The Return of Sailor Moon

The fans are grown up, but the spirit only grows. Liz Ohanesian on the imminent reboot of America's gateway drug to anime.

There's a new Sailor Moon anime in the works. It's called Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon Crystal and is set to stream globally beginning July 5. Meanwhile, Anime Expo, the massive convention held in Los Angeles, recently announced that various voice actors from the U.S. dubs will appear at this summer's event. Last month Los Angeles boutique/gallery QPop hosted a Sailor Moon tribute art show that brought out scores of fans. There is a lot of activity surrounding the story of a teenage girls protecting the world. The clamor, though, isn't from the high school crowd.

More than 20 years after the initial manga release, Sailor Moon's fans are grown up. They caught wind of the series while they were teenagers, but are now in their 20s and 30s and remain fans. Cosplay groups and fan art pops up time and again at conventions and online. One friend of mine, Seattle-based artist Kate Sullivan, launched a Tumblr Project last fall called Moon Animate, Make-Up. The idea is to reproduce one episode of the anime "shot by shot" with art reflecting the style of the contributors. More than 250 people are taking part in it. For Sailor Moon fans, their fascination with the series hasn't really diminished.

"Sailor Moon seems to be the gateway anime for a lot of people," says Allison McKnight, Director of Entertainment for SPJA, the group that organizes Anime Expo. "Everyone has their favorite anime, but, for our age group, you can kind of trace everyone back to either Sailor Moon or Dragon Ball Z."

In the United States, Sailor Moon and her cohorts, known as "Sailor Senshi" or "Sailor Scouts," are amongst the most easily identifiable figures in anime. The TV series aired on local television stations across the country before moving to cable. It was a heavily edited version of the series. Characters were renamed. The dynamics of some of their relationships changed. The image, though, remained intact. Their uniforms, based on sailor-styled school uniforms, were markedly different from the superhero costumes associated with American comic book characters. That the team was comprised of teenage girls made it more unusual. But, this is just a superficial glance at the series. At the time, it would have been easy to write off the show as stuff for little kids. I did. In fact, it wasn't until last year that I started reading the manga and learned that this wasn't the case at all. Even as an adult, it's easy to relate to the story of an inept 14-year-old who has to rise to one challenge after the next.

Still, I wanted to know more about Sailor Moon. A Facebook request for interviews brought an immediate, and unexpected, response. Most were from conventions friends, but a few came from people I knew from nightclubs or other places unrelated to anime. They all wanted to share stories about their relationship with Sailor Moon. Many of those stories begin the same way, in the early daylight hours with a television set and a VCR.

"It was just on TV one day at 6 a.m.," says Michelle Nguyen, who grew up near Pittsburgh. "I noticed it and started getting up super early to watch it in the dark by myself."

A few talk about the stacks of VHS cassettes they had holding the contents of the TV series. "I ended up having 14 VHS that I numbered," says McKnight. "I knew exactly which episode was on each one."

Some came to the series via other routes. A few latched onto it in the early days of the Internet, when file sharing became an easy thing for a middle schooler to handle. Others came in contact with the manga before it had a U.S. release. Karla Usagi, an L.A.-based cartoonist whose pen name is derived from the show (Sailor Moon's name is Usagi Tsukino), was 12 when she stumbled upon the manga in a Little Tokyo bookstore. Thanks to a video game, she was able to teach herself enough Japanese to read it.

No matter how they got into Sailor Moon, the result was inevitably the same. They became fanatics. People talk about the merch they bought, the art they made, the collections they curated. It wasn't simply a hunt for the best Sailor Moon backpack. For fans, finding the subtitled Japanese version of the show was paramount. They hit up conventions and small stores where these were available. Those who weren't in big cities went the mail order route. "This guy in Canada, he would do VHS fan subs and you would wait months and months until he was able to fit more episodes on a VHS tape," says Rachael Klinger, who discovered Sailor Moon as a 15-year-old in New Jersey. Now 30, she seemed a little stun to realize that she's been a fan for half her life.

It's not hard for Sailor Moon talk to quickly get personal. It's similar to the music fans who talk about the bands that "saved" them. Fans start talking about the difficulties they had when they turned to Sailor Moon. For some, it encouraged them to make art. For others, it helped them make friends. Still more saw it as a necessary pop culture release. They related to specific characters for specific reasons. Sailor Jupiter, known for being quite tall and tough, was frequently cited as a favorite.

"Sailor Moon is very archetypal and that's really why it's become so important to so many people for so long," says Klinger. "You could usually find a soldier/senshi that really matched who you were and what you were about."

Klinger has been my guide into the Sailor Moon universe. Last summer, after I had mentioned that I never read the manga, she gave me a copy of the first issue. She's been involved with fan art, fan fiction and cosplay. The manga and the anime hit her in a very poignant way.

"When I was in high school, I was still struggling with coming out," says Klinger, who identifies as bisexual. "At that time, in the late '90s, if you were looking for representation of queer women on TV, you were not really going to find anything."

Then there was Sailor Moon, specifically, the characters Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune. In the U.S. version of the anime, the two young women were portrayed as cousins. In the original work, though, they were romantically linked.

"They weren't just tolerated or accepted, they were seen as role models by the rest of the cast," says Klinger. "It wasn't a very special episode, like you had in the '90s. These were main characters that you see every week."

Klinger isn't the only one who noticed this. Frequently, people mentioned the relationship between Sailors Uranus and Neptune as one that they hadn't seen in teen-oriented media. Plus, they weren't an anomaly. Sailor Moon fans cite multiple gay characters, as well as characters who shifted gender.

That made an impact on the teens of the late 1990s. "We would gather around and watch Sailor Moon and talk about Sailor Moon and collect these things. It was almost a rite of a passage," says Angel Haro of San Gabriel, CA. "It was also a way that we all let each other know that we were queer without ever saying it."

Beyond that, there was the simple idea of characters who had to hide their identity as heroes. Ryan Calimlim lived in Hawaii when he got into Sailor Moon. He mentions Usagi's struggle to keep her Sailor Moon identity a secret, plus "the hope of a brighter future and the promise of true love," as particularly meaningful. "All those aspects resonated perfectly with a 14-year-old struggling gay kid," he says.

There were plenty of lessons in Sailor Moon that stuck with viewers long after they hit adulthood. Kitty Brown, a graphic designer/illustrator in Los Angeles, remembers an episode where Makoto/Sailor Jupiter talks to an artist friend. Specifically, Brown recalls the lines, "You can't just share your beautiful art with your desk drawer! The world deserves to see your talent!"

"That stuck with me and still resonates with me to this day," says Brown. "Every time I get self-conscious about showing my work, that pops into my head."

It's not just the old school fans who are amped about Sailor Moon right now. D. Bene Tleilax, an L.A. based musician who has sampled elements of the series in his work, was 29 when he got into the series a year ago. "It still has a lot of reminders of important things to think about in life, encouragements to be strong," he says. "I wouldn't be lying to say it has helped me stay true to my own path in some ways."

Published 12:00 am Wed, May 7, 2014

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