Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon S is an earlier work of Kunihiko Ikuhara back when he was still working for Toei Animation. Although dated in some respects, it still remains a stellar mahou shoujo season thanks to his creative input.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Kunihiko Ikuhara is easily my favourite anime director. Between his stylistic flair, picturesque scene framing and especially his proficiency with a more allegorical style of storytelling, he’s really second to none. Of course, when mentioning a name like Ikuhara, it’s almost impossible not to associate him with – what many feel is his magnum opus, and for a good reason too – Shoujo Kakumei Utena – and in more recent years, the quirky yet clever Mawaru Penguindrum. However, before Ikuhara broke free and decided to live his life heroically and with style, he was but a humble
slave employee of the all-encompassing Toei Animation during the early-to-mid 90’s. There, he honed his skills working on shows such as Kingyo Chuuihou and the famous Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon, alongside many talented minds such as director Sato Junichi and scriptwriter Yoji Enokido – both of which would go on to forge their own careers in the industry after leaving Toei.
On the topic of Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon, the franchise is really quite an interesting one. Aside from being a worldwide phenomenon that exposed many Western audiences to anime for the first time and popularizing mahou shoujo shows with a sentai spin, the franchise is by large a creative construction. What I mean by that is due to the circumstances of the anime being produced simultaneously with Naoko Takeuchi’s manga, the staff had limited access to the source material and were forced to extrapolate upon the few plot and character threads provided. This resulted in many aspects being envisioned differently from their manga counterparts, including the portrayals of the cast and even the core storyline. Additionally, being somewhat of a shaky production, the staff working on an episode would vary on a weekly basis. On the one hand, this undoubtedly makes Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon a rough product, but from another perspective it’s a highly interesting amalgamation of individual styles –depending on who’s involved with the writing and art direction of an episode; it’s still Sailor Moon at the end of the day, but the nuance is certainly different.
Going back to Ikuhara, while he was always a key player in Sailor Moon’s production, it wasn’t until the series’ third instalment – Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon S – where he was finally granted a definitive directorial voice. As this was the first instance where Ikuhara assumed the role of series director from the get-go, in many respects, Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon S became more of an auteur piece. Compared to the previous instalments where Sato’s influence could also be seen, Ikuhara took a number of risks with some rather unconventional methods of storytelling; motifs and themes that would later serve as prototypes to elements in Shoujo Kakumei Utena.
Although fans may undoubtedly see Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon S as an “Utena Lite”, the season is far from being just a blueprint work. If anything, given that Ikuhara still had to work within the confines of the Sailor Moon universe, it allowed him to play around with the cast, their roles in the thematic narrative and even parts of the mahou shoujo formula. The latter is especially important in this case, as much of the season’s humour is an affectionate self-parody of Sailor Moon’s cheesier and more outlandish moments. In fact, comedy is one of Ikuhara’s strongest suits, and out of everything that he’s worked on, to this day I still find Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon S to be his best when it comes to tickling my funny bone.
In short, I consider Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon S to be the Sailor Moon season that Ikuhara wanted to create. It’s by far my favourite Sailor Moon instalment, and because of that I’d like to spend the next few weeks talking about the season’s highlights. After much planning, I’ve decided that the best way to do this would be to select a couple of episodes and do a scene-by-scene analysis – which should hopefully bring to light Ikuhara’s proficiency as a director and overall vision for this season.
For my first article out of a series of some unplanned number, I’ve decided to focus on episode 92, or the third episode of the S season. As Ikuhara served as the episode director and was in charge of the storyboard, the entire episode from start to finish was essentially his creation.
Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon S 92 – “A Beautiful Boy? The Secret of Haruka Tennou”
Although primarily a humorous episode, this was a very important chapter in the S season for establishing a core element of its thematic foundation – the coming-of-age element and the introduction of the older Outer Senshi characters (Uranus & Neptune). As such, it’s an episode heavily focused on setting up Usagi and Minako’s infatuation over Haruka Tennou – who appears to be an older, incredibly handsome male. Of course, this overview is far more serious than how the actual events play out, as everything is almost entirely for laughs.
