Kodansha Comics USA has just released the first volumes of Codename Sailor V and Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon in English, following a 2003/2004 re-release in Japan. These volumes are retranslated, touched up, and reorganized from the original 1990s editions, using bigger books to collect the story in fewer volumes. The original Tokyopop run of Sailor Moon — one of their flagship, bestselling titles in the 90s — has been out of print for quite a long while, and this re-release marks the first time the comics will be published in their entirety, without cuts or flipped art or mistranslations, in English. It is also the first time that Codename Sailor V, the prequel/inspiration for Sailor Moon, will be published in English.
There’s a bit of background to go over, before getting to the nitty-gritty of the review — mostly, chronology. Takeuchi wrote Codename Sailor V, sold it, and was approached for an anime series based on it but decided it didn’t work as a series on its own — so, inspired by the world she’d set up in Codename Sailor V, Takeuchi reorganized her ideas and began writing Sailor Moon. That’s the reason that there’s so much overlap in the characters of Minako (Sailor Venus) and Usagi (Sailor Moon). In addition to characters, Takeuchi had to reshuffle some of her original worldbuilding for the more developed universe of Sailor Moon. The two series ran in two separate magazines over similar dates, but have only minor overlaps.
In the interest of full disclosure: I was really excited about this “renewal version” of the series when it was announced and have been waiting patiently for a chance to read it. Sailor Moon was highly significant to a whole generation of readers — including me — who found in the show a novel representation of girls kicking ass, together, as a team. It had romance, it had magic, it had monsters; it was exactly what I wanted as a young reader. I went out every month to buy the single-issues. Sailor Moon was the reason I started going to comic shops. So, yes, my opinion might be a little bit biased and colored by nostalgia, but I suspect that’s going to be true for a lot of readers.
The thing is, these comics are still fun. They’re goofy, they’re enjoyable, and they manage to deal with girls who seem real — girls who are bad at school and who love video games, girls who take their studies seriously and feel left out socially, girls who have anger management issues, girls who are tough and sweet both… You get the idea. Also, these re-translations leave in all of the homoerotic subtext/overtones, which makes it a rather deliciously queer girls’ superhero comic.
Codename Sailor V #1 is set a year before the opening of Sailor Moon, judging by Minako’s age, and follows her discovery by Artemis the cat and her assignment to defeat a dark enemy that’s trying to take over Tokyo. Takeuchi does much less with the world-building and in fact barely explains anything beyond the fact that the “magical girl” deal has something to do with space. The evil minions are almost exclusively celebrity idols (a cultural phenomena that hasn’t scaled down any since the 90s) and they use mind-control to sap the population. Also, the police department is peripheral, while it pretty much never comes up in Sailor Moon. Sailor V becomes a bit of a celebrity thanks to her time spent catching bank robbers and stopping bullies while the volume follows her episodic adventures defeating the Dark Agency’s minions. At the end she gets a first kiss with a handsome older boy while pretending to be another woman, then saves him & his gang from mind-controlled other gangs at the end of the volume.
I can see to some extent why this particular story was never published in the U.S.; it’s of interest to a Sailor Moon fan who’s curious about the idea-origin of the series, but it’s shallower and less engaging than the series proper. The fast-paced monster-of-the-week stories make for a quick read, though, and it’s superficially entertaining. I was intrigued to get a little backstory on Minako as a younger, more carefree girl; by the time readers encounter her a year later in her life, after doing her superhero gig for that long, she’s matured some. (Part of that likely has to do with changes Takeuchi has to make in her character so she and Usagi aren’t near carbon-copies of each other in attitude and temperament.)
Then, there’s Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon #1, containing the first six chapters of the story, which introduce four of the guardians, the bad guys, and the first hints of something afoot between Usagi and Mamoru. The opening pages have glossy, colored art featuring Usagi as Sailor Moon and in her princess-outfit. These volumes take pains to be authentic to the originals in a variety of ways, keeping the art unadulterated as much as possible (i.e., sound effects are not erased but simply have captions added next to them) and retaining the oh-so-nineties feel of the settings.
As for the dialogue, the new translations are great. They’re much more accurate and try to work in the conversational nuance of the Japanese, which was left out of the older English versions. The signifiers at the ends of names are kept — likely because the tonal significance of the different addresses is nearly impossible to quantify in English — and there’s a handy-dandy guide to references & words unfamiliar to an English reader included at the end. This has been the style in manga publishing for the past several years, in a move to offer more accurate translations, and I’m fond of it. (Especially considering that the Tokyopop editions not only did away with signifiers but changed the majority of the cast’s names, also.)
While the longstanding joke about the old translations of Sailor Moon is that no matter how hard they tried, it was impossible to make everyone in this series straight, the new translations don’t try. They reflect the wide range of sensual encounters and attractions our young heroines feel for men and for each other without trying to gloss things over. For example, Usagi’s appreciation of Rei is charged and entertaining — “When it’s a pretty girl, I’m willing to forgive just about anything,” she says, after following Rei off of the bus at her stop with hearts in her eyes and exclamations about how attractive she is. I’ll note that those same heart-eyes illustrations are used for Usagi’s attraction to Tuxedo Mask. Usagi also uses the transformation pen to become a young man for a brief section in this volume, adding an element of gender-play to the narrative.
Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon #1, much like Codename Sailor V #1, is a fast read. The format is episodic, with a uniting story-arc of an evil kingdom seeking to rule the universe that runs through the monsters that appear and are dispatched each chapter. It’s comedic for the most part, relying on sight-gags and slapstick as much as it does jokes in the dialogue, but also has moments of seriousness that increase as the story goes on. The story is not complex and is fairly predictable, but that doesn’t detract from how engaging and entertaining it can be.
The same things that I enjoyed as a young reader are still good today — the strength of the girls’ friendships, the action and adventure, the romance, it’s all there. These re-released versions are a pleasure for a long-time fan, but I suspect they will also attract a new, younger audience. Sailor Moon is a fun comic, but it’s also a great YA story. As a recent article in The Atlantic says, girls need superheroes too: superheroes who are written for them, not to exploit them. While Sailor Moon isn’t entirely perfect — the focus on thin-as-beautiful can be problematic — it’s got a lot going for it on that score. The empowerment of young women in the story is fabulous; one of my favorite lines comes from Mamoru as Tuxedo Mask: “Today, you rescued me. I thank you.” In her head, Usagi thinks that he’s usually saving her, but it’s excellent that the story offers her a moment to save him in return.
As a whole, I’m deeply pleased by the Kodansha USA releases of these two comics, though I recommend Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon #1 over Codename Sailor V #1. For old fans of the series in the mood for a nostalgic trip down memory lane, these editions are absolutely perfect — the re-translations add more nuance and humor, while the familiar characters are as fun as ever. A new reader interested in the old classic will also be well-served by these editions; they’re eminently readable and are priced reasonably. I would recommend them especially to young women readers who want some superheroes of their own, and a little star-crossed romance, too.