The Comics Classroom: SAILOR MOON and the Heroine’s Journey

A few years ago, while taking a course relating to Critical Theory, I had two encounters with an instructor that profoundly helped to shape my views on Joseph Campbell.

At one point during discussion, Campbell’s name came up, to which I asked whether he was or was not still a viable figure within academic discourse. The instructor (one of the best I have had the pleasure of being taught by) tilted their head back and laughed. They said that, and I am paraphrasing, “if you try to bring up Campbell’s name as a serious one in academia, you’re going to be laughed out of the room.”

I felt conflicted about this because, while I did not explicitly rely on Campbell for much since I had read most of his major works a few years prior, he was still very much a “force” within literary studies. Or at least, his work The Hero With A Thousand Faces and The Hero’s Journey [THJ] was. While continuing on with this instructor, we had a similar engagement on Marx and Das Kapital. In much the same manner as Campbell, the instructor commented how, due to history, Marx’s ideas were proven wrong, but then they said something inspired.

Again, I am paraphrasing, but their comment was that … however, just because we shouldn’t point back to Marx as a primary source any more, does not mean you’re obligated to ignore what he established, who he inspired, and how current works from more accurate scholars refer back to him.” Funny enough, this would also be that instructor’s view on Freud.

So, the idea of “reading the room” on Campbell stuck with me, but so did the idea that his ideas were not explicitly ones to reject, rather they needed context.

The second experience I had with Campbell came via Twitter, while I was engaging with a fellow author about tropes during which Campbell’s name came up. I dismissed him out of hand, but the impact of his presence has stayed with me for some time. While it was true that THJ has structuralist (pardon the pun) foundations, I had never truly sought out work that did anything beyond serve as apologetics for his ideas. While I understood the mental dilemma I was caught in on the issue, my Dissertation work proved to be more pressing and, thus, the issue remained unresolved.

Through a stroke of luck, as I was concluding an earlier draft of this very paper (which was far, far different), I managed to land a copy of the Routledge Companion to Imaginary Worlds. I needed an electronic version of the text as my ILL (Inter Library Loan) version had to be sent back, but I really wanted to look up some random article I had notes on again.

While reading, I came across scholar Lily Alexander’s chapter “The Hero’s Journey,” a section I had glanced at months ago. I decided to give it a closer read. I was amazed by how a genuine attempt was made to examine THJ in a more modern light while also bluntly addressing its accomplishments and failures. To that end, I knew I wanted to examine it in light of an established comic.

Having loved Sailor Moon’s unique approach to being both conventional and subversive at the same time, I re-wrote this piece into what it is now. While I am not sure if Alexander’s ideas completely redeem the flaws of a structuralist mindset, what it does do is help provide windows of context. I hope that examining Sailor Moon alongside Alexander’s hot-take on THJ provides insights into how we read and re-read out favorite narratives, how we approach the idea of “enlightenment” and “wisdom,” and also how we (should) always keep updating our views to adjust for newer and more insightful theories and ideas.

From Immortals to School Girls

I have written on Sailor Moon in the past, and mainly I focused on Usagi Tsukino, the titular Sailor Moon herself, but for this series I want to make sure and bring in the other stars of the series, the other Sailor Senshi: Rei (Sailor Mars), Ami (Sailor Mercury), Makoto (Sailor Jupiter), and Aino (Sailor Venus). While I adore Usagi, the journey of these girls is in many ways a group effort, so focusing on one Journey in particular might mean omitting relevant aspects of the other characters.

Each member of the senshi (warriors) brings in different aspects of what, according to Alexander, makes THJ, here now referred to The Heroine’s Journey (THerJ) as being special. So, let’s break down both some positive and negative aspects of THerJ that Campbell brings up, and also some relevant criticism of Sailor Moon as a genre. I believe somewhere between the genuine critiques of this manga series and the structuralist views it can be read within, there is genuine insight to be found, not to mention enjoyment.

