9/01/2014

Codename: Sailor V

Codename: Sailor V Created by Naoko Takeuchi. Translated by William Flanagan.Codename: Sailor V Created by Naoko Takeuchi. Translated by William Flanagan.

Created by Naoko Takeuchi.
Translated by William Flanagan.

Anyone coming to Codename: Sailor V from Sailor Moon is going to experience a certain degree of déjà vu. After all, the latter began by cannibalizing its predecessor for ideas, then simply proceeded to annex it wholeheartedly. Sailor V went into hiatus, returned after a prolonged absence, and completed its arc after Sailor Moon had already concluded. So this manga is both the defacto starting point of the Sailor Moon saga and its prequel. The reader can spot when this change occurs by the obligatory Usagi Tsukino cameo. And the rest of the inner senshi drop by at various points in their civilian identities, as the Sailor V timeline takes place well before Usagi had assumed the Sailor Moon mantle. Since all the truly epic stuff will only take place in her manga, nothing of great consequence to the cast can happen here.

This does free Sailor V to be its own thing. And what a goofy thing it is. The two manga's respective casts have often been compared to each other given that Sailor Moon recycles much of Sailor V’s character designs. Naoko Takeuchi was not the most inventive cartoonist in that regard, and it’s hard not to notice the close resemblance of everyone's faces, especially the supporting males who function primarily as interchangeable bishonen. Even the heroes Usagi and Minako Aino posses a “siblings separated at birth” similarity to them when placed side by side. On a metatextual level, that actually makes sense. Minako is the cooler, tougher, more physically capable, boisterous, and overbearing older creation who’s used to getting her own way. Even after the animal familiar Artemis unlocks Minako's mysterious superpowers and instructs her on their noble purpose, she feels just as entitled exploiting them for petty gain as she does for fighting crime. But it’s played for comic effect, so the reader simply laughs it off when Minako ignores Artemis’ admonitions by using her magic items to cheat on school homework.

Speaking of which, those two have a pretty adversarial relationship due to Minako’s total lack of interest in taking her mission seriously. Sailor Moon fans will of course be aware of the high stakes at play in the future. But at this stage, Artemis is either unable or unwilling to reveal too much to Minako outside of telling her to kick evil's butt whenever it appears. The manga hews closer in mood to the early Sailor Moon anime episodes with its monster-of-the-week structure and the arch villain still only a vague threat. Heck, the second antagonist Minako confronts is an obnoxious otaku who can’t stand that girls now hang out at his favourite video gaming spot. Wow. Nice to know that the “fake geek girl” complaint isn’t actually that recent an invention.

Two recurring plot elements are used to emphasize the action-comedy nature of the manga. The first is Minako wielding her magic to assume different disguises before revealing her Sailor V identity. It’s a trope popularized by past magical girls from Cutey Honey onward, and Minako uses it to similar effect here. Usagi dropped this tactic as Sailor Moon became more serious, but Minako simply can’t resist the desire to keep changing her appearance. Each transformation sequence works as crucial story beat. And gratuitous as that sounds, Takeuchi’s art comes alive when she’s showcasing her characters in various outfits.

These pinups are also signposts of Takeuchi’s artistic evolution. I have complained in the past about the busy page compositions of Sailor Moon, but they’re positively claustrophobic in Sailor V. Takeuchi sticks to more grid-like layouts here, and her figures have a slightly blockier look to them. It’s as Takeuchi fears the negative space. The overall effect is frenetic, and perhaps a little inelegant. It’s only in the later chapters where she gradually drops the number of panels and gives her transformations space to breathe on the page.

The second is Minako’s propensity to keep falling in love with the wrong guy. The opening chapter has her crushing on the BMOC, who naturally turns out to be evil. She keeps fantasizing about every cute boy she meets, only for her hopes to be dashed at very turn, usually because the boy has his eye on someone else. Minako's bumbling efforts to land a beau even get lampshaded by the supporting cast. But midway through the manga her latest failed attempt ends on a more melancholic note when she helps reunite two star-crossed lovers. This prophetic incident is followed by an encounter with a masked hero named Phantom Ace. Fans will recognize him as a variant of Tuxedo Mask who prefers to toss playing cards instead of roses. Most of the remaining chapters have Minako and Ace teaming up to fight the bad guys. So does this mean she'll find true love?

Given how Minako Aino was introduced in Sailor Moon, the answer is a definite “no.” What awaits her in the final chapter instead is an unexpected escalation of hostilities. The art for the climactic showdown provokes the most drastic stylistic shift found in the entire series. Its participants begin to unleash enormous waves of energy more characteristic of Sailor Moon's world-shaking battles, which succeeds in finally warping the panels of the traditional grid. This precipitates Minako's ultimate, and excruciating transformation. But she emerges from her ordeal as a more mature Sailor Venus.

It’s a majestic scene overflowing with self-awareness, but also a peculiar downer of an ending for such a bubbly shojo adventure. Minako may have started out a typical magical girl protagonist, but during the manga’s run, she became destined to be the supporting character in someone else's love story. A happy, romantic resolution to her manga was no longer in the cards.