written by Laura Martinelli
When VIZ Media announced in 2014 that they acquired the rights to finally redistribute and redub Sailor Moon, to say the Western fan reaction was elated is a massive understatement. My friends joke that they could hear the screaming when I learned the news. They might not be wrong.
Yet there was still an undercurrent of worry to the news – would VIZ stick close to the original dialogue and undertones of the series, or would the new dub adhere closer to the ’90s-’00s dubbing by DIC and Cloverway – genderbending and straightwashing characters and trying to dodge any mention of its Japanese roots and queerness present in the original series? (i.e. “Sailors Uranus and Neptune aren’t lesbians, they’re cousins. Totally cousins.”)
Here we are three years later: all five seasons are available for streaming, the first two and half are dubbed and uncut, and now we have a theatrical release of the first tie-in film, Sailor Moon R: The Movie (originally released in 1993 and subtitled Promise Of the Rose by the original English distributors).
Taking place sometime before the end of the second season, Sailor Moon R examines the past of lead love interest Tuxedo Mask, as a mysterious new foe, Fiore, comes to Earth with a dangerous gift. True to the series’ form, Sailor Moon and the other Guardians must stop Fiore’s plans and save the world (again). The movie does feel like an extended episode of the series, but that structure works in its favor, especially for new viewers.
In comparison to its predecessors, VIZ Media has been doing a stellar job of redubbing Sailor Moon for a new generation, keeping close to the original Japanese dialogue while still being highly accessible for an English-speaking audience, and Sailor Moon R pulls no stops in this quality. The already fantastic cast continues their roles, with Stephanie Sheh (Usagi Tsukino, a.k.a. Sailor Moon herself) bringing a nuanced and heart-tugging performance. Her Usagi balances the line between normal teenager and the strong, confident superhero who won’t let anyone harm her friends or loved ones, even if that means giving herself up in the process. It also helps that this film deals with Usagi’s worry that she can’t save everyone all the time, that her loved ones are going to be in the line of danger no matter, and how that takes a toll on her mentally.
It helps that this movie is more of a character study rather than focusing on a one-off villain who just pops up and never gets mentioned ever again. (Well, it is that as well, but there’s more continuity in regards to the original series than the next two movies have.) First off, the movie focuses on Tuxedo Mask/Mamoru Chiba’s backstory, which isn’t really explained for longer than one or two episodes in the series. It’s a much more in-depth look at someone who went through a traumatic experience at a very young age, as well as how they’ve dealt and grown with that.
The real standout of the movie is Ben Diskin, playing the villain Fiore. In a role which previously could have been one-note, Diskin brings humanity and heartbreak to Fiore’s character and makes his motivations more endearing. Fiore is obsessive towards Mamoru/Tuxedo Mask, but it’s clear that he had good intentions and just landed in a bad situation. Fiore is clearly being manipulated by the real villainous force. Fans of the new dub may recognize Diskin as Gurio Umino – “Melvin” in the ’90s dub – which I hadn’t realized until I looked it up. Carrie Keranen does a bang-up job of voicing the killer Xenian flower, and it’s not played as a Rita Repulsa knock-off like some of the villains were in earlier English versions. Keranen plays a more seductive villainess, which works so much better as a character who’s supposed to be convincing their victims that this is the right thing to do.
I also greatly appreciate VIZ not shying away from Fiore’s probably-more-than-friends feelings towards Mamoru, and directly calls out bisexuality in this translation. (It’s not really addressed in the original series that Mamoru himself is bisexual, and in Sailor Moon R, it’s also not answered one way or the other.) There is an extended discussion within the film itself about the characters’ views on queer relationships – (actual line: “Not that there’s anything wrong with that!”) – and I appreciate that it’s discussed and not framed as being a bad or wrong thing. I understand the problem of having a queer-coded villain, but the framing of the film isn’t “Fiore is queer and therefore evil”. Rather, it’s “Fiore is queer and his feelings towards Mamoru were being preyed upon.”
