Saturday, July 19, 2014

20 - The Summer, the Beach, Youth and Ghosts

We join our three heroines stepping off the train at the beach. It's summer, and in accordance with the immutable laws of anime, a beach episode is called for. The show had a few of these; if I recall correctly, three of the seasons had beach episodes and the other two had episodes that weren't strictly set at a beach, but still served the same purpose (which is to show the characters in swimsuits, apparently).

No swimsuits yet, though, and Ami is wearing her bizarre 1940s housewife ensemble from episode 18, but with a hat. They're actually here to train, Luna reminds them. Rei has made reservations at a nearby pension (which is an obscure term for guest house that got adopted in Japan and is being left as-is in this translation) that advertises blue skies and a private beach. Usagi's excited at the thought of a private beach, drifting into a fantasy in which she's surrounded by hot guys in swimming trunks, including Motoki, and, well...
You've got to hand it to him, windsurfing in a tuxedo isn't easy. After freaking out some locals with her drooling, Usagi joins the others on the trek to the pension.

About that... it turns out that Rei didn't quite know the way, and then for some reason everyone decided to listen to Usagi's directions, and soon the sun's setting, clouds are drawing in, and they're lost. It starts to thunder, but they encounter a strange little hooded girl who tells them to follow her. She leads them to an incredibly creepy house on a cliff edge... which turns out to be the very place Rei booked. While Usagi is distressed by the thought of staying in a house right out of a horror movie, Ami befriends the little girl, whose name is Sakiko.

They knock on the door. Welcome to Pension Adams! And just in case you thought the reference might not have been deliberate, here are the staff.
This whole sequence is great. Rei completely unfazed, Ami sort of bemused and Usagi and Luna freaking out in the background, while Sakiko just casually greets them and walks in. Next, we're introduced to Sakiko's father, introduced in such a way as to leave little doubt that we're supposed to think he's a dick.
In their room, Luna chides Usagi for making such a scene, but Usagi reminds Luna that she was scared too. Usagi wonders if the place is haunted, and there's immediately a knock on the door. The hostess's head appears at an alarming angle, and though she turns out to be up a ladder, repairing a light bulb, Usagi freaks out to the other girls. Sakiko and her father witness this through the window, in another wing of the building, and while Sakiko says she likes them, her father tells her not to associate with girls like that.

At dinner, Usagi is still frightened of the staff despite their friendliness. Ami says she likes their costumes... yep, they're just costumes, part of the pension's theme, which seems to be news to Usagi. Well, it's a good thing there aren't any real ghosts here, and... wait, what's this? They hear a ghostly moaning that scares the staff as much as Usagi. They follow the sound, and Rei opens the door to reveal an actual ghost.
It drifts towards the stairs and then disappears. While Usagi and the staff try to pretend they didn't actually see what they just saw, Ami wonders if it could have been a Youma. Rei says it's not, but there's some kind of strange power present here.

Meanwhile, in events that I'm sure are unconnected, Sakiko is being brought in and out of a hypnotic trance by her father, who's apparently oblivious to the distress it's causing her. Because, and this may have escaped your attention so far, he's a dick.

The next day, the horror movie weather has cleared up, and Usagi and friends visit the private beach. Yeah, it's private, alright... they're the only ones here. Poor Usagi, no hot guys for you. Ami wonders if Sakiko's alright, mentioning she didn't come out of her room today. Usagi and Rei are more concerned that Ami brought a textbook along; Usagi insists that Ami should join them in having fun. She agrees, and so begins a game where Ami and Rei throw a beach ball and Usagi is repeatedly hit by it. Sakiko watches them sadly from the cliff above.

Night comes again. Back at the pension, Usagi is preemptively panicking, and Rei is ofuda-ing everything in sight, though she feels that this isn't a true ghost, and that something more powerful is at work. She overhears the staff discussing something that they want to keep secret from the visitors.

Ami sees Sakiko outside, and goes to talk to her. It turns out that Sakiko watched the girls playing on the beach all day. Noticing how lonely she is, Ami tells Sakiko that they're alike, and that she used to be lonely before she met Usagi. She thinks Sakiko should become Usagi's friend too, but... well, here comes Sakiko's dad to disapprove. He drags Sakiko away, and says that the girls should leave, unless they want to be scared even more. This strikes me as no way to run a business.

Back inside, Sakiko's father scolds her, and starts talking about her immense psychic power, which he's able to bring out through hypnosis. As he hypnotizes her again, he tells her she'll be the world's foremost psychic and, more importantly, stick it to those guys who made fun of his psychic research.

Usagi, already doing a pretty good job of working herself up into abject terror, walks in on, well, this.
After plenty of screaming, Rei intervenes to tell Usagi that the staff really are just ordinary people trying to do something about the ghost... and that she senses the same power from before building again. Her ofuda are ripped from the furniture, and then objects in the room start to levitate.

Sakiko's father has her in a trance, and commands her to manifest her energies as a ghost, to scare off the visitors. Ami has been watching, however, and tells him to stop. The ghost appears, and knocks Ami away, but then, inevitably, it turns on Sakiko's father.
Seeing him knocked through the window, the girls transform in order to save him, to the extent that he merits saving. Meanwhile, Sakiko's father cowers, at the mercy of the immensely powerful ghost.
I think the problem is that it does recognize you...

Mercury tries to wake Sakiko, while Sailor Moon flings her tiara at the ghost, only for it to harmlessly pass through. Sakiko eventually wakes up, but the ghost is still there, targeting her father but attacking anyone else who gets near, including Sakiko herself. Her father tells her to run away, and that the ghost is beyond her control. Mercury realizes that the ghost has become a manifestation of Sakiko's desire for independence. Again, Sakiko's father tells her to run, but she refuses to leave him. He apologizes for isolating her, saying he always knew she wanted a normal life, but was too tied up in his own ambitions. As the ghost closes in on them, Sakiko stands up and blasts it with psychic energy, destroying it.

Sakiko's father admits that all of this was caused by his need for Sakiko's psychic powers to be acknowledged, and so he forced her to train them, using guests at the pension as test subjects. Again, I say: no way to run a business. He then allows Sakiko the freedom she always wanted, and while she plays with Usagi and friends on the beach, he assures the staff that the ghost will never be returning.

Monster of the day: Well, there was the ghost that wasn't a ghost. The premise is all very Scooby Doo until it turns out that the fake ghost is being caused by another, entirely legitimate kind of paranormal activity.

Most valuable person: Though her involvement is low-key, this is an Ami episode more than anything else, as she's the one who forges the bond with Sakiko that ends up saving them.

Least valuable person: Though he did apologize, Sakiko's father gets this for all around crappy parenting. 

This is undoubtedly one of the weirdest episodes ever produced. It doesn't have any connection with the current storyline other than the justification that the girls came to the beach to train, and has some uniquely odd guest characters in the pension staff. True, they're just regular people in costumes rather than the movie monsters they appear to be, but visually they're just not the kind of thing you expect to see in a Sailor Moon episode.

