Welcome to the third article of Watson Watches (the Retro Edition). As a brief intro to anyone reading this series for the first time, this is actually the follow-up to a bunch of interview-style articles published in 2014. The idea was to introduce Watson – who at that time knew almost nothing about anime and had never watched it himself – to some specific titles and then ask him some hopefully interesting questions about them. This current series is basically the same thing but with one unifying factor: all the anime I’ll be getting Watson to watch were released before 2000.
Just for fun, we’re also going in reverse chronological order. Previously we tackled the 1995 landmark show Evangelion, and this week we’re going with another hugely popular title that even non-anime fans have probably at least heard of: 1992’s Sailor Moon. As usual, Watson watched everything on his own and was told not to look up anything online beforehand. The following questions were given to him afterwards. (Note that as Sailor Moon contains a ton of filler, we ended up agreeing that he watch the episodes introducing each of the main characters – for reference, that’s episode 1, 8, 10, 25, 33, and 34 of the original Japanese version.)
Same first question to start things off: as an anime first released in 1992, how well do you think the sound and visuals in Sailor Moon have aged? Do you think you would have guessed just from watching that it was an early 90s production?
Oooohhh yes. I definitely get a 90s feel from it in most respects. Jerky animation, less movement, relatively simple visual effects, less detailed characters and backgrounds… it looks a lot like a 90s show. In terms of sound it feels similarly dated. I’m not an audiophile so I can’t say precisely what qualities give rise to that but the clarity and crispness of the sounds is noticeably lacking, and the complexity is also lower. I think there’s also a difference in style of music too – it seems less electronic and more “real” than I’m used to with anime. Credit should go to the Japanese voice actors, they sound just about right for their characters’ age and social place. Perhaps this could also be applied to some of the visuals, now that I think about it. I noticed several times that the backgrounds resembled paintings more than a cartoon. So although the show definitely seems dated in those respects, there are some things I liked about them.
Though there was of course a large amount of variety, a lot of anime shows released in the 90s – the former half in particular – had a very distinctive look. The outlines were thicker, the eyes bigger and sparklier, the noses sharper. What’s your personal take on this older style of artwork?
I’m not a fan of the sparkly eyes. I feel it detracts from the depiction of the characters. The sharp noses don’t do it for me either, but that’s a fairly minor thing. As for the rest, it’s neither here nor there for me. I think the thicker outlines suit the simpler visuals and colour schemes but that might be simply because it’s what I’m used to. My ¥2 worth is that it generally works in the show’s favour, given the low resolution of TVs back then – if you want to show definition you do need a thicker line and that’s more or less the end of it. It is fairly distinctive, but not unique to Japanese animation.
Though Sailor Moon was not the prototype of the magical-girl genre, it did massively popularize and revolutionize it, both in Japan as well as overseas. The anime’s original run lasted until 1997, and it developed an enormous following among a wide audience demographic. Why do you think the show was so successful?
I have no absolutely no idea. My usual guess about such things is that it must have offered audiences something they couldn’t get elsewhere, that it was so significantly different from anything else available that people flocked to it. But I don’t have any special insight into what that might have been. There are a few things that might have stuck out, though.
For one thing, the characters are appealingly flawed. This is especially true of the main character, who is something of a coward, lazy, and not particularly motivated (the way the other heroes talk about and to her had me sniggering pretty regularly). Giving the heroes relatable qualities is a nice nod to the audience. And all the main characters are female too, which must have been something of a novelty in a show which is all about kicking evil’s ass. Apart from that, however, nothing jumps out as demanding massive popularity as a response. Can someone tell me what’s going on here?
The main character herself is now recognised as being one of the most culturally significant and iconic female superheroes of all time, while the series has often been associated with the feminist and Girl Power movements. Do you feel that Sailor Moon, both as a character and as an overall show, is empowering to women?
I’m amazed that feminists want anything to do with it. In fact there were quite a few moments when I found myself thinking it must have received some harsh words on that score. It isn’t even because of the gender roles that female characters end up in, the clothing they wear, or the open expressions of admiration some of the male characters make. The main characters are all slim and conventionally attractive, these qualities are regarded positively, they literally fight evil with the power of makeup (!), and several of them seem interested in pursuing heterosexual relationships. A new feminist manifesto it ain’t.