The core premise of the Sailor Moon series is that, in the distant past, humanity dwelt upon the Earth while a second civilization existed upon the Moon. The princess of the Moon Kingdom fell in love with the prince of the Earth, and thus calamity befell both societies. From the ruins of the Moon civilization, the princess’ mother, Queen Serenity, was able to ensure that five girls were able to be reborn on the Earth to have a second chance at life. This is the backstory behind how, in time, the five heroines come to ‘awaken’ to their fabulous powers and, eventually, save the world on numerous occasions. While Usagi, Sailor Moon, is the princess heroine of the series, she was not reincarnated alone. What about her companions? Why are they as important as she is?

Interestingly, while Usagi’s past life was as a Moon girl who was born and who grew and aged, the past lives of her companions were different. The princess was guarded by the literal spirits of the inner planets, those being Mercury, Venus, Mars and Jupiter, respectively. These figures were, in a sense, gods. They were not mortal in a traditional sense, yet they loved their princess and strove, in all things, to be at their lady’s side. Included in this relationship was the notion that they would only live for her and serve her, even at the expense of romantic love. There are even hints that these warriors held romantic feelings for the guardians of the Earth’s prince, yet they abstained from acting on these feelings because of their vows.

The origins of these warrior maidens are anchored to the idea of forgoing marital and child-bearing responsibilities, possibly due to the fact that they were not human to begin with, yet merely appeared that way. However, upon being reincarnated into human forms, they each undergo the lived experiences of human teenagers.

Why does this all matter? Well, one of the common critiques of the Sailor Moon story revolves around the dynamic of how the main narrative of the story focuses on Sailor Moon’s romantic interests. The critique follows that, for a show aiming to empower women, it’s lofty goals for the heroine (Usagi) focus on romance and that she eventually settles down. I’ll bring in this particular quote from scholar Kumiko Saito’s article “Magic, Shojo, and Metamorphosis: Magical Girl Anime and the Challenges of Changing Gender Identities in Japanese Society” to explain further. Saito writes:

From Sailor Moon to Magical Do Re Mi (serialized 1999–2003) and Precure, the virtual experience of maternal duties is a component that consistently intervenes in the battle heroines’ everyday life, ranging from caring for a baby to building a mother-daughter cooperative relationship. In Cardcaptor Sakura’s motherless household, the family members rotate on housework, including fourth-grader Sakura herself cleaning and cooking in many episodes. Sailor Moon’s later series could not succeed without the virtual family relationship of Sailor Moon, her future husband Tuxedo Mask, and their daughter who time-traveled from the future.” (157)

Let me first say that the critical assessment here of Sailor Moon takes a harsh but fair stance since Saito’s intention is to examine the historical importance of Shojo works. In that regard, her article establishes, for one thing, the economic dynamic which was part of the Shojo’s development as a genre. It was, for all intents and purposes, a genre rooted in commercialization as much (nay, if not more) as it was in entertainment.

And, to be sure, any issues of female empowerment ‘enlightenment’ which could be brought in might be found in the transition of the series from print manga to animated series. So, for the purposes of this article, let me say that while I believe Saito’s research is excellent, I’ll have to ignore some uniquely strong aspects of the article to examine instead things which are evident within the manga as well as any TV adaptions. Still, I did want to address the care and research put into Saito’s work, even if I have to say how not all the aspects of commercialization and economics established in the article are going to be transferable to this piece.

So, returning to the gender role dynamic critique: I believe the criticism holds true for Usagi, but it does not hold up for the other heroines of the story. My reasons for pulling this quote are to highlight how, if one examines Sailor Moon as a series from the perspective of just one character, there are clearly critiques which can be made on a sort of micro-level which absolutely do hold up.

I would counter with the idea that, because of the mythology Usagi and Mamoru (Tuxedo Mask) draw upon, they being Endymion and Selene, it would be rather off the mark for them to not come together in a relationship, but if we examine all the senshi together? If we examine the ‘sailor senshi’ as undergoing a certain kind of collective journey, as opposed to just examining Usagi herself, I think certain new avenues of conversation open up.