But even though it's a significant change of pace, there are a few nice callbacks to previous episodes, like Luna's fear of ghosts and particularly Usagi's iconic, hastily-repaired swimsuit. And the silliness is balanced by the fairly somber tale of Sakiko and her father. It's a familiar story: a parent controls their child's life because they know what's best for them, making them focus on talents they have but aren't especially keen on using, while the true motivation is the parent's bitterness over their own failures. It's a heavy subject, though Sakiko's father does seem to be taking the first steps along the path of making amends. This show is, at its core, optimistic about human nature, and likes to redeem characters previously shown to be evil, though effectively doing so can be a tricky business. Though I simply can't bring myself to like Sakiko's father, he does at least show contrition over his actions, and is pretty honest in his assessment of his own true motivations. For an episode frequently dismissed as the lightest, fluffiest kind of filler, I think that's pretty deep.

It's not easy assigning a grade to this episode, but I think it's enjoyable, and tends to be underrated by fans. So it gets four stars out of five, and now I have this song stuck in my head.
They're creepy and they're eerie
Depressed and scared and dreary
The hauntings make 'em weary
Sakiko's family

She likes to pick wild flowers
And help folks caught in showers
She's got some crazy powers
Sakiko's family

Her father was a villain
Sakiko was unwillin'
The ghost then tried to kill 'im
Sakiko's family

The panic in the pension
Resolved some family tension
Now I'll no longer mention
Sakiko's family.

Friday, July 18, 2014

19 - Usagi's Joy: A Love Letter from Tuxedo Mask

Nephrite's starting his astrology routine early this episode. In the cathedral of solitude, he asks the stars to reveal the Sailor Guardians' greatest weakness... and the answer is Tuxedo Mask.

That, by itself, is an interesting statement of how this show is different from other shows of its era. I remember watching the original Ninja Turtles cartoon as a kid, and there was a line that stuck in my head. Formulating his latest plan, Shredder tells his underlings, "We'll strike at their weakest point: April O'Neil." Even as a kid who didn't know anything about anything, this line really bugged me. I mean, in the late eighties/early nineties it was hardly unusual for a cartoon to have a sole female character whose job it was to get rescued a lot. But it was also just a little bit embarrassing, the kind of thing you tried to ignore because you otherwise liked the show. For the show to just outright say that this was the case was downright jarring. So yeah, the Tuxedo Mask comment is somewhat cathartic for me.

Once Nephrite's done with his astrology session, Zoisite teleports into his base and says that Queen Beryl wants to see him... kind of right now. You may recall that in our last episode, Nephrite blew her off because he wanted to do things his own way, and ended up screwing up as usual. Nephrite does actually show up for his scheduled bollocking, which shows that he at least isn't a complete idiot.
Oh, okay, looks like I spoke too soon. Nephrite shows less contrition than a teenager caught smoking behind the bike sheds, and says he'll find his own way to defeat Sailor Moon. Beryl is, obviously, enraged by this impertinence.
Oh, okay. So, Beryl isn't enraged. I have a theory that Beryl has an enormous preference for rebellious men who do things their own way and constantly disobey orders. That's the reason Jadeite got iced despite his groveling, while Nephrite is not currently a smoking crater. So Beryl okays Nephrite's plan to... okay, he didn't ever explain what his plan was, but the point is, he's a rebel. And that's something, right?

By the way, I believe this episode is the first time the term Shitennou gets used, and Viz translates it here as Four Kings of Heaven.

Later, Usagi finds a surprise in the mailbox... a love letter from Tuxedo Mask! He really went the extra mile with that pink stationery, got to give him credit for that. Tuxedo Mask confesses his love and says he wants to meet Usagi tomorrow night in the Shinjuku mall. Usagi's ecstatic, though Luna is skeptical, and for once she's not just being a downer for the sake of it. How does Tuxedo Mask know her identity? Can they really trust him anyway? He's helped out in the past, but they don't know who he is. Such details are of no interest to Usagi, of course, who's convinced this is the real deal.

Well, until she gets to school and realizes that every other girl has received an identical letter, claiming to be from Tuxedo Mask. Of course, nobody other than Usagi knows who Tuxedo Mask is, though Naru privately hopes it could be that nice Masato Sanjoin she met a while ago. You know, the one who had absolutely nothing to do with her lifelong friend turning into a psychopath? Ms Haruna enters the classroom and advises the girls not to be tricked by something so suspicious, which is good advice, though she's privately furious that she didn't receive a letter of her own. Meanwhile, Ami and Luna discuss the letters, and decide to consult with Rei.

At the arcade, Mamoru and Motoki discuss the matter too, while we get the first sighting of in-universe Sailor Moon merchandise (leaving aside the special case of Sailor V). Also, the biggest reference to Goldfish Warning so far...
There are no less than four Goldfish Warning characters visible in that image, plus a fifth that's obscured by the Tuxedo Mask doll. If you didn't know, Goldfish Warning was the show that many of the Sailor Moon staff worked on immediately prior to Sailor Moon, and I definitely recommend checking it out: not only is it interesting to see so many of the same artists and voice actors working on something different, it's also a great, albeit weird show in its own right. Any show that can successfully set up the old "rich girl loses everything, is befriended by down-to-earth poor people" chestnut then completely subvert it halfway into the first episode is a show worthy of respect.

Okay, back to the episode, Mamoru and Motoki speculate that this Tuxedo Mask business might be some sort of advertising, then a depressed Usagi enters, prompting the usual taunting from Mamoru. He says she must not have received the love letter, but nope, she's depressed because she thought she was the only one.

Rei, it turns out, is sick. She's got a fever and is stuck in bed, so although she too got the letter from Tuxedo Mask, she won't be going anywhere. Ami says she'll stay and take care of her. D'awww...

At the mall, Nephrite's in Masato Sanjoin mode. Naru sees him, and nervously asks him if he's Tuxedo Mask. He immediately wonders if Naru somehow figured out that he was the one who sent those letters. So he doesn't exactly deny that he's Tuxedo Mask, and starts complimenting Naru. And then...
Ladies, gentlemen and none of the above, this story arc just got creepy, and not in the wholesome Youma way. While I realize that Nephrite's interest in Naru is feigned, it's no less manipulative. Naru goes through a lot of crap in this arc. Nephrite says he'll see her tonight, leading Naru to conclude that he really is Tuxedo Mask... er, whatever that means. Oh, and just in case we're not yet sufficiently creeped out...

In her room, Usagi wonders why Tuxedo Mask would have sent love letters to literally every teenage girl in town. There's only one thing to do: ask him in person! At the mall, tonight, where she was planning to go anyway. But this is for investigative purposes only and is absolutely not a date.
Okay, carry on then.
Er... Usagi, what? I mean, that's not bad advice, but why is that your first rule? What are you expecting to do on this, your first ever date?