The titular character, Usagi Tsukino, on her way to a group study session is sidetracked by the whims of Aino Minako – who is found slacking off at the local arcade and flirting with its shopkeeper instead of attending the study session. This scene has a number of great character-driven moments, mainly due to how Ikuhara is exaggerating the personalities of the cast. Minako was originally a capable latecomer to the team and didn’t have much time to shine in the first season, but her role gradually shifted towards that of a comic relief character. These moments showcase the most amusing aspects of Minako’s personality, such as her over-the-top theatrics – complete with intentional overacting and a misquoting of well-known idioms. It’s made all the more hilarious by the shopkeeper, Motoki, berating her in a completely deadpan manner that breaks the mold of his normally cheerful demeanour. The best part is this hammy performance somehow still convinces Usagi to partake in her gaming escapade in lieu of their study session (which probably doesn’t say much due to her academic performance).
Of course, Usagi ends up getting smoked by Minako’s Initial D skills, but right then, a new challenger appears! A handsome, older boy, named Haruka challenges Minako to a virtual race. Cue the fluttering rose petals, shoujo-esque still-frames and cheesy romantic music. Yes, our galactic defenders have fallen head over heels for this guy.
Long story short, Minako loses the race. We’re also treated to a low-angle shot of her as the camera slowly pulls back, inconspicuously revealing her panties. I think Toei might have some closet perverts lurking about. I’m not sure why I bothered to comment on this.
Anyhow, those familiar with Ikuhara’s works will know that the man loves repeated imagery. He uses this technique to either reinforce prominent symbols by showing the audience them at key intervals or structuring two separate scenes in an identical manner to establish a connection. With Michiru’s appearance, we’re dealing with the latter as her entrance is accompanied by the same rose petals, still-frame (shot from exactly the same angle) and musical accompaniment. Heck, Usagi and Minako even react the same manner, with their inner thoughts plastered to the screen for all of us to see. In this case, the connection is realized pretty quickly, since Haruka and Michiru are eternal partners in crime. It’s a neat way of presenting the introductions of two characters that are almost always seen together though.
The next sequences of events are downright hilarious. Minako goes full stalker mode and attempts to stake out Haruka to see if Michiru is really his lover. Usagi, curious as well, follows along, though she pretends to only act as Minako’s “conscience” because she already has a boyfriend in Mamoru. So faithful.
The scene composition gets pretty good during some parts, where a dead serious conversation that Haruka and Michiru have about their goals is given a visual transition to their comical entourage of stalkers – Usagi and Minako. It’s a nice method of shifting the tone without creating a jarring mood whiplash, though I may add that Sailor Moon only ever plays the seriousness straight during its full-on story segments (and even then, there are plenty of tongue-in-cheek moments).
Speaking of really effective scene transitions, this one was absolutely brilliant in my mind. As the camera slowly zooms in on Haruka and Michiru situated in a dark corner, the scene instantly cuts to a close up of Minako drinking a glass of water. Because of the location of the camera, we aren’t able to see anything else so the image just registers as a normal act in our minds. A couple seconds later the camera reveals the full extent of the scene, which is a puzzled waitress who has taken notice of the girls’ strange behaviour and is offering them a seat at the restaurant. Of course, Minako just hushes her so as not to give away their position, to which the poor lady slightly gestures to signify she had no idea what just happened.
This is what I love about Ikuhara’s sense of humour. He relies heavily on misdirection (which was visual misdirection in this case) and the audience’s knowledge of the situation to create an amusing scenario. This gag was quick, but it was completely unpredictable, and all the more hilarious as a result.
Eventually, Usagi and Minako are discovered by Haruka. Cue the embarrassment…
…except such a word doesn’t exist in the dictionaries of the world’s two biggest hams.
