A look at the roleplaying subculture known as Cosplay
Words: Dylan Muhlenberg | Photography: Nick Gordon
A slowly snaking single-filed line filled with wizards, soldiers, warriors, demons and blue, purple and pink haired girls streams into Grand West Casino. The participants remove their masks and headwear and place this and their wands and other weaponry through the metal detector. Looking around there’s a lot of eccentrics here but nothing the venue isn’t used to.
Celebrating geek culture over the course of three days, an estimated ten thousand fans will attend rAge to check out the latest tech, play video games, buy merch, nerd out or ask the Cosplayers if they can take a selfie with them.
And even although we didn’t dress up, The Way of Us is very interested in the form of self-expression that is Cosplay, a legitimate art form where enthusiasts wear costumes that represent their favourite manga, anime, comic book, cartoon, TV series, film or video game characters.
Problem is, to experience the Cosplay you first have to enter the Grand West Casino and then deal with the rest of the rAge Expo, which includes, but is not limited to:
- 600 NAG LAN gamers who have brought their own computers to a 52-hour gaming marathon where they’ll compete against each other in games that include Diablo, League of Legends, Quake and Call of Duty.
- Professional gamers who wear what looks like cycling kit, covered in sponsor logos and who strut together in their respective eSport teams with the type of cocky swagger that you wouldn’t usually associate with this line of work.
- Board gamers who kick it old school playing modern versions of Dungeons and Dragons under a big banner that reads: “Join The Tabletop Revolution”.
- Overclockers, where PC enthusiasts show off the capabilities of their machines by pushing their computers as far as possible until they eventually overheat and crash.
- Shoppers. These are the masses who churn the cogs of the gaming industry and make all of this possible by forking out on anything from the new UFC game (R1199) to a replica of Kylo Ren’s mask (R2200) to packs of Pokemon cards (R395) or a multi-faceted dice (R135).
- Two teenage boys having the following conversation in front of a Takealot booth “Looking for Software engineers”.
“Takealot is always looking for devs.”
“Yah, but I heard you have to be quite old to get in. Like at least 22.”
The Cosplayers are different though, they’re more social, creative and generally better looking than the rest of the people here. It’s just sad that once they’re all dressed up there’s nowhere to go and like the rest of us they simply walk from stall to stall with all the direction of a pool vacuum, only stopping to pose for selfies. We picked out a few of the Cosplayers to ask them why they do it, what kicks they could possibly get out of this and then asked them to pose for some photographs.
Sub Zero and Lulu
Married couple Clint and Jeanine are dressed as Sub Zero from Mortal Combat Ten, (“there have been different Sub Zeros through the years with subtle differences in each game”) and Lulu (“in her original skin form”) from League of Legends.
“We met in high school when I started working at a game shop that he was working at,” says Jeanine. “We had similar interests and now we’re Player One and Player Two. That’s how we roll. We started Cosplaying in 2006 as I have a love and passion for creating things and becoming the characters that I love so much.”
Jeanine made both their outfits by hand and the mask and other hard bits were all 3D printed. The couple travelled down from Johannesburg and will dress up as a different character for each day of the three-day event.
“We own a lot more outfits,” says Clint
“It’s a hobby, a love, a passion and just a fun thing to do together.”
The Joker and Harley Quinn
Gender bending is a form of Cosplay where Cosplayers will swap the sex of the character that they’re playing. Case in point - Zulfa - who has dressed as her interpretation of The Joker.
“It’s about taking male characters and making them female or taking female characters and making them male,” says Zulfa. “Then there are guys who dress up as girls and girls who dress up as guys, which we call Crossplay.”
Playing a male Harley Quinn, Shaun prefers gender bending because it allows him to redesign an existing character. He’s carrying a hammer that Zulfa made from foam, paint, aluminum and PVC pipe.
“Zulfa does all the handiwork,” says Shaun. “I just look pretty. We met through Cosplay about four years ago and now we’re friends outside of it.”
This is Shaun’s first male Cosplay as he prefers to Crossplay as Alice from the game Alice: Madness Returns. Those pretty-boy, delicate and androgynous features are perfect for female and anime characters alike.
“He makes a really pretty girl,” says Zulfa. “Watching guys hit on him is hilarious.”
In the past Zulfa has dressed up as Hell Girl and Sub Zero, and while she’s played female characters she has a lot more fun Crossplaying boys.
“I’m into a little bit of everything - gaming, anime and comic books – and it’s just a lot of fun catching up with the other Cosplayers and getting together with everyone.”
