How 'Layers' Negotiate Body
and Subjective Experience through Play
Alexis Hieu Truong
In 1987, Candace West and Don H. Zimmerman defined gender as 'the activity of managing situated conduct in light of normative conceptions of attitudes and activities appropriate for one's sex category.' At the core of their theoretical contribution was the idea that doing gender implies accountability to sex category membership; in other words, by looking at interactions we might further understand how certain expressions of gender come to be recognised and recognisable within social relationships. Moreover, the risk of being held accountable for one's doing means that gender 'achievement' can assist in the reproduction of norms pertaining to the interaction order or the institutional arrangements articulated around sex categories that sustain social inequity. Some years later, this led to the reconceptualisation not only of gender, but also of 'difference' itself as an ongoing interactional accomplishment. If difference was often presented as that which preceded interaction, West and Zimmerman's account of doing gender helped understand how such difference is also produced through said interactions. Following Harold Garfinkel, they understood gender as an achieved rather than ascribed status, 'a “doing” rather than a “being.”'
More than two decades after its publication, West and Zimmerman's article continues to raise questions about gender, some of which have moved beyond the original scope of their theory. Amongst others, James W. Messerschmidt suggests that we might further enhance the concept of doing gender by looking at contextually situated and bodily (re)productions of sex and gender categories that emerge at the intersection of social action and social structure. One approach to further understand the doing of social categories such as gender in situated interactions is to focus on the way these doings are being articulated with and through specific practices. This entails looking at how practices being 'carried' and 'carried out' by individuals interact with the various social categories through which individuals recognise themselves and become recognisable to others. In other words, to ask the question 'how do such cultural practices (re)articulate the identities of the participants that engage in them?' In this article, I aim to explore this question by looking at how gender is being articulated through participants' involvement in the Japanese cultural practice known as 'cosplay.'
In Japan and over the last thirty years, several changes can be identified when looking at cultural attitudes towards leisure, the cultural conventions that delineate its boundaries and the cultural meanings that have come to be associated with it. Most often described by participants as a pastime (shumi) in which they had an interest (kyōmi), cosplay falls within a category of leisure time practices and play (asobi) that stand in opposition to other activities of contemporary social life in post-industrial Japan, such as work (shigoto). Cultural practices have not only permeated various key institutions of social life and gained great importance in Japan's economy, but they have also come to transform the 'regimes of value' by which certain selves are considered to have worth and others not. As the individuals carry out these practices and navigate a diverse and proliferating number of interactional contexts in the course of their daily lives, those living in contemporary urban settings both reproduce and challenge various forms of identities that they perform, account for and are recognised through. Understanding the way cultural practices make this possible is important, as social categories like gender inform social life and are never undone but merely 'redone' in light of shifting normative systems associated with the interaction contexts in which they manifest.
To more clearly define how cosplay (re)articulates identity, I start by defining this cultural practice, present ethnographic data to explore questions of identity and conclude by providing a framework by which to understand the social processes that emerge from this data. I concentrate on participants' experience and doing of gender through the various activities that characterise cosplay; activities that sometimes come to challenge or reproduce the normative expectations associated with these social categories. My analysis is grounded in two years of doctoral fieldwork that took place between March 2010 and May 2012. During that period, participant observation in both popular and underground costume play events in Tokyo took place on a weekly basis; I attended as many as five events per week during the busiest periods. In addition, a total of forty-two formal, semi-structured interviews of two hours or more were conducted with twenty different Japanese participants. Repeated in-depth interviews were done with ten of those participants, with whom I did three or more separate interviews. As the fieldwork reached more advanced stages, more participant observation was done with these twenty participants, most of whom had been practicing costume play for around ten years—three years being the shortest costume play experience and twenty-one years being the longest.
