Review by Ben Sharples.
Copyright © EJMAS 2004. All rights reserved.
The World of Cosplay
‘Cosplay’… Two syllables that until I read this book meant very little to me. Perhaps they should have.
The term itself is a contraction, in the neo-classical Japanese style of ‘Pokemon’ and ‘Digimon,’ of ‘costume’ and ‘players’ or ‘play,’ and it accurately describes what this phenomenon is about. Specifically, Cosplayers dress up in costumes that are designed to replicate the uniforms worn by heroes and heroines in the players’ favourite media, generally Anime, Manga, or role-playing computer game genres. Through this clothing, the ‘Cosplayer’ is transformed into a favourite character, and thereby assumes that character‘s traits in public. (Or at least, she makes a concerted effort to do so.)
The book attempts to bring this phenomenon to a wider (read: Western) audience, and I believe that it succeeds in this.
Cosplay and Life: Repeated Patterns
Dressing up is a major part of daily life. It is part of what makes us wear a suit and tie when we go to work, or wear the latest fashion brands when we go on a date. And why not? Whether Halloween or Mardi Gras, people love to ‘put on’ a character and, if only for a little while, become someone else entirely.
One difference, though, is that unlike the people who dress up as ninja
and then get caught climbing trees, or who buy a black belt and then get
beat up by the first drunk at the bar, the Cosplayers recognise that their
world crosses the line between reality and fantasy.
The book is 95 pages long and contains a lot of information about the creation of costumes and the correct ‘rules’ at Cosplay events. It also discusses Cosplay followers (in particular the photographers known as ‘Cameko,’ meaning ‘Camera kids’), and provides a variety of photographs from major Japanese Cosplay events.
These costumes range from classic designs (such as Chun-Li of Streetfighter 2 fame) to more recent designs (such as Kenshin Himura of Rouroni Kenshin Anime). Some of the photos are erotic whereas others reflect a certain innocence, but all are posed shots designed to reflect a character’s most common posture from the original media, be they Anime, computer games, or Manga series.
Manga (sophisticated comic books, also known as graphic novels) are common throughout Japan. They usually contain vivid depictions of cartoon worlds where aliens, historical figures, robots, monsters, and ‘good guys’ battle in amazing costumes and with often-stranger weaponry. The genres covered are enormous, and include the martial arts, history, science fiction, romance, comedy, and the fetish markets. The books are read by all ages and are often animated into TV or movie formats, where they are renamed ‘Anime’ (from animation). Some of the better known Manga/Anime series available in the west are Pokemon, Dragonball Z, and Sakura Cardcaptor, all showing on TV in Europe and North America. (EN1)
It is in these first 73 pages that the variety of costumes, ideas, poses, and inventions of Cosplay are shown by its female players. And ALL the players shown in this book are female. The reasons for the dominance of women in the Cosplay events is hard to sum up, but it is generally attributed to the larger proportion of female roles in the original Anime and Manga used.
Either that, or adult male photographers prefer shooting pictures of
young women in costume.
And make no mistake about it: The photographers of Cosplay are predominantly adult males. Known as ‘Cameko’ (‘camera kids’), these photographers follow the players like groupies, swarming over them in their attempts to capture the players’ images on film.
The book deals, briefly, with this in a section in which both Cameko and Cosplayers are asked a series of questions about why they do it. The Cosplayers are asked their opinions of the Cameko, and they are also asked the meaning of Cosplay to themselves. The Cameko meanwhile are asked why they photograph the players, the ‘cardinal rules’ of Cameko behaviour, and most interestingly, what they think of the Cosplayers they photograph.
The answers given by both sides reveal a slightly odd culture in embryo. At the same time, these interviews offer the greatest insight into the Cosplay culture, if only because they make it clear that the people involved, players and photographers alike, do so because they have caught the bug, rather than because of any desire for fame, wealth, or even appreciation.
The interviews also give insight into the inherent workings of the Japanese uchi culture. Uchi means ‘within’ or ‘inside,’ and the ‘inside’ group is seen as the ‘home,’ meaning the safe and the known. To the Cosplayers, the Cameko fall decisively into the soto or outside group -- those emphatically NOT asked to participate and join in. The Cameko’s presence is often seen as a burden on those considered ‘in’ the Cosplay groups.
The uchi attitude is seen in reverse in the Cameko’s description
of why they do Cosplay events. Here, they are the insiders, and the Cosplayers
are the outsiders: Most Cameko state quite openly that they see the Cosplayers
as "geeky expressionists" or "cute, nerdy girls."
Japan vs. the World: Opinions and Differences
In the West, this kind of dressing up and posing would, in all likelihood, fall into the realm of fetish culture. However, the Japanese do not view it as such. Instead, the interviews indicate that both Cosplayers and Cameko see their actions as manifestations of the culture of kawaii, that search for the ‘cute’ and loveable that so many of the Manga series attempt to reach.
It is this desire to become kawaii that seems to kick-start the emerging Cosplayer to dress in fantastic costumes. Although outsiders might consider this a serious breach of public etiquette bordering on the fetishistic, nothing of that sort is detected in the interviews with the players or cameramen.
This in itself opens more windows into Japanese popular culture. The sexual elements of Cosplay are certainly very clear to both the Japanese and the Western viewer, but it would seem that the Japanese have less of a problem reconciling it, viewing it mostly as innocent fun.
Put another way, although the view is the same, it is the interpretation
of the images that matters. And emphasizing that point is one of the themes
of this book.
