This article originally appeared in the February 2024 issue of Connect.

Mark Christensen (Fukuoka)

Cosplay. In just a few decades, what once was a very niche hobby has become wildly popular with fandom communities, conventions, models, and even celebrities across a wide spectrum of interests.

But what is cosplay, really? Cosplay, or costume play, is the art of creating costumes and bringing characters and entities to life. This includes a broad range of subjects, from historical figures grounded in reality to the most fantastic fictional characters, entities, and monsters. And while it can be a daunting hobby to jump into, the truth is that it’s a field open to everyone and to all ages; your only true limits are your creativity, as humorously shown by creators like Lowcostcosplay.

My own journey with cosplay began 15 years ago. While I initially started using a premade costume, I quickly grew fascinated with the complex creations of other people around me and dreamed of reaching similar levels. While I lacked technical skills like sewing or crafting, I began to learn from and work with people who did know.

By the time I came to Japan, I was working with the 501st Legion, a professional Star Wars cosplay group. But there are levels of cosplay that reach truly dizzying heights. Of these, the World Cosplay Summit is the zenith.

Discovering the World Cosplay Summit was a happy coincidence. When I first came to Japan in 2019, I had naturally wanted to observe some events, but the COVID-19 pandemic shut everything down for several years. More recently, I started to look for opportunities, and when a cosplayer I follow spoke highly of it, I put it on my list to research. 

Looking into it, I discovered that unlike many conventions, WCS is focused specifically on cosplay itself and that it seeks to determine the best cosplayer teams in the world. It does so by competitively ranking national teams from an ever increasing number of participants. This year alone, 34 different countries participated.

With such a great opportunity right in the middle of my summer break and in a major city on my visit list, how could I resist? A short time later, I found myself on a plane for Nagoya.

I had many expectations going to WCS on day one, but I was fairly surprised by the setup.

While most conventions are typically held in enclosed spaces and centers with cosplayers meeting in adjacent parks, WCS was largely held outside in the Oasis 21 facility next to Nagoya’s Mirai Tower. The event itself was held in an oval patio and central stage, while overhead the giant glass canopy and the pool above it bathed the grounds in shimmering light. On the outer edges of the facility, several layers of balconies and stairs allowed visitors to look over and watch the events unfolding below. On the bottom level, various tunnels led to a series of underground stores supporting the venue.

Starting in the late afternoon, those of us lucky enough to snag seats filed into the seating in front of the stage. Overhead, crowds of visitors leaned over the railings and watched the projectors, while a live band prepared in front of the stage. And then, before we knew it, the red carpet event began.

With triumphant fanfare, pairs of cosplayer teams descended from the main event hall, dressed as favorite characters from popular anime and video games.

One featured pair was Ruby and Aqua from this year’s hit series Oshi No Ko; as they descended, Yoasobi’s “Idol” blasted from the orchestra. 

Another pair of cosplayers presented themselves as Loid and Yor, the Spy/Assassin couple from Spy Family

Some of the participants reached remarkable levels of accuracy. When Leon Kennedy and Ada Wong from Resident Evil 4 appeared, I did my first double take. They somehow managed to replicate not only the costumes and behavior of the characters, but also the subtle uncanny valley of CGI, likely through makeup.

Interestingly, some of the cosplays included more obscure characters, such as side villains. In total, about 68 cosplayers descended and assembled at the main stage. After some speeches by the city mayor and other officials (who cosplayed as Inuyasha and Basketball players) the crowds and cosplayers dispersed, with many people setting up night photo sessions around the convention grounds.

Unlike the red carpet event, these cosplayers were members of the general public and brought their own projects to show off; some of them were very high quality.

One that caught my eye was a rare rendition of Naruto’s Hinata Uzumaki in her movie-exclusive black wedding gown. While many cosplayers choose the most popular or hip cosplays, it’s always fun to see more obscure characters and costumes brought to life. 

While photographing Lucy from Cyberpunk: Edgerunners, I began talking to the photographers around her. I discovered that she and the photographers were actually traveling as a group from Singapore and Malaysia. I connected with the group, and gained some insight into contemporary cosplay in Asia.

One of the photographers, a streamer known as AGCTV81, revealed to me that many photographers and cosplayers regularly travel across Asia to various events; apparently in places like Singapore, cosplay is so popular there are reportedly weekly events. His job, I discovered, was providing live streaming and photography to a ready market of viewers. 

After parting with my new friends, I returned to my hotel, wondering what the next day would bring. 

Day Two of the convention had a lot of variety. Throughout the day, the central stage rotated various cosplay and idol groups apart from the main contestants. There was a surprising variety in age, too. In one instance, a small girl who couldn’t have been more than eight years old cosplayed Anya from Spy Family and performed a dance with some older cosplayers from the same series. In another case, a man suspended in a massive Gundam cosplay clanked perilously around the edges of the stage. Others held mock battles and skits.

