Sydney Cosplay Between Fantasy and Reality

Cosplayer Vanessa Retief
© Wesley Nel

It is one of those perfectly crisp, Autumn mornings where the colors seem brighter and the world, a little quieter. Cosplayer, Vanessa Retief, is leaning against a shadowed sandstone pillar of the Quadrangle at Sydney University. She seemed somehow concerned the night before that I would have difficulty spotting her that morning, informing me what she would be wearing. Clearly an unnecessary concern as it turned out.

The handcrafted costumes exhibit many intricate details, and as a result are labour intensive and costly. Vanessa’s first costume for the day’s shoot, Snake from Kuroshitsuji, took two months of work between her and her mother. Her second, Steampunk-inspired outfit costs $600 and hours of sourcing and research. Needless to say she was pleased to get a second wear out of the Steampunk outfit.

Such tireless efforts are all for her passionate pursuits in the realm of Cosplay, a form of performance art she has been involved in for six years. It has been gaining popularity in Sydney with urbanites over the past decade following the increased interest in Japanese animation in the 2000s. When asked about the reasoning behind her preference for Japanese animation, Vanessa is dismissive of Western equivalents: "To be honest, I often found Western animation and themes in cartoons to be kind of ugly and childish… I’ve felt more emotion for a five minute clip in Full Metal Alchemist (a Japanese anime series) than I’ve felt in most Western cartoons."

Costume Play as Performance Art

Cosplayers design, make and model costumes inspired by beloved characters from Japanese anime, video games and popular culture. They exhibit their work, embodying the physicality and personality of the character at Cosplay Conventions hosted at multiple citybased locations throughout the year, attracting thousands of attendees. Not only is this a buzzing social scene for cosplayers and curious observers alike; these conventions transform into a kind of interactive theatre as physical manifestations of fictional characters that come to life and run wild.

For the purpose of self preservation and promotion, cosplayers will also coordinate collaborative photoshoots. These are often shot in visually similar locations to that which the original character is depicted. For this reason, Vanessa’s choice of Sydney University, with its gothic and thoroughly Western architecture is intriguing for a genre so heavily grounded in contemporary Japanese entertainment. As it turns out, both of the day’s costumes belonged to environments inspired by 19th Century London.

A Modern Link Between East and West

This kind of reflexive relationship between Eastern and Western art forms throughout recent history has produced such a richly woven reflection of the artistic human condition. Despite the cultural complexity and artistry involved however, Cosplay tends to attract unwarranted criticism for its seemingly childish nature, as is Vanessa’s experience: "Anime and Manga, I suppose, are sometimes passed off as just cartoons and comic books and yes, I guess they’re the Japanese equivalent. In many ways, cosplaying is still considered to be immature and seen as people running around in dress-up. But to be honest, how is this any different from being part of a sporting culture where you wear your team’s colours, go to an event and go a little nuts? We do the exact same thing, only with more complex outfits."

Anime is known for its distinctive aesthetic and is highly respected by those in the animation world for its beautifully intricate visuals and complex, three-dimensional characters. Despite animation in Western countries being primarily produced for children, anime communicates universal issues of humanity through the use of beautifully constructed symbolism. In the words of Hayao Miyazaki, artistic visionary behind Studio Ghibli: "Creating animation means creating a fictional world. That world soothes the spirit of those who are disheartened and exhausted from dealing with the sharp edges of reality."

Fostering a Community for Self Expression

From a philosophical standpoint, Cosplay is compelling as it is constructing a world that can act as a bridge between fantasy and reality. In between lies a collective imagination, a microcosmic society that seamlessly assembles and disperses across cyber space on Internet forums and in physical locations alike. Many cosplayers find the act to be a form of self expression that assists in working through some of their real life issues.

  • Vanessa Retief © Wesley Nel
  • Vanessa Retief © Wesley Nel
  • Vanessa Retief © Wesley Nel
  • Vanessa Retief © Wesley Nel
  • Vanessa Retief © Wesley Nel
  • Vanessa Retief with author Gina Robilliard (left) © Wesley Nel

This is owed in part to the high degree of complexity often found in the characters that inspire Cosplayers. They express not only a compelling and very human character arc, they also tend to display their inner struggles with subtlety in a manner that encourages audiences to reflect and create their own meaning from what is put in front of them. For this reason, these characters resonate in a way rarely seen in mainstream Western entertainment.

As a result, Cosplay allows for a particular form of self expression in which participants can embody a character with traits they themselves aren’t 100% comfortable with or have until now been rejected by mainstream society. Vanessa finds herself drawn to particular characters for this very reason: "Naoto Shirogane from Persona 4 came into my life during a time when I was struggling with my own gender identity. I’m not a very feminine person and at the time, people were constantly telling me to act and dress more like a girl when I was comfortable in jeans, boots and a flannel shirt with no make-up. Naoto faced the same issues but wanted to prove she was just as capable of doing her job as a male even if she had to act and dress like one to do it. Throughout the series and game, I watched her slowly become more comfortable with the fact that she was a girl and could hold her own against her male counterparts. She made me more comfortable with who I was and helped me stand my ground against people who were trying to tell me to change myself."

In a geographically sprawling city like Sydney, where the over-saturation of shallow, predictable entertainment social media seems at times to isolate urbanites, cosplayers actively welcome a rejection of the status-quo. Instead opting to create an escape from the overwhelming stressors of modern everyday life where self expression is social and friendships extend beyond the real.