A look into the crazy cosplay culture

Although there are no stages or scripts, it is considered a performance art because when players are in their costumes, they are also in character

by AZALEA AZUAR/ pic by ARIF KARTONO

HAVING an alter ego is not about being an entirely different person.

Alter ego, defined by the Cambridge Dictionary, is “the part of someone’s personality that is not usually seen by other people”, while the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as “a trusted friend” and “the opposite side of a personality”.

All of us, at many points of our lives, wished the opposite side of our personality would shine more. A meek girl might wish she was more outgoing, or a very organised man might want to be more carefree.

While most of us keep it to ourselves to avoid being accused of trying to be someone whom we are not, a few brave ones take it to the extreme.

Feeling empowered by the characters they see on the big screen, these people would dress up like those characters and behave like them too, if only for a few hours on certain days. They are the practitioners of a geek culture called cosplay. Cosplay is a combination of the words “costume” and “play” which has been around since the early 80s.

Some television shows, like The Big Bang Theory and films like Paul have given hints of what cosplay is, who cosplayers are and what they do at gatherings.

Feeling empowered by the characters they see on the big screen, these people would dress up like those characters and behave like them too

Although there are no stages or scripts, it is considered a performance art because when players are in their costumes, they are also in character.

These characters are often derived from manga, anime, comic books, video games and films. They often gather in their alter egos at comic conventions or cosplay meet-ups.

But why do they need to dress up? Why not just go to a comic convention in their normal clothes?

While some do it for fun, others do it to make a statement. Some even get paid.

According to comic book expert Christian Beranek, in addition to a per diem and travel costs, popular professional cosplayers can make at least US$5,000 (RM20,950) to US$10,000 a show.

“If you add in mail order sales, crowdfunding contributions and YouTube ad revenue, the top talents are pulling in close to US$200,000 a year.”

Cosplay gained traction in Malaysia when an anime event called Comic Fiesta was first organised in 2002.

Anime had been popular in the country long before that, but its fans never had a proper venue for cosplay.

Ann Wong, whose cosplay character is Yugana Senshi Uon, ventured into the geek culture to get out of depression after giving birth to her daughter.

“I started cosplaying five years ago,” she told The Malaysian Reserve during the Japan Expo at Pavillion Kuala Lumpur (KL) on July 26.

Her character is a Japanese-inspired Poison Ivy, a fan-favourite anti-villain from the Batman comics.

“My weight went up to 95kg after giving birth. Some mean friends told my husband to leave me because I was fat, ugly and unmotivated.

“So, to get out of that state, I decided to do something I had always wanted but was afraid to, which was cosplaying.”

Cosplay has done the homemaker from Sarawak a lot of good as she is now a wellknown cosplayer, not just locally but internationally as well.

Cosplayers in characters from Naruto at the recent Cosplay Parade in Pavillion KL

Wong has been invited to judge cosplay competitions.

Among notable ones were the Cosplay Authority Global Challenge competition in Dubai and Asia Pop Comicon Manila in the Philippines.

“Cosplay has brought me around the world on various platforms. I was featured in US magazines, Singapore media and on Al Jazeera to talk about Egypt cosplay,” she said.

Wong said she wanted to express herself, but did not find the right channel, so she just bottled up all her anger and emotions inside.

“Lucky to find cosplay, I managed to bring out the other side of me and stopped being so angry with people,” she said, adding that the Malaysian cosplay community has grown so much.

Back then, cosplaying was frowned upon and cosplay events were small and were mostly held indoors. Although cosplay is still considered a niche market, Malaysians’ perception on cosplay is slowly changing and now, cosplay events are being held in malls and hotels.

In December last year, thousands of visitors flocked the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre to attend Comic Fiesta, which itself had started small at the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall.

Wong said even the government and corporations have taken advantage of cosplay activities.

“The government came in last year and allocated a whole sum of money for eSports, also a part of anime, comic and games, which was how cosplay became the mainstream.

“A lot of big corporates like Pavillion KL, the tourism sector and media companies are taking an interest in cosplay because the government has acknowledged it.”

