At the risk of sounding like an old fogey again (considering that I started watching anime way back in 1986, I’m probably a dinosaur to most fans nowadays) cosplay was virtually unknown at that point in time. Now, of course, it’s even on MTV! It’s huge. It’s big. People all over the world do it. If I was writing this 10 years ago I would probably have had had to have more than few paragraphs explaining things.
But it didn’t always use to be this way. No, the first cosplays that I ever attended were small, cozy affairs. People had to assemble their costumes from whatever materials they could get their hands on – satin, cotton, various kinds of stretchy cloth. You used hairpins to stick things together and craft glue when that didn’t work. If you were into cosplay at that point in time you had to be really keen and dedicated to fashion whatever you wanted from cardboard, papier-mache and sundry materials.
The cosplay scene became sort of a second home to me in various ways, an escape from the constant danger and terror at home. The friends that I would make there would be with me for a long time.
Remember the anime club meeting I attended way back when I was fourteen? I got kind of more involved with the club activities later (even though the chairman was a jerk) and actually introduced the vice-chairman to the new chairman (my good friend, Lawrence Chee) who later grew to lead the Miyuki Animation Club (as it was known during that time) into a new era of peace and friendship for all – naah I’m just kidding. Actually we were just a small outfit holding anime screenings here and there. We didn’t even have a place to ourselves or a club fund for the longest time.
But it was fun and it was a nice place to hang out, watch anime, and make friends. This was around 2001 or so, and anime was in short supply even with digital downloads. Cosplay was a niche thing back then you had to be kind of weird to want to spend money, time and effort to dress up as a cartoon character. There wasn’t a clear divide between anime and cosplay – if you were into one you were more or less into the other.
I was more than active in “the scene” as everyone called it and at one point I knew everyone and everyone knew me. I never actively organized anything but I knew everyone who did and I got involved with pretty much everything at some point. We had our share of interesting and amazing people.
Gaogaigar, a friend as stalwart and true as the giant robot that was his namesake. Minxing, whose treasure trove of anime songs was matched only by his boundless love of Macross. Ratixon, nerd of nerds, who loved Soul Calibur. Sentinel, Gundam fan and Gunpla master. Justin, The Super Cameraman.
Tatsu, all-around cool girl and extremely capable administrator. Jeanette, a sweet and gentle lady with an equally sweet and gentle voice. (whom I actually knew WAY before anyone else and was the very first person I translated song lyrics for) Nicah, a really nice Malay girl who became fast friends with my sister. LSW, a man with a weird, wild laugh who seemed to have completely no filter from his brain to his mouth – he literally said whatever came to mind immediately all the time…which was often along the lines of “you know, your cosplay really sucks.” Rojo, whose passion for heavy metal and classic rock was matched only by his love of Hokuto no Ken.
Kurayama – who to be honest I only met like a few times. I’m only going to mention her here because she was the first and to this date only woman that I’ve ever met that I have been incapable of forming complete sentences when in the presence of (and I’m generally quite a smooth talker!) Even my sister (who was younger at that time, about twelve) noticed. I would say that I was embarrassed except that I’m not – there’s no shame in appreciating female beauty.
You’ve probably noted at this point that few people used their real names in cosplay. It’s sort of a separate identity thing, just like an online handle. Makes sense – some people want to keep their professional and private lives separate.
Me? I used my real name, a rarity in the cosplay scene. There wasn’t any real reason for it – I just didn’t find any name that truly appealed to me. I used Kain as my email address and for my FAQ writing for the longest time (because Dragoons are cool, y’know?) but strangely enough in this most imaginative of worlds, I decided to stick with the facts.
But it wasn’t all fun and games. Cosplay began a huge deal for my younger sister, and not in the best of ways. That is actually her story to tell, not mine, but such as it intersects with mine, I’ll share my part in it.
I mentioned back in Book 1 that Meimei loved Halloween in the US, right? She took that love of dressing-up into cosplay as well. She wanted to cosplay, and wanted to cosplay well. But boy did she have ISSUES about it. I mean, at that time we all had issues. I often felt my entire self was made up of issues – that I was a walking, talking mental disorder. But I never knew how bad Meimei had it in this regard.
She wanted to do it but she couldn’t bring herself to do it. She was ugly (that’s what our mom told her at least) No one would ever look at her. She didn’t pose properly. She wasn’t worthy of cosplaying this or that character. Everyone else did everything else better than she did. An endless list of criticism and self-esteem issues.
I spent hours and hours discussing it with her, talking, analyzing and attempting to comprehend what she meant. The critic in her had taken on monstrous proportions and completely ruined all fun and enjoyment.
