This first volume of Codename Sailor V reads like the first draft of Sailor Moon, and in a way, it is. Sailor V came first, and you can see Naoko Takeuchi working out the basic ideas that would make Sailor Moon a classic, but Codename Sailor V is a bit more raw. Nonetheless, this earlier version has a great deal of charm of its own, largely because of its spirited heroine, Minako Aino.
Minako is more energetic than Sailor Moon's Usagi; in fact, when we first see her, she is doing a mid-air somersault in gymnastics class, only to have her landing foiled by the sudden appearance of a cat. Mina is not a very good student, but she is a lively girl with a strong spirit, someone who does nothing by half measures. She enjoys her food to a degree the adults find scandalous in a girl, and she would spend all day playing video games if she could. She charges through the panels of this story, climbing over walls, almost leaping off the page.
On this particular day, Mina is feeling so good that she plans to deliver a love letter to the guy she has a crush on, Higashi. Of course, every other girl in the school has a crush on him as well. At first this looks like every shoujo manga, but after a while the crowd of girls around Higashi start to look kind of sinister.
The cat keeps reappearing and messing things up, and then it really freaks Mina out by starting to talk. The cat, a male named Artemis, tells Mina that she has been chosen to protect the earth, and that her true home is the planet Venus. She faces her first challenge almost immediately, so Artemis has to coach in the use of her magic pen and crescent-shaped compact, and tell her how to transform, as she starts her first battle. Although she's not much of a student in school, Mina is a quick learner, and she soundly defeats her first enemy with a combination of high kicks and a magic beam from her compact.
Because she's so energetic in everyday life, Mina's transformation into Sailor V seems natural—it's just her ordinary personality kicked up a notch. And she has fun with it. She transforms into different characters—a male idol, a maid, a policewoman—and she uses her magic pen to get her homework done quickly.
The center of the book is a bit repetitive, as the villains are all idols who are trying to brainwash ordinary people through the media, directed by a shadowy entity called Danburite. Thanks to Artemis and her own klutziness, Mina always manages to avoid being exposed to the idols until she realizes they are fakes, and then she goes into full Sailor V mode and goes after them. Then Takeuchi mixes things up a bit by putting Mina inside a video game to fight an enemy that is very like her. The last two chapters, in which Danburite tries to suck out the energy of Japanese tourists and juvenile delinquents, are the most entertaining of all. Each of these adventures is fairly short and features well-drawn fights that are easy to follow. In fact, reading these is a bit like watching anime.
In fact, it was an anime that brought about the transformation of Sailor V to Sailor Moon. When she was asked to make an anime of Codename Sailor V, Takeuchi rewrote the story to make it a team concept and came up with Sailor Moon. She included Mina as one of the Sailor Scouts in Sailor Moon, and in fact she did not finish Codename Sailor V until after Sailor Moon was complete, so there are some crossovers between the two stories: Sailor V is one of the Sailor Scouts in Sailor Moon, and Usagi makes a cameo appearance in this volume of Codename Sailor V.
Volume 1 of Codename Sailor V is definitely a first attempt. All the ingredients are there—likable heroine that the reader can identify with, talking cat, mysterious otherworldly presence that is guiding the action, and lots of bad guys—but they don't quit jell the way they do in Sailor Moon. Nonetheless, it's fun to watch Mina take on her new role and attack the bad guys, making this book a great read in its own right.