Sunday, July 13, 2014

President Dog Takes On... Sailor Moon Crystal

...or Let's Get Overly Critical AND Nostalgic! The Double Whammy!

Hello everyone and welcome back to President Dog Takes On... where this time around we're blending the old and the new together into a return to form like no other! And no, I'm not just talking about me finally reviewing a current anime again, for once. I'm talking about the return of the Sailor Guardians in the newly rebooted series Sailor Moon Crystal. Now any otaku worth their salt know about Sailor Moon, the story of a klutzy crybaby of a 14-year old girl name Usagi that becomes a sailor-suited fighter for love and justice striving to defeat Queen Beryl and the evil Dark Kingdom. Granted most people would switch the name Usagi for Serena and Dark Kingdom for Negaverse, depending on how attached to the '90s dub version they are, but the story remains the same: the quintessential magical girl series of anime and a major gateway series for young anime fans of the time. Before we start getting in depth here, I want to share with all of you a little something I created for a contest called “What Does Sailor Moon Mean to You?” The contest required a visual medium plus a 100-word answer to said question and here is mine:

Even more so than any of the big action anime of the 1990s and 2000s, Sailor Moon was a cornerstone of my childhood and one of the prime reasons I became an otaku. I knew that no matter how bad my day at school was, how much homework or how many chores I had to do, I still had that 30 minutes of Sailor Scout goodness to enjoy and it made everything better. The series filled countless blank VHS tapes for me and I wore them out watching them over and over. In short, Sailor Moon was my sanctuary.

In short, every weekday at 4 PM, it was Sailor Moon time in my mind. It was the portal that opened up Toonami and all the rest of anime as a whole to me and I owe this series a debt of gratitude. That being said, when I found out that only did Viz Media acquire the rights to the original series in its uncut 200-episode glory, but that there was a new Sailor Moon series coming, I, to borrow a phrase from the wonderful author John Green, lost my ability to even. After enjoying several weeks of the original series (currently through 18 episodes at the time of this writing), the day has finally arrived for the premiere of the first episode of Crystal and it's time to break it down as only I can.

First of all, let me state two things. 1.) I enjoyed what I saw of the first episode, but I have a number of trepidations about this new series going forward. 2.) I understand this new series is keeping to the structure of the original manga, but for the purposes of this I'm going to compare it to the first anime. I know that may end up being an apples-to-oranges comparison in due time, but at this point I don't care. Let's start from the top of this episode and progress from there, shall we? 

We open on a big sweeping star-scape, panning through the Milky Way and the Solar System until we arrive at the palace of the Moon. A young figure in a white dress (Princess Serenity for those already up to speed) runs forward to meet a knight in black (Prince Endymion) where they meet and are just about to kiss... until we cut to Usagi's mom bugging her to wake up and get ready for school. 

This is going to be the underlying theme of this entire breakdown: what did the creators add or change to the overall framework of the original series? For all basic intents and purposes, this first episode is a retelling of the first episode of the original series, nearly scene for scene. However in certain spots it's slightly different. Obviously in the original we don't have the foreshadowing dream sequence, plus this new version added Usagi falling down the stairs of her house while in her rush to leave for school, just to emphasize her klutziness just a little bit more. Again, don't get me wrong, the art style is lovely in the new version and the opening dream sequence it's a grand way to kick off the show, but if all we're doing is giving the original series a fresh coat of paint and tweaking a few moments that were likely unnecessary, is it really worth it? Anyway, I digress. On to the opening sequence!

The new theme, Moon Pride, is extremely upbeat and downright rocking in some places, certainly a change of pace from the original theme, Moonlight Densetsu. The visuals fall right in line with the show, showing all five Sailor Guardians right from the start, even including little nods in the lyrics to each of their powers. However, speaking of the opening theme lyrics, I have to point out the obvious, overt girl power message in lyrics such as 'We will fight on our own / Without leaving our destiny to the prince' and 'We are not helpless girls / Who need men's protection.' Don't get me wrong, a girl power message has always been woven into the tapestry of this franchise from the start, but never at such a dead-center and consistent point. Plus, need I remind everyone that for a group that supposedly believes in these ideals, they get saved by a prince in a tuxedo (or white Arabian getup, Moonlight Knight) on a regular basis? Kind of talking out of both sides of your mouth there. Regardless, this is a great dynamic opening overall and sets the energy level high for the show itself. 

Getting back to the show proper, the scene right after Usagi leaves the house is the part where she finds Luna. Now in the original, Usagi finds Luna after she is being harassed by a bunch of little kids, shooing them away. A pretty fitting origin, I'd say. In Crystal, however... Usagi not only trips over Luna, but STEPS ON HER. 

Not right, not right at all. 

To make it even worse, what I can only assume is Usagi trying to give Luna a kiss out of forgiveness leads to her getting her face scratched. Seriously, do you pick up random street cats and try to kiss them often, girl?

