SAILOR LUNACY PART 1: Historical Moonie-ism and Changing Attitudes Towards Adaptation

One of my goals for the summer is to get this blog up and running regularly, so I thought I’d make a post about the hot topic of the moment in my circles: Sailor Moon! I am capable of writing thousands of words about Sailor Moon at the drop of a magical moon brooch, so it’s perfect.

Everyone and their magic talking alien cat is caught up in Sailor Moon nostalgia right now thanks to:

  1. the long-awaited release of the new series, Sailor Moon Crystal, in July and
  2. the completely out-of-left-field announcement last week that Viz had acquired the American distribution rights to the original series and would be rereleasing all 200 episodes including Sailor Stars subbed and dubbed.

The story of Sailor Moon’s English adaptation is almost as legendary as the heroine herself. Everyone who watched Sailor Moon has an Opinion on the dub/sub and the various companies involved. The most cited examples of the US version’s mishandling are almost cliche: in the dub universe, lesbians become cousins, whole episodes vanish for no reason, death is an impossibility, and the words “black” and “dark” can never be used to refer to something negative. Sailor Moon’s release in English overlapped perfectly with anime’s rise in popularity in the US. Sailor Moon was a gateway show for the fans who would drive that brief period when anime DVDs actually sold/made money and fan ire over the Sailor Moon adaptation of their youth partly fueled the new market for uncut subtitled anime.

Not lesbians! Cousins!

Not lesbians! Cousins!

Not dead! Sleeping!

Not dead! Sleeping!

Sailor Moon had a ridiculously large influence on my life, considering it was my first anime and I’m now an academic-in-training in Japanese media studies. (How did this happen to me??) I mentioned it in my personal statement for MA programs not only because it was the start of my interest in Japanese media, but also because it contains a lot of the themes I’m still interested in: gender/sexuality in pop culture, translation/adaptation across media and culture, fan culture, talking cats, short skirts. More importantly than my academic interests (maybe), Sailor Moon gave me something to believe in and something to aspire to when I was a young girl that didn’t require me to jettison particular desires in favor of an idealized femininity. 

I saw my first episode of Sailor Moon when I was nine (I think it was episode 75? 82? something with Chibiusa and Crystal Tokyo and more details on her mysterious history). I quickly got really, really into it and because we had a computer with internet after moving to our new house and my mother did not yet …understand about limiting kids’ computer time, I soon discovered that it was a Japanese show, there were three more seasons that may or may not be released in the US, and there were three extra Sailor Soldiers who get introduced later. Before finding out about the Outer Senshi, I definitely had my own ideas for them (“if Pluto exists, where are the others?! Gonna draw ’em!” – nine-year-old Caitlin) When I did find out about the Outer Senshi, I became a total fangirl (because they were edgy! and dark! I was an extremely hardcore child) but the disappointment of knowing my Uranus/Neptune/Saturn ideas were superfluous turned me on to the exciting world of fan-designed soldiers, of which I designed about 10,000 (themes included: Sun, Earth, Zodiac, mythology, dinosaur, totally made up alien cultures.) Sailor Moon fandom seemed to reward all my desire for obsessive trivia and learning new information while also giving me a universe to play in with my own characters/ideas (It also gave me people to boss around on the internet – I definitely once sent a review to someone criticizing their fanfic’s characterization of Sailor Uranus before I ever saw an episode she was in. I was a menace.)  

I couldn't find any scans of my fan soldiers (which would have been made before I had a scanner) but here is some of my baby Sailor Moon fanart from high school.

I couldn’t find any scans of my fan soldiers (which would have been made before I had a scanner) but here is some of my baby Sailor Moon fanart from high school.

I didn't totally suck, but unfortunately I stopped drawing in college for the most part so this is still about my artistic level

I didn’t totally suck, but unfortunately I stopped drawing in college so I’m now a lot worse than this

Anyway, I was obsessed forever and eventually purchased as much of the series as I could on DVD, as seasons 3 & 4 came out from Pioneer, then later the ADV releases of the uncut first and second season. Everyone was mad about those for some reason — poor video quality? missing episodes? — but I put them on while I was writing papers during college and they were great. I’ve reread the manga probably hundreds of times in English and learned a lot of Japanese by stumbling through the Japanese version in high school (maybe if I hadn’t done this, I would have struggled more in First Year Japanese in college and gone on to major in something sensible instead, like English.) I have weathered many battles in the war of Sailor Moon adaptations and finally, with the new series and the Viz rerelease, the side of rightness seems to be winning. 