And I'm not going to comment on Usagi's choice of underwear beyond wondering if Goldfish Warning-themed panties were ever actually a thing. They probably were a thing.

While Usagi gets ready for her not-date, Naru shows up at the designated place, and is greeted by none other than... Tuxedo Mask!
Dude, the hair. You might want to... oh, never mind.

Anyway, Naru instantly recognizes him as Masato Sanjoin, which surprises Nephrite. She says it's his voice and presence, but I think the hair probably helped. Also, you already said you'd meet her tonight, you dope.

Naru is now head-over-heels for Nephrite/Sanjoin, after what he said to her earlier that day. Nephrite doesn't seem too interested in that, though, and leaps at Naru, demanding she show her true identity: Sailor Moon.

Speak of the devil, Usagi's on her way to the mall, when she's contacted by Ami. Once Rei discovers that Usagi's trying to meet with Tuxedo Mask without her, she struggles out of bed, determined not to be left out. Meanwhile, Nephrite continues to demand that Naru transform into Sailor Moon, while Naru doesn't know what the hell is going on. I guess maybe out of force of habit, Nephrite starts to drain Naru's energy, leading to what must be the saddest image in this episode.
Naru starts to lose consciousness, while Nephrite is amazed at the energy he's taking from her. Usagi enters, sees a guy in a Tuxedo Mask costume assaulting her best friend, and freaks out. She too sees pretty quickly that it isn't Tuxedo Mask. I say once more: the hair. Tie it back or put it under the hat or something. Show some initiative! Usagi transforms, and somewhere nearby, a curious thing is happening.
I'd have included more of this sequence, but it's evident that whatever compression Hulu uses really didn't like the colorful background, and hence the screencaps are artifacted to hell and back. Anyway, for those of you who haven't been reading the credits, or listening to his voice, or noticing any of the increasingly blatant hints the show's dropped recently, Mamoru is Tuxedo Mask! Only it seems he doesn't realize this, and his transformation seems to be an instinctive thing triggered by Usagi's transformation into Sailor Moon...

Nephrite seems to have finally figured out that the unconscious girl he's now holding isn't really Sailor Moon, just in time for the real Sailor Moon to show up and challenge him. She's pissed off tonight, and with good reason. Nephrite tosses Naru to her, and removes his disguise. Sailor Moon recognizes him as Sanjoin, but he finally introduces himself as Nephrite. Yeah, I hadn't realized it up until now, but Nephrite's so hands-off that this is the first time any of the main characters have seen him out of his disguise.

Nephrite uses his star powers to summon a blue lion from the constellation Leo. Fun fact: this pseudo-Youma was known by fans as Leo for a long time, for obvious reasons, but its name is actually Regulus (the brightest star in Leo, which gets mentioned a few times this episode).  Regulus chases Sailor Moon, but is smacked in the head by - you guessed it - a rose.
Accept no imitations! It's the real Tuxedo Mask, who's either modeling for a menswear catalog or has discovered a stylish new way to hold the elevator. He's annoyed at Nephrite's plot, and confronts him, telling Sailor Moon to run. As she does, he blocks Regulus's path, and...
Oh my god, I'm not the biggest fan of the art in this episode, but these poses are just the best. Regulus charges at Tuxedo Mask, and Sailor Moon uses the tiara on it. It's knocked back, but doesn't turn to dust like usual. Tuxedo Mask tells Sailor Moon to run for the elevator because everyone knows that's the safest place in an emergency. They make it inside, the doors close behind them, and of course it was a trap. Nephrite plans to bring it up to the top floor, then let it drop.
Alright, Nephrite, nobody likes a smartarse. As the elevator panics, Tuxedo Mask considers the situation, and Sailor Moon has to hold herself back from latching on.
After slightly embarrassing herself with her fantasies, Sailor Moon is brought back to reality by Tuxedo Mask, who has a plan. He forces a panel at the top of the elevator open, and the two climb out onto the top. As it reaches the top floor, they jump. Tuxedo Mask grabs onto a ledge and Sailor Moon misses, but grabs his hand. The elevator plunges to the ground beneath them.

Now dangling above a very big drop, Tuxedo Mask suggests they talk as he tries to gain a footing. Sailor Moon asks why he always comes to help her, and he says that he doesn't know: something in his blood tells him to do it. She asks who he is, wondering if he's Motoki, but Tuxedo Mask just says that he feels that he and Sailor Moon had a connection in the distant past, one that he can feel but can't remember. Just as they're about to fall, the door above them opens, and they're pulled to safety by Sailor Mercury and Sailor Mars (who's wearing a face mask because of her cold). While Sailor Moon and Sailor Mars bicker over Tuxedo Mask, Mercury seems to be the only one to remember Naru, who's unconscious and needs to get to the hospital. Tuxedo Mask bids the girls farewell, and tells them to get along. Tuxedo Mask gets stressed when girls fight.

In the Dark Kingdom, Zoisite points out to Queen Beryl that Nephrite has failed in his mission. He suggests Eternal Sleep. However, Beryl is impressed with the energy that Nephrite brought back, so he's off the hook. Back in the cathedral of solitude, Nephrite observes that the same energy he's been trying to collect from others is now being produced by Naru, as a product of her obsession with him. Oh dear.

Monster of the day: No Youma this time, but we did get the Youma substitute Regulus. What is there to say about him? He's a blue lion made of stars, he's tiara-resistant, and he's the first monster not to end up dead.

Most valuable person: It's Tuxedo Mask's episode, and time for him to finally get some recognition in this section. This is the most we've seen of him so far, and there's no argument that he was pretty useful this episode. He deserves this award for the poses alone.

Least valuable person: Nephrite, for a few reasons. Number one: he's a dick. Now, I know that's sort of the job description for enemies, but this marks the start of his manipulation of Naru, which is super low and creepy no matter how you look at it. Also, his plan was absurd and only succeeded in drawing Sailor Moon out in spite of itself. You think Sailor Moon's not going to notice that Tuxedo Mask sent letters to every teenage girl in town? And how was it that only Sailor Moon and Naru showed up? At least when Jadeite pulled a similar stunt in episode thirteen, the cops were on hand to keep curious citizens away from the airport.

This is an important episode, officially revealing Tuxedo Mask's identity to the viewer for the first time. And while it's not like it was a huge mystery, we have the added detail that Mamoru doesn't know he's Tuxedo Mask, and it's implied Tuxedo Mask doesn't know he's Mamoru either. We also get - and I say this with a heavy sigh - the beginning of the Naru/Nephrite thing. This plot element never sat well with me. I just can't enjoy watching emotional abuse of a character who's unable to fight back. I'll talk more about this later... unfortunately.

