SAILOR MOON CRYSTAL and Thoughts on Animation and the Internet


So like every other ’90s kid, I’ve been watching Sailor Moon Crystal, the anime that isn’t so much a remake of the beloved ’90s anime, but rather a reboot designed by Toei Animation to be more faithful to Naoko Takeuchi’s original manga. Because the series is only 26 episodes long, Toei has decided to air new episodes on a biweekly basis to sustain interest.

I say “air” even though the series is what the West knows as a webseries and what Japan knows as an Original Net Animation (ONA, derived from Original Video Animation, the term for direct-to-video anime) because the series is still very much structured like a television show. It’s two acts broken up by one commercial break, although Hulu (where I view it, although the show also airs on Crunchyroll and NicoNico, which livestream the premiere of every episode), adds more commercials because it’s Hulu’s way, and every episode thus far has been rather self-contained. The series’ 4 episodes have thus far been about Usagi (Kotono Mitsuishi) finding out she’s Sailor Moon, the recruiting of Ami (Hisako Kanemoto) and Rei (Rina Sato) as Sailor Scouts Mercury and Mars respectively, and a team-up episode where they wind up learning more about the nature of the villains they’re facing, the forces of Dark Kingdom.

Watching the show has been a rather unique experience, as I feel it’s my first real exposure to the material. Like all other people my age who had cable, I watched the ’90s version as a kid, but was never super-invested in it; largely, then, Crystal feels like my proper introduction into this particular story (I never read the manga or Codename: Sailor V, which came before it). That might be true for a lot of people, I suspect, but for a lot of anime fans I know personally, it’s the polar opposite.

To this group of fans, it’s more of having the material they loved properly realized in a way they can visibly see. See, while the North American dub–done by DIC Entertainment–was incredibly popular in syndication and on Cartoon Network, it was full of bizarre censorship (like two Scouts who were also lovers, Uranus and Neptune, being called cousins), Westernized name changes and other oddities like educational segments. A full breakdown of the adaptation can be found here.

Crystal, then, can be seen as an attempt to properly show American fans the sort of thing they should’ve gotten back in the day, with modern anime storytelling. Of course, there’s one big risk attached to that. That is, Toei and Viz Media (the new American licensor for Sailor Moon) have to take the chance that old and new fans will check out Crystal rather than the original anime, which is being released uncut and in subtitled Japanese for the first time on Hulu, with two episodes going up every Monday (a ridiculously lavish DVD/Blu-Ray set by Viz, with a brand new, more accurate dub, will be released in the fall). The risk of people flocking to see the better version of the old stuff rather than the brand new stuff is present and, while noteworthy, it doesn’t seem to have affected Crystal‘s reception.

The response to¬†Crystal has been, while not entirely tepid, rather mixed. I mean, a lot of people have seen the show, obviously–the first episode has now been streamed over a million times on Crunchyroll alone–but critical reception has been rather mixed, with many citing the show’s hyperdetailed animation as stiff, particularly in the CGI transformation sequences. For some reviewers, the faithful recreation of Takeuchi’s original art, enormous eyes and all, is also a problem.

Personally, I don’t think the animation is that bad; I actually find it smooth and fluid, although I do find character faces a little stiff. Still, I’m not the target audience here–that would be diehards as well as young kids–and I’m okay with that.

It’s interesting that Crystal is Internet-only, as opposed to airing on a Japanese network firsthand. There are quite a few web-first anime, but most of them tend to be series of shorts, like the somewhat infamous Hetalia. Economically, I understand the impulse; most 20-somethings and kids watch more things online than on TV, after all, and the livestreaming of episodes allows for them to be disseminated quicker among the Internet. But seeing as how web-first programming is usually reserved for programs that wouldn’t stand a chance on regular TV, it’s odd to see a new Sailor Moon show–which is as close as you can get to a sure success–being given this treatment.

Still, this appears to be working so far, so maybe more full-length anime shows will get this kind of treatment. Who’s to say? In the meantime, I’ll keep watching Crystal and taking it all in.