While I’ve seen Sailor Moon fans excited about each of its theatrical screenings, the SuperS screening has been particularly anticipated. Not necessarily for the film itself, but rather the short that precedes it. Whereas the SuperS film has been available on VHS and played on Cartoon Network back in the early 2000’s, Ami’s First Love has never been dubbed or been available in any official form in North America prior to this theatrical release. That makes the SuperS theatrical screening especially special even compared to the previous weekend’s double feature.
Of course, the short isn’t just noteworthy for the novelty of its newness, but for its focus and funniness. While the Sailor Guardians are all goofy gals, Ami’s straight-laced studiousness more than not makes her the straight-woman and the voice of reason in most situations. Where her friends will often get involved in all sorts of wacky shenanigans, she rarely indulges in such idiosyncratic zaniness. She’s smart to a fault, and while her ridiculous dedication to studying is often the subject of jokes, she’s rarely the butt of the joke, at least not in the same way Minako is for constantly getting her idioms wrong, or Usagi for being so clueless she doesn’t even know who Einstein is.
Ami’s First Love really allows her to show off her silly side, getting caught up in her own competitive and romantic delusions about her rival Mercurius in a great role-reversal of her comedic role in the series. It’s a great character piece, not only letting Ami be comedically stubborn in a way rarely seen in the series, but also exploring what makes her tick. She’s so used to being the smartest girl that she becomes insecure when someone else is as good or better than her. Ami takes Mercurius’ good grades personally, as a direct challenge to her academic credibility, thus regarding him as a rival. Yet she’s conflictingly infuriated and attracted to the idea of an academic equal, notably evident by how she fetishizes Mercurius as a “he” when she doesn’t actually know their gender. Fantasizing about what kind of person he is, building him up in her mind as the second coming of Albert Einstein, her ideal man as is hilariously revealed. She becomes so worked up by these delusions that she pushes herself too hard and utterly exhausts herself. Ami rarely gets carried away like this, but rather than feeling out of character, it feels like she reveals the underlying Ami when her confidence and calmness is peeled away.
While the short plays this for laughs, it also lets viewers know just how dedicated Ami is to her studies and how important being the best at academics is to her. She takes so much pride in her smarts that she makes a fool of herself when she feels like that core part of her identity, how she defines herself as a person, is being threatened. She can’t simply accept someone else is as smart as her but has to rationalize them as either an object of hate and love and ultimately justifies the option that best satisfies her pride. By allowing Ami to be comedically vulnerable in grappling with her conflicting feelings for Mercurius, the short explores sides to Ami viewers haven’t seen before, becoming a valuable insight into more nuances in her character and the cracks in her mature demeanor. It’s a great example of how Sailor Moon explores and develops its characters through comedy just as much through its dramatic storylines, which is undoubtedly a huge part of its endearing appeal. There’s so much heart and humor here that it’s almost a shame that it isn’t the SuperS movie itself.
Which isn’t to say the SuperS movie is lacking those qualities just that its focus is less novel. In the same way, the S movie’s story touches upon the relationship between Usagi and Luna, SuperS focuses squarely on Usagi and Chibiusa. While Usagi and Luna’s relationship is underexplored in the series itself, Usagi and Chibiusa’s relationship is one of the core focal points of the series and a driving force in three of its five arcs. Since it’s such well-trodden ground, the SuperS mostly reaffirms what their dynamic is. Despite Chibiusa frequently jabbing at her mother’s incompetence and Usagi’s childish competitiveness with her daughter, there’s never any doubt they both care about one another. When she’s kidnapped, Chibiusa confidently tells the villain Badiane that Sailor Moon will defeat her, never once losing faith in her even when things turn bleak. While Usagi complains that her friends and boyfriend are giving Chibiusa more attention than her, when she’s given the choice to let Chibiusa sleep forever to keep Mamoru all to herself, she immediately sees through the ruse and rejects it without hesitation. They might get on each other’s nerves and tease one another, but Usagi and Chibiusa are family. Even though it doesn’t say anything new about their relationship, Usagi and Chibiusa’s dynamic provides a strong emotional core for the film that provides several satisfying moments and a fantastic payoff where they defeat Badiane together.
That said, SuperS is the most formulaic of the three films, relying on Toei’s tendencies to recycle plot elements from a series for the stories of their features. SuperS heavily borrows from the Dreams arc, replicating the same basic outline by featuring a fairylike character escaping from an evil circus-themed organization to warn the Sailor Guardians of their world-conquering machinations, making first contact with Chibiusa. The friendship and trust built between Chibiusa and Perle is strikingly similar to her and Helios’, and much like Helios, Perle plays a crucial role in defeating the antagonist by being the Guardians’s guide to a new place and helping them regain their powers. Even Usagi’s jealousy of Chibiusa and them working together to defeat the antagonist draws from the season. The SuperS film feels like a loose reimaging of its corresponding season, stripped down to its most basic ideas and elements, which feels like a step backward from the original and innovative storylines of the previous two films.
