Bringing Fantasy to Reality – Cosplay (コスプレ)

Hello, my dear readers! Let me ask you a question: have you ever taken a stroll down Harajuku (原宿) on a Sunday before? If so, was there ANYTHING in particular there that might have sort of caught your attention more than everything else?

Oh, wait a minute…do you know where on Earth Harajuku is? Have you ever heard of this place before? Well, I’m sure some of you have, though you may not be sure what exactly is so special about this place. Interested to know? Read on to find out!

To the common passer-by or tourist, especially for a non-Japanese, the sight of guys and girls dressed up in elaborate eye-catching costumes and colourful hair in the streets of Harajuku might be something bizarre that they don’t see every day. Stylish butlers, cute maids with little cat ears, sword-wielding samurais, staff-wielding mages, guitar schoolgirls, royalties and aristocrats of Europe’s past, Lolita fashion, and the list goes on – such are what one would commonly see adorning the streets and walkways of Harajuku on a typical weekend. Some think that they are silly, while others think that they reflect creativity at work amongst modern youths.

But for the typical anime/manga fan, they are undoubtedly part and parcel of today’s Japanese popular culture, something inseparable from the world of animes and mangas. And this particular “bizarre” sub-culture of Japan is widely known as “cosplay.”

A common sight in Harajuku, Tokyo on a typical weekend - cosplayers dispersed amongst non-cosplayers in public

It is not only in Harajuku, Tokyo’s cosplay capital, where one gets to see such creativity (or silliness) at work amongst today’s youths. Just pop into any typical anime/manga convention in your locality and you’re almost sure to see people donned in elaborate and colourful costumes with unnatural hair colours wielding intricately designed props while strutting around the convention grounds. If you have never been to one, you might perhaps have seen at least one or two of such people in the train or bus heading for a local anime/manga convention. Or you might have seen some of them walking around anywhere near the venue of an anime/manga convention. Whatever it is, it is extremely rare to see cosplay at work in public places outside Japan, so if you do see cosplayers in public on a typical day, chances are that there is an anime/manga convention going on somewhere nearby.

So, having given you a brief insight of this unique element of modern youth culture, some of you may now be expecting me to explain what exactly does the term “cosplay” mean. Well, if you are an anime/manga fan or are familiar with Japanese popular culture, then this term needs no introduction anymore. Nevertheless, for the benefit of those out there who may still be wondering as to what exactly this term entails, I will give you a brief introduction and definition here.

"Prepare for trouble!" "And make it double!"
Cosplayers portraying Jesse and James of Team Rocket from the hit anime series Pokémon

Cosplay (コスプレ, Kosupure), as the title above suggests, is basically about bringing fantasy into reality. Being a short form for “costume play,” it is a unique form of performance art in which people dress up and act as characters derived mainly from, but not exclusive to, animes, mangas, games, dramas, fantasy movies and comics. Because of its exceptional popularity in certain parts of Japan and in anime/manga conventions, however, cosplay has become somewhat synonymous with dressing up and acting out the roles of characters derived from animes, mangas/comics and Japanese-based games (ACG). As such, it is generally fair to say that every cosplayer is an ACG fan, but not every ACG fan is a cosplayer. Cosplaying is a passion and pastime that only a portion of the ACG fandom indulges in, as it can be very tedious, time-consuming and expensive.

Have you ever seen this popular couple being cosplayed before?
Cosplayers portraying Cloud Strife and Tifa Lockhart of Final Fantasy VII, two of the most popular favourites amongst cosplayers

The origins of this unique form of art and hobby remain vague even up to now. Contrary to popular belief, cosplay may not have been an intrinsically Japanese thing, and even today, there is no shortage of Japanese people who themselves are of the opinion that cosplaying is silly. Nonetheless, because cosplaying has become so popular in Japan, and because this hobby is often associated with ACG-themed characters, it is now often branded as a Japanese product marketed to tourists as an element of the country’s youth sub-culture.

Prior to the advent of cosplay in Japan, this unique form of performance art has been widely popular in America for several decades since the first half of the 20th century. It was, and is still, a popular practice for fans attending science fiction conventions to come dressed in futuristic apparel, mimicking characters from famous science fiction films. Apparently, the first known people to have started off this trend were Forrest Ackerman (1916 – 2008) and his friend, Myrtle Jones, who startled the 180-odd attendees of the 1939 First World Science Fiction Convention in New York with their futuristic-themed costumes. This aroused much public attention and garnered much delight from the attendees, so much so that in science fiction conventions in the succeeding years, more and more people started to follow in the duo’s footsteps. The non-Japanese trend of cosplaying thus spread like wildfire amongst fans of science fiction throughout the U.S.

