What’s a Guy Gotta do to Become a Magical Girl?

I’m waiting at a Chinese restaurant for my take-out order to be filled when I realize I’m still holding my Sailor Moon replica wand keychain. Sure, I could hide it in my pocket, but what kind of Moonie (as Sailor Moon fans are called) would I be if I did that? For shame! So, in true magical warrior fashion, I proudly hold up the little gold wand when my name is called.

“That’s me!” I say.

Unfazed, the woman at the register says, “Ten fifty. Cash or credit?”

I guess when you’ve been working at a Chinese restaurant long enough, it takes more than a 21-year-old guy waving around a girly keychain to surprise you.

What is Sailor Moon?

Sailor Moon is a hugely popular manga and anime series about teenage girls who can transform into superheroes to fight for love and justice. What makes it so special is that it was the first series to have an all-girl superhero troupe. First released in Japan in 1991, the manga was adapted into an anime series a year later, and in 1995, aired in North America.

Sailor Moon is classified as a shōjo anime, typically targeted at teenage girls. (Shōjo is Japanese for “girl.”) Maybe it was because of its primarily female viewership that I never watched Sailor Moon as a kid.

As a fan of anime in general, I’ve watched dozens of anime series, from Attack on Titan to Zero no Tsukaima. I’ve even seen some shōjo anime besides Sailor Moon, Mermaid Melody Pichi Pichi Pitch and Puella Magi Madoka Magica, to name a couple. It definitely isn’t my preferred genre, though. It was only recently that I started to wonder what the big deal was about the Sailor Moon series. Did I actually miss out on anything worthwhile? What sets it apart from the rest?

Recently, the Sailor Moon franchise has been rebooted as Sailor Moon Crystal, drawing in new attention from both long-time fans of the series and new watchers like myself. I’ve been told that the original Sailor Moon anime received a lot of unnecessary censorship in the English version, like making an open lesbian couple “cousins” rather than “lovers.” (Come on, guys. It was the ‘90s!) Sailor Moon Crystal more closely follows the original manga, so I’m optimistic.

What sets Sailor Moon apart from the rest?

My friend — we’ll call her Serena — is a total die-hard Moonie. She’s got Sailor Moon plush toys, keychains, bookmarks, even jewelry. The other day, she was telling me how excited she was to find some Sailor Moon episodes she hasn’t seen yet.

“Why do you like Sailor Moon so much, anyway?” I asked her. “After all, it’s just another magical girl anime, right?”

“As a girl,” Serena said, “there weren’t a lot of shows with strong female role models when I was growing up. But Sailor Moon gave me that.”

“So you aspired to be like Sailor Moon?”

“No, I mean, sort of. Usagi (that’s Sailor Moon’s real name) is a total airhead. So I didn’t want to be her, at least, not entirely. I prefer Sailor Mercury.”

So it’s a show with strong female characters. You have my attention. I’ve seen too many over-sexualized, cookie-cutter female characters in anime lately, and I’m desperate for a change of pace. Maybe Sailor Moon is the series I’ve been missing in my anime diet.

One way to get to know a new show is to go native. So when I noticed that Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) in Troy, NY was hosting its annual anime and gaming convention, Genericon, on a recent weekend, and it featured a Sailor Moon panel, it seemed like fate. It was the perfect opportunity for a new watcher like me to hear about the series from long-time fans of the series (aside from Serena). I made plans to go with some friends.

I arrived on Friday at 4 p.m., an hour before the convention started. I snagged a spot near the front of the registration line, which quickly filled up the whole length of the RPI gymnasium. Thank God I arrived as early as I did, because if I had to stand in line for another hour stuck between Darth Maul and Deadpool (who somehow already had terrible BO before the con even started), I don’t think I would’ve survived.

In order to make the most of my Genericon experience, I stuck to a strict, color-coded schedule. I had every hour of the weekend planned out. This wasn’t my first anime convention. With so many events running at the same time, I knew it would be impossible to attend every panel I wanted to see, so I picked out the ones I was most interested in in advance, starting with the Sailor Moon panel, “Moon Crisis Makeup!” (This is the incantation Sailor Moon uses to transform into a magical girl.)

