Before getting started, I’d like to establish that I am dealing strictly with the anime version of Sailor Moon, not the manga – there is a sufficient amount of difference between the both the content and audience that I don’t want to confuse things by attempting to cover both in my discussion.
Sailor Moon is an interesting thing to make a case for in terms of sexual progressivism, as a quick glance would seem to indicate that Sailor Moon is pretty “modern” about its gender roles – look, the girls are always saving the day, and frequently saving the guy! But on a closer look, we also get a lot of reinforcement of old ideas about gender and its relation to sexuality; the biggest dream of several of the girls? To get married. And Usagi is essentially a total wreck when she and Mamoru aren’t getting along. So its really a mixed bag when you look at it that way.
However, this isn’t to say it is totally devoid of any forward nature when it comes to sexuality and gender. However, it isn’t until the third season, Sailor Moon S, that we really see this coming out into the open (no pun intended, as you shall see), with the appearance of Michiru and Haruka, who are Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus.
Oh, yeah, and did I mention that they’re a couple?
Haruka and Michiru’s relationship ends up being progressive in nature both because of its portrayal within the show, and also simply by the fact that it brought a homosexual relationship into a very mainstream setting – Sailor Moon was, and, truly, remains, massively popular, enough to result in five TV series of two hundred episodes total, at least twenty-five musicals, a live-action show (six years after the final series, Sailor Moon Sailor Stars, concluded), three theatrical movies, and lord knows how many video games. This show averaged about ten to twelve percent of viewership for its time slot during its TV run, which is what family-targeted shows such as Doraemon or Sazae-san garner. Basically, if you had a family with children, you all watched this show.
Anime had certainly had homosexual characters before, but Sailor Moon S brought these characters into the mainstream, and in a positive fashion. Haruka and Michiru are both heroines in this show, helping to defeat the evil that threatens Earth. Their relationship is also the only other romantic one amongst the core cast of characters, and often stands in contrast to the sometimes tumultuous relationship of Usagi and Mamoru. While the other ladies of the cast wheel around makings fools of themselves over guys or just flat-out fail at starting or maintaining relationships, Haruka and Michiru are the picture of stability and maturity.
Its also worth noting that Haruka and Michiru are very clearly portrayed as a couple, as opposed to the multitude of ‘are they, or aren’t they?’ that you get in many titles, particularly with shoujo. The rest of the cast treats them as they would any couple; the fact that they are both girls seems to be of no issue.They participate in things as a couple, such as a silly love contest in which you have to pick out your girlfriend by just seeing her hand (Haruka was the only one who succeeded), and when going to formal events. Naoko Takeuchi herself has even explicitly stated that they are both lesbians, and Kunihiko Ikuhara* (who directed S, and parts of R and SuperS) instructed the voice actresses for the pair to portray them like a “married couple”.
Michiru and Haruka’s relationship was a bit controversial when Sailor Moon S aired in Japan, as earlier shoujo shows like Oniisama e… were never completely clear-cut on the issue of homosexual content, nor were they as wildly popular as Sailor Moon had become. But the controversy hardly slowed things down, as evidenced by the continued popularity of the franchise, and character polls frequently listed Haruka and Michiru as appearing in the top ten for characters from the series (a 1995 Animage female character poll had Haruka placing as the number one favorite female character amongst respondents). And when the pair re-appeared in Sailor Moon Sailor Stars after an absence in SuperS, their relationship was heavily implied to have become a sexual one – doesn’t sound like the rabble-rousers had much of an affect on Toei’s decisions.
I must admit that it is unclear if the presence of Haruka and Michiru in a mainstream show such as Sailor Moon has ultimately had any affect on the portrayal of homosexual characters (and their relationships) in other mainstream titles; I am inclined, I will say, to say that it hasn’t, as evidenced by the lack of similar characters and dynamics in shows such as Mermaid Melody Pichi Pichi Pitch or Pretty Cure (yes, I know that the first three seasons had pairs of girls who could be construed as having feelings for one another, but within the show itself they ultimately are not shown as having romantic intentions with one another). However, even if there has been a lack of positively-portrayed, homosexual characters in fairly mainstream shows since**, Sailor Moon’s Haruka and Michiru remain as a show of sexual progressivism in the franchise. Go, go, Sailor Moon!
* Ikuhara has stated a preference for having girls in romantic relationships with other girls as opposed to with guys since he feels that when a girl gets together with a guy in anime or manga, it tends to end up dominating the story.
** Yes, I do realize that “homosexual” characters do appear in things such as Bleach (of course, only one of these supposedly homosexual characters is explicitly shown to be a lesbian, and she’s there purely for the sake of fanservice at that), but Bleach is not a mainstream show in the manner that Sailor Moon was – for comparison, Bleach averages about three to four percent of TV viewership for its time slot, which is well below the ten to twelve Sailor Moon got while airing.