Sunday, 2 February 2020

Film Ramble: Drowning in Nineties Anime, Pt. 62

It says a lot about the breadth and depth of nineties anime - and of how grossly I underestimated that when I began this! - that here, some sixty and a bit posts in, we're finally getting to one of its most seminal and enduring franchises.  But there's no more putting it off: it's time to grapple with Sailor Moon, which until this post I'd only seen a few episodes of from the original TV series.  However, there were movies too, and three of them fell in our decade of choice, so there's really no excuse not to take a look, is there?

This time around: Sailor Moon R: The Movie: The Promise of the Rose, Sailor Moon S: The Movie: Hearts in Ice, Sailor Moon Super S The Movie: Black Dream Hole, and, er, Sailor Victory...

Sailor Moon R: The Movie: The Promise of the Rose, 1993, dir: Kunihiko Ikuhara

Sailor Moon is a heck of an interesting series in and of itself, one that countless essays could and no doubt have been written about; even a straightforward-seeming question like "Is it feminist" is rife with complications when viewed through the lens of three decades.  But while all of that's hard to ignore if you happen to be coming back to the franchise after many years away, it ended up not being what intrigued me most with this first film.  Because Sailor Moon R: The Movie happens to have been directed by Kunihiko Ikuhara, and Ikuhara would go on to direct Revolutionary Girl Utena, and I happen to consider Revolutionary Girl Utena one of the finest anime shows ever created, not to mention one of the finest cultural works of the twentieth century full stop.

Given the extent to which Utena would revolve around confronting traditional notions of gender and sexuality, and how explicitly queer its narrative would become by the time it got around to Adolescence of Utena, it's no surprise to find similar subject matter being explored here, albeit less directly.  The main antagonist's motivation is born of what amounts to a misplaced gay crush, though importantly there's never any suggestion that the gayness is the part of that equation that's misplaced.  It's easy to imagine a very different take on the narrative, and to suppose that the reason we got a version that refuses to remotely judge its nominal villain for his sexuality is down to the fact that Ikuhara was at the helm.

Still, not judging is a far cry from Utena's eager embracing, and in truth, on that and other levels, the most unsatisfying aspect of the Sailor Moon R movie is that it doesn't push further into being a Kunihiko Ikuhara film.  Though it would be another three years before he stepped away due to a lack of creative control, you can feel him champing at the bit, teasing the limits of what something like this could be.  There's a deep streak of surrealism that bubbles through frequently, a visual boldness that hints at the sort of off-kilter imagery that would dominate in Utena, and more generally, a wealth of details that are simply weird or interesting for no apparent reason other than that Ikuhara takes pleasure in interesting weirdness.  Take, for example, the first time we see Tuxedo Mask, where he steps from a billboard poster showing similarly dressed figures, or the faintly distressing sequence in which child character Chibi-Usa conjures a very real-looking gun from thin air and shoots Sailor Moon at point blank range with what turns out to be a motivational message.

As such, the worst that can be said about the film is that it feels as though it could be more than it is.  That's aggravated by the slender running time: though many an anime movie has done wonders in making an hour feel like feature length, here the result is more like an extended episode (albeit with considerably classier animation) and we're never really encouraged to take the end-of-the-world conflict seriously.  For better or worse, the focus is always on personal, individual stakes.  No, let's be fair, it mostly is for the better, and aside from Ikuhara's attempts to do legitimately creative things with what might easily have been a bit of insubstantial fluff, it's where Sailor Moon R: The Movie most succeeds: for all that it's surprisingly violent in places, the end result is tremendously kind-hearted and positive.  I guess that makes it a very good Sailor Moon movie, and one only kept from full-on greatness by a lack of ambition and the unfair knowledge that its creator would go on to something that allowed him a far broader canvas on which to experiment.