The Heroine’s Journey actually seems to work here rather well as a new discourse option, assuming we’ll go on this new discourse path together. But, first, let me establish some history for the structuralist Hero’s Journey, how it began, and the contexts I want to mention that Alexander considers important.

The Hero(ine)’s Journey Explained and Remixed

While Joseph Campbell is famous for having written the book The Hero’s Journey, wherein he described the monomyth and The Hero’s Journey, Alexander rightly uses her article to point out that Campbell wasn’t the first person to explore the core elements of mythological structures, he was simply among th first to do it from a literary perspective. As Alexander explains,

“The anthropologists had been aware, by then, of life passages for more than a century, while humankind—our collective ancestors—not only merely acknowledged it for millennia, but had carefully addressed the means of ritual-narrative practices. The first scholar who brought attention to the phenomenon later signified as THJ was the Dutch anthropologist Arnold van Gennep in his foundational book The Rites of Passage (1909/1961). His work helped to launch an array of subfield in anthropology, resonating in the works of Mikhail Bakhtin (1928/1984; 1965/1984; 1981), Lucien Levy-Bruhl (1935/1983), Claude Levi-Strauss (1966, 1974, 1995), Mary Douglas (2002), Marshall Sahlins (1986), Ronald Grimes (1990, 2002), Peter Stoller (2008), Tom F. Driver (2006), Catherine Bell (2009), and the disciplines of symbolic anthropology and the anthropology of experience pioneered by Victor Turner (Turner 1969, 1975, 1976; Turner and Bruner, 1986; Armstrong, 1981; Losev 1985/2003), as well as the anthropology of religion that overlaps with the theories of ritual (Lambeck, 2008) and the emerging field of biosocial studies (Rappoport, 1999; Ingold and Palsson, 2013).” (12)

I appreciate the thought Alexander puts into the examination of those who have contributed to the study of myth and socio-narrative development, but what good is knowing about these names in conjunction with, of all things, Sailor Moon?

While you don’t have to go back in time to re-read my older piece(s) on Sailor Moon, the core idea of the story is a fusion of Japanese and Greek mythology. While I mentioned earlier that Endymion and Serenity were part of the lore behind the series, there is another story at the heart of the Sailor Moon series and that is of the moon princess Kaguyahime. In the story, a maiden from the Moon is born on Earth in Japan (like Usagi) and that she comes to be loved by the Emperor, Mikado.

Unfortunately, their love is not to be as the maiden returns to her family when they call to her. The story’s haunting beauty of one which emphasizes obligation over emotion is, to be sure, part of the over-all story behind most of the sailor senshi. These reborn deities have human feelings now, and some of them even form attachments to boys (and obsess over them, as teenagers are prone to do), but what empowers them in this life, as it did in their past lives, is obligation to their princess, Usagi. There is one panel which will forever remain with me where the idea of boys coming before the group’s mission is outlined rather explicitly.

So, what journey is it these girls go on and how does this connect back to The Heroine’s Journey? I know I explained that Campbell was not the first to pioneer research into myths and their socio-cultural implications, but it was important that I point out the ties these female characters have to myths other than the love story of Serenity and Endymion. While Usagi is the only native-born Moon citizen, all the senshi are reborn celestial beings who come to earth and of these five, four of them maintain that their bonds to their friends and princess are greater than their romantic attachments to men.

To understand how the senshi’s collective journey ties into The Heroine’s Journey, let me bring back Alexander for some context as to ‘how’ we can see a structuralist perspective like THerJ as still having merit. Alexander writes:

“Communal experience has shown that there is no other way of changing, for the humans, including psychologically growing, than through drastic turns that lead us toward emerging identities, transforming biologically (as well as hormonally), emotionally, socially, and spiritually. Notably, these transformations must happen in a sequence of necessary steps. This type of phase transition—observed by our savvy ancestors to have occurred in all nature—is also underscored in Hegel’s laws of dialectics: the negation of negation, and the transformation of quantity into (emerging new) quality.” (13)

The importance behind THerJ is the focus on change, particularly the kind which focuses on emotional and social change. I don’t think it is a mistake that the Sailor Moon narrative focuses on young girls in high school. Saito’s own commentary on the magical girl and shojo genre properly points out how these stories are about women who are on the cusp of transition between being young girls and being young adults. There is an obvious focus of sexual awakening within these stories, one where Saito argues that, in this space, sexualization and male gaze comes into play.

