Like the manga, about which I wrote last year, another big pop export commodity of Japan, cosplay (コスプレ) is also among of the aspects of this country’s culture with which I don’t feel very comfortable. Obviously not because the subject annoys me or anything but because every time I realize how widespread it is in the population, I also realize how limited is my understanding of Japan. Even a hurried visit to one of the usual cosplayer hangouts –Akihabara, Harajuku or some of the big events of the manga, anime or gaming industries- reveals not only how big is the crowd actively involved in it but also, and this is more impressive, how receptive is Japanese society in its entirety to the sight of a person not just dressed in the clothes of a character from these worlds, but totally immersed in the most subtle nuances of this character’s personality.
Although references to people not belonging to the world of show business getting disguised for fun exist from the Edo times –Yoshiwara’s courtesans did something similar each August, dressing up and acting as literature characters or as famous people of their times like Kabuki actors and everybody dresses up during matsuri- cosplay as we know it today is an import from the US. In the 1960s and the 1970s, American fans of science fiction movies and TV series started dressing up like their favorite heroes and getting together in related events; their Japanese counterparts followed their lead and at some point, in the beginning of the 1980s, Nobuyuki Takahashi from newly-founded then anime production company “Studio Hard” came up with the term “cosplay” to describe the trend that was gaining traction and fans in his country. And as is well known, when you name something, you make it real.
As happens with most ideas that came to Japan from abroad, the Japanese collective consciousness masticated cosplay, swallowed it, digested it, ruminated it and brought it back to the surface much more intense than it was; this is the reason that many people believe the phenomenon was invented here. It’s impossible even for someone like me who doesn’t have the slightest idea about what each disguise depicts, to not appreciate the endless hours of work that, usually amateur, cosplayers have put in so they can be faithful to even the slightest detail of an image with a lifespan of only a few hours. And yes, seeing them later, at the station, without their costume, so pedestrian that they get lost in the faceless crowd of the metropolis, you can expatiate for hours about their escapism from a mundane reality and their effort to get an identity through a fictional character. But even if it is so, you have to admit that there are certainly much less creative ways of achieving that goal.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes on the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.