Usagi and Minako have been affectionately called Sailor Moon’s idiot duo by many fans and even the staff, it seems. Ikuhara probably took notice of the pair’s similarities in personality and even appearance during the earlier seasons and featured them quite heavily together during S. It’s pretty funny seeing Usagi go along with Minako’s upfront style of questioning Haruka, even mimicking her theatrics to a T. Again, scenes like the following just really play to the strengths of both characters.
It takes a while before Minako catches on and realizes the implications of Usagi’s faithful actions.
Godly comedic timing followed up by a classic Japanese gag of the character in question sneezing after they’ve just been mentioned – most likely in a slightly negative manner.
Of course, this wouldn’t be Sailor Moon without a monster-of-the-week segment. Eventually, some poor sap does get his heart seed (aka. the item the villains are collecting) stolen by a female monster…car. Since this is Ikuhara we’re talking about, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the season where he had the greatest influence was littered with cars. They’re one of his favourite reoccurring metaphors, up there with elevators and roses – and just like in Utena, they serve a similar purpose in this season.
Another thing about the S season was that the monster-of-the-week designs were a clear departure from those in previous seasons in terms of creativity and just sheer absurdity. While those beforehand were just stock mythological demons
in skimpy leather outfits, many of the monsters in S are based off contemporary, inanimate objects – so it’s a breath of fresh air. What makes the anthropomorphic car monster in this episode so great though is how over-the-top her design and even personality is. For one, she has the body of a human female, except with many of the features of a working vehicle: car tires and exhaust pipes on her back, a steering wheel that remains in her hands at all times and best of all…
And she even morphs into dragster who shouts out all her sounds effects! So expect to hear much “VRRRROOOOOOMMMMMMM”. Don’t get me started on the ridiculous sounds she makes when Haruka and Michiru launch a motorbike at her. Truly, only something Ikhuara could think up.
One thing that I’ve always appreciated about Sailor Moon in comparison to many other traditional mahou shoujo titles is that it’s always very self-aware of its more preachy moments. This is something that affects many Precure seasons, as often times the girls are spouting empty morals, which can be a problem if there isn’t strong episodic writing to back it up. With the character of Sailor Moon, her “in the name of the Moon” speeches are always very outlandish, even when Usagi is being dead serious. Thankfully, Ikuhara was also largely aware of the cheese involved with these segments and often deliberately parodied them or had other characters comment on how long they took. This episode is one such case with hilarious results.
Somehow Moon and Venus caught up to a car on a bike. Don’t ask.
Sentai =/= logic.
She gives her infamous speech, complete with the stock footage we’ve all come to love. But not everyone is a happy camper…
And of course, Sailor Moon, still in her pose, comments on Venus’ snappiness. I kind of felt this was an indirect nod at to how Ikuhara liked to portray Minako/Sailor Venus. I mentioned earlier how there’s a lot that can change on an episodic basis depending on who the set of staff was, but this is just my guess.
Long story short (but long post long), Sailor Moon encounters Sailor Uranus and Neptune who look strangely similar to Haruka and Michiru (but they couldn’t possibly be the same, r-right?!?) and they all defeat the monster with their fabulous stock footage. The two Outer Senshi don’t find what they’re looking for and retreat.
Concluding the episode is a really hilarious epilogue of sorts where Usagi and Minako reconcile with the other Inner Senshi and encounter Haruka and Michiru in their civilian forms. Much to the girls’ disappointment, Haruka was actually a woman all along (who would’ve guessed). Sure, the outcome was predictable to anyone who actually paid attention to the episode, but the ridiculous reactions of the Senshi are what made the scene.
Stay faithful, Usagi. A classic way of concluding an awesome Sailor Moon episode, and this was just an episode meant to set the stage for more great character-driven moments!
Anyhow, until next time! Hopefully the next one won’t be so long!