Defining a cultural practice
When asked to define their practice of costume play, participants' responses varied greatly. What has now become known around the world as 'cosplay' is but one of many practices that Japanese participants engage in and identify when talking about 'kosupure'—a Japanese portmanteau created from the English words 'costume' and 'play.' If playing a certain 'source' or 'origin' (moto) was central to their definitions, what participants understood as a valid source was subject to interpretation and often went beyond manga, anime, game or even movie narratives. In popular discourses, because cosplay's mode of intentionality is said to be mimicry, participants and fans of other forms of kosupure have sometimes tried to define those practices in opposition to cosplay. For example, Gothic/Lolita practitioners who dress in Victorian-era fashion argue their practice to be a personalised expression of their 'true self,' one by which valued performances of femininity are carried out. What is identified as a distinguishing feature of these practices is the intentions of the participants, and can be best understood through what Erving Goffman defined as the 'sincerity' of the presentation of self: Gothic/Lolita's self-reported sincere exploration of self clashes with cosplayers' potentially cynical reproduction of an identifiable other. But beyond intentionality, practices emerging out of Japanese popular culture have all been resourcing (and in this case, re-sourcing) selves that are deeply rooted in contemporary Japanese culture, its history and its economy; be it through fantasy narratives (cosplay), role models or celebrities (visual-kei), aesthetic archetypes (Gothic/Lolita) or other normed (and therefore valued) representations of self. Though creative catalysts differ, this orientation to an 'ideal self' is something practitioners share, whether they intend to search inside (intention of authenticity) or outside (intention of mimicry) personal selves. It is not because participants' modes of intentionality differ that understanding cultural practices such as cosplay is important, but because these practices inform us of how participants play and fight over the material and symbolic resources that both shape and provide access to these socially valued selves, and of which social categories such as gender are constitutive.
Through participant observation and interviews, definitions of kosupure practices were most clear when looking at the ways in which a variety of elements interconnected—elements which could later be classified around 'forms of bodily activities, forms of mental activities, "things" and their use, a background knowledge in the form of understanding, know-how, states of emotion and motivational knowledge.' Defining cosplay meant situating it amongst a diversity of costume play practices in Japan, such as josō (male to female) and dansō (female to male) cross-dressing, Gothic/Lolita, visual-kei, kigurumi (costumes that cover the entire body) and even original creations, all of which were also at times identified as 'kosupure' by participants. Through these practices, participants played with different sources in different ways. Taking gender as an example, it sometimes meant using the costume to play a categorised 'opposite gender' and go out in josō or dansō, have tea with friends while displaying an idealised Victorian-era femininity through Gothic/Lolita, attend shows while dressed as visual-kei male idols (themselves dressed as women) or even transform into characters whose gender was sometimes more ambiguous or absent, as in the case of animal or robot kigurumi.
I identify cosplay as the costume playing of characters taken from anime, manga, game and movie narratives. I do not consider the other practices as cosplay per se, although they do fit within a broader category of costume play practices that participants identified as kosupure in Japan. In other words, I identify cosplay as one form of kosupure, and further define kosupure as the broad category of socially and culturally contextualised costume play practices found in contemporary Japan. Furthermore, because these practices are much more complex than their modes of intentionality and the materials they take as source, practices sometimes cut across each other. For example, certain forms of kosupure such as josō were also, at times, identified as cosplay. Tetsuya, a forty-two-year-old male who has been practicing many forms of kosupure for twenty-one years, describes josō and josō cosplay sources as follows:
At first, I started doing simple josō, but it wasn't that amazing. Guys, girls
you change when you cross-dress, but I didn't really have the intention of becoming a normal girl. I wanted to do something that was out of the ordinary. For example, I wanted to have extra-sensory perception and become a sailor warrior (sērā senshi) who fought enemies, that's the kind of girl I wanted to become.
The first time I saw it, Sailor Moon [a TV animation featuring warrior girls in sailor-suit school uniforms] made a big impression on me. Wearing sailor clothes, leotards, gloves and even boots and high heels. That's something even normal women don't wear, isn't it? More than just wearing normal female clothes, I wanted to wear those amazing costumes from anime characters
as if that female character just came out of the anime.
Tetsuya felt that through cosplay he was able to access, embody and experience forms of femininity he thought were unavailable to him in 'normal' cross-dressing. There were also similarities and differences in what could be done in josō or josō cosplay. As he explained,
In my mind, I intentionally let go of the idea of doing things like a guy [when doing josō]. I didn't act inappropriate. I still have the feeling of being a guy, but I think of making myself have a pretty appearance, and not move in indecent ways. It's pretty much the same with cosplay. I don't really care about the character's personality, but I can use that character's material, make jokes and, if there's a 'layer' [cosplayer] doing another character from that series, it's easier to get close. I can become more straightforward than I normally am
and it's easier to open up when communicating.