 No wonder you're a ditz.

Anyway, let's press on. We get a subtle mysterious setup to our main antagonist next; first thing of note is that it's not the full Dark Kingdom yet, we only see a dimly lit cave with pillars, some brief shots of Jadeite summoning his monster and the command to seek out the Legendary Silver Crystal. There's no sign of Queen Beryl at all in this introduction, though the original version did setup why the Dark Kingdom's forces are collecting energy in a much clearer manner.

Speaking of setup and world-building, another major difference seems to be how characterization is built up for the initial supporting cast. In the original series, the characters and their personalities play off each other in their dialogue and interactions and establish how they relate to Usagi. In Crystal, she flat-out narrates to us that Ms. Haruna's her English teacher, Naru's her best friend that Umino is an annoying nerd. Show, don't tell, please! This is one symptom of a bigger, growing problem so far in the new series: the pacing is far too slow, at least in comparison to the original. To be honest it's somewhat hard to put into words, but if you do as I did as watch the first episodes back to back, you'll see what I'm talking about. The dialogue feels quicker in the original series and leads itself to better characterization for everyone involved. In the discussion I've already had over this show so far, people have been quick to point out how the show tends to rely on the style of narration ripped directly from the manga as well as the pace, which make sense in its nature of being a more direct adaptation of said material. However, certain elements can't be ignored. 

 After working in retail long enough, this seems downright tame to me.

Take for example a later scene where Usagi and her friends visit Naru's family's jewelery store because they're having an huge sale. In the original series, the store is packed to the front doors with customers; it genuinely looks like a feeding frenzy on par with a Black Friday holiday sale at a Wal-Mart. In Crystal, sure, they may have added some additional signs around the store saying there's massive discounts, but for the most part there's a much smaller crowd huddled around one single display case of jewelry. To my disappointment, the chubby old lady from the scenes in the original series isn't part of the crowd either.

Moving right along to another pretty sizable thing that is still baffling me: why are they fussing around with Mamoru and what he's doing as Tuxedo Mask so much? Usagi even makes a good point in her dialogue in that scene: why is he just walking the streets in a tuxedo in the middle of the day? This version of him is certainly not above drawing attention to himself and unfortunately, the level of general antagonism between Mamoru and Usagi is missed in my opinion. 


Blends right into the streets of Tokyo, doesn't he?

Due to the opening dream sequence, their first real-life meeting gets played up for the romantic angle immediately, even through the teasing of Usagi's bad test and hairstyle. The sniping comments of called Usagi 'bun-head' are still there, but it doesn't feel right in the mood Crystal sets for their initial encounter. Once again, it makes me long for the original series where the characters were mostly oblivious to Mamoru being Tuxedo Mask. I think it may be a pretty safe bet that we won't see Rei go on any dates with him in Crystal like she did in the original. Another element to Mamoru's character this time around seems to be how clued in he is already to the machinations of the Dark Kingdom already, saying aloud how he's already looking for the Silver Crystal and even showing how he arrives to the scene of the battle even before Sailor Moon ever shows up. I hate to say it, but it kind of ruins his mystique that he built up. Either that or it's just another example of sticking close to the manga and offering a different, yet still rather implausible reason as to why he's always on the scene of the battle at the most convenient moment.

Anyway, I don't want you all thinking this is a negative, 'not my Sailor Moon' kind of review here. There are definitely elements of this show that I'm well on-board with, such as the various art styles the show is giving us, from the main animation's clean, vibrant look, to the nouveau-style title and bumper cards, to even the computerized chibi animations for the revamped Sailor V video game at the arcade. Other than the computer animation of the transformation sequence, which is simply jarring compared to the rest of the show and even the transform of the original, I don't have much of a qualm with it visually. 

 From beautiful and stylish, to cute and energetic, this series has quite a lot going for it visually.

I also enjoy how Usagi still gets kicked out of the house by her mom after she sheepishly has to own up that that horrible test and still tries, and fails, to kick her brother after she gets teased. Unfortunately, Shingo doesn't kick Usagi square in the backside like the original, which I always loved.

So after Usagi finally gets let back into the house, she ends up napping and returning back to the dream from the same morning, only to get a rude awakening by Luna, scratching her face again. Our feline advisor always had a little bit of a mean streak towards of heroine, especially in the face of laziness and unheroic behavior, but that was just mean. So Luna explains how their first encounter, specifically when Usagi removed the bandages that covered up her crescent moon spot, helped find and locate who our heroine was and gives Usagi the iconic transformation brooch, which has gone through a design change and from what I can assess, a size reduction. The biggest omission, though, was that the brooch just appears against a sparkly background and, poof, Usagi has it in her hands. That's right, they took out Luna's backflip to summon new magical items. That one really hurts and seems like a mistake; there was an air of ceremony to her doing that instead just pulling a magical item out of hammerspace or something. So Usagi does her first transform, my opinion already stated on that for the most part already and I'll let you be the judge on what transformation sequence is superior, but there's a few odd tweaks to the iconic costume of Sailor Moon, namely the addition of a second smaller version of her brooch attached to her choker and the white feathery barrettes that previously came around in later seasons of the original series are present right from the start, keeping more in line with the manga's visual representation. I personally think they're a bit much to have at the start, but I'm a guy, what do I know about fashion?

