Like a Geek God #7 by Mark Pursell
An Unlikely, Unlikeable Heroine
Of all the anime properties to make their way to Western shores over the decades, Sailor Moon is undoutedly one of the most beloved and most recognizable even to non-fans. 2012 marked the show’s twentieth anniversary, and this winter we will see a brand-new series in the franchise from the original creator and writer, Naoko Takeuchi.
It is hard to say exactly what is so compelling about Sailor Moon. There are many factors that pinpoint the show’s success on both sides of the world, but not all of these would indicate why the show continues to be revisited at regular intervals by devotees long after its original run concluded. It’s an interesting question to ask of any beloved show, really, from MASH to Buffy. Quality writing, quality performances, yes, these are reasons why we watch a show in the first place. But what pulls us back to some shows, and not others, even ones we liked perfectly well? There is something extra about these shows (and these books, these movies, etc.) that get a hook in you for whatever reason, binding itself to you for the rest of your life. And you may never recognize the hook for what it is, or the why and the how of it.
I did recognize mine, though, lately, as it relates to Sailor Moon. I was rewatching several of the show’s older episodes in belated tribute to the twentieth anniversary, and also because something had been pushing me lately to revisit them. I wasn’t sure what; maybe it was just the curiosity of nostalgia, wondering if there was something in the show that merited a fourteen-year-old boy’s obsession with it, and why I still think about it to this day. A sense of retroactive validation, if you wish, of what happened to catch my fancy at the time.
What I found, sneaking the show into my day—an episode at breakfast, one or two before bed, quick sneaky bites—was both expected and surprising. The show’s mythos is byzantine and contradictory like many shows of its ilk, but it did marry the “magical girl” genre to a superhero ethos, by way of reincarnation (Sailor Moon and her companions are reincarnations of a cosmic royal court, sent a thousand years into the future on Earth, our present, to escape a past catastrophe and, perhaps, to combat a future evil). The characters are vivid, the conflicts standard but always tinged with the zany, manic comedy so endemic to the original manga, and which in the show serves to intensify the more serious or melodramatic elements rather than drown them out. But I realized, several episodes in, that the hook under my ribs that kept drawing me back to Sailor Moon was Sailor Moon herself.
Sailor Moon—whose day-by-day identity is Serena (Usagi in the Japanese original), a teenage schoolgirl—is quite the reluctant heroine. She is ambivalent about her cosmic superhero destiny and avoids taking it seriously at almost every opportunity. As a personality, Serena is lazy, ditzy, gluttonous, and selfish, addicted to video games and sweets and thinking about boys. She shows little interest in school, or anything else besides comic books and sleeping, and her grades show it. She is also largely a wimp, crumpling at the first sign of adversity. But she is very funny, both intentionally and not, and as a character she never lies about what kind of person she is or makes much apology for it, except in instances where she hurt or angered a friend. Serena is elemental; she reacts to everything at a high volume, at the slightest provocation. Anger her and she erupts, hysterical; injure or insult her slightly and she collapses into anguished sobs. This kind of person in real life might be too intense, too annoying, but there is something about this aspect of her character that I think we can identify with. We all have those elemental reactions, but long training has taught us to subsume and rationalize them, in order to minimize embarassment of self and others. But inside, at some level, we’re all Serena, blazing up at every spark or tug of wind. And though she is a lot to take, Serena does have a few points in her favor. She is a loyal and staunch friend, and if her reactionary personality settles into determination mode, watch as her animation slightly changes and you see the echo of some lost lunar princess, squaring herself against the dark. She isn’t most courageous leader, but she never backs down from a fight.
Unlikeable heroes and heroines fascinate me, and Sailor Moon, it turns out, was an early formative example of that concept for me. Serena is a problematic young girl clinging to the soporifics of her middle-class suburban comforts; she is overzealous and annoying to her friends (and to some viewers), and there is little about her that a viewer might wish to emulate. But she’s an enduring and popular character, the head of an attendant franchise which, when you come right down to it, centers on her. We are drawn to the idea of a person who embodies some of the worst things we can think about ourselves or others also being capable of greatness, of heroism. Because if they are capable of it, then maybe we are, too.
Mark Pursell is a lifelong geek and lover of words. His publishing credits include Nimrod International Journal, The New Orleans Review, and The Florida Review, where he also served as poetry editor. His work can most recently be seen in the first volume of the 15 Views of Orlando anthology from Burrow Press. He currently teaches storytelling and narrative design for video games at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida.