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.
Another aspect that prohibits the West from embracing cosplay as fully as our Japanese counterparts is one of purpose. A specialized event or themed party will bring out the round-eyed cosplayers without too much difficulty, even if it’s simply to stand in line to buy graffitied photos from a sci-fi convention, but cosplaying in the land of the rising sun is an event unto itself. All manner of extravagantly themed and brightly colored obscurities wander the streets and congregate in seemingly random herds of anime-brought-to-life, simply for the objective of showing off their cosplay capabilities and marveling at the outrageous attire of fellow otaku.
The neo-fashion subculture surrounding Tokyo’s Harajuku Station on the Yamanote rail line boasts a style of ultra high-octane diversity that suffers no comparison. Japanese teenagers go to any length not to stand out from the crowd, but to be an integral part of the hyper-neon fluorescence. Naturally, this kind of radical, open and rampant group statement has attracted cosplayers by their thousands; mingling in with the Goths, Visual kei, Lolitas, gyaru, kogal, ganguro, otaku, takenoko zoku, punks and rockabillys – all gathered simply to create a living sonata of vivid influence.
These outlandish visitors have themselves become a major part of the Harajuku tourist attraction, as a local industry sprung up to cater for the burgeoning cosplayers frequenting the thriving Omotesando and Takeshita-dori shopping avenues around Yoyogi Park. But there’s a limit to what a good cosplayer will buy from a store when feeding his idolatrous habits. Making your own costume is, quite naturally, a significant aspect of the practice’s charm. It’s one thing to wear a professionally made Bubblegum Crisis or Sailor Moon outfit (and wear it well), but quite another to fashion your own and put it on public display for lavishly turned-out peers to umpire.
Cosplay competitions are common among these public and organized gatherings, and rivalry can be fierce. Rules are strict, yet varied – many demanding cosplayers provide the most accurate likeness of their chosen character by any means possible. The quality of entrants in such contests has reached heights so competitive that players routinely act out the character, as well as dress like it. But since much of cosplay’s inspiration comes from manga and videogames, extrapolating the onscreen (or on-page) personalities of these characters requires a great deal of personal interpretation and theatrical prowess.
Presumably stemming from the generally acrobatic, superheroic nature of most manga and videogame characters, a rather peculiar trend has also permeated Japanese cosplay competition: cartwheeling. The ability to perform a cartwheel in full costume – regardless as to whether doing so fits with the psychological profile of the character being mimicked – is a sure way of scoring a few extra otaku-points. Whether this anomaly has evolved to demonstrate the durability and couture quality of the costume, or whether it’s a cheap trick to upskirt a hot babe wearing a school uniform, it’s difficult to say. I kinda hope it’s the latter.
Regardless of schoolyard gymnastics, the opposite extreme of these “perfect match” competitions are those that demand the cosplayer make his own uniform. In recent years, it’s become increasingly difficult to tell whether the contest’s rules insist on homemade garments or not; such is the quality and extent of the garden-variety cosplayer’s dedication to his art. Many home-industry cosplayers even dabble in the kigurumi (animal pajama outfits) and animegao (anime face) scene, which involves masks, hoods, helmets and other forms of face/headgear designed to replicate all features of the character in question.
Often enough, this sincere dedication means a small matter like gender doesn’t stop the seasoned cosplayer from donning a costume intended for the opposite sex. Indeed, the additional attention required to convincingly pull off a sex change transformation can award a skilled cosplayer extra credibility among the uniformed community. Professional cosplaying allows for this transgender transformation, and the costume scene has even broken the categorization down again into distinct variations on the cross-dressing theme.
A “crossplayer” is someone who dresses as an anime, videogame or manga character of the opposite sex, while a “cross-dresser” portrays a character that dresses in clothes of the opposite gender (of which there are many). For regulars on the anime circuit, the profound knowledge of the characters tends to remove the inherent ambiguity of this particular style, though an outsider can have difficulty determining whether a cosplayer is crossplaying or cross-dressing (or both). If a female cosplayer is dressed as a male character, she’s both crossplaying and cross-dressing. If she cosplays as a male character that wears women’s clothes, she’s only crossplaying, since she’s wearing women’s cloths albeit portraying a male character. Clear?
Probably not. But what probably is becoming clear is the mark cosplay has made on Japanese culture and the depths to which cosplayers have gone to realize their art. The intensity and prevalence of this fashion-based trend has quite naturally begun to spread in the opposite direction: influencing the entertainment media that originally gave birth to the cosplaying craze.
Doujin cosplayers French Bread created a sublime parody of the popular Korean MMOG Ragnarok Online – turning it into an overpopulated, super-deformed battle royale called Raknarok Battle Offline. By adopting typical cosplaying traits, such as “acting out” the presumed personalities of the original character, coupled with the intrinsic nature of the game’s mimicry, RBO quickly became a cult phenomenon among cosplayers, otaku and videogamers alike. Such was the popularity of what was essentially a spoof game, the developers of the original MMOG, Gravity Corporation, gave the game a proper release outside of Japan.
Even in the high-end commercial game market, we’re seeing wonderful characters like Virtua Fighter’s latest quirky addition, Eileen. Although her monkey style kung fu is a traditional Chinese martial art, her outfit is a delicious homage to Sun Wu Kong – better known as Monkey from one of China’s most celebrated works of classical literature, the 16th century novel Xi You Ji (Journey to the West). Eileen is simply the latest in a long and glorious representation of Monkey’s irrepressible influence.
Also of particular note is the monumental 2-D tournament fighter, Super Cosplay War Ultra, which features an enormous cast of cosplaying combatants whose every move transforms their outfit (though not their physical appearance) into a different anime, manga or videogame character.
Wacky, delightfully esoteric and governed by an encyclopedic number of unwritten laws, cosplay is altogether a Japanese phenomenon. From Harajuku Station to the Tokyo Game Show, cosplay has earned its place in gamer culture as the real-world manifestation of the dedication and passion we all hold in our hearts.
Spanner has written articles for several publications, including Retro Gamer. He is a self-proclaimed horror junkie, with a deep appreciation for all things Romero.