No. 10: Cosplay

The hidden depths of cosplay

Today, the term “cosplay” has attained global currency. Referring to the practice of engaging with a comic or cartoon by turning oneself into one’s favorite character, this phenomenon barely existed when Disney and Marvel dominated their respective genres (let’s face it, how popular was it to dress up as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck or Superman?). It is, one suspects, a trend that emerged from the entirely different dynamics acquired by Japanese manga and anime over time.

In the US, there have long been dedicated fans who added to the atmosphere at events such as Sci-Fi conventions by dressing up as characters from Star Trek or Star Wars. Even in Japan, during the earliest days of cosplay in the 1970s, there was a minor scene among Sci-Fi fans, while in fanzine circles – most prominently the comic markets spawned from the 1970s onward – there arose a body of devotees who liked to dress up as popular characters such as Lupin III, from the eponymous manga and TV show, or the luscious Lum from Urusei Yatsura.

Thus the now world-leading Japanese cosplay scene emerged and developed. But what springs to mind when most of us think of cosplay are what one might call the public personae of “players” photographed at events or in studios.

These are people who reinvent themselves as characters from their favorite games or animes, and revel in the fleeting acquisition of a different personality on special occasions. Posing for the voyeuristic shutterbugs that mob them, they exude an aura of unapproachability, but when asked to speak, their utterances are perfectly ordinary. Intrigued by this yawning gap between perception and reality, since 2007 I’ve run a series in a small art magazine, Prints 21, in which cosplayers offer a glimpse into their everyday lives.

In costume they may be odd or over the top, but what sort of homes do these folk normally live in, what clothes do they wear and what occupies their thoughts? What is it about their lives that drives them to transform themselves by costume play, and what nurtures those desires?

Curious to find out, to date I’ve asked over 30 cosplayers to accept me into their homes. Cosplayers generally love having their photos taken at events, but are loathe to reveal any aspect of their personal lives. I can only extend a big thank you to those who’ve allowed me to show them “off duty,” and I think that after four years, I’ve also come to understand a few things about their lives.

The cosplayers I’ve photographed to date have ranged in age from high school students to people in their 40s, male and female. By far the majority live not in central Tokyo, but in the suburbs. Some have been working and living in small apartments, but a large proportion live with their parents. All these people get on well with their parents, who are accepting of their cosplay hobby, and are without exception shy and mild-mannered individuals.

Come to think of it, people who are genuinely different don’t need to disguise themselves, because they inhabit another world already, without trying. The people who want to become something else are probably those leading the most upstanding, sensible lives.

They go to school or the office as expected of them. Rather than toiling to support themselves, they choose to live with their parents in order to use their money and time entirely as they please. These are young people who, rather than asserting themselves loudly in their unadorned state, have an inner self that they only expose upon donning the mask of cosplay.

When covering their stories, I asked them to let me take two types of portrait: one in their favorite cosplay outfit, and another in “civvies,” in both instances shooting from the same position. I then took the resulting photos, reversed the one in ordinary clothing, and combined it with the cosplay shot to form a composite image. The result was a symmetrical photo. Reversing the everyday version rather than the cosplay version was my way of questioning which constituted the subject’s real self. A panorama shot of the self – barefaced, and masked. But which is the true face, and which the borrowed?

Most people probably view cosplay as simply some bizarre otaku phenomenon. But when one actually starts to meet young women who shyly intimate, for example, that they have a penchant for male homoeroticism, one starts to wonder if this phenomenon can really be dismissed as some nerdy pastime.

Just as heavy metal is symbolic of American suburban culture, perhaps cosplay is a manifestation of a very Japanese sort of suburban culture.

From top to bottom: Rokuto, Minori Kanda, No(ko), Korokorineko, Haiji, Kirara, Ema, Mirai, Nagisa, Aya Kaida, Mizukurumi.

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