A beginner's guide to cosplay

Maids, manga, music, and games. Find out how costume play grew into one of the most diverse subcultures in Japan

Above: Two maids in Akihabara

Not all Japanese cosplay is about anime and videogames. While the practice has its roots in mainstream media, the subculture that sprang out of it has diversified. Non-media related cosplayers are the most visible and prominent in Japan. The most famous of them are, without a doubt, the maids of Akihabara. The first Maid cafe in Japan was founded by Cospa in 2001.

In 2005 maid cafes became well known when TV series/movie Densha Otoko (Train Man), about a socially withdrawn otaku who falls in love with a beautiful woman, featured them prominently. The movie and show were such a hit that when Napoleon Dynamite came to Japan, the title was changed to Basu Otoko (Bus Man) in order to cash in on the craze. It bombed anyway and thankfully, inspired no cosplayers.

Above: An ad for Cospa’s Cure Maid Cafe

Above: A billboard in Akihabara station for Densha Otoko

Maid cafes inspired a host of other cosplay cafes, including shops where girls dress in school gym uniforms, butler cafes, and others. Butler cafes stand out, as they are targeted towards women. Some of these establishments will also have women pretending to be men as their butlers. This sort of gender-bending is common in cosplay culture. The most predominant form features men dressed as women and is called cross-play.

Such “cross-play” is actually pretty tame when compared to the extremes some in the community will go to. Take kigurumi cosplayers, for example. These predominantly male cosplayers cover themselves from head to toe with their costumes of cute, anime girls. These stifling outfits are crowned with fake anime heads. There’s something about the vacant unblinking stare of these masks, that when combined with the odd proportions of the costumes, create something that looks as if it crawled from the very depths of the uncanny valley.

What if you’re in Japan and you want to check out the scene? The first place to head to is Akihabara. While the main cosplay venue, a weekly open air festival, called Pedestrian Paradise, was shut down in 2008 due to a mass murder that occurred in the area earlier that year, the otaku have since regrouped - and there’s still a fair amount of cosplay to be seen. The maids of Akihabara are still around and can be seen on nearly every street corner. The easiest cosplayer to spot is Alaska native, Patrick Galbraith, who leads tours of foreigners through Akihabara while dressed as Goku every weekend.

As mentioned earlier, Yoyogi Park, located near Harajuku station in Tokyo, attracts cosplayers of all stripes on Sunday afternoons. Most are related to the music scene, but it is possible to find game and anime cosplayers if one hunts around the sparsely populated interior of the park.

Above: A group of costumed youth choreographs a performance in a tucked away area in Yoyogi Park

Above: A pair of Gothic-Lolitas lick lollipops on the Cosplay Bridge near Yoyogi Park

The Japanese music scene has adopted its own form of cosplay. The most famous music cosplayers are those who follow the Visual-Kei scene. Final Fantasy VIII’s protagonist Squall Leonhart is rumored to have been based off Gackt, a Visual-Kei rocker with a sizeable fanbase in the United States. Despite being over a decade out of date, this aging mix of glam rock, punk and goth still has its followers. They can occasionally be spotted just outside of Yoyogi Park on Jingu Bashi, also called the cosplay bridge. However, followers of the Gothic-Lolita subculture have staked that turf for themselves in recent years.

Above: The Cosplay Bridge on a Sunday evening. As you can see, not everyone’s wearing a costume

But the most friendly and entertaining of the music cosplayers are the leather jacket-wearing greasers of the rockabilly scene. These guys and girls dance at the entrance to Yoyogi Park and don’t mind tourists and passersbys checking them out and cheering them on.

Jan 21, 2009

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