Sailor Moon Crystal – Acts 1 & 2

It’s been a long time coming, but finally I’m starting my complete review lineup of the new TOEI Animation Anime Series Sailor Moon Crystal. In a couple of weeks it will have been a year since the remastered version of the 90s Anime was announced. The newly-animated reboot features a closer adaptation of the Manga created by Naoko Takeuchi, strictly following a pattern of one chapter equaling one episode, thus rendering this version of the show a lot shorter than the original 200-episode series. Crystal is streamed  through a variety of online services like Crunchyroll and Niconico, and airs a new episode every other or third weekend of the month (depending on the number of weeks per month). In other words, since the series began broadcasting last summer, it’s been a slow ride for fans waiting to watch each episode, but so far the story has completed the first arc of the series (the Dark Kingdom plot) and is now in the second arc (the Black Moon Clan plot). At the moment, the series has only planned for 26 episodes, but hopefully once the show begins its TV serialization, us fans might be lucky enough to see the other three story-arcs re-animated. As it is a modern tradition in Japan, the studio has began releasing individual Blu-Ray volumes containing two episode each per disc. While the sets include many special bonus collectibles to entice fans to buy them, the episodes have also been corrected to fix any animation errors in the web-stream versions as the studio had to rush them to meet release deadlines. In order to do justice with my reviews, I will be evaluating the series via the Blu-Ray releases only. Enjoy!

The Limited Edition set (featured above) contains Acts 1-2 on Blu-Ray in Japanese without any subtitles. Only special features on the disc are the Creditless OP-ED Themes, but there are a bunch of physical collectibles included, such as a bracelet and charm, a music box that plays an orgel version of Moon Pride, a 28-page character artbook, and an OP-ED storyboard artbook. The set is very pretty, but very pricey for only two episodes. There is also a Regular Edition Blu-Ray, or the DVD Edition as well. Please note that the Blu-Ray discs are Region A encoded, meaning they will work on North American video-players, but the DVD is Region-2 encoded, meaning it will only work in Japan or an a Region-Free player. For those wondering, VIZ Media has already licensed Sailor Moon Crystal in North America and does plan on dubbing/subbing the series, though no release dates have been confirmed.

Over the last half year, Crystal has been met with heavy praise, but also heavy criticism. As always, I try to be as objective as possible and explore both sides of things, therefore this review will include a list of GOOD Things and BAD Things for your consideration. I will also review each episode separately.

Act. 1 USAGI -SAILOR MOON-

I think at this point it goes without saying that I’m a big-time Moonie, so it’s a huge deal for me to see this series revamped and brought back to life. During my first run-through of the episode, my jaw was on the floor and I don’t recall blinking, so I definitely had to re-watch it to actually be aware of the events. From the beginning, the intro sequence (which is absolutely beautiful by the way) paints the tone of what is to be expected in this new Anime; there is a moonlight legend and that is what’s going to be most important in this version of the show. The start so far seems very familiar with Usagi waking up late and literally falling down the stairs; that’s a win for the good old days right there. I love the little details included here and there, like when she put the pin in her hair under her buns; I mean, who has not wondered how she gets them to stay up there in place all day? When Usagi meets Luna, it becomes abundantly clear that this series will be just as brazen as the Manga, considering she steps on Luna and kisses her too. I laughed. It is nice to see Usagi’s house again, her bedroom, her mother, the new and improved Ms. Haruna, geeky Umino and, of course, Naru. Evidently the story now takes place more into the future as the settings are very modernized, and I really like this. Seeing the energetic streets around Naru’s home is so refreshing, with chatter, cars, fancy buildings, etc… This episode makes it all seem like a fresh and clean start. At the point where Usagi meets Mamoru for the first time, it is abundantly clear that comedy is not the goal of this series as much as it was in the 90s; the music sets the tone for more meaningful moments. I find the script it much more realistic, especially when Usagi asks herself, “Why the hell is he wearing a suit in the middle of the day?” It clicked for me that the mission here is to have things make more sense, and so far TOEI is doing a good job of that. I was worried about how they would keep the CROWN Arcade current, but alas the Game CROWN Cafe is born. They definitely made the game machines more futuristic and really pimped out that Sailor V game. Seeing Usagi get kicked out of her own home over her bad grades brought back so many memories and I really enjoyed the loyalty kept in that scene. We get to the classic first transformation scene, but I will touch on that more below. I’m a little sad that Keiko Han didn’t also reprise her role as Luna here, but one can only ask for so much. Also, it’s a shame she didn’t shit-out the brooch in this series like she did in the 90s. Boring… Let’s talk about the newly-designed enemy: HUGE changes here because the setting is no longer some random parallel demon universe, but actually a castle base up in the Arctic. Jadeite looks really childish in his redesign, but I’m assuming that it might be that way in the Manga too. It was interesting to hear the monster-of-the-day actually mention she tied up Naru’s real mother in the basement, because one really had to wonder what happened in the original Anime. I like the glass tube she uses to collect the energy, and it makes more sense to me to summon the human slaves from their homes, though they got there REALLY fast. I think above everything, my favourite moment in this episode is when Sailor Moon runs outside of the jewelry store to see the man whose words encouraged her to fight. When she stared up at the moon and saw Tuxedo Mask, my heart melted. I feel there is more love in this story than in the original, and I endorse this 100 percent. I absolutely love this first episode and it made me fall in love with Sailor Moon all over again.

