Women’s History Month: Naoko Takeuchi by Sasha Brown

Born: March 15, 1967

Major Works:

Codename: Sailor V (1991-97)

Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon (1992-97)

Bio:

Born in Kofu, a winery town in the Yamanashi prefecture of Japan not too far west from the Tokyo metropolitan area, Takeuchi originally broke into the manga industry while studying chemistry in college. Her career in manga started in her senior year of high school, when her first published work, Yume Janai Ne? (“It Isn’t a Dream, Right?), was featured in seminal shojo manga magazine Nakayoshi in 1986 and won an award. After a couple of one-shot stories and short serials, her first real hit came in 1991 with the manga Codename: Sailor V in Nakayoshi’s sister magazine RunRun. When interest was expressed by Toei Animation to adapt Sailor V into a limited anime series, Takeuchi came up instead with a sequel story that would become her most famous work, Bishojo Senshi Sailor Moon. And thus, a 90s anime classic was born…

Profile:

(WARNING: The following article contains brief discussion of some major spoilers late in the series)

…So, I’m assuming most of you who clicked on this have already read and/or watched Sailor Moon, Takeuchi’s most famous creation, or are at least sort of familiar with the premise so I won’t waste time on explaining the plot. I think it’s safe to say at this point that Sailor Moon has had so many aspects of it ripped off, borrowed, parodied, and endlessly dissected and discussed that it’s hard to say much about it that’s new. In the past decade even western cartoons (most prominently Steven Universe) have gotten on the inspiration bandwagon. Its influence on anime, manga, and to an extent global pop culture cannot be overstated, especially when it comes to how much it changed the maho shojo, AKA “magical girl” genre that originated in Japan. Before the Sailor Moon, magical girl series in the 80s were fairly obscure outside of the country, and even then it was enjoyed mostly by prepubescent girls. Series like Creamy Mami or Himitsu No Akko-Chan play out like patriarchal fantasies, where the protagonists use their powers to become singers or basically play elaborate forms of dress-up, with the expectation that they’ll eventually lose their abilities in order to become a good wife (and presumably mother) at the end. Sailor Moon was the first to use her powers to fight evil, and the results proved so popular that nowadays the genre is synonymous with the idea of teenage girls using various sparkly bullshit to blast bad guys into oblivion.

Naoko Takeuchi’s career began in the mid 1980s, when Shojo — or, anime and manga aimed at adolescent girls — was a far different beast than it is today. Elaborate fantasy stories, while they certainly existed, were somewhat rare compared to the market-dominating presence they’ve enjoyed since the 90s. The most popular genres during this time were romance and slice-of-life stories, with horror coming in a distant third. A look at some well-known series from this period (Whisper of the Heart, Here Is Greenwood, Cipher, Bride of Deimos, etc.) only serves to further prove my point. This is the environment the 17-year-old Takeuchi found herself in when she published her earliest stories in Nakayoshi. Virtually all of her pre-Sailor Moon stuff has no official English translation (To avoid legal issues I will not be linking to fan translations here, but suffice to say that if you know where to look they can be found), presumably because being mostly short subject romantic comedies and dramas from well over three decades ago means it has far too much of a niche audience to justify a commercially available localization.

Perhaps another reason why these stories have never made it states-side is that, well…let’s say we can throw them in the “historical interest only” bin. As much as it pains me to say this, outside of the visuals her earliest stories are uniformly dull and aggressively heterosexual. Seriously, if you’ve seen a movie with Meg Ryan in it you can probably guess where half these stories are going from the second or third page. This can be forgiven by the fact that Takeuchi at this point was young and fairly inexperienced, and probably just needed time to find her voice. It makes sense she probably would stick to what was popular at the time in order to establish herself. She thankfully moved on from this fairly quickly once she started her earliest serials, which I use as further evidence to this theory.

The one thing her early works do have going for them is that her art style is easily recognizable very early on. The distinct face shape, the heavy use of gradient screentone, those gloriously atmospheric and expressionist panels used in pair with characters’ inner monologues are all easy to spot from literally her second published story, 1986’s Love Call, though of course in much rougher forms than later work. Also notable is catching some glimpses of what would show up in Sailor Moon eventually: the protagonist of late 80s one-shot Miss Rain is visually a dead ringer for Sailor Mercury. 1987-88’s Chocolate Christmas, her first serial, is about a girl who anonymously writes letters to a similarly anonymous DJ, the two romantic leads gradually falling for each other’s secret identities…while unbeknownst to each other are already acquaintances in real life and have a very hostile relationship. You might notice this gets completely recycled as Usagi and Mamoru’s relationship dynamic in earlier chapters of Sailor Moon. Finally (and perhaps most blatantly) 1990-91’s The Cherry Project, a three-volume ice skating themed sports series features the character Haruna Sakurada, who would show up in a minor role in Sailor Moon as Usagi’s perpetually frustrated homeroom teacher. And of course, a repeating visual motif of characters in sailor fuku — the iconic Japanese middle and high school uniforms — throughout much of her early work.

