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Annals of Anime: Checking Out the Cosplay Kids

posted Aug 25, 2012, 12:52 AM by Douglas Sun

Originally posted: July 9, 2009

I’ll admit that I’m not an expert when it comes to cosplay. I’ve never been a cosplayer myself. The last time I put on anything other than regulation street clothes and went out in public was about ten years ago, when Marc and Kim Unger took me to a couple of LARPs, and even then it was more about the acting than what I wore; in theory, with a strong performance, I could have gotten away with wearing a trade show t-shirt and cargo shorts.

But after crowd-watching at Anime Expo for a bunch of years now (and to a lesser extent, GenCon SoCal for several years), I think that old bromide about art applies to me and cosplay — I may not know much about it, but I know what I like. And when it comes to cosplay — which is a consciously outlandish form of public display — quite frankly, the reaction of the lay audience is a legitimate form of critique. With that in mind, I’d like to offer a few observations on the art and rhetoric of costume play:

Before you try it, please make sure that you can pull it off. This is not quite so much an issue as it was when I went to AX for the first time, as it seems that the cosplay kids have gotten younger and slimmer since then; basically, you have more cosplayers now who actually kind of look like the characters that they’re trying to simulate. And I don’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings when I say this. But I do think it ought to be said: If your basic physical appearance won’t allow you to create a reasonable approximation of the character you’re aiming for, don’t try it. It just isn’t going to work.

I’m sorry if this sounds cruel, and I don’t know if there’s some cosplayer’s creed that says you should always be supportive of other cosplayers’ desire for self-expression, no matter what. But from the audience’s point of view, you are engaging in a very particular form of public display, one in which you are trying to simulate a particularly outlandish form of celluloid fantasy. As with celebrity impersonators, if you’re going to do it, your audience expects you to do it right. If you’re going to cosplay as one of the “Sailor Moon” girls, you shouldn’t look like you could play linebacker in the NFL. It blows the fantasy.

Which leads me to....

To maximize your chances of pulling it off, keep it simple. Of course, the eye-popping costumes — the ones from fantasy anime or video games, with big cardboard weapons and lots of papier-mache and gaudy fabrics — will get your attention right away. But in the end, I am always more impressed by the cosplayers who create the most perfect simulations of their characters, and that’s what I mean by “pulling it off.” It’s when you reach the point of melding your appearance with the actual character as perfectly as possible.

In that sense, the most perfect cosplay that I have ever seen was the girl who dressed as Paprika at

AX 2007 (the summer after Satoshi Kon’s film of the same name made the art house rounds in the U.S.), because she looked as exactly like her chosen character as anyone possibly could. She had almost exactly the right build, porcelain skin and auburn hair of just about the right tint — she might have dyed it, but I passed close enough to tell that she wasn’t wearing a wig — and her blouse and slacks were exactly the right style and color. One could argue, of course, that she didn’t set the bar very high for herself, because Paprika is a relatively simple and ordinary-looking character. But I would say in response that I admired the perfection of her simulation — her embodiment of the fantasy — and in that sense, setting the bar low was a sensible thing.

Only slightly less perfect was the girl who was almost a dead ringer for Ed from “Cowboy Bebop,”

whom I saw from the balcony at Anaheim Convention Center, back when AX was held there. She was one of those short, thin, tomboyish-looking Asian girls, so she had the body type. But she also built the costume carefully and skillfully from simple parts: old-t-shirt and shorts, goggles, dabs of face paint for Ed’s eye black (a detail about Ed not always noticed), a little orange wig for the hair color and an Ein plushie clutched to her chest for flavor. Again, simple and probably not that hard to put together, but because of that it was easier to get everything just right.

But if you can’t keep it simple....

Ganbatte. Give it everything you’ve got so you can get it right. I reiterate the point that cosplaying in a public venue is a performance for an audience of anyone who passes by, and a simulation of a fantasy image. People are going to notice you, either for getting it right in the details, or for doing a half-assed job. So you might as well get noticed for the former.

As I hinted in my main post on AX ’09, the thing that irritated me about the popularity of “Naruto” was the fact that so many fans thought they could cosplay it by just wearing the headband. Wrong. You’re just drawing attention to the fact that you wanted to do “Naruto,” but you didn’t have the stones to do it properly. It just makes you look lame.

If you’re going to do a character who is relatively complicated, put enough effort into it to make it work well. I didn’t see him this year, but for several years running I would see the same skinny blonde kid doing Vash the Stampede from “Trigun,” and he had everything working just right: He had exactly the right built and hair color for Vash, but he also moussed his hair up in a pretty precise imitation of Vash (which must have taken some effort) and executed the wardrobe almost perfectly: red trench coat and pants, black shirt, even got the little round sunglasses. He, too, was virtually a dead ringer for his character, the essence of memorable cosplay.

But in terms of putting in the proper effort, I’ve never seen anything to beat these “Disgaea” fans,

from AX 2008 (see pic at right). The girl dressed as Etna is impressive enough, but the effort and skill that went into the Prinny suits — not to mention the fortitude that it took to walk around the LA Convention Center in them all day — is what makes this encounter truly memorable for me.