Again, Saito is not wrong to see how Usagi, as a character, emphasizes a transition from a young girl to a heroine who has cosmetic powers (literally) that only serves in the end to push her towards a husband and family. But the rest of the senshi are reincarnations of deities who, as far as we know, will never age regardless of their human re-births. Still, despite their divine origins, we, as readers, have to see them go through very human experiences. The senshi have to meet one another, they have to be petty and charming and young. Some of the senshi do go on dates, but the between-the-lines readings of these girls relationships is that they’re explicitly bisexual if they’re anything, a fact which is blatantly evident in Sailor Uranus and Sailor Nepture.

However, even their relationship isn’t straightforward because Sailor Uranus is implied to be an entity which is both representative of male and female power. This is not to say Uranus is hermaphroditic, explicitly at least, but the point is that these are not traditional cis-oriented characters. As reincarnated deities, it would not be unfair to say they’re each capable of being anything they wish, yet the excitement of their collective journey is in being human.

To re-iterate, heroic journeys are not all about fighting monsters and saving the world. It is true that the senshi do this, but the emotional heart of their journey collectively is in the bonds of love (implicitly romantic of platonic, take your pick) they form with one another. As teens, they’re undergoing the aforementioned transition from young girls to women, and while the Shojo focus might mean we’ll never see all the senshi become adults (this is something reserved for Usagi alone, and possibly Sailor Pluto who is beyond time itself), we certainly see all of them grow together. Also, perhaps most importantly, we see them commit to renewing their vows of companionship and closeness in spite of the fact that they all died together once before.

The dominant arc of the sailor senshi is their re-discovery that they’ve all been close in the past, that they underwent a calamitous war and lost because of an impulse to see true love come to fruition. Here is where I might question (some) of Saito’s critique of Sailor Moon. Saito points out how the villains of many shojo series are ‘failed wives/mothers.’

The first lead antagonist of the series, Queen Beryl, is the cause of the calamity which decimated the first Moon and Earth civilizations. She was enamored with Prince Endymion, yet when he did not notice her, due to her love for the Princess, she turned relations between Earth and the Moon sour through sorcery until war erupted. This calamity lead to the deaths of the original sailor senshi. I would perhaps put forth that the real lesson was to remind young girls not to let their jealousy of other’s relationships block one off from pursuing whatever life is possible, as Beryl does. She becomes obsessed with Endymion, to her eventual peril and destruction. Her obsession with a man kills her, as it killed countless before in her past life. I would think the manga, then, isn’t positing that Beryl failed as a woman, it is that she failed as a person to move beyond jealousy and lust.

Once the senshi discover they have been close once before and died for it, they still remain close. They commit to bonds of friendship and intimacy in spite of knowing their fates could very possibly repeat. While we do not get to know the relationship the Princess and her guardians had in the past, we do see the journey their characters make in the manga’s present.

By watching these young girls evolve into heroes, all over again, as well as by watching them go through school and life, I believe this is closest to what Alexander is pointing to as being vital transitions from one identity to the next. In a way, all the senshi literally have to adjust to the fact that they were born as humans, then comprehend that they were one divine, and then transition forward in their lives with the dual knowledge of both divine and mortal identities in them. We, as readers, would be robbed of comprehending something vital if we have experienced the narrative of Sailor Moon in some kind of reverse order or non-chronological order. The Heroine’s Journey the senshi undertake has to show them going through the most difficult phases of life, high school, and also coming into their own as divinities who save the world from time to time.