Cosplaying based on Western cartoon/comic characters, particularly those from Marvel Comics

Although the art of cosplaying had already hit the shores of Japan by the 1960s, it was not a very popular pastime, and neither did it receive much publicity. The term “cosplay” only came into existence after 1984 when Nobuyuki Takahashi (高橋信之, Takahashi Nobuyuki) (1957 – ) of Studio Hard (スタジオ・ハード, Sutajio Hādo) coined the term by combining the two English words “costume” and “play.” While attending the 1984 Worldcon (World Science Fiction Convention) in Los Angeles, Takahashi was greatly impressed with the costumes that the attendees wore. He subsequently wrote about it in Japanese science fiction magazines, introducing and popularizing the term “cosplay” in the process.

As the popularity of ACG and Japanese popular culture throughout the world shot up dramatically since the late 1980s, so too did cosplay. Cosplaying became an increasingly popular form of performance art and hobby for ACG fans both in Japan and throughout the world. With an ever-increasing number of ACG conventions and events worldwide, cosplaying is increasingly being publicized in the mass media and internet, and the number of ACG fans who venture into it as a pastime also increases by the day.

Cosplayers dressing up as the Vocaloid characters, namely (from left to right) Kagamine Len, Kaito, Hatsune Miku, Kagamine Rin and Meiko

Unlike normal theme dressing like what one wears to a themed party or a special occasion, cosplaying involves a more in-depth involvement into the character being portrayed. The precision to which a cosplayer mimics the details of an ACG character’s costume and props is not the only factor that determines a successful cosplay. For an ACG character to be successfully portrayed, the cosplayer has to also act, behave, walk and talk like the character. Sometimes, the usage of certain taglines, especially Japanese ones, which are frequently uttered by a particular character, adds to the effect of successfully cosplaying the character.

In terms of recreating a particular ACG character’s costume and props, attention must be given to the quality and details. For a successful cosplay, everything must be reproduced to the minutest detail, and materials used must also be suitable for the character and occasion. Depending on the character chosen, reproducing his/her costume and props may vary in difficulty and detail. For example, reproducing the costume of an ACG schoolgirl character (e.g. Yui Hirasawa of K-On! in school uniform) may not be as difficult as reproducing that of an ACG mage character (e.g. Yuna of Final Fantasy X), simply because a mage character’s costume and props would generally involve much more markings and symbols as compared to that of an ordinary schoolgirl character. Additionally, because many ACG characters are portrayed with unnatural hair colours, some cosplayers either resort to dyeing their hair to resemble their characters’ colours or simply wear wigs.

Which do you think is harder - cosplaying as (left) Yui Hirasawa of K-On! or (right) Yuna of Final Fantasy X?

Cosplayers frequently devote a lot of time, money and energy into their endeavours, so much so that cosplaying becomes a passion and pastime for them. They can either create the costumes and props themselves if they have the skills or commission part of or all of the job to professional tailors, craftsmen and artists. A simpler way of cosplaying is to buy readymade costumes and props from shops selling ACG-related merchandise, but cosplayers who take this easy way out are frequently criticized for their laziness and lack of quality. Serious cosplayers normally prefer to invest their own time and energy into completing their costumes with their own hands, as it gives them a sense of satisfaction and achievement upon completion. Because this hobby involves the use of lots of creativity, innovation and attention to detail, it can be hailed as a form of art in its own right, an art that in most cases only ACG fans know how to appreciate.

Good cosplaying requires close attention to costume details, even up to the very last dot and cutting, as seen in this design of the costume worn by Saber of Fate/stay Night

So, where do cosplayers normally choose to show off their hard work to the public? The simplest choice is to do so at any anime/manga/games convention or event, as long as there are no bans on cosplaying. Indeed, such events normally do not ban their attendees from cosplaying, and as far as I am aware of, only the annual Tokyo International Anime Fair (東京国際アニメフェア, Tōkyō Kokusai Anime Fea), which ironically is one of the largest anime events worldwide, has such a ban in effect. Some of these events, especially the larger ones, customarily organize cosplay competitions as part of their programmes. Such competitions may either require team or individual participation, and participants are normally required to perform a short sketch on stage before the public and the panel of judges. Participants are generally judged according to how accurately they imitate an ACG character’s costume and appearance, how they produced their costumes (i.e. purchased, commissioned or self-made), how well they act out the chosen character on stage, how entertaining their sketch is and how effectively they make use of stage space, props and technical equipment for their performance.