This brings us to her first big hit, Codename: Sailor V, which serves as both the inspiration and prequel to Sailor Moon. While working on Cherry Project, Takeuchi began a series of conversations with her editor about her desire to make a series about a girl fighting crime in space. After the suggestion that the main character wear a sailor fuku themed outfit, Sailor V was born. Initially published as a one-off in the summer 1991 issue of RunRun (a sister publication of Nakayoshi), Sailor V ended up being a sleeper hit. The story, while still having some romantic themes, was a huge stylistic departure for Takeuchi: it was a light-hearted action comedy starring Minako Aino, a charming but ditzy teenage girl who discovers her true calling as the titular Sailor V with the aid of a talking cat named Artemis. This calling involves regularly making use of a compact mirror to take on various disguises to fight crime, no doubt lifted from 70s proto-magical girl series Cutey Honey. Unlike the male gaze-laden sleaze of that series, however, this was clearly meant to be an empowerment fantasy for young girls, and looking back it’s no surprise Sailor V ended up becoming so popular. In contrast to typical western female superheroes, who were often adults with idealized personalities that kids were meant more to look up to, Sailor V is meant to be someone the young audience can identify with. She’s not a world class martial artist or divine being, instead just being an ordinary middle schooler. Looking at both the novelty of the concept and the then-untapped market of selling superhero power fantasies to adolescent girls, it’s extremely obvious in hindsight why it was such a success.

Sailor V’s runaway popularity was enough to warrant Takeuchi publishing chapters sporadically during the next few years, and it also caught the eyes of Toei Animation, who approached Takeuchi about the possibility of adapting it into a limited direct-to video series (usually called an Original Video Animation or OVA in anime parlance). During the pre-production phase, it was decided that instead Takeuchi would create an entirely new story to adapt as a televised anime series. The Sailor V manga would instead serve as a prequel to this new series, where Minako was no longer the protagonist but would join the main cast as Sailor Venus. Inspired by Takeuchi’s love of astrology, gemology, and sentai/tokusatsu shows, as well as Nakayoshi’s editorial decision to start running more fantasy series, the series would become her best-known work, and one of the most famous manga and anime series in the world.

It’s impossible to remember a time in my life that didn’t involve my love for Bishojo Senshi Sailor Moon (Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon or Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon depending on how recent the English translation is) in some way. My introduction to the series goes all the way back to kindergarten, when my mom one day handed me a delightfully retro book that basically served as a promotional tie-in for the English localization of the series that had just hit American airwaves. In one of the final pages, Sailor Moon stands defiantly with her four main allies — Sailors Mercury, Mars, Jupiter and Venus — against an unseen opponent. “Sailor Scouts Forever!” proclaims a brightly colored heading. The bright colors and novelty of an action series starring and aimed at young girls immediately caught my eye, so of course I had to know more. In my adolescence in the early-mid 00s, my first experiences with the internet involved obsessive searching of whatever eye-bleedingly colorful Sailor Moon fanpages I could find on geocities/angelfire/tripod/etc., which in turn would be my gateway drug to fanfic writing, message boards, and discovering other anime series like most nerdy teens of the era. In adulthood, nostalgia for the series was just one of many experiences that was instrumental in helping me both form my identity as a non-binary/genderfluid person.

While Strong Female Characters discourse memes basically write themselves nowadays, we have to remember said discourse came from some very legitimate places of frustration. Early-to-mid 90s genre fiction — comics, movies, video games, animation — was a wasteland when it came to looking for any interesting women. While there were exceptions like Star Trek or a couple of superheroes, when it came to stuff explicitly aimed at children the situation was incredibly dire. The few female characters who’d appear in these stories would get relegated to being “the one girl” whose sole defining trait was Being Female, basically (see: April O’Neil, Princess Leia, and so on). So imagine seeing something like Sailor Moon at the time, where not only was the main character female, she was not the only female character! In fact, most of the main cast were female, all with their own distinct roles and personalities, and it was an action series. It’s easy to see why it caught on with me and plenty of other kids who grew up in the 1990s. Re-enactments of the elaborate, sparkly transformation and special attack scenes that would repeat every episode were a common playground activity with friends, and while they were way out of my parents’ price range most of the time I would still beg them constantly to buy me all the chintzy plastic toy replicas of the wands and jewelry in the show. And when I found out there the show was based on a “Japanese comic book”? You bet your sweet ass I was gonna read it.

