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The Final Fantasy: An Inside Look at Anime and Cosplay Conventions

We don't know who this character is supposed to be, but she was killing some Japanese opera.
We don't know who this character is supposed to be, but she was killing some Japanese opera.
Photos by Jeff Balke

The costumes are expected. The fanciful, the extraordinary, the bizarre, the obscurely referenced, the painstakingly planned and the larger than life weren't surprising -- after all, this was a cosplay (short for "costume roleplay) convention. What was unexpected, however, was the gender-bending everywhere that we looked.

The most gorgeous men were dressed as exotic women, while the most beautiful women were dressed as Bowie-esque men. And we suddenly found ourselves questioning our sexuality. Perhaps this is how Tim Booth felt when he wrote "Laid": "Dressed me up in women's clothes / Messed around with gender roles / Dye my eyes and call me pretty." But we're pretty sure Tim Booth never attended a cosplay convention.

We didn't think pumpkins could be hot. We were wrong.
We didn't think pumpkins could be hot. We were wrong.

The rampant androgyny was only one fascinating aspect of a world in which we had no foothold or prior understanding aside from our own passing knowledge of certain graphic novels, video games and anime series. Our geekiness, it seems, only goes so far.

Upon entering the Marriott Westchase on Saturday night, we were immediately stunned by the sheer volume of attendees at the 2009 Oni-Con -- around 6,000 over the course of the weekend, it turns out, despite its smaller venue this year -- which is one of the largest anime and cosplay conventions in Texas. (Ed. note: We apologize for the incorrect attendance figures that were posted earlier. We received incorrect information about the convention and have made the correction.)

You don't mess with Kratos, God of War.
You don't mess with Kratos, God of War.

After wandering the halls of the hotel for a bit, perusing the colorful merchandise tables and running into not only one but two giant, brown internet memes -- an enormous walking Pedobear and an equally massive Domokun -- we headed over to the main event: the cosplay competition. Along the way, we passed a few Darth Vaders, one God of War, one excellent Silk Spectre and many others, including a woman balancing a bright yellow Casio keyboard on her head as she walked.

The audience at the competition got excited about free Japanese fans. They kind of got excited about Japanese anything, really.
The audience at the competition got excited about free Japanese fans. They kind of got excited about Japanese anything, really.

Once inside the main convention hall, we took in the sight of the hundred or so competitors who were preparing their costumes and skits for the night. They each only had 30 seconds on stage to impress the panel of judges (and the audience) or three minutes if they were doing a skit. We chatted with James (who wouldn't give his last name, as he was "in character") -- a giant, bright blue vampire with a friendly if fangy smile. "This is my character's Halloween costume," he told us. "The costumes change each time, but the character you play always stays the same."

 

An elaborately-imagined Fran from Final Fantasy.
An elaborately-imagined Fran from Final Fantasy.

He had driven in from San Antonio and explained to us that he couldn't bring all of his character's costumes with him -- a common problem, it turns out -- and had to pick the five best to bring with him. "This is all handmade," he said proudly of his sharp-looking suit and brocade cape. "The cape, the pants, the jacket, the vest. The only thing that isn't is the shirt. Even the wig is handmade."

James had commissioned these pieces from a fellow cosplayer, but he himself is often commissioned by others -- what we came to find out is standard practice in a subculture that likes to support others that are in the cosplay fold. James told us that he's a great wigmaker, but not as good at sewing, so he often works in trade. Cottage industries at work in the cosplay world.

The green fairy herself.
The green fairy herself.

For some people, like James -- who travels to a different cosplay convention nearly every month -- this takes up all of their time and nearly all of their money. Although others may look down on this, we couldn't see the difference between this and any other hobby -- sailing, golfing, baking, coin collecting. But not everyone agrees.

 

Guy or girl? Your call...
Guy or girl? Your call...

Waiting for the main competition to begin, we took a seat next to Sarah, a dual sociology and journalism major at Baylor University who's completing her thesis on the culture of anime and cosplay conventions, an activity that sociologists term "extreme deviance." When we protested -- teenagers dressing up for fun hardly seems deviant in a world full of murderers and rapists -- Sarah quickly explained that "extreme deviance" isn't always a bad thing.

Dr. Frank N. Furter
Dr. Frank N. Furter

In this case, she said, it's actually good for these kids to have a world in which they can belong. Costume competitions in particular are excellent for their self-esteem and encourage them to come out of their shell. "Look around," she said. "You'll see that no one here is over 30. This is just a phase of their lives." And indeed, we looked around at all the young people -- not one of them seemingly even over the age of 25 -- laughing, smiling and enjoying each other's company, and suddenly it didn't matter that some of them were dressed as Optimus Prime or a cast member from Rocky Horror Picture Show.

That's not to say it's a utopian society, either. Sarah explained that the same social stratifications that exist in any other group exist here, too. "You're judged based on your looks, how much money you have, how elaborate or well-made your clothes are. There are divas and there are outcasts  -- just like anywhere else." But the biggest determining factor of all? The costumes themselves. Sarah echoed what James had mentioned to us earlier: "If you buy your costume pre-made -- that is, if you don't make it yourself or have it commissioned -- that's a huge faux pas."

 

Sora and the Keyblade from Kingdom Hearts -- one of many Soras we saw that night.
Sora and the Keyblade from Kingdom Hearts -- one of many Soras we saw that night.

And that attitude was replete on stage once the costume competition got started. There wasn't a single outfit that didn't look as if it had taken hours upon hours to finish. Some were more creative than others -- we quickly tired of seeing one character after another from Death Note and Kingdom Hearts -- but you couldn't deny the ingenuity required to create the costumes.

A skit from Silent Hill 3, complete with zombie nurses -- not the cheeriest of the night, as you might imagine.
A skit from Silent Hill 3, complete with zombie nurses -- not the cheeriest of the night, as you might imagine.

After more than 60 contestants traipsed across the stage, striking poses and smiling for the judges table, the skit portion of the evening started. But only five skits in, we had nearly all we could take of shrilly sung Japanese opera (these kids knew the words to every Japanese song, ever) and Straw Hat Pirates reenactments, so we left. The hotel was nearly empty as we made our way out, most attendees sitting transfixed in the main convention hall as vendors packed up their tables for the night.

But they'd be back the next day. And the next month, at another cosplay convention somewhere else. And the month after that. And the next year, right back here in Houston.

For even more images from Oni-Con, head over to our slideshow.


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