As I walk around the Anime Convention in awe of all the dedicated cosplayers around me, I can’t help but notice that the atmosphere is surprisingly all too reminiscent of that of Harajuku, a unique shopping district in Tokyo made famous in America by Gwen Stefani. The vibrant and visually rich coexistence of multiple subcultures at the convention – Goths, Lolita, otaku, punk, and various fashion plates – is a dead ringer of the pop-cultural dynamic one would typically find in Takeshita-dori, the busiest street in Harajuku teeming with stores that sell the most eclectic range of commodities and in turn attracts the most diverse collection of scensters. Once again, I find myself feeling like a foreigner, someone who sticks out like a sore thumb and is obviously in the position to be educated. In the words of my classmates who went to the convention with me, we, the “normal” kids who dared not to participate in elaborate cosplay, have become freaks all of a sudden.
Overwhelmed by such a strange mix of people, I wonder what exactly is the purpose of an anime convention outside of Japan. Why are so many non-Japanese people interested in a foreign culture, and what do they wish to gain out of the event? For some attendees, it is quite apparent: to show off their love and obsession of manga and anime, via their authentic costumes and their knowledge of the subject, which can be flagrantly shown off at a myriad of activities at the convention. For some others, it is to network with others who share the same interest. As an overtly excited Sailor Moon shoves me aside in the crowd to get to the impending swords bid, I had a flashback: an intensely eager middle school girl in uniform pushing me out of her way to get to the jewelry sale at the mouth of Takeshita-dori. And voilà, the underlying theme of the convention that explains it all: consumer enthusiasm.
Ah, yes, now I remember. How can anyone forget the gargantuan magnificence that is the consumer fetish in Tokyo? What easier way is there to have physical manifestations of one’s love for anime, manga, and anything else of interest at the convention other than buying products of such objects of obsession? Maybe this is a twist on moe: we want physical objects that bear resemblance to what we adore so that we feel that, through ownership, we’re closer to them. Surely enough, moments later, I hear a girl declaring with pride, “I just bought a hundred dollars-worth of manga.”
Of course, to be fair, consumerism isn’t the only thing that excites the crowd, although it certainly helps. The anime convention is the only weekend in the year when fans can revel in their dedication to this mega-subculture, this enormous collage of intersecting obscure passions that elude the comprehension of the mainstream. “Put your wig on or I’ll slap you with my sword,” threatens an avid anime fan. Evidently, solidarity in at least physical appearance is crucial to these fans; given that many people travel from faraway places (such as Minnesota) for the convention, I suppose that it is only polite to keep the ambiance like a greenhouse of anime/manga enthusiasts. Their attendance at the event is of unquestionable importance, and their pre-planning is comparable to, if not more extensive than, a Desperate Housewife planning Thanksgiving dinner.
The reaction I got from interviewing several cosplayers is that their dedication is both palpable and unanimous. Invariably, they design and make their own costumes. Authenticity is prioritized, and there is no question of whether or not to buy an accessory if it would make a costume better. I asked one girl why she went into so much detail with her costume, to the extent that she changed her eye color, to which she responded, “because that’s the color of my character’s eyes, and you can easily buy these contact lenses on the internet.” Another cosplayer I spoke to actually spent months to hand-carve the designs on his leather vest, simply for the purpose of having “an authentic costume.” I got the impression that many fans don’t go there with a specific goal of winning a costume contest; rather the point is to just be in a costume they can be proud of. The time spent on making the costumes is also very revealing of their dedication. Of the dozen of people I interviewed, the shortest time spent on the costume is “three weeks of making, several months of sketching and planning.” This diligence toward authenticity, I feel, is again another feature of moe: in order to feel closer to an object of adoration (the cosplay character), to have that object be a part of oneself, one would have to do one’s best to become this object, via absolute authenticity in appearance and mannerisms.
Authenticity in mannerisms, therefore, is also integral to successful cosplay. One way in which the anime convention differs from Takeshita-dori is that many (if not most of the) participants are not just hanging out there, but rather are in constant performance. To be a good cosplayer means that not only does one have to look like one’s character, one also has to be in character. This is why whenever a cosplayer is asked to be photographed, she would pose in the manner or a trademark gesture of her character, which is quite different from, say, a child in a Spiderman costume on Halloween grinning at the camera. Cosplayers thus differ from someone who is simply playing dress-up, a distinction that is often forgotten by those who are not a part of this subculture.
One way in which the anime convention here differs from one in Japan is that a significant portion of the cosplayers and the venders are devoted to American cult followings. Within the first hour of my experience, I saw three Captain Jack Sparrows, a plethora of Soul Caliber characters, Aquateen characters, and a table-full of Jem dolls. These deviations from anime/manga – American toys, products of American cult movies, American cartoons, and popular video games in America – may seem at a glance irrelevant to the cause of the anime convention. Upon closer inspection, however, I realize that the hybridization does not necessarily diminish the authenticity of the event, as it is still in keeping with the spirit of intersecting subcultures.
The anime convention itself is a cult phenomenon, so it is only natural that it would attract people who are interested in multiple cult cultures. Ask one of the many Captain Jack Sparrows, who sashayed around like Johnny Depp meandering in the Caribbean. “I cheated,” he confessed. “The pants and the boots are from the costume I used in the last Renaissance Festival.” Although some devout anime fans may get upset at this “cheating,” I believe that there is no use in pointing a finger at everything that does not fit into one conception of a supposed authentic convention, like what the sci-fi conventions are often accused of doing. The beauty of this convention is that the participants are genuinely happy just to be there and to form quick bonds with others through common interest, even if they have to wait in line for hours to get in. It is about the formation of an inclusive community that “speaks the same [geek] language,” not the replication of a vacuum. The anime convention is about the congregation of people who share minority obsessions; as with any identity group, the minute one tries to define and limit the identity, the subculture collapses from too much elimination.