Cosplay ( コスプレ - kosupure), is a contraction (or portmanteau) of the English words "costume" and "play", is a Japanese subculture centered on dressing as characters from manga, anime, tokusatsu (Japanese for film special effects), and video games, and, less commonly, Japanese live action television shows, fantasy movies, or Japanese pop music bands. However, in some circles, "cosplay" has been expanded to mean simply wearing a costume.
In Japan, "cosplay" as a hobby is usually an end unto itself. Likeminded people gather to see others' costumes, show off their own elaborate handmade creations, take lots of pictures, and possibly participate in best costume contests.
The most specific anecdote about the origin of the word "cosplay" was that Nov Takahashi (from a Japanese studio called Studio Hard) coined the term "cosplay" as a contraction of the English-language words "costume play" while he was attending the 1984 Los Angeles Science Fiction Worldcon. He was so impressed by the hall and masquerade costuming there that he reported about it frequently in Japanese science fiction magazines. This point is debatable, however, as the word fits in with a common Japanese method of abbreviation combining the first two syllables of each word). Other examples of this include "Pokémon" short for "Pocket Monsters" and "puroresu" short for "professional wrestling".
Cosplay can be seen at public events such as video game shows, as well as at dedicated cosplay parties at nightclubs or amusement parks. It is not unusual for Japanese teenagers to gather with like-minded friends in places like Tokyo's Harajuku district to engage in cosplay. Since 1998, Tokyo's Akihabara district has contained a large number of cosplay cafes, catering to devoted anime and cosplay fans. The waitresses at such cafés dress as game or anime characters; maid costumes are particularly popular.
Possibly the single largest and most famous event attended by cosplayers is the semiannual dojinshi market, Comiket. This event, held in summer and winter, attracts hundreds of thousands of manga otaku and many thousands of cosplayers who congregate on the roof of the exhibition center, often in unbearably hot or cold conditions.
Cosplayers in Japan refer to themselves as reyazu; pronounced layers (by writing the word cosplayers in Katakana, it is possible to shorten it in this way, although it makes no sense in English). Those who photograph players are called cameko, short for "Camera Kozo" or "Camera Boy". The cameko give prints of their photos to the players as gifts. Tensions between players and cameko have increased due to perceived stalker-like behavior among some obsessive males who push female cosplayers to exchange personal email addresses or do private photo sessions. One result of this has been a tightening of restrictions on photography at events such as Comiket.
A recent trend at Japanese cosplay events is an increase in the popularity of non-Japanese fantasy and science fiction movie characters, perhaps due to the international success of such films as The Matrix, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. Characters from the Harry Potter films have a particularly high number of female fans in Japan, with female cosplayers playing either male or female characters, Draco Malfoy being an extremely popular choice.
The act of cosplaying as characters of the opposite sex is called "crossplay" (cross-dressing cosplay). A small niche group in this field are dollers, a subset of kigurumi cosplayers; usually male, they wear bodysuits and masks to fully transform into female characters.
Another recent trend in cosplay is a blurring of the distinction between costumes based on characters from games and anime, and "original" costumes based upon a general theme or existing fashions. In particular, the Tokyo teen-fashion trend of Gothic Lolita has attracted some cosplayers who might not have the inclination (or possibly courage) to wear such distinctive clothes around town, but who would like to dress in such a manner on some occasions.
Cosplay and the sex industry
In Japanese, the term can also mean (and may originate from) the use of costumes for sexual purposes, in which case the "play" refers not to dressing up, but sexual play while dressed up. The term hence overlaps what would usually be known in English as sexual role playing or sexual fetishism: for example, wearing a schoolgirl uniform before or during sex would be known as seifuku cosplay, and many Japanese love hotels offer costume rental services.
In the Japanese sex industry, sex clubs that specialize in sexual cosplay are known as image clubs. In addition to standard fetishistic standbys (schoolgirl, nurse, policewoman, etc), an increasing number, pioneered by the now defunct Wedding Bell chain, cater to otaku with staff dressing up as anime characters.
Most features of cosplay have spread first to the other parts of Asia, then around the globe, and finally fused with costuming at science fiction conventions in North America and Europe. It is also a common sight at anime conventions. Cosplayers at anime conventions in North America often find themselves on the receiving end a high-powered hug known as a "Glomp" (from grab and latch on).