When Wong started cosplaying, it was difficult for her to find the materials and props to create the costume. Luckily, e-commerce platforms such as Taobao and Wowo have made things easier for her.

“It was hard to get contact lenses, make-up and other materials, so we try our best to make our own.

“Nowadays, you can buy a lot of good-quality cosplay materials on e-commerce platforms and they are not that expensive as well,” she said.

Those with extra cash can buy readymade costumes online and you can tell that it is a serious business when they cost from RM50 to RM1,500 each.

Although cosplay is still considered a niche market, Malaysians’ perception on cosplay is slowly changing and now, cosplay events are being held in malls and hotels

Cosplayers are not just wearing the costumes for show, but also making some revenue out of them.

“They use their skills for making props and costumes and being the make-up artists. They also sell their supplies to those working in the film industry,” said Wong.

Some cosplayers even work as freelancers where companies hire them for events.

Cosplayer Allen Yap was hired by Disney to cosplay as Captain Jack Sparrow, originally played by Johnny Depp in the popular film franchise, Pirates of The Caribbean, for the premiere of the film’s fourth instalment, On Stranger Tides. Tailors such as Century Fiesta Sdn Bhd and Ruby’s Cosplay Shop took advantage of this culture by becoming costume makers for cosplayers.

There was a misconception that cosplay originated from Japan, when in fact it did not. Cosplay started in the US, in a science convention by a Japanese scientist couple. The news of their dressing up at a science convention went viral in Japan, hence, the misconception.

Wong said Japan is a country that highly respects its culture.

“When you go to a cosplay event in Japan, you are not allowed to wear the costume outside the premise and walk into the convention.

“You are only allowed to put on the costume inside a special area in the convention. You have to respect the people outside,” she said.

“Otaku” is used to describe a fan of the Japanese popular culture, but in Japan, it is a derogatory word.

“In Japan, it stands for a big behavioural problem and a psychological issue. For us outside Japan, we see it as somebody who loves anime,” Wong explained.

This year, some foreign cosplayers were detained by the Immigration Department during the Cosplay Festival 4 at Sunway Putra Hotel on March 23 and the Geek Summit in Shah Alam on June 30, for participating without proper permits.

They were from Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong, Japan and Spain.

Wong believed that this was a good move by the immigration authorities to protect the participants and prevent the organisers from cheating.

There is a misconception that cosplay originated from Japan, when in fact it does not

“They must know the difference between a work permit and a tourist permit. You need a permit for events to perform and earn money.

“So, when the immigration (authorities) acted, it was a very good thing and a wake-up call for underground organisers who were unaware of this law.”

Wong mentioned that even high-profile cosplayers such as Alodia Gosiengfiao from the Philippines and Yeugene Fay from Thailand got cheated because the organisers did not have a permit.

“It is not to hamper the cosplay community, but to keep them safe. It ensures that foreign cosplayers are taken care of by legit organisers,’’ she said.

Another guest cosplayer who attended the Japan Expo was Thai cosplayer Sarana Khunpolpitak who went by the name of Thames Malerose.

“I started cosplaying about 12 to 13 years ago, when my friend invited me to go cosplaying with him,” he said.

Khunpolpitak showed off his impressive and elegant costume during the opening ceremony, where he went as Tamamo no Mae from Onmyoji, a 3D role-playing game.

“I chose to cosplay as this character because the costume is red in colour and is suitable for this event,” he said.

The character was inspired by a powerful fox spirit with nine tails in a Japanese folklore. However, Khunpolpitak’s costume only had two tails.

“I actually ordered this costume from Taobao, but there were some pieces that I had to make myself because they were not available online. “The mask (a red and white Japanese fox mask used commonly in cultural festivals), I made myself the night before I flew to Malaysia,” he said.

When he is not cosplaying, Khunpolpitak is an artist and a bassist for his own band. His favourite character to cosplay is L from Death Note because not only is the costume simple, but he found the character to be very interesting.

Khunpolpitak is planning to cosplay as Inosuke Hashibira from the anime Demon Slayer in the next event he joins. The character has the head of a boar and the body of a human.

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