Josō and josō cosplay enabled a number of experiences, some of which were unique to particular informants while other experiences seemed to have been shared amongst a number of them. Cosplay made it possible for Tetsuya to have experiences that he felt were different from the norm and his normal self. It made it possible for him to challenge certain elements of his experience of masculinity, but it also required that he reiterate certain norms in regards to what he considered appropriate or not, decent or not, as a woman. Such distinctions between practices became crucial when situating them and trying to understand the use of the costumes and original ideas or materials through embodied play.
Cosplay is said to have emerged in Japan around the end of the 1970s, with the first documented appearances in events often associated with otaku culture, such as the Comic Market and Ashi-con. Since then, discussions of cosplay have appeared in academic literature, taking up questions of Japanese subcultures, contemporary fandoms, the reception of Japanese popular culture outside of Japan, the electronic gaming industry and media production and literacy. The definitions of cosplay offered in these texts are often very general, and sometimes include references to Gothic/Lolita, visual-kei or even other forms of dress-up such as the costumed staff of Akihabara-style 'maid cafés' or 'costume-play cabaret clubs.' In most cases, cosplay is not the main object of research and there is no clear consensus of a working definition of the practice.
'Layer' (reiyāzu) is a term used by participants in Japan to identify a practitioner of cosplay. It is an abbreviation of the Japanese pronunciation of cosplayer, and can be added to the end of the name of one's favorite series or characters to identify what one cosplays as. Beyond brief appearances in the popular media, not much is known about layers. In 2007, the Japanese cosplay community website Cure estimated that there were about 200,000 layers in Japan, 90 per cent of whom were women in their teens or twenties. The motivation for cosplay is often simply glossed as a desire 'to dress as their favorite characters.' The contexts in which layers do cosplay, and what exactly they do, is relatively unknown. In many countries, 'masquerades' inside of conventions provide fans with the opportunity to role-play and perform skits and monologues while in cosplay. Such activities seem to have been inspired from fantasy and science fiction conventions alike, and are a type of make-belief akin to dramatic scripting. In Japan, however, such organised ways of putting cosplay into practice are very rare. Even the fabled bridge in Harajuku, once heralded as the mecca of cosplay in Tokyo, seems to have been deserted by participants. In other words, who layers are and why, where and when they cosplay are still problems in their own right. Before going any further, I now turn to explain the main contexts in which layers engage in cosplay.
I will begin by noting that the contexts where cosplay is possible and is practiced in Tokyo are much more frequent and diversified than we assume by looking at popular events with which it is usually associated (the Comic Market, Tokyo Game Show, Wonder Festival, etc.). Even though events like these are where many layers, fans and researchers have encountered cosplay for the first time, they do not focus on cosplay, but rather other aspects of 'otaku culture' (dōjinshi, games, figurines, etc.). Although attendees wishing to cosplay are encouraged to do so, this activity is not the main attraction of the event. The same can be said about 'anime song' (anison) events, which are nightclub-like gatherings where fans come to enjoy anime and idol songs, as well as participate in a synchronised and choreographed dance called otagei. Other social networking events organised around specific gender or sexual identities also welcome and encourage cosplay, such as josō, dansō and fetish events. In such contexts, participants meet with friends and other individuals who share similar interests—some of whom are layers, in or outside these events. As the popularity of cosplay rapidly expanded throughout the last decade or so, it has become increasingly visible in key events of both popular and underground culture in Tokyo.
Japanese contexts that revolve specifically around cosplay include 'hall events,' 'studio events' and 'cosplay dance parties.' Cosplay dance parties, called danpa, are similar to anison events, but the vast majority of attendees are layers. Another difference is that the choreographies are more intricate and vary from one song to the next, with more popular songs also having many different choreographies altogether. According to some participants, the main reason for the differences between danpa and anison events is that the latter emerged out of the idol fan culture whereas the former was influenced by 'parapara,' a type of synchronised dancing associated with 'eurobeat' music that was popularised in Japan throughout the 1990s. Like participants in parapara, layers create choreographies by themselves or learn them with the help of videos shared or sold within smaller groups and communities. As with otagei, dancing to shared routines provides layers with a sense of togetherness, but also makes it possible for them to be recognised individually when leading the dance. A common practice in such events is for layers of a specific series to climb on the stage and become the star of the show when their series' song comes on. That is, when cosplaying as a character from a specific animation series, they become the centre of attention during the dance to the music from the series. Major dance parties can gather several hundred layers and are held several times each month.
In hall events, primary activities revolve around photography and social networking. Layers most often take pictures amongst themselves or they are sometimes photographed by non-cosplaying and mostly male 'camera kids' (kameko) that come to events by themselves or with other layers. When approaching other layers whom they find interesting, layers engage in discussions and can exchange business cards (meishi) that display pictures of previous characters that they have cosplayed. Often, layers have many business cards with different pictures and characters to choose from, all displaying the same contact information such as their cosplay nickname and community website account numbers. Lists of cards become tools—a display of one's tastes and a visual history of a layer's cosplay 'career.' When offered a business card, choosing 'the right one' becomes a sort of test where preferences and knowledge of characters and series are communicated, possibly sparking discussions on shared tastes and similar cosplay experiences. Hall events are held on a weekly basis in different venues around Tokyo. The choice between different events is often made for the aesthetic properties of a venue and its ability to suit the world of the different cosplays that participants intend to do (that is the ability to capture the character's world in the photographs taken). As a consequence, certain trends can be observed in regard to the types of cosplay most often seen at specific events, and layers also come to develop preferences for events depending on the type of cosplay they plan to do. For example, layers doing characters from the series One Piece can often be seen when events take place in Yokohama's Pacifico, because the venue is by the ocean, which makes a perfect background for pirate characters of the series.
Another context where cosplay has flourished is professional photography studios. These studio events operate on a somewhat similar logic as the hall events, and though they are much smaller in size and cost more, they usually provide layers with the optimal conditions and equipment to take pictures. A gathering in a studio can be organised and held by a small group of friends, or advertised by a third party seeking to recruit other layers for the day. Because these events are generally limited in size, layers usually make reservations with close cosplay partners (pātonā or aikata) or a group of layers they know and often do group cosplay with (awase). Unlike other types of contexts, there is not much social networking going on with strangers in studio events, as layers are said to concentrate on the photographic activities and thus do not want not to bother others. That being said, studio events offer a calmer and more intimate context for layers to enjoy their time together.
Finally, layers can engage in cosplay 'only events.' Varying in size, only events refer to gatherings organised for a specific series, character, creator or genre. Layers who are into a character or series can buy and sell related products as they engage in cosplay. Though the large events for anime, manga and game fans also allow cosplay, in only events, layers have a greater chance of meeting people specifically interested in the characters and series they like. Further, most of the large events that are not solely dedicated to cosplay do not allow people wearing costumes to leave designated areas. This compartmentalisation is not as prevalent at only events.
The things that play makes possible in these different contexts is framed by competing discourses about valued ways of putting cosplay into practice—frames that are themselves informed by Japanese social norms. Different specific rules come to circumscribe participation in events. For example, even though dansō is an intrinsic part of cosplay and cosplay events, josō is often forbidden by event regulations. Men simply cannot do cross-dressing cosplay in many mainstream events. Thus, cosplay enables certain bodily doings of identity, but it also restricts others. Certain forms of femininity and masculinity are more valued than others. Spelled out rules and tacit social knowledge both inform interactions and accountability, organising the experiences through which individuals come to challenge or reiterate established norms—whether they are intentionally playing or not. Even though situated 'playful disruptions' might appear as 'temporary' and 'inauthentic,' they call for serious consideration.
Shifting identities through cosplay
Of the twenty main participants I interviewed, all but five were in their twenties, others being in their late thirties and early forties. Fourteen identified as female, five as male and one identified as neither. Two women were married, and four women and one man reported being in steady relationships. All of the participants except two identified as heterosexual, one identifying as bisexual and one simply reporting having no preference. Although all five men identified as heterosexual, three were sexually interested in men when josō was being performed. I found that this was not uncommon amongst male layers who had an interest in josō. Heterosexual desire was defined more in terms of performed gender than sex categories, making it possible for these men to desire being with other men if and when one of the partners was doing josō. In other words, accounting for sex categories was not a prerequisite for heterosexual desire.