Though painful, this was actually one time in my life that after my initial attempts at advice I felt it was better to sit back and watch. It was completely her own problem – well, not completely, as she had internalized our Mum’s critical nature and it was eating her up alive – but to interfere at this point would have been disastrous. I did actually get too enmeshed at first, which was one of the things that led to our Trial Separation. (see the chapter on that below)
But back to cosplay. The anime scene in SG was still very small at that time and there was only one end of the year event, called quite simply End of Year, or EOY (yeah, real imaginative, I know) But what an event it was! I still remember the energy and vigor of that first convention. I think that probably the first and the only time I was ever proud of Singapore, to be able to host such an event. We were just as good as the US! As Japan! As anywhere! In a fit of excitement I remember writing a short write-up on it which is probably lost to the darkest recesses of the Net somewhere by now.
I reference the first anime convention in SG pretty often because it was a important event in my life. Not only did I meet my first girlfriend there, I also met most of a lot of other people, most of whom would become my closest friends. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, you could even say that it was a kind of a crossroads of destiny of a sort.
I was pretty keen on the hobby back then, and my times spent cosplaying were some of the most fun I’ve had in my life. I think part of the meteoric rise of cosplay’s popularity worldwide has nothing to do with anime or games (much as it has been influenced by them) but that people just love dressing up. It taps into a primal part of the psyche, the need to be someone else for a while. It’s like being a kid again and in the land of make-believe and fairytales, plus people can look at you and take photos (which can be very addicting…) And people just plain like dressing up!
It was fun, but it was also tiring and in some ways, painful. We were still living in a highly toxic environment, and that got into the hobby just like it got into everything else. Each seam and part had to be glued and glued well. Not to mention the days spent searching for cloth (cheap, as we didn’t have much money) This was before Youtube and there were no tutorials or anything else of that nature. And of course Mum’s comments – cosplay was useless and a waste of money, just like everything else we knew and loved.
I must say that at one point though she actually did help with one or two costumes. She made my sister’s costume for the very first convention (Vampire Princess Miyu) and it was very well-made indeed. After which she told her that this was the Absolute Last Time (another favorite phrase of hers) and that we were to never do this again. One step forwards two steps back.
I have to mention at this point that my Dad, whatever his other flaws, really came through for us in cosplay as the years passed. Of course a lot of that was him wanting to get into it as well. He had always liked making things – a canoe when he was younger, wooden swords when I was a child. He was good with his hands and I often felt that he was having a lot more fun than us.
But the drama. OMG THE FUCKING DRAMA. If you’ve ever cosplayed, or know anyone else who has, you know that there is a LOT of drama that comes with cosplay (or any kind of performance art for that matter) Tempers flare. Boy/girlfriends are stolen. (or better yet, you learn that they never were attached in the first place!) My costume is better than yours! No it isn’t! Yes it is! No it isn’t! You’re a skank! No YOU’RE a skank! It’s kind of like a return to kindergarten except with fancy costumes this time.
The thrill and fame and adulation sort of gets to people, and then the ego rears its ugly head. Friends call each other names and then they aren’t friends anymore. I think part of it is because most people who get into cosplay are young. Like a friend of mine said, if you take a bunch of young people and get them involved in a hobby in which they make costumes and show them off…drama is inevitable.
There is even more sexploitation now (since the cosplay boom started…I mean, sex sells) but even back then there were girls who would just throw on skimpy clothes and parade around in them for male attention. If that’s not a recipe for drama I don’t know what is.
For those of you not in the know, you’ll probably want to know what exactly goes into the making of a costume. It’s a different experience for each character and each person, but I’ll give you a brief rundown.
First off, you have to find a character that appeals to you – which could be for any number of reasons. You like their looks, their hair, their backstory, or you think their weapons are cool, or you had/have a huge crush on them, or well, it could be any number of reasons. This isn’t a problem most cosplayers have – the issue is usually having TOO MANY characters that they want to cosplay, and too little time and money…but I digress.
Then comes the research. You scour the Internet, or artbooks, or magazine covers, for reference pictures. Front view, back view, side views…360 degree models would be good to have, but we plebians have to make do with whatever we can scrounge up. Thus armed, you then move on to the next step…
Which is figuring out how you’re going to construct whatever it is that you’re going to wear. What materials will you use? Simple cotton doesn’t work for the vast majority of the costumes out there – sure, it’s more that sufficient for T-shirts or pants, but what about robes or tunics? You could use satin (silk is WAY too expensive) or maybe velvet? What about the color and texture? What looks good on a TV screen may not have the same effect in real life.