Batman from Arkham Knight
Michael has dressed up as the Batman from the latest game in the franchise. He’s got two different helmets with him, both of which have LED lights in the eyes, and everything took him around a week to make.
“I’m a diesel technician,” says Michael. “So I suppose I’m good at making things. The guns I made out of foam and grafted with a hot iron. I’ve been Cosplaying for three years now and Cosplay as Malthael from Diablo III, Van Helsing... I particularly like fighting games and guys with masks so I can hide my identity and play the character more.”
Describing himself as a “big-time gamer” Michael has always been into gaming culture and gravitated towards Cosplay instantly.
“Now it’s a hobby and while I just do it for fun Fancom is coming up in May and I’m hoping to win some prizes.”
Wario and Luigi
These 16-year-old Grade 11 girls aren’t related but everyone confuses them for twins nonetheless. One of the girls’ sisters had made the outfits for something they did at school, and even although they would’ve preferred the Mario outfit they were happy to have the resources to be able to Cosplay for the first time.
“We wanted to be part of the fun and to experience rAGe in its fullest and take part in everything. But when everyone asked to take photos of us we were like, what?!”
The girls had the following tips for the organisers.
“They should really put up more Black Ops games because we had to stand in line for, like, thirty minutes to play once. We’re hardcore Call of Duty players, man!”
Gender Bender Soldier
Playing a soldier from Tin Fortress Two, 19-year-old Kylie needed some help with her outfit because she only started Cosplaying last year and is “still terrible at sewing”.
Using red fabric, PVC piping and papier-mâché, Kylie used her outfit as an opportunity to buy a pair of Dr. Martens because shoes are really difficult to make.
“I always had a, not a fetish, but an interest in dressing up,” says Kylie. “Also I’m a drama student so the whole idea of taking up a different persona or a different character is really fun for me.”
Cosplaying characters that include Shiro from No Game, No Life and Starfire from Teen Titans means that Kylie gets her fair share of attention.
“And not just from guys,” she laughs. “I guess a lot of girls are jealous that I look a lot better than them when I’m dressed up in a costume. I’m walking around with my boyfriend today so I haven’t had any really touchy men. I’ve heard stories of women being grabbed. Not cool.”
19-year-old Matthew got his Pokémon onesie as a birthday present sometime back. He decided to wear it to the event as a spur-of-the-moment thing after he remembered that he had it shoved into the back of a cupboard somewhere.
“Yeah, it’s a bit budget,” Matt laughs. “Especially compared to what everyone else here is doing. But I’m still loving every second of this. Even though I’m not much of a gamer actually, and more of a comic-book nerd.”
Cosplaying Briareous Hecatonchires from an older anime called Appleseed, Kevin has played characters that include Fullmetal Alchemist and “a guy from Dragon Age”. He’s into Space Armours specifically and is busy working on something really big for Fancon that’s “top secret for now”. And it’s not just Kevin’s suit that’s impressive, the tech he’s come up with to keep him cool inside his suit shows just how much effort these guys put into their creations.
“To cool these suits,” explains Kevin, “you wrap yourself up in fish tank piping and then run water or coolant fluid, like for your car, through it. You then use a fish tank pump and an ice pack that runs everything around the inside of the suit to keep you cool.”
Hatsune Miku and Yuno Gasai Hiaki
“She was the first version of the Vocaloid and her name literally translates to ‘first sound of the future,’” explains Sheena. “She’s a synthesised voice bank and a hologram that performs on stage. That’s the only concert I’d ever go to. There are so many people who use Vocaloids now and that’s because she was the one who started off the trend. There’s over 300 now and it’s impossible to keep up.”
Sheena made her outfit herself out of stretch satin, cotton, gabardine, vinyl and tape, despite working at a costume hire store. Sheena has only been Cosplaying for a year now, but says that she’s found a home in the community.
“I do it because I love the characters and it feels good portraying the characters and representing them as accurately as possible. I try to embody some of their traits, like Miku is very energetic and bubbly and so today I’m overly friendly and will wave at strangers who are looking at me. If I’m Cosplaying a more stoic character then I’ll frown a lot more, but I wouldn’t ever be impolite to anyone, it’s just to embrace a bit of the character and show off the reason why I love them. Most of the time I Crossplay where I dress as a male character because I identify as both a girl and a boy, so when people get sexist or harass a girl I’ll defend them. Dressing up definitely gives you a power shift. Yesterday I played a character who carries a skateboard and is quite violent, and that made me feel like, come at me, when I was walking with my friend who was wearing a very short skirt. I was actually growling at some of the guys who were staring at her.”
