AS HISTORY HAS IT, cosplay, or costume play, was invented by American Trekkies and refined by Harajuku girls. The trend was a liberating one for subcultures across the board as nerds realized that they, too, could be dandies. While it’s not unusual, so to speak, to encounter middle-aged Klingons, the Japanese-accented strand of cosplay is dominated by teenagers who for one reason or another are drawn to fantasy worlds where the heroes’ costumes are as tight as in American comics but the boundaries of gender are looser.
Last Saturday, the Japan Society opened its doors to cosplayers in conjunction with “Krazy!,” an exhibition about comics that originated at the Vancouver Art Gallery and arrived in New York in a truncated, Japan-centric form. The kids bounded around the society’s elegant lobby, loudly rehashing the gossip of previous cosplay conventions and exchanging compliments on accessories like red contact lenses. (“My uncle is an optometrist!”) Pretending to be someone else brings its own brand of adrenaline, here amplified by the free-flowing Coke offered to wash down the complimentary Cheetos and Doritos. Gallery director Joe Earle seemed flustered by the underage chaos, though he had gamely dressed up as a half-boy, half-puppet villain from the action saga Naruto. I chatted with Renee, who sported the shiny turquoise jumpsuit of Giorno Giovanna, a Japanese man with an Italian woman’s name who jumps erratically between historical periods and countries in the series JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure. At twenty-three, Renee said she felt like an old-timer and was beginning to tire of cosplay gatherings because of the “obese thirteen-year-old girls who dress like boys and make out with each other.”
Shortly thereafter, I learned that Renee was a member of Team USA at last August’s World Cosplay Summit in Japan, and as such had been tapped to judge the costume contest here, along with the two delegates who will represent America at this summer’s meeting. (“All girls,” complained a samurai behind me, as they took their seats onstage.) Contestants and spectators assembled in the auditorium, and Reni, a singer in a baby-blue French-maid dress and bunny ears, warmed them up. Her Japanese songs were peppered with simple English sentences. (“My favorite thing to eat is strawberry shortcake.”) Then the “cosplay parade” began. Contestants walked across the stage and posed in the middle. Many would crook their elbows and flash a sideways peace sign. The seventy-some contenders were primarily action figures with cardboard swords (Cloud Strife, a warrior from the Final Fantasy gaming franchise, was a popular guise for cosplayers of both sexes) and shy girls in racy getups—most frequently Misa, a character from a supernatural noir series called Death Note, who favors short hemlines and lacy stockings. My favorite was the girl who came as Kirby, the cute-but-lethal pink bubble from the eponymous Nintendo game. She made a spherical tunic, and when she crouched, her slight body vanished into it, leaving nothing but bubble. The crowd went wild. The judges, however, privileged a more refined aesthetic. First prize went to a high school senior headed to the Fashion Institute of Technology (the alma mater, incidentally, of two of the three judges). She sewed her pink hoop dress in homage to Black Butler’s Ciel Phantomhive, a twelve-year-old nobleman in Victorian London who attends courtly functions in drag.
Afterward, in the lobby, the judges posed for photos with fans and signed autographs. As I approached them, I heard cries of “Yaoi, yaoi,” the word for PG-13 homoerotica. A sturdy girl in a tie, sports jacket, and pageboy wig lunged at a similarly attired boy. Just before they locked lips, I turned to Renee, whose jaw tightened into a grimace. “I’m so, so sorry,” she said.