Monday, May 19, 2014

1 - The Crybaby Usagi's Beautiful Transformation

I've seen this first episode a lot. I've never seen it look and sound so good, though. Up until now, the only legal means of owning this episode with English subtitles was via ADV's box sets of the first two seasons. These were only available briefly and were, to be frank, crap. The video was bad. The audio was worse. They were apparently using the masters given to DiC way back when they were making the English dub, and said masters had aged very noticeably. Still, we paid the absurd amounts ADV demanded for these sets, and we cherished them, because they were still better than what we had previously. I originally watched fansubs of Sailor Moon's first season in Real Media format. If you don't know what that is, consider yourself fortunate. Suffice to say that the resolution of those files was so low that it was sometimes a challenge just to read the damn subtitles.

Seeing this first episode look so good is downright surreal, given that I'm just so used to it looking faded and fuzzy, with music that sounds like it's being played from under a bucket in the next room. I can't confirm or deny Viz's claims that this version looks better than Japan's DVD releases, but it sure as hell looks better than any version I've ever seen.

All of this is beside the point of the review, I suppose, but it did add a little bit of freshness to an episode I'm already very, very familiar with.

So, we're introduced to the protagonist, Usagi, who's good-hearted but an underachiever, and generally kind of a mobile disaster. Opening the episode with the main character running out of the house because they're late for school is such a cliche at this point that even doing it ironically is becoming a cliche in itself. I suppose I can't say for sure that Sailor Moon wasn't the first, because I haven't seen very much anime that's older. But I'm going to assume it was a cliche even in 1992, and probably long before that. You know, I bet it's how the first episode of Astro Boy started.

It's played very well, though, and I had a pang of sympathy watching a still-tired Usagi running to school, lamenting the existence of mornings. That was a throwback to my own teenage years right there.

On her way to school, Usagi comes across some kids bothering a cat, and chases them off. This is one of the first things we learn about Usagi, and it's one of the most important: she will always help someone in need, even if it means putting herself out. She removes the band-aid the kids had stuck over the crescent mark on the cat's head, and suddenly the cat is observing her a little too keenly... but then she hears the school bell and sprints off to school, though not quickly enough to avoid being late.

Next we meet Haruna, Usagi's homeroom teacher, voiced by Chiyoko Kawashima, who is to Sailor Moon what Billy West is to Futurama - she voices a lot of recurring characters. Usagi gets chewed out for being late, eating lunch in the hallway, and getting 30% on her latest test. She commiserates with her friends Naru and Umino later on, though Umino doesn't do a great job comforting her.

Sometimes when you look back at the early episodes of an animated show, certain characters can appear off-model. While that isn't the case with any of the main characters, they... really hadn't decided how they were going to animate Umino. He's got a completely different look to the rest of the cast, and this is even more evident in the manga where he isn't rendered with nearly as much detail as the other characters, looking kind of like a quick sketch. This seems to have translated into him not being animated very much, and it doesn't really work that well. In any case, they discuss the mysterious heroine, Sailor V, who has been active in the city and recently foiled the plans of some jewel thieves.

Okay, that attitude is a little... worrying. You might expect the daughter of a jeweler to be less sympathetic towards jewel thieves, but there you go.

Now we get our first look at the Dark Kingdom, and wow, those backgrounds look nice. Probably for the best since they're going to get reused a lot. We're introduced to Queen Beryl, who's too busy staring into her crystal ball to actually look at anyone when she's speaking to them, and Jadeite, her general. Also, those oft-forgotten Dark Kingdom characters: the hordes of creepy, mostly unseen figures that seem to surround Beryl at all times. I mean, I guess they're probably Youma or something, but more often than not I just forget they're there. So anyway, Beryl wants the Silver Crystal, which nobody can find, as energy for their supreme leader. With no crystal, Jadeite has a plan to use human energy instead.

After school, Usagi and Naru arrive at the jewelry store run by Naru's mother, where they're having a big sale. The place is full of women buying things, and of course, this is the location of Jadeite's plan. Naru's mother has been replaced with a Youma called Morga, and the jewelery on sale is gradually extracting the energy of its owners. Then there's a scene with Jadeite in the dark, collecting that energy, and... oh my god, that music is just hilariously out of place. Is Jadeite a pimp?

Naru's Youma mother tries to tempt Usagi, but even these low, low prices aren't low enough for someone with no money and a test score that's not going to put her parents in the mood to buy her anything. She leaves the store in a bad mood, and tosses away her test, which gently bounces off some guy's head and prompts this response...

Which might be the most pitiful opening line by any dashing hero in the entire history of fiction. It was a balled-up piece of paper, mate. I'm hardly one to pass judgment, but you're gonna have to toughen up.

So, this is Mamoru. Not a bad character overall, quite likeable at later points in the series, but he's going to spend these opening episodes being an antagonistic dick for no reason. Also... hmm, "bun-head". It's probably the best translation for "odango atama" which doesn't actually involve the word "odango". The age of the meatball is well and truly over. Anyway, Mamoru does what any guy would do in the presence of a sad girl: mocks her for her poor academic performance. Miracle Romance, everyone! In that it's a miracle this ever turned into a romance...

Usagi notices the new Sailor V arcade game, and wishes she could have a life like Sailor V's. Not such a good idea, especially since the black cat from earlier is watching her, and probably takes this statement as some sort of binding agreement.

Ad break! Having ads in the middle of this show is... weird. Also, a point of trivia... the eyecatches for this season usually have a version with both male and female voices shouting "Sailor Moon!" but for this episode, they only use the male voice version. Oh, and I'm almost certain one of those male voices is Yasuhiro Takato (Artemis). I mean, it's undoubtedly various members of the cast, but that one voice really stands out.

Usagi gets home, and wow, her mother is mean. The 30% test score results in her getting kicked out of the house. Her mother isn't always this bad, but her cruelty in this episode is especially weird considering she's supposed to be based on creator Naoko Takeuchi's mother (and yep, this scene is in the manga too). Usagi is further humiliated by her brother Shingo, and her attempt to retaliate with a Sailor V-inspired kick ends with, well...
Ouch. Back at the jewelry store, the customers pass out as their energy is drained, and Morga reveals her evil nature to Naru.

Usagi eventually persuades her mother to let her back into the house, and while she's trying to sleep, the strange cat from earlier comes in through the window. What follows is undoubtedly the best scene in the episode. The cat introduces herself as Luna, and... yes, Usagi, the cat can talk. Usagi's immediate instinct, when faced with a talkative cat, is to try to go to sleep in the hopes that it will go away. Luna finally gets Usagi's attention by summoning a brooch into existence for her... and suddenly, Usagi couldn't give a crap that there's a talking cat in her room, because free jewelry. Luna tries to explain about the super-important mission Usagi's been chosen for, but Usagi's too busy admiring her new brooch, occasionally humoring Luna with "No, I'm definitely listening, that's great." Eventually Luna just tells her the damn transformation phrase. Usagi, thinking maybe if she humors the cat, she'll leave her alone with her awesome new brooch, repeats "Moon Prism Power, Make Up."

Her elaborate transformation into Sailor Moon is followed by this:

It's an immutable rule of this show that you always, always look super cool and competent when transforming. Once it's over, though, you can freak out like normal, and Usagi proceeds to do just that. Then she hears Naru's cries for help via her odango... things. Odango protectors? The red shiny things on her head. This is one of those oddities that popped up in episode one and was never really referenced again, but it's enough to prompt our hero into action.

Naru, meanwhile, is being strangled by Morga, who drops the disguise and reveals her true, corpse-like self. Like a lot of early Youma, Morga has a genuinely scary design, and the cracking noises as she moves are a nice touch. She reveals that Naru's real mother has been tied up in the basement all day, and now she plans to kill them both.

Sailor Moon makes a dramatic, cool entrance! Then she sees the corpse monster with the head that rotates 180 degrees, and wonders if maybe this assignment is out of her league. When the corpse monster summons her army of zombified jewelry store patrons, she knows she's out of her league. Sailor Moon dodges the surprisingly vicious minions as best she can (one of them comes at her with a broken bottle, like she's in some sort of backstreet bar-room brawl) but ends up cornered, and goes to pieces when she realizes just how terrifying this situation is.

Enter Tuxedo Mask, with the power of distraction! If Tuxedo Mask was an RPG character, he'd be a bard, no question about it. He's all about distracting and demoralizing the bad guys and inspiring the good guys, but isn't much of a damage-dealer himself. He distracts Morga temporarily, and tells Sailor Moon that crying won't solve anything. She cries anyway, and it solves everything. Her cries get amplified by the odango protectors... or something, it's not really clear what's supposed to be happening... and the noise knocks out the minions and also proves painful to Morga. Luna instructs her to remove her tiara and throw it at the Youma. She does, because... well, if I was facing a corpse monster with no weapons and armor that consisted of a leotard and miniskirt, I might well try throwing my tiara at it. The tiara, of course, turns into a cool frisbee of light, and Morga becomes dust, the energy-harvesting operation dying along with her. Tuxedo Mask congratulates Sailor Moon on a job adequately done, and leaves, dashingly.

The next day, Naru and friends discuss the strange experience, dismissing it as a dream, though Naru gives me further cause to wonder about her sanity as she recalls her near-death experience as a "wonderful dream". With an attitude like that, no wonder she's monster bait.

This first episode had a lot to fit in. It introduced a ton of characters, the bare bones of Sailor Moon's mission, and her first monster encounter. The limited time available meant that the last of these things suffered a bit. The only times Sailor Moon appears competent are during the stock footage: transformation, attacks and so on. The rest of the time, she's freaking out and crying. It's not a bad thing to watch the main character grow, and the show would be far less interesting if Sailor Moon was immediately super strong and brilliant at everything. It's okay that she's not that brave, too - her desire to help people conflicts with her initial cowardice, and her better nature will ultimately win out, forcing her to become braver. I suppose I just wish she'd been given something to do in the battle that wasn't fall over, cry, or use the insta-win tiara. The crying power thing was jarring, and I'm glad it was pretty much dropped straight away. Girl Who Defeats Monsters By Crying is, at best, a poor concept for a superhero. At worst, it risks seeming sexist, and even though the show ends up being mostly good in that area, it's kind of a bad first impression to make, don't you think?

I complain because I care, of course. There's a lot of good in this episode, and it ends up being less clunky and weird than a lot of debut episodes seem in retrospect. It just needed more time to tell its story, and some hint of Usagi's real potential as a hero.

Monster of the Day: Morga is one of the more iconic examples, thanks to being the first, and is also one of the few MotDs to appear in the manga. She's typical of early Youma: scary, but also sort of bland in appearance with no immediately obvious theme.

Most Valuable Person goes to Luna, who does an admirable job walking Usagi through things and mostly remaining patient as she does so.

Least Valuable Person is Usagi herself. I like you, Usagi, but you didn't really get the chance to impress here.

The score for this episode is three stars out of five. It has some odd moments, some supposedly likeable characters who aren't all that likeable, and the aforementioned issues with Sailor Moon's conduct during the battle. But it's also highly memorable with some great comedy, meaning it evens out at average quality for the show.

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