The unexpected delights of Anime

Recently I was casting round for something to watch and recalled that Sailor Moon had lots of episodes, was something I’d heard about often, seemed to be popular with some yet was a show I’d never actually seen. Unfamiliar with Anime, I decided to give it a try.

The series begins with a 14-year-old middle school student named Usagi Tsukino befriending Luna, a talking cat who reveals Usagi’s identity as Sailor Moon, a magical “pretty soldier in a sailor suit” destined to save Earth from the forces of evil. Luna accompanies Usagi to assemble a team of fellow Sailor Soldiers…

The intended audience of the series is apparently females between about 10 and 18 (Shōjo manga). The plots are simple: the baddies are trying to gather human energy for their dark ruler, Usagi happens across them, is initially scared and then transforms into her Sailor Moon persona, tosses her Moon Tiara at them and the baddies are defeated.

Powerful girls

To transform, Usagi recites the words Moon Prism Power Make Up. That starts her rather slow transition, rendered in a rather endearing animation.
Sailor Moon.

The version I’m watching is in Japanese, with English subtitles. The Japanese though is liberally sprinkled with such English words as the phrase above, Moon Tiara Action, Queen Beryl and others. I always find it humorously interesting that the creators chose a word like prism to be used in every episode, given that the Japanese language, and therefore its speakers, doesn’t handle such consonant blends as pr or sm. Usagi always ends up saying prism as perisema.

Please be aware, I’m not intending to mock anything here — far from it: languages fascinate me, and I’ve learned a handful in my time, including a smidgeon of Japanese. I love hearing how people pronounce things.

While the first few episodes seem fairly repetitive, and feature a lot of Usagi crying copiously, the story does actually move along. An overarching storyline about destiny is emerging.

I’m now up to Season 1 Episode 27 and am definitely hooked. The whole thing is quite enchanting, and fascinating to someone like me who is unfamiliar with Japanese culture.

Sailor Moon has now been joined by several other girls her age who are also Sailor characters: Venus, Mars and Mercury. They fight battles together, each with her own strengths.

I find it intriguing and encouraging that teenage girls are being portrayed as having this secret superhero identity, fighting for love and truth and justice, and to protect the universe from forces of evil and total annihilation.

Frail with superpowers vs superhuman with frailties

Usagi and her pals were given their superpowers thanks to a brooch or other token given to them by Luna the cat. In their daily lives they are normal teenage kids: silly, selfish, studious, generous, frivolous, thoughtful, thoughtless, and a whole suite of other adjectives.

On the other hand, the 3 teenage girls in Coppelion are superhuman. They have been genetically engineered to be impervious to radioactivity and sent to Tokyo 20 years after the city was contaminated by a nuclear accident. Their job is to rescue survivors.

Each of these girls, though possessing some remarkable abilities, also has her own frailties. Ibara Naruse, the leader, is kind-hearted and rather reckless, while Aoi Fukasaku is fearful and escapist.

This post-apocalyptic story is beautifully drawn, and has excellent music. Again, it’s in Japanese and subtitled in English.

Ibara Naruse in Coppelion.

Again, seeing these young women taking care of themselves and others in a hostile world is a delight. It’s as though Anime is this whole treasure trove of stories that are painfully hard to come by in my usual fare of British, American and Canadian TV. [New Zealand has very little home-grown TV.] I scavenge for shows that feature strong and capable females in lead roles.

They do exist, thank goodness, but are outnumbered by far by shows featuring males. For every Continuum or Orphan Black for example, there are numerous shows by, for and about men. Just take a look at the front page of Hulu on any day, to see that for yourself.

The girl who knows no bounds

While reading about Sailor Moon I came across a comment referring to a show called Revolutionary Girl Utena. Where I’m really enjoying both Sailor Moon and Coppelion, this one had me riveted from moment one.

The music is sung in Japanese but the dialog is in English and the story is definitely intriguingly unusual and rather surreal. The graphics are gorgeous, the music fabulous and the styles comprehensive. Wikipedia says:

Utena is a highly metaphysical, surreal, and allegorical Magical Girl series. It contains a mix of borrowed visuals from Takarazuka theater, shadow puppetry, and classic douseiai-style shōjo manga.

The first episode began with backstory: young Utena Tenjou had lost her parents when a prince on a white horse turned up and comforted her, urging her to remain strong. He gave her a ring and said it would help her find him.

So struck was she by this kindness that she decided to be a prince herself (hah, didn’t see that coming!). By the time she’s a teenager at school (Ohtori Academy, no less) she’s wearing what are usually seen as boy’s clothes and defending the honour of a young woman known as The Rose Bride.

Anthy and Utena at the ball.

The story progresses as various characters each challenge Utena to a duel which she usually, but not always, wins. The winner then takes possession of Anthy, the Rose Bride. The ultimate goal is apparently to gain the power to revolutionise the world.

Of particular interest is Utena’s absolute rejection of the notion that anyone can or should own Anthy. It seems that while others strive to gain the power to revolutionise the world, she is simply getting on and doing it. What’s not to love about that?

Although many of the other characters are devious and interested only in their own goals, Utena herself is kind and straightforward. She has been swept up into a world she wasn’t expecting, and makes her way through it with honesty and integrity.

Everything about this show enchants me.