Fighting Evil By Moonlight and Exploring Horror in ‘Sailor Moon’

The little things bring such joy and I’m happy. I wish I could go back to that kind of normal life.”

These were fourteen-year-old Sailor Moon’s last thoughts as the anime’s launching story came to a bittersweet end. Having just endured undue loss and heartache — her friends all sacrificed their lives to ensure her safety — Sailor Moon engaged in a fatal battle that cost her her own life, but she died knowing the world was safe again. Long before she ever reached this defining point in her calling as Earth’s sailor-suited guardian, though, Usagi Tsukino was an ordinary girl whose biggest concerns were chronic tardiness and poor grades. A chance encounter with a talking cat then opened a door that could never be closed again. For Usagi and her friends’ uneventful lives were suddenly filled with a constant series of threats and unimaginable terror.

Like so many Bishōjo Senshi Sailor Moon fans in the West, my introduction to this touchstone “magical girl” anime was by chance. In the mid-nineties, UPN and other television stations like it had begun airing the show in syndication prior to its revival in Cartoon Network’s Toonami block. Anime wasn’t quite there yet when it came to mainstreaming so trying to convince others to watch was no easy feat. In fact, when I loaned a classmate a tape of two episodes from the censored English version of the show, she returned the video the next day and confessed the show was “too scary” for her to finish. What seemed like cursory entertainment had somehow proven to be upsetting for an unsuspecting 10-year-old. 

In one of the aforesaid episodes, the Sailor Senshi are trapped inside a bedevilled amusement park where visitors are seized and sapped of their energy by a malefic princess doll who cast deadly illusions. Then in the other episode, French bisque dolls came to life, grew fangs, and flew around while attacking people. All that sounds goofy on paper, but the visual execution is what makes those episodes and many others surprisingly shuddersome. Having watched horror movies before I could ever walk, I was oblivious to the scarier elements of Sailor Moon until I saw them through adult eyes.

As much as DiC Entertainment’s dated and sterilized English translation divides Sailor Moon fans today, the editors overlooked something else as they were busy scrubbing everything they found objectionable in the Japanese version — in particular, those more visually frightening ingredients that are innate to the anime and inspired by the source material. Manga creator Naoko Takeuchi elegantly bridged fantasy and romance in her seminal narrative about superheroines descended from the Moon and other planetary civilizations. However, amid all the phantasmagoria and breakneck storytelling are the ominous illustrations that stand out when juxtaposed with Takeuchi’s frail and lovely art. Faces melted, bodies decayed, and hidden evils physically manifested when readers least expected them to. With the manga’s style being so singular and unmatched, duplicating that on television was time consuming. The anime’s character designers streamlined much of that uniqueness away, but that doesn’t mean the final product was sanitary or devoid of unsettling traces.

Seeing the original anime unedited is an eye-opening experience for fans everywhere. And one of the skipped episodes in DiC’s collection had the characters visiting an old seaside hotel called Pension Adams (a nod to the Addams Family, no doubt) so they could train to be better Sailor Senshi. This entry has no connection to the main story whatsoever, but it is notable for its Gothic venue and inclusion of the paranormal in a different context. At the Adams, the girls met an assortment of strange characters who weren’t who they appeared to be. The hotel’s three bumbling employees, who are possibly a reference to The Munsters, performed occult rituals to stave off a nocturnal spirit haunting the grounds. Meanwhile, the owner was an uncaring man who believed his young daughter had psychic powers that he could bring out through hypnosis. His plan worked too well and her anxiety finally took the form of a powerful “ghost” that nearly killed everyone before it was exorcised. This standalone episode has no bearing on things to come, but it does offer a more earthly perspective when examining the existence of the supernatural in Sailor Moon beyond ancient magic not of that world.

The show had fun with horror tropes when it could. One of two examples was when the cast went camping at a lake where a marauding stranger was reported nearby. At the same time, a movie about sentai heroes duking it out with a chainsaw-wielding monster was being filmed in the area. The episode utilized slasher traits like showing the assailant’s point of view, the would-be killer lurking undetected in the shadows, and the quintessential doomy cabin in the woods. There’s even a mild Jaws homage where the girls were swimming in the lake, unaware of something heading straight for them beneath the waves. Body-count movies saw success in Japan so it makes sense to see anime incorporating the more notable characteristics when the need rose. Another instance of horror was in a special anthology episode where the first and last segments respectively featured an evil puppet wreaking havoc in an isolated hotel and a fearsome vampire who lured her young victims to a spooky mansion.

Even when the anime embraced its tokusatsu nature and ultimately veered towards campiness as a reflection of the staff and tone changes, an eerie quality was still visible in the show’s league of monsters. Expendable abominations including various Yōma, Cardians, and Daimons were unleashed upon the public in search of plot coupons like life energy or more specific objects. Their motifs varied from episode to episode, but just about every one of these disposable acolytes is based on some aspect of Japanese culture and mythology (oni, yōkai) or foreign legends (the Minotaur, yaksha) and folklore (Leshy, mermaids). Regardless of their inspiration, these ghastly creatures regularly encouraged a flinch or two seeing as a good plenty of them were detestable in appearance or bizarre in function.