Cosplay in the United States and Europe differs from Japanese cosplay culture in some ways. Cosplay concerning Star Trek, Star Wars, other science fiction worlds, Renaissance Faire, and historical re-enactments (e.g. Civil War battles), especially at science fiction conventions, are far more popular in the West than they are in Japan. Alternatively, some costumes that might be seen as in bad taste in America (such as Nazi uniforms from certain comics or games) may be seen at events in Japan.
Western cosplayers are stereotypically lampooned as being overweight or otherwise unsuited to the characters they attempt to portray. An issue with cosplaying anime and manga characters is that these characters generally do not have bodily proportions that can easily be mimicked by many typical cosplayers (e.g. incredibly long legs, huge muscles or giant breasts), and there is debate among fans about how important or not this element is when cosplaying.
In Mexico, cosplay is commonly seen inside conventions that can be video game, science fiction or anime themed. It is common that cosplayers will also organize their own reunions which can be themed or free for the sake of taking pictures together. Cosplay in Mexico is competitive in a healthy level, with well established representatives.
In Australia, the trend mirrors the American and European in that the subject costumes may be selected from sources other than manga or anime. Sources include western comics, computer games, science fiction/fantasy movies and TV shows, animation shorts or features, period drama, novels - any source that provides vivid and graphic inspiration of a character and their costume. Usually the term "cosplay" is not used to cover historical recreation as the focus is on representational accuracy, not historical accuracy. In general, Australian cosplay is most commonly seen in the larger population centres such as the capital cities and major regional centres, as these have the population base to support the diversity among fringe interests. The display of the costumes is not limited to conventions, although it is not unusual for dedicated cosplayers to travel extensively throughout Australia following the convention trail during the year. In addition to the social convening at conventions, many smaller social groupings exist, hosting their own local events.
Cosplay is rapidly entering the mainstream in the Philippines, where cosplay events are often held within an anime, manga, gaming, or sci-fi convention. More often than not, these conventions and events are sponsored, and debates have raged on whether or not judges' perspectives are influenced by the organizers of a cosplay event.
Cosplay is also common in Southeast Asian cities that are heavily influenced by Japanese culture, like Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan. Besides the comic festivals and events frequently organized in those cities, cosplayers also frequent districts popular with teenagers.
Cosplay in North America
Convention activity in the United States and Canada has become a much larger and much more popular trend within the past decade. Larger conventions such as Anime Expo, Otakon and Anime North have become renowned internationally. With the added public attention coming from such popular animated cartoons imported from Japan including Dragon Ball Z, InuYasha, and now the popular Naruto, cosplayers and the anime world have peeked their heads into the world of mainstream pop-culture, on at least a relatively underground scale. More and more convention goers cosplay as their favorite characters from their favorite anime, and thus, the cosplay and anime subcultures have been able to have enough influence to further the creation of cosplay conventions] to accommodate for the increasing number of cosplayers. Many cosplayers jokingly refer to Halloween as "National Cosplay Day", although many cosplayers spend so much of the year dressed up, they also like to take Halloween as a day off.
The costume contest is often a test of skill, design, and audience reaction. The contestants are judged either before hand or on stage and then walk across said stage while the audience cheers. Judging is divided by two categories, craftsmanship and presentation. Craftsmanship is how well the costume is made, effort, originally and scope of the costume comes into play. Presentation accounts of how well the costume is presented. Regardless of how the costume is made, presentation is more about how the costume is used. ie. a costume consisting of t-shirt and jeans can easily defeat a 2,000 dollar Victorian style dress, simply by being in a comedy routine.
Winners of both contests often receive prizes such as gift cards, trophies, and anime DVDs. The increased popularity of convention costuming has lead to the addition of several relatively new cosplay-based events, adding to the traditional masquerade and hall costume contests. Such events include the Anime Dating Game, and Cosplay Human Chess, where participating cosplayers act out their characters' role in the game accordingly.
Competition has led to the development of many cosplay groups that plan for conventions months in advance.
Non-competitive cosplay can often be seen at opening nights for science-fiction and fantasy movies, especially those with an established following. Even in small towns, some cosplayers wait in line for hours before showings of movies like Star Wars, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Even cult hits like the scifi film Serenity have drawn opening night cosplay.
Shopping for Cosplay Costumes
- Gothic Lolita
- Society for Creative Anachronism
- Live action role-playing game
- Dokoni.net: Link directory of cosplayers and commissioners, and anything cosplay related.