience).
One could almost call it a potpourri in the way in which it offers a little bit of something for almost everyone. But, however it achieves it, Sailor Moon "works."
The fan base seems to be stabilizing; the cutting edge of fandom have moved on into Evangelion and other stranger things, and many Moonies have put aside their Crescent Moon Wands and Transformation Pens. Still, there are an aweful lot of fans out there. Fans range from the target audience of 8-12 to the college students who formed Save Our Sailors to the young professional couple who run the server Sailormoon.org. There are fan groups in Italy and Germany; Sailor Moon is translated into at least four languages.
More translations for daytime TV are unlikely; the plot is becoming increasingly Byzantine, complicated to a level the American broadcasters do not believe the American child can follow. There continues to be talk, and promises, about dubbed releases to video outlets, but the die-hard fans are slaking their thirst with cable showings, pirated video, and fan fic.
Star Trek still holds the record for new stories written by fans, for fans, distributed by mail and mimeograph (and now Internet). Sailor Moon, though, shows potential for catching up. Within the clubs and net rings, ideas, images and stories are traded around in a kind of ongoing meta-fiction; a generation of multiple and alternative shared visions. Some recent scholarly papers have explored how the other-gendered are able to use fan fic (particularly "slash" fiction) to colonize bits of popular culture; to open the experience to other voices. In any case the fan experience is a trading and sharing experience quite different than the passive reception, the one-to- many format of the original media.
All is not sweetness and light, however, not in the big bad Internet. Dispite the moments of darkness Sailor Moon is an innocent and delightful show. The fandom is not always so pure, however. Scout ahead, or stick to the sites approved by the Hentai Free web ring, if you want to send a kid looking for other fans of the winsome Sailor of the Moon.
Search for the Moon Princess