Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Sailor Moon’s impact on modern American animation remains undeniable

Twenty-five years after its U.S. television premiere, the impact of Sailor Moon on Japanese and Western animation remains undeniable. With its distinct visual vocabulary, story structure, and defined character archetypes, the series not only served as the blueprint for the many Japanese magical girl anime series that would follow it, but also established a visual aesthetic so iconic, we see references, parodies, and direct homages to the series throughout various Western television series—including transformation sequences in Teen Titans Go! and Star Vs. The Forces of Evil, Lisa Simpson dressed as Sailor Moon in The Simpsons, and even an episode of South Park, where Kenny receives a Sailor Moon brooch from the CEO of Sony that turns him into “Princess Kenny,” a play on Princess Serenity. Cartoon Network has even posted a video compiling multiple Sailor Moon references that have appeared across the various series that air on the network. The tropes established by Sailor Moon soon became common features of the magical girl genre: cute, talking guide animals, everyday objects that secretly double as magical transformation amulets, and a tight-knit group of friends represented by different colors and elements.

Illustration for article titled iSailor Moon/i’si /iimpact on modern American animation remains undeniable
Screenshot: Sailor Moon

By the early 2000s, these key story elements and tropes also featured in Western animated series such as Winx Club and W.I.T.C.H, cousins to the growing magical girl anime genre in Japan. These series were not alone in centering on teenagers with superpowers battling evil in between dealing with the trials and tribulations of school. But unlike many Western animated series from the same period that were asynchronous and featured standalone episodes rather than an overarching narrative arc, Winx Club and W.I.T.C.H. delivered serialized storylines with episodes that built upon each other, with a strong focus on friendship and how these relationships evolved over time along with their growing responsibilities as heroes, which allowed for deeper, more complex storylines. By the 2010s, more linear and semi-linear storylines could be found across a broader range of series, from Star Vs. The Forces Of Evil and Adventure Time to Miraculous Ladybug and The Owl House.

Of the many aesthetic touchstones Sailor Moon created, the most iconic may be the magical girl transformation sequence: a full-minute of screentime completely devoted to Usagi Tsukino’s transformation from regular Japanese school girl to Sailor Moon in nearly every episode. While Sailor Moon was hardly the first series to feature characters who transformed from civilian form into superheroes, it was the one of the first on American television where the visual aesthetic was key. The transformation sequences in Sailor Moon take pleasure in the distinct beauty of the transformative process itself, showcasing the striking change from civilian to superhero and highlighting each part of the costume amidst a background of sparkles, ribbons, and light—all in an unabashedly feminine and flashy display.

Illustration for article titled iSailor Moon/i’si /iimpact on modern American animation remains undeniable
Screenshot: Sailor Moon

The showiness of the transformation process and the concept of dual selves intersects with the intrinsic queerness of several other elements of the series. Despite the fact that the initial dub was heavily censored when it first aired in the U.S., the series has cemented its status as a cultural touchstone for LGBTQ+ audiences, with queer characters that are well known and well loved—from the lesbian couple Haruka/Sailor Uranus and Michiru/Sailor Neptune to the genderfluid Sailor Starlights, among others.

In addition to establishing the foundations for the growing number of queer characters on animated series today, Sailor Moon also broke ground with its sincerity and radical empathy for all of its main characters. Although the characters are magical soldiers and reincarnations of celestial princesses, they aren’t required to be serious 100% of the time. The series never forgets that Usagi and her friends are first and foremost teen girls, and as a result, allows them to be unsure and goofy when they aren’t saving the world. It’s also not mean-spirited about their shortcomings or the dreams they have outside of their duty as sailor soldiers. They have a wide range of characteristics as well as flaws: Usagi is a crybaby, bad at school, gets easily frightened, likes to sleep in, and loves to eat. Ami/Sailor Mercury is a shy bookworm who wants a group of close friends. Minako/Sailor Venus has aspirations of being an idol; Makoto/Sailor Jupiter dreams of the perfect romance; Rei/Sailor Mars argues nonstop with Usagi but loves her fiercely at the same time, and Usagi loves her—and all her friends—with an equal level of devotion.

