"perennial's cradle — garden maze." (2021)

Magical Girl-Inspired Art Makes Waves in New York

These ’90s-born artists grew up watching magical girl anime and are paying tribute to the genre’s maximalist, femme-centered aesthetics

"perennial's cradle — garden maze." (2021)

Fuko Ito

Words by Jenny Wu

For a few days in early September, patrons of the annual SPRING/BREAK Art Show could take the elevator to the 11th floor of a former office tower in Manhattan’s Plaza District and find a room filled with periwinkle walls and hologram floors. Tucked inside was a treasure trove of 1990s nostalgia: a shimmering, otherworldly exhibition inspired by mahō shōjo, or magical girl anime, curated by artists Jeannie Rhyu and Yen Yen Chou. The ’90s, which have been making a comeback in fashion and entertainment, were the heyday, concurrently, for Barbie dolls and Sailor Moon, the most popular and influential series within the magical girl genre and one of the first to gain a global viewership. With this summer’s discourse around Barbiecore and Greta Gerwig’s blockbuster film winding down, it feels necessary to reflect on what a maximalist, femme-centered aesthetic might mean for Asians and Asian Americans. This show seemed like the perfect place to start.

The installation view of "Transformation Sequence," in New York.

Courtesy of Jeannie Rhyu

At the entrance, Rhyu, in a bold red lip and sharp cat-eye, greeted visitors individually, passionately showing them around the roomful of sculptures, paintings, and prints made by herself, Chou, and three other artists. The title of the exhibition, Transformation Sequence, referenced the elaborate animation sequences in which the protagonists, usually ordinary teenagers, transform into their crime-fighting alter egos. “Considering how most of the animation budget is used for the transformation sequence, and that it is reused in every episode, we can say that the magical girl genre cannot exist without these sequences,” Rhyu explains.

Rhyu, who is Korean Canadian, recalled watching magical girl anime as a child growing up in Seoul. “I loved the idea that a normal school girl can turn into a magical warrior princess,” she says. Accordingly, her work in the show reflected the maximalist aesthetics of the transformation sequence. Her print Brew a Storm! Call the Clouds! (2023) shows a young woman floating in a maelstrom of light. The figure’s back is arched, and her abdomen bursts with stars and white ribbons, not unlike the red sashes that appear around the torso and limbs of Sailor Moon, the magical girl genre’s best-known heroine, during her famous “Moon Prism Power, Make Up!” sequence. In another of Rhyu’s prints, I Will Punish You in High Heels (2023), whose title is a quote taken directly from Sailor Moon, shows a pair of feet bathed in blue and lilac auroras.

From left, "Brew a Storm! Call the Clouds!" (2023) and "I Will Punish You in High Heels" (2023).

Jeannie Rhyu

Beyond being visually satisfying, the transformation sequence has, according to Rhyu, “embedded itself deeply in the collective cultural memory” of anime fans, especially femmes of the East Asian diaspora. In advance of the 2023 SPRING/BREAK Art Show, she teamed up with Chou, a Taiwanese artist, and three other collaborators—Fuko Ito, Christina Yuna Ko, and Huidi Xiang—to plan a group exhibition celebrating this cultural phenomenon. All five artists happened to grow up in the ’90s, a time when VHS tapes and bootleg movies still had to be purchased from physical vendors, and when sharing interests on the Internet still occurred in dedicated forums and chat rooms.

For these artists, magical girl anime was not only a staple of their childhood entertainment but also a gateway into their pursuit of art. As youths, they’d attempted to copy the images they saw on TV, and for them, art-making was a means of giving objects and experiences their own “transformation sequence,” turning the mundane into something potentially magical.

"perennial’s cradle — solitary embrace" (2021).

Fuko Ito

Growing up, these artists were, for the most part, less than enthusiastic about cultural icons like Barbie in comparison. “I don’t think I had much of an attachment to Barbie,” says Ko. Same for Xiang: “I was not a big fan of Barbie dolls,” she says. “For me, they were passive and sad toys.” For these artists, Sailor Moon’s heroine Usagi, Cardcaptor Sakura’s Sakura Kinomoto, Ojamajo Doremi’s Doremi Harukaze, and Tokyo Mew Mew’s Ichigo Momomiya were their points of reference. These protagonists wielded no less girl power, glitter, or mass appeal than the Mattel doll, but they were written for a different audience.

“Western femininity had a specific form,” Ko recalls. “It was someone white, petite, and outgoing.” Growing up as a child of immigrants in small-town New Jersey, Ko often felt “powerless.” Watching magical girl anime on VHS tapes was, for her, a chance to see girls she could relate to discover and wield a wellspring of personal power.