When asked to explain why they started to do cosplay, participants often began with general statements such as it was a fun past-time, but quickly moved to a more specific desire to become the characters they liked and a 'desire to change' (henshin ganbō). Characters taken from anime, manga and game narratives were said to be inspirational representations of transformational power, as the characters themselves often changed from regular people to extra-ordinary beings in their storylines. In these characters, participants seemed to be able to find experiences they recognised, wanted to acquire or felt like they had lost. A twenty-five-year-old woman named Kaori explains,
When we get out from the changing room, we're like someone totally different, right? So, I guess I have this fun feeling of being someone else. We're dressing as someone else, but we're still ourselves.… It was a pretty big aspect for me when I started to cosplay, this desire to transform, to be someone I can't really be in the real world. You cosplay a guy character, but you can't really do that, right? You can't really do that when you go job-hunting for an interview and stuff.… You can't really go back in time to be in high school or anything, right? This unrealistic self, I guess that's my 'henshin ganbō.' To be something that's unrealistic.
In her example, Kaori referred to playing both a sex category and an age category that she felt could not be accounted for outside of play. Although these were described as unrealistic, performing them offered real and enjoyable experiences considered impossible outside of play. Other layers' accounts of participation in cosplay also highlighted aspects of self that they might strive to become, or become once more. Kaori continues by describing a character she had cosplayed numerous times throughout the years:
Konata from Lucky Star, well I like her. I like her. I've really loved her since I started to become an otaku, I guess. I mean, she is like an otaku, but she's friendly with other people, works part time and also studies. So, it's like this ordinary girl who enjoys her life. Since I want to enjoy my life, I guess she's quite an ideal person as a character.
At the time that she started to identify as an otaku, Kaori was also a student and was working part-time. Like some of the other layers, she reported that she had been finding it increasingly hard to relate to other peers at school and work before she found cosplay. Through this practice, she was able to find and explore relationships that sometimes led to durable friendships. Much like the character Konata from Lucky Star, Kaori was able to enjoy life through her pastime, one that incidentally enabled her to befriend others through alternative forms of sociability.
Some participants often chose to personify characters because they liked certain aspects of their body, personality or experience. Sometimes, characters were chosen because the participants felt similar to them, while others were chosen because they seemed completely alien. Of the ten layers with whom I conducted repeated in-depth interviews, one always did the same character but the others changed often—sometimes doing many characters throughout one single event. And even though participants wanted to do many characters, some costumes were reported as too expensive to buy or make, while some seemed to require too many skills or too much time. Certain participants enjoyed doing either male or female characters more. Others said it did not matter. Some expressed specific interest in doing male characters that dressed up as women. Seven participants had done both male and female characters; of those seven participants, two of the women decided to stop engaging in cross-dressing after the first time whereas one now does dansō almost exclusively. Some cosplayers chose specific characters because they were easy, and others because they were a challenge. For certain layers, cross-dressing was part of that challenge. At times, because they felt they could not do a satisfying version of a character they really liked, some participants asked friends to do them so that they could cosplay that character's friend, a family member or their lover or enemy. In all cases, layers recognised a potential self in these characters. Choosing characters and doing cosplay required copious amounts of financial resources, leisure time and technical knowledge. It also mobilised bodies, emotions and social ties inside regimes of value that organised layers' experiences in these events and in the larger societal context of Japan.
Beyond intention, choosing characters was an expression of taste, and classifying the source materials by selecting characters and series also had the effect of classifying the classifier. Performing a character was a bodily act of communication that could be decoded and recognised by others before a single word was uttered. As an example, Kaori describes a situation that happened at a hall event we both attended:
I was doing this really minor, like, not popular type of costume—just because I thought it would be funny. Personally, I did that costume just for me. I thought it would be just for me, that it would be a good character to cosplay. It was really unexpected, but these two girls we met noticed my costume. Even though we didn't know each other, one of them noticed my tastes, and why I would cosplay that character. I remember she told me that I was doing a really minor costume of a popular series, so I must really be into that character.
Kaori wanted to cosplay a character she really liked, and decided to put forth the effort to make a costume which would most likely, so she thought, not be recognised. But against all odds, a stranger amongst hundreds present recognised the character and approached her. They talked and exchanged contact information with the help of the many business cards they were carrying, rapidly breaking through the walls that usually keep strangers from creating intimacy. I could feel, see and hear their excitement, having found a person with whom to share a rare interest. Their language became less formal. In a matter of minutes, bodies appeared less rigid and less distant.
Figure 1. Kaori, taking pictures as the character Konata, right before two layers approached her. Photo by Alexis Hieu Truong and reproduced here with Kaori's permission.
