Fantasy meets utopia at Japan 'Cosplay' world summit

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It's not every day warlocks and battle-bots, space ninjas and kinky maids bump shoulders in a crowd, but then the Japanese youth cult of Cosplay is all about letting go of everyday life.

A contraction of the words "costume" and "play", Cosplay is a craze born in Tokyo's Harajuku fashion district where teenagers have long been turning heads with eye-popping handmade costumes of manga cartoon and anime movie characters.

From trendy Harajuku, spiritual home of the 'Gothic Lolita' look, Cosplay has spawned a global cult following, with youngsters from Thailand to Brazil slipping into their favorite fantasy alter-egos at mass conventions.

Last weekend, the cream of the global crop converged on Nagoya, central Japan, for the World Cosplay Summit where finalists from 15 nations strutted down red carpets and delighted crowds in city streets and shopping arcades.

Blending the nerdiness of a Star Trek convention with the pop cool of Japan's youth culture, the extravaganza felt like a "Second Life"-style virtual world whose avatars had checked back into the real world for a weekend visit.

"It's very geeky but it's also a lot of fun, so what's the bother?" said New Yorker India Davis, 23, delighting the crowds as Pudding, a space reporter who, she explained, hails from the 1990s Sega video game Space Channel 5.

Cosplayers pick from the endless palette of characters populating the parallel universe of manga, anime and video-gaming, then scour Internet forums and lovingly recreate them, usually on their mothers' sewing machines.

"I like the performance and I try to show the essence of each character," said Brazilian Geraldo Jose Cecilio Junior, a computing graduate and actor from Sao Paulo, wearing the sinister blood-red spectacles, cravat and Victorian overcoat of Alucard, the vampire protagonist of the anime series Hellsing.

Katrina Webber, 21, of Ohio, said she once spent four days making a costume of heroine Chrome Dokuro from the mafia manga series "Katekyo Hitman Reborn," using upholstering material, "the only thing that matched the colors."

"Chrome has an eyepatch," Webber said. "It was cool but hard to walk around in. I tended to veer to one side and bump into a lot of things."

The fickle Cosplay scene has long moved on from Astroboy, Hello Kitty and Japan's traditional manga characters with their tiny noses and regulation saucer-sized eyes to a world of figures few people over 21 have ever heard of.

Making their debut this year were characters from Vocaloid, a virtual voice software where comic characters sing songs from emailed text entries, one of the latest fads decreed as "kawaii," or cute, by Japanese teenage girls.

To the uninitiated, not every Cosplay concept is immediately accessible.

One 22-year-old Nagoya computer programmer, asked why he was wearing a Swiss-style frilly red dress, yellow bow and fluffy cat ears, explained he was recreating a feline character that is the target in a computer shooting game.

"The cats are the enemies," he said, declining to give his name. "They get shot by Shinto temple priestesses dressed in white who fly in airplanes.

"I just like the cat characters, I think they're cute," he added with a shrug as he drew the menacing stare of a passing Cosplayer wearing the combat gear of a US special forces mountain trooper and carrying a toy M16 assault rifle.

"It's time for Cosplay 2.0," says father of fantasy genre

Looking contentedly over the fantasy carnival was Nobuyuki Takahashi, 52, the pop-culture writer and designer credited with being the "father of Cosplay."

Takahashi, who dramatically stood out from the crowd in a plain black T-shirt, said he first coined the term Cosplay while attending a 1984 Los Angeles sci-fi convention, figuring that the term "masquerade" suggested something as pedestrian as a Venetian style costume ball.

Takahashi, who grew up on American sci-fi classics like "Barbarella," said the Japanese trend has its roots in the 1970s when teenagers started wearing face masks and T-shirts with Godzilla scales to emulate their comic heroes.

Once mostly a male passion, Cosplay got a shot in the arm when girls came on board, dressing up as maids, naughty schoolgirls and other characters from the manga genre where plotlines range from the G-rated to hardcore pornography.

Boosted by the Internet and digital photography, Cosplay has long been a global subculture phenomenon. In Japan, Takahashi estimates, there are half a million dedicated followers - not counting the "cameko," or camera boys, who pursue Cosplayers the way safari photographers stalk exotic wildlife.

"In karaoke, people pretend to be rock stars," he said. "In Cosplay, people can become manga characters. It's a form of expression, people enjoy it to refresh themselves. It's not running away from the real world."

With its global rise, Cosplay should open its doors to more characters from countries worldwide, said Takahashi, head of creative company Studio Hard.

"Because of its internationalization, it's time for Cosplay 2.0," he said.

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