How I Studied Magical Girl Narratives in University

(Author’s Note: Though I’m sure others have used this phrase before, totally gonna state that Youtuber SolePorpoise is where I found the phrase “Oh, the Humanities”.  You should go and visit his page!  The phrase is very fitting, since I studied in the faculty of Humanities at the University of Victoria.  

This blog was originally posted on Maho Shojo Gakuen, my previous website in 2017.)

Nearly a year ago, I wrote a post about researching magically girls academically for – at that point in time – two years.  I didn’t really get into full-length details about my experiences because I was still writing my thesis at the time.  (A very difficult time, I might add, but that’s for another post).  Also, I think I was just still rather amazed at the fact that I was not only studying magical girls, but that led me to be selected for a Joseph Armand-Bombardier Canada Graduate Scholarship for Masters Students.  As the faculty in my department reminded me (over and over and over again), it’s not an easy grant to receive.

To be honest, it was probably easier to apply and be accepted into a masters program than it is to get this grant.  Seriously.

But now that I’ve completed my Masters and have begun my transition into “the real world” (though I am planning to apply for a Doctorate program), I wanted to talk a little bit more about my experiences studying magical girls and answer the question of how others can study anime critically.  A number of students enrolled in East Asian studies programs (myself included) apply for these programs due to exposure to anime and manga, yet may not know that they can and should study their favourite genre or series through an academic lens.  In fact, the question of “how can I study this stuff like you do” is one of the questions I receive the most after panels and other speaking events.

psyduck
I bet you have SEVERAL questions.

You Wanna Study WHAT?: Magical Girls and the Faculty of Humanities.

March, 2014.  Crunchyroll’s Simulcast airing of Studio Trigger’s magical girl anime Kill la Kill has just ended and it changed my life.  As I browsed through the anime streaming site wondered how I would live my life without such a balls-to-the-wall fantastic show, a flippant, crazy, and off-the-wall idea popped into my head.  When I look back on it, I think the idea was a long-time coming.  After researching shoujo manga for a class in the fall and rediscovering my love of Sailor Moon due to the impending release of Sailor Moon Crystal, I had magical girls on the noggin.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if I did my honours thesis on magical girls?” I asked a fellow classmate one day.  “I think it would be fun.”

“That would be cool!  You should do it.”  Not sure if he was being serious or humouring me but that’s not important.  The encouragement without judgement is.  “You should totally do it.”

Enabled by my classmate as the call to battle henshin anthem “DON’T LOSE YOUR WAAAAAAAAY” echoed in my head, I pitched the idea to the go-to professor in my department for anything related to textual analysis and media criticism.  Even though this man helped me to see anime such as “Ghost in the Shell” and “Spirited Away” in new ways, I wasn’t sure that he’d be up for supervising my project.  While I’d seem some academic articles devoted to girls’ manga and even Sailor Moon, there wasn’t a whole lot of academic literature of magical girls in English.  I prepared myself for rejection.  At best, he’d let me down easy and at worse, he’d chuckling before asking me what the hell I was thinking in the sassiest way possible.

“I’d be happy to supervise you,” he told me.  “Sounds like a good project.”

…wait, what?

taiga

Wasn’t expecting it to be that easy, but that’s how it was.  I asked, he said yes, and boom, I had my thesis project.  I wish I could say that the Masters process was more difficult, but I can’t.  I asked, they said yes, boom, that was project.

I’d like to say that I was encouraged because there are simply not enough voices taking the time to look at anime critically.  I mean, yes, we have things like Mechademia, the annual conference and peer-reviewed journal that’s devoted to the critical study of anime.  But I feel like there’s more than enough room for new voices, especially the voices of researchers who have started out as fans of the anime and look at it in a different way.  They have to balance their devotion to fandom with their desire to engage critically, which opens up to path some some interesting insights.  I think my supervisors saw that, which is why they were happy to support my projects.

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So, you want to study anime/manga academically?