And that’s just for cloth. Weapon construction is a whole new ballgame. Wood is a good starting point, as is plastic – metal is generally too hard (and too dangerous!) for general use. You’ll need to consider just what you’re going to do with each weapon as well…are you going to swing them around? Or are they just for display? Lots of questions that have to be answered before one even starts work.
So once your research is done and your shopping list is made, it’s off to procure the materials that you’ll need. A trip to Chinatown to haggle with some old folks over the price of cloth, and then to the arts and crafts store to get plastic sheets, lengths of wood and acrylic paint. Trying not to look at your steadily shrinking wallet, you head off home to begin the construction in earnest.
Out come the needles and thread, and the hammer and nails. Hot glue guns – the savior of many an aspiring cosplayer. Measuring, trimming, cutting, and stitching the scattered bits of cloth into something greater than the sum of its parts. Holding your half-completed work up to the mirror and desparing that you’ll never be half as sexy/cool/beautiful/awesome as the character you’re cosplaying – but then turning right back to what you’re making and trying your best to finish it anyway.
Then it’s time to get blacksmithing. Hammering and nailing your recalcitrant pieces of wood into shape and sandpapering them to get just the right finish. Using hairdryers to mold plastic sheets into greaves and breastplates. Taking a break to strike some poses (for reference and inspiration!) and then its back to the grind once more.
Once we’re done with wearable materials, then it’s time for the finishing touches – makeup and hairstyling. There is a reason why there are so many women’s magazines devoted to makeup…it’s not easy! First you have to apply cleanser, then foundation (and make sure it matches your skintone) then moisturizer, then blush…how about false eyelashes? And eyeshadow? The list goes on and on. Then there’s also the matter of cutting and styling your wig – if you’re using one. You might have gone for hair extensions instead, in which case those also have to be attached.
At this point you ask yourself why you ever got into this thing anyway – when it takes so much time and effort and money…then you watch a bit of your favorite anime and you fall in love all over again. It’s only two more days till the convention, so it’s just one last hurdle to the finish line! At least, that’s what you tell yourself when the whole thing still isn’t done by Friday night.
Whew, a lot of work, isn’t it? I’m tired out just writing that. Some of us do it for love of the costume, some of us for the love of the character, some because of friends, and some just for the lulz. But I think I speak for most cosplayers when I say that it’s all worth it when it all comes together on stage. When you hold sword, spear, gun or axe and in that moment you ARE whoever you are portraying – not just your old, boring, humdrum self, but a hero or heroine born from imagination and dreams.
I first started cosplaying in 2001. I went as Larva (because all you had to do was throw on a cloak, courtesy of Lawrence Chee) to complement my sister’s Miyu.
After that we did Mario and Luigi. That was fun. I was Luigi (since I was taller) and Meimei was Mario. We sewed each and every Starman, fireflower and mushroom from hand. Circa 2003 there was not much in the way of cosplay resources in Singapore (or anywhere else for that matter) so we combed Chinatown trying to find boots that looked like Mario’s and when we did the shopkeeper was so puzzled why these two kids were so happy to find old some beat-up plumbing equipment.
I think it was after the 3rd KHK or so that I decided that I wanted to try to manage a team. Suiting action to word, I did. I was really into Sengoku Basara at that time so that was what I decided to do. I didn’t know what an undertaking it would be (if not I probably wouldn’t have done it) but I was all afire with vigor and determination and I think that was kind of infectious. It sure beat sitting around fighting depression and OCD all the time.
I’ll introduce my team members here. Most of them had been involved with the KHK (which is how I knew them) and they all came along for various reasons of their own.
Yuuko – you met her before in the KHK. Ginrei, sort of my disciple in some ways, a lanky Chinese boy who was also a great dancer. Ellen, Ginrei’s girlfriend at that time who wasn’t really that into cosplay but came along for the ride. Ryuhou, a weird but reliable girl who thought she could speak Osaka-ben (a Japanese dialect) but couldn’t. Alice, who actually knew some of my friends from before who knew some of my friends who…it’s too complicated to go into here. She was a pretty Chinese girl who had been around since the first KHK but had decided to finally join my team.
And how can I forget Hayate the blacksmith. We wouldn’t have any weapons if not for him. He was Ibrahim’s good buddy and became one of mine as well. That guy could make props like you wouldn’t BELIEVE. It was even more amazing then because the technology of that period was kind of limited.