Clockwise from left: "Celebration Pie" (2023) by Jeannie Rhyu. "Peering at Illuminated Darkness" (2021), "Every rose has its thorn" (2023), "Swish and swivel" (2023), "Swat your enemies away" (2023) and "Click clack slippers "(2023) by Christina Yuna Ko.

Courtesy of Jeannie Rhyu

Same goes for Ito, who grew up in Kobe, Japan, and had to adjust to a new culture when she moved to Chicago for college. “I was a terribly shy kid,” says Ito. “I desperately wished I was as confident as the characters I was seeing on my screen.”

Xiang spent her adolescence in Chengdu, China, attending Comic Cons and making friends in anime chat rooms. “I was totally an otaku,” she says, borrowing a Japanese phrase used to describe young people who obsess over such interests. “Being an introverted kid, I felt a sense of belonging in those communities.”

"pearly everlasting" (2023).

Fuko Ito

For the shy and introverted anime lover, the transformation sequence presents a perfect metaphor for coming out of your shell. On the other hand, the transformation sequence speaks just as much to the way people—particularly immigrants and people of color—draw knowledge and power from multiple cultural sources, in a sense adopting multiple identities. “Most of my works are inspired by this concept of mixing cultures in a colorful swirl,” says Rhyu. “In a way, I experience a transformation sequence every day.”

In a world still reeling from the anti-Asian sentiment laid bare during the Covid pandemic, Rhyu, Chou, Ko, Ito, and Xiang not only celebrate their ability to transform the mundane into magic but also articulate the intricacies and vulnerabilities of diasporic subjects, expressing their multifaceted identities in an exuberant and unabashedly feminine style.

In one of Ito’s watercolors in the show, pearly everlasting (2023), a pair of anime eyes are subsumed in bubbly, psychedelic patterns. Tears pool inside the eyes, making them sparkle. Crying, the watercolor suggests, is an act of glamor rather than weakness.

Ko’s art is tied to what she calls the “diasporic nostalgia” found in places like Palisades Park and Leonia, New Jersey, and Flushing and Bayside, New York. Her art practice involves maintaining and culling imagery from a digital archive, such as the still from the anime Inuyasha that appears on her wall sculpture Lovey Dovey Lotion (2018), which hangs by the entrance of Transformation Sequence and is the first work visitors encounter.

In her 3D-printed sculptures, Xiang joins together visual elements from a range of TV shows and video games. Her eclectic visual vocabulary speaks to the fact that she—like the other four artists—moves fluidly between sign systems and is comfortable in multiple cultural contexts.

“Growing up in an age of globalization,” Xiang says, “no matter whether it was Hello Kitty or Mickey Mouse, they all became part of my visual vocabulary.” One of her large, free-standing sculptures included in Transformation Sequence, titled mary metamorphoses (2023), featured a Mary Jane shoe—another symbol of girlhood—worn by a butter-knife-shaped leg standing on a neon step stool. The sculpture evoked a familiar longing to grow up, stand taller, and be noticed. It also spoke to the way dissimilar objects, like cartoons from all over the world, can come together to convey an emotion.

From left, artists Huidi Xiang, Jeannie Rhyu and Christina Yuna Ko.

Courtesy of Jeannie Rhyu

Chou’s intimately scaled sculptures rounded out the exhibition, a standout among them being Lady Rainbow (2023). Small and unassuming but too prismatic to be overlooked, with waves of candy-colored acrylic cascade down the sides of a tear-shaped vessel crowned with a pastel rainbow, the sculpture was like a magical girl in mid-transformation. “Each of us has our unique superpower,” Chou says, regarding herself and her fellow exhibitors.

Ultimately, what makes the magical girl genre enduring is not just the superpowers endowed by wands and compacts but the camaraderie and friendship depicted between strong-willed and powerful young women. What’s magical about these five artists, therefore, is not only their glittery, maximalist aesthetic but the fact that they orbit and support each other. Collective care is their real-world superpower.

By working together and exhibiting together, these five East Asian femme artists have also taken a stance, carved out a space, and claimed power and agency for themselves. Just as Sailor Scouts band together to fight evil, this gathering of like-minded artists has broad social implications. Beyond making art that centers the experiences of Asian and Asian American women, Rhyu, Chou, Ito, Ko, and Xiang are showing young—possibly immigrant, possibly introverted—girls a dazzling model of friendship and means of empowerment.

From left, artists Yen Yen Chou and Jeannie Rhyu.

Courtesy of Jeannie Rhyu

Published on October 30, 2023

Words by Jenny Wu

Jenny Wu is a writer with work in ArtforumArt in AmericaBOMBNew York Times Magazine, and The Washington Post. She is currently serving as a 2021-23 Tulsa Artist Fellow to complete her first book-length work of fiction.