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The two panelists running it were setting up a ridiculous amount of Sailor Moon merchandise at the panelists’ table that put even Serena’s collection to shame. Chelle Belle, a panelist wearing a giant pink wig, arrived dressed as Mini Moon. She was the “Sailor Moon merchandise expert,” a title one probably gets when they spend their life’s savings on replica wands and Sailor Moon figurines.

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Sailor Moon “Merchandise Expert,” Chelle Belle

When I complimented her outfit and the merchandise she was setting up — which, I learned, was only about half of her whole collection — she was happy to pose for a picture and tell me about her love for the Sailor Moon series.

“So, what do you like the most about Sailor Moon?” I asked her.

“Oh, gosh. So much! I grew up in the ’90s, and not that it was a feminist thing or anything, but for me, she was a female, well…”

“A female role model?”

“Yes!”

Her answers echoed Serena’s. It was like being fellow Moonies put them on the same wavelength.

Before going to Genericon, I’d watched about a third of the Sailor Moon Crystal series. I watched the first episode ready to see some strong female role models, but honestly, I didn’t see any. The first episode introduces us to Usagi, the girl who becomes Sailor Moon, a terrible student and total airhead who wakes up late and whines about it as she runs to school. Later, she and her friends talk about how much they love jewelry, which leads to them going to a jewelry store to window-shop. Surprise surprise; there’s a sale going on and women are grabbing at the jewelry like animals. I’m thinking: “What’s with all the stereotypes? I haven’t seen a single interesting character yet.” The plot thickens like heavily applied mascara when the seemingly brainwashed women buying jewelry actually become brainwashed by their jewelry, and the shop owner turns out to be some kind of demon or something. A talking cat tells Usagi how to transform into Sailor Moon, and Sailor Moon saves the day, but not before some running around and crying. (Well, it was her first time.)

I almost wanted to abandon the series at this point, but I was encouraged by Serena’s promise of better, less annoying characters to come, like Sailor Mercury. So I pressed on.

Only about thirty people attended the Sailor Moon panel, but it was still fun and informative. Chelle Belle talked about where to find licensed Sailor Moon merchandise, as well as what fans can look forward to in Sailor Moon Crystal, such as the revamped animation compared to what the original Sailor Moon anime offered. There were also Sailor Moon trivia questions that gave the audience chances to win limited edition Sailor Moon merchandise. I was no match for the more dedicated Moonies. I did win some Japanese candy, though.

I spent the rest of the con attending the other events, but seemed to find Sailor Moon where I least expected it.

The night of the first day, I went to a comedy panel run by a guy cosplaying as the Joker from Batman. For part of his routine, he (jokingly) tried to seduce an audience member.

“Quick, someone sing something sexy to set the mood!” He shouted. “Come on. Anything.” Then, with a stroke of genius, he said, “I’ve got it. Sing me the Sailor Moon theme song.” What followed was a chorus of about a hundred people:

Fighting evil by moonlight!

Winning love by daylight!

Never running from a real fight!

She is the one named Sailor Moon.

Everyone knew the song, and I mean everyone, except for me, since I’d only seen Sailor Moon Crystal, which has a different theme song. I couldn’t believe how many people knew it by heart. Even the smelly Deadpool cosplayer from the registration line sang along. It was, in a word, magical.

If I wasn’t eager to finish Sailor Moon Crystal before, I definitely was now. And did I find those “strong female role models” I was led to expect? I did, actually!

As I watched the rest of the Sailor Moon Crystal anime, the annoying image of Usagi whining in the first episode was quickly replaced by a five-girl squad of magical warriors. I realized that Sailor Moon herself isn’t exactly someone girls should be trying to emulate a hundred percent; rather, it’s what the show stands for: No matter what kind of girl you are, be it an airhead like Sailor Moon, an aspiring doctor like Sailor Mercury, short like Mini Moon, or tall like Sailor Jupiter, you can be a superhero. And you don’t need a prince to protect you either. Heck, it’s right in the translated lyrics of the Sailor Moon Crystal theme song:

Even girls have unshakable wills.

We will fight on our own without leaving our destiny to the prince.

If I had a daughter, this is the kind of show I’d make sure she sees. And I’d get her the overpriced replica wand too — the big one.

As for me: I’ll stick with my $8 keychain.

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