Sailor Moon – also known as Usagi Tsukino or Princess Serenity—watches over the Earth she devoted her life to protecting.
Usagi Tsukino, the heroine of Sailor Moon, spends many of her evenings in the 90s anime series gazing dreamily out at the night sky. I used to mimic her pose as a young girl, dwarfed by the universe’s vast awe and terror, soaking up a sense of the sublime. I’d heard somewhere that most of the stars we see are long dead; their light takes that long to reach us down on earth. The universe was cold. Our warm, light-flooded, life-filled earth, on the other hand, was a cosmic rarity.
Nothing induces existential dread in me quite like Sailor Moon. Sure, the anime was cute, dreamy, goofy and empowering, but Sailor Moon also contained a strong dose of apocalyptic anxiety. The slapstick humour was a small distraction from the swell of mortality that plagues the young heroines: their innocence; their planet; their universe. As a young girl, I felt that doom as my own.
The Magical Girl’s responsibility – distinct from other heroes – expands beyond maintaining civil order. They are called on to defend life’s very existence in the universe from destructive cosmic forces like time, entropy, extinction and chaos. And Magical Girls are created for a young female audience: they imply that protecting life on earth is not only a possibility for us women, but that it is perhaps a part of our destiny, inherently linked to our womanhood (for better or worse).
I’m certain Naoko Takeuchi had real-life apocalypse on the mind when she created the series, which aired in Japan from 1992-97, and proved popular worldwide. The millennium was coming to a close; people were prepping for y2k; James Gleik’s 1987 book Chaos: Making a New Science wrote new visions of catastrophe into the public imagination, bringing a crisis of faith to the technological and scientific certainties of a Newtonian world.
The Black Moon Clan are subordinate villains, whose vices are manipulated by Chaos.
The spectre of 20th Century nuclear war, too, had left a deep scar on the Japanese psyche. The nation became proactive in growing international environmental movements spearheaded by the UN: attempts to curb pollution, nuclear and global warming. It’s no accident that Takeuchi’s series—along with many other anime of the time (Akira, Evangelion, etc.)—brims with imagery of atomic destruction and techno-capitalist cataclysms. This is the scientific paradigm in which Sailor Moon was born.
And we were all born into it, too. My parents —concerned by overpopulation but not quite enough to suppress their biological urges – decided that if their offspring could out-think the world’s problems, they’d be justified in birthing us. My life to save the earth. Sure.
A Magical Girl’s duty – in Sailor Moon, at least—is to maintain the natural order of the universe.
The villains throughout Sailor Moon are always revealed to be part of a kyriarchal chain of manipulation: an exploitative system with a malevolent being at its head. The primary antagonists in the series—Queen Metaria, the Death Phantom, Pharaoh 90, Queen Neherenia and Galaxia—exploit the energy of mortals to achieved their master’s ultimate goal of restoring the universe to a dark, silent, and cold place. That master, we discover at the series’ end, is literally named Chaos: as in, the disorder in a system; as in, Chaos theory and fractals; as in, the primordial void of Greek myth preceding and succeeding the universe we know.
The Death Phantom in Sailor Moon R is later revealed to be an incarnation of Chaos.
In Sailor Moon R, Chaos is embodied by the Death Phantom (or Wiseman). He corrupts Chibiusa (Sailor Moon’s child from the 30th Century, a representative of both innocence and the Earth’s future) by altering her positive memories, subsequently transforming her into the ‘Black Lady’. Chibiusa – normally sweet, immature, and, to be honest, kind of annoying—becomes the archetypal jaded woman, fanservice included, whose slinky black slit dress and glowing red eyes mirror her internal disillusionment with human connection. (Fanservice being the racier aspects of anime added for no reason other than sex appeal). Not only is Chibiusa turned against the ones she loves: she also falls victim to the Chaos, manipulated into helping bring the world to its end.
Sailor Uranus views Sailor Neptune’s painting: a vision of the end of the world.
Being a Magical Girl – constantly facing the earth’s inevitable destruction – is not easy. Through my youth I’d lay awake with a newsreel montage running through my head on loop. Ice caps melted; planes hit buildings; cattle filed into abattoirs; atom bombs burst. I bothered my parents at early hours of the morning, sleepless, fearful, doomed.
Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune, too, are visited by apocalyptic visions in their awakening as Sailor Senshi, and are reluctant to accept their fate as guardians. In episode 106 of Sailor Moon S, Neptune confronts Uranus about their premonitions, as they stand before Neptune’s painted vision of the apocalypse.
“Memories of my past and the end of the world are no concern of mine,” Uranus says. “If someone has to do it, you should do it on your own…”
“Don’t be so selfish,” Neptune replies. “I don’t want to do this either. My dream is to become a violinist. I don’t want to do outrageous things like saving the world from destruction!”
But, ultimately, a Magical Girl’s fate as a sacrificial body is enshrined in her being. Sailor Uranus and Neptune cannot opt out, because, by their very nature as Magical Girls, they cannot accept the doomed destinies of their loved ones.
As the most spiritually-attuned of the inner Senshi, Sailor Mars receives premonitions of the apocalypse.
Fighting evil by moonlight and winning love by daylight is a difficult balance to strike. Continuing to face the inevitable heat-death of the universe, the inevitable destruction of earth, the inevitable heartbreak of adolescence: it’s a lot to deal with on your own.
In Sailormoon Sailor Stars, Sailor Galaxia, the “mightiest Sailor Guardian in the galaxy”, tried to go it alone, but by taking it upon herself to literally seal the Chaos within her body she too became jaded, corrupted and eventually totally possessed by this evil entity.
“When faced with destruction, people fight and run away,” the possessed Galaxia says. “They betray their friends, and even choose death.”
We discover that this is why all the villains have been out to collect energy from across the universe, in the form of “pure heart crystals”, “talismans”, “star seeds”—symbols of life.
Galaxia, the most powerful Sailor Senshi, took it upon herself to protect the universe from Chaos.
But shouldering the burden of the universe’s ills was Galaxia’s real mistake. Throughout the series, whenever the Senshi are overcome by evil, or suffering from weakness, it is the strength of their friends, their love, their hope, that allows them to go on.
“Why did you try to solve everything on your own?” Sailor Moon asks Galaxia. To me, this typifies Takeuchi’s answer to the sense of impending doom: if we fight our battles alone, we will become jaded, spiteful, and prone to manipulation by others of ill-intent. This applies to social and ecological exploitation, and also works as a message against the isolation and individualism of late-capitalist posthumanism.
The existential dilemmas raised in Sailor Moon are combated by a rationale based on the value of experience and interconnectedness.
Apocalypse anxiety is just as relevant in an era where action on climate change is alarmingly slow, and nuclear war has resurfaced as a real threat. The fact is, this impending doom is never going away – not until the world ends. Just as the Sailor Scouts are continually faced with new villains, so too are we, the generation raised on these cartoons, faced with new existential dilemmas. In that sense, Takeuchi’s senshi are still useful to me. Radical action is important— we must fight evil by moonlight; but so too is radical empathy—winning love by daylight. If we can learn anything from Sailor Moon, it is that young women, and “all things that have life”, are stronger together, regardless of which kind of apocalypse we face.
The Sailor Scouts embody what it is to be a Magical Girl.
Jess Cockerill is a weird bug writing about culture and science in the Anthropocene. She tweets as @jess_cockerill and grams from @jessicagraceart