Attentively painted and moody scenery was key in building the show’s otherworldly ambience. Pastel cityscapes expressed dreaminess, empty urban settings suggested loneliness, and neon lighting emphasized Sailor Moon’s fragile relationship with reality. The human world was inviting and bright, but the enemy’s lairs were dimly lit, foreboding, and uncanny with music scores to match. From purplish, subterranean chambers beneath the North Pole to a macabre and mammoth circus tent suspended above Tokyo, the villains’ hideouts were unparalleled in both milieu and dread. These creepy and sometimes darkly beautiful haunts were home to a gallery of antagonists whose popularities rival that of the heroes. There’s the wretched sorceress who worships a sun demon, a clan of anarchist rogues from the future, a band of mad scientists ushering in an apocalypse, a nefarious circus wanting to replace all dreams with nightmares, and a pack of rogue Sailor Senshi seeking control of the entire universe. Takeuchi established these unequaled evildoers in the manga and the anime immortalized them.

Cosmic horror was a sizable presence in the manga with the stories becoming more and more detached from a physical world, but it occasionally found its way into the anime, as well. The third season showed the culmination of bad science and misanthropy when the Death Busters’ ambition of summoning an age of nihility dubbed “The Silence” came very close to fruition. After she failed to stop evil in its tracks at an earlier point, Sailor Moon was met with her most difficult decision so far — whether or not she can take the life of a fellow Sailor Senshi in order to avoid the advent of the extraterrestrial entity Master Pharaoh 90. The colossal, voiceless alien who resembled a tentacled planet looking down on the puny Earthlings is reminiscent of atmospheric beasts. An inescapable sense of menace hung in the air and intense emotions washed over nervous viewers until the dramatic showdown determining mankind’s fate ended and the almighty threat in the sky was no more.

Body horror became more pronounced with each passing season. From the start, common objects were temporarily implanted with Yōma, which would later materialize in demonic fashion and try to escape with their victim’s life in tow. The human body was then repeatedly violated in multiple enemies’ quests to find Sailor Moon MacGuffins like Talismans and the Golden Mirror. In essence, these items were likened to souls so their removal — the Death Busters forcibly extracted someone’s Pure Heart Crystal using a variety of painful methods, and how the Dead Moon’s Amazon Trio invasively examined an unwilling target’s Dream Mirror verged on distasteful — would result in the owner dying an agonizing death. A person’s anatomy is basically objectified, ransacked, and finally discarded in these gratuitous scenarios. Body possession was common, too, and a salient example involved Master Pharaoh 90 incubating his emissary Mistress 9 inside Hotaru, later revealed to be Sailor Saturn. This evolved into an extreme parasite situation where the host and invader struggle for ultimate control of the body.

Every Sailor Moon villain has their atrocities to answer to, but it is perhaps Queen Nehalennia of the Dead Moon whose history is the most gruesome and befitting of both classic and modern horror. In the kooky fourth season of the anime, this antique empress’ origin is reworked from that of the manga to include a more grisly legacy. While the manga’s Nehalennia was sealed away for trying to usurp power in the past, her animated counterpart sought something else — she wanted to be young and attractive forever. Her ingrained longing is what caused her to massacre her faithful followers; she succumbed to the sinister voice in her head and literally consumed the dreams of her royal court so that she would never age. In turn, Nehalennia’s subjects were doomed to become living, soulless corpses known as Lemures, and they were her only company before she was sentenced to live inside a mirror as punishment for her grievous crimes. Nehalennia’s pathological fear of aging is largely a reinterpretation of the Evil Queen’s motivation in “Snow White.” The theme also relates to contemporary horror movies like The Neon Demon and Starry Eyes where someone commits heinous acts just so they can fulfill their innermost desires in societies that extort their vanities and aspirations.

The queen of the Dead Moon and a select number of other Sailor Moon enemies never get their comeuppance because the show’s namesake learned to empathize with those unlike her. Frequently criticized for being too idealistic, Sailor Moon really was a giver of compassion for the individuals who lost their way or followed the wrong leader. So, the sympathy we muster for someone like Nehalennia isn’t all that strange when horror fans are especially known for trying to better understand what triggers villains in the first place. Carrie White was victimized from all sides, Jason Voorhees was tormented for being different, Norman Bates’ psychosis stemmed from troubling family history. Overbearing pain and trauma pushed them past their breaking points, and by acknowledging their pathos, we inch closer to understanding them and maybe human nature as a whole.

Sailor Moon and horror are each regularly underestimated by the majority because of preconceived notions that overshadow their profundity. They also stress how an understanding of our fears is imperative to change and growth. This idea is a common theme all throughout horror, which is another lens we view the real world through when in need of comfort and context. And as in horror, Sailor Moon exposed its characters to disquieting stimuli so they could learn to survive even when the odds were stacked so high and daunting. That message is certainly ubiquitous, but the weight and reach of its delivery are what matters to lifelong fans above all else.

It’s not always all sweetness and light-hearted fun in Sailor Moon. This childhood holdover is foremost a distinct exploration of adolescent pangs as well as a fantastical interpretation of life lessons. Through an eye of horror, the series translates better than expected. Those components become beneficial when telling the story of a once-ordinary girl who is now the last hope in the constant struggle between light and darkness, good and evil.

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