How Sailor Moon was sanitized—and made much less interesting

How Sailor Moon was sanitized—and made much less interesting

Even the bowdlerized North American version is emotionally resonant

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that all deal with a central theme. Now through July: TV we loved as kids.

Sailor Moon, “Day Of Destiny” (season one, episode 40; originally aired 11/3/1995) 

(Available on YouTube… for now.)

Genevieve Koski: It would be a stretch to call Sailor Moon an educational show—most of its lessons boiled down to basic kid-show platitudes about friendship, love, and believing in yourself—but I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a show I watched as a kid that taught me more about serialized television, the Internet, and the convergence of the two. The classic anime series, which aired in the United States from roughly 1995-2000 on various networks, was my first experience with fandom. I’ve since mostly grown out of this fandom, but still maintain a deep affection for it. It’s significant that my interest in Sailor Moon—initially the Americanized version we’re discussing here, and then later the original Japanese anime—coincided with my exposure to the Internet, which made its way to the Koski household in the mid ’90s, just as the English Sailor Moon was struggling in early-morning syndication. 

At 12, I’d been exposed to the show via early-morning airings on the Canadian station YTV. (Growing up in the Detroit metro area, a lot of my childhood TV viewing came via YTV, which was broadcast from just over the river in Ontario.) When it suddenly disappeared, a victim of low viewership, I became aware of/marginally involved in the online fan campaign that helped bring the show back via the USA Network and, eventually, Cartoon Network’s Toonami lineup. By the time Sailor Moon made its way to Cartoon Network in 1998, my fandom had progressed to the point where I was seeking out copies of the original Japanese anime, overseeing my own Sailor Moon GeoCities fan site (R.I.P.), and undergoing a brief dalliance with my high school’s anime club. (I was just a super-cool freshman, obviously.) The show had also helped introduce me to my best friend, whom I gave a Sailor Moon sticker on our first day of class, leading to the first of our many shared fandoms.

All it takes is a quick glance at the very active “sailor moon” tag on Tumblr to know that my experience with this property is in no way unique and, if anything, Sailor Moon’s legacy has only grown in the time it’s been off the air, thanks to pop culture’s overall uptick in interest in all things even marginally nerdy or cult-like. That ongoing fandom has led to the recent announcement that Viz Media is bringing the show back to American audiences via Hulu, which will air new episodes of the show every Monday in remastered, uncut form. 

That last point is especially interesting to fans who became aware of the series via DiC’s mid-’90s Americanized version of the show, which rather famously altered the original Japanese series to make it more “acceptable” to young audiences. The first-season finale, “Day Of Destiny,” is a prime example of the extent to which DiC bastardized the Japanese original, splicing together two separate episodes of the first Japanese series (titled “The Sailor Warriors Die! The Tragic Final Battle” and “Usagi’s Everlasting Wish! A New Reincarnation”) into a 22-minute episode that loses some of the tentacle-filled violence of the original, along with most of its emotional impact. 

That emotional impact can be gleaned from the Japanese title of the episode, which telegraphs the fact that the main characters straight-up die in this episode, following a series of battles in the “Negaverse” with the evil Queen Beryl and her henchmen, the Doom ’N’ Gloom Girls. These battles mostly take the form of psychological torture, with the Doom ’N’ Gloom girls disguising themselves as imperiled versions of the Sailor Scouts’ respective love/crush objects to lure them into traps. All four of the non-Moon Sailor Scouts (at this point there were only four; there were eventually nine) end up sacrificing themselves so that Sailor Moon can defeat Beryl, which she accomplishes by transforming into Princess Serenity and calling on her departed friends to blast the evil queen away with a cosmic energy beam. Once they defeat Queen Beryl, they are reincarnated back to their normal lives as 14-year-old school girls—except they no longer know they are Sailor Scouts, nor do they remember their friendship with each other… a friendship that literally saved the world. 

The Americanized “Day Of Destiny” pulls its punches considerably with the whole “everybody dies” thing, making it seem as if the other Sailor Scouts just sort of wandered off into the Negaverse while Sailor Moon continues on her own to fight Queen Beryl with her magic moon wand. The respective deaths of Sailor Jupiter/Lita, Sailor Venus/Mina, Sailor Mercury/Amy, and Sailor Mars/Raye are treated with much more reverence in the Japanese original, with each Scout getting her own moment of heroism before dying. The English version suffers as well from its glossing-over of the series’ deeper mythology, which involves a lot of past lives and alternate universes and everlasting loves and so on and so forth, which helps make the whole reincarnation angle a little more apparent. And yet, despite all that, I remember being devastated by “Day Of Destiny” when I first saw it, rocked by the fact that this show I loved had ripped apart and nullified the friendships that formed the basis of the entire series. 

Of course, that sort of status-quo reset happens all the time in television, and in the second season (known as Sailor Moon R in the original), the Scouts would be quickly reunited and continue going on their adventures fighting evil. But this was my first experience with this sort of thing, and my sadness/confusion with this development is what drove me online to find out what the hell was going on, eventually exposing me to the wide world of the Japanese original and its deeper mythology. I’m convinced Sailor Moon wouldn’t have been able to get a foothold in the U.S. before the Internet; there are just too many holes in the DiC version, in terms of both plot and character. But those holes function as an invitation to potential fans to dig deeper, and discover there were multiple seasons’ worth of mythology and deeper character development waiting for them. 

It’s hard for me to separate the Americanized “Day Of Destiny” from my knowledge of the series as a whole, but trying to watch it objectively, I suspect it looks kind of ridiculous to adult eyes. The girls are uncomfortably obsessed with boys (an unfortunate carryover from the original); they look like fetish objects in their Scout costumes (which they spend roughly half the episode’s runtime transforming into); and their powers and observations make little sense, especially within this episode’s truncated narrative. And yet I still tear up when Princess Serena is joined by the spirits of her departed friends, overcoming absolute evil and darkness with the power of their love for one another, a reaction that’s surely based as much in nostalgia as anything else. So I’m curious to hear what my fellow Roundtablers think of “Day Of Destiny.” Is this all of your first exposure to Sailor Moon

Zack Handlen: This was definitely my first exposure to the show; I’ve heard about it for years, but never having been a huge anime fan (I dabble, but don’t dive), it didn’t occur to me to seek it out. I’d like to think I would’ve been a fan if I’d seen it as a kid; I loved a lot of really ridiculous cartoons back then (ThunderCats has not aged well), and this has all the bright colors, cool music, and oversized fights I craved. And hell, I was as much an emotional junkie then as I am now, so I’m sure all the mooning (ha) over boys would’ve appealed to me, even as I ardently claimed it did not. 

Watching it as an adult, I had roughly the same experience as you had, Genevieve, when you tried to watch the show objectively. I was initially overwhelmed, then amused by the repetitive script (“Oh hey, it’s another one of our crush objects, although I’m sure this one isn’t a trap!”), and annoyed by Moon’s constant whinging about, well, everything. It hadn’t even occurred to me that the abruptness of most of the episode’s scenes, and the suddenness of so much of what happens, comes from multiple episodes being edited together. In retrospect that makes perfect sense (especially that hilarious, “Oh hey, they’ve all lost their memories but everything’s fine” ending, which, without the deaths of the other Sailors, lacks even the tenuous coherence of fever-dream logic), but I remember most kids’ shows kind of feeling like this in the ’80s. Everything was about getting to the big moment; the connective tissue between those moments, all that dull character work and plot-setting, was usually handled as abruptly and cursorily as possible.

Yet that approach still has its appeal. Once I got into the right mindset for the episode, I enjoyed the hell out of it, and the final confrontation between Moon and the evil witch who hated everything was just terrific fun to watch. (I love how often the evil characters on these shows are the sarcastic ones.) I’m a sucker for those big moments, I guess. I still remember the scene in The Transformers: The Movie when Hot Rod figures out how to open the Cyber Matrix Whatsit (don’t remember the term, not looking it up) and defeats the evil Unicron, all scored to the strained hair-metal anthem “The Touch.” I’ve watched the movie multiple times, I’m not 10 anymore, and I still get chills from that shit. It’s goofy as hell, but it works on me, and I felt some of that old magic watching the climax of this episode.

I also appreciated how all of Moon’s complaints and defeatism in the first two-thirds of the episode paid off when she finally gets the confidence she needs to fight Queen Beryl. There’s nothing particularly sophisticated about it, but who gives a shit? It works. I’d never thought about it before, but the “team is slowly winnowed down until only one member is left to stand and face the threat” episode is a fairly common one, and I wonder if it’s even more common for kids’ television than it is for grown-ups. Without straining, I can come up with at least two examples—the “Perils Of Punky” Punky Brewster episode (ghosts, Native American cave, so many childhood nightmares) and the Sandman episode of The Real Ghostbusters. And I’m sure there are more. 

