Wakanda Storm and Black Panther are seen at the Tokyo Comic Con 2017. Photo: Jake Adelstein
Wakanda Storm and Black Panther are seen at the Tokyo Comic Con 2017. Photo: Jake Adelstein

If you’re familiar with Japanese quirkiness, you will have heard the term “cosplay”. Short for “costume play,” it involves avid fans of anime, comics (manga), film, television and science-fiction works dressing, styling, making up and equipping themselves to resemble their favorite characters – all for the fun of it.

The trend’s roots go back to the 1980s, when Japanese hyperfans first started combining fashion, do-it-yourself couture, wigs, hair dye and other materials to craft colorful costumes, makeshift weapons and magical trinkets.

In a country where social stratification is strong and business suits are still more or less mandatory, the chance to dress up and be something else – or someone else – and engage in a fantasy life has real appeal. Japan’s deep love of cosplay is one reason that in the past decade,  Halloween has become such a huge annual event in Japan.

Moreover, there is a fetish sub-trend in cosplay. Cosplay is part of Japan’s lively BDSM and fetish scene, and at the monthly cosplay-fetish ball and BDSM-LGBT event that is Department H, if you wear a great costume you get a discount off the entry price, or sometimes even free entry.

But the overall practice is pretty vanilla, and cosplayers can sometimes be spotted on the streets of major Japanese cities in broad daylight. The activity has gone far beyond being a hobby for a handful of fanatical fans. Cosplayers have organized to the point where there are cosplay events, conventions – there has even been a cosplay “World Cup.”

Even so, thus far, it has largely been just fun. Now, it is becoming a business – with at least one talent agency specializing in cosplayers now operating in Japan.

Business (but not in a business suit)

The quality of costume play nationwide has now gotten so good that some players are virtual live versions of the fictional characters they pretend to be. This has resulted in many companies hiring and using elite cosplayers to promote products, hoping to appeal to hardcore fan bases. At events like Tokyo Comic Con or the Tokyo Game Show, cosplayers are part of the attraction.

Costume play for fun and business is big in Tokyo – but at Tokyo Comic Con 2017, even superheroes have to break for ramen. Photo: Jake Adelstein

The lucky few who truly resemble the characters they play can earn a lucrative salary, or at least profitable side jobs. But it’s not as easy as it sounds.

One professional cosplayer in Tokyo, Fenix D’Joan – aka “Queen Fenix” – points out that being a cosplayer isn’t as simple as basic modeling. “You have to be the character, and know their personality, history, and even move like them,” she said. “The fans expect it.”

D’Joan portrays many characters. Some are from Japan’s iconic Final Fantasy series, but her signature is “Wakanda Storm,” a super-heroine from the Marvel Comics universe. In the comics, Storm is married to Black Panther, who Tokyoite Ugo Anomelechi often performs as a cosplayer. The two sometimes team-up. Since the wild success of the Black Panther movie, business has been booming.

Alyse Sugahara, a black American woman married to a Japanese man, has been doing versions of Japanese manga characters and others since 2005, primarily for her own amusement. “So far I’ve done Nana, Punk Rock! Sailor Moon, Sailor Mercury, Poison Ivy, Storm and Kon from Tokyo Ravens,” she said. “I definitely had the most fun with PunkRock! Sailor Moon, but Poison Ivy was the first costume I made myself, so that was pretty fun too.”

As more companies become interested in utilizing cosplayers to sell and promote their brand and products at trade shows, launch parties, and other events, a Japanese company has finally cashed in on the trend.

This April, the first costume-player talent agency in Japan, aptly (if unimaginatively) named Cosplay Agencyopened for business.

The firm has set itself up as a portal that connects cosplayers and clients. They are selective in whom they will take on board, but once a cosplayer is registered with a company, they are given their own profile page with an introduction and photos displayed. The registered members not only include Japanese men and women, but foreign nationals as well.

If you’re at a company looking to hire a cosplayer for an event, each profile also lists the special abilities of each player, such as singing, dancing and language ability. Given the global appeal of Japanese anime, a bilingual performer based in Japan may even end up working overseas. The price for a still photo model usually starts at 20,000 yen (US$195); an overseas event starts at close to a thousand dollars.

Belle vs Darth. Photo: Jake Adelstein

Superfan, model, performer, endorser

The requirements to be a successful cosplayer are complex, as the lines separating models, actors, and cosplayers continually blur.

When SEGA decided to promote its latest addition to the wildly popular Yakuza games series, it hired Japanese thespians to play the characters in commercials for the US and European markets.

Mari Yamamoto is a badass hostess club owner in the video game ‘Yakuza.’ Photo: Courtesy of SEGA Games

Actress Mari Yamamoto, who brilliantly played a tough-as-nails hostess-club owner in one SEGA commercial, said: “Of course, you have to know the game, the characters, even the side characters, and understand their motivations. And you have to dress like them and project that spirit. It helps to look the part. I certainly wouldn’t have been cast as a bouncer or a yakuza.”

Yamamoto is registered with agencies inside and outside of Japan, but there is still room for hobbyists to make some freelance yen in Japan’s cosplay universe.

D’Joan, who has lived in Japan for five years, works with an agency and also independently. She is an accomplished seamstress, as was her mother, and maintains her super-heroine physique by teaching kickboxing. “It’s not as simple as getting paid to cosplay: There are auditions and casting calls that play a huge part in what type of work you can do,” she said. “It’s also up to you to decide how much you want to spend, and how you want to design your costume.”

She says it’s important to cherish the original spirit of cosplay to enjoy the work, and to thrive in the business. “There is so much love at these conventions: People take pictures of you and want to share their love of the character with you,” she said. “It’s magical. That’s ‘private cosplay’ – that’s the fun! ‘Public cosplay’ is for a client and you have to follow the rules. That’s the business side.”

Fenix earns between $2,000 and $3,000 in a month for her cosplay work – sometimes more. Other cosplayers, such as Kai Leveaux, agree that even if it isn’t a full-time job for many, it’s good part-time work to have.

The elite pros can make serious bank. Enako, one of Japan’s top cosplayers, has raked in up to $90,000 in a single month.

Most costume players in Japan agree that to get signed by an agency or earn a living at the work, creativity, research, couture, patience – and a monster social-media following – are essential.

Japan is a master at exporting products – from autos to consumer electronics – and also to exporting culture, from cuisine to martial arts to men-in-monster-suits movies. But when it comes to monetizing cosplay, Japan has been beaten to the punch.

Last May in Los Angeles, KOSPRE, a cosplay talent agency, announced it was opening for business – some 11 months before Cosplay Agency threw open its doors in the land where cosplay originated.