As we pull away from the Boston Sheraton, I have to explain to my Lyft driver why there are mobs of adults dressed in full costume clogging the crosswalks outside.
“They’re here for an anime convention,” I say.
“Anime?” A 10-foot tall inflated tyrannosaurus rex bobs by.
“Yeah, like Japanese cartoons.”
“I don’t get it.” A balding Buzz Lightyear sprints across the street and the driver jams on the brakes. “Why?”
Anime Boston stormed the Back Bay from March 30 to April 1, bringing with it over 25,000 dedicated cosplayers, anime fans, and curious onlookers in what it calls “a cornerstone of the North East Anime Convention circuit.” Now in its 15th year, the convention boasts everything from a “Solar Salsa Semi-Formal” to a blood drive; from a maid café to a manga swap meet. Convention-goers flooded in to attend panels on topics both serious—“Japanese Architecture: Ritual, Religious, and Performance Spaces” and “Keeping Your Anime Creations: A Session on Intellectual Property Law”—and lighthearted, like “My Waifu’s Not Weird” (actually a session on cognitive science) and “A Beginner’s Guide to Eff’d-Up Hentai” (I didn’t go to this one).
But I didn’t come to the convention for the panels on vaporwave or Japanese history; I came to find out why cosplayers—who spend hours of sewing and gluing in an attempt to recreate the costumes of their favorite cartoon/video game/movie character—do what they do. Why put on 20 pounds of plastic and foam to look like your favorite League of Legends champion and walk around the Hynes Convention Center for seven hours?
Margaret M. Corraine is decked out in green and yellow-gold armor plates that squeak as she walks. She wields a four-foot tall hammer, the head of which is adorned with hearts and bigger than a basketball.
“I worked on it every night for three months,” she says, smiling proudly under her helmet.
She’s dressed as Sailor Jupiter, a character from the series “Sailor Moon” whom she loves. “When you first meet her, she pile-drives a guy into the ground. She also has a very soft and sweet feminine side—she likes to cook, and things that are pink, and…” She trails off, gesticulating.
I ask how she made the hammer, and she begins rattling off names of foams and plastics and glues that I can’t follow with. She made her hammer and all of her armor entirely from scratch, in a process she describes as “really hard, but worth it.”
Demion C. Knight hovers nearby, also wielding a giant weapon—a sword taller than he is, inlaid with detailed lapis lazuli highlights, the hilt topped by a skull. The sword is a trademark of Arthas from “Warcraft III”, and Knight has reproduced his look convincingly. Long grey-white hair cascades from the hood of his floor-length black robe; his shoulder plates have foot-long spikes coming out of them. Grinning and pointing at the sword, he says, “This took from close to December. Sadly, I purchased the rest.” When I ask what the sword is made of, he shrugs. “It’s foam, plastic. There’s wood,” he says, mysteriously.
For him, cosplay is attractive because “you can be somebody else than you normally are.” This sentiment is common among cosplayers I talk to—the appeal of being somebody else for the weekend is huge. People really get into it: A Super Saiyan Goku by the entrance has full spiked-out hair, eye contacts, and fake scars drawn onto his bare biceps. A Widowmaker from Overwatch is stopped by security to have his four-foot long sniper rifle checked. Thor, resplendent in full armor that lights up and flashes, dukes it out with a sad-looking Captain America in a latex bodysuit in the hallway.
It’s way too easy to get lost wandering here. There’s a new crazy costume or attraction in every corner. A cavernous ballroom on the third floor is filled with video game consoles and monitors, and people crowd around games of Super Smash Bros. and Dance Dance Revolution. Someone staggers around wearing a VR headset and trips on a cable. (Nobody notices.) On the first floor, in the Dealer’s Room, vendors sell boxes on boxes of manga and anime Blu-rays, along with poster and body pillows plastered with questionably young and unclothed anime girls. As Saitama from One Punch Man and Mike Wazowski shout about a first-edition manga in his booth, a heavily bearded vendor sighs and says to no one in particular, “Our unending quest to take your money.”
