Home » Essays » Cosplay in the United States (1995)

Cosplay in the United States (1995)

Fashion and style, glamour, glitz aand Gamilons? Obviously these are not the runways of Paris, the pageant that we’re describing is the fantastic world of COSPLAY. Cosplay is an abbreviation of the words costume and play and implies more than just standing on stage and allowing the audience to gawk at your wardrobe. Cosplayers perform skits, sing songs (or at least lip-synch) and attempt for one shining moment to make the audience believe that their favorite celluloid or manga heroes have come to life. While the cosplay scene is close to twenty years old in Japan in the U.S. it’s just beginning. 

It is estimated that there are about one hundred dedicated cosplayers currently in the U.S. While the tradition of costumes at science fiction and literary conventions has been around for decades, the idea of doing performances based upon the character being portrayed is something that was only done at comic book conventions. The development of Cosplay walks hand in hand with the development of anime fandom. The earliest recorded fan in an anime costume was a young man from the Atlanta area who wore a CAPTAIN HARLOCK costume around to comic book conventions in early 1980. On the East Coast the first anime fandom started at the 1980 WORLDCON in Boston (BOSCONE). 

This was due to anime fan MARK MERLIN() who brought anime tapes to the convention and showed them to other amazed fans. These people would later start the C/FO (CARTOON FANTASY ORGANIZATION) in the early eighties. A group who called themselves the GAMMON EMBASSY (Gamilon is the American name for the GAMIRAS TEIKOKU from UCHU SENKAN YAMATO) brought together fans in the East Coast region who wanted to share anime at conventions. Two members of this group are costume regulars ROBERT FENELON and KEITH SEWELL. These two gentlemen were for a long period of time two of the most visible anime costumers in the United States.  Fenelon portrayed DESSLAR SOTO (LEADER DESSLOK) and Sewell performed as ZWARDAR TAITEI (PRINCE SWARDAR) from Yamato. 

At the time Yamato was very popular in America due to the translated version STARBLAZERS. Fenelon, as one of the founders of the STARBLAZERS FAN CLUB and publisher of ANIME-ZINE magazine made sure that his Desslar costume accurately represented the series that he loved so much. At the 1983 WORLDCON (COSTELLATION) in • Baltimore, 22 anime costumed fans organized themselves into a group who remain friends to this day. The costumes that were exhibited at that con were from UCHU SENKAN YAMATO, UCHU KAIZOKU CAPTAIN HARLOCK, RYOKUSHIN GATTAI GOD MARS and KIDO SENSHI GUNDAM. Costumes from the Matsumoto world’s of Harlock and Yamato were the most dominant. Because the programs that they were from were unknown at the time  these first costumers were frowned upon by the con committee and were not allowed to assemble within the convention site. Undaunted they gathered together and held a skit party on the roof of the convention hotel.

Cosplayers Fenelon and Sewell traveled to many conventions in their costumes from Yamato. They did skits and spoofs on their characters never knowing that they were following in a tradition that is a staple of Japanese anime fandom. Besides the enjoyment factor, Fenelon used his Desslok costume and performance to bring people to the anime rooms that he ran at conventions. This helped in the spread of anime throughout the East Coast. Sewell also took his performances very seriously and was one of the first cosplayers to win awards at comic book cons as well as SF conventions. On top of that Sewell went to Japan twice and performed his skits in actual Japanese cosplays. He is a favorite on both sides of the ocean. Seven years later the true wave of cosplay began. In 1990 America held it’s first dedicated anime/manga convention PROJECT A-CON in Texas. 

At this convention a masquerade was held in which one performer came dressed as BRIAOS (APPLESEED). It would not be until next year that anything resembling a true Cosplay was actually staged. In 1991 GAINAX sponsored ANIMECON, the first large scale anime con. At this event there were over 28 costumers. Also at this event something happened that changed the face of masquerades at anime conventions. LISA NELSON and BETH STRONG dressed as KEI AND YURI (DIRTY PAIR, movie version) came to ANIMECON with a rehearsed song and dance routine. Ironically two other women attended and were dressed as the Dirty Pair television version. A little skit was done when these two groups met that was very well received. Also at this con an improv situation occurred when the various costumers who were dressed as villains, (BERNIE from GUNDAM 0080, DESSLAR from YAMATO, GARGOYLE from NADIA, DR WATTSMAN from DIRTY PAIR: PROJECT EDEN and LT. ALFON from BE FOREVER YAMATO) did a skit about the plight of anime villains. (Secretly among their number was manga artist JOJHII MANABE disguised as a monster from LORD OF THE RINGS) Unhappy with the way they always lose they decide to take KENICHI SONODA (Scenario writer for BUBBLE GUM CRISIS, RIDING BEAN, GUNSMITH CATS) hostage. The Dirty Pair attempt to rescue him but wind up killing all the heroes and the man they came to save. The villains knew that where the Dirty Pair show up disaster is sure to follow. 

This performance was totally thought up at the convention. The impact of the style and diversity of costumes that appeared here would set the tone for conventions to come. At ANIME EXPO 92, inspired by the fun and excitement of ANIMECON last year, groups came prepared to act up a storm. Many groups showed their ability to recreate characters and innovate sketches. Expo ’92 brought out the best in the fans with appearances by not one but TWO NADIA and two RANMA groups. One of the Rama cosplayers was a young actor who played ROY SHIDER’S son in the science fiction motion picture 2010.

SOME AMERICAN COSPLAY HIGHLIGHTS:  DALE ENGLEHEART played LUPIN III so well at ANIME AMERICA and ANIME EXPO it is said that MONKEY PUNCH journeyed to PROJECT A-KON in 1994 just to meet him. ANIME AMERICA 94 introduced fans and guests to the HENTAI SENTAI, a team of wacky perverts that amused all the attendees. RICHARD SIMINTAL performed as a perfect PROFESSOR GO from GIANT ROBO at ANIME AMERICA. ROBERT LANTZ as VADER III, a parody of both DARTH VADER and LUPIN III at KATSUCON. 

The world of American cosplay is still growing. Most costumes that are done are from anime due to the accessibility of anime and it’s images. Manga and video game related costumes are a still a small subset. Until manga and other forms of media gains more respect and understanding in America it looks like anime based costumes will dominate the stage. We are fortunate to have with us this year ESSEI USHIJIMA from COMIKET. Ushijima San is a famous cosplayer from Japan and has participated in masquerades at ANIME AMERICA and KATSUCON. He has just completed a book on the cosplay phenomenon and brings his talent and skill to the East Coast for our edification. His participation in AN1MEast’s pageant will make this an even more special event.

As you look around the ANIMEast convention this  year you will notice many cosplayers. Besides the fan contingent there will be some from companies like PIONEER (Moldiver 2) FUNAMATION (Dragon Ball) and ANIME CRASH (Akemi) as well as our own mascots HIGASHI and JERZC. Even Viz’s own TRISH LEDOUX and quite a few of our staff will be showing the energy of the costume spirit. Throughout the convention it’ll be like Halloween squared!  What is amazing is to think about is that by this time next year we will be seeing many Trick-or-Treaters bedecked in mass market costumes of otaku favorites like Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball. 

With this type of saturation underway some of these pint sized performers may become anime fans in around about way. The outside world and the sphere of fandom are in unison in our appreciation of the fun from playing dress-up. As kids we loved let’s pretend and in reality aren’t are we just giant economy sized children? Following that train of thought, we offer an invitation to the secret identity in you and say, “transmute”, “henshin” and just plain transform yourself into the characters inside your soul.

Originally posted in the 1995 AnimEast pgroam book