Speaking of the little accessories to the outfit, I'm happy to see the red parts on Sailor Moon's hair still flash their one and only alert in the entire run of the show and personally, I hope that's a thing they fix with this new show. Having Sailor Moon be able to get alerted to other danger and hearing the cries for help from innocents is really a handy ability. I also like that once she arrives to save Naru from the monster and it demands to know who she is, Usagi pretty much names herself Sailor Moon. Quite a departure from the original where Luna basically says 'You're Sailor Moon, go fight evil,' but a good, clever change in my book. The fight between Sailor Moon and the monster is about the same: monster summons hypnotized, energy-drained people to do her bidding and swarm Sailor Moon while she's still rather stunned and afraid, albeit with significantly less minions, a slower pace and for some reason, Luna directly saying that Sailor Moon needs to kick the monster's butt. 

Never thought I'd hear Luna use that kind of phrase. 

Another part I'm glad stuck around was the fact that a large amount of Sailor Moon's initial success came from her scared crying being turned into sonic blasts and disrupting the mind control on the innocent people attacking her. The early fights in the series always portrayed Usagi as a reluctant hero who slowly gained more confidence the more often she went into battle and while Crystal may have downplayed it, this scene gets taken up another notch entirely, making her cries powerful enough to shatter glass! The joke of Tuxedo Mask saying that crying won't solve anything before being proven wrong is missing, however. With the spell broken and the monster stunned, Luna tells Sailor Moon to summon her finishing maneuver, which is the new, improved Moon Tiara Boomerang. 


Time to get your Xena on.

I like the revision here, looking quite Warrior Princess-like and resembling a chakram, a bladed throwing disk, rather that just an energy-coated version of her tiara. So in short, she defeats the monster, saves her friend and gets one more dreamy look at Tuxedo Mask. It's important to point out two more things about him from the battle: first, he doesn't actually save Sailor Moon from anything the monster does to her. He simply shouts a few words of encouragement from the shadows and doesn't properly introduce himself until after the battle. No iconic rose throw, no nothing.

Second, his costume is pretty much exactly what he was wearing that afternoon, save for the top hat, cape and mask. Once again, not really hiding the disguise very well. Good thing Usagi's such a dim bulb, especially in this version where it feels like they ratcheted up all her negative attributes.

Already? Seems a bit soon to me...

Finally, the last major change Crystal has to pull it in line with the manga's pace is a last second tease to the introduction of Ami, a.k.a. Sailor Mercury. Now here's where I feel like this is going to be the point that makes or breaks Crystal. In the original show, Ami is not introduced until the eighth episode, giving lots of time for Usagi to grow as a character and heroine in her own right before starting to build up a team. It bolsters her fighting confidence and develops her character as well, making the melding of the Sailor Senshi team a fuller experience. A lot of people I debated this with since the premiere of Crystal wrote this length of episodes off as filler and unnecessary when it couldn't be further from the truth. I realize that having to pack, at the very minimum, the Dark Kingdom storyline into 26 episodes is a daunting task and stories will have to be cut to fit that episode count down to nearly half of its original length, but from the way I'm expecting it to go, we should be at the trio of Sailor Moon, Mercury and Mars by the end of episode 3 of Crystal, a feat that the original series spread out until episode 10, though quite heavily towards the solo Usagi fights and only one episode where Usagi and Ami work as a pair. Combine that with the fact that the show itself is following an uncommon, every-other-week release schedule and this timing is all over the place. Seems as though the creators of Crystal are trying to artificially lengthen the show out when they could've it better through their own world-building and character development. That in and of itself seems like the critical flaw of this entire show, eschewing strong development and pace for sticking to the letter of the source material. Granted, one episode is hard to judge the full pace of the series from, but if the precedent set by the manga is to be trusted, I think I may still prefer the classic Sailor Moon series in the end.

Sailor Moon Crystal seems to be both a loving nod to the classic show many of us grew up on and an attempt to reinvent the wheel in terms of the franchise, which makes it a confusing series to assess at the moment. It's not quite for us classic Moonies of the '90s, but there are elements being brought in that don't hold up quite as well to new viewers or those simply judging it on its own merits of writing and characterization. I'll hold off judgment for now until we get a few more episodes, but I have to say sadly, my excitement towards this relaunch of the franchise has been tempered significantly. At this point I'm slightly more excited for the two episodes of the classic series we get on Hulu every Monday than one episode of a brand new series showing every other Saturday.

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