Sailor Moon is arguably one of the most popular franchises to emerge in the 20th century. In the 30 years since it first appeared as a manga serial, it has won over fans across generations and around the world.
A remarkable work
This year 2022 marks the 30th anniversary of the legend of the Moon Princess.
The revolutionary work of Takeuchi Naoko Bishōjo senshi Sērā Mūn-better known as Sailor Moon-began serialization in Kōdansha’s Monthly Girls’ Manga Magazine Nakayoshi in the February 1992 issue, which went on sale in late December 1991. The Tōei-produced television anime later premiered in March 1992.
This moment shows that Sailor Moon did not follow the classic route of a successful manga adapted to anime as its market grew. The anime version was planned around Takeuchi’s previous work Kōdonēmu ha sērā V (Codename: Sailor V), and shares many production organizations and staff from the ongoing manga. This meant that Takeuchi had written the anime’s story long before the manga series.
The year serialization began, 1991, was the year of the fall of the Soviet Union and the Gulf War. This is also the time when Japan’s economic bubble burst, leading to the so-called “lost decades” that still plague Japan today. To borrow the words of economist Robert Reich, who served as Secretary of Labor in the Bill Clinton administration from 1992, the “not quite golden age” of the 20th century has come to an end. Sailor Moon was born at the dawn of a new era and has been loved through all the turbulent years since.
The protagonist is 14-year-old Tsukino Usagi. Her father is a regular businessman and her mother a housewife, making her a very typical family of the era. She is not a good student, nor particularly good at sports. Indeed, she is a clumsy whiner. His character is still easy going, like any normal high schooler.
One day, she meets a black cat who can talk and learns that she is actually a Sailor Guardian, a warrior fighting for the cause of love and justice. Her destiny is rooted in the ancient Moon Kingdom, and the story evolves into an expansive saga about love and reincarnation involving Tsukino and the young man Chiba Mamoru, aka Tuxedo Mask. The fight that Tsukino and his friends face eventually reaches an interstellar scale.
Until then, shoujo girls’ manga were more of a romantic comedy set in school, while action remained the main battleground for characters aimed at boys.
The toymaker Bandai eventually became the anime’s main sponsor. Although previous work by Takeuchi Code name: Sailor V had ranked at the top of magazine popularity surveys, the company was unconvinced that this new series would be a hit.
The anime, mostly directed by younger staff members, initially did not achieve high ratings and tie-in merchandise was slow to sell. However, that changed once viewers discovered that Tsukino was actually a moon princess. As the story progressed and gained momentum, the wave of popularity exploded.
Sailor Moon quickly became one of the most popular franchises in the world. He set a new record for a shoujo first edition manga, surpassing one million to sell 1.3 million copies. At the start of the manga magazine’s run, Nakayoshi had a circulation of 800,000 copies, but in 1993 it more than doubled to 2 million.
Beyond manga, there’s been a boom in merchandise, including toys like replica wands and Moon Stick dolls, as well as snacks, clothing, and more. Merchandising expanded to annual sales of around 200 million yen, and by the end of the fiscal year in March 1995, main sponsor Bandai had sold more related merchandise than even the company could keep up with.
Transcend gender, generation and nationality
Japanese shoujo manga had reached an extremely high level of expression by the 1970s, and many works already had various elements like science fiction and the occult. The author Takeuchi had been a fan of the works of the Shinkankakuha (new sensation) literary movement of manga artists like Hagio Moto, Takemiya Keiko and Ōshima Yumiko. She also read shōnen manga for boys. There seems to be some influence from Matsumoto Reiji Uchu senkan Yamato (Space battleship Yamato) on Sailor Moon. And Takeuchi apparently enthusiastically read all genres.
With this background, Takeuchi quickly won fans regardless of gender. Manga artist Satonaka Michiko described Takeuchi at the time as “the standard-bearer of unisex sensibility”, and participants in Sailor Moon events typically included older male fans as well as children.
The fan demographic known as otaku did not achieve common awareness and attention until the popularity of Neon Genesis Evangelion, which also featured Tsukino Usagi’s voice actor Mitsuishi Kotono in a lead role. It is likely that older male fans at the time felt somewhat embarrassed, but rather than being the target of “punishments in the name of the moon” at Sailor Moon events, they became known as “great” friends.
Sailor Moon crossed international borders as well as gender barriers. The anime has been popular around the world since it first aired, and even today celebrities like Billie Eilish, Ariana Grande, and figure skater Evgenia Medvedeva are public in their fandom.
In particular, in Italy, Sailor Moon became so famous that in the summer of 1995, the National Rail System adopted her as a poster character. This popularity has also sparked controversy, with some psychologists claiming that watching anime can cause girls to become lesbians and boys to become feminized. Such prejudices were called ridiculous even then.
When the anime aired in North America, it became a franchise to rival the previous massive success Power Rangers. Naturally, Sailor Moon popularity also increased in Asia, and in the already existing anime stores in Hong Kong, the fanbase spread among high school students.
With girls as heroines in their own right, the brand has also caught the attention of feminist circles. When it first aired, however, many looked critically at the role of Tuxedo Mask, saying it supported the message that girls can’t achieve their goals without the help of a man. However, by the time serialization and the anime series wrapped in 1997, scholars of the “anime generation” began to believe that she had challenged traditional fan opinions about stories where anyone who risked their life to save the world were. Men.
So how did Sailor Moon grown to be such an important job? It is generally said to have all the elements that make for successful entertainment. Sailor Moon has elements of felt stories of combat teams, fantasy tropes of ancient kingdoms and reincarnation, sci-fi space warfare, stories of school life and forbidden love as in Romeo and Juliet. The animated version even contains “Boys’ Love” genre elements.
However, while Sailor Moon was certainly ideally designed for marketing, there is more to it than that. At the heart is a powerful sense of fatherhood. Far beyond any theory of market analysis, Takeuchi has created a world of beauty and emotion.
In the book by folklorist Yanagida Kunio Imo no chikara (The Power of Sisters), he argues that Japan had an ancient tradition of valuing women and seeing them as having spiritual powers. Of course, this is not limited to Japan. Similar archetypes can be seen in France with Joan of Arc or the veneration of Saint Catherine in Italy.
The world of Sailor Moon has deep roots that connect to these archetypes, as well as perfect elements for colorful and popular merchandising. Thus, it remained both an artistic creation and a business product. It could be called the miraculous result of the ultimate expression of Japanese characters.
In Japan’s entertainment world, it’s commonly said that female wrestlers become popular during a recession. It may be that when an existing system begins to stagnate, a new version of “sister power” becomes an attractive way to break the status quo.
Sailor Moon emerged at the onset of Japan’s Great Recession, at a time when the whole world began to feel the limitations of 20th century systems and people began to seek a new order to replace them. Surely the reason these warriors who harbor the secrets of the moon have been loved for 30 years is because fans felt their power to help weave a new world.
(Originally published in Japanese on Mar 3, 2022. Banner photo: The main logo of the Sailor Moon 30th anniversary project. © Naoko Takeuchi.)