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Sailor Moon and the Snow Queen: A History of a Patriarchal Trope

the icy face of the animated snow kaguya

In 2021, it was announced the Sailor Moon musical, Kaguya-hime’s Beloved, would stream worldwide. It was available from December 2021 through the beginning of February 2022. I have seen it and it is delightful!

In celebration of this musical, I decided to revisit this classic story from the manga which provided the storyline of the second animated Sailor Moon movie. I’ve written about this story before, looking at a real life “Moon Princess” that influenced this story–Dr. Chiaki Mukai, the first Japanese woman in space. This time, I wanted to take a closer look at the villain of this story, Snow Kaguya.

A Fairy Tale Trope: The Snow Queen

Illustration by Elena Ringo http://www.elena-ringo.com

Snow Queens–also known as Winter Witches–have been on my mind. With Disney’s Frozen and Frozen 2, the Snow Queen trope has made quite the comeback! Not only that, but this trope seems to be important in more subtle ways as well. For example, in Game of Thrones, characters such as Daenerys Targaryen and Sansa Stark, become increasingly “icier” as they move to colder climates as well as attaining more power. The more power these women have, the more devoid of emotion they are.

Folklore of Winter Witches goes back hundreds of years, but we can trace their more recent popularity to Hans Christian Anderson’s The Snow Queen which published in 1844. The story starts with a magical mirror that hides the good and beautiful while magnifying the bad and ugly. The mirror shatters and a piece falls into the eye of a young boy named Kai, making his personality cold and negative. He is kidnapped by the Snow Queen and whisked away to her palace. Kai’s friend, a young girl Gerda, sets out to save him. I was surprised to realize how closely Kaguya-hime’s Beloved actually adheres to this storyline.

Kaguya’s Beloved opens with Kakeru–Kai’s counterpart–acquiring a shard of ice that has fallen from the sky, a piece, it turns out, that grows into Snow Kaguya. And while Kakeru doesn’t become cruel like Kai, Kakeru is griped by illness and loneliness. It’s up to Himeko, Kakeru’s colleague and friend from childhood, to save him just like Gerda.

Image and translation courtesy Miss Dream

Like his other popular fairy tale The Little Mermaid, The Snow Queen is also based on one of Hans Christian Anderson’s unrequited loves. He fell in love with popular opera singer Jenny Lind, but she declined his marriage proposal. By rejecting his affections, Jenny Lind becomes the Snow Queen, a powerful woman who has a young man under her thrall yet withholds her affection.

In Kaguya’s Beloved, Snow Kaguya operates much more like the personification of loneliness rather a powerful woman with no heart. (Although she is that too!) Much of the story focuses on Kakeru’s loneliness due to his failure to live up to the expectations placed on him as a child prodigy. Even Himeko feels alienated from him; he is not open with her as to why he is unable to go into space.

During a battle between Snow Kaguya and the Sailor Guardians, Snow Kaguya uses dreams and loneliness as her weapon. She freezes the inner guardians and traps them in beautiful dreams. Rei’s dreams of her parents, Makoto and Minako dream of their past crushes, and Usagi’s dreams of being with Mamoru. Oddly, it’s not shown what Ami is dreaming about. This is a very quick moment in the manga and the outer guardians quickly return to break out the inner guardians. A deeper dive into their guardians’ insecurities and dreams are explored more fully in the next volume, the Dream arc.

Princess Snow Kaguya: An Art Deco Queen

Lucky for us, Naoko Takeuchi has shared her story and design inspiration for Snow Kaguya. You can find these notes in Sailor Moon Short Stories Volume 2 and volume 11 of the Tokyopop edition. Naoko explains that the design for Snow Kaguya and her snow dancers came from two art deco statues she bought from an antique store. Wikipedia defines art deco as:

… a style of visual arts, architecture and design that first appeared in France just before World War I.[1]… A sleeker form of the style, called Streamline Moderne, appeared in the 1930s, featuring curving forms and smooth, polished surfaces…Artists and designers integrated motifs from ancient Egypt…One of the best-known Art Deco salon sculptors was the Romanian-born Demétre Chiparus, who produced colorful small sculptures of dancers. 

You can see this sleek style in the hood ornament below, called Victoire, by René Lalique (1928). It definitely reminds me of the ice dancers’ hair!

As for the Snow Queen herself, the statue she is based on depicts the biblical character, Salome. I found this quite striking. As you may know, Salome is a young woman whose seductive dance leads to the death of the prophet, John the Baptist. It’s a story of how society fears the power of female sexuality–how a young girl with little power can sway powerful kings and topple God’s chosen men.

I thought this revelation was quite ironic since Snow Kaguya is rendered as an adult woman. Not only that, but the heroines of Sailor Moon are young, attractive women–practically peers of Salome. However, Sailor Moon and her sailor guardians never use their sexuality to win a battle. It’s an element of Sailor Moon that I’m always thankful for; their power comes from the light that shines inside them, not their beauty.

Anyway, I fell down a rabbit hole of the depictions of Salome throughout history. It does seem that around the late 1800s and early 1900s, it was popular to depict Salome as bare-breasted. Also common was her hip-hugging skirt like the one Snow Kaguya wears. Here is example by Ferdinand Preiss, circa 1920.

Female villains in Sailor Moon usually wear tight-fitting clothing, and show much more skin than the sailor guardians. Queen Beryl’s dress, for example, also has a boob window. So, Snow Kaguya keeps with theme and even takes it step further–she is bare-breasted, with Naoko Takeuchi even making a mark for her nipples. In the guardians’ transformations sequences, she does not give them nipples.

The Japanese Winter Witch: Yuki-Onna

image via missdream.org

So far I’ve talked about the various Western inspirations for Snow Kaguya–the original Snow Queen fairytale, the biblical Salome and the Art Deco movement. But what about Japanese folklore? First, it’s important to note Snow Kaguya’s name. Since Kakeru is enamored with the Moon Princess folktale, he names the comet Snow Kaguya. And in one Japanese story, Kaguya is, in fact, both the Moon Princess and a winter goddess. However, in this story, she operates much more like the Japanese Winter Witch, yuki-onna.

There are many iterations of yuki-onna. Sometimes she is a mysterious woman who marries a human man, other times she’s a malevolent spirit that freezes to death unsuspecting travelers. One variation is similar to a vampire or succubus–where she sucks the life force from her victims, particularly men. This exactly what happens to Kakeru, who becomes weaker as the Snow Kaguya shard drains his energy. And while this detail isn’t particularly emphasized, Snow Kaguya does has vampire-like fangs–as you can see in the manga image above.

What strikes me often times about Japanese folktales and the ghosts, demons, and other supernatural beings that populate them is that they seem to be manifestations of everyday fears. In other words, Yuki-onna encapsulates the fear of a literal snowstorm rather than a powerful human woman.

Snow Kaguya: The Queen of Isolation

At the beginning of this article, I mentioned Elsa from Disney’s Frozen. In Frozen, the movie makes a connection between Elsa’s formidable powers and how it isolates her from her loved ones. However, in Sailor Moon‘s version of the story, the powerful snow queen is the personification of loneliness itself. In Sailor Moon, I find that Naoko Takeuchi often seamlessly weaves together both Western and Eastern traditions. Kaguya-hime Beloved exemplifies this story-telling style.

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