The event is surprisingly diverse. I see everything from babies wearing matching Sailor Moon costumes to 70-year-old couples dressed as Mario and Luigi. Of course, not all outfits are so involved—plenty of people are in plainclothes here, whether it be the gawkers, who point and stare and surreptitiously snap pictures, or the fans, who are just here to get their favorite books signed. A short man wearing a MIT 2019 hoodie and a black facemask that reads “Hentai” strides through the halls, his nose buried in a thick manga anthology.
There is, of course, an element of exhibitionism to many of the cosplayers. Some of the outfits are outright attention grabs, like the trash can walking around with a sign that reads “Your Waifu” on it, or the shabby-looking Goofy who’s been waving around his “FACE down, ASS up. That’s the way we like to HYUCK” sign by the escalators for at least an hour now.
Dale Armstrong is blunt about it. Covered head-to-toe in gold and navy blue polystyrene, he admits: “I came to show off my armor. And it’s just really fun.” I wonder how he goes to the bathroom, but instead ask if he made it from scratch. His face turns indignant. “All by myself, from hands, from foam floorboards, and some crafting foam.”
Armstrong enjoys the spectacle of it all: the crowds, the rivalry, the paparazzi. “I kind of love it when people take pictures of me,” he says. “I actually keep a count of everybody who takes a picture and compare how my different costumes did.” Sure enough: As I take his photo after our interview, he shouts, “Number 26!” and disappears into the crowd.
On the third floor, I find Matthew J. Columbo, holding a disembodied dragon head made out of—of all things—sleeping bag mats. It bites and snarls at cringing passersby as he manipulates the rods attached to its jaws. Finally, he lays aside the giant mask to talk to me: “This is like the coliseum, a big stage for everyone to show what they made,” he says.
But for him, cosplay is more than just showing off a costume—it’s showing off one’s own creativity. “I tried painting, I tried drawing. This is the only thing that makes sense to me in some way,” he says. “It’s a way to be an artist… that’s relevant to a lot more people.”
I point at the head: Is that thing heavy to hold all day?
“Not really,” he says. “I mean, you hold it for like seven hours, and you gotta pound the pavement if you’re gonna bring a costume and go to all that effort. It’s just foam.”
Columbo also says he is grateful for the much-cited community aspect of cosplay. “The people that I become friends with in this community are honestly the people who know what it’s like to sit for tens of hours, cutting foam, alone.” He looks down. “And things like that. That’s really what I connect with.”
Richard Jay, wearing a skintight bodysuit and toting a huge rifle—he’s the Widowmaker whose gun was nearly confiscated in the security line!—agrees.
“It’s always been really friendly,” he says. “We like to share tips on how to build things and how to make things.”
He pauses to gush over the light-up Thor costume I saw earlier: “It’s absolutely amazing, man. It’s incredible.” It’s easiest to observe this supportive attitude in the hallways, as cosplayers mill with the crowds—people will shout out character names as their real-life counterparts walk by, or stop and ask for a picture. It’s nice, really.
My last stop at the event is a press conference with one of the guests of honor, Jez Roth, who’s been designing cosplays and costumes for over 20 years and has won countless awards for his skills, outfitting the likes of Kim Kardashian and Snoop Dogg.
“This community made me what I am today. I owe everything to the cosplay scene,” he says. “We basically were outsiders. We came together over something that we loved, and we turned it into a very positive thing, and we celebrated our differences.”
He’s wearing a white tuxedo and sparkling, sharp cat-eye sunglasses. This outfit came together because of a masquerade he judged: “I’m not going to show up like no scrubby individual for this event.
“Everyone in there was going to look glam,” he adds, and then, slamming a white-gloved hand on the table: “I will not be outshone!”
-- Magazine writer Alan R. Dai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is the fifth installment of his fashion column, Live Fresh or Dai, in which he travels around the city to various people and places that are, however obliquely, fashion-related. Next time: his grand finale. Follow him on Twitter @dai_alan_dai.