Friday, October 27, 2006

Cosplay 101

The Japanese love non-standard contractions. Examples include digicam, sekuhara, and, of course, Pokémon. And these are merely the tip of the iceberg.

But what of cosplay? At its core it is a simple combination of the words “costume” and “play,” and yet at its heart it is so much more. The phenomenon is both a thriving sub-culture in Japan and abroad. It’s like some wondrous cult, where adherents can’t help but gush about its simple majesty while those of us on the outside stare slack-jawed and shift our weight uncomfortably.

Deeper still lies the fact that cosplay is, perhaps, the nerdiest of endeavors. It effortlessly combines tried and true geek elements from across the board. It’s one part roleplaying, one part collecting, one part DYI work ethic, and a healthy splash of alcohol mixed together with good, old fashioned nerdly obsession.

While I am, to put it bluntly, teh cosplay n00b, I just so happen to have at my disposal two excellent examples of its North American proponents. While participating in their earlier Q&A session with Hipster, please!, Karl Olson and Rai Kamishiro were nice enough to take on a few extra questions concerning the fine art of cosplay.

Drink the Kool-Aid and read on.


For the uninitiated, would you care to give a little overview of cosplay?

Karl: Dressing up as a particular character from something, and that "something" can be anything from a book to a video game, and anything in between.

How long have you been interested in cosplay?

Rai: Since I was tiny sized reptilian, but actively involved in it since middle school. First cosplay was as Ash from Pop'n Music in Japan, and as Goku from Saiyuki in the US.

How competitive is cosplay culture? Is there a lot of camaraderie between cosplayers, or is it more a game of one-upmanship?

Rai: As much as nerdcore is competitive, I would say. There's a lot of people in it for the fun, and a lot of people in it for the attention. There's a fine line between gushing about someone's character and competing with them though. Prolly less "I did you one" feelings in nerdcore, but it can be a battlefield out there.

I've gotten people that have cosplayed the same character as me from Gintama being so awesome about it that the whole group ended up going for parfaits, Taiwanese cosplayers loving my orange Agito (AX, the only place aside from Tokyo Big site that you'll find four flavors of Agito....) and I've had Shonen Bats challenge me to skate battles.

Bent their fucking bats, too.

What's the biggest cosplay event you've ever attended?

Karl: Well, I don't think I've ever attended an event that was strictly about cosplay, but the biggest event I've attended that has cosplay at it was probably Anime Expo. The final attendance for that event was well over 40,000 people, and I'd say about 1/5 of the people there were cosplaying.

The bulk of cosplay focuses on emulating the looks of anime, manga, or video game characters. Can you cosplay outside these bounds? Could I cosplay as, for instance, Harry Potter or James Bond?

Rai: Of course. A mild hobby of mine for a while was going to movie screenings cosplaying as a movie character. I also had much funs cosplaying Kenny from South Park.

he he he, only since I've done Willy Wonka (Chocolate factory) and Viktor (Corpse Bride).

Karl: Considering that I've seen a lot of Harry Potters, Legolases and Capt. Jack Sparrows at anime cons, sure. Granted, there is a lot of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Pirates of the Caribbean doujinshi (fan comics,) but if we're using doujinshi as a guide for cosplay, then everything from Star Trek to the band Aerosmith is fair game. Besides, I think it's ultimately quality that counts.

How acceptable is it to cosplay as a character of the opposite sex? Could I, for example, cosplay as Tootie from The Facts of Life?

Rai: Er, cosplay would not exist if not for crossdressing Japanese school girls.


I've not yet cosplayed a normal female character. Did Guu from Jungle wa itsumo Hare nochi Guu, but it's questionable if Guu is a human shaped entity much less female. Rai's list has been all sorts of mostly male characters, like Sephiroth, Byakuya, Edward Elric, L, Genjyou Sanzo, Kurogane, Shonen Bat, Sakata Gintoki, Agito, Kenny, and Ichigo (In goth-loli) just to name a few.

There's a lot of (in)famous crossplayers out there; perhaps Rai will be one some day.

 From right to left: Rai, Karl, and friend Lucy get their goth-loli on!Karl: This gets back into quality. If you can convincingly crossplay, most people don't have an issue with it. It's the Man-Faye type stuff that is sort of unsettling (though to be fair, Man-Faye is very nice fellow.) Actually, the guys who go the kigurumi (with the full masks made to look like a given anime character,) can be outstandingly creepy in a way, but they usually do a great job of looking like the character. It's just a very jarring visual at points.

Many cosplay costumes are quite elaborate. Is cosplay an expensive hobby?

Karl: Depends on who/what you're cosplaying. If you're cosplaying a Gundam or Transformer with custom molded armor and electroluminescent lighting all over the place, that can be immensely expensive. On the flipside, there are characters that can be done with very plain clothes and right haircut.

How does cosplay relate to Japanese Gothic Lolita culture?

Rai: Mildly, [though] a lot of lines are blurred as one emulates the other, but often the cultures themselves are completely different. A cosplayer's aesthetics as a gothic lolita might differ highly from the mindset of when they cosplay. Cosplay is more appreciation/emulation, and gothic lolita is more expression/synthesis.

What’s more important to pulling off a great cosplay: the right costume or the right attitude?

Rai: Yes.

