By Zsarlene B. Chua, Reporter
Many might scoff at the fact that some people love wearing costumes of their favorite animated characters or superheroes or video game characters and act like them but “cosplay” (“costume play”), as it is popularly called, has evolved beyond being just a hobby as quite a number of cosplayers have turned their fascinations into businesses and careers.
The term cosplay, coined in Japan in 1984, represented a niche segment of popular culture in Japan, other parts of Asia, and the Western world and has since garnered enough popularity for it to become a fixture at fan conventions. There are even dedicated cosplay conventions around the world.
THE RISE OF COSPLAY
“Ten years ago, cosplay [in the Philippines] wasn’t very well-known so most people really didn’t understand cosplay before and they thought it was something done during Halloween – where people are in costumes and stuff,” said Pablo Bairan, president of Cosplay.ph, a company which specializes in organizing local cosplay conventions such as Cosplay Mania, in an interview with BusinessWorld in September.
In Japan, cosplay gained steam in the 1990s when cosplay cafés popped up in Akihabara, the otaku center of Tokyo. (Otaku is a general Japanese term for people with obsessive interests though it is commonly used to describe those who are hardcore fans of Japanese animation or anime and/or Japanese comics or manga.) Cosplay cafés are themed cafés where servers are dressed in costumes, for example, maid cafés where servers are dressed as maids – usually French – and serve customers like a maid would.
During the early days of the cosplay movement in the Philippines, Mr. Bairan recalled that cosplayers were treated like “zoo animals.”
“Before, cosplay was more of a side-event in comic and toy conventions. During that time, they were sort of a side show. So usually, cosplayers are stuck in a small space like mascots but a [we’re treated] little worse because… we were like zoo [animals],” he said.
“We weren’t treated very well so we wanted to create a convention that’s about cosplay: something a little different and put the spotlight on the cosplayers,” he added.
He and his partners created Cosplay.ph in 2006 it started as a website where cosplayers could check schedules of conventions and how they could meet. He said there were about “two or three cosplay groups” at the time.
In 2008, they decided to create their own convention: Cosplay Mania – an annual two-day cosplay convention which has attracted close to 40,000 people from all over the country.
Aside from Cosplay Mania, Cosplay.ph organizes three other cosplay conventions throughout the year.
“The thing that brought it to the forefront are the popularity of movies and comic book (which are then turned to movies) like Iron Man. They are really the ones which brought the mainstream audience… it became more acceptable to wear costumes because the people who are in Hollywood movies are wearing costumes,” he said.
During Cosplay Mania’s first iteration, Mr. Bairan said they had low expectations because they were given the smallest Megatrade Hall in SM Megamall. He figured attendance would clock at around 500 people because it was a one-day event, but they were able to sell 6,000 tickets and were disallowed from selling any more.
“It really felt like we were swimming in people,” he said.
And after running the convention – arguably the biggest of its kind in the Philippines – for almost a decade now, Mr. Bairan said it was time to up their game once again and make Cosplay Mania an international convention, much like what the annual AsiaPop Comicon has managed to do: put the Philippines on the map of popular culture conventions.
“AsiaPop Comicon is a great idea. It’s a great concept because it brings the feel of an international convention to the Philippines. So it’s a big step up. It now feels like we’re on the map as it draws an international crowd and not just the local crowd,” he said.
This year, Cosplay Mania, which ran from Sept. 30 to Oct. 1 at the SMX Convention Center in Pasay City, invited Japanese artists to perform.
“And that’s also where we’re trying to be: similar to AsiaPop Comicon, we’re trying to draw in artists – theirs are from the US, ours are from Japan – and cosplayers from all over the world,” he said as he considers the Philippines as “one of the top destinations for cosplay in Southeast Asia now – before it was more of a niche.”
Included in the lineup of invited artists in its JAM (Japanese Anime Music) concert were Japanese cover song artist kradness, and Konomi Suzuki who sang the opening song (“This Game”) of 2014 hit anime series No Game No Life.
COSPLAY AS A CAREER
While it might be a hobby for most, there are quite a number of cosplayers who have turned cosplay into careers – and Mr. Bairan is one of them.
He started cosplaying in 2002 and from there he eventually became a cos-maker – a costume maker – for hobbyists who don’t have the time or skills to create their own costumes but have the funds to have them made. Costumes can be expensive depending on the kind of character the person wants to role-play.
One of Mr. Bairan’s most recent costumes is a Hulkbuster – the armor Marvel superhero Iron Man wore to counter the Hulk – an eight-feet tall affair complete with lights and moveable parts.
He said it took him and his team two-and-a-half months to construct at the cost of about P60,000.
“That’s expensive for a cosplay because the average – a decent cloth costume – you can probably get away with [spending] P2,000 to P3,000, but a high-quality wig can cost you P3,000 to P5,000 already,” he said, adding a high-quality cosplay outfit can range from P5,000 to P10,000.
Those willing to put in the time and effort and go bargain-hunting (which he says is part of the whole experience) might be able to keep the costs down.
“People might dismiss us as attention-seekers but it does take a lot of work to do cosplay,” he said.
As a cos-maker, many of his clients come from foreign markets such as US and the UK and even India, saying “there’s a big international market for cosmakers and you get paid in dollars and pounds.”
“They are more private hobbyists who want to have costumes because labor in those countries is very expensive so they bring it here. The quality is also better here, except for the top-tier costumes which can be really expensive,” Mr. Bairan added.
Another cosplay career, he said, is to organize events like Cosplay Mania though it is also an expensive proposition as he said putting up this year’s convention cost “under P10 million.”
A popular track for cosplayers who want to make money out of their passion for role-play is to go the tournament route as many cosplay conventions also host tournaments where winners can get cash prizes and other perks – including getting one’s name out there.
At Cosplay Mania’s Ultimate Cosplay Championships, winners can get P100,000 in cash and prizes though those looking to go regional can also opt to enter the Singapore Toy Game and Comic Convention’s Championship of Cosplay where, aside from the SG$ 1,000 cash prize, the winning cosplayer will also be sent to the Chicago Comic and Entertainment Expo to compete at the Crown Championship of Cosplay – the global competition will award $5,000 in cash to the first placer.
Getting one’s name out there is also important, said Mr. Bairan, as several cosplayers become popular enough to become celebrities and be invited to international conventions.
Locally, Alodia Gosiengfiao has since turned into a model and celebrity endorser after gaining attention for her cosplays. She has also been invited to attend several comic conventions like the San Diego Comic Con in 2010 and currently has six million followers on her Facebook page.
Ms. Gosiengfiao has cosplayed many characters including vocaloid Hatsune Miku and most recently, D.Va from Blizzard Entertainment’s Overwatch online game.
Another local cosplay celebrity is Jin Joson, better known as Jinbehindinfinity, known for cosplaying video game characters such as Tidus and Noctis Lucis Caelum from Square Enix’s Final Fantasy X and Final Fantasy XV, respectively.
“Cosplay is a very personal experience,” said Ms. Joson during the AsiaPop Comicon press conference in August, before adding that she’s happy that cosplaying is “becoming a celebrated hobby.”
“I admire them – Alodia Gosiengfiao and the like – because it takes a lot of work to really promote yourself and people don’t understand that it takes a lot of effort to keep yourself at that level,” said Mr. Bairan. Cosplay, after all, isn’t just about putting on costumes of one’s favorite characters.