Act. 2 AMI -SAILOR MERCURY-

So right off the bat it appears Crystal is going to waste no time as Ami is introduced even before the Opening Theme plays; I’m personally okay with this though, because there really was never much of a gap between the three initial guardians meeting for the first tie. I like the clarification that these students are learning English because I feel like I now believe that they go to school and actually learn. I’m beginning to notice that questions are finally being asked and answered. For example, Usagi gets home from school and asks Luna if she intends to live in that house with her forever, and I like that because in the 90s Anime it was just a given. Though, one thing that floors me is the underground communications center in the arcade that is just there… Who installed that place? Who pays the electricity bill? Who cleans the dust? And who taught Luna computer linguistics? Also, why is Ami’s school uniform so frumpy and her hair so messy? I thought she was perfect all around… A lot of interesting things to wonder about still. Moving forward, I really like this rendition of Usagi meeting Ami for the first time. It reminds me of the way PGSM handled it, which was very cute and showcased the softness of Ami’s character. Okay, so although I didn’t like the way Usagi’s brooch came into existence in the first episode, I like the way the pens were received in this one. I am really digging the new age technology. I even noticed the computer desktop was running at least Windows 7. On an outside topic, can I just say how much I loved all of the memes that hit the Internet regarding the infamous ‘Usagi on the computer‘ moment? Goodbye floppy-disk; hello CD-ROM! Goodbye old CPU; hello purple laptop! Just beautiful. Unfortunately, I was sad that there wasn’t even some sort of special animation during Usagi’s Moon Power transformation. Blah much? The battle scene that follows is more or less the same as what we’ve seen before, so no complaints there. I like that Sailor Moon uses her ultrasonic-waves attack again because that was just so short-lived in the original series. As for Mercury Power Make-Up? See my thoughts below. There was a nice cute moment when Tuxedo Mask rescued Sailor Moon from sudden death. Overall, it is a very familiar episode, but definitely very modernized. Alas, the episode is not even over and we’re already catching a glimpse of Rei at the Hikawa Shrine. DEFINITELY no time wasted here! I’m beginning to notice a pattern here: every time the Ending Theme starts, I smile and wipe a tear from my eye because I’m just that happy about this series. I’m on-board so far!

Things you will like.

