vol.3 of the Sailor Moon manga series, and it's already arrived at a definite conclusion to the initial "Dark Kingdom" story arc. Because of the newer publishing format being used by the Kodansha editions, this volume contains the conclusion of the first arc and moves without pause onto the second story arc. It's kind of an odd arrangement, but there you go. Did I mention that this manga is quickly paced?
And wow, this is quite a third act, and would have made a fitting end to the manga had it been cancelled at this point. Half the book is taken up by the final showdown between the Sailor Senshi and what's left of the Dark Kingdom, which includes the series Big Bad, Queen Metalia. It's a knock-down, drag-out affair that moves from Tokyo to the Arctic Circle, and spills copious amounts of blood and gore, or as much gore as Naoko Takeuchi's art is willing to make explicit. Both important characters and many innocent people die. And the fate of the world hangs in the balance. And yet the war ends happily, at least for the good guys. Despite the sense of impending doom that began earlier in the series, the heroes do learn to avoid rehashing the tragic results of the ancient past, therefore managing to defy fate. There's even a hint that the evil henchmen, the corrupted Four Generals of Prince Endymion (aka Mamoru Chiba), are in some way redeemed through self-sacrifice. And the end marks the apotheosis of Usagi Tsukino. As the story's principal wish-fulfillment character, her triumph symbolizes the point when she graduates from reluctant hero to full-fledged leader and warrior-queen of a new Moon Kingdom.
This is an entertaining and empowering fantasy that the comics industry could stand to use more of. But I will admit to feeling a little dissatisfied with the arc. Mind you, I am not, nor have I ever been a member of the manga's target demographic. So this a bit nitpicky on my part. But as a reader I didn't find Usagi's evolution from goofy teenager to a more confident figure to be completely organic. Rather, it felt more like she was following a series of steps in order to upgrade to "hero" status. The schematic nature of her character development also applies to the plot as a whole. Maybe Takeuchi's uniformly quick pacing may have hurt the story a bit.
Takeuchi's art also continues to be a bit awkward. Personally, I love it on it's own merits. Her lines are elegant, the designs are slick and appealing, the poses are cute, and the Sailor Senshi look feminine while still appearing tough and heroic. It doesn't look like typical shojo manga. But her tendency to crowd the page with small, detailed, and occasionally borderless panels can often make the storytelling seem random and muddled. And sometimes her figures' physical movements don't quite convey the proper weight and direction. A key moment which supposably turns the tide of battle left me a little confused on the first reading as to what exactly just happened to Usagi and Mamoru.
The next arc, which comprises the bulk of the anime's Sailor Moon R season, initially proceeds as quickly as the first. It introduces new character Chibi-Usa, named because she looks like a chibi variant of Usagi. And lo and behold, she's just as annoying to some fans as her namesake. Not surprising given that soon after literally dropping from the sky onto Usagi's head, she points a gun at her, then later forces Usagi's family into letting her cohabit with them through hypnosis. She's a brat. But she's also a frightened girl who hides a secret that weighs heavily on her. Her appearance coincides with that of a new antagonist. There's an undeniable repetitiveness to the villains, as they're also another mysterious kingdom looking to reestablish their "splendid history" by forcefully acquiring the Legendary Silver Crystal, led by another sinister entity. Takeuchi's approach to keeping the series fresh is to upgrade the bad guys. They're definitely more ruthless. They don't start out with the M.O. of hypnotizing the population and draining their life force. They're fully capable of murder. And when they learn of the existence of the Sailor Senshi, they target them directly and attempt to kidnap them, one by one.
So yeah, the second arc is a variation on a theme. Or a formula if you prefer. But I get the sense that Takeuchi seems to be getting better at, or at very least is making an effort to master the pieces she's assembled. And in the end, aren't most long-running fantasy series about overmatched heroes facing a succession of increasingly ludicrous foes over a progressively grander scale? At this point, I'm still curious to see how things will turn out.