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Sunday, March 9, 2008

COSPLAY CULTURE

Business booms as Japanese subculture soars


Staff writer

The last two decades have seen kosupure ("cosplay," or "costume play") blossoming from being a local Japanese subculture to a thriving worldwide trend — and business.

News photo
Cosplay idols appear at a live-music show staged by promotion company Marvel Yell in Tokyo's offbeat Akihabara district on Feb. 15. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

The annual market for costumes and related products is now estimated to be around ¥35 billion, says Hajime Kanda, general manager for sales at Clearstone Co., a leading costume maker.

But the company's overall business, according to the costume maker, is tending to the exponential, with sales up to ¥1 billion in 2007 from ¥630 million in 2005.

Clearstone wholesales uniforms of schoolgirls, cheerleaders and nurses to stores like Tokyu Hands.

"Cosplay used to be a dark and niche world that ordinary people had nothing to do with," Kanda says. "But more and more people enjoy wearing costumes at parties, and the image of cosplay has changed to being quite normal." Now, in fact, it has become so normal that the company has an Internet purchase site for uniforms and their specialty maids' clothing with flounced skirts and frilly aprons.

While wearing uniforms has become more popular for ordinary people to have fun with, there are other, hard-core cosplayers who want to be able to buy precisely crafted costumes of their idols from animations, manga and games.

For such fans, the company set up a Web site titled Hijyo, meaning "extraordinary," to sell "authentic" character costumes. Prices there range from a mere ¥3,900 to ¥16,590 — which Kanda says are low because the costumes are made in China.

News photo
A staffer at the Cosmint shop for cosplayers in Tokyo's Nakano Ward displays some of the hundreds of not-inexpensive costumes available for those wishing to embody anime, manga or video-game characters. ERIKO ARITA PHOTO

Meanwhile, Roche Co. produces costumes in Japan under the brand name Cosmint. The company's best-selling line at its shop in Tokyo's Nakano Ward is the ¥27,950 school uniform of the animation character Haruhi Suzumiya, from the animation "Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu."

Roche Co. President Sachiko Muto said the company takes orders for custom- made costumes at its shop and on its Web site, at prices averaging ¥200,000 — despite which, she says, sales are buoyant.

"Our clients order costumes embodying exquisite workmanship and quality," Muto says, adding that increasing overseas interest has led them to be currently preparing an English-language Web site, too.

At shops like Cosmint, cosplayers buy costumes or buy materials to make them by themselves. But then, many are not satisfied just to parade in front of their friends, and seek the wider horizons that photo sessions may bring.

Consequently, according to Koichi Sugimori, editor of CosPick, a free paper covering cosplay activities, more than 100 events are staged every month across Japan. And in fact, out of 40 organizations running their events information in the paper, more than half are individuals or private groups, Sugimori says, while most of the others are companies. These, he explains, fall into three categories: costume-sales companies; firms selling amateur cartoonists' comics; and others started by cosplay fans.

Kitenhonpo sits squarely in the latter category, being a minibusiness launched by two cosplayers. Tomoko Hashimoto and Mayuko Tamura, both 10-year cosplay veterans, began holding cosplay photo-session events in 2006. Unlike many other events in public halls, however, Kitenhonpo photo sessions are held at restaurants in Tokyo and Osaka that have interiors like castles and Gothic churches.

Participants at the events wear gorgeous costumes they have made themselves, or ones they have bought, Hashimoto says, adding they want to take photos of themselves as "works of art."

"We believe there are no other artistic cosplay photo-session events like ours," she declares.

Although the photo sessions cost around ¥5,000, due to the luxurious places they rent, the event is so popular that people wait for last-minute cancellations at every event, the group says.

In addition to such events, cosplay culture has generated a variety of other businesses. One of them, Marvel Yell based in Akihabara, Tokyo's center of otaku (geek) culture, is promoting female singers who act like animation characters.

At a show last month, these idols appeared in costumes such as sailor-style school uniforms.

"I came from a wonderland," Himeko Sakuragawa, one of the idols, sang in a voice that sounded like an animation character's. "Let me stay in Akiba [slang for Akihabara]."

Some 40 male fans of the idols, who each paid ¥2,500 for admission, applauded in ecstasy.

You Hirai, producer of the company, says the idols sing at 250 events a year and have also released CDs and DVDs.

"There are men who like the in-betweens of real human idols and animation characters," Hirai said, calling such singers "Akiba kei idols," meaning Akihabara-style talents.

"We are trying to expand the number of fans of idols who exist in a world between two dimensions and three."



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