  • The accurate adaptation of the Manga: There are definitely a ton of similarities between this episode and the first episode of the 90s Anime, which shouldn’t be surprising since the series is based off a Manga. However, after doing research I came to realize that TOEI Animation did a really impressive job paralleling almost every frame of animation to every frame of the Manga. Although I have never much been into the Manga nor have I read all of it entirely, this should finally please some audiences who have long argued that the original Anime deviated too much from the actual story and included too many random fillers. The acting rumor is that Crystal only became possible with the blessing of Naoko Takeuchi, her official condition being for it to honor her works in the way the original Anime did not (according to her opinion). For those who may not have known, Sailor Moon was an unusual case where the Manga was not well developed before the Anime series began; they basically took place at the same pace. This more likely is due to the fact that Takeuchi started her series with the two Codename: Sailor V serializations and due to that popularity, the Sailor Moon Manga and Anime were birthed at roughly the same time. This often created a conflict where TOEI Animation would end up producing episodes based on what Manga chapters Takeuchi finished, but would then hit a stump waiting for her next chapter to publish. Obviously the studio had deadlines to meet, so they would then proceed to make up their own episodes with side-stories to fill the gaps. I think that when you look at it from Takeuchi’s perspective as a creator, it doesn’t come as a surprise to know she was not a fan of the Anime as it ended up quite differently from the Manga, making it less of an adaptation and more of an interpretation of her works. WELL, Crystal should make her really happy considering that (according to expert fans) it follows the Manga perfectly. There is, however, a serious void created by this and I touch on that below.
  • The return of the real Sailor Moon: Hands-down, this Anime would not be worth anything if Kotono Mitsuishi did not reprise her role as Usagi Tsukino. I had no idea that Mitsuishi was so developed and starred in so many roles, but I’m not surprised because she is TRULY talented. I might argue she’s one of the best voice actresses ever mostly because she puts so much emotion into her roles as if she is actually that character. She did this so well in the original 90s Anime that it is hard to imagine anyone else doing justice to Usagi. Granted, I still liked ANZA, Marina Kuroki, and Sawai Miyuu for their respective interpretations of the role too, but for Anime there is non other that Mitsuishi. So far in these episodes, her performance is on par and it is most definitely the same voice she once again lends to the character, which creates all kinds of nostalgia, especially when she yells, “Moon Prism Power Make-Up!” The only criticism I will give is that in the 90s Anime, the quirkiness of the animation allowed for the theatrical voice of Mitsuishi to be better believed, but here we get such a polished drawing style that at times you might think Usagi looks too pretty to sound so much like a dork. Thankfully, despite the style chosen here, she is a pretty guardian, but is also the same old ditz we all once loved so much. It will take some getting used to, but by the will of God we have Kotono Mitsuishi to guide us through it.
  • The brand-spanking-new Moon Prism Power Make-Up: There has been very negative feedback regarding this topic, and I’m not going to even try to entertain why people don’t like it because I’m all for it. I’ve included the new transformation sequence below so you can watch for yourself and be your own judge. So, TOEI Animation decided to throw their budget into the transformations and theme songs by implementing some CGI into the series, and it seems like fans aren’t on-board with this. “Why,” I ask. They did this a lot with the Digimon series and more titles from what I’ve heard. I think those elements of the show are the most important (at least I grew up liking those parts a lot) and I feel like every effort should have been put into them, as so the company did. I absolutely love Sailor Moon’s transformation. Some argue that TOEI knows nothing of CGI or how to properly colour, but I think it was epic. I loved the the beauty of the angles and lighting used in conjunction with the perfect music. It was everything I would have ever wished for as an upgrade to what we saw in the past. I like the fact that she’s using the original brooch to transform; I can’t understand why the 90s Anime featured such an ugly down-played brooch instead. The upgraded pose and speech are also pretty well done. I couldn’t ask for better. The only huge disappointment? I wish we received bedazzled attack sequences too, and that is not something we got in this episode (and will not get anywhere else in the series either!). If we run with the fact that Sailor Moon uses nearly a different attack in each chapter of the Manga, then it makes a little more sense to not go all out, and like I said before, one can only ask for so much. I am just very happy with what I got to see so far.