The ‘Pull’ of Belonging
Using costume to foster a sense of belonging is probably universal. Certainly, the presence of a snappy uniform is a major pull of many organisations, from the Boy Scouts to martial art clubs.
The need can (or may) represent more than simple group solidarity. For example, in some martial art dojo (training halls), a person is not shown the advanced techniques of the school until he or she wears the correct uniform. Assuming that the motivation for this is not commercial, then perhaps this could be likened to a ‘feeling-out’ period, where the drive of the newcomer to really join in can be tested. Alternatively, the training attire may be presented as a necessary accessory. Arguably, this is true, due to the nature of stronger stitching and designs. On the other hand, one could buy a case of T-shirts at the thrift store for the price of a single quality hakama (the pleated trousers worn in aikido and kendo training). Thus, it is probably more correctly stated that the other club members may not treat the wearer of T-shirt and sweats as ‘part’ of the school until he or she dresses correctly. Only after getting the kit is the new member truly allowed to feel as if he is a member of that school.
In any event, in both Japan and the West, wearing the proper uniform
is often viewed as a necessary part of fitting in, and in this, neither
Cosplay nor the martial arts are inherently any more consumerist than is
anything else. However, contrasted to the consumer culture of the martial
arts, one could say that Cosplay is less controlling in its demands. While
the new Cosplayer can buy ready-made costumes from shops, most of the women
featured this book made their own costumes. Few martial artists can say
the same. Still, doing whatever it takes to achieve the big effect surely
represents a desire to stand out while at the same time fitting in with
the group rules. Perhaps the equivalent in martial arts would involve custom
hakama, a flashy cocobolo bokuto (wooden training sword),
or an autographed photograph of the Founder.
This book contains much that could be used by the budding Cosplay enthusiast, both in Japan and here in the west. The ‘Cosplayers at home’ sections provide a slightly closer look at the people behind the masks and what went into their work. In addition, it discusses what influenced their choices, and what drove them to create costumes as close as possible to the ‘real’ Manga idols that they emulate.
True, some of this is surely an acquired taste, such as whole rooms decked out in Pokemon posters. But, I suppose Pokemon posters are no different from posters of Bruce Lee, and the stories associated with Pokemon characters are certainly no more ludicrous than are the tales of the Sokemon who populate the martial arts. (EN2) So, the reader is invited to disregard the lurid colours that embarrass the eye, and instead open his or her eyes to the inner workings of the Cosplay culture.
The ‘Do it yourself’ sections discuss where to find ideas, and also describe influences, the making of the costumes, and the understanding of the fictional character needed to allow the Cosplayer to fully get into her role. Hairstyle, dress, and poses are included.
In the process, the true dedication of the Cosplayer is shown. When the photo captions read "started in 1996 and has 30 costumes," the reader should understand that most of those players (or their grandmothers, as at least one example in the book attests) will have hand designed, hand cut, and hand stitched the costumes. The grandmother in question, Kimiko Himemiya, is shown in a typically Japanese (e.g., suffering) light: "I showed her [grandmother] a book and told her what had to be done, and she made it by the next day… She didn’t like me doing Cosplay but she went ahead and made them even as she was complaining." However, the older Himemiya does exact a certain poetic justice: "After that she taught me how to sew." As in martial arts, the work involved is immense, costly, and all encompassing, but this only contributes to the feeling of belonging that such dedication brings.
Another interesting section is "Essai’s Scrapbook: Cosplay--Then and
Now," which is a collection of images from a lifelong fan of Cosplay, namely
photographer Essai Ushijima. This collection covers a wide variety of genres
from Anime, Manga, and Role Playing Games (RPG), all captured at the conventions
through Ushijima’s lens. For Ushijima, the lifetime of Cosplay has evidently
paid off financially, too, as the book lists him as a lecturer on Cosplay
and manager of large Cosplay events in Japan today.
To conclude, this book provides an introduction to a quirkier side of Japanese culture. As such, it is a useful corrective to the Heian art and poetry usually taught in college classes. With reflection, one can also find a pattern of daily life revealed here, one that is innocent, playful, and bright. (EN3)
This book captures that innocence, and allows itself a certain freedom and relaxation that reflects the freedom of the Cosplayers themselves.
Perhaps the phenomenon is best summed up by a quote from the book. On page 85 the editors state, "A fan of rock music will don a leather jacket and grow his hair long. A more conservative woman may wear a suit, broadly speaking, these are also forms of Cosplay. For fans of Anime, Manga and computer games it’s simply an affirmation of their tastes."
And this, I believe, is the raison d’être of the entire thing. Simply, why not? We could all do with a little release from adulthood now and again, and if there are others who are willing to do the same, then it becomes an event.
Now... Where is my cape? (Or at least, my hakama?)
EN1. For more on Anime and Manga, see the Duke University website, http://www.lib.duke.edu/ias/eac/popculture/anime.htm.
EN2. A soke is the head of a Japanese ryu, or classical system or school. Thus, Sokemon is a derisory term used on the Internet to describe those who created their own martial art, or who claim full mastery of one or more (usually fictitious) Japanese martial art systems. A synonym is "Super-Soke." For a detailed discussion, see William M. Bodiford, "Soke: Historical Incarnations of a Title and its Entitlements," http://www.koryubooks.com/library/wbodiford1.html.
EN3. For a look at less innocent, playful, and bright aspects of gender roles in Japanese popular culture, see Ian Buruma, Behind the Mask: On Sexual Demons, Sacred Mothers, Transvestites, Gangsters and Other Japanese Cultural Heroes (New York: Penguin USA, 1990).