Rather than spending a single day at the Anime Central Convention, I effectively spent the entire weekend there with my roommate, who has been to the past four conventions. Because my roommate and her sisters enjoy many of the different panels and events during the convention, they always book a hotel room so that they can enjoy the convention in leisure. At first I thought this was a bit extreme and only people from out-of-town would do so, but when I arrived, I found out I was wrong.
I took public transportation to the convention Friday afternoon, May 11th. Nothing was out of the ordinary in the beginning, but I found that with each stop of the Blue Line, rather than emptying out as tremendously as I thought it would, the train cars stayed at about the same capacity, and many passengers were around my own age, most of them wearing or carrying something that I recognized as something to do with either anime, video games, or both. I got off at the Rosemont stop, and found many of the passengers getting off as well, all of them walking in the direction of the main road leading towards the Hyatt. As I walked along the road, I kept to myself, concentrating only on getting to the hotel to meet up with my roommate so that I could leave my things in the hotel room. However, I was soon distracted by the people walking past me in the street—some going to other hotels, others just out for a walk in the sunshine. It wasn’t that I was surprised to see so many people—after all, it was a convention. Rather, more than half of them were in costume. Having watched some of the popular anime in the past few years, I recognized some of the costumes, but others were elaborate affairs that I knew nothing about. Some were extremely detailed and obviously handmade, while others were obviously factory-made for mass consumption. Most of the characters I recognized were of the latter quality, which made sense. After all, I watched only the more popular anime series—they were the mass-marketed shows, and so costumes made by Japanese companies and American licensers are marketed for fans more, too.
When I actually reached the hotel, I felt a bit taken aback. Rather than seeing what I had seen as I walked along the road, I was stunned by the amount of non-anime costumes being worn. The hotel area was crowded, and the most prominent color being worn was black—not because all anime characters wear black, but because another aspect of Japanese pop culture that I had not expected to make an appearance was very well-represented in the crowd. One in every five girls (and boys, occasionally), was wearing an outfit in the “goth Lolita” or “goth-loli” style. They looked like child-like dolls dressed for mourning. I had expected all the black—from what I could remember of high school, my peers who had been interested in anime typically wore black or gray more than any other color. But I had not expected something that I had heretofore considered a smaller part of Japanese pop culture to be so widely popular in the United States. What then struck me was that all the people in costume—anime characters and goth-lolis alike—were not speaking in “normal” voices or saying “normal” things. At least half the goth-lolis were accentuating their costumes with what I can only term as “cute” behavior. They clasped their hands and held them up beneath their chins and batted their eyes, and their voices were falsely high-pitched with a bit of a whiny tone to it. While I admit that those could be their normal voices, I tend to believe that most of those girls did not actually talk like that. The anime characters I passed were speaking to each other, some of them meeting for the first time. At first I had thought that the otaku clip we had seen in class with convention-goers discussing their cosplay had been out of context, but as I overheard conversations, I realized that it hadn’t been. One such conversation I overheard went thus:
Adachi Momo: “I’m into shoujo stuff. I’m Adachi Momo.”
Girl: “Adachi Momo?”
Adachi Momo: “Yeah. See, I like this guy named Touji, but everyone thinks I’m a slut because I’m all tanned.”
Girl: “Does Touji, too?”
Adachi Momo: “Yeah…sort of…but we go out later anyway.”
Girl: “So you end up with him?”
Adachi Momo: “Actually, no. See, there’s a guy named Kairi who’s sort of all over me, and it takes me a while, but I finally, like, see his good points in the end.”
Girl: “So you have a short love story?”
Adachi Momo: “Not at all! We, like, go through a lot of stuff. There’s this girl, Sae, who’s always trying to ruin my life—it gets really complicated.”
Of course, this seems to make out cosplayers as delusional people, which they are not. Right after this brief section of the conversation, the girl dressed as Adachi Momo (whom I have found out is from the manga and anime “Peach Girl”) then laughed and went on to talk about other manga and anime she enjoys, and the other person went on to describe the shounen anime she likes. However, the aspect I took away from this example of the many conversations I overheard is that cosplaying is not simply wearing a costume to resemble your favorite character in an anime or manga—if it were simply this, I think it would simply be called “masquerade” or something like that. Instead, it’s cosplay. The point is not to dress up as characters, but to be a life-size interpretation of your favorite character. With that, I made my way to the meeting point in the hotel to find my roommate, because I, too, would be cosplaying, due to a bet I lost the previous year when she won the masquerading competition at the convention.