Despite this, SuperS still explores the selflessness vs. selfishness theme of the previous films. This idea is intertwined with new ideas about motherhood and growing up, dissecting the core Chibiusa and Usagi relationship and focusing on Usagi’s maturity. The Guardians reflect on their childhood memories of how their mothers raised them, lamenting the hardships of adulthood and romanticizing their childhood innocence. Chibiusa, meanwhile, only comments on her mother’s imperfections to Usagi’s chagrin. Yet Usagi’s immaturity is exposed when she throws a fit about her friends like Chibiusa’s cookies more, saying her mother will like them better. Chibiusa arguably brings out Usagi’s childish side because she reminds her of the adult she’ll need to be in the future, and she’s not in a hurry to grow up. She wants to be pampered and babied by her parents, friends, and boyfriend, selfishly asking Mamoru if he cares about her more than Chibiusa and acting up when he refuses to answer. Badiane wants to trap children in dream worlds where they’ll be happy forever, never having to worry about growing up. However, when Usagi is presented with the opportunity to live in such a dream world, she rejects it. She thinks about the responsibilities she has towards her friends and Chibiusa, and that’s more important to her than living a comfortable worry-free life. The Guardians equate their mothers’ selflessness to adultness, and in this moment Usagi makes a choice both as Chibiusa’s mother and as an adult. It’s far from the first time she’s made a selfless sacrifice for the sake of her friends, but SuperS thoughtfully highlights her steps towards adulthood and becoming the mother she’ll be to Chibiusa in the future by making her confront that choice and recognizing what she cares about more.
While the thematic concept is strong, its effectiveness is hampered by messier story elements. Badiane’s goals are clear, but her motives are questionable. She believes children will be happier in their dream worlds, but it’s never clear why she cares or how that benefits her. At best, the villains can be said to be misguided misanthropes, thinking they’re doing what’s best for humanity because humans create so much unhappiness if left by themselves. They’re quite shallow and barely explored, mostly memorable just for their over-the-top designs and performances. Unfortunately, much of the film’s runtime is spent on battles between the Guardians and the villains’ bulbous minions, the Bon Bon Babies, which are goofy-looking but personality-less ciphers that only serve to pad out the runtime with repetitious battles. Despite being subtitled “The Nine Sailor Guardians Unite! Miracle of the Black Dream Hole,” the film’s story is squarely focused on Usagi and Chibiusa, making the other Guardians feel mostly superfluous to the story outside of providing a few humerous moments. Consequently, the film feels both slow and overstuffed, and the time spent on the Guardians and their fights could’ve been better served to define the motivations and characterizations of the antagonists more clearly.
SuperS is as much a cinematic upgrade of the series as the other films aesthetically. Unsurprisingly, for a movie featuring candy and carnival-themed baddies, the color palate of the film is rich and vibrant, even during night scenes. The character animation is top-notch, particularly emphasizing interesting sight gags. A particularly great gag moment is when Usagi and Chibiusa try to get away from the Bon Bon Babies, going through a variety of exaggerated and hilarious expressions while also fighting with each other as they start running in circles. There’s a lot of thought put into the interactivity of the characters with each other and their environment in both gag and battle scenes, which helps make the characters feel more alive. There’s also a lot of interesting camerawork that adds some cool dynamism to scenes, like when Chibiusa falls down the tunnel that takes her to Badiane’s chamber, where the camera maneuvers between close-ups on her sliding through the tunnel to moving away to show the other children trapped in dream chambers all in one fluid and unbroken sequence. Another beautifully animated moment in the film is when Chibiusa gets kidnapped and is being taken away by the ship. All the while she’s holding her arm out screaming for Usagi, who helplessly goes through an array of shocked and horrified expressions as she watches her go out of sight. They might not have grabbed each other, but they broke my heart darn it! The attention to detail in scenes like these provides a lot of visual information that tells the story more viscerally and emotionally than any words could.
The film is musically very fairy tale-esque, quite appropriate for a movie centered around children’s dreams and The Pied Piper folktale. Unfortunately, the song sung by the children hypnotized by Poupelin isn’t dubbed or subtitled. The song is clearly significant considering its repetition, and with no translation of any form, those who don’t know Japanese are missing out on an essential part of the viewing experience. Hopefully this will be remedied in the Blu-ray release, but it is a sour note in Viz Media’s otherwise excellent dub.
SuperS has the reputation of being the weakest of the three films, and there’s definitely a case for it. However, there’s still a great deal of substance to it, both in its story content and its gorgeous art and animation. Alongside the hilarious Ami’s First Love short, it’s a great representation of the series and what it does well, highlighting its unique and memorable characters and its enduringly iconic aesthetics. For Sailor Moon fans new and old, it was a pleasure to see these films on the big screen, surrounded by families and friends excited to share these experiences. If there’s one consistent truth about Sailor Moon, it’s that it brings people together through something they love. I’d say that, above all else, is what makes the series and these theatrical features so magical.