“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” – Oscar Wilde
“Horror is the removal of masks.” – Robert Bloch
Dressing up in elaborate costumes is a timeless human pursuit. You need only look at tribal adornments that are still donned today to see that it is in our primal nature to express ourselves beyond our own skin. When it comes to everyday attire, we mostly don’t stray too far into garb that will lead to ridicule. If the name of a party or event, however, the elaborate possibilities of our garments need only be limited to the theme of said occasion. On this occasion, ’twas the theme of Japanese cartoon characters.
On a trip to Kyoto, a friend and I went to check out the bi-monthly cosplay event at the Manga Museum. We were almost shunned at the door when we were told an advance booking was necessary, and in any case, we were not in costume. Fortunately, they began to take pity on our ‘last day in Kyoto’ sob story, and allowed us into one of the most bizarre Asian experiences thus far experienced.
We were the only foreigners, and the only guests out of costume. It felt as if we had broken in late at night to catch the characters of the numerous comic books on display burst from the pages and gallivant creepily yet gleefully around the premises.
Just like a fancy dress/costume party in the Western hemisphere, there was a sense of inebriation amongst those dressed as their favorite characters that may not be as fully expressed in their daily lives. They were living out a fantasy of portraying their heroes and had most probably been living vicariously through them for many a year.
Manga is known known throughout the world, mainly from its influence on animated films, television shows and video games, and also from international shows such as Pokemon and Dragon Ball Z, and classic movies such as Akira and Ghost in the Shell. What astounds you as you walk through the library of aging paperbacks is the sheer volume of the them. This was just scratching the surface of what is circulating out here in the Far East, as nearby China and South Korea is a fiend for this type of escapism too. Rummaging around the aisles, the work that jumped out was a series entitled ‘Bastard!’.
Cosplayers are serious about their posing. Some of them had hired professional photographers to follow them around the museum, and their stances had been meticulously rehearsed. The dame below led me behind her for a good five minutes before she could find the one glove that would be appropriate to strike a signature pose with.
The group below were so serious about their role playing, that they didn’t appear to be having fun. Maybe they were carrying the weight of their respective characters’ emotions on their shoulders; past grievances bought upon them, with the spirit of vengeance stirring with each emo glance to the camera. At least that’s what I was going for. Awkward.
There was an obvious sense of distance from our fellow guests, what with being out of costume and all. We had only come as ourselves, and as such, not really in the spirit of the event. I’d never felt so underdressed wearing so many layers of clothes. On the other hand, we too were an oddity: westerners. With camera in hand, we could have been anyone – journalists covering the event or overseas otakus on a pilgrimage to the mecca of Manga. The reality was, we were tourists. Yet they welcomed our advances to pose with them and marvel perplexedly at their curious pastime.
On reflection, it seems these fancy dressers may not be so strange after all. The majority of us have and will continue to dress up in rags portraying our childhood cartoon heroes, movie idols or attempt to look much scarier than we do in our otherwise harmless and conservatively dressed lives. Occasions such as Halloween provide the perfect excuse to express ourselves to the fullest, not least interact with each other more openly while wearing a mask. How often have you found that it’s far easier to get along with random costume wearers on a boozy night out compared to people you might see everyday at work?
Asians are more attached than most to their fictional characters. Relationships can be different out here.And yeah, going to a cosplay event at night in a museum is creepy. It’s hella creepy. It’s also as essential a way to experience Japanese culture as visiting a temple, watching sumo or eating sushi.