The remastered animation is also gorgeous on the big screen. The fight scenes look amazing, and the big climatic “Moon Revenge” sequence is beautiful. The only parts that didn’t quite hold up were some early CGI shots of an asteroid hurtling towards the Earth, but they’re only there for a few moments. I should also note there’s one line towards the end which doesn’t quite stick the landing – it’s supposed to be a very dramatic line, but I think the translators could have used a little artistic license at that moment, because it doesn’t quite work.
The new release also contains the short film Make-Up! Sailor Senshi. It’s a quasi-introduction/backstory filler for anyone who hasn’t seen the prior eighty-nine episodes, introducing you to most of the characters and explaining what they do. While it might be a little tedious for long-time fans of the series who already know these characters, it’s helpful for new viewers, plus it gives Sheh a chance to stretch her comedic chops as Usagi endures being overlooked in favor of her friends. The dub showing of the film also has a short Q&A with Diskin, Sheh and Daymond talking about their characters and their growth at this point in the series, as well as a “thank you” to the long-time fans who made the release possible.
In a genre which seems to be moving towards the Frank Miller model of storytelling, the re-release of a classic magical girl series feels more like an affirmation of why we need these stories in the first place. With series like Yuki Yuna Is A Hero and Magical Girl Raising Project, there’s been greater attention paid to the darker side of magical girls, focusing more on the blood and gore rather than subverting the genre. There’s a flashback sequence in Sailor Moon R showing the lives of the Sailor Guardians before they met Usagi. Their loneliness is underscored by insults and jabs from their peers, then juxtaposed by how much their lives have changed since then. It is one of my favorite scenes in every version I’ve seen, because it shows how much the simple act of reaching out to someone and being kind to them matters. It is the undercurrent of the series, especially going back to the original anime. Usagi chooses to reach out to her enemies and show them that absolute power is not the only thing worth living for in this world. If that doesn’t work, or if it’s an unstoppable force of evil, then she busts out the Princess Serenity dress and unleashes the literal power of love onto the villain.
Another thing that struck me personally in the lead-up to this film’s release was the coincidence of a major release of Sailor Moon R happening alongside Trump’s inauguration and the subsequent worldwide Women’s March protests. I don’t think the timing by VIZ or the distributors was intentional, but I do think the widespread promotion and reception of a Sailor Moon movie is especially important at this moment. Sailor Moon has always been a story of defeating hatred and darkness with love and kindness. It tells you that the strongest power comes from yourself and the support of others, and that absolute ownership of a singular power will ultimately corrupt and destroy. The entire plot of Sailor Moon R revolves around finding love. Its message is that kindness and acceptance speaks volumes, and sharing in that belief will ultimately save the world. (Along with elemental powers, but you get my point.) Yes, these are dark times. Yes, there’s widespread pain and hatred, not just in America or war zones, but growing worldwide. It is troubling and disheartening and depressing. But the message that this movie – and Sailor Moon in general – gives us is that pain and darkness can and will happen, it’s up to us to combat it with love and hope for a better world, and that we can’t do that alone.
I will also admit that yes, I am completely biased towards this film. (She says, writing this while wearing a Sailor Moon shirt, listening to the anime’s soundtracks, and surrounded by several tie-in action figures.) But for someone who either hasn’t seen Sailor Moon or has wondered “Well, what’s the big deal with this series?”, it’s worth it to go see this movie. I generally agree with the fan theory that the best way to introduce someone to Sailor Moon is to throw on this movie, because it perfectly encapsulates everything that makes the series fantastic without going through nearly ninety episodes (a good chunk of which are filler episodes of varying quality). The introductory short does a good job of summarizing the characters and the backstory, albeit with a few holes. As for the fans who swore off dubs, I suggest giving the new dub a chance. As I said, I don’t think every line works, but it’s still very high-quality and close to the original Japanese. This dub cast has been hitting it out of the park since the first episode, and being able to see their work recognized on the big screen was a joy for me.
With VIZ’s success of bringing another anime classic to screens, I greatly anticipate the future releases of the S and SuperS films in theaters as well, and I encourage newcomers to check out either the original series or Sailor Moon Crystal. There’s a reason why this series has resonated with so many people over the past twenty-six years, and I for one look forward to sharing that with everyone.
Laura can be reached on Twitter @princess_starr.