Throughout the day, there were various other competitions and photoshoots at the venue. But everything else pales in comparison to what came next.

In the late afternoon, the main theater hall opened up, and crowds of viewers piled in to watch the main event: The WCS cosplay competition.

The tournament itself was broken up into multiple team blocks that were being judged not only for the quality of their cosplay designs, but also for their theatrical acting skills. With only about three to five minutes per team, participants had to do two person skits. And this is where things got remarkable.

As it turns out, the teams had gone well beyond costumes and prepared their own music tracks, special effects, props, and acrobatics. So what might have been adlibbing for regular cosplayers turned into highly choreographed action and emotion that captivated the audience.

In one instance, Naruto’s Kakashi battled the rogue Ninja Zabuza. Their fight had Kakashi and Zabuza compete with gymnastic leaps, flips, and dodges, before culminating in Kakashi’s famous copy technique. With a finisher, Kakashi drove his hand into Zabuza’s chest and, incredibly, pulled out his heart in an explosion of confetti gore.

In another instance, Final Fantasy VII’s Cloud Strife fought against the infamous villain Sephiroth. The villain quickly defeated Cloud and convincingly impaled him on a sword. In a shocking twist, Cloud’s cosplayer lost his wig but remained so committed to his role he never flinched or left character, courageously pushing through a humiliating blunder. So smoothly, in fact, a few people wondered if it was part of the play!

Not all of the skits were violence or fighting, either. One lighthearted play had French cosplayer Umaruu.n and her partner enact a fantasy comedy involving an anthropomorphic llama and a human. In a comedic twist, she sprung a giant three foot llama head and neck out of her costume.

Yet another skit featured Naruto and Jiriaya singing a hilarious rendition of Mulan’s “Dark side of the moon”!

Probably the most dramatic was the re-enactment of a scene in Magi, where Prince Hakuryuu falls into darkness and is corrupted by the influence of an evil Djinn. At the end of the skit, you could have heard a pin drop.

And so, the skits continued on, one by one, until the final tallies. 

Starting with a number of secondary awards for performances, the excitement built higher and higher for the main competition.

The tension in the air was palpable, and the announcer played it for all it was worth.

And then. . .

“First Place, U.K.!”

Many in the crowd went wild, and by the accents, I could tell that a number were here to support their nation’s contestants.

Latvia and Mexico also won the second and third places for their excellent performances.

The competitors assembled for their photos, but that wasn’t the last of the surprises, either. The famous musical group Madkid, known for the theme songs of Rise of the Shield Hero, performed live for the audience; and the audience was also treated to a surprise visit from Chitan the otter, the infamous mascot that once featured on John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight.

After the competition, I also stumbled on a unique opportunity, where I was part of a handful of photographers that were able to interview the champion teams. The final day of the convention ended up being one of the most memorable as well. WCS participated in Nagoya City’s Osu Cosplay Parade. Unlike the professional events before, this one allowed the full participation of the public. I suited up as a stormtrooper and joined a small legion of cosplayers from all walks. After a big photo shoot and the corralling of the crowd by an enthusiastic Rem cosplayer/organizer, we began marching down the corridors of Osu.

The parade itself was very different from anything I had seen before. In the U.S. and Canada, cosplayers on the streets would often be ignored or gawked at by passersby. Here, however, the people of the city packed the sidewalks, waving at us, and took photos. It was very pleasant to get such a popular reaction, and I admit I high fived some of the waving viewers.

It also showed the dangerous side of cosplay. The hot August heat poured over the participants, and those of us in armor and heavy costumes cooked in dangerous temperatures. It’s always important to look after your health when cosplaying, and this event was no different; in two hours I drank at least five bottles of water and still lost weight from dehydration!

The final hours of WCS were relegated to relaxation and photoshoots. I had made friends with another cosplayer, himself a stormtrooper, and together we made our way around the convention checking out the booths and cosplays, where we had some surprising encounters, as well.

I recognized Yaya Han, an American cosplayer who famously created her own fabric lines and became a top costume judge. I also was surprised to run into Nanasemeron, a Japanese WCS finalist known for her incredible Monster Hunter, JoJo, and Inuyasha creations.

As I looked one last time over my shoulder at the convention as I descended into the subway, I found myself wishing that it could have been longer. But no matter how short it might have felt, it was an incredible experience. In just a few short days, it connected cosplayers; not only of different levels, but from all over the world. And I think that’s something truly beautiful. 

If you ever find yourself in Nagoya in August, I highly recommend experiencing this one of a kind event for yourself!

Mark Christensen is a fifth-year ALT from Snohomish, Washington in the United States. An avid photographer, he has a passion for mountaineering and cosplay. He currently resides in Omuta, Fukuoka. You can follow his photography at his Instagram.