Welcome to the start of a new series on my blog! I want to try veering off the traditional review path and instead focus on some of the themes, motifs, and symbols in my favorite manga or anime series. These posts will not aim to critically analyze elements of the work, but rather provide a leaping-off point to prompt your own discussions. I encourage readers to use this post as they see fit (just be sure to tag me and link this page), and I hope you will find it useful!
The themes, motifs, and symbols discussed here pertain specifically to the “Dark Kingdom Arc” of Naoko Takeuchi’s Sailor Moon manga and the Sailor Moon Crystal anime series. Other themes, motifs, and symbols may also apply, though I plan to save those devices for future posts where they are more relevant in other parts of the franchise (like the use of dreams in SuperS). As such, this listing is by no means exhaustive, but it should help anyone trying to understand how some of the thematic devices function within the narrative. SPOILERS AHEAD!
Love and Fate Are Intertwined
Usagi and Mamoru’s relationship is written in the stars. Across time, they share many fated moments together, both on and off the battlefield. Whether as Usagi and Mamoru, Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Mask, or Princess Serenity and Prince Endymion, our star-crossed (or moonlit) lovers are fated to meet again and again. Their romance is the anchor for cruel fate to tear them apart at every possible junction. But, of course, love always wins, especially if it’s destined.
Destiny Is Circular
Fate, cycles, and chance meetings in the night create a circular storytelling pattern in the Dark Kingdom Arc. Just as the girls form unbreakable bonds with each other, they remember that they all used to be friends many moons ago—and that destiny, as it happens, has brought them together once more. The reuniting of the Sailor Guardians this time around is for the same purpose, too: the vanquishing of evil Queen Metalia once and for all. (In the classic Sailor Moon anime, the Sailor Guardians also lose their memories after defeating Queen Beryl—only for Usagi to have to once again become Sailor Moon in the second season—thus enhancing the circular nature of destiny.)
Light Conquers the Darkness
A story of magical girls invoking celestial powers to fight the forces of evil would not be complete without the popular saying “light conquers the dark.” It’s a cliche theme, but again, Sailor Moon makes it work because of its contrast between the heavenly moonlight of Silver Millennium (the force of good) and the subterranean Dark Kingdom (the force of evil). Quite literally, Serenity’s moonlight shines down from on high, establishing a visual hierarchy of morality as well as signaling a powerful allusion to heaven and hell itself.
Loyalty Accompanies Royalty
Every princess has her entourage of ladies-in-waiting, and Princess Serenity is no different. Although it takes the Sailor Guardians considerable time to realize that one of their own is in fact the Princess of the Moon Kingdom, they all naturally look to Sailor Moon anyway for guidance. Perhaps this is attest to her innate charm or the nature of destiny, but Usagi nevertheless finds herself surrounded by a circle of amazing female friendships. Similarly, Queen Beryl has her four Dark Generals carry out every waking task she can come up with. To the bitter end, they follow the will of their supreme ruler.
Acceptance of the Past
Finding out that you once stabbed yourself with a sword out of love several millennia ago and then were reborn in modern Tokyo would be a bitter pill for anyone to swallow. Yet, this is Usagi’s destiny, and it’s the past she has to accept if she wants to save her friends and the world in the present. Likewise, Mamoru must overcome any doubts of who he may have been as a young child due to his amnesia. All he knows now is that he needs the Silver Crystal to reaffirm something unknown to him in his own past. On the flip side, Beryl is forced to recall her feelings for Prince Endymion (and acknowledge her use of Metalia’s dark magic) if she is to take what she believes she rightfully deserves.
Justice Against the Usurper
Queen Beryl, as we find, was not always the monarch she claims to be. At most, she was a peasant girl whose infatuation, obsession, and jealousy over Prince Endymion’s love caused her to sign a dark contract. As Beryl led the rebellion against Earth and eventually the Moon, she only destroyed innocent lives in her path. When she finds the Dark Kingdom in the present age and establishes herself as its queen, she even starts scheming to overcome her ruler’s power, the darkness of Queen Metalia. Once Sailor Moon gets a complete grasp of the situation, it quickly becomes apparent what she must do: avenge her mother, her people, and her own past self by killing Beryl. Only Beryl’s (and Metalia’s) death will claim the justice Sailor Moon needs to validate her dual existence as Princess Serenity.