The core premise of Sailor Moon is not unique. We have had countless stories of young people transitioning from one phase of life to the next since, as Alexander points out, this is how life happens. We have no other frame of reference for how stories can function when they focus on individuals since we only progress forwards in time one way, i.e.: we get older, we change (biologically, socially or personally) and we try to turn what we learn into wisdom and enlightenment.

So, what is the wisdom behind Sailor Moon? I might think, if anything, it is that it redeems the Hero’s Journey … but to explain that in more detail, we need to first understand what is wrong with The Hero’s Journey.

The Hero’s (Cracked) Journey

If there is one criticism that seems universal of The Hero’s Journey, it is this assessment provided by Alexander:

The popularity of THJ in the media discourse is not without controversies, particularly when the formula and its components are superficially overused, misused, and even abused. As any efficient symbolic order, endowed with an intrinsic persuasive power, THJ is especially attractive to those eager to employ it for political or commercial gain. Western societies have lost or given up on the effective initiation mechanisms, similar to those employed by the ancients (Mead, 1928a/b, 1942, 1999, 2000, 2003). It is not a secret that it is the modern media that has attempted to take upon itself this role, with mixed results. Most media practitioners or those who manage them as a business have little understanding of the true ‘initiating’ role of THJ for individuals and societies. They see its profitability, resulting from the continuously flocking audiences, and promptly harvest the profits.” (17)

While I have mentioned that I don’t wish to bring Saito’s economic points about the Shojo genre back, I should at least say that this is why those points are important and why those earlier points about magical girls pushing dominant trends of gendered stereotypes matter. There has always been a commodified link between producers, consumers, and narratives. Through structural models like The Hero’s Journey, it is very easy to see cultural values twisted and shaped into trends which favor consumption of ideas that enforce a status quo. For example, pushing Sailor Moon toys (wands, stuffed cats, accessories) certainly plays into a particular model of gender and gender expectations that can seem attractive to a particular section of not only Japanese, but even Western society. In much the same way Disney Princess culture has a commodified dark side, so too do magical girls in Japan.

Alexander further states the following indictment of The Hero’s Journey which I believe should be nailed to the door of evert writer’s room on the planet. Alexander writes:

Along with politically controversial messages promoted as ‘enlightenment,’ no less destructive are the superficial uses of THJ with no real message at all. Readers are aware of the fact that popular culture is overpopulated with fake heroes and recognize that media is oversaturated with cheap imitations of the Journey story. Dragons and zombies have been overworked and lost their evil appeal. Software makes it a breeze to create assembly lines of unimaginable beings (Men in Black, 1997), but often neither the monsters nor the authors know what they are doing in the story. The Initiands, sword-wielding or shooting from the hip, promptly destroy their enemies, but gain no wisdom and return without a message for community.” (17)

The reason I wanted to actually focus on the Sailor Moon manga and not the early TV series is actually because the TV adaption, in a sense, conformed to the wrong ideal of the Hero’s Journey. This is not to say that the core principles of the senshi’s journey was not present (they are, and there is so much to say about representation and sexuality in the TV series), but the problem is this: the older TV series was cluttered by filler, specially filler that tended to emphasize serialized monster-of-the-week battles, empty and hollow battles which was what I believe pushed articles such as Saito’s work to exist. I believe the comic foundations of Sailor Moon embody the ideas that Alexander comments on in a more focused and pure manner, hence why I believe they’re appropriate for an article on a comic focused website such as Comicosity.

The Hero’s Journey can be a cheapening, even reductionist system that demands all actions in a narrative conform to one pattern, thus robbing some of the best stories of their dramatic potential. I don’t believe Sailor Moon was written according to any true narrative model, but I do believe that the core themes of love and duty from both Japanese and Greek mythology imprinted itself upon the pages. Because of these myths that made its way into the DNA of the Sailor Moon mythos, the comic does become a link in the narrative chain of stories we have been telling and re-telling since the Bronze Age, and even before that. While I understand that there should never be a one-size-fits-all model for stories, I believe Alexander’s correct re-assessment of THerJ is important. Alexander further states:

The dated components of Campbell’s approach toward THJ reside in the umbrella of Jungian conception of culture and a trend to firmly explain symbols as ‘defined once and for all’ while disregarding the ethnic and historical diversity of symbolization in culture. (For example, Vogler, a fervid follower of Campbell, in The Writer’s Journey, 3rd ed., 2007, defines the sirens of the Greek mythology as the universal symbol of ‘women as danger’; without even suggesting that alternative interpretations are possible.)” (15)

Alexander’s critique of THerJ here is spot on, and because of this I believe it also means we can (and, should) be open to diverse views about how stories linger and evolve within our communities. I have cited Saito’s sharp critique of the magical girl genre from one particular point of view because I have to believe that other interpretations are possible, but I hope I have not come across as having said that Saito’s views are wrong. This is why Alexander’s critique of structuralism is vital to keeping THerJ’s vital: if we view THerJ as a static object inscribed in stone, it will remain unusable by all but those who more often than not want to manipulate and abuse it as a money-making meme. But, in the hands of those who want to help people understand how and why some stories remain vital to us, generation after generation, I believe there is still space for a Hero’s Journey that is open to context. I will close out with one final piece from Alexander before wrapping up this article.

“[…] the notion of archetype has been replaced in anthropology with the concept of dominant symbols (provable and rooted in the practices recorded by ethnographic research, as proposed by Turner). Another questionable term is a monomyth, which implies that there is one core mythic paradigm that defines all mythology. Instead, contemporary symbolic anthropology identifies a spectrum (more than one!) of dominant symbols and core symbolic processes that cover the main spheres of human experience. Psychoanalysis, particularly the Jungian method used by Campbell as his underlying theoretical basis, has been replaced in the discussions of THJ with the framework of new emerging disciplines, such as social and symbolic anthropology, semiotics, narratology, cultural theory, etc. Other often highlighted flaws include reliance on universal symbolic categories and thinking in generic terms about meaning-making in various cultures, ethnicities, and demographics.” (15)

The Wisdom of Friendship, Love and Compassion

I have loved the Sailor Moon story for a very long time, even if it has not always been a narrative I return to as frequently as others. If we should be understanding the ultimate aim of a hero to return to society with a message, I would think the lived experiences of the sailor senshi are wisdom incarnate. They don’t profess an explicit manifesto, but they constantly chose love over anguish, even when they have been hurt. They confide in one another, they help one another, they protect the weak and they even place vows of friendship over inclinations of romance.

As a group, their adventures emphasize growing in new ways despite hormones, school work, parents, jobs and bossy pets from space. I have always held a deep and abiding love for Japanese comics because they so often contain a strong focus on community and friendship, sometimes at the expense of action of bombast. While Sailor Moon is a shojo genre story, with its flowery scenes of love and friendship, it is also a true female coming of age story about a diverse group of young women who go on to discover their inherent divinity.

The narrative is not saying this is what makes the senshi powerful, it is saying they already were powerful because of their humanity. The re-birth of the senshi allowed them all to experience love and loss, friendship and jealousies, so they could form bonds perhaps closer than when they were all deities. If the senshi had not had normal lives, they perhaps would not have been able to grow so close.

Ultimately, I argue it is the value of friendship and compassion which is the greatest wisdom these characters can bring back to us from their adventures beyond one lifetime. While it is a meme, I find the joke a fitting one to close on.

Perhaps the real heroine’s journey wasn’t the worlds the senshi saved from destruction, but the bonds of closeness and love they shared along the way?

[This piece draws heavily from two academic pieces: the first is the second chapter of The Routledge Companion to Imaginary Worlds by Lily Alexander. It is entitled “The Hero’s Journey” and is found on pages 11-20.

The second piece is from scholar Kumiko Saito’s article “Magic, Shojo, and Metamorphosis: Magical Girl Anime and the Challenges of Changing Gender Identities in Japanese Society” from The Journal of Asian Studies Vol. 73, No. 1 (February) 2014: 143–164]


Related posts