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What watching Shirobako taught me about Sailor Moon Crystal

I recently watched and reviewed the 2014 anime series Shirobako for my podcast Transformation Sequence. Gosh I wonder where I got that name from? Anyway, Shirobako, if you haven’t heard about it, is a rather excellent series following 5 young women in the anime industry, and serves as an accessible and extremely meta insight into the shows you’ve watched over the years. I shan’t go too in-depth into why I enjoyed that show so much, I’ve already talked about it for 2 hours straight on the podcast, but I thought it would be interesting to see how it would relate to Sailor Moon.

Specifically, while watching the trials and tribulations of main character Aoi trying to get her animation company to churn out episodes by the skin of their teeth, I could not help but think of Sailor Moon Crystal. Here’s what Shirobako made me realise about the reboot.

Shirobako plum face

Sailor Moon Crystal is flying by the seat of its pants

Ever get the feeling that Sailor Moon Crystal is barely managing to meet its schedule? The dodgy art is a big give-away. We live in an age of digital standards, and so key frame animation has become all the easier to criticise, of course. Compared to some episodes of the original series, Crystal looks positively glorious. That being said, the animators on Crystal frequently fuck up on things you really would expect them to have picked up on. Furthermore, they know what they’re churning out is below-standards, because they’re having to remaster so many scenes for the Blu-ray release.

You would have thought it would cost them a lot less just to get things right the first time.

Sometimes when I'm feeling particularly masochistic, I'll visit Crystal Comparisons:

Sometimes when I’m feeling particularly masochistic, I’ll visit Crystal Comparisons:

This is because, as we learn from Shirobako, anime series are literally made weeks in advance in real-time. Western TV shows tend to wrap an entire series, or half-series, then build up a massive amount of promotion to secure the highest number of viewers possible by the premier. The anime industry doesn’t do this at all. They treat it like filming a day-time soap, giving themselves only a few months head start, relying on several teams to animate and direct different episodes at once.


Anything and everything can go wrong

This is why art styles and especially direction feels so schismatic from episode to episode of Crystal. There is apparently such a lack of time and budget on Sailor Moon Crystal’s production that they require a rare 2-week rotation on releases in order to keep up with their schedule, rather than the typical one week, yet they still slip-up frequently.

This doesn’t even account for last-minute changes and disasters. Amongst the chaos of Musashino Productions’ animes are;

  • key frames having to be redrawn
  • manga authors slamming hard on creative decisions by the anime producers
  • external demands from sponsors based purely on profit and merchandising
  • episode directors fuming and walking off the project
  • storyboards being finished with only a month before airing date
  • (my personal favourite) the direction arbitrarily deciding he doesn’t like the characterisation in one particular scene and demanding re-draws, re-dubbing and re-editing

Who knows what the Sailor Moon Crystal team has to go through? Now spare a thought for the original Sailor Moon anime, which produced one episode a week for 45-odd weeks in a year, all with hand-drawn cels.

Stack up the art direction from 1992 to 2014 and the difference is perplexing

Stack up the wonderfully weird art direction from 1992 to 2014 and the difference is perplexing


Anime is tough

I feel for the animation team of Sailor Moon Crystal, I really do. In my reviews of the series, I have been highly critical from what I perceived as a lack of care. This isn’t fair, of course. Everyone working on this anime surely wants to create the best damn anime, worthy of the source material that they adore. They do care, but with such an insane time structure for anime production, how could they ever produce something as good as it deserves to be?

Those problems I listed above, they’re like natural disasters. It’s pretty hard to see one coming, and when they hit, they hit hard. Shirobako has made me want to be more understanding of the difficulty of anime in the modern age. Not that this is going to temper my review: no matter how sympathetic I am to their situation, a bad piece of art has to be called out as being such.

Shirobako stress


It’s being made by people who grew up on Sailor Moon

What I never really considered before watching Shirobako was that anime is produced by anime fans. Seems self-evident, of course, but I supposed I always saw people who worked in anime as detached inhuman art-bots. This is, of course, not the case. They’re otaku. They watch other shows, they grew up on Sailor Moon, they’re handling something they adore. So I can only imagine it’s gut-wrenching to release something you know isn’t perfect, then seeing the lacklustre reactions on the internet, not only of Japanese people, but across the world.

I also never realised how much respect Sailor Moon Crystal has for the original anime adaptation. Before, I viewed the show as having to tip-toe around the original, afraid to be cast in its shadow. Now I see that it’s intentional that they wanted to steer clear of ground the original anime’s style and approach, not for competition reasons, but because they don’t want to detract from that show. They get away with as much as they can, of course. The transformation sequences of the Senshi, as much as I hate the CGI monstrosities, are lifted directly from the original anime. They didn’t have to do that, they chose to have that homage.

They know how much of a classic Sailor Moon was. They love it as much as the fans do, because they are the fans.

Sailor Moon Crystal - Sailor Mercury's transformation

The inclusion of Kotono Mitsuishi as the voice actress for Usagi must be like casting for an amateur’s production of Hamlet and getting Patrick Stewart as a leading role. For the people on the staff, she must be something close to a living legend. I’m guessing that’s where a whole heap of the budget goes, too.


Sailor Moon Crystal is getting killed by the competition

The one thing I couldn’t help but notice while watching Shirobako is how damn good it is. The writing is beautiful, the character arcs nuanced and intentional. The humour gives you a warm chuckle and never relies on clichés. You grow to love these characters, see them grow, glow in their success and commiserate when things go wrong. These characters are fleshed-out, modern women, who like a drink, kick-ass in their career, are vulnerable and tough at the same time. These are women who’s worth is never defined by men, they’re not lovelorn single people moping, their sense of self-worth isn’t limited by the social expectation of femininity.

And that’s fucking rad.

Not only that, but the art is beautiful too. Sure they aren’t throwing in explosions and transformation sequences… except that they are. When Shirobako talks about art direction, of character design, of sound editing, they show you how they do it. Are characters talking about the difficulty of background art? Well here’s some glorious throw-away shots that show you what anime should be striving towards.

This is an utterly fantastic 4 seconds of footage. A throw-away joke that inspires beauty and admiration

This is an utterly fantastic 4 seconds of footage. A throw-away joke that inspires beauty and admiration

So Shirobako is wry meta-glance at itself, a celebration of anime and its history, but it’s also demanding more out of the industry, telling other shows that you can do better, not only in its content, but it its design and execution. And that, for me, says more about Sailor Moon Crystal than anything else.

So in conclusion, go watch Shirobako and listen to me rave on about it over at Transformation Sequence.

Cheers, Shirobako!

Cheers, Shirobako!


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