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The surging popularity of anime in America is attracting more and more avid fans every year as evidenced by the growing crowds at Anime Expo. But the fervor of fans, who dress up and masquerade as their favorite characters, is what sets conventions like the AX and anime apart from more casual entertainments.
AX: It was never for kids (Part 1)
AX: It was never for kids (Part 2)
AX: It was never for kids (Part 3)
AX: It was never for kids (Part 4)
AX: It was never for kids (Part 5)
AX: It was never for kids (Part 6)
Part IV: Those Who Wear Wings
Which brings us back to Anime Boy. Or specifically, why Anime Boy? The expansion of a foreign art form is one thing, but the curious spectacle of cosplayers -- a short Japanese slang for “costume players" -- striking poses is something that has to be witnessed, like, say, the Red Light District in Amsterdam for its sheer shock and monstrosity. I brought a friend for his first time, and though he had seen pictures of cosplayers online and in magazines, he was thoroughly stunned to witness the mobs of grown men willing -- dying actually -- to pose like a ninja. Where Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Ghostbusters here bred solely Halloween costumes for children, anime has caused apparently normal older men to dress up in garish robes befitting a gay Gandalf the Grey.
The costumes vary from each personality; some are more reserved in their cosplay, decked out in the regal elegance of a traditional Japanese kimono (though usually with some kind of protuberance like horns or a tail); others are more comfortable pulsing in the execrable mutability of tight-fitting spandex.
There is no age limit to cosplaying. As is evidenced from the convention log of pictures I took while attending the con, there are adorable children dressed as Star Wars and ninja characters, and there are women well into their 50s dressing up with a incredibly detailed sword. Cosplayers only discriminate according to the quality and scope of each individual costume. Last year, I witnessed a grandmother wobbling around on a walker dressed up as a character from the sorcery anime, Card Captor Sakura.
Some cosplayers take months to make their costumes, while others do it in a day. One young woman (wearing a very pretty red Chinese dress with gold lacework hanging from the shoulders and hem) from a videogame called Okage: Shadow said she spent every weekend of a few months preparing her costume for the AX. Identifying herself as “Farore-sama” (most attendees choose to give themselves a handle for the duration of the con), she said collecting the materials -- fabrics from various stores, 3-D sketches, plastic accessories -- is what was most difficult about constructing the costume.
Two other attendees, Irene and Jonathan -- dressed as videogame developer Squaresoft characters -- said they only took a few days, albeit sleepless ones, to make their costumes. Asked why they chose their characters to cosplay as, Irene replied, “Often, the appeal of the characters’ personalities in the series or game is what attracts cosplayers.” Jonathan added, “If you think you identify with a character, you grow to like him more and more and that desire to be him for a day or two, to act out a role in a fantasy, is a lot of fun.”
While the length ascribed to construct each costume varies among individuals, so does the purpose of the costume itself. Some attendees plan for months specifically to showcase their wears at the annual AX, but others tweak their costumes for years, dispensing their efforts among numerous masquerades. Darrell from Van Nuys, dressed as Vash the Stampede from the anime Trigun, told me, “I’m always revising things, adding things to my costume. Since I go to many other cons with cosplay events, I don’t feel like I’m wasting my time.”
Indeed, the variety of costume and life is tremendous. In addition to the basic anime roles, video game and even some subversive Star Wars characters are also taken as costume models. In the many years I’ve attended the con, the videogame Final Fantasy is a mainstay among cosplayers. This year’s overwhelming cosplay hit had to be the recently serialized Naruto, a manga and anime about ninja kids, inspiring dozens of cosplayers to group together for shots that appeared to contain every single character from the series.
While many of these cosplayers come in groups, coordinating their efforts to plan the Ultimate Photograph Choreography, many others cosplay to meet like-minded cosplayers, either through arranging such meets on Internet message boards or simply through touch and encounter at the AX. One young woman, dressed up in a short red kimono resembling a Japanese kunoichi’s, described to me the sense of camaraderie that develops between fellow cosplayers. “The chance to share interests and meet other individuals with the same interests is a lot of fun and something that isn’t so easy to do on a daily basis,” she said.
Another girl dressed in a simple brown office outfit standing next to her added, “And it’s also a chance to be a kid again and glomp each other.” When I queried just what a “glomp” was, she took several steps back, ran forward, and jumped into the arms of her kimono-clad friend. A “glomp,” depending on how one perceives this world, is either an enthusiastic hug or a confirmation of the otaku’s ungainly sociopathy.
Interesting also are the lengths, not just in units of time, that many cosplayers will go to for attending the AX masquerade, the most popular event at the con where cosplayers can sign up to perform “skits” onstage, or simply watch each other from the audience. While Irene and Jonathan are from the Los Angeles area, many others come from across the country, not just in metropolitans like New York and Boston with their own smaller annual cons, but also remote outposts in states like Virginia, Ohio, and North Carolina.
This sort of fanaticism is incredible for the average bloke to understand, and even closet otaku such as myself have trouble coming to grips with the legions of the costumed unhip. No one dresses in America, at least for fun, as the characters from ER or Law & Order. Similarly, the creations from Pixar don’t inspire peculiar wear unless you are a child and it is October.
The obvious explanation is that plots from anime serials are often geared toward an older audience, unlike even Finding Nemo, and shows are often drawn out into 13-episode seasons or more, allowing for more character development and attachment than a 90-minute movie. Characters from NYPD Blue, on the flip side, all look the same, id est, all like characters from real life. The desire for escapism in American dramas is left unfulfilled, unlike the creative costume that must help to shape a character’s personality and romance amid the crashing fireball and bright color palette and city of elves Lothlorien-style architecture that can characterize the most ordinary of anime.
This desire for fantasy can be attributed to both the young at the con, with their dearth of responsibility and reality, and normally functioning adults, who might just want a break from their mundane existence that, to many, can’t possibly live up to the adventure of an episode in pirate anime One Piece. Even some teachers might wish their lives were more like yakuza-turned-sensei “Great Teacher Onizuka.”
Date Posted: 7/21/2005