For most of the English-speaking world, Sailor Moon was probably one of people’s first encounters with manga during the very beginning of the medium’s early 2000s boom in the western market, yours truly much included in this. So I’ll start with my own personal smokin’ hot take: I personally find Naoko Takeuchi’s art to be sorely lacking in technical skill. Her characters are all uniformly willowy, gaunt, and a good third of their body is legs. Her linework lacks weight variation, and she seems strangely compelled towards using extremely thin pen nibs. This gives everything a kinda flat and scribbly feeling that often doesn’t feel suited to the story. While she did eventually improve on this, even in later chapters it feels like figures lack a lot of definition and the fact that most of the backgrounds are kinda nondescript and barely rendered doesn’t help. It comes across less as a stylistic choice and more like a copout to save time. She also recycles character designs a lot. Half of her male characters boil down to “Mamoru with different hair.” However, she absolutely makes up for this with her excellent sense of framing and page layouts that show she really gets how to tell a story. Her use of minimalist panels, consisting of a single screentone with the character’s narration or dialogue the only accompaniment, tells you so much about the various moods or emotions that are being conveyed than any detailed illustration would. In a series full of melodrama and heightened emotion, it’s a very smart and deliberate choice.

So many standout moments in the manga work because of this. Usagi dreaming of the final moments in her past life in chapter 13. In the final moments of chapter 37 Sailor Saturn brings down her iconic polearm to destroy the world, and the minimalism in the two-page illustration serving as the final panel makes you feel the gravity of this moment. And of course, the gorgeous closing pages in the last chapter serve as an excellent farewell to the reader and conveys the sense that the story’s events are truly cosmic in scope. All of these are moments where Takeuchi overcomes her fairly pedestrian artistic skills to create a sense of grandeur that’s fitting for a story that is legitimately epic in its proportions.

Inevitably, it’s hard to talk about the original Sailor Moon manga without comparing it to the 90s anime adaptation, which often significantly differs from the source material. Both have their fans and their detractors. While it’s true that the anime’s slavish devotion to recycling the same monster-of-the-day plot for a good chunk of its run can get on the nerves, I do think that both the main and supporting cast feels more fleshed out and complex than they do in the manga. The plot of the latter moves at such a breakneck pace sometimes that it’s easy to forget so many villains who feature in a good dozen or so episodes often have their manga counterparts killed off in their introductory chapter! Said pacing also leads to a lot of moments in the manga that feature egregious gaps in logic and sense, although a lot of times because something awesome happens during it this can be overlooked. And in the interest of fairness I’ll admit the anime also has its fair share of these.

Where I personally feel the manga triumphs is that it tells a more cohesive story. Whereas the anime kinda feels like it presses the reset button at the end of most seasons, each manga arc feels like it builds on the last and does actually feel like the stakes for our protagonists are being raised higher and higher with each group of antagonists. This is most exemplified in the fifth and final arc, which features a finale of literally galactic proportions as Sailor Moon ventures into outer space to face her most powerful enemy, the living embodiment of all chaos and evil in the universe. The revelation that this entity is directly connected to all previous antagonists in the series further drives this home, bringing a conclusion that ends the series’ overarching plot on a satisfying end note. I won’t write exactly what happens, but I will say despite a few extremely minor unresolved plot threads I feel it’s a wonderful conclusion that manages to both leave things open enough for future installments while still giving the reader a sense of finality. And it somehow does this while featuring an extremely obvious Deus Ex Machina.

One thing I also think is overlooked is despite how elaborate the series became as time went on, it’s still such an intensely personal work for Takeuchi. She’s made it no secret that she based the character of Sailor Moon on much of her own personality, having stated as much in interviews. But there are so many other things in the story that were based on her own personal experiences. The decision to make Rei (AKA Sailor Mars) a shrine maiden was based on her own past working part-time as one at a shinto temple in college. Usagi’s family members were named after her own. She even gets to flex her college degree a bit, naming a few minor characters after various chemistry terms. At times it feels like a testament to the idea that it’s possible to make something grand and expansive out of something so small: one woman making an ornate and sprawling fantasy series featuring themes of destiny, reincarnation and the fate of the universe from just her own interests and experiences. I suppose that’s why there’s so much heart to the series, despite all the yes, massive and excessive amounts of clichés and campiness. It was (at least in the beginning) a series Naoko was very passionate about creating. Sailor Moon has a lot in it that appeals to mainstream audiences, but it grew out of something so small and personal.