After changing into my costume, which included a blonde wig, cloth capri pants, a gray vest, a sash, a short cloth robe, and strapped shoes, I looked as close to Tsunade (a character from the only anime I still follow, “Naruto”), as I could possibly get. My roommate was dressed as another character from the series named Kurenai. Her two younger sisters were dressed as two more characters from the series, Gaara (a once-evil-now-good boy) and his sister Temari. My roommate then informed me that we were heading towards the first of the “Naruto photo-shoots”. She then explained that for popular anime series, there were designated times and places where all the cosplayers for that particular show could convene and take pictures together either in simple group shots or in posed shots reflecting scenes from the anime/manga or scenes fans wished were part of the anime/manga. We went to the convention center, and were soon part of a huge mass of people dressed similarly to ourselves. I was one of four Tsunades present, while my roommate was one of three Kurenais, her middle sister one of five Gaaras, and her youngest sister one of three or four Temaris. There was a main group shot of all the cosplayers together, then shots of characters that were usually grouped together in the show and manga. What shocked me was that after the normal shots were done, fans began asking for shots that the original artist had probably never planned for characters—some characters who would never interact with each other outside of physical fighting and hatred were photographed in poses of sexual innuendo. There was no anger over unfaithfulness to the actual story whatsoever in the other fans—rather, they all seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely, laughing over the poses and chatting amongst themselves. People whom I had never met before laughed with and talked to me. They asked about my costume and if Tsunade was my favorite character—we even swapped theories about some recent developments in the manga. What I found interesting is that people who I thought would under normal circumstances be shy and more reserved were quite friendly and open, making jokes with strangers who happened to be standing beside them and laughing with the entire group. Though most of them probably did not know each other, there was a definite sense of camaraderie during the entire photo-shoot.
The shoot lasted approximately two hours, from 6:00 PM – 8:00 PM, and when it was over our somewhat exhausted group went back to the hotel room, changed, and went to find dinner. When we returned from dinner, we then went around the game rooms. It was as if the hotel was filled with an entirely different crowd the later it became. Just as our own had, most of the costumes had disappeared with the day, and a majority of people were wearing “normal” street-clothing. Ridiculously uncomfortable-looking shoes were gone and replaced with sneakers, wigs were replaced with freshly-showered ponytails, and brightly-colored costumes and black pinafores were replaced with videogame and anime t-shirts. Many clothes would still never fit into the status quo Gap style, but they were now wearing clothing that didn’t look as if it would break if the wearer sat down. The talk was no longer about “who” each person was, but about the various videogames in the rooms, the table-top games in others, and the panels people were excited about going to. But this didn’t mean that the friendliness between the people went away—now there was no more discussion of costumes, but everyone still had a topic of conversation that they could always fall back on. They were no longer socially awkward.
The next day, we woke early again for the second Naruto photo-shoot. My roommate informed me that the very popular animes such as Naruto, Full Metal Alchemist, Bleach, and Trigun usually had at least two photo-shoots, because of the difference in guests between days and the fact that some hardcore fans had two costumes from the anime and wanted to be able to photographed in both. We dressed again and went to the next photo-shoot – this one was by far larger, since it was the weekend and more people had free time. Again, we took photos as a group and then went into smaller groups of different characters. Then the organizers decided it was a nice enough day to go outside for some photos, and so we went to a small park next to the convention center to take even more pictures, though frankly my roommate, her sisters, and I grew a bit tired of this and left early so that we could attend some panels and other events. While my roommate went to different panels, I decided to use this time to shop and walk around the artist and vendor area in the convention center.
The first thing that stunned me was that people kept stopping me and asking me for photographs. They would ask me to pose as the character would, or with other cosplayers walking around who were from the same anime. They wouldn’t bother to read my badge, but called me by my character’s name—Tsunade. Some would say I was a bit too tall to be Tsunade, while others complimented the craftsmanship of some pieces of the costume and the carefully styled wig. But I also saw that cosplay was normal, and almost considered something to be respected rather than a social faux pas. I was one of them—I could talk to them about their interests readily and I didn’t judge. And I realized that this not only made them feel comfortable, but made me feel comfortable as well.
I believe what really intrigued me throughout this whole experience was the sense of community. Cosplayers were not ostracized, but rather treated something like celebrities. Rather than feeling awkward and out-of-place as I had feared, I felt more attractive than I’d ever felt in my normal life. What I realized the convention created was a safe space for the American otaku. From what I remember of high school, they were treated as strange outsiders with no social skills—they were fanatics and could not relate to “normal” people, or so we thought. At the convention, there is no such belief. People who would typically be reserved and shy were vocal and rowdy, because at the convention there is no fear of being socially outcast. The interesting dynamic I found was that while convention-goers could have the ability to treat others as they had been treated before, they refrained from doing so. They hold no grudges—they are, for the most part, accepting. Their sense of camaraderie superceded everything else.