Photo by Danburg Murmur
Few photographers in Taiwan can resist the call of the cosplayer. Cosplayers don a diverse array of fantastic costumes and welcome photographers to record the results. The events at which they appear are some of the most lively gatherings in Asian pop culture. They provide a perfect opportunity to get better acquainted with both your camera and your Taiwanese community. When your favourite professional model has a full calendar and your friends are more eager to pose for you someday rather than today, count on the cosplayer to ride to your rescue–weapon drawn and daquiri-coloured hair streaming.
This is an introduction to cosplay for photographers who are new to it. We’ll get a sense of the big picture, then talk about the pictures we make.
Not all writers look like Salman Rushdie.
A Few Good Terms
Most English cosplay terms are loan words from Japanese. Their equivalents in Mandarin are formed a number of ways.
Watch your language or he will mess you up.
Manga refers to print media: comic books. In Japan the word means any comic book or graphic novel produced anywhere. To the rest of the world it means comic books printed in Japan or influenced by Japanese style. You know the look: huge eyes and small mouths; elfin lads, gymnastic ninjas and stern soldiers; pocket-sized monsters, robots and space aliens; werewolves and wererabbits.
She’s a good listener.
Anime refers to animated films and video. You can expect to see many of the same characters and titles regardless of whether the event you attend is focused on manga or anime. Popular series, as in the West, tend to become ‘franchises’ that span a variety of media.
Fans of manga are called otaku.
Cosplay, a Japanese conflation of the English words ‘costume play,’ refers to the practice among fans of dressing up as their favourite characters. Good cosplayers not only want to look the part, but wear the persona of the characters they depict.
Photographers are known as kameko. The English slang is kamerakazi.
You, too, can be a kamerakazi.
For Taiwanese speakers of Mandarin, manga is mànghùa, anime is kátong (cartoon) or dònghùa (animation), and manga fans are mànghùa mí. Cosplay is zhuang bàn (dressing up) or simply ’cosplay.’
Beware the translation of ‘cosplay’ seen in some Chinese dictionaries: juésè bànyan. It literally means ‘role play.’ In Taiwan the term refers to sexual activities, not cosplay.
The centre of gravity at a manga event is the exhibit hall. The favoured venue in northern Taiwan is the skylit athletic complex at the National Taiwan University (NTU, Taida). The site hosts a number of events throughout the year. Inside the exhibit hall vendors at tables and booths sell comic books, video games, autographed art, gift items, costume accessories, and pretty much any other product that may interest otaku.
Outside the hall a designated spot is reserved for photography. The kamerakazi wait here, cameras ready. Cosplayers wishing to be photographed go out to meet them. An indoor location serves as a backup in the event of rain. The understanding is that cosplayers make themselves available for photographers in this area, but are not to be bothered outside of it.
Fans pay for admission to exhibits. Many otaku buy their tickets in advance and line up by the hundreds before the doors open. Their hands are stamped upon admission to the hall. Exhibit hours in Taiwan usually correspond to a work day: doors open at 9:00 or 9:30 and close at 5:00 or 6:00 in the afternoon. Taiwanese fans, who speak Mandarin to each other, often use more English in the hall because many vendors are Japanese.
Manga serves a youthful audience. The fans you meet will range in age mostly from early teens to early thirties. The books they devour offer almost every genre you would expect to find in a regular bookstore: costume dramas, adventure stories, romantic comedies, detective fiction, science fiction, erotica, horror, agitprop, educational features and classic myths. Many of the characters cosplayers represent are drawn from such lucrative titles for industry publishers as Fullmetal Alchemist, Death Note, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Dead or Alive, and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Many more characters come from computer games such as Dynasty Warriors, which is based on China’s Three Kingdoms epic. Yamaha’s Vocaloid music software provides characters for the cosplay mix. Taiwanese publishers and Pili puppet theatre make strong showings, and it’s not unusual for a DC or Marvel character to make an appearance in manga guise.
Cosplayers take different approaches to creating a character. Dollers (animegao in Japanese) wear masks and cover the entire body to represent the original cartoon as literally as possible. The effect resembles that made by a member of the ‘zoo crew’ at Walt Disney World: you can’t tell much about the person but the costume is thorough. Dollers tend to be more rarely seen but their numbers are growing. Many are male, though they often portray female characters.
The most commonly encountered cosplayer is an otaku who, wearing no mask, attempts to bring a character to life by inhabiting that character’s clothes and persona. Theirs is a form of popular performance art that happens mainly through poses and still images.
Cross-dressing is common for both male and female cosplayers. Portraying an opposite-sex character is nothing new in Asia, where the practice has longstanding precedents in theatre. Men traditionally portray all the roles in Japanese art theatre and Chinese opera. In Taiwanese opera female actors cover all the roles. One person voices all the characters, regardless of their gender, in Taiwanese puppet theatre.
Cosplayers who enter the photography area strike poses. Kamerakazi gather around them and take casual turns shooting. Some cosplayers help things by nodding in turn to individual photographers. Cosplayers are usually accommodating of photographers who request different poses or relocation to a nearby spot.
Mind your manners, punk.
Expect the sun to be high in the sky during most of the hours cosplayers are available. This is a result of exhibit hours and browsing habits. In direct overhead sunlight, the synthetic hair worn by many cosplayers will invite blown-out highlights. Plan to make the best of the situation, using your flash, reflector or speedlight to fill shadows.
On most overcast days plenty of light still exists to make portraits. Find ‘sweet spots’ in the area where soft highlights and shadows appear on faces. Avoid spots where the light makes less of a 3D effect; in the photos everything will look even flatter.
All the usual problems of shooting in crowds are magnifed at a cosplay event. Now the abundant ’extras’ in the background wear fantastic garb in bright, high-saturation hues. Now the objects growing out of your subject’s head include not only lightpoles and tree branches, but spears, laser weapons, lace umbrellas and flags. You will want camera settings that blur the background as much as possible while making a crisp image of the model in the foreground. If your camera has a ’digital lighting’ feature, you may find it helpful in balancing brightly lit backgrounds with a subject standing in shade.
In subsequent processing, gradient curve tools can restore depth and interest to faces overpowered by extremes in the costume. Selective desaturation can reduce distractions from bright background objects.
Yi, er, san–!
Beyond this, all the time-honoured tips apply.
Now, with all that scrawled on a yellow stickie and slapped onto your brain, relax and have fun. You’re part of a lively throng, the pace is youthful Taiwanese, and every cosplayer brings you some different spectacle. Play it like jazz.
The Cosplay’s the Thing
Countless resources for cosplayers exist online, and for readers of Japanese or Chinese they’re endless. For those wanting to keep tabs on the subject without taking the otaku plunge, a subscription to Asia Pacific Arts can help. APA is a free online magazine published by USC. Its coverage of film, dance, books and music is outstanding. The manga world gets its due, especially every midsummer when the annual Comics-Con International takes place in California. Many of the Asian vendors who exhibit at Comics-Con also exhibit at the annual Taipei show that soon follows it. Count on this one to be Taipei’s largest event of the year. The big hall devotes entire, separate floors to female, male and young readers. Manga-themed cars and motorcycles are shown outdoors.
Many characters in European plays and operas derived from puppet characters that earlier generations encountered at town fairs. Recent years have shown what can happen when pulp creations meet especially gifted storytellers. We have the Batman of Christopher Nolan and Zorro of Isabel Allende. Today, entire generations in Taiwan and Japan absorb manga stories and inhabit manga characters. They knit this imaginative world into the fabric of their lives as they would knit insignia onto a costume. One wonders what daring flights will launch, in time, from this unpretentious port.
Time will tell. For now, enjoy your sojourn among Taiwan’s cosplayers. Share the fun and get some pictures.
Photo by Way of the Toast.