The 19-year-old physiology student dressed as up as Yuno Gasai Hiaki is so shy that she won’t even tell us her real name, but is only too happy to go into detail about her character.
“Mirai Nikki translates to Future Diary. It’s where a bunch of characters keep diaries on their phones and one day those diaries end up telling the future and they have to fight for survival because the one who wins gets to be God. My girlfriend and I got into it from watching the series.”
Star Gaurdian Lux
18-year-old Zoe has lost her mom and her brother but is only acting perturbed.
“Oh whatever will I do? I’ll have to fend for myself in the wild, wild world” she jokes with the back of her hand pressed up to her forehead. “No, they’re probably just playing a game somewhere. We’re a gaming family. This is something we don’t mind doing together because it interests all of us. My mother was into gaming first, which got my brother into it and because I’m his little sister it kind of rubbed off on me.”
In the past Zoe has played Mafia Jinx, a Christmas Katarina skin, and plans on doing another two Cosplays this year.
The Manga/Anime Girls
“Fetish outfits?” asks Anzel, who is dressed as a fan art version of LeBlanc from League of Legends. “Yep, you could say that. Most guys are respectful but there are a few who tend to grab and run. That happens to me more than it should. I need to play a character that comes with a weapon.” Anzel then runs off after blue-haired Vocaloid Haitsu Miku, aka ComboKitten, and slaps her more than ample cleavage.
ComboKitten makes and sells Cosplay uniforms on her site, which the rest of the posse that includes Natsu, Miksu, Matoi Ryuuko and a name I miss but have down in my notepad as Megan, are wearing.
“ComboKitty made this,” says 19-year-old Megan. “It’s adorable. Very Kawaii! I’m actually an incredibly awkward person so when I put on a wig and a costume I feel a lot more confident and feel that I can talk to people better.”
ComboKitten says it’s all about freeing yourself and allowing people to be someone else for the day…
“You really come out of your shell when you do this. And the crafting is fun. You bleed and cry and sweat a lot when making the costumes. If there’s not an event on for a while we’ll make one where we’ll plan a picnic, go ice-skating or go out for lunch together. Whatever, just find a reason to dress up. Like, ‘Oh, it’s St. Patrick’s Day? I’m going to wear my green idolised maid version of Kotori’s costume from Love Live! Why not?!”
ComboKitten goes on to say that even though she’s not making huge cash she considers what she’s doing a career and is inspired by the international scene where there’s such a thing as professional Cosplayers.
“I’m making and selling costumes, being hired to Cosplay at events and I’m going to channel what I’m doing already and start to make and sell my own content. It’s possible. Globally it’s an industry and we’re catching up.”
Cosplaying Kaneki from Tokyo Ghoul, 18-year-old Daniel thinks his “character is amazing” because…
“He changes his personality after something happens to him. In the beginning, he has black hair and is a nerd and after this thing happens to him he becomes an amazing character.”
Presently studying computer science, Daniel bought some clothes and stapled everything together and when the mask he tried to make didn’t work out he resorted to buying one.
“It kind of is cheating, but everyone’s really chilled though, so…”
Star Wars Rebels
Mia and Devon are dressed up as Kanan Jarrus and Ahsoka Tano from the animated Star Wars Rebels series. The couple met through Cosplay – he was Prince Nuada from Hellboy Two and she was Spider-Girl at the time. Tomorrow they’ll attend the final day of the event as Rey and Kylo Ren. Mia works in the film industry specialising in props and fabrication on film sets and used things like expanding foam, craft foam, cloth, stretch vinyl, latex and a 3D printer to make their outfits. Devon is carrying a Kylo Ren helmet he just bought.
“I’ve got about five of them but I’m going for 501st approval (The 501st Legion, nicknamed Vader’s Fist, is an international fan-based organisation dedicated to the construction and wearing of screen-accurate replicas of Imperial Stormtrooper armour, Sith Lords, Clone Troopers, bounty hunters, and other villians from the Star Wars universe) and they require 100% screen accuracy.”
Devon first started working on Kylo Ren when the first trailers came out, before he even knew what his new favourite character’s name was.
“Working off the trailer and the concept art my first versions weren’t that accurate. Overall I’ve spent easily seven or eight grand on my Kylo Ren.”