With Power Comes Responsibility
The staple character pattern of all superhero works is watching the protagonist grow into their newfound powers, only for them to realize that their actions have consequences, regardless of severity. Magic can be a blessing or a curse, and this dilemma stresses Usagi out. In the early chapters, she admits several times that she hates being a Sailor Guardian—that she hates being in pain and likewise inflicting it upon others. Being the guardian of love and justice certainly has its costs, yet Usagi’s destiny that only she can be Sailor Moon—as well as the Moon Princess—will be something she struggles with realizing time and time again. Gone are the days of innocent, youthful school life, and dawning now is the coming-of-age story for the future queen of the galaxy.
Perhaps what the entire Sailor Moon franchise is most beloved for is the endearing and genuine friendship between the girls. In the Dark Kingdom Arc, five girls who once adored each other and their peaceful life on the Moon are separated by fate, only to find themselves falling back into each others’ lives one chapter at a time. From their shared compassion, the Sailor Guardians are able to conquer any obstacles that come their way, whether the forces of evil Queen Beryl or the stress of classroom exams.
Magical Girl Transformation
Sailor Moon is one of the most influential works in creating the popular image of the “magical girl” as we know it today. From Sailor Moon, the magical girl has gone on to spiral into its own genre, wherein the themes of love, light, and justice often reoccur. While it may not be the first work of its kind, we can still understand how magical girls come across as admirable in the way that Usagi idolizes Sailor V. To Usagi Tsukino, Sailor V represents everything she aspires to become. Being a “tough and beautiful ally of justice” would be a dream—until Usagi becomes Sailor Moon, the soon-to-be-strongest magical girl in all existence, and realizes that her previous mundane reality wasn’t so bad after all. Each time the Sailor Guardians transform, we are reminded of their legendary powers, as well as how they are responsible for safeguarding humanity from the darkness.
Disguises & Misrecognition
People wear all kinds of disguises in Sailor Moon. Some moments of misrecognition are comic, like when Usagi transforms into a nurse to rescue Ami. Other times it is more tragic, like how Endou appears to Usagi with the face of Mamoru. The most famous disguise we know is Mamoru Chiba donning his suit and hat for Tuxedo Mask. With this disguise, he navigates through the night undetected to uncover more about the Silver Crystal’s whereabouts, as well as understand his own amnesiac past. As for the girls, they have their second identities as Sailor Guardians, and although they don’t look too different from their normal selves, the powers of magic prevent onlookers from seeing past the guise. Jadeite, Nephrite, Zoisite, and Kunzite also all use the bodies of innocent citizens to hide their monstrous demons. Finally, Usagi and Mamoru have their dual (tertiary?) identities as Princess Serenity and Prince Endymion. The fact that no one is able to figure out the princess’s identity until she is standing before them is attest to misrecognition’s role in protecting destiny itself.
Like King Arthur’s Knights of the Round or any other kind of strategizing scene in a superhero or spy movie, the Sailor Guardians are always assessing and evaluating new information as a group. Typically, their meetings take place at someone’s home, a local park, the arcade, or their secret base beneath the arcade. These meetings primarily serve to debrief recently acquired information and establish a plan of attack for the group, but they also provide insight into the girls’ individual personalities as they react to the developing situation. For example, Ami responds with tactical reasoning, Makoto just wants to fight the enemy, and Usagi usually sleeps through the whole thing. Meetings add moments of levity where the suspense of lingering battle can reset and transition back to daily life, reinforcing the themes of responsibility and loyalty to their noble cause.
Darkness & Light
Throughout this first arc, darkness always looms at bay. Whether the monsters of the Dark Generals, Beryl’s witchcraft, or Metalia’s overwhelming presence, darkness pervades in Sailor Moon. The radiant Moon and the Mythical Silver Crystal symbolize pure light, and although Metalia is a being born of the Sun, her existence only casts shadows—a kind of darkness which twists her and any who interact with her. It’s no coincidence that the Sailor Guardians are always “fighting evil by moonlight,” for the night is when the darkness can creep out. Likewise, their “winning love by daylight” lets us know that daytime is more or less a safe space. Any colorations of light and dark are further emphasized in the manga, wherein Naoko Takeuchi uses stark panels of all-black to heighten the spectacle of Sailor Moon’s glittering light.