Sailor Moon S: The Movie: Hearts in Ice, 1994, dir: Hiroki Shibata

Compared with the first film, Sailor Moon S: Hearts in Ice is a trivial bit of business, and it's not as if Sailor Moon R: The Movie was exactly weighty drama.  Still, by comparison with the fluffy non-crisis on offer here, it feels as though it was.  Our nominal antagonist is some sort of extraterrestrial ice witch by the name of Princess Snow Kaguya, but the film doesn't foreground her much or take her very seriously, and in fact it's much more concerned with what you'd normally expect to be its B plot, in which Luna - Luna, importantly, is a talking cat - falls in love with a young astronomer who is himself in love with his astronaut girlfriend Himeko, but unwilling to fully admit it because she won't take his theories about a strange princess living on the moon seriously.  (A side point: how could anyone exist in the Sailor Moon universe and think that lunar royalty was a remotely outlandish notion?)  The point being, what the Sailor Moon S movie primarily wants to concern itself with is a tale of unrequited love in which one of the parties is a cat.

This probably all sounds like I'm criticising, and I suppose to an extent I am: Sailor Moon S: Hearts in Ice is the sort of frivolity you find yourself forgetting practically as you're watching it.  But Sailor Moon isn't about epic, detailed storylines, it's about goofy humour, friendship, and swooning romance, and by those criteria it gets the job done fine.  Between the efforts of the animators and Keiko Han's heartfelt vocal performance, there's actually something rather sweet and sad about the central relationship, and it helps that both the film and Sailor Moon herself treat it with proper seriousness.  It's flimsy stuff, to be sure, but it's cute enough to work in this kind of context.

Elsewhere, everything is largely business as usual.  You've got the bouncy theme tune, the lengthy transformation sequences, the special-move-heavy fights that lack even the vaguest sense of danger, and visuals that are just sufficiently beyond what you'd expect of a long-running show with a respectable budget to warrant a cinematic release - though fair play to the special effects team, there's some noticeably nice work on that front.  For that matter, while Hiroki Shibata may be no Kunihiko Ikuhara, he's a perfectly capable director, if somewhat workmanlike.  Which I guess is Sailor Moon S: Hearts in Ice all over, really, with the proviso that with a franchise this basically solid, even a run-of-the-mill tale with no ambitions beyond "Let's tell a gentle little story about a talking cat falling in love, with maybe some stuff about an evil space witch ticking away in the background" is a charming experience for as long as it lasts.

Sailor Moon Super S The Movie: Black Dream Hole, 1995, dir: Hiroki Shibata

There's no getting around the fact that the third Sailor Moon movie is the most minor and trivial-feeling, in a series that's never strayed far from being either.  Indeed, for the first half of its running time, it's almost impossible not to mistake it for a regular episode of the show, so unhurried and inconsequential is every single thing that happens.  I mean, there's a scene that seems to go on for about five hours wherein the sailor scouts bake cookies and discuss the baking of cookies and generally get very into all things cookie-baking related, and while it sort of informs the subsequent plot, it could easily have been trimmed to half its length without consequence.  Which isn't to say it's not pleasurable on its own terms - if there's one thing Sailor Moon is good for, it's being basically entertaining to be around - only that it doesn't feel like it belongs in anything so grandiose as a feature film.  And for that matter, the first half is lodged firmly in the realms of TV animation too, though if you squint, it's actually a little better than all that.  The point, I suppose, is that's it's as happy to look like a TV episode as it is to behave like one.

There's a plot to all this, though you'd barely know it for a good long while, and as with the first two, it's not what you'd call a priority.  What starts out as a riff on the Pied Piper story, as presented in a rather fantastic cold open that's one of the more interesting sequences anywhere in the movie, drifts eventually into a story of interstellar child theft, before shifting into a more science-fictional gear in the closing third.  Not by coincidence, this is also where stuff actually begins to happen in earnest, and the frivolous tone turns deadly serious with such shocking speed that you can practically hear the tires screeching.  As is already obvious by then, the film doesn't give much of a damn for its plot, nor its disposable villain, but it's heartily invested in the relationship between Usagi / Sailor Moon and Chibiusa / Sailor Chibi Moon, her [consults Wikipedia] ... um, time travelling future daughter?  Wait, that can't be right, can it?  At any rate, whatever the hell's going on, the real core of the narrative is Usagi being kind of a jerk to Chibiusa and then having to rescue her from certain death and in doing so dealing with the realisation that she probably shouldn't be jealous of a little kid that she'll eventually give birth to in a few thousand years' time.