Illustration for article titled iSailor Moon/i’si /iimpact on modern American animation remains undeniable
Screenshot: Sailor Moon

Usagi’s unwavering kindness and faith in friendship, and the impact they have on the people around her, is as much a part of Sailor Moon’s legacy as its visual composition. By allowing Usagi to be empathetic yet flawed, as well as unwavering in her conviction, sincerity, or compassion for her friends and enemies, Sailor Moon has influenced several modern American animated television series that are also groundbreaking in their centering of kindness, empathy, and queerness—in particular, Steven Universe and She-Ra And The Princesses Of Power.

Steven Universe has many visual references that recall Sailor Moon, from the flowing design of Rose Quartz’s gown to visual Easter eggs such as a volume of Sailor Moon manga in Steven’s drawer and a black cat light that looks similar to Sailor Mini Moon’s “Luna-P” and Ringo’s transformation to scene blocking that directly recall scenes from the series. However, Sailor Moon’s influence extends beyond the visual. While series creator Rebecca Sugar credits the anime Revolutionary Girl Utena as a more direct influence upon Steven Universe, Sailor Moon’s inspiration can still be seen in subtler ways: the nuanced treatment of queer characters and queer narratives and centering of faith along with friendship. Like Haruka and Michiru, Ruby and Sapphire are devoted to each other. When they fuse together as Garnet, the strength of their commitment extends to love and protection for Steven the same way Haruka and Michiru protected Usagi. And just as Chibiusa/Sailor Mini Moon’s friendship helps Hotaru/Sailor Saturn, not even knowing that she is being forced to host the body of Mistress 9, Steven’s compassion toward Lapis Lazuli helps her after being trapped in a mirror on Earth for thousands of years—small kindnesses that ultimately result in freedom for both Hotaru and Lapis Lazuli.

Steven himself shares traits with Usagi. Young, naive, and kind-hearted, Steven is willing to see the best in people, often setting aside his own emotional well-being to help others, even if it is to his own detriment. Through its lead character, Steven Universe, like Sailor Moon, affords empathy for villains who are always more complex than they appear at first, never outright condemning any character. It’s through this empathetic quality that Steven Universe Future builds upon the foundations established by Sailor Moon. While Sailor Moon proved superpowered stories centered on kindness can be just as compelling as ones that focused on action, Steven Universe Future takes it further and explores the trauma that follows, demonstrating that it’s okay to not be okay—a layered and thoughtful narrative evolution that began with allowing Usagi to be unguarded in her emotions.

Noelle Stevenson’s She-Ra And The Princesses Of Power, a reboot of the 1985 Filmation cartoon, also visually references Sailor Moon in Adora’s transformation sequences. But Sailor Moon’s influence extends beneath the surface, because ultimately, She-Ra And The Princesses Of Power is a series about the importance of being true to yourself, and how love and friendship are the greatest powers of all. Adora’s world is turned upside down when she discovers she has the power to transform into She-Ra; like Usagi, she is also suddenly thrust into a role of responsibility she is hardly prepared to face, although she approaches it with gusto. And as with the sailor soldiers, although She-Ra is powerful on her own, the love and faith of Adora’s friends—and Catra—is what helps her rise above Horde Prime and bring peace to Etheria. It doesn’t matter if Usagi was a princess in a past life (though that might explain why they initially connect with each other); it’s Usagi’s efforts to be a good friend that help her connect with the people around her, not the fact that she is Sailor Moon. Likewise, it doesn’t matter if Adora was born to be (the latest) She-Ra; her friends love her for who she is, and knowing and accepting that is what matters most. As Perfuma says, “It’s hard keeping your heart open. It makes you vulnerable. But it doesn’t make you weak, and I have to believe it’s worth it.” Sailor Moon established the worthiness of that goal, a legacy that’s carried on by later series like Steven Universe and She-Ra.

Priyanka Bose is an Indian American writer & photographer based in Chicago. A Fulbright Scholar born and brought up in the Midwest, she loves writing about all things food, fashion, film, and fiction.

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