Death & Rebirth
Cycles of life and death occur for both the heroes and the villains of the Dark Kingdom Arc. In the war on the Moon, the Sailor Guardians are defeated, Prince Endymion is martyred, and Usagi commits suicide. Likewise, Beryl is slain in her revolt, and her master, Metalia, is sealed away. The death of the antagonists and the preservation of the protagonists are commandeered by Queen Serenity, who uses the last of her strength to give the Sailor Guardians a second chance at life on Earth. Even after all Serenity had done, however, Mamoru again martyrs himself for Usagi, and Usagi—drawn to her wits end—surrenders to their circular fate and draws the fatal sword to her chest once again.
Castles and royalty are central to the early story of Sailor Moon and her legend. Queen Serenity ruled the Moon Kingdom. Prince Endymion ruled the kingdoms of Earth. Now, Queen Beryl rules the Dark Kingdom, and in order to reclaim what was lost from her mother, Usagi will have to awaken as Princess Serenity and end Beryl’s terrible reign. As the series progresses (across this arc and subsequent ones), we follow Usagi as she slowly starts equipping herself with the powers that once belonged to Queen Serenity. In this arc, the climax is Sailor Moon wielding the destructive force of the Silver Crystal to vanquish her foes. The passing of the jewel from mother to daughter is a significant rite of royal passage, one which marks Usagi as the next heir to the Silver Millennium.
Slumber & Awakening
Moments of sleep and wakefulness are apparent throughout the story. When not fighting the forces of evil, Usagi and the Sailor Guardians earn their rest. In fact, much of the motivated drama in the story is enhanced by Usagi and Mamoru’s conflicting dreams. Both sense their fate, yet they can’t quite grasp what it means. In the same sense, Queen Metalia “slumbers” deep beneath the Dark Kingdom as Beryl’s Four Dark Generals amass energy for their great ruler’s return. Likewise, both Queen Serenity on the Moon and the essence of Princess Serenity within Usagi’s heart lie dormant until the Silver Crystal can unleash their fated awakenings.
The Moonlight Legend Reborn
This signature phrase is borrowed from Viz Media’s marketing of the Sailor Moon Crystal anime, and it’s quite a fitting phrase considering how many times various adaptations have revisited this timeless story’s opening act. From manga to animation, stage plays to musicals, and likely countless drama CDs, Sailor Moon Crystal marks yet another retelling of the Moon Princess’ origin story. The moonlight legend is reborn, and we are once again given a chance for one of these adaptations to tell the manga’s story as Naoko Takeuchi originally intended. Thankfully, if the Crystal anime gets one thing right, it’s the conviction to that cause.
Jewelry & Gemstones
Across literary and cinematic history, jewelry and gemstones have become associated with wealth, power, greed, and an obsession with vanity. Their sparkling allure attracts the gaze of many—it’s no wonder Beryl is so drawn to the Mythical Silver Crystal. Along with Beryl, the Four Heavenly Princes are characterized after actual gemstones. Naoko Takeuchi is able to flex her background in chemistry and gemology by tying many of the characters and plot points in the series to her personal fascination with minerals and gemstones.
Mythical Silver Crystal
The famous and sacred MacGuffin of Sailor Moon. Whether translated as legendary, imperium, or mythical (as the English localization of the manga went with), one thing’s certain—the crystal is silver, and its powers are unrivaled. One could argue that the Silver Crystal symbolizes the ugly struggle for power itself, as Beryl and Queen Metalia stop at nothing to obtain it. When wielded by an emotional Sailor Moon, however, the Silver Crystal only serves to protect her allies, heal their wounds, and carve a destructive path toward justice. The Silver Crystal also represents the legacy of the Moon Kingdom left in Usagi’s hands by Queen Serenity, which makes sense why it was hidden away from everyone—including loyal Luna—in Usagi’s own heart. What seems to matter most is that in the hands of evil, the legendary crystal is nothing but another pretty rock.
The obvious connotation here is that the pens aid in the transformation and disguise of the Sailor Guardians. Each pen is uniquely colored, denoting individual ownership over them. Thus, they become symbols of responsibility for the Sailor Guardians. While Usagi has her own assortment of magical items, the Sailor Guardians only have their pens. Holding their pens close to their chest when they shout out their transformation mantras, the transformation pens represent the timeless duty of the Sailor Guardians.
