You know you’re in for a bumpy ride when the most inspired parts of the Sailor Moon: Crystal pilot episode were its eye-catches and title cards.
After being delayed for well over a year, the long-awaited celebratory work of Sailor Moon’s 20th-year anniversary, Sailor Moon: Crystal, has finally begun airing. As one might expect from a franchise with such a huge international legacy, the stakes were high for Crystal from the get go. Many a long-time fan already had their hopes dashed upon seeing the conspicuous CGi henshin sequence or even the “updated” character designs, so it was only a matter of time before the base was split. To some extent, it’s understandable that many audiences would be going into Crystal wearing nostalgia-tinted glasses (myself included) as the classic anime from the 90’s was just that big. However, even putting nostalgia aside and trying to look at Crystal as a clean slate, it’s not hard to feel rather underwhelmed with Toei’s offering during the pilot episode.
For those that don’t already know, Crystal is meant to be a more faithful adaptation of Naoko Takeuchi’s original manga series. The reason for this is that during the classic anime’s original run, it was aired simultaneously with the production of Takeuchi’s manga. Because the anime’s staff had limited access to the source material, they were forced to extrapolate upon the few plot and character threads provided – at times their only hints were character sketches, to give an example of the conditions. As a result, it would be an understatement to say that many aspects were envisioned differently from their manga counterparts, to the point where the Sailor Moon anime and manga were linked in name only. Thankfully, due to the abundance of creative talent from the likes of names such as Sato Junichi, Kunihiko Ikuhara and Yoji Enokido, the Sailor Moon anime arguably became a much more audacious product than Takeuchi could have ever dreamed of. In my view, the staff took the basic framework provided by Takeuchi to expand upon many of the work’s core themes – using more experimental storytelling techniques while breathing life into some of the cast’s more one-dimensional personalities (especially notable in the case of many of the antagonists). Because of the difficulty in not only crafting a competent product but also one that had to adhere to the confines of its source’s universe, I hold the classic Sailor Moon anime in very high regard.
Fast-forward to present day and Crystal. Takeuchi’s manga is now long complete and Toei Animation has decided to give us a “proper” adaptation of said material. While this will undoubtedly satisfy the cravings of manga purists, the prospect of a more direct adaptation presented some potential limitations. In my view, Naoko Takeuchi’s strength is as an artist and not so much as a writer. Her picturesque framing and detailed, distinctly shoujo artwork lends itself nicely to the various emotional states of her characters – and it’s during these moments of total visual immersion that one begins to see Takeuchi take off as a storyteller. However, the same cannot be said of her cumbersome expository dialogue and erratic pacing of plot events. These aspects do improve somewhat as the manga progresses though. Because of Takeuchi’s strengths and weaknesses, a good adaptation of her work will need to balance strong scripting with an art style whose form translates well into an animated product.
Now what’s the primary shortcoming in this production?
Given the studio’s reputation for producing multiple long-running shows at a time, they’re constantly cycling between their pools of animators in order to make production deadlines. As one might imagine, this can cause some noticeable art style shifts along with an inconsistent quality of animation on an episode-to-episode basis. Furthermore, the booming success of the Precure franchise in the past decade has caused Toei to adopt a more-child friendly approach – while not inherently a bad decision – the trouble stems from them wanting to take fewer risks with their cash-cow franchises (Sailor Moon being one of them). And I feel this reluctance to step outside of a safe business model has already started to show with Crystal’s first episode.
Looking at the pilot, there’s a number of questionable production choices that have already divided opinions. The most notable being the character designs, which were clearly meant to be more faithful to Takeuchi’s original concept art. Although the accuracy of the designs is commendable on Toei’s part, their transition from manga to anime is a bit jarring. To me, the characters seem restricted in the range of movement that they’re able to exhibit, which looks unnatural when they’re expressing any sort of emotion. This is where I have to fault Toei as the exaggerated reaction faces weren’t something specific to the classic anime, as Takeuchi’s manga frequently featured a super-deformed style to suit the more comedic moments. The inability to adapt the characters to the lighter situations they’re in may seem a bit nitpicky, but I feel it speaks to the personality of Crystal as its own product.
However, my biggest gripe with Crystal’s pilot episode was that I couldn’t help but feel that it was uninspired as a whole. Perhaps Toei became too fixated on the idea of a faithful adaptation that they forgot to spice it up with their own touches. Now this wouldn’t have been such an issue had Takeuchi’s art style been given proper treatment, but this was not the case. Background art aside – which sits at a comfortable balance of a gentle watercolour – the colour palette of both the characters and foreground objects/architecture are of a saturated composition. This makes expression – one of the strengths of Takeuchi’s original art – a difficult task for Crystal to accomplish.
Take, for example, the famous scene from the end of the episode where a bedazzled Sailor Moon runs to catch a glimpse of the mysterious Tuxedo Mask leaping away. In the manga, we can see the haziness in Usagi’s heart as reflected by the fading out of all scenery around her so that the focus is on Tuxedo Mask. However, in Crystal, that feeling is all but lost as the art style does not lend itself to conveying this. Instead, we’re left with the characters’ body language, which I’ve already expressed my concerns with. A couple of sparkly borders here and there aren’t going to be enough, Toei.
This is but one example of Crystal’s limitations, and although it’s decent by Toei’s standards, the combined effect does add up. I’m also hoping the use of CGi is limited to the henshin sequences – which is already kind of baffling, given that henshin stock footage is a large budget saver and Toei is releasing the episodes in a bi-weekly format – because it really isn’t implemented that well. In terms of Crystal’s audio, I’d say the more electronically-inspired soundtrack by Takanashi was sufficient in setting the appropriate tone, although not really doing anything to go beyond that. It’s kind of hard to judge at this moment, given that it will be a couple of episodes before we hear the full range of his musical score.
It’s interesting to note that Kotono Mitsuishi has returned to voice Usagi once again! Although impressive that she is still able to voice Usagi after almost two decades, I found that parts of her performance didn’t work as well in Crystal. The issue wasn’t that she failed to get in character; in fact I’d say she was almost too much in character – that is, the old Usagi’s character. While it’s difficult to fault her for giving the performance she’s best known for (and still doing a fine job at it despite her age), her deliberate hamming of her lines didn’t mesh as well with an Usagi that is meant to be a more realistic figure rather than one of the designated goofs. Perhaps it will take some time for her to adapt to her new role (as silly as that may sound), but if anyone can pull it off eventually, it’s her.
In spite of all of these criticisms of Crystal’s first episode, I never once felt that what I was watching was bad, just rather uninspired. I should probably make it clear that I was never looking for a copy of the classic Sailor Moon anime from Crystal, but rather one that simply did Takeuchi’s original work justice. The classic anime had its own unique identity apart from Takeuchi’s manga and I don’t think we need to see that again (as much as we’ll probably miss stuff like the exaggerated facial expressions). But with Crystal, I would love to see it forge an identity of its own, even apart from Takeuchi’s manga – simply watching a panel by panel adaptation of an existing manga is no fun! Perhaps that will take some time for the staff to become accustomed to what they are working on. Hopefully the more lenient production schedule will give Toei some time to clean up their animation and find some ways to spice up their art style. Regardless of the outcome, Crystal will still renew interest in the franchise while making Toei billions of yen in merchandise – which is technically all it was meant to do, but it wouldn’t hurt for it to be a worthy anniversary product as well!
If only the gorgeous artwork in the eye-catches and title cards weren’t solely limited to those sections of the show! They’re like our last standing memory of Ikuni’s Sailor Moon involvement!