But if we relax a little and think in terms of empowerment, I think there might be more to it. For starters all the main characters are female, and although there are male characters none of them seem terribly important (with the essential proviso that, in the Japanese version at least, almost all of them treat females with respect and don’t try to take control away from them – the exceptions are clearly intended as minor characters). It is the female characters who make all the significant decisions, take the most important actions, and achieve the goals of the show. I don’t think it’s going too far to say that this is a fairly empowering view of female roles in the show.
I also found it interesting that many of the villains’ schemes to harvest “human energy” targeted females or their assumed interests. Out of the six episodes I watched two stick out in particular. One was based around a jewelry store and the other went after young women buying tokens at a shrine. I seem to recall something Sailor Moon said during one of these showdowns berating the villain du jour for using young girls’ dreams against them, which is a level of awareness about how things are targeted in the real world that should strike a chord.
And although it isn’t necessarily related to gender roles, the fact that the Sailor Senshi are friends speaks well of them. They are snarky to each other at times but the relationships seem to be portrayed as realistically as you could reasonably expect, and the fact that it is females who work together to defeat evil could also be viewed as empowering. So I would say that yes, the show is empowering to women.
Honestly I quite liked the lead character, Sailor Moon herself. I mentioned above that she is appealingly flawed, but she’s also good natured and has a kind of indefinable charm which really worked for me. All the Sailors seem refreshingly genuine, and Usagi-chan typifies that quite nicely.
Least favourite? Sailor Mercury, who edges out Tuxedo Kamen by a button-like and barely-noticeable nose. Ami suffers from an almost complete lack of characterisation – her only identifiable quality is being “the smart one”, and that’s basically the kiss of death as far as having a distinct personality goes (this is hardly a problem distinct to anime, of course). It’s a great shame because I think there was a fair bit of scope to make her just as much an individual as any of the others. But no, instead we get nothing. As for Tuxedo Kamen, he verges on irrelevance most of the time. But he is occasionally useful and we do get to know a bit more about him as an individual, which ends up making him a more sympathetic character than poor Ami.
The usual problem I have when I watch an episode in English is that I have trouble thinking of them as the same characters. I get used to the Japanese voice actors, so when I hear them in English they just don’t sound right. The fact that the English voice actors often sound a lot older doesn’t help matters. Sailor Moon suffers from that, but it also suffers from having changes made to fit in with the presumably American audience that they were doing it for. The episode I re-watched (10) had several significant changes made to the dialogue which changed the sense of some scenes quite dramatically.
For example even small Japanese towns usually have one or more shrines, so there’s nothing particularly unusual about visiting one. The Japanese version was consistent with this, treating it as a commonplace occurrence and the mystery of the episode was based around what happened afterwards. The English version made a big deal out of going to “the weird temple up on the hill”, and I found this put quite a different complexion on what the characters were involved in (and made their decision-making seem considerably dumber).
I do wonder, however, how much of this is because I have lived in Japan and have some familiarity with how people sound, what is common to find in towns, usual behavior, and so on. I think the characterisation differences would come through regardless, but a good deal of the context would be absent. Without that, maybe the difference would be less pronounced.
Characterisation was also something that was noticeably different between the versions. The Sailors in general seemed much brattier, other characters less effectual and convincing, decision-making was more arbitrary, and all in all it was quite obviously intended for a different audience. Also, I have a question: who the fuck is responsible for that idiotic Sailor Says segment? If there was one thing that hacked me off above all else about the English version, it was the nauseating pointlessness of that last segment. I can’t see what purpose it’s supposed to serve, since anyone watching the show with even the tiniest amount of self-awareness will instantly recognize it as irrelevant. But this is an example of a kind of shoe-horned-in morality that just doesn’t gel with the rest of the show. Our lives would be richer without it.
I can’t see it happening. I quite like some things about Sailor Moon, and it isn’t painful to watch. But it scratches an itch that I just don’t have. What I saw didn’t make me think it had anything much to offer in terms of what I want from my entertainment, so I don’t feel any impulse to slog through all of it. If it happened to be on while I was doing something else then I wouldn’t feel upset, but I wouldn’t seek it out deliberately.
Question of the post: Got any other questions for Watson, or just comments in general? Let us know your thoughts! As always, anything aimed specifically at Watson will be replied to by the man himself.