Once again like with the KHK I put so much of myself into that team that even now writing it I’m astounded. You have to keep in mind that at that time, cosplay was still totally ghetto. If you wanted anything sewn you had to do it yourself. We brainstormed ways to make hammers, axes, swords and spears. We used discarded orthopedic braces as molds for plastic sheets, with hair dryers as a heating tool. I went to furniture shops to buy whatever spare wood they had. All this on a tight budget! I didn’t have much paying work and everyone else was a student.
My mother actually got kind of interested besides herself and though she didn’t really help in any big way she did offer some tips and pointers on sewing. She was an expert seamstress herself and in those years always wondered why my sister (whose interest in sewing grew over time) never sewed her own clothes and only sewed costumes. Obviously she never really got this whole cosplay thing…just like she never really understood any of our other hobbies or interests.
Oh my God that half a year. I insisted on weekly meetings where I would check on everyone’s progress. I really whipped those kids into shape! Except Ryuhou who was the only other adult – she attended like maybe two meetings but on the day itself she came through spectacularly.
I taught them all how to pose properly – they were all so stiff at first! Ginrei in particular had to be shown how to use all six swords at once and not drop them (he was doing Date Masamune) He seemed to lack confidence until the lightning bolts and blue finish were painted onto his armor – then he spent half a minute staring at them in awe and came regularly every Saturday after that.
The day that I brought my almost-finished armor to Hayate and he spraypainted them with multiple coats, brilliant gold and cherry red rising out of the plain white plastic. They looked so good I was literally struck dumb.
We grew pretty close as a team. All that energy and time spent together forges very strong bonds indeed. I had conversations with Yuuko about singing, and about philosophy and literature with Alice. We went out to eat a whole lot together and bonded over hot glue guns and staplers, ice cream and scotch-tape.
How about me…what did I do? Search furniture stores for poles to use a spear base. Design and shape my leg armor. Order people around and make sure everything was finished on time.
Oh yeah, and get abs.
Like I said I put a LOT of myself into this particular cosplay. I figured if I wanted to do it I might as well do it well. I went online to learn about fitness and bodybuilding. It took about 3 months or so, and lots of eating protein (fortunately I happen to love beef!)
Part of it was me working on my self-image as well. There was a lot of BS from my mother about how I looked so unstylish and uncool (by her standards) and I had had enough of that. I wasn’t the stereotypical 98-pound Asian weakling from my teenage days, I was actually pretty cool and hip. (as cool and hip as you can be with fashion that consisted solely of shirts and shorts from Giordano – 500 dollars remember?) I guess I just wanted to try something new, be someone else for a while. That’s the appeal of cosplay anyway!
So I did. I worked out almost every day, doing situps, pushups and pull-ups. I told myself I was only doing it for my singing (strong stomach muscles help with that) but naaah, I was just bullshitting myself and I knew it.
It was a big hit. Actually my entire team was a big hit but we’re talking about my abs at the moment here. Benjamin Qwek was back from one of his trips from the US and I can remember our exchange. The moment he saw me he said “Hey Kain, you have abs.” I told him “Benjamin Qwek I don’t see you for four fucking years and the first thing you can say to me is “you have abs?”
It was quite an ego boost to my younger and troubled 25 year old self. I got a lot of stares. Yuuko and Ginrei only had eyes for each other at that point but I know Alice looked. So did most of the other girls in the exposition hall. Hua Xing (back from the KHK) did five rounds around me and Yuri shot me an appreciative glance or two. It certainly helped that my costume was pretty daring by male standards, basically just a bolero jacket and pants with some armor. Bare chested samurai for the win! (Google Sengoku Basara and Sanada Yukimura to see)
I can’t believe we actually got it all together. I was still dealing with pretty serious issues at that point, and even though I didn’t pry, I knew the rest of my team was too. Yuuko had an extremely enmeshed relationship with her mother (I’m not sure if it was as bad as mine was but it was pretty bad) Ginrei definitely had father issues. Alice was 10,000 kinds of boy crazy and had severe hangups about her appearance (as did Yuuko, which is probably why they got really tight at one point) Besides all her issues with cosplay to start with, Meimei was having trouble with her schoolwork.
The actual day of the event was tough. Drama erupted and Meimei went into a self-hating fit and Alice tried to console her and Yuuko was late and I at a certain point I had had enough. I scolded them fiercely at the train station and they were all chastised enough to stop being teenagers for a while and we managed to get to the event without TOO much hassle.
The team did great. I will never forget the moment we all stepped into the hall in full costume. Everyone in front of us stopped and started snapping pictures. I felt like a movie star. I had gotten some appreciation from my previous cosplays but nothing like this! When we fanned out and starting posing an entire wall of camera flashes went off and I was pretty proud of myself and my team. It was quite a rush and for a while there all the effort that had been spent to get here seemed more than worth it.