The sword is a unique artifact in the continuity in that it is the only traditional weapon found in the battle against Beryl and Queen Metalia. A blade compounded over time by countless rocks and minerals, the sword is durable enough to cut through diamonds. It’s also heavy and denotes leadership, as shown in the way Sailor Jupiter helps Sailor Venus wield its power. Moreover, the sword was used in the previous war on the Moon to banish Queen Metalia. Back then it was shining, but its stone-cold appearance now reinforces the fact that Metalia’s power is turning things to stone. Additionally, Usagi wields this sword twice in the act of suicide, forever tying the blade to her suffering and legend. Thus, the stone sword needs to be the item that ends this story once again, for it symbolizes the destruction of ancient evil and leaving antiquity behind, once and for all.
The Moon & Silver Millennium
Floating high above and adorned on just about everything pertaining to the Sailor Guardians and their princess, the Moon carries the ambitious task of symbolizing everything the titular heroine stands for: tranquility, ephemerality, and serenity. Although Usagi may not embody those traits perfectly at first, the Moon is a constant reminder of where she’s come from—and where she needs to go next. We can almost attribute the crescent moon to Sailor Moon herself, while the full moon represents Queen Serenity. The moon’s white glow often warms the characters, and as they lose their way, they look up to its light for guidance. Of course, Earth’s silver satellite is also home to the Moon Kingdom, Silver Millennium, which means it bears an ancient history as the civilization that once orbited the blue planet below.
Red roses are the romantic mark of Tuxedo Mask. Since the flower is almost exclusively found on Earth, we can also associate plant life and nature with Prince Endymion. A red rose symbolizes true love, respect, and courage, qualities which are all tried and exemplified by all the good-natured characters in the story. Most of all, the flash of a red rose on the battlefield reaffirms Sailor Moon that she is not alone, for Tuxedo Mask is always watching her back.
Based on the pun of Usagi’s name and the Japanese word for rabbit, the animal is associated with Usagi Tsukino herself, as it is patterned on all her stationary and personalized items. The cute bunny ears and light colors also represent innocence, and we tend to associate them with Usagi as a middle-school girl as opposed to future queen of the Moon. In English, one could almost see the word “bunny” more closely relating to Usagi’s modern self, whereas the more sophisticated “rabbit” would befit Serenity (even though they are the same person and refer to the same animal).
Mamoru’s star-shaped pocket watch is the memento Usagi holds onto until she is able to see her beloved again. The watch symbolizes time, but specifically in relation to the temporal distance which separates the two lovers. When the pocket watch is cracked, the lovers struggle to find one another. The fact that the watch protects Usagi from her suicidal blow with the stone sword shows that time is on their side, and that they will eventually claim their happiness once they defeat Queen Metalia. Usagi mending the watch and returning it to Mamoru tells us that she has accepted her identity as the Moon Princess, and that she no longer needs to rely on borrowed time to understand her cosmic role.
Like Mamoru’s pocket watch, the handkerchief is a classic symbol of lovesickness. Mamoru’s longing to be with Usagi is indicated by his delicate handling of her pink-laced handkerchief. The personalized cloth is also a mark of championship, almost as if Usagi has (unbeknownst to her) already chosen Mamoru to be her knight. We find this relationship twofold when Tuxedo Mask admits his admiration for the guardian of love and justice, Sailor Moon.
Sailor Moon’s Compact
The transformation brooch given to Usagi by Luna at the story’s beginning is the device which allows her to become the titular guardian of love and justice. It fashions nicely with both her sailor-suited outfits for school life and heroine life. As the franchise progresses, the compact itself transforms and receives new powers—blessings from the moon and Queen Serenity. After Beryl and Metalia’s defeat in the “Dark Kingdom Arc,” Usagi’s receiving of a new compact from her mother is symbolic of her divine right to rule. Its star-encrusted pattern and colored gems represent the unity of Sailor Moon and her Sailor Guardians as they are bound to Silver Millennium’s fate. This new compact houses the Mythical Silver Crystal, and its light will continue to guide Usagi as they both transform together.
Got any themes, motifs, or symbols you think should be on this list? Drop your suggestions down in the comments for all of us to see. Thanks for reading, and ‘til next time!