All of the ten participants with whom repeated in-depth interviews were conducted described social experiences similar to Kaori. By engaging in cosplay, participants were able to create and nourish a sense of intimacy with other layers, also deepening the connections they felt with characters. They were able to become closer emotionally and physically, share personal information with each other, and feel a sense of well being as they navigated through the various activities and situations that characterise this practice. To recognise oneself in a character has its potential, as does having others extend such recognition. Each can transform the experience of self, not through what Roger Caillois called 'alienation'—the process by which individuals involved in mimicry come to believe that they are indeed that which they are mimicking—but by giving layers tools by which to assess accountability differently when presenting one's self through the guise of an other. Some compliments are for the characters, but some are for the layer. As sharing transformed expectations, participants could be recognised and recognise themselves in ways that made it possible to deepen intimacy with others. These relationships were constitutive of self-identity and their effects could not be confined to the spatial and temporal limits of play.
Playing with gender
Maybe because it is one of the primary cultural frames for 'coordinating behavior and organising social relations,' gender framed many situations in which play enabled reflections on self and social categories. In terms of daily life changes, one layer's experience stood out amongst the ten participants with whom repeated in-depth interviews were conducted. Mami is a thirty-five-year-old layer who has been practicing many forms of kosupure on and off for a period of twenty-one years, becoming increasingly active during the last ten years. Though Mami had been identified as fitting the male sex category at birth, s/he started to identify as a female about eight years ago and has in recent years moved to neither identify as male nor female. These shifting experiences of gender have followed the course of Mami's cosplay career, as this practice came to gain importance in Mami's life and organise the trajectories s/he came to pursue.
With an early first experience of josō cosplay at age fourteen, Mami embodied a wide variety of gendered body performances throughout the years. Even outside of events, cosplay came to change the way Mami handled and felt about the bodies s/he performed. Challenging more traditional gendered body norms, Mami found it difficult at times to account for sex categories that had come to be at odds with daily experiences of self. On one such occasion, Mami remembers:
I was wearing clothes which were kind of unisex. I wasn't wearing a bra or anything, but my hair was long and I had put on a bit of pale makeup. My intention was to be dressed as a guy, and since I thought I did look like a guy I went into the men's restroom. Then, an old guy told me, 'The ladies' restroom is over there!' I said that I was a guy, but he got angry and said I was just being 'bothersome.' But it's the opposite, isn't it? So I thought to myself, well, if I don't talk, maybe I can just try going in the ladies' restroom.
As in cosplay events, daily social identities are not ascribed nor are they recognised simply because individuals intend to perform them. Realising this made alternative ways of being and doing seem possible and, in some cases, preferable or necessary. Although Mami's experience of josō had mostly been with cosplay, s/he began to do it outside of events and felt it became something that s/he now identifies as a 'life cycle.' Forms of recognition first found inside of cosplay events became understood as possible in daily life. As a turning point, the described situation marked the period when Mami started to self-identify as a woman.
Even if the intensity of Mami's experience might not be representative of other layers, it provides an example of the changes cosplay can bring about in the life of participants that come to live these transformations in varying degrees. For example, Daisuke, a twenty-eight-year-old male Ph.D. student and layer, explains: 'Recently, that's what I'm wearing. Even when I'm not doing josō, even though I'm a guy, I wear women's clothes without feeling out of place, just like that, and I go out
. My friends and my girlfriend say it makes my butt look kind of cute, that the shape of my hips and waist look good. It makes me feel happy.'
Cosplay experiences brings about very real changes in the lives of layers. It changes how layers perceive, move and use their bodies, as well as how they feel about and care for themselves. As layers came to question or confirm certain representations associated with various social categories, these normative understandings were sometimes felt as liberating and at other times constraining.
Figure 2. Daisuke, second from the left, takes pictures along with his friends and girlfriend while doing a josō cosplay of Marisa from the series Touhou Project. Photo by Alexis Hieu Truong and reproduced with the permission of those in the photograph.
Words like cute (kawaii) and cool (kakkō ii) were often used to describe these changes, expressions that were tied with notions of femininity and masculinity. Talking about an anime she likes and has cosplayed in the past, Kaori says: 'Yeah, Black Lagoon is cool.… Cute characters? Cute…. There aren't any, I think. Women … those girls, it's more like girls that are more active, I guess? And stand up for themselves and stuff? I'm just, I … I don't want to use the word manly [chuckle], but like strong, I guess. Strong girls are pretty cool.'
