As we discussed while talking about Megas XLR, in hindsight one of the most significant influences on Western animation in the 21st century was the anime explosion of the late 1990s, ushered in by the wild popularity of Pokémon. Like any revolution, however, this particular apocalypse had foreshocks, of which one of the most popular, and arguably the most significant, was Sailor Moon.
Originally airing on Japanese television in 1992 and continuing through 1997, Sailor Moon debuted on American television on September 11, 1995, just two days after the launch of Kids’ WB! Based on the manga series of the same name by Naoko Takeuchi, Sailor Moon followed the titular magical girl–which, for our purposes, can be regarded as a sort of teen superhero, though this really only describes a subset of magical girls–and her slowly expanding group of similarly superpowered friends and allies as they fought to protect the Earth from a new extraterrestrial threat in each of the show’s five seasons. Combining teen melodrama, a dizzying array of ever-changing cute outfits for the young protagonists, and impressive action sequences fully of energy blasts and explosions, the show was a massive hit on both sides of the Pacific, and arguably largely responsible of the ubiquity of the subgenre of magical girls in which they form teams and fight evil.
I’ve never seen it.
Well, that’s not entirely true. Somewhere between the summer of 1994 and the summer of 1995, when I was 13 or 14, I watched something with my friend Cyrus’ sister Sanaz in their family’s basement, because for some reason she wanted someone to watch it with her, Cyrus and our other friends refused, and I had a bit of a crush on her. (The first of many times over the next decade or so in which a crush influenced my entertainment choices despite going nowhere.)
It turned out to be in Japanese with no subtitles, and as near as I could tell, involved evil cantaloupes that possessed people, and a tall woman with prehensile hair who later turned into a little girl with a scythe before finally becoming a baby. I now believe this to have been some kind of compilation of the end of the anime’s third season, which had already aired in Japan by the time any of the series started airing in the U.S.
Much more recently, I’ve watched the remake, Sailor Moon Crystal, which was advertised as being much closer to the plot of the original manga than the 90s anime. The original series overall followed the plot of the manga, but ran into a common problem for manga adaptations, namely a large episode order that meant it very quickly ran out of manga to adapt. To give Takeuchi time to create the story it was meant to follow, the anime inserted large numbers of what fans dubbed “filler” episodes. These were largely monster-of-the-week adventures, in which the villains of the ongoing season-long plot engaged in some kind of scheme against the main characters or the people of Tokyo, but were defeated by episode’s end in a way that left the status quo unchanged from the end of the last manga chapter to be adapted. (Episodes like this occurred in the manga, too, especially early in each arc, but the anime had many, many more of them.)
The result was a series which was sometimes episodic and sometimes serialized. This was not entirely new to American television; Batman: The Animated Series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and many other series had episodes which served as sequels to earlier episodes, introducing a small amount of serialization to an otherwise episodic series; at the other extreme, series like Babylon 5 and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine started out mostly episodic but later became more heavily serialized (though in the former this transition was deliberately planned, while in the latter it was the result of a tug-of-war between writers and producers, with the latter winning out early on but gradually letting go as the series continued). Sailor Moon, however, represents a third structure, one common in anime but largely unseen in American television prior to Sailor Moon: on the level of episodes within a season, each episode might be part of the serialized plot of the season or a largely episodic, standalone “filler” episode, while at the same time each individual season is a largely standalone “arc” within the larger show. In other words, while most serious early-90s attempts at serialization involved a single, series-long story arc, Sailor Moon consisted of multiple successive, largely independent, season-long arcs.
A quick glance at my live-action TV watching over the past couple of seasons reveals just how widespread this structure became, at least within genre television: Doctor Who, iZombie, The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow, Agents of SHIELD, and Agent Carter all use this same structure, though the amounts of “filler” in a given season, and the amount of serialization between seasons, vary widely.
Look again at Sailor Moon, and it may become clear how this happened. In particular, look at the filler episodes, in which the monsters of the week often take the form of reifications of adolescent anxieties and perils, especially early on. What is the evil gym manager who drains the lifeforce of the women who work out there but a fantastical version of the eating disorder which might drive a young woman to work out excessively in fear of gaining weight? Evil jewelry and evil cosmetics abound, reifications of unrealistic beauty standards driven by capitalist consumption. Love interests turn out to be villains in disguise, or are mind-controlled into becoming villains, because beginning to explore one’s sexuality is scary and dangerous. This is high school as a horror movie, with each season introducing a new primary antagonist, mingling that season’s ongoing story with monster-of-the-week plots that reify the pitfalls and dangers of modern adolescence, led by an outwardly unremarkable blonde teen who’s a subpar student but grows into being a strong leader, with great power in her own right plus the support by a close circle of friends.
So yes, there’s a reason why Sailor Moon‘s narrative structure has become the default for live action genre television–and that reason would have a profound impact on the DCAU, leading directly to the development of one show in particular, and indirectly influencing one or two others (depending on what you consider a series). Because the best translation of Sailor Moon protagonist Usagi’s name into English isn’t, as the 1995 dub would have it, Serena, nor is it the more literal translation used in the pitch video DIC distributed to try to sell the series to affiliates, Bunny.
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