  • The new and fresh soundtrack: I want to profess my love for the original Sailor Moon soundtrack and all of the amazing music of Takanori Arisawa (a huge talent we lost way too soon). I am a gigantic fan of the Sailor Moon Music Collections and I still listen to them all the time. This being said, what we get in Sailor Moon Crystal is NOTHING AT ALL similar to what we were used to back then. This isn’t surprising at all given that music, much like film and animation, evolves so much so often. The question is, “Do we like it?” The answer, to me, is yes. While I liked the sassy, adventurous, classical, and instrumental ways of Arisawa, Yasuharu Takanashi gives us a different take on Sailor Moon that is much needed to suit the new animation. The initial Anime featured plenty of goofy melodies that paved the way for all of the comedy in the series, but here we get a more serious rendition with themes of justice, romance, and struggle. Some have argued that the music is a tad generic, but I would fire back saying that music in general these days is generic and less articulate than what it was in the 90s. I actually enjoyed the prelude, guardian themes, battle tracks, and ballads a lot. I’ve heard that the music especially resembles that of PreCure, another Anime series Takanashi has composed for, but I haven’t really seen it, nor do I plan on it. Maybe this would bother me if I did see the similarities firsthand myself, but it’s not uncommon for a composer to reuse concepts, especially if they worked well in their favor previously. As for the theme songs… it took a while for the Opening Theme Moon Pride (featured below) to grow on me, but I blame that mostly on Momoiro Clover Z because I hate them. Yes, let’s get five chicks who can’t sing and make them represent one of the most successful and globally popular shows on Earth. Kudos there TOEI. At first I found the song way to girly and hyper active, but upon listening to it a few times without the vocals, I learned that voices can go a long way. On the other hand, the Ending Theme Gekkou (also featured below) I really like, except that (once again) these horrible singers took it into the wrong direction. It was a treasure to find out that this song was composed by Akiko Kosaka, the great musician behind the songs of the Sailor Moon Musicals and some themes from the old Anime, like Moon Revenge and Tuxedo Mirage. If only there was another group performing both songs, I’d say everything in the music world is perfect, but who knows, maybe they will grow on me… MAYBE. As an aside, you can find out where to purchase Moon Pride / Gekkou here and snag the Crystal Original Soundtrack here.
  • The polished artwork pieces: While I have much to say about the animation below, I must say that some of the still art in the show is just absolutely stunning. If you look through this review, you will see that Crystal abandoned the short video-clip ‘Subtitle’ and ‘Eyecatch’ sequences in favor of these beautiful silhouette illustrations. Some might call it another cop-out, but I have always liked the silhouette usage in the original Anime series and I’m glad they kept that idea for the Ending Theme as well. At the end of each episode is a ‘To Be Continued’ still featuring French words, while the ‘Eyecatch’ shows the English logo for the series (all images pictured in this article). On an aside, I even like that the Japanese Crystal logo hast the English words in it too. I appreciate these small details as it tells me TOEI made some effort to acknowledge that this show will become internationally viewed. Outside of the actual episodes, there are a few good pieces that TOEI has unveiled for the series, starting with the first-look image. I liked the idea of the animation being similar to the Manga because they could have chosen some other random style we’d all really hate. Additionally, I really am in love with the Blu-Ray cover-art pieces (except for Mars, which you will see in the third review article). A lot of fans have been criticizing the proportions of the limbs, back, and breasts of the guardians, but I think that this is just the style of the show. After all, let’s be honest… Naoko Takeuchi’s drawings are all random and all over the place as she scarcely ever sticks to a standard, especially with her characters’ long and lanky limbs. Oh no! Shoot me, for I have dishonored our great leader… If Sailor Moon fans can mock TOEI Animation’s work, I don’t see why we can’t have issues with Takeuchi’s either. Fans have gone on to create ‘fixed versions‘ of the artwork to show how flawed the official artwork is; I get this, and I understand it. However, I feel like if we stoop this low level with Crystal, then we can go on to mess with the 90s Anime, and this is what no one seems to realize: fairness. We have to accept that there is a reason why the artists made the decisions they did, and quite frankly I don’t see why we have to poke at everything. I do agree we could be given better, but considering the alleged low-budget aspect of Sailor Moon Crystal, I really do like what I see. This Blu-Ray cover is absolutely flawless and as soon as I got a hold of it, I started using it for every profile I have online. I wish to see more of it outside of just the home video releases and with more of the characters.