Guys, thanks for everything. I know I shouted at you and all but…Tenka Kyouran, iza shutsujin! (Raging Waves Under Heaven, depart for the front! (That’s our team name if it wasn’t already obvious.)
We all took a trip to Malaysia after that and wowed some more people there and I think we were on a few magazine covers and that was that. We began to drift apart. School, work and other things got in the way. Alice and Yuuko still hung around with Meimei and they got all horribly tangled up with each other but that’s their story to tell.
A part of me is still upset at how cosplay has become so commercial over the years. Not to mention downright pornographic in some ways. I talked to Meimei for many hours about this. But I’m also happy that it’s easier for young fans to get into and out of hobby. It’s tempting to reminiscience about the “good old days” overmuch and lose sight of the here and now (not to mention the up and coming)
The quality of props and models now is quite astounding. Much like with fanfiction, the barriers between “fan” and “professional” (like so many other things) are coming down. If you ask me, as a former cosplayer, there really should be a dividing line between those with paid commercial backing (not to mention modelling experience and plastic surgery) and those without, but that’s a topic for another time.
A lot of my friends that I made were from the cosplay scene, and during our time together we became very close. They were there when my Dad got a stomach ulcer from smoking too much – that incident made him quit, thank God – and they were there for me to talk about it. We had BBQs together and karaokes and played games and did many other things besides.
They were my closest friends after I had sort of broken up with the “gang” (back in Meetings and Partings) and I was probably happier than I knew to be with them. I’m writing this and I can’t imagine that I was that lonely when I had so many friends! But at the same time I can remember why I felt that way.
First off were my family issues. They are never easy to discuss even in the best of times, and I really wasn’t sure who I could speak to and how. Add that to my indoctrination that you Never, Ever, talk about family matters about to anyone else and it was next to impossible for me to open up.
I’m not sure they would have understood, to be honest. Many of them were younger than me and they had their own issues. The ones who were older…probably also had their own issues. Not that that should be an issue (no pun intended) but I wasn’t sure that they would have responded in a helpful manner. Safety is most definitely a priority in these matters and there was no guarantee of that back then.
There was also the language barrier. Most of the Singaporean cosplay scene spoke Chinese (this WAS Southeast Asia) and I didn’t speak it very well at all. The old memories would come back and my muscles would lock and tighten. It was sometimes hard to be comfortable with people who spoke a language that you hated. I must at this point say that Terrence (among others) always made the effort to speak English to me even when he was more adept at his mother tongue. And I think hanging out with so many friends who were Chinese speakers did help with my issues regarding the language.
Like so many other things in this book these things seem so clear with the passing of time but back then…back then I was just trying to live as best as I could. I made friends, we dressed up and hung out and gamed and laughed and played. Everyone sort of knew that I had family problems (that was how I explained away all my issues, “family problems” – a euphemism if there ever was one) but somehow when we were together it didn’t really matter.
Why did I stop? There were no more KHKs after a while (too labor-intensive) and that was part of the reason. Cosplay itself was a huge energy sink (remember this was 2005 or so, technology wasn’t that advanced) Meimei’s issues put a damper on things. I was sick and tired of all the drama in the scene. I felt that it was time to move on, and so I did.
Was it really so simple? That was how I felt back in the day. While writing this it sort occurs to me that maybe I had to take myself away from familiar ground in order to work on myself. Not that I hadn’t been doing it for years already, but I wanted to kick things up a notch. Internally I sort of knew that I had to go much deeper within if I was going to get to the heart of things. And also I fell prey to my parents’ notion that everything had to be over and done with at some point.
Whatever the reason I sort of dropped out of things. I did 2 more cosplays (Yuki from Neo Geo Battle Coliseum and Yatterman) and that was that. I still went to Andy’s end of year parties and I still kept in touch with some friends here and there but I was no longer a part of “the scene” as everyone called it. There were other things that I moved on to do.
(I just want to mention here that I’ve always found that name – “the scene” – funny. I mean, it makes it seem we’re like ravers in New York or something.)
All in all, though, I don’t regret the time spent in that world. I still have the Cho Hakkai costume that Theresa sewed for me (with much love, as Alice remarked) And all the other costumes besides. The two spears that Hayate and I spent hours sandpapering in between mutton soup and other tasty dishes. The pants adorned with flame and the spraypainted armor. There were more good memories than bad, which is far more than anything I can say for those times.
And to everyone who was there, thanks so much for being part of my life. I didn’t realize that I meant so much to you and you meant so much to me. I guess writing a book illuminates everything that you never knew about yourself.