This episode does a few things that bug me, but it's solid enough that they don't ruin it, meaning the episode evens out at three stars out of five.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

18 - Shingo's Love: The Grieving Doll

Okay, I'm back to nitpicking titles. ADV translated this one as "Shingo's Innocent Love! A Sorrowful French Doll". The "love/innocent love" term here is junjou (純情) which good old JDIC defines as "pure heart; naivete; self-sacrificing devotion". So... honestly, neither is super close, but I think ADV edges a bit closer. "Sorrowful/grieving" are both valid translations of kanashimi (哀しみ); in the context of the episode, ADV might be a touch closer, but either could make sense. Finally, why did Viz drop the "French" part? Well, there may be some logic to this. The term "French doll" doesn't really have any meaning in English beyond the obvious one of a doll from France. In Japanese it actually refers to a style of dolls, in particular the western porcelain/bisque style seen in this episode. So dropping "French" is actually a valid decision, and arguably more accurate, but maybe replacing it with porcelain or bisque would have been the most accurate. My thanks again to Crayola, who advised me on matters of doll etymology.

If anyone's still reading after that, it's time to start the episode. Nephrite has finally deigned to appear before Queen Beryl to explain why he's been so rubbish recently. Our pal Zoisite appears, and proposes they work together on this next mission. Queen Beryl likes the idea, but Nephrite refuses, saying he works for himself, and buggers off. Telling Queen Beryl you don't recognize her authority might not be the best long-term survival strategy, you know. Meanwhile, Zoisite is drawn to resemble the love interest in a seventies anime about manly giant robot pilots or something.
The art director for this episode is Ikuko Ito. She's responsible for some of the best art in the series, but also some really weird art. She's basically the Ikuhara of art.

For once, Usagi woke up early enough to interact with her family before going to school. Her dad reads in the paper that Shingo's friend Mika, who you may recall from episode five, won a prize in a doll-making contest. Usagi teases Shingo about having a famous girlfriend, but Shingo points out that girls are icky, and heads off to school. Usagi notices what time it is, runs out of the house in a panic... and is still late for school.

On the way back home, Usagi and Naru run into some girls from Shingo's school, who have a problem.
Don't ask Usagi, she's been wondering the same thing for years. Still, she's keen to know the exact kind of asshole behavior Shingo's been responsible for this time. Cue a flashback where Shingo congratulates Mika for winning the contest, and she thanks him for supporting her, and gives him the prizewinning doll as thanks. Then a group of boys gathers to taunt Shingo for having an interaction with a girl more complex than pulling hair and running away. He buckles under peer pressure and tries to quickly give the doll back to Mika, but in the panic it gets dropped and breaks. Mika is devastated, and Shingo is evidently too shaken by the experience to say anything.

I have a confession to make: I find this scene genuinely difficult to watch. There's something innately distressing to me about seeing toys, especially toys with anthropomorphic qualities, getting destroyed. And for some reason, vinyl records too. So anyway, yeah, parts of this episode probably have more emotional impact on me than they do on its intended little kid audience. I am super mature that way.

Usagi tells the girls she'll talk to Shingo about the incident, though her demeanor suggests less talking and more pummeling. Next up is an enormously sad scene with Mika, who's working on another doll, and is unable to tell her mom what happened to the prizewinning one, instead saying she let someone borrow it. Her mom observes that the new doll looks like it's on the verge of tears, but fails to notice that the same is true of Mika.

Over in the cathedral of solitude, Nephrite does his astrology act, and Mika is identified as his next target. And you thought her day couldn't get any worse.

Shingo is in his room, repeatedly trying and failing to write a letter to apologize to Mika. He hides his efforts as soon as Usagi comes in, and then Usagi proceeds to explain the problem to Shingo as only a sister can.
Usagi demands Shingo apologize to Mika immediately. He gets defensive, telling her it's none of her business, but when she threatens to rat him out to their parents, he agrees to go right over to Mika's house and apologize.

Shingo honestly hasn't displayed many redeeming features in the show so far, but this episode does demonstrate he feels genuinely bad about what happened. He's practicing his apology outside Mika's house, when a maniac driver in a sports car suddenly pulls up outside. Why, it's Masato Sanjoin, millionaire playboy and doll enthusiast! He's set up a meeting with Mika and her mom to discuss their dollmaking talent. As he piles on the praise, Mika's mother is enraptured, while Mika is just uninterested and depressed. He asks to see the prizewinning doll - because Mika really needed to be reminded of that whole issue again - but with it unavailable, Mika shows him the new doll instead. Oh dear, the doll just became a Youma vessel, and it temporarily gains a new, deranged expression. Sanjoin says he'd like to commission Mika for ten dolls, and her mom, who has an exhibition coming up, agrees. Later that night, Mika finishes the first doll and starts work on the second. When her mother suggests she take a break and go to bed, Mika refuses, becoming violent. Oh right, now her mom notices that something might be wrong.

Shingo is outside Mika's house the following morning - I guess he chickened out of the apology the first time, or was scared off by Nephrite's bad driving - and her mom explains to him that Mika has been up making dolls all night, refusing to come out of her room. Shingo goes inside to try to talk to her, but Mika isn't interested. Back in his room, he mopes, assuming all of this is a result of what he did. Usagi comes in to see how the apology went.
"Are you going to hit me again?" He explains what happened to Usagi, who tells him to cheer up and maybe bring her a gift next time. When alone with Luna, though, Usagi expresses her suspicion that this might be the work of the Dark Kingdom. Usagi can be perceptive sometimes, and besides, what could be cooler to investigate than cursed dolls? Usagi's admittedly keen to hand off the actual investigating parts to Rei and Ami, but she's still more enthusiastic about the mission than Luna, who has a pronounced (albeit rarely referenced) fear of ghosts.

Usagi, Ami and Luna go to Mika's house to investigate, but with Mika still locked in her room with the curtains closed, the only thing they have to go on is the upcoming exhibition. Meanwhile, Shingo gets inspiration for what to give Mika: they're both fans of Sailor Moon, after all.

However, since Sailor Moon doesn't have the same weight of merchandising behind her as Sailor V does, Shingo will have to get creative. His artistic skills leave something to be desired, though, and Usagi tries not to be too offended when presented with his unique interpretation of Sailor Moon.
The exhibition begins, and Mika's mom explains to Nephrite/Sanjoin that Mika is still finishing the last doll, and worked like crazy to get them finished. Mika is in the back room working, and looks increasingly weird: someone else pointed out that as the episode progresses she's drawn more and more to look like one of her dolls, with a pale complexion and painted-on makeup. And the possessed doll is moving again, yay.

Ami is checking out the exhibition with Luna, and... oh dear, Ami, what are you wearing?
Coincidentally, Rei has come to the exhibition, dragging an uninterested Mamoru along on a date. Mamoru passes Nephrite/Sanjoin, and there's a mutual moment of confusion where they feel like maybe they know each other.

