12/27/2013

Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon Vol. 5

Created by Naoko Takeuchi

At the end of Sailor Moon Vol. 4, most of the Sailor Senshi, including Sailor Moon herself, were kidnapped by the evil Black Moon clan and imprisoned on Planet Nemesis. The impulsive Chibi-Usa had a run-in with arch-villain Wiseman. Things were looking pretty dim for our heroes. The first half of Vol. 5 continues this downward spiral to global annihilation. Actually, it races to its climax with the manga's typical breakneck speed. And this usually means that things can get rather chaotic before they finally settle down.

Naoko Takeuchi is not the most accomplished draftsperson, and that’s a disadvantage here because this story arc could have benefited from some more fully realized backgrounds. We go from 20th century Tokyo to the 30th century Crystal Palace, to the interior of Nemesis. But the figures never seem to walk through any kind of stable environment, which can be a little disorienting. Her incessantly rushed pacing also means that the story never gets much of a breather despite a lull in the action created when the senshi return to the 20th century to recuperate. But after what feels like one short conversation, they’re pulled back to the future for their showdown with Black Moon.

This is where the Sailor Moon's art dissolves into a series of highly abstract battle scenes filled with tremendous explosions of cosmic energy and glittery screentone. The panels are as pretty to look at as they are hard to follow. Amorphous energy-based attacks aren’t the easiest thing to illustrate convincingly, and clarity was never Takeuchi’s strong suit. Some physical weight is imparted to the encounters when Nemesis suddenly materialises out of nowhere and hurls giant shards of itself onto the Earths surface. Sailor Moon fights are a lot like Dragonball fights in that the supporting characters end up becoming hapless witnesses while the hero takes on the Big Bad, the former only achieving victory through attaining a higher power level. In this case it’s Sailor Moon pitting her “Legendary Silver Crystal” against Wiseman’s “Malefic Black Crystal.” Caught between the unleashing of two near-infinite power sources, the senshi can do little more than get out of the way. But it isn’t just the senshi that suffer from a lack of strong character moments. Like the Dark Kingdom from the first arc, Black Moon is casually discarded by Wiseman when victory becomes imminent. Prince Demande has a smidgen more personality than Queen Beryl. At one point he seems to question Wiseman’s orders. But when he descends into madness after comprehending Wiseman’s true nature, this makes him virtually irredeemable. And it doesn’t exactly help that the members of the Black Moon clan are thematically and visually very similar with those of the Dark Kingdom.

What keeps the Black Moon arc (The “R” arc to followers of the animated version) from becoming a boring retread of the first arc is the complicating presence of Chibi-Usa. She started out as incredibly annoying, but the creepy Freudian subtext from the last volume is made obvious here when Wiseman suffuses Chibi-Usa with his dark energies, endowing her with a sexy adult body. Chibi-Usa looks like a fetishized version of her own mother Neo-Queen Serenity (Sailor Moon’s future adult form), and the first thing she does with her newfound powers and “Black Lady” appearance is to hypnotize, capture, and seduce her eventual father Tuxedo Mask. Eeek! Thanks to her cooperation, Wiseman comes close to destroying the Earth. If Sailor Moon is to have any hope of defeating him, she has to quickly reach out to this estranged daughter from the 30th century whom she barely knows, and who also happens to be almost nine hundred years older than her despite looking and acting like a bratty kid. That’s got to be perplexing!

Even then, the tide only turns after one of the good guys commits the ultimate act of self-sacrifice, by violating a most sacred taboo. This arc mentions several laws forbidding the manipulation of time but never gets around to explaining how or why those laws have been put in place. It’s best to just go with it since bending or breaking them moves the plot forward, and that last one sets up a final clash between good and evil. This action-packed volume isn't about nuance or careful world-building, but about hitting as many emotional high points as possible.

Besides, what's a time-travel story if no one in it breaks any of the rules?