By Brigid Alverson
Sailor Moon is beautiful, pure-hearted, and a little ditzy, but when she hurls her tiara, look out!
The Sailor Moon manga and anime ushered in the manga revolution in the U.S. and brought a whole generation of girls to comics. Compared to later and more sophisticated manga like Fruits Basket and Vampire Knight, Sailor Moon looks rather naïve, but at the time, nobody quite knew what to make of it.
Except the girls. The girls knew.
I dug out an old Sailor Moon anime in preparation for this article and was astonished to see my teenage daughter, who now scorns all things geeky, stand in the middle of the living room and sing along with the theme song, word for word. Back when she was nine or ten, she could watch Sailor Moon for hours. I asked her why.
"Girl superheroes," she said. She thought for a minute and then added. "They were really pretty. The villains were kind of stupid, though."
The manga, which Kodansha USA is re-issuing in a new edition later this year, and the anime were built on the basic framework of many fantasy stories: Sailor Moon and her fellow Sailor Scouts were ordinary schoolgirls who one day found out they were chosen to help save the world. The early volumes contain many of the ingredients of the shoujo formula that became so popular in the mid-2000s: A clumsy, well-intentioned heroine who doesn't get the best grades but has a pure heart; a lofty male character (whom she meets by bumping into him); and of course, a talking cat. Of course, this all seemed fresh and new, because readers were seeing it for the first time. But the true draw was the way that a group of ordinary girls could transform into superheroes and team up to fight all manner of creative villains.
True to shoujo-manga form, the heroine, known as Bunny in the manga, gets the action started by tripping over the cat as she rushes off to school. She removes a band-aid from his head, revealing a moon-shaped bald spot that is the source of his powers, and he immediately freaks her out by not only talking but telling her that she is really Sailor Moon, a soldier with a special mission—to find the princess and save the world from unspecified evils. Bunny doesn't believe the cat, of course, but when she sees that a friend is in danger, she leaps into action and uses her newfound superpowers to save the day. Oh, and along the way, she tosses something and bonks a handsome stranger on the head. This stranger, Tuxedo Mask (so called because he always wears a tuxedo and a mask), soon becomes a key character in the story. That gets things rolling, and as the story progresses, Sailor Moon quickly learns to harness her powers and locates her fellow warriors, the Sailor Scouts.
Much of the attraction of Sailor Moon to comes from the combination of girliness (pretty jewels, friendship stories) and action-packed battles, as well as the hypnotic experience (in the anime) of watching the Sailor Scouts transform from schoolgirls to warriors. In the first volume, Bunny and the Scouts learn that they originally come from the Kingdom of the Moon, where Bunny was the Moon Princess; she committed suicide when her lover was killed, and her mother arranged to have her reincarnated as a Sailor Scout so she could have a happy life on Earth. Together, the Scouts must fight Queen Beryl and the forces of the Dark Kingdom, all of whom are named after minerals. I'm vastly oversimplifying the story, though; there are all sorts of intrigues and complications, not the least of which is Tuxedo Mask, who is Bunny's love interest but also has an agenda of his own.
Creator Naoki Takeuchi wrote Sailor Moon as a series of five story arcs, each one bringing in more battles and struggles but keeping the basic theme of saving the world (later the galaxy) from assorted evils. The manga and anime were created at about the same time, so the anime follows the storyline of the manga fairly closely, although there are deviations. In the August 1997 issue of MixxZine, Takeuchi said, "The anime has a slight male perspective to it, since much of the staff was male. My original version was written by a girl (me) for girls…"
Although Takeuchi wrote the manga first, the anime introduced Sailor Moon to U.S. audiences—and it almost flopped. The anime began syndication in the U.S. and Canada in 1995, but it aired in odd time slots because of the general perception that girls don't watch action cartoons. (Matt Thorn, who was a translator in the early days of the manga/anime boom reminisces on his blog about a media executive's casual dismissal of another shoujo anime for just that reason.) The ratings were terrible, and the show was canceled, but fans banded together and formed a Save Our Sailors (SOS) campaign to bring it back. In 1998, Cartoon Network began airing it as part of their Toonami block.
Around the same time, Mixx, which is what Tokyopop called itself in its early days, began publishing the manga in its magazine Mixxzine. The original manga was published in monthly installments, just as in Japan, first in Mixxzine and then in another Tokyopop magazine, Smile. Eventually it was collected in small paperbacks. Tokyopop flipped the manga so it read from left to right and Anglicized many of the names (changing Usagi to Bunny, for instance) but more or less left the story alone.
It's hard to believe that these tiny paperbacks, smaller than a mass-market novel, were the beginning of the manga revolution in the U.S., but as Matt Thorn told me, "There was a surprisingly short delay between the Sailor Moon phenomenon and shoujo manga appearing in Borders." Part of the phenomenon was the fandom, as scattered Sailor Moon fans found each other and formed fan communities on the internet.
Sailor Moon has been in deep hibernation for a while now—all the manga and anime licenses had expired by 2005, so it is not currently being legally sold or broadcast anywhere in the U.S.—but earlier this year Kodansha USA announced that it would publish a new edition of the manga, including the Sailor V prequel, which has never been published in the U.S. before. Kodansha USA's parent company, Kodansha Japan, is the Japanese publisher of the series, so this is a logical move and one that was anticipated by fans.
The new edition, due out in September, seems to be aimed at older readers who have fond memories of Sailor Moon: The original 18 volumes have been collapsed into 12 covering the main storyline plus two volumes of short stories, and Kodansha describes it as a "deluxe edition." This is probably a wise move, as Bunny and her friends look very dated to modern eyes.
Sailor Moon brought about a fundamental change in the comics and graphic novel market in the U.S., tapping into a demand that no one had known existed. Within a few years, Mixx had become Tokyopop, and bookstores had dedicated big sections of floor space to manga (and the "hobotaku" who sat and read them in the aisles). Graphic novel sales quadrupled between 2001 and 2007, and pundits attributed much of that increase to girls who were coming to the medium for the first time. Today, there are more female comics creators, working in more different styles, than ever before, and many of those creators got their start reading manga—and drawing their own. Sailor Moon not only saved the world, it seems, she created a new one.