There are a handful of classic anime that many of us can say was a part of our childhood. It could have been something like Dragonball Z or InuYasha, but for many, it was Sailor Moon. The mother (or senpai) of the magical girl genre, it came into our worlds in manga form, written by Naoko Takeuchi and published by Kodansha in 1991. An anime adaptation was made in 1992, and before long, Sailor Moon had broken into mainstream bookshops and television all over the Western world. It introduced ideas of girl power— feminine, yet dynamic and powerful heroines— and action shows aimed at a different audience to your typical muscle-men anime. This fresh, exciting new idea paved the way for so many other shows, and spawned fashion styles and music all based on a similar theme: magical girls. It has become a genre of its own, and some contemporary shows have dared to challenge and deconstruct it for the sake of variety. So what exactly makes Sailor Moon not a quirky shoujo manga, but a story that many consider to be one of the greats? We track its progress, and why it has become such an influential part of the anime community today.
The plot has a pretty simple concept, as expected from a show of this age. Usagi, a Japanese middle-school student, is visited by Luna, a magical cat, who dubs her ‘Sailor Moon’, a warrior of justice who must save the Earth and find a lost princess. After a bumpy start, our unlikely heroine meets other young girls and they form the infamous group: The ‘Sailor Scouts’ (Sailor Venus, Mercury, Mars, Jupiter, and Moon herself). She’s also frequented by Tuxedo Mask, AKA the man-candy childhood crush that made Usagi the envy of many a kid back in the day.
Usagi isn’t the typical hard done by heroine. She lives a comfortable life, and despite being hounded by the grown-ups for her bad grades, she’s happy enough playing video games, eating junk food and hanging out with her friends. She’s lazy and mouthy, and that’s exactly what makes her so loveable. Besides, we’ve got the other Sailor Scouts to make up for her failings. Their distinct and fun personalities gave Sailor Moon the variety it needed to appeal to so many people.
Considering how well it took off (in fact, it’s the most sold shoujo manga in history), it’s no surprise then that others took the magical girl idea and built on this success. One of the first in line was Cardcaptor Sakura, otherwise known as Cardcaptors. A girl named Sakura discovers she has magical powers after accidentally setting free a deck of supernatural cards that have been sealed for years. Now she must retrieve all of them to avoid a worldwide disaster. Sound loosely familiar? Oh, and it was also released by Kodansha— although it was written by Clamp. It was praised for its appeal to a wide audience,and has also been described as one of the best shoujo manga to translate into English. Another smash hit for the magical girl community.
Kodansha continued on this freight train of magical mayhem by releasing Shugo Chara!, another immensely popular series about Amu, a girl who makes a wish to be reborn confident and ‘cool’, but ends up with three ‘Guardian’ characters to help her instead. It also features a romantic sub-plot between eleven year-old Amu and 17 year-old magical boy Ikuto, but that’s a whole different discussion.
Once the conventions of the genre were firmly established, there’s no wonder why the community was looking for something different, even if they didn’t truly realise it. Cue: the most unexpected anime most people will ever see, Madoka Magica. Adorable, chibi-style school girls in frilly dresses fighting evil monsters with an equally adorable magic creature guiding them along the way. Pretty harmless upon first glance. However, every preconception you hold about magical girl shows blows straight out the window just three episodes in. It’s death, betrayal, and sacrifice, all settled on a backdrop resembling a twisted Picasso painting, accompanied by a haunting soundtrack. It’s the perfect recipe for a river of viewer tears. It’s the show that said ‘screw you’ to happiness and gave us all something to think about. Madoka Magica turned the genre on its head by introducing questions we’d never considered. What are the personal consequences of becoming a magical girl? Does power make these girls happier? Are they simply being manipulated into dying for a bigger cause? Deep thoughts for a show about cute girls fighting evil.
The birth of Madoka Magica begs debate. The magical girl genre, made famous by the classic anime Sailor Moon, is now over twenty years old. Does a unique genre have to be deconstructed in order to remain interesting? I’m not sure that a show about a group of crime-fighting teenage girls in sparkly outfits would really fly with the anime community anymore. The creators of Madoka Magica saw this coming, and that resulted in a complete overturn of the genre. On the other hand, this whole thing could just be a natural progression. Of course, nothing stays the same forever and creators must find new ways to make genres fresh and interesting. But none of this will stop Sailor Moon from being considered one of the best. It’s corny, and we love it.
There is something everlasting about the classics. The 90s was a period which brought anime into the Western mainstream, televised it and gave millions of kids an introduction to what might later become their obsession. Sailor Moon’s feminine action-heroes drummed into our skulls the ideas of the power of friendship, determination, and the ‘unlikely heroine’. It spawned any number of similar shows, all amazing in their own right. It even inspired a whole fashion and people determined to dress up and call themselves ‘magical’ just like their heroines. Better still, it taught us that even if you’re a no-good, lazy kid who loves gaming and doughnuts, you can still save the world.