On one hand, y'can't just be a whole asshole about the thing. I've had cosplayers so cliquish I've wanted to go about ripping some brightly colored wigs, but you can't go in to it with a T-shirt that says "School girl B" and expect people to worship you either. I've had more fun with a dashed together Gintama group than with a polished FF [VII] group, but being told you're the only Bishy Byakuya seen in the biggest convention in America from a ridiculously cute Rukia has its ego stroking merits. And how my ego was stroked.

(Of course the fact that the very same little sister character told me later that I was totally having my ass uke'ed by the Renji I was trooping with was another ego matter entirely.)

Karl: The right costume obviously helps, but you can sell a less than perfect costume if back that up with the attitude.

What are your personal favorite characters to cosplay?

Karl: Well, since I'm usually press at most events I attend where cosplay is going on, I like characters who have relatively plain clothes and hair color close to mine, so I can cosplay without looking unprofessional. You might think that people wouldn't recognize that I'm cosplaying as such, but when some knows a show, they'll pick you out of a crowd no problem. I know I want to cosplay some of the characters from Honey And Clover as such, because it's a very realistic but funny slice of life series about art college students, and thus their are a number of characters in plain but distinct clothes that I could cosplay. Beyond that I really love that show, so there is a definite emotional connection too.

Rai: I had too much fun beating people as Shonen Bat.

Rai with sadistic tendancies? No, only when people are asking for beanings in the head by my golden bat. And what “thunks” they made, too.

Sephiroth was fun for a while, but dealing with obsessive (read: offering to rape in bushes) fangirls and toting a sword bigger than I was got old after a while.

Ed was fun, especially hanging with his English VA, but again, the fangirls. (This time in Shota flavor!)

Kenny was a blast just for the death scenes, and L had people offering to sign my death note.

What is the strangest or most elaborate cosplay costume you've ever seen?

Karl: Probably the people who cosplay convincingly as giant robots. The level of detail that can go into those costumes is crazy. Some of the Elegant Gothic Lolita cosplay is very impressive too, especially when they are replicating a style from a given magazine without buying anything off the shelf.

Rai: Hmmm, a glow in the dark light up freyja from FF. Made of the \/\/-|-|\|.

Strangest has got to be the two Hard Gays (actually a Japanese comedian) that showed [up] to AX.

Would you consider members of the Society for Creative Anachronism or other such groups dedicated to historical recreations cosplayers?

Karl: In an odd way, yeah. I mean, it's the same mindset at the very least - you're dressing up as someone and you're out to have fun.

In what ways do American cosplayers differ from their Japanese counterparts?

Rai: Hmm, less personal Moe involved. A lot of American cosplayers take it so personal that they have a hard time talking about their character, but a lot of J-region cosplayers I know will rant about the Moe or talk with me about pairings of their character since they have 25-35 events a year they can go to, instead of one or two a year. It's awesome to see someone portray their characters well, like a Zoro and Usopp I met two years ago at Sakura Con who looked good and acted extremely perfectly in their parts, but it's also fun to talk with a Agito about how you don't like the IkkixAgito semi-cannon pairing in the series, but could totally go for a AkitoxKaitoxAgito without them thinking you're going to stalk them and find you some bushes.

Halloween is just around the corner. Any tips for folks looking to give cosplay a try?

Karl: If you have big costume ideas, start now, and get ready to lose sleep if you don't. Beyond that, there are a million simple cosplays that can be done with just buying the right clothes, the right wig, the right accessories, and a little bit of sewing.

Rai: Enjoy the self. Don't get pissed if people don't know who you are. Even the King of All Cosmos gets drunk and trashes the universe, but only do that if you've got a 5cm tall kid that loves you enough to rebuild it. It's about your moe for the character, not other people's envisioning of it. School girls, avoid the tentacles. All their candy are belong to us.


And there you have it: the skinny on cosplay from two individuals who have paid their otaku dues. For more information on the cosplay phenomenon, check out your local library… Okay, that may actually be a bit of a stretch, but there are an abundant number of online resources that can be employed to such an end.

I would like to take a moment to thank both Karl and Rai for helping me put this feature together. Their input was invaluable and their exuberance palpable. I sincerely hope that those of you who, like me, were a little ignorant as to the concept of cosplay now find yourselves enlightened. At the very least, I hope you can appreciate the fact that I was able to connect cosplay with seminal 1980's situation comedy The Facts of Life. I aim to please.

By my calculations, you still have more than 72 hours to put this new knowledge to effective use. Tarry not, for Halloween waits for no man!


Anonymous said...

Was browsing your archive the other day and read this story, and I thought this was an awesome turn of phrase: "It’s like some wondrous cult, where adherents can’t help but gush about its simple majesty while those of us on the outside stare slack-jawed and shift our weight uncomfortably."

You captured it exactly...the 'view from the outside' part that is, since I can't speak for the cosplayers, heh. Good stuff, Z.

Z. said...

Thanks, Dragon. Everyone I’ve ever met involved in cosplay (or its cousin LARPing), has always spoken so fondly, almost reverently, of it. Sometimes it’s almost as if they feel bad for me for not getting it, like they mourn the fact that I’m unenlightened. I was just trying to put that into words. It’s good to know I adequately elucidated! :)

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