If you really want to study magical girls academically, one of the first things you can find the one person in your department whose interests fit with yours.  For my undergrad honours thesis, I picked the one instructor who I knew was into animation and textual analysis and for my efforts, I found a supervisor very easily.  For my masters, I found a supervisor who took interest in my work enough to approve it, even though his interests were a little different (but not completely out of his scope).  In an instructor loves your idea, it makes it much easier for them to support you, which you will need as you pursue your project. This is especially true for grad studies, as you can be turned away/rejected from a program because there is no supervisor willing to take on your project. 

Really brainstorm this future research project.  Like, really think about what you want to do and how you want to play at it.  It’s not enough to say “I just want to study anime” because there are countless ways of studying it.  For example, I used textual analysis and created my own morphology of magical girl series to illustrate why female readers may find them so appealing.  Other researchers may employ different methods for research, such as narratology, structuralism, feminist theory, or create a theoretical framework which employs multiple methods.  The more you understand what you want to do and how you want to do, the easier it will be to complete your project.  It also illustrates to your supervisor that you are invested in this project.

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Read some of the existing research that’s already out there.Many universities have online repositories of research by current and past students, making it easy to take the time and read up on work that’s already out there.  My thesis can be accessed on the University of Victoria’s Research and Learning Repository and can be downloaded for free.  If you are a university student, use your library search to look up previous published articles concerning your interests.  Also, because many researchers many not be affiliated with a university, check out what’s available on Amazon.  I’ve found ebooks with regard to Sailor Moon and Puella Magi Madoka Magica via the online book seller that I have used in my thesis.

bookies

Hunker down and deep-read the works you wish critique.  Before I started my research, I’d just read a manga volume, see if I like it or not, maybe note something that’s super problematic and then go on with my day.  But now, when I read, I cannot help but interrogate the entire text and wonder how each passage works into the entire whole of the narrative.  This is an consequence of intensive graduate, but for research, you’re really going to need to analyze a text three-ways-from-Friday and then some.  Not just the text, but also how the narrative visually presents itself and how that affects how you read it.  What is the author trying to argue? Do they succeed?  How does they build and back up their argument?  What’s problematic about their argument?  There are various ways to answer these questions and it’s up to you to determine the best course of action.

Be open to other points-of-view.One of the most difficult things I dealt with writing my thesis was to deal with existing criticism toward it.  Do not allow your instinct to defend your fandom override your desire to conduct valid research.  In fact, use your passion as a fan to strengthen your research.  Also, while it’s okay to muse on your personal experiences in a thesis (especially when explaining biases), remember to back things up with evidence.  This is true, even if you are taking a more ethnographic approach to your research.

Have fun.  It’s natural to be very annoyed with your project, especially since it can be such an intensive experience.  In my case, in addition to reading various texts including my untranslated manga (and translating them), I had to constantly write, editing, arrange, and re-arrange the thesis in order to make it readable and structurally sound.  It’s not as easy as it sounds and because research is a solitary activity, it can weigh heavy on the soul.  Be sure this is something you want to do before you go through with it.  My research took two years (and that’s considered to be pretty fast) but some people may take 2.5-5 years completing their masters’ project.

Final Thoughts

I think that’s everything.  Please do not think that just because you have an anime-based idea that you cannot undertake it.  Your voice is needed and you should definitely give it a try!  All you have to do is give yourself permission to try it out. In the meantime, allow me to recommend a few people who are out there engaging in fun, anime-based research.

  • Kathryn Hemmann – an professor at George Mason University who specializes in Japanese Literature, video games, and popular culture.  We follow each other on Twitter and I cited some of her work in my thesis.
  • Rachel Thorn – a shoujo manga scholar and an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Manga (yes, you read that right) at Kyoto Seika University.  We follow each other and I’ve cited some of her works in many of my research papers as well as my thesis.  Has had a site devoted to shojo manga for several years now.
  • Anne Lee – Shoujo + Boys Love scholar who runs “Chic Pixel” which covers gaming, otome games, and features her published journal articles on the Boys Love.  She inspired me to create this website you are on now!

Of course, if you have any further questions, feel free to contact me via the website!  I will do my best to answer any questions you might have.

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