Usagi and Shingo check in with Mika's mom, and are directed to the back room. Shingo's having second thoughts on the apology, but Usagi marches him over there... just as Mika finishes her last doll, and some weird stuff starts to happen. Her energy peaks, and the Youma emerges from the doll from earlier, and drains her. I hope you wanted more creepy doll monsters!
This Youma is called Jumou, a reference to French dollmaker Jumeau, in case you didn't know. Shingo dives to save Mika, but Jumou blasts him away, and his vaguely Sailor Moon-like model is crushed. Seeing that doll get broken... distresses me less. Well, now that all of the civilians are safely unconscious, Usagi can transform into Sailor Moon.

Sailor Moon gives the Youma a comprehensive telling off, but runs when she sends possessed dolls after her. She's joined outside by Mercury and Mars, and Mercury casts Bubble Spray, but that just means Sailor Moon doesn't see the evil possessed dolls flying towards her. Sailor Mars neutralizes them with her ofuda, and they fall to the ground, not breaking even though they fell quite a bit further than the one at the start of the episode. That's a tip for all you dollmakers out there: for sturdy dolls, make them with evil.

This turns out to have been a distraction, though, because Jumou is now choking Sailor Moon. Mars sends an attack at the Youma, who just moves out of the way, but detaches from her hands, leaving them around Sailor Moon's neck. She then launches her forearms at Mars and Mercury, and they're "as sharp as knives" despite that not really making any sense.

Speaking of not making any sense, Sailor Mercury detects that the Youma's right leg is the source of her power, so Sailor Moon should aim her attack there. Great, if Sailor Moon wasn't still being choked. Well, Tuxedo Mask distracts Jumou long enough for her to drop Sailor Moon, who can now confidently send her tiara at the monster...'s leg.

Well, with the Youma beaten, Mika wakes up, sans-evil makeup. Shingo apologizes that his present for her was destroyed, but she's grateful that he came to help her. Sailor Moon then appears, silhouetted in the window, telling Shingo and Mika to value their friendship. Later, Mika makes a scarily accurate model of Sailor Moon for Shingo, but then gets annoyed when he acts a little too attached to it.

Monster of the day: Jumou. Jumou has a cool design, resembling a doll base, with detachable limbs. Her weakness is her right leg for some reason. I dunno, if I'm being generous then we could say that maybe this is a reference to Achilles' heel.

Most valuable person: Shingo actually comes close, which is a surprise given how awful he's been so far, but the winner is Usagi, who shows concern for her awful brother and takes most of the initiative on this mission.

Least valuable person: Mika's mother really rubbed me up the wrong way with how oblivious she seemed to Mika's problems during the first segment of this episode.

This is definitely a memorable episode, and there are some good character bits. It's a particularly strong episode for Usagi, as we get to see her take her brother to task for something he did wrong, then support him when he tries to do the right thing. I think my main problem was how derivative it seems of earlier episodes, especially of episode five. Both episodes have the same writer and art director, feature Shingo and Mika heavily, and have a monster that can be beaten by aiming attacks at a specific part of its body for no obvious reason. And episode five itself was derivative of episode two, so this is like a copy of a copy.

On the other hand, there's enough fresh material here to make it mostly work. It's not a classic episode, but the parts that annoy me are balanced by the good, giving this episode three stars out of five overall.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

17 - Usagi's a Model: The Flash of the Monster Camera

It's time for Usagi's favorite class - lunch. But while she's eating, the trio consisting of Naru, sort-of-chubby nameless girl and unremarkable nameless girl, last seen in episode four, has reassembled. They're admiring some photographs of trees and houses and so on. Remember when you were fourteen and you and all your friends were really into landscape photography? Of course you do! It turns out that the photographs are by Kijin Shinokawa, a young prodigy and the a student at a neighboring middle school. Now Usagi's interested, realizing there's a celebrity in their midst. She tries to rope Ami into finding the boy and getting his autograph, but Ami is studying, and altogether less inclined to fling herself into the latest passing fad.

Later, we see Kijin outside his school, getting pestered by reporters. Kijin's hair is... interesting.
That's not a lighting effect, by the way. His hair is actually two colors. I don't know why. Maybe because he's an artist, and you know what those artists are like, right? Eccentric. Anyway, being bugged by the press doesn't generally bode well for people in this show, but first he has to contend with autograph hunters. Usagi, Naru and sort-of-chubby girl come around the corner, hoping to meet their new celebrity idol, but their path is blocked by... Rei? Rei tells Usagi to stop being such a fangirl: she had no interest in photography up until now and can hardly claim to understand Kijin's work. A fight then breaks out between the two of them that Kijin himself has to intervene in.

That evening, Kijin is on a cliff edge, taking photographs of the bay. He slips and almost goes skidding down the rock face, but he's rescued by... Masato Sanjoin, millionaire playboy and rock climber! Sanjoin wishes Kijin good luck with his photography career, but not before making sure to implant a Youma essence in his camera. We then see Nephrite in his creepy cathedral of solitude, where the stars have chosen Kijin as the next target. Apparently he will be overcome with the urge to photograph girls! A fourteen year old boy with a sudden interest in looking at girls? Now I know something weird and creepy is going on.

Sure enough, Kijin goes all crazy and possessed, and decides what he really wants to do is photograph girls. A few days later, Usagi reads that Kijin is looking for models to photograph, and decides she should try out. Luna comes over with a new item for her.
It's ready? Up until now, Luna's just used the item creation dance every time the plot has required a new object. But this implies that this item took some time. Yes, I am imagining Luna in a miniature electronics lab with a tiny soldering iron, painstakingly manufacturing lunar technology. Don't judge me. It's a far nicer image than the other fan theory, that the cats poop out items when needed.

Anyway, the communicators. I forgot about these. While I think Mercury's little supercomputer still looks like it could be a stylish piece of technology today, the communicators... well, they have all the aesthetic appeal of a cheap knock-off Tiger Electronics LCD game from the eighties. They admittedly have full color graphics, albeit on a ridiculously tiny screen. Usagi uses hers to call Ami about her new-found ambition to become a model, but Ami tells her the communicators should be used for emergencies only. She considers calling Rei instead, but... well, if even Ami told her off, Rei's response doesn't bear thinking about. So instead, Usagi turns to the love and support of her family.
Only joking! Shingo mocks her ambitions and says she'd be rejected straight away. Usagi calls upon her mom for backup, which as usual turns out to be a mistake.
What is wrong with this family? Fortunately there's one person guaranteed to be nice to Usagi, and that's Motoki. He tells her that taking on new challenges is important. Mamoru is there too, however, to be the fly in the ointment, but he does at least have more to say on the matter than just insults. He thinks aiming to be a model is a fool's errand, as it's a kind heart and a desire to do what's right that make a girl beautiful. Which is, I have to admit, a genuinely good attitude, albeit one he must have acquired at some point after the time he ridiculed Usagi over her weight. Yeah, I haven't forgotten that, jerk.

