A beginner's guide to cosplay

Beyond Games

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In 2005 maid cafes became well known when TV series/movie Densha Otoko (Train Man), about a socially withdrawn otaku who falls in love with a beautiful woman, featured them prominently.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

Gender Bending

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.

Akihabara, the Cosplay Bridge, and Yoyogi Park

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

Tokyo’s underground game bars
Join us on a pilgrimage through the taverns and cocktail lounges every gamer should visit

The secret shops of Akihabara
Take a tour through the back alleys of Japan’s Electric Town

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  • freecasino - January 26, 2010 7:21 a.m.

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  • epicdominican91 - January 23, 2010 4:31 a.m.

    as i read this i cant help but use a engrish accent...
  • marioman50 - January 22, 2010 8:53 p.m.

    Check out the Peter Bjorn and John music video, "Nothing to Worry About". It shows a day in the life of one of the greasers. Kinda strange... yet funny.
  • crumbdunky - January 22, 2010 6:51 p.m.

    IDK about Cospa stores and stuff that you haven't made yourself at all-to me that takes all the creativity out of it and, also, the store made ones look crap compared to the better fan made cosplayers outfits and costumes I've seen both in the UK/EU AND Japan. Also, and I realise this happens literally anywhere and everywhere that gets any kind of name for itself but the last time I went through Harajuku it was FULL to bursting with US and EU tourists(and a lot of them were lonely, grubby looking middle aged men who always look shifty without a wife in tow! I wonder why on earth they might be trawling somewhere with rep for having young chikitas in dress up mode? Hmm?)and didn't feel the same place as five years or so before. Anyway, I've never gotten into it myself but always like seeing the best(and laughing at the worst)ones you come across at games conventions etc. I do think, though, that buying your costume might be a Japanese thing as the few people I know here in England that do a bit all think buying theirs would ruin the fun as most of the fun to be had is in impressing people with how accurately you can turn yourself(or whoever you make the costume for) into the character you aimed for. Is the dressing up more important to the Japanese than where the costume comes from and how accurate it is, I wonder? Whatever, it also seems to play into the hands of pretty people who just want a go at it o get in a few pictures for their modelling career or something and, again to me, it takles a lot of the gloss off the whole idea of cosplay itself. That said, I have never seen Japanese cosplayers look as bad as the worst of the western ones who think a twig and a binliner and some tin foil can turn them into Sephiroth(tin foil hair-seriously at Leipzig 2007 a short, fat German fella was cosplaying as Sephiroth using a binbag as his long leather jacket, tin foil shredded for his "hair" and a bloody branch off a nearby tree instead of a sword! Jesus, did that fella smell bad too. I'm certain someone else must have seen him and if you had you just could NOT forget the guy!)or Zelda! Maybe that's the thing:Japanese people do it for fun or to look good but more westerners either do it for a laugh(making their own crappy outfits)or are the real genius ones who make totally accurate Gundam outfits or replicate Big Daddies precisely down t the last bloody rivet!Not totally, as i've seen AMAZINGLY good Japanese nes as well but the western cosplayer, to me, seems to be at either end of the spectrum and away from store bought ease and mediocrity of costume! Whatever, I'm done trying to figure out if there's real cultural dfferences in the cosplay scene of today and definitely think I'll have another crack at getting the missus turned into Ada Wong(went badly last time!).
  • Cernunnos - January 22, 2010 3:17 p.m.

    i want the luffy costume so badly. cosplay envokes mixed feelings in me, i despise the homemade and outrageously laughable attempts at it, especially with coloured wigs etc. but more subtle cosplaying is always cool, but very expensive.
  • sepirothpk - January 22, 2010 11:07 a.m.

    BTW, the anime/manga cosplayers on page 2 are cosplaying Gintama. Funny series, a good watch
  • phoenix_wings - January 22, 2010 7:53 a.m.

    @ MGF--keep your lips off of whatever you're biting. It looks weird, but you'll have to touch-up less at the end. And no, I won't ask. Not that into cosplay, but probably because no one else around where I live is into it enough to be worth it. For Halloween I intended to get myself a set of blue coveralls and iron-on transfers. 101, baby. And NO ONE will know what it means :P Recaptcha: action trousers. ....niiice!
  • CH3BURASHKA - January 22, 2010 5:32 a.m.

    Big! Comstumes! Big! Money! Big! Prizes!
  • MetalGearFlaccid - January 22, 2010 3:41 a.m.

    The worst is if you're a guy dressed as a male character who wears makeup. I was Alan Gabriel from The Big O at Ohayocon last year, and I tell ya: Alan gives Kefka (from FFVI) a run for his money in gaudiness. The best thing is when you're riding on the bus next to a guy dressed as Big Boss, and you just go about your business, chatting casually while lookers-on pretend to not stare while still staring. Lots of fun. A little side-note: Ladies, how the hell do you manage eating pizza whilst wearing lipstick? (Don't ask. PLEASE don't ask.)
  • diddly - January 22, 2010 3:39 a.m.

    That very last pick is exactly how all the greasers in the USA looked back in the day
  • speno93 - January 22, 2010 3:08 a.m.

    weird ,but also kind of cool nonetheless. It would be funny to drag my folks into a cospa store, just to see their reactions at the clothes, Ha ha ha!
  • TheHalfanese - January 21, 2010 11:48 p.m.

    I've minorly cosplayed(if there is such a thing), and contrary to what you might think about it, it is actually quite a bit of fun. I totally agree, Samael.
  • nik41507 - January 21, 2010 11:47 p.m.

    I never knew this
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  • Samael - January 21, 2010 9:43 p.m.

    I've only cosplayed three times, each at Anime Boston, but it's definitely something I will continue to do. It's both incredibly fun and great/hilarious to see the reactions of "normal" passers-by.