Cosplay: an obscure ritual of pop culture mimicry taken to a wonderful extreme as only the Japanese know how. The word itself is a morpheme of "costume" and "roleplay," shortened as per Japanese linguistic practice dictates. But cosplay is more than just a word. It's become a lifestyle and a fashion vehicle for an entire generation - a salute to the Rising Sun's ability to combine the serious and the bizarre into incredible social trends that celebrate the child in all of us.
In many respects, this is a peculiar tradition that's been going on across the world for many a long year. Dressing up like the larger-than-life heroes of folklore, fiction and mythos has been the pastime of the world's repressed masses since children first rode a wooden horse to a pretend war. Embellishing on this inherent human desire to imitate and live - if only briefly - in the flamboyant shoes of our imaginary champions seems only natural, and just as expectedly, people were destined to take it far too seriously.
From minstrels and a traveling company of fellows to medieval and Civil War re-enactors, dressing up in public for serious fun is a vital outlet for creatively starved people; offering a way for common folk to shed a little dignity and replace it with the kind of playful disinhibition typically enjoyed by actors and fools.
Zombie-thons have increased in popularity as horror aficionados celebrate George Romero's undead contribution to contemporary culture, turning his nightmarish vision into mischievous public spectacles intended to draw wry attention to political or social inequity. Trade shows and memorabilia exhibitions have become a dazzlingly colorful display of costume-covered extravagance, where the toy-filled stalls play second fiddle to a marching horde of Stormtroopers and life-sized, motorized Daleks. It's become an accepted avant-garde pastime to revel in the liveried likeness of onscreen heroes, though we, the narrow-minded Westerners, are only recently learning to embrace costume roleplaying as fully as the enlightened Japanese.
Much of our personal implementation of cosplay is rooted in the way we fawn over attention-hungry celebrities. While a Western teenager might attempt to imitate the perpetual catwalk show of Posh Spice's life, the Japanese adolescent isn't so easily enamored by the high-heeled strutting of a gaunt socialite. They're more inclined to look toward the characters of their favorite fiction for fashion influence, so the red carpet holds little in the way of vogue persuasion.
No extreme is too radical for the serious cosplayer, and characters from across manga, anime, videogames, TV and film provide the glorious, Technicolor paint for the living canvas of a Japanese costume jockey. The Eastern cosplayer is a humble creature, however, and few generally opt for the obvious choice of lead characters; preferring instead to choose a more obscure, lesser-known player from their favorite comic book to ensure the increasingly prolific gatherings of like-minded hero-worshippers literally throng with the most eclectic mix of characters.
While we might all be tempted to dress as Obi Wan, Luke or the Sith, an experienced Japanese otaku will choose Oola, Nien Numb or even Sy Snootles - endeavoring to do their part in realizing the Star Wars universe as intricately as possible. Indeed, the recent surge in popularity of Western pop-culture mythologies like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter has given the cosplayer a whole new outlet of inspirational material from which he can glean a temporary personality. Even then, there are few bespectacled wizard urchins with scarred foreheads, round glasses and a bowl cut; most prefer the devious wince of Draco Malfoy or dominating stolidity of Professor Snape.