“Day Of Destiny” follows that trope to the letter (to the point where Moon’s last friend standing basically just shrugs and throws herself to the wolves when she realizes what’s going on), but it also finds time to remind us just how important the friendship between the girls is—right before that friendship is ripped away. In a way, I’m glad I watched this as a grown-up, because I’m pretty sure it would’ve wrecked me as a kid, even in its truncated, occasionally awkward form. The girls gave it their all, beat the bad guy, saved the world, and they don’t get to remember a damn bit of it. Sure, those talking cats say they’ll remember eventually, but that’s still a surprisingly downbeat end to the episode, however temporary.

Carrie, was this your first Sailor Moon sighting, and did it hearken back to any cartoons of your youth?

Carrie Raisler: I’m so glad you explained the backstory of this episode, Genevieve, because now I don’t feel so bad about myself for not really understanding what was happening. All right, I still feel a little bit bad for being completely thrown by a show intended for children, but knowing now that it was two episodes awkwardly spliced together, the whole thing makes so much more sense in retrospect. At least it explains why the final third of the episode feels like exactly what it was: an abrupt conclusion that seemed to come from an entirely different place. I definitely didn’t think any of the girls died during the first half (I just assumed they went to a cartoon Neverland-type place and would pop up fully fine in the next episode when the story reset), so when the voice-over at the end explained how they died, I was pretty floored. And confused. Was this something the show did every week to reset the status quo? So it was good (and somewhat impressive) to hear this was a longer-term story.

Part of my general confusion was also likely because this was my first experience with Sailor Moon—and my first experience with anime at all (I know)—so the entire time while watching, I wasn’t sure if my problem was because of my unfamiliarity with the premise, the episode’s story itself being somewhat incoherent, or because of bigger genre conventions I was potentially missing. Animation in general has never been a huge part of my entertainment consumption. (Growing up I mostly remember watching The Smurfs and The Flintstones, and those shows are terrible, so no wonder I didn’t embrace the genre.) And Sailor Moon came to the states when I was in college and far more worried about things like what cult Kelly Taylor was joining on Beverly Hills 90210. The only animation I ever watched on a consistent basis as a child and teenager were Disney movies, and the tone, story, and look of Cinderella and Lady And The Tramp are all a far cry from Sailor Moon. I think that, along with watching this when I am much older than the target demographic, is much of the reason why this episode didn’t connect with me at all. I was mostly concerned with why the lead heroine was ostensibly the least qualified to be the person in charge, considering she spent the whole time saying they shouldn’t continue on their mission. Obviously this fits right in to the trope of the reluctant hero, but did Sailor Moon have to be so darn whiny about it?

I admit I wasn’t particularly fond of this episode, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t pleasures to be had. By “pleasures,” I almost exclusively mean the theme song and the song that plays while the girls are defeating Queen Beryl, both of which are utter perfection. They feel as if they were repurposed from the end credits of some B-level ’80s movie (the kind that played on a cable loop when I was a kid) in the best way possible. Perhaps my favorite thing about them is that the theme song goes on for far longer than expecteda full 90 seconds!and it feels almost luxurious in its presentation. Who needs extra time for coherent stories when there are fantastic music videos to watch? So, I didn’t love Sailor Moon. But boy, did I love those songs (and went back and watched them a few more times just for fun).

What about you, Todd? Did you spend your adolescent days watching Sailor Moon? Or was this a new experience for you as well?

Todd VanDerWerff: I have seen exactly one episode of Sailor Moon before this one, and that was when I was an asshole teenager and trying to impress girls at music camp (I know) by making fun of something I didn’t understand yet found easy to mock. And there’s plenty to mock in this episode, but now that I’m older and know a tiny bit about anime and the magical-girl genre from friends who are really into both things, I can sort of appreciate the emotional purity of the whole thing, even if I found the experience of watching this mostly confounding. For instance: When Sailor Jupiter is captured by the giant tentacle things, I got the sense that we were cutting around something else, that maybe the girls were dying and being ripped away from Sailor Moon (who is important for reasons I still don’t fully grasp). It also seemed like the whole “evil tentacles that burst from the Earth and destroy young girls” was probably something that had been pared back. It was rather a relief, then, to find out that all of this had been awkwardly squeezed together from other bits and pieces.