Skilled cosplayers showing off the results of their hard work during the 2010 Anime Festival Asia held in Singapore

Participants in the 2008 World Cosplay Summit (世界コスプレサミット, Sekai Kosupure Samitto) held in Nagoya, Japan

Besides anime/manga/games conventions and events, cosplayers may also choose to display their costumes and cosplaying skills in public places. Though being somewhat rare and unusual, there are some cosplayers who choose to wear their costumes in public and go on with their daily business as usual, even on a normal day. Such cosplayers do so out of their pride and love for cosplay. Nevertheless, in some places, particularly in Harajuku as I’ve mentioned earlier, cosplayers gather at specific locations at certain times of the week to flaunt their costumes and cosplaying skills in public.

Characters from the popular bishonen manga-cum-anime series Ouran High School Host Club being cosplayed

Another popular place where one can see cosplay at work is in a cosplay café (コスプレ系飲食店, Kosupure-kei Inshokuten), which is a themed café involving waiters and waitresses cosplaying as anime or manga-like figures. Such cafés normally adhere to a particular theme, the most popular being maid cafés (メイドカフェ, meido kafe) and butler cafés (執事喫茶, shitsuji kissa). As the names suggest, maid cafés typically involve waitresses dressed as French maids, while butler cafés employ waiters smartly dressed as butlers. Customers patronizing such cafés are treated as if they were returning back to their own mansion to be attended to by their team of personal maids and/or butlers. Indeed, customers are addressed politely as either Master (ご主人様, Go-shujin-sama) or Mistress (お嬢様, Ojō-sama). If you ever have the chance to, try entering a maid/butler café and you’ll be welcomed warmly with the greeting “Welcome home, Master, Mistress” (お帰りなさいませ、ご主人様、お嬢様, Okaerinasaimase, go-shujin-sama, ojō-sama). Alternatively, school-themed cosplay cafés are increasingly becoming popular, with such cafés reproducing the environment of a typical Japanese classroom and employing waiters and waitresses dressed in Japanese school uniforms. In such cafés, customers are addressed as Senior (先輩, Senpai) instead of Master and Mistress, giving customers a Japanese school feel reminiscent of that commonly seen in animes and mangas.

“Welcome home, Master, Mistress!” (「お帰りなさいませ、ご主人様、お嬢様」, "Okaerinasaimase, go-shujin-sama, ojō-sama")
Waiters and waitresses in a cosplay café dressed up as butlers and maids, ever ready to "welcome their masters and mistresses back home"

A maid serving her "master" in a typical maid café

No doubt, one can find a whole load of cosplay cafés by just taking a stroll down the streets of Akihabara (秋葉原), Tokyo’s anime capital. Although such uniquely-themed cafés originated from here in the late 1990s, their popularity has spread far and wide to many other parts of Japan and the world. Cosplay cafés may be found in countries and localities where a large anime/manga fanbase exists, and some may even be set up temporarily as part of an anime/manga convention.

Waitresses dressed as maids welcoming customers into their cosplay cafés in the streets of Akihabara, Tokyo

In the eyes of most non-ACG fans, cosplayers may seem like a bunch of fools doing loads of crazy stuff. They find it hard to understand why cosplayers are willing to spend so much time and money designing and producing such complicated costumes just to don them on during an ACG event. Due to the fact that cosplaying is indeed an expensive and “unusual” hobby, it is also not uncommon for some parents to perceive it as a frivolous waste of resources and an act of youth rebellion. Nevertheless, to the cosplayers themselves, as well as to ACG and Japanese pop culture fans, cosplaying is seen as a worthwhile and healthy pursuit. Besides keeping interested youths away from potentially unhealthy activities, cosplaying is seen to help promote one’s artistic creativity, acting skills and self-confidence.

Cosplayers portraying samurai characters from the renowned video game and anime franchise Sengoku Basara (戦国BASARA)

To sum it all up, cosplaying has indeed evolved over the past decades to become one of the most popular pursuits in the world of ACG fandom. The sight of people dressed in elaborate costumes, props and unusual hair colour frequently draws attention, curiosity and sometimes even raised eyebrows from the public, especially amongst those who are unfamiliar with the world of ACG and Japanese pop culture. It is this curiosity that has continuously attracted more ACG fans into the hobby, besides spurring the interest of popular mainstream media to help spread its popularity far and wide. Today, cosplay has undeniably become a worldwide phenomenon and success, and it is here to stay as long as animes, mangas, video games and Japanese pop culture remain popular.

Now, that's not a sight you see everyday! - Former President of Taiwan, Lee Teng-hui (Chinese: 李登辉, Lǐ Dēnghuī) displaying his hobby of cosplaying to the public by dressing up as Heihachi Edajima from the manga series Sakigake!! Otokojuku (魁!!男塾, lit. Charge! Men's Private School)

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