Things you might not like.

  • The clearly low-budget animation style: While I sang the praises of Sailor Moon Crystal above, I must now shift gears into reality and acknowledge some of the heavy criticism the show has met with. I’ll start with the animation… Now, around the time of the premiere, it became a known fact that TOEI outsourced the show to other smaller animation studios (TOEI Philippines being one of them), meaning that the priority for this project isn’t high on their list in comparison to whatever other shows they’re mastering at the moment. Outsourcing often results in less than acceptable results because you are depending on lesser-equipped studios to complete goals at a topnotch level, when really they won’t care to achieve those results. I promised I would only judge the polished Blu-Ray material, but I have to touch on the fact that the online web-stream is really the first impression the audience will get. Also, consider only the die-hard rich fans will explore the home video option if the first impression does not live up to the standard. Episode one is pretty consistent, but there was a huge issue with the eyes in episode two that really made people cringe. It made everyone look at the overall quality of the animation and revealed that the characters are really lanky in many shots and disproportionate. Now, to be fair, the proportions in the original Anime were all over the map too, but the series was filled with comic relief to back that up. This is a 2014-2015 production and should really be showcasing innovation in the field of animation, and unfortunately as each episode premieres, it looks like less and less effort goes into the art. Another interesting thing I found was that it does not seem that TOEI is working on the episodes well in advance, because the end previews are so lackluster and you get the idea that things were rushed. While I am immensely grateful for the Blu-Ray releases fixing the errors, it’s sad that so many things need to be fixed. Episode two showcased a lot of changes made to the character’s faces and hair, which tells me that there is no definitive style guide for the animators to follow, which seems really unorthodox. It has been confirmed that not only is the show relatively low-budget, but the response has been very negative because of the animation quality primarily. The show will be hitting TV broadcast next month in an effort to gain sponsors who will shell out money as income for TOEI, and it is my deepest hope that this move will allow for a better quality product. Again, heed my point… the initial web-stream is sad, but thankfully the studio is making every effort to fix the mistakes afterward, which is why my review here is generally good.
  • The fast pace of the show: Now, if my first point was a big reason why the critical response to Sailor Moon Crystal has been bad, then this is an even bigger reason: people are afraid of how fast everything is going. I mentioned before that this version of the Anime has been closely following the Manga. Well, it turns out that the winning point that I thought would please everyone is another big issue for the community. The Manga, being a comic book, is quite fast-paced and devoid of any fillers. When you’re reading, your imagination and speed of reading tends to slow down things for your mind to process and build a story. Apparently, you can’t just copy that recipe into a show, which I would have never known until watching Crystal. In these first two episodes you don’t really feel the brunt of this too much because Usagi only had a few random adventures prior to meeting Ami in the original Anime, but work this math out… The 90s Anime contained the Dark Kingdom saga into 46 episodes, and Crystal contained it into 13 and a half! THAT’S CRAZY! Think how condensed the entire thing is, especially with the episodes being less than 30 minutes and even shorter omitting the Opening/Ending Themes, transformations, and previews. However, this is what Naoko Takeuchi wanted: an exact adaptation of her works. The Manga contained the entire first season plot into 13 episodes, and so Crystal more or less did the same thing. I feel like fans are failing to realize that you get what you ask for. When Sailor Moon Crystal was announced, every idiot online was harping about wanting an accurate retelling of the Manga; well, it doesn’t get more accurate than a frame-by-frame copy. The obvious side-effect here is that without any filler episodes, there is little room for character development. We don’t see the bonds between Usagi and her friends here as we certainly did in the past. The whole thing is very rushed and kind of leaves you less emotionally connected to what you’re watching. On the other hand, I argue that this is one of those things where it’s not as disastrous as everyone claims it to be. Let’s be honest, we all know exactly what is going to happen in the story and exactly what to expect at the end. Do we need to spend countless episodes establishing what we already know? I highly doubt a slew of oblivious new fans are watching this series, and even if they are, they have the Manga, classic Anime, musicals, and live-action to reference from if they need more depth. I’ll admit that I would have rather seen TOEI use the full 26 episodes on the Dark Kingdom (which is what we all expected), but in light of a non-existent budget, I completely get why they would try to shove the Black Moon Clan in there as well (on the off chance the show doesn’t make it past 26 episodes). You see, as much as you all bitch and complain about hating Crystal for these shortcomings, if you focus your energies into seeing the positive things, maybe we will see the whole series revamped and not just two out of five seasons. Think about that!