There’s a part of me that wants to think if I had come across this as a kid, I would have really responded to it, as Zack suggests. For one thing, the theme of transformation is very important to this series, and the idea that someone could start as one thing (a normal kid) and end up as something else (a kid with superpowers) is exactly the sort of thing I was responding to back then. Hell, there’s a reason this idea keeps popping up across cultures and media over the course of the past several centuries. It’s less about wish fulfillment, I think, than it is about a secret pact you’re constantly trying to make with yourself to be the best possible version of you that could exist, even if that best possible version is a super-powered schoolgirl who goes into battle with evil monsters in the Negaverse. It’s the purest of notions: There is a version of myself that is ready for all of the shit life will throw my way, even if I’m going to whine about it. It’s something we still strive to live up to as adults.

But, of course, I don’t really know, because this is the sort of thing I was exactly forbidden to watch when I was a kid, because it was too far out there and because the kids’ power didn’t emanate from Jesus. (I suspect if my parents had found out Sailor Moon’s original mythology involved past lives, they would have blown up the television just in case I ever came across the show unbidden.) It’s interesting to me, Genevieve, to imagine you coming across this program in these bowdlerized episodes and still really responding to it. You mentioned that when you watch them now, they seem creaky to you, but are there moments where the power of the originals still peeks through? Also, who the fuck is Tuxedo Mask, and where do I get one?

GK: To answer your second question first, Todd, Tuxedo Mask is the primary love interest of Sailor Moon/Princess Serenity (her past-life iteration), a superhero in his own right who aids the Sailor Scouts when needed, and the alter-ego of Darien, the boy we see Serena arguing/flirting with toward the end of this episode. Oh, and you can get one right here. 

Your other question is a little tougher to answer, though Carrie helped clarify a bit for me with her comment about the music, which is probably what I responded to most this time around. (I unabashedly love “Carry On,” the cheesy song that plays during the climax, which is wholly an invention of the American version; the theme song, also awesome, has the same music as the original, though the visuals and translated lyrics are substantially different.) Music is a powerful nostalgia tool, and hearing “Carry On” took me right back to the time when I really cared about these characters and their friendships. As to what attracted me to them in the first place, I’d like to think it was something deeper and more thoughtful than their cool outfits and those endless transformation sequences, but hey, I was 12 and enamored of bright colors and pretty things. But beyond that, Sailor Moon just felt special somehow—not just the fact that it was a style and tone I’d never seen in American cartoons at that point, but because it was about a bunch of girls near my own age, girls with their own distinctive personality traits and accompanying color schemes. (To recap for you newbies: Serena/Sailor Moon is the immature but compassionate one; Amy/Sailor Mercury is the super-smart one; Raye/Sailor Mars is the serious, mature one; Lita/Sailor Jupiter is the tomboy; and Mina/Sailor Venus is the perky dreamer.)

I think young girls generally tend to be attracted to that sort of thing, especially during that window of adolescence when your friends mean everything to you because you’re still sort of scared of boys (or girls), and you’re struggling to define who you are in relation to them; are you the smart one, the clumsy-but-lovable one, the responsible one, the athletic one, etc.? The answer ultimately turns out to be much more complicated—we’re never just one personality trait, or one color scheme—but during that awkward stumble into puberty, there’s a certain comfort in having a broad, familiar construct you can relate to while figuring out what sort of person you actually are. And hey, if that personality trait comes with a corresponding, kickass superpower, all the better.

This sort of personalty-defined group dynamic can be seen all over female-targeted entertainment, not just television; two that spring immediately to mind are The Baby-sitters Club series, which predates Sailor Moon, and the Spice Girls, whose brand of “girl power” hit American shores right around the time Sailor Moon was getting its legs. Hell, Sex And The City had it to a certain extent. Looking at these things critically, it’s reductive bordering on insensitive to build characters, especially female ones, around the idea of “The _____ One,” but it’s undeniably a successful model, especially in children’s entertainment. 

I’m curious how much those personalities came through in this episode, though, which is pretty much a battle scene from beginning to end. Zack, you mentioned Sailor Moon/Serena’s annoying whinging, which is very much a love/hate aspect of her character; but I wonder if any of the other Sailor Scouts stood out as individuals, or if they just seemed like anonymous sacrificial lambs. If you were a 12-year-old girl (your greatest wish, I know), can you imagine having a “favorite” in this group? 

ZH: I don’t think I’m cool enough to be a 12-year-old girl; 12-year-old girls rule.

But I think “the _____ one” isn’t limited to television aimed at girls and women. It’s a regular part of all kids’ programming, and pops up pretty regularly in adult shows that have an ensemble cast; I remember in high school being deeply invested in the idea that I was the Chandler Bing of my friend group, even though no one else had any idea what I was talking about. Growing up, I had a tendency to be the most invested in “the sarcastic one,” and I have no idea why. I don’t think I was ever a particularly funny kid (or a funny adult). Maybe I just liked the idea of being above everything. Like you said, Genevieve, people tend to be a lot more complicated than the simplistic roles characters are assigned in cartoon series (or sitcoms), but those roles do exist in social groups, and I guess I wanted to be the one on the outside, smirking. When it came time to pick a Ninja Turtle, I always wanted to be Raphael. (This is also why Spider-Man is the best superhero, because he’s sarcastic and soulful.)

The thing is, from the brief glimpse we get of the individual characters in this episode, I couldn’t really tell if there was a sarcastic one or not. In which case I have to default to my second automatic preference: the smart one. So I guess that means I’m a fan of Amy/Sailor Mercury. And even before you specifically described each girl, Amy already stood out in my head—not in any sort of hugely striking or important way, but like my brain registered I was watching a team-centric cartoon, and immediately started figuring out who I was going to identify with. I know how ridiculous that sounds; I’m in my 30s, I have no business identifying with boy-crazy teenagers who wear absurdly short skirts and magical tiaras. But old habits die hard. And while few of the supporting characters get much to do in this truncated 20 minutes, there was just enough to get a vague sense of everybody.

If we’re really going to dig deep here, though, I suspect if I’d watched this as a kid, girl or boy, I would’ve been a big Sailor Moon booster. As an adult, her complaining struck me as comically overdone. She goes from blind enthusiasm to utter despair so quickly that it’s like a parody of childish indecision. But as a kid, I liked that sort of thing. As much as I wanted to be the funny one or the smart one, I knew deep down I was one who complained a lot and occasionally did the right thing. There isn’t a lot of character arc to this episode, for a variety of reasons, but I do think Moon’s transition from, “Oh God, we’re all doomed and everything is awful!” to, “Fuck it, I’m going to save the day” is crude but effective. It offers the comforting message that even if you’re annoying and scared, you can still be the hero in the end, and your friends will still love you. I think that’s something I very much needed to hear growing up. 

Did any of the characters stand out for you, Carrie? And what did you get out of group shows as a kid? 

CR: Honestly, none of them really stood out to me one way or the other, mostly because so little time is spent with them as individual characters. As I kid, though, I almost always gravitated toward characters who were preternaturally smart and competent, mostly because, as an introverted kid who would much rather follow than lead, I looked up to the type of person who wanted to be in the thick of things. (It’s a character trait I admire to this day, and much of the reason for my Veronica Mars obsession.) I think this is why Sailor Moon bothered me so much in this one short glimpse of her personality, because she’s supposed to be the leader, but it seems like she wants to be anything but the most important player in the mission. (Also, did I mention the whining?)

Yet despite my reticence toward Sailor Moon as a character, her arc of reluctant hero does work in this episode itself. The big end triumph wouldn’t really work as well as it does if Sailor Moon hadn’t been wary; if she were stronger, she might not have needed the power of her friends to ultimately defeat Queen Beryl, and what it seems to me from watching this episode is that the friendship theme is the best and most important one in the show’s arsenal. And if there’s anything I gravitate toward—both as a child and now—it’s stories that explore the importance of friendship and the makeshift families we make for ourselves through our friends. That Sailor Moon celebrates female friendship makes me extremely happy it ended up in syndication here to be discovered like you discovered it, Genevieve, because stories about female friendship are far too rare, for both kids and adults.

TV: I’ll pivot off that a bit and say that what I found most valuable about this show, both this time through and back when I was mocking it as a teenager, is the fact that it’s about a bunch of people who have a relatively uncomplicated friendship. This has always been a potent theme for me—and for many, I suspect—and while reading Genevieve’s list of everybody’s “type,” I found myself nodding at the notion of all of these characters coming together to do great things. I love the idea that we’re stronger together than we are alone. I love the thought that if we just stick together, we can tackle anything. And I love the idea that there’s nothing that can dissolve the purest of friendships. 

Life isn’t really like that. Friends fall apart for reasons both dramatic—a big fight!—and prosaic—people move on and drift apart. But friend groups in fiction are together eternally, always there to make sure the day is saved for each other. We keep coming back to that idea because we dearly wish it to be true, and then, maybe, just maybe, we find someone with whom it really is true, and we move forward into a world where it really does feel like nothing can stop us.

Though reality could really use more talking cats.

Next time: Erik’s group takes a look at the eternal allure of Muppet Babies. (They make your dreams come true.)

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