After insinuating that Usagi lacks guts, Mamoru goes on to say that Kijin's sudden desire to photograph as many girls as possible suggests that he probably sucks as a photographer. Usagi leaves in a huff, and Motoki tells Mamoru he should stop treating her like a child. Mamoru says that whenever they meet he just can't resist the urge to argue.
Or maybe you're just a jerk?

Usagi certainly is up bright and early this fine morning. As Shingo correctly surmises, she's waiting for the mail. Once again, Shingo tells her she doesn't have a hope, but then the mailman comes, and Shingo has to eat his words, because Usagi got selected! Cue Usagi practicing her enunciation, balance, singing, and, er, hopping around her room like a rabbit. Models have been known to hop. She then remembers she has to bring a swimsuit, and fortunately she has one right... er...
Well, crap.

On the day of the shoot, a large number of girls have been invited, and Kijin is extra-crazy, barking orders at the girls and warning them not to look in on the other shoots. Because that would mess up his creative process or something, obviously. Not because anything evil will be happening. Usagi's here too, and Luna thinks something weird is happening... because Kijin's behavior has changed so drastically, and also because there's no way Usagi would be selected as a model. That's our Luna, supportive as ever. It does seem that Naru and Haruna have been selected as well, and well, maybe Usagi's teacher being selected as a model really is evidence that Kijin's criteria are a bit weird. In the dressing room, Naru wants to see Usagi's swimsuit. Yeah, how did that problem end up getting resolved, anyway?
Oh, Usagi, you... can be kind of a genius when the situation calls for it. Luna, meanwhile, has got bored and goes to check out the photo shoot, only to discover that Kijin's evil isn't just making him crazy: his camera now causes the models he photographs to disappear.

Luna returns to the dressing room and tells Usagi what she saw. Usagi, preparing for her modeling debut, really doesn't want to know, but she's persuaded to call Ami when Luna threatens to reveal the terrible secret of her swimsuit. In the meantime, she still has her photo shoot, but when she goes to follow Naru and Haruna, Luna grabs one of the emergency ribbons from her swimsuit and runs off with it, forcing her to give chase.

Usagi finally chases Luna to the photo shoot, where Haruna and Naru are posing along with some other girls. Sure enough, when Kijin photographs them, they disappear. By the way, this episode uses some really nice visual effects: when the models disappear there are momentary black and white spots and lines, like distortions in old film. It just works so well.

Usagi confronts Kijin, borrowing Mamoru's earlier criticism that this new-found obsession makes him a third-rate photographer, in contrast to the prodigy he used to be. Kijin pushes her away, and so she transforms. Sailor Moon tells Kijin - or rather, the Youma controlling him - that a girl's true beauty is in her bravery and desire to do the right thing. This doesn't deter him, and he starts trying to photograph her, forcing her to dodge the beams fired by his camera. She succeeds in kicking the camera away into the pool, but Kijin collapses, his energy level having reached its peak. Then, from the pool, the Youma emerges.
This is another wonderfully creepy Youma. She has a third eye embedded in the palm of her hand; you can't beat that. The subs call her Kyameran, which is an accurate transliteration of her name, though it's intended to be a pun on "camera". Anyway, it seems she retains the powers of Kijin's camera, and anything photographed by her hand-camera-eye-thing disappears and is trapped inside a polaroid. She first uses this power on Kijin, and when Sailor Moon tries to dodge her shots, Luna gets caught too. Sailor Moon's cornered, but Mars and Mercury arrive as backup.

Mercury casts Bubble Spray, and Mars tries to seal the Youma's powers with her ofuda, but Kyameran just deflects them, before trapping both Mars and Mercury in photographs. Sailor Moon's in a tough spot, but finding herself up against a mirror, she wonders what would happen if Kyameran took her own photograph. Let's find out!

And then she starts to melt. Next time this show starts to seem juvenile, remember the time Sailor Moon took someone's eye out. Sailor Moon throws the tiara at Kyameran, and wow, I actually feel a bit sorry for this Youma. She burns up in blue flames, and the people trapped by the both her and the camera pop back into existence.

Nephrite's been hanging out in the cathedral of solitude a lot recently, and that means there's been nobody to ridicule him when he fails. Zoisite seeks to remedy that, appearing via hologram and mocking his rival, though Nephrite counters that Zoisite should focus on his own duties, and besides, there are plenty of other people on Earth with energy to take.

That night, while Usagi sleeps, the rest of their family watch a report about Kijin, who has decided to take a sabbatical. He says a wonderful young woman taught him that a kind heart and a desire to do what's right are what make a woman beautiful. Naturally, Usagi's family say how they wish Usagi could be like that woman and not such an idiot, because they're assholes determined to spoil the ending of this episode.

Monster of the day: Kyameran, you're so cool. But you just had to die/melt/catch fire/lose an eye.

Most valuable person: Usagi tackles this one pretty much solo, and demonstrates some real initiative, both in battle and emergency swimsuit repairs.

Least valuable person: While Shingo is the bigger jerk, this award actually goes to Usagi's mom for just merrily going along with whatever insult Shingo hurls her way. It's natural for siblings to be jerks to each other sometimes. It's also generally expected that parents will step in when things go to far. At this point I'm wondering if there's anything Shingo could say that would provoke some kind of rebuke from his mother.

For the most part, this episode is very good. A cool monster with interesting powers, a strong solo Usagi story where she's being carefree but not completely stupid, and even a few stabs at the misogyny of the modeling industry. Kazuko Tadano, the character designer for the anime, was the art director for this one, and as a result the characters are very expressive, with the great visual effects I mentioned earlier. Really, the only major criticism is that Usagi's family are way too mean to her. This episode gets four out of five stars, and an invitation to my next evil photo shoot.
Bonus feature! This episode's monster was pretty horrifying, but remember how scary episode 11's monster was when transforming? My good friend Crayola would like you to have nightmares, and so has provided me with the entire sequence in gif form. I've updated the review with the animations.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Crystal 1 - Usagi ~ Sailor Moon

The first episode of Sailor Moon Crystal recently aired. I think I just assumed that by the time it aired I'd have come up with a plan on if/how to cover this series. Well... looks like I finally have to make a decision. Here's what I'm going to do.

I'll be posting short reviews. I won't be scoring the episodes, because this show is a new entity and I don't have any context for what an average episode of it might be. And at least for the time being, I'll just be posting my thoughts on the episode rather than describing the events of the episode. I mean, it's episode one. Every version of episode one has the same story.

I do quite like the opening. I'm not completely sold on the song yet, but there are some nice visual bits, especially the appearance of the Dark Kingdom.

In terms of character design... the new style is a bit controversial, and while I appreciate they're trying for something closer to Takeuchi's art style, right now some of the characters look a bit stiff. Another new thing: a lot of characters' hair got lighter. Ikuko, Shingo, especially Haruna. Umino looks pretty odd. As I said back in my episode one review of Classic, he's a tough one to animate because of the sketchy way he was drawn in the manga. Here, he looks... spikier than I'm used to, and somehow even more at odds with the other characters because of the increased level of detail in everyone else's design.

