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Flows of Reading

Engaging with Texts

Erin Reilly, Ritesh Mehta, Henry Jenkins, Authors

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3.7 "Cosplay" as a Subcultural Practice

Every subculture and interest group have its own district in Tokyo. Yoyogi Park, home turf for the Rockabilly subculture, is a center for many youth subcultures. The park is near Akiharbara, which used to be the electronics sector but is increasingly known as the Otaku (or fan) district, and Harajuku where fashionable young girls buy clothes. Yoyogi Park is where the public passions and fascinations of these subcultures–the need to act out their fantasies, the desire to form affiliations with others who shared their tastes–come together. Here, to consume is to participate, and to participate is to assume a new identity.

If you go into a manga shop in Tokyo, you will find brightly colored fliers, with specific directions about what to wear, urging fans of a particular cartoon series to rendezvous in the park on a certain date. As you approach Yoyogi Park from the Harajuku train station, you first see the Cosplay Kids, young girls (and a few young boys) who have come to Yoyogi dressed as characters from anime, manga, or Jpop. They have come to see and be seen. You will see many identities–space adventurers and demonic figures, the furries, and anthropomorphic animals. You will see spies with shiny weapons, people in Goth or renaissance courtly garb,  and Nanas who wear Victorian nurse and nanny uniforms. 

This video, produced at Comiket, a convention that gathers fan interests, suggests the diversity and virtuosity that the Cosplay Kids achieve. Many members of the subculture posed for pictures taken by tourists and fellow fans recorded by cell phone, camcorder, or digital cameras, many of which are distributed immeidately on the web. The costumes and makeup are elaborate, richly detailed and, for the most part, home crafted. The kids take great pride in their costumes and may own multiple costumes reflecting their various cultural identities. In the video, American media scholar, Ian Condry, and several American fans share their perceptions of the cosplay culture at Yoyogigi and how it builds on fashion experimentationd taking place nearby at Harajuku.

For many years, a strong cultural connection has existed between Japanese and American animation. As Condry explains here, Japanese animators were inspired by the works of Walt Disney and the Fleischer Brothers, though they appropriated and transformed their style to serve content that emerged from popular narratives that were distinctly Japanese. Some scholars have argued that American fans have been drawn to the subcultural practice of cosplay because these works feel familiar to American audiences. In a North American context, the cosplay is more likely to take place as part of a masquerade at a fan convention than as a street performance. Such gatherings provide a rich opportunity for networking, for young people to acquire skills and knowledge from each other as they pursue common interests. Others have suggested that American fans are drawn to Japanese popular culture because it represents an escape from the paroachial constraints of American culture.

A young American cosplayer, Chloe, describes the process that led to her to become involved in this subcultural practice. A number of things interest us about Chloe. First is the degree to which she transforms fantasies born of media consumption into various kinds of performance. A growing body of literature has shown that children acquire basic literacies and competencies by learning to manipulate core cultural materials. Through the process, they negotiate a space between self and others, which helps them work through issues of personal identity and cultural membership. Playing with texts becomes more sophisticated as children mature with adolescence offering a central site for identity play and self-invention. For Chloe, assuming the role of a Jpop character becomes a way of expressing her mastery over favorite texts; she is able to fuse her identity with that of a fictional character.

For Chloe, the identity she has constructed involves creation of strong emotional bonds she with cultures not easily accessible in a marketplace that has been highly protective of its local culture industries. She and the other American cosplayers have sought out information about forms of Asian popular culture. Through her search, she has re-imagined her relations to the world and sees herself as tied in important ways to the Japanese youth culture found in Yoyogi Park.

This search for more information uses a range of media–videos or DVDs she watches of Japanese-produced anime, recordings of JPop music on MP3 or CD, information on the internet, information about her own activities she shares with her fellow fans, her costumes and photographs of them, magazines and comics she reads to learn more about Japanese popular culture, and her face-to-face contacts with fellow fans. An elaborate underground economy emerges to support the circulation of these materials, including grassroots efforts to translate and dub illegally imported anime so that it can be made accessible to a broader public.

The availability of new technologies has enabled some activities but teens are also enacting these interests through traditional forms of cultural practice. Chloe, for example, told us about a friend who taught himself how to make his own buttons in order to more perfectly recreate the costumes of a Japanese Jpop band. 

Cannot these activities be thought of as media literacy put into practice? To recreate Japanese costumes and customs, the kids must first study and master them. They must understand the culture from the inside out and draw on personal reflection to flesh out what they may only know through books or media representations. As they mimic cultural practices, they are drawn to further research, to mastering the language, understanding the traditions that gave rise to this popular culture, understanding the lives of their friends in other parts of the world. 

We can see performance and role playing as a catalyst that motivates media literacy on the one hand and informal academic learning on the other. Of course, few American schools offer Japanese or provide real opportunities for studentst to delve deeply into Asian culture. Informal learning communities, in fact, are teaching what most adults would see as valuable but are not taught in schools. As a middle school student, Chloe has already studied Japanese language and culture on her own and at a local college. This is a story one hears again and again from language instructors: kids like Chloe are moving from interest in Asian popular culture to enrolling in classes in Asian cultures and languages.

When our documentary team spoke with American youth involved in cosplay, they heard again and again about the importance of accurately reproducing what they saw on the screen, often in ways that resonate with Ricardo Pitts-Wiley's insistence that remixers respect the sources of the material and seek to better understand the contexts from which cultural traditions emerged. We might ask: How can sewing be part of the process of reading and writing. Clearly, these youth look at popular media texts from Japan differently as a result of embodying the characters, and they also look at their culture differently as they seek materials that allow them to reproduce Japanese originals more effectively .

A focus on accuracy leads to a focus on appearance, which can have disturbing undercurrents. Who should dress up and perform as a character? Should a white youth dress as a Japanese character? Should a male to dress as a female character? Should people be judged by how much they look like certain characters?
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