Unfortunately, unlike many other famous shojo manga creators of the era like Yuu Watase (whose glory days are far behind them at this point, but have still been creating new works over the years with no end in sight), Takeuchi’s career feels sadly truncated. Her post-Sailor Moon resume is littered with unfinished projects which are some tragic examples of what-could-have-been scenarios. Her very first from this period is 1997’s PQ Angels, a strange little action comedy starring a pair of aliens that can shapeshift between cockroaches and cute teenage girls. It’s hard to really have much of an opinion on it — a mishap at Nakayoshi HQ resulted in many of the series’ manuscripts being lost and led to its abrupt cancelation after only four chapters. This was enough to push Takeuchi towards an understandably acrimonious split with Kodansha, the magazine’s publisher, that lasted a good few years. 2002’s Love Witch, a romantic comedy in the vein of older magical girl series from the 70s and 80s, was suddenly abandoned after a few installments for mysterious reasons. 2005-6’s Toki*Meka, a short series that feels like a more light-hearted version of CLAMP’s infamous Chobits from a few years prior, has the dubious honor of being the only series Takeuchi completed since Sailor Moon. Outside of these titles, there’s very little notable work from this time. One of the other things Takeuchi is most known for is her marriage to Yoshihiro Togashi, creator of titles like Yu Yu Hakusho and Hunter X Hunter, both of which are as seminal to 90s shonen manga and anime as Sailor Moon is to 90s shojo. After leaving Kodansha, Takeuchi moved to publisher Shuiesha, where she met Togashi during a brief stint as an assistant artist for HXH. She wrote a children’s book, Oboo-nu- to Chiboo-nu-, illustrated by Togashi, for her son’s birthday, a bit of trivia I find adorable.

But perhaps it’s just simply a case of Takeuchi’s priorities changing over time, and after creating a veritable global pop-culture phenomenon I think it’s perfectly fair that someone would want to rest on their laurels. Takeuchi seems to have primarily kept herself busy in recent years by spearheading Sailor Moon’s anniversary projects. The 10th anniversary brought us 2004’s Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, an endearingly corny live-action TV adaptation of the series’ first arc that veers even closer to its sentai inspiration than the original anime. For the franchise’s 20th anniversary in 2014, there was Sailor Moon Crystal, an anime reboot that aims to be a closer adaptation of the manga that seems to have divided a good chunk of the fanbase over whether it’s Fine, Actually or the worst thing to happen to the franchise since Sailor Uranus and Neptune were turned into “”””cousins””” for the old English dub. The reboot is still ongoing, with a series of movies planned to adapt the final two story arcs. Whatever your thoughts, it’s clear that Takeuchi is very interested in maintaining control over her creation for the foreseeable future, to an almost JK Rowling level of being completely inseparable from it. Without any horrific transphobia as far as we know, as Takeuchi thankfully has been graciously supportive of Sailor Moon’s massive number of LGBTQ+ fans over the years.

Fast forward to today, and Sailor Moon has joined the ranks of Dragon Ball Z, Evangelion, Studio Ghibli films and the like in terms of anime series with the most mainstream popularity. It’s hardly just popular within the medium anymore: it’s basically synonymous with 90s nostalgia at this point. Not only that, but the characters themselves have basically become icons in contemporary queer culture (most notably Sailor Uranus and Neptune, perhaps one of the most famous lesbian pairings in anime). I can’t tell you how many fellow LGBTQ+ people I’ve known, who credit the series as one of the myriad experiences that helped them discover their sexuality or gender identity. And it seems like Sailor Moon’s popularity with queer folks will continue well into the future, and it seems like today’s queer teens have a fondness for it despite being way too young to have watched or read the series when it first came out. Not to mention the rebranding of the series as a source for many things in the whole retro #aesthetic graphic design trend. Shitty quality screenshots of the 90s anime as a bedroom techno album cover. Bootlegged 90s promo images emblazoned on those expensive streetwear brands from the past five years. This shirt for the band Joyce Manor. It’s incredible. And lest you write me off as a grumpy 30something, let me make it clear I support all of this and consider it a good thing.

While part of me is sad knowing Takeuchi probably won’t be known for much of anything else besides Sailor Moon, I’m still glad that she’s responsible for something that has been a source of joy for me much of my life and I’m sure the same holds true for many others. Its impact has been somewhat lightened over the years due in part to countless imitators and media heavily influenced by it, but I personally think there is very much a reason it’s been vastly influential. It’s a genuinely fun and enjoyable series, and in a few moments actually even quite smart and forward-thinking even when its inherent camp makes it feel like it has no right to be. I have no idea what Takeuchi plans for the future, I personally would love for there to finally be a Sailor V anime like what was originally planned. Whatever she does next I hope it’s something that she’s as passionate about making as she was when she just wanted to make a fun little comic about girls fighting crime in space.

Sasha Brown has tried doing too many things such as being an artist and DJing, and now recently is writing about comics. They currently live in Oakland, CA with their two cats and their art can be found on Instagram.

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