  • The less than amazing Mercury Power Make-Up: In the second episode we get to see Sailor Mercury’s transformation; now this I wasn’t too impressed with to be honest. I feel like in the 90s Anime Sailor Mercury’s transformation was always the least exciting, and to me this is a huge injustice because there is so much one can do with the element of water. Thankfully, we were blessed with Ami’s First Love where she got some special treatment that rectified her boring transformations. As for Crystal, I realize that I have not yet reviewed far enough to show the other guardians’ transformations, but once again hers is the worst out of the bunch. There’s no action of any kind or major use of water the way that Mars uses fire, Jupiter uses lightning, or Venus uses light ribbons. Also, there is a lot of time spent lighting up the Mercury sign on her forehead… Big fail here. I wonder why she, the most popular one, gets such blah treatment?
  • The average audio mix: Don’t get me wrong, I did very much enjoy the sound quality and mastering of sound effects, music, and vocals in these two episodes. However, in this age of high definition entertainment (and lets take a moment to say thanks for the 1080p goodness we’ve been lucky enough to receive), why is there only a 2.0 audio track??? I’m shocked! I can’t even begin to understand why a technologically advanced and wealthy studio in nerdy Japan would not give us a surround sound mix on an HD production. It baffles me considering just the other day TOEI started re-rendering some of the old Sailor Moon Music Collections from the 90s in a new high-resolution format. The tracks have been reproduced into topnotch above-CD quality versions and are now on sale here. A part of me suspects that with the original Anime being re-aired in Japan soon in high definition, TOEI is gearing up to enhance the audio as well. So… why the average treatment in Sailor Moon Crystal? Is it that low-budget? I’ll admit this is not a crushing issue, but it really bothers me because most modern-day Anime is capitalizing on the full HD experience and giving 5.1 and sometimes 7.0 audio tracks. My very sensitive ears can tell that Crystal would sound so much more grandiose with more channels of audio to fool around with. With only two channels, you can’t really appreciate the new music or the freshness of the voices and sound effects. I’m praying someone out there agrees with me and maybe unveils a better track for the North American release, though I somehow doubt this will happen.
  • The lack of behind-the-scenes material: This point relates a little bit more to the actual Blu-Ray releases because I should probably talk about that a little bit. The sets are quite expensive and while, yes, they come with nice collectibles and pristine design elements, is it worth the price paid for just two episodes? Definitely not. I must say that in a digital age where (usually) most aspects of production are recorded for reference, there is a huge lack of bonus material on the discs. The bare minimum is the Creditless Opening and Ending Themes. Where are the voice acting sessions? The secrets behind the animation process? Interviews with the key production players? The press releases? Some kind of speech from the creator? Maybe Japan isn’t into things like this, but I feel like there needs to be more incentive for people to want to buy these sets. I reviewed the North American Sailor Moon Blu-Ray release here, and while my review was not that great, the studio did a good job of providing a lot of extra content and the sets include many episodes with dubbing and subtitles for a much lower price. Considering that the web-stream is subtitled on most of the sites hosting it, would it have killed TOEI to add subtitles to the Blu-Ray sets given the subtitles are already translated and prepared? Of course being the greedy company that they are, they are probably expecting that to make a good profit off the future English dub and sub sets bound to be released by VIZ. Apparently if you purchase all of these Limited Edition sets, you can redeem for a collector’s box that will house all of the sets in the end, but prepared to spend close to $1000 in the process, easily.

Well, I think I’ve written quite a lot here for my first review of the series and most likely the following articles will be much shorter given that I won’t have to introduce some of these concepts again. I hope my words shed some kind of light on the way you will or do view this series. As always, if you really love the show and all it has to offer, please support the official releases and pay for the content as it gives to the people who worked hard to make it for you. I realize the Internet makes it so easy to download things, but the entertainment industry cannot survive on just piracy. That’s my inspirational speech of the day, and I hope you have enjoyed my words! Here are some treats to tingle your senses until next time: