Three weeks ago, Complex published a conversation between me and Gregory Babcock, two cultural critics with severely opposed assessments of the anime mega-franchise Dragon Ball Z. Greg loves Dragon Ball Z. I hate Dragon Ball Z and everything it represents in the way of U.S. anime fandom. Safe to say, our readership sides more so with Greg and less so with me, the hater.
In short: I've argued that Dragon Ball Z is a big, dumb, inefficient story driven by flat characters and shoddy animation of repetitive violence. Greg argues that little boys love that shit, and rightfully so.
Following our initial conversation, many readers complained (in the comments, in my Twitter mentions) that I was overthinking Dragon Ball Z and its appeal since, after all, it's a shonen anime designed for aspirationally aggressive little boys. What's funniest about this counter is that it disregards the broader argument: that shows like Naruto, One Piece, Fullmetal Alchemist, and Trigun—all successors to Dragon Ball Z—appeal to a similar audience and execute such brilliant action while further excelling in terms of plot, characterizations, scriptwriting, and animation. All of these shows are for kids. Yet all of these other shows surpass Dragon Ball Z on so many critical merits. It's as if Dragon Ball Z, influential though it may be, isn't really very good.
Unlike Naruto and those other shonen descendants of DBZ, shojo anime pioneer Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon's television run roughly coincides with that of Dragon Ball Z; the former series premiered in 1989, the latter in 1992. Among U.S. anime fans, the original Sailor Moon series is about as influential as Dragon Ball Z, though the respective appeal of these shows is stark in contrast, audience-wise. Dragon Ball Z is a kung fu movie-inspired battle series. Sailor Moon is a "magical girl" squad dramedy chock full of romance, action, and subplots galore.
When I was a kid, I watched the original Sailor Moon, Sailor Moon R, and none of the later three seasons. I can't front like Sailor Moon is a show that I'd rewatch on the regular, but I will admit that the first season, two-part finale had me bawling harder than I did when Chris and Snoop assassinated Bodie in season four of The Wire, not gonna lie. That's because unlike Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon is an actual story of dynamic characters who relate to each other in messy, compelling ways that encourage emotional investment in those characters, their development, their mission, and their mortality. (Dragon Ball Z is a show about loud noises.)
The original Sailor Moon is the story of 14-year-old Usagi Tsukino, who inherits magical powers from a kitty cat and is destined to fight evil conspiracies and witchcraft alongside her similarly empowered yet dissimilarly tempered BFFs. The Sailor Soldiers are, essentially, the frilly and fashionably galactic sentai version of Bobby Shmurda's GS9. Sailor Mars is Rowdy Rebel. Gohan is not about that life.
In Sailor Moon's five-season run, the series' most notable showrunner to date is Kunihiko Ikuhara, who directed eight (of 46) episodes of the original season and later left the franchise to create his own Revolutionary Girl Utena in 1997, Mawaru-Penguindrum in 2011, and the recent Yurikuma Arashi, which finished its single-season Japanese domestic run in March. While Dragon Ball creator Akira Toriyama is possibly the richest manga artist of all time, Ikuhara is the rigorous and celebrated auteur. He has several acclaimed series to his credit. As with all five Sailor Moon seasons, Utena, Penguindrum, and Yurikuma are variously concerned with adolescence, self-determination, female friendship, tragic sacrifice, and the power of fairy tales. Sailor Moon was Ikuhara's springboard for more ambitious and distinct execution of these themes.
Akira Toriyama hasn't had a new idea since 1996.
As an international portal for anime novices, Dragon Ball Z is understandably popular as a simple, accessible, burdenless plot with many grunts and explosions. After my earlier discussion with Greg, I now understand why DBZ fans vigorously advocated for the show in their teens. Still, it baffles me that so many fans seem never to grow out of DBZ fandom despite easily growing out of other previously cherished cartoons. I loved Rugrats as a child, but now I'm 27-years-old and not inclined to pretend as if that or any other Nickelodeon cartoon was immortally awesome. You know Rugrats ain't fuckin' with Batman: The Animated Series.
As for anime in particular: Sailor Moon and, say, Fullmetal Alchemist aren't so loud or brute as Dragon Ball Z, but they do underscore anime's various points of superiority in comparison to American animation. For one, the general rule that the artwork of all popular U.S. cartoons is drab at best, if not fully crude and ugly as fuck. e.g., Shouts out to Avatar: The Last Airbender and its JCPenney selection of earth tones to color literally everything except ice and the arrow on that one lead character's forehead.
Dragon Ball Z frames look like they were rubbed through with an eraserhead that couldn't bother to finish the job. You can watch so much better than this.