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Japanamerica: Cosplay in the USA

By Roland Kelts.

An estimated 105,000 fans attended this fall’s combined New York Anime Festival and Comic Con – and you couldn’t walk a meter on the convention floor without seeing or literally bumping into someone in costume.

The larger North American anime conventions feature artists and voice actors from Japan and the United States as celebrity guests, screenings, panels and live performances alongside booths offering merchandise and promotional paraphernalia.

But cosplay, an import from Japan that involves wearing, and often posing provocatively in, a homemade costume of your favorite character, may be the biggest draw.

“It’s like total escape,” a teenager from Philadelphia said as he adjusted the collar of his costume, based on a character from Hetalia: Axis Powers, a notably popular title this year. “You can’t do this every day. And it’s really addictive.”

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The appeal of cosplay outside Japan is a perfect example of the transcultural boomerangs that characterize much of contemporary popular culture. As Japanese otaku of an older generation will tell you, cosplay, and the devotional fandom behind it, came from the United States: photos of costumed fans at North American sci-fi conventions, such as those revolving around Star Trek, appeared in magazines imported to Japan in the 1960s and 70s.

Japanese readers adopted the practice, using characters from their homegrown anime and manga series. As the popularity of manga and anime spiked outside Japan, fast-evolving Internet access provided overseas fans first with a peephole and then a massive window onto what looked like an enticing made-in-Japan phenomenon. The word itself, cosplay, is a giddy transcultural mashup of the English “costume” and “play.”

“Cosplay [is now] a more accepted hobby in North America than in Japan,” noted Riddle Lee, an Atlanta-based costume designer and model who has been cosplaying for 12 years. Lee cited the variety of genres beyond anime and manga – comics, movies and the sci-fi subgenre steampunk – that have become a part of the cosplay scene in the United States.

“It allows more ethnicities and age ranges to be involved. But those who are cosplaying from anime and Japan-based videogames really do have a sincere interest in Japan.”

Photographer Ejen Chuang agrees. In 2009, Chuang crisscrossed the United States, attending six anime conventions to shoot over 1,650 cosplayers, 250 of whom appear in his colorful and hefty coffee-table tome, Cosplay in America, published last year.

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“Many cosplayers I’ve talked to and photographed have since moved to Japan, either for studies or jobs,” he said. “They wouldn’t put so much effort into their outfits if they did not respect the original source.”

For some, cosplay has become serious stuff. “The skills involved – sculpting, styling, sewing, make-up – could help get you a career in fashion or film,” Lee said.

She has turned her own skill set toward charity. In the wake of the March 11 tsunami and earthquake, Lee launched Cosplay for a Cause, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to raise money for disaster relief. She contacted artists and fellow cosplayers worldwide to create a glossy 2012 calendar, with all proceeds going directly to the Japanese Red Cross Society.

“Japan has been such an influence on my life,” she explains, “from video games to anime characters to food and even its rich history, which fascinates me.”

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A New Jersey-based cosplayer known by the moniker Yuffiebunny told me that her passion has led to her own business, Head Kandi, creating hand- and custom-made costume headpieces, wigs and other hair enhancements. She also judges cosplay contests, models for Web sites and magazines, sometimes gets hired as a cosplayer for events – and, of course, attends anime conventions regularly.

While cosplaying is not a career for her, she says, “It’s definitely not a sideline or part-time gig. I work very hard at it.”

Yaya Han, also from Atlanta, and Chicago-based Barbara Staples both tell me that cosplaying and its related activities (designing costumes and accessories on commission, modeling, public speaking and attending conventions) have taken over their lives full-time.

Han said American cosplayers are not only diverse in age, gender and ethnicity, but also in levels of devotion. She divides participants into three groups: the super amateurs, who “know nothing about proper sewing techniques, props, wigs, etc”; the Halloween types, out for “occasional fun”; and the true devotees, members of the “cosplay community [who] make cosplay a lifestyle.”

Staples, 29, attended her first anime convention 14 years ago, and like many women of her generation, was lured by the watershed shojo anime series Sailor Moon. She now runs her own costume design business, Lemonbrat, employing six staffers and two interns.

“I feel like I’m working two full-time jobs,” she said, “because it takes up so much time.”

Americans who cosplay have skewed both younger and older in recent years, with teens now sporting anime and manga costumes alongside cosplayers going gray or even fluffy white. They are drawn to the spirit of interactivity, role-playing participation and community, plus a dose of sincere passion – all emanating from a pop culture universe thousands of miles away.

Staples didn’t cosplay at her first convention. “I didn’t realize people dressed up,” she told me. “Then I noticed and thought, ‘I can make better costumes than that.’ Cosplay was right on the cusp of beccoming really popular.”

rolandkelts

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Roland Kelts is a visiting scholar at the University of Tokyo who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S..

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, December 16th, 2011.