Watching this Viz release on Hulu, the episodes actually do look remastered in some way, which is exciting for the DVD/Bluray release (though honestly I’d probably buy it even if it looked terrible.) Someone on Facebook said she did notice “cuts” as did someone in the tag on Tumblr. There was some typical weirdness in the subtitles (once they translated “USAGI!” as “Usagi Tsukino!” why do they do stuff like that?) but, controversially, I found I don’t care. I feel like I’ve gone through a strange evolution: I learned Japanese because the adaptation of Sailor Moon into English was so bad, but in the course of learning Japanese, working with literary theory and translation theory and comparative literature, I came to realize that translation is often arbitrary and driven by so many concerns besides “accuracy” and that adaptation itself can be an art. I also realized that, with anime now, the audience has access to the original in other forms besides the official US release if they’re interested, so there’s no reason why, for example, an official release couldn’t have some fun with the dub. The prominence of DVDs in the 2000s pretty much ended the major dub vs sub arguments, since DVDs could include multiple audio tracks; the current online streaming model allows for even more possibilities, since non-official releases/translations are essentially as accessible as official releases.

But there is an intriguing resurgence of the dub vs. sub war going on right now as fans of the original English Sailor Moon dub object to the original series being redubbed with more accuracy. Tumblr user Nangbaby, for example, objects to the existence of a new dub of the original series because it will erase the old dub they grew up with where everyone is vaguely American and incessantly heterosexual. They stated that they would boycott all Sailor Moon and Viz products from now on. They also run a website, We Want Serena, in support of the cause of… making sure Usagi is not called Usagi in any English dubs and include some bizarre inaccuracies about Japanese to support their claim.

What are they even talking about??

What are they even talking about??

This is not the comparison you were looking for

This is not the comparison you were looking for

Everyone has already come up with about a hundred reasons why Nangbaby is wrong, wrong wrong, wrong, and I agree, of course, that this is ridiculous. It used to be that anime series were heavily Americanized in adaptation, but that hasn’t been common practice for years and of course people are going to want a new dub of a nostalgia property like Sailor Moon now that the world has changed and no one cares if people crossdress in niche Japanese children’s cartoons. The original dub exists regardless; it is still a part of our childhoods.

But what I find interesting about the We Want Serena phenomenon is how it speaks to the experience of anime as global media. Though most “anime fans” associate anime closely with its Japanese origins, many others (non-fans, casual viewers, but also serious fans involved in online fandom like Nangbaby) experience it as though it was a property from their own culture. Even English-language fans that know and proselytize about anime’s Japanese origins tend to fall into interpreting it as though it was American or Western in origin, e.g. by arguing for feminist readings highly informed by Western/white feminist scholarship or by claiming a same sex couple in anime as “queer representation” when that claim wouldn’t necessarily make sense in the original context. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this as long as the fan acknowledges that they’re reading the work out of its original cultural context (though most don’t, combining these readings with appeals to authority on the original Japanese context), because, whether for good or ill, anime, in whatever adapted or translated form, has become a part of American culture and a lot of cultures.

So I’m left with a lot of questions. How do fans approach a mixed cultural property like this? How should they? Does Nangbaby have a point about the original dub being a work on equal footing with the original series, at least in terms of fan experience? How do we navigate the accusations of cultural appropriation (which are seemingly coming both from WWS and its detractors)? More broadly: does English-language fandom’s insistence that anime is pure Japanese disguise the potential non-Japanese influences (e.g. emphasizing supposed pre/early modern Japanese sources for manga over Disney cartoons in the development of manga/anime) and the very real non-Japanese labor and capital that goes into anime (e.g. outsourcing to Korean studios for animation work, international co-productions of anime)? Does fandom’s insistence on accuracy to the original Japanese come from respect or is it exotification of the work’s cultural origins?

I’m thinking about these still, sorry, so I’d rather leave them marinate for now. Let’s move on to the episodes themselves in PART 2: Genesis and Gender (coming soon).

Not lesbians! Cousins!

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