Damn but Sailor Moon is weird!

Anyway, the point I'm aiming for is that, while you can certainly see what Sailor Moon Super S The Movie is trying to accomplish and how the focus on one particular relationship might justify an hour-long story, it's not altogether successful, in part because the last third is so drastically different in tone that it feels like a whole 'nother film has been stapled on - indeed, one with distinctly better animation of a sort that might actually have deserved to grace a cinema in 1995.  Neither section is what you'd call bad, at least if you have any affection for what Sailor Moon is up to, but nor are they sturdy enough to survive the drastic shift of the third act.  That's odd in a sense, since the first two movies functioned in precisely the same way - structurally they're all but identical - but then those two had sturdier foundations than this one, and also didn't rely on their protagonist being obnoxious to a little kid for a significant chunk of their running time.  The result is hardly horrible, but it's unmistakably the weakest entry in a series that peaked with its first attempt.

Sailor Victory, 1995, dir: Katsuhiko Nishijima

I'll come clean: Sailor Victory has nothing to do with Sailor Moon.  Or perhaps not quite nothing; we're firmly in the realms of parody anime here, and it's safe to say that a certain bunch of sailor scouts are among the many victims.  But Sailor Victory is too scattershot to pin itself down to lampooning any one show, and I won't pretend I got a fraction of the gags, though Patlabor is an obvious and repeated target.  After all, what need would there be for our five sailor-suit-wearing heroines if the local police and their goofy mechanical armours were up to dealing with the recent rash of giant-robot-related crime that's been inflicted on their fair city?

Mind you, this doesn't quite explain why anyone thought that three colour-coded, ninja-themed robots were the ideal solution, or how we ended up with these particular pilots, none of whom seem especially qualified.  Kiyomi is holding down a dogs-body job with the cops under the pretence of spying on them, Mika delivers noodles, and Mami is such a dope that she can't get halfway through the first episode without being replaced by her own less useless robot double.  Their wealthy sponsor Reiko and her tech genius Shizuka round out the team, and offer limited support via a helicopter that launches out of a swimming pool, because why shouldn't Thunderbirds get a nod too?

Sailor Victory consists of two episodes and runs to just under an hour, and that's perfect for what it is.  There's no meat on these bones whatsoever, it's silly, wacky, frivolous stuff, and yet for sixty minutes, it's a bit of a delight.  There's absolutely nothing exemplary here: it's easy on the eyes, the opening and closing themes are fun, there are enough genuinely funny jokes to keep things moving, and in so much as the plot is basically "giant robots fight!" there's enough imagination on display to keep the material feeling fresh.  The characters are absolutely one-note, but as is often the case with anime, the designs and performance add an extra layer that makes them distinctive company for a brief while.  I could happily have kept watching, but it was also nice to get a satisfactory ending out of one of these short AnimeWorks releases, something that's by no means guaranteed.

Sailor Victory is nothing special in the grand scheme of things.  Yet, for me, these shorter releases that manage to provide an hour's worth of self-contained fun are kind of special.  Sailor Victory is by no means the best, but it was a compact pleasure, briefly entertaining and nice to be around with a few good gags.  I suppose that lumps it into the vast collection of titles that would be worth tracking down if they hadn't been out of print for a couple of decades, but personally, I'm glad I made the effort.


So that was Sailor Moon (well, mostly.)  And my main take is that, much as I'm fond of the franchise, I'm not sure that any of these three films, except perhaps the first, do it justice.  Then again, perhaps the perfect Sailor Moon movie would be an oxymoron, since even dragging something this breezy out to feature length starts to impinge on what it is.  For that matter, while the first movie is the only one I'd be inclined to wholeheartedly recommend, the three work quite nicely together, teasing similar material in different directions and finding subtly different areas to concentrate on, even if that only means feline / human romance or watching our hero bully her time-displaced future daughter.

Hey, did I mention how weird Sailor Moon is?

[Other reviews in this series: By Date / By Title / By Rating]

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