I'd say that Umino has changed the most, except there are two minor characters who are really different. Kuri, one of the two girls who accompany Usagi and Naru to the store, has an entirely new, short haircut. I like it. I don't know why they decided to redesign such a minor character, so I'm just going to assume it was one of Takeuchi's demands to make up for Haruka not being in the show yet. Takeuchi needs attractive androgynous women, they're like her power source.

Then there's Morga. Morga actually looks more human in her Youma form than the original did. For the most part, I'd say she's less scary, though there's some definite uncanny-valley stuff happening when she shifts from Naru's mom to her Youma form: the weird eyes and all those teeth can be kind of chilling.

The story stuck very closely to the manga version. Motoki shows up in this episode (he didn't appear in the original until episode two) but Beryl doesn't. There were some bits where Usagi's dreaming about the Moon Princess that I think weren't in the manga, but as this is a straight adaptation of one manga chapter, there has to be a bit of extra stuff to make it the length of a regular episode.

Speaking of which, there were times when things seemed to drag a bit, the pace slowing down to presumably extend the episode to its required length. I'm not opposed to shows with a slow pace - one of my favorite series is Azumanga Daioh, and that dedicated an entire, mostly dialogue-free segment to some characters walking through a park. Some bits actually benefited from being longer, like the first meeting between Usagi and Mamoru. Here, you feel like there might be some real, deep connection, whereas in the original anime he's just a jerk and a bully.

The battle is... well, I've seen some people say that there's less menace than the original anime version, with Morga being less frightening. On the other hand, there's less of what made that battle annoying, in the sense of Sailor Moon being utterly useless and then suddenly winning anyway. Her victory here seems a little more earned. My main criticism is that the Youma's minions aren't as interesting: in the original, you had a diverse group of women, and here they all pretty much look identical. Which, I dunno, maybe that's a conscious choice, since they're zombies and zombies are pretty anonymous, but there's just something especially scary about possessed schoolgirls wielding broken bottles.

Finally... this was a faithful adaptation for better and for worse, and by "worse" I'm mainly talking about the flashing odango protectors. I will actually give the show a pass on this if they find a way of using them consistently, rather than using them once and forgetting they exist.

Where does the show go from here? They seem to be following the manga extremely closely right now, though I don't know how much we can tell from that, as every version of chapter one was pretty much the same. The live action series was supposedly going to be closer to the manga, but we ended up with evil Mercury and Zoisite playing the piano. This is a 26 episode series, so if they do stick to one chapter per episode, the first arc will be done about halfway through. It is notable that, if they use the chapter divisions of the revised versions of the manga, 26 episodes would be exactly enough to cover the first two arcs, so maybe that's what we're looking at.

I'm not as big a fan of the manga as I am of the original anime. If this is a completely faithful adaptation of the manga, it's safe to say I'm not going to enjoy it as much as the original anime. But I'm going to keep watching. Who knows? Maybe this format will give me a greater appreciation for the manga's story.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

16 - A Girl's Dream: Usagi Becomes a Bride

I know I spent half of the last review complaining about a translation error, but what's up with this episode's title? "Junpaku Dress no Yume" literally translates to "Dream of a Pure White Dress", and yet here it somehow became "A Girl's Dream". I... I just don't get it.

We start the episode with home economics. Excited yet? Neither are the girls in Usagi's class.
This group would probably welcome a Youma attack just to liven things up a bit. Their teacher, Ms Akiyama, seems a bit out of it, and after half-heartedly mumbling some instructions, wanders over to the window and starts daydreaming.

Later, Naru wonders what's wrong with their teacher, since Ms Akiyama is usually passionate about sewing. Umino, our very own exposition machine, knows the answer. It turns out Ms Akiyama recently got engaged, and getting married in a dress she made herself has always been her dream. Oh, and it's also pointed out that she's 34 and not married yet, which is, like, super old, right? Yeah, I know, it's a show from nineties Japan, but that whole "get married before you're thirty or you'll die alone" thing bugs me every time it comes up. So anyway, Ms Akiyama is now engaged to a short businessman who apparently has extremely low self esteem.
Romantic? Yes, but Usagi sees no reason to settle for an average man like that, and says she intends to be married to a handsome guy by 25. Umino's pretty dismayed at this: it means he's out of the running, unless the tail end of puberty is phenomenally kind to him.

Ms Akiyama is shopping for dress materials at a store with a curiously misspelled English sign, but though she has a design worked out, she hasn't been able to find material that she likes. But as she discusses the wedding plans with Haruna, who's that spying on her? It's Nephrite, aka Masato Sanjoin, millionaire playboy and stalker.

Later, at Nephrite's cathedral of solitude... I don't know why it's funny to see a bright red sports car parked outside his creepy evil church, it just is... Anyway, as you might just have predicted, he consults the stars and Ms Akiyama is chosen as the next victim.

Usagi is passing by the local community center, and sees a wedding taking place. As she daydreams, a sign is put up nearby advertising a contest for homemade wedding dresses, with a free wedding and lavish reception as the prize. Usagi then drifts into a fantasy of marrying Tuxedo Mask. And Motoki. Hey, it's a fantasy, why not both? Alas, Usagi's dreams of a polyandrous wedding are punctured when she realizes that it's a contest for homemade dresses, and she can't sew.

Rei also sees the sign, and has some questions for the community center's representative... who, by the way, looks like the least trustworthy man in existence.
Rei's very curious to know what happens if you win and you don't have a boyfr... I mean, don't have a date picked out. It turns out that the wedding offer is redeemable at any time in the future. This is awesome news! Except... Rei can't sew either. She and Usagi notice each other, and Rei hatches a plan. Usagi's mom is a housewife, right? She'll be able to help! As Rei drags Usagi off, Ms Akiyama sees the sign for the contest as well.

Rei has invited herself over to Usagi's house, and is now charming her mom while Usagi sits there and fumes. Usagi's mom is impressed her daughter has made a sophisticated friend like Rei, while Rei piles on the compliments. She manages a fairly admirable segue into how great Usagi's mom must be at sewing, since she's so good at everything else, and how it would be so wonderful to learn sewing from someone like her. Maybe they could start with something small, like a wedding dress? Usagi's mom laughs nervously, while Usagi's laughter is more of the hysterical variety. A short while later, Rei storms out of the house, having finally been informed that Usagi's mom can't sew worth crap either. Hahaha, Usagi calls Rei "You wench".
Luna, as is her role as resident buzzkill, tells the girls that they shouldn't be concerned with such frivolities, and should be training to fight their enemies instead. But nobody's actually there to hear it, as Rei has gone off to sulk, and Usagi's gone to look for help from someone who might actually be able to sew.

