I’ve been thinking about this more, because I think it’s something that gets muddied whenever we try to talk about it: that when we discuss the senshi attacks in the two anime, we’re talking about two types of attack. There are attack sequences, and then there are the one-off attacks that are drawn as part of the scene in which they take place.
Something people seem to forget is that the beautiful, shiny transformation and attack sequences that we love so much have always been a simple cost-saving measure. They’re beautiful and shiny because they’re made to be seen repeatedly. Time and resources are put into them because ultimately, they save money by taking up a few minutes of each episode, particularly during the action sequences, which I imagine are the hardest to animate.
The 90s anime relied so heavily on them that it was incredibly rare to see the senshi using their powers outside of those pre-made sequences. One of the reasons that the movies are so exciting is because the slightly higher budget meant that attacks could be specially animated within the scene. For once, we could see Mars, in the heat of battle, actually summoning fire to her fingertips as smoothly and easily as snapping her fingers.
Both attack sequences and, for lack of a better description, in-scene attacks, are visually and narratively effective for different reasons. Attack sequences are beautiful and powerful. The senshi are fully enveloped in their elements, as though the heavens themselves have opened up around them. They, and their powers, fill the screen entirely, giving the impression that the entire world has paused to watch this demonstration of power in silent reverence (we can say that attacks are never interrupted because they actually take mere seconds to perform, but for us, the audience, everything stops and waits for the full elaborate dance to play out).
But, the very thing that makes these sequences so beautiful is also their main drawback–everything else is put on pause while we wait for the sequences to finish. The action is interrupted, and we are taken physically out of the scene. It feels as though the senshi are temporarily transported to another dimension to perform their attacks while floating in space and glitter. Additionally, the fact that the same sequence is used every time, rarely with any variation, makes it predictable to the point of feeling mechanical. We can’t imagine, for instance, that Mars’s fireball is particularly big this time because she’s ticked off, or that Mercury calculated the best possible splash range for her water attack. Variation based on the context of the fight or the senshi’s mental or emotional state does not, and cannot, exist.
By contrast, in-scene attacks are generally less flashy and polished. Both because the senshi remain in the comparatively lackluster real world, without the presence of a shimmering background, and because of time and cost constraints. A one-off in-scene attack simply cannot warrant the same amount of resources as a sequence that will be reused 87 times. Even so, there is much to be said for an attack that is performed as part of the flow of the action, rather than apart from it. In-scene attacks allow the attack to be shaped by the context–by who they are fighting, and where, and what is going on with the character in that scene. It allows the senshi to demonstrate tactical skill, by adjusting her attack according to what is needed. A quick zap of lightning or an earth-shattering thunderstorm? A gush of water or a deluge? It’s more visceral, more immediate.
The point is that both types of attacks are restricted by cost in some way. The attack sequences are overused and unchanging because they’re essentially filler. The one-off attacks are less detailed and flashy because they only appear once. Neither is really more lazy than the other.
The 90s anime predominantly relied on attack sequences. Crystal, even when it does feature full sequences with sparkly backgrounds, rarely reuses them more than a couple times. Both approaches work for the unique demands of those anime (the 90s anime was much longer, making filler more valuable), and neither approach is really wrong. You can prefer one approach over the other, but understand that there is a lot to consider when you criticize how an attack looks.