Usagi tells Ami about the contest and how Rei's totally being a jerk. Ami doesn't really get the appeal, since she has no plans to get married anytime soon, but Usagi pleads for help with sewing, so Ami agrees... and gives Usagi a pile of books. Once she's studied those, they can move onto the practical stuff. You rather get the impression that Ami's sick and tired of people coming up to her and saying "Teach me this!" when they're not remotely interested in doing any work.

Back to the only person we've met so far who has any hope of actually making a dress, Ms Akiyama is in a fabric store, watching in despair as a riot unfolds. Apparently a lot of people really want to enter that contest, including Haruna, who appears to be fighting with a student. Somehow, I wouldn't rate Haruna's chances of winning any higher than Usagi's. Anyway, a piece of silk that's been tossed aside catches Ms Akiyama's eye. As she picks it up, along comes our friend Masato Sanjoin. Did he mention he's also a... connoisseur of fabric? He implants a Youma essence in the fabric (which doesn't really look big enough to make a dress out of, just saying), then wraps it around her and leaves.

Usagi has one last resort to learn sewing. It's painful, but she's going to have to ask... a teacher. She drags Naru along with her to visit Ms Akiyama at home. As they get there, they see a dorky-looking guy, who they don't realize is Akiyama's fiancé, carrying flowers up to her apartment, and spend a bit of time laughing at him.
Let's keep doing it, though! So, the guy goes up to her apartment and knocks on the door, concerned because she hasn't been answering any of his calls. Holy crap, here's an example of how much better the sound is in this version: I just now noticed that you can hear a sewing machine running quietly in the background. Ms Akiyama answers the door, and she's, uh, different. Nephrite's power has been working its magic, and now she's incredibly surly, and apparently also answering the door in her underwear. She chases her fiancé away, telling him not to come back until the contest is over, and then has some weird spasms, seemingly going into withdrawal due to being away from the dress. Nephrite's powers are pretty damn scary.

Usagi and Naru saw the whole thing, and are horrified: Naru because something has evidently happened to Ms Akiyama, and Usagi because she totally said she was entering the contest, nobody else will have a chance! Luna saw everything as well, and concludes that a Youma must be involved.

Luna tells Ami of her suspicions as they make their way to the Hikawa shrine, where Rei is being reprimanded by her grandpa for trying to sneak off with the shrine's sacred wedding robes. At first he thought she was trying to elope, but when he realizes she's trying to take part in a contest that's just a tacky ad for one of their rivals, he's even more annoyed. Usagi's having no more luck with her own attempts at thievery: her mom is not prepared to part with those curtains. Plus, when she points out that the contest is only a few days away, it starts to dawn on Usagi that there just isn't enough time to make a dress, let alone that whole learning-to-sew business.

Ms Akiyama, however, successfully finishes her dress. Does this mean she can go back to being sane now? Nope, looks like she gets to go even crazier.

Now it's the day of the contest, and sure enough, Usagi didn't make any further progress beyond repeatedly stabbing her fingers with needles. However, someone needs to go undercover as a contestant, and Usagi does have the disguise pen. So she disguises herself as a bride with an awesome dress, which could totally win the contest. Which she won't be trying to do. Because that would be unethical.

Usagi lines up with the other contestants, while Rei and Ami frantically search for Ms Akiyama. The host (who is the amazingly dodgy-looking guy from earlier in the episode) is suddenly interrupted as he goes to start the contest. The lights go out, and a spotlight focuses on Ms Akiyama, who walks down the steps in her wedding dress. The dress... is kind of nuts, though I actually like it.
More wedding ensembles should include war paint, don't you think? The host tries to stop her, but after a hypnotic flash from her eyes, he's immediately smitten with her, and asks her to marry him. She's not interested, though, and says that all of the world's men should bow down to her, and just for good measure, all of the women should kneel before her beauty. Ms Akiyama, you're my kind of crazy villain. Her energy peaks while she knocks out most of the audience and contestants with her hypnotic eye-beams. Usagi manages to hang on thanks to the intervention of Luna, who was strategically hidden under her dress the whole time.

Nephrite's Youma emerges from Akiyama's wedding dress, draining her energy. This Youma is an orange spider woman called Widow. Usagi goes to confront it, but is cut off by Ami and Rei, who apparently noticed that things have been a bit too heterosexual around here recently, and that needs fixing.
Yeah, they descend from the ceiling aboard a suspended flying... gondola... thing labelled "Happy Couple." Just for the sake of anyone who's not been keeping up with all the lesbian subtext. They lecture the Youma, and Usagi joins in, saying it's her fault she won't be winning that wedding reception. Uh... not sure how that makes any sense, but whatever, Usagi and the others transform and get down to business.

Widow attacks, and while Mars and Mercury dodge, Sailor Moon gets tangled up in a stream of silk. Mercury casts Bubble Spray to disorient the Youma, then Mars frees Sailor Moon with Fire Soul. As the Youma rushes them blindly, Sailor Moon uses the tiara, and Widow is beaten. Kind of a short fight, but oh well.

So, Ms Akiyama recovers and gets married as planned, though sadly in a less crazy dress than the last one. Despite her husband being a weird short guy, Usagi points out he must be a good man if he stayed with her despite her bout of insanity. Which is a good thing, certainly, though as I pointed out when we first saw him, this man has no self esteem, which clouds the issue a bit. Ami makes the mistake of mentioning the tradition that whoever catches the bouquet will be the next to get married.
I've seen enough TV weddings to know where this is going. Usagi, Rei and Haruna fight over the bouquet, but it of course, it ends up being caught by Ami, the one character who expressed no interest in getting married. That's comedy.

Monster of the day: Widow. She has a cool design and all, but she doesn't really get to do much, which is what you get when you wait until two minutes before the end of the episode to show up.

Most valuable person: Though she played little part in the episode as a whole, Ami gets it for her indifference to the wedding craze and her subtle trolling of Usagi. Also, she looked so damn serious while riding the Happy Couple boat.

Least valuable person: On the other hand, Luna took things too far with her usual buzzkill act. "Stop acting like teenage girls, you teenage girls!"

This episode feels a lot like filler, though would you believe it's loosely based on a story from the manga? In the manga, though, this story introduced both Sailor Jupiter and Naoko Takeuchi's obsession with crossdressing women. Here, it's pure fluff, but is it good fluff?

Well... parts of it are good. The story is cute enough, and it's not often you see an episode where your main characters want to participate in a competition, and then none of them get even close to being able to enter. On the other hand, the final battle seems like an afterthought, the ending is a huge cliche, and then there's the art. I'm a defender of Ando, in that I think he's only the second worst animation director in the show's history, and sometimes his style fits the episode. This time, though... yeah, it's a mostly whimsical story, but this has got to be some of his worst work. A lot of the art looked really, really sketchy and rushed. I can usually ignore the style fluctuations inherent to this show, but there are some times it really eats into my enjoyment of an episode.

This episode gets another three stars out five. It's fluff, and at times quite charming fluff, but here and there, there's evidence of a lack of effort.