Black Lagoon is an anime that targets young adult and male audiences. Even though the series articulates many gendered power relations of which we might be critical, in this particular situation, it offers Kaori alternative representations with which to experiment. These female characters appear to her as active and strong women that stand up for themselves in a way that she does not want to equate with manliness. More than characters, these desired others represent forms of femininity that challenge some of the more conventional gender norms of Japanese society.
Some years after s/he started to identify as a woman, even though Mami had come to appreciate recognition from others, s/he also began to feel increasingly at odds with gender categories. Mami began to question when and if s/he had to perform gender; and, if so, how. 'Is it important to do so when you were alone?' 'Is it more important when you're with strangers, or with friends?' Rooted in kosupure experiences and the daily practices that branched out of these practices, such reflections brought Mami to further challenge the categories through which bodies were being used:
When you sit down, you don't sit down like this [with your legs opened], right? Girls, they do this—keep their legs together. I was really conscious about things like that in the past, but not anymore, really
. When I sit like this [legs opened], people tell me, 'You're sitting like a guy!' Nowadays, even if they say that, I feel it doesn't really have anything to do with men and women. Me, I'm not a guy, and I'm not a girl either, so, however I sit, however I behave myself.… Isn't it fine? That's how I feel about it. Freedom. Freedom.'
For Mami, cosplay was part of an important trajectory of self-definition, leading the way to many of those reflections concerning gender identities and performances of gender. Although Mami's experience highlights many situations where gendered norms were challenged, such experiences also point to various ways in which these norms were reiterated and constrained identification or action.
Amongst the participants who identified as women, many were critical of various forms of treatment they experienced in and out of cosplay, such as in work and domestic spheres, and which they identified as stemming from gendered expectations. Participants did not orient themselves towards desired and idealised selves only for 'fun'; social expectations, power relations and how they understood past experiences and current situations were all shaping these emerging desires for change. Not unlike Kaori, another twenty-eight-year-old housewife who had been practicing cosplay for ten years reported that cosplay made it possible for her to engage in various experiences that were not usually accessible, and said that she believed that this desire for change was most common among Japanese women. This leads us to ask not 'if' but 'how' social categories such as gender are organising the kind of selves that are valued and available—and for whom. Even if layers appeared critical of gendered expectations, rare were the cases where this translated into pursuing political activism or direct emancipatory actions. However, it changed things in their day-to-day lives—the choices they made, the thing they did, how they felt.
In some cases, female participants felt that their practice was at odds with certain visions of family life and the expectations they could face as wives and/or mothers. Tomoko, another twenty-eight-year-old layer who works as a model in a promotion agency and has been practicing cosplay for eleven years, says the following: 'I'm always thinking that I should stop, that I want to get married and stop. But I don't. Maybe it's because I'm not married yet? But even so, I probably won't be doing cosplay until I become a mother, right? Wouldn't it be weird to be a mother and stitch costumes instead of doing domestic chores? Sewing instead of cooking dinner?' This imperative to stop, with which Tomoko is now starting to struggle, was amplified by normative ideas of what she should be doing at this stage of her life, such as finding a serious partner and having children. As a woman and a layer, she feels the recognition she once had slip away as years go by: 'Even for cosplay, because Japanese people are extremely strict about other people's appearance, they'll go as far as say things like, "That person is still doing cosplay at her age?" This is a pastime for me, so if they say things like that it's not as fun anymore. Even friends, or people commenting on pictures online, they do that.' Expectations associated with social categories and a growing feeling of competition between layers in events were mediating possibilities for recognition.
Figure 3. Tomoko, farthest to the left, cosplays as the character Blue Rose from Tiger and Bunny. Photo by Alexis Hieu Truong and reproduced with the permission of those in the photograph.
Tomoko is at a crossroads, and a lack of positive recognition is having a strong impact on her ability to enjoy cosplay. One morning, Tomoko was volunteering at a festival for kids, cosplaying a character from the hit series Heart Catch Pretty Cure! I watched as children flocked around her and her cosplay partner; kids' eyes glittering as they tried to grab the attention of their anime heroines. As one kid was yelling out, 'Are you the real ones?' Tomoko encouraged the children to be good and have fun at the festival. A few minutes later, an older man asked them if it was okay for them to still be doing this at their age. Whether intentional or not, this man reiterated normative and gendered ideas pertaining to individuals' occupations as he asked them what they should be doing—as Japanese women who seemed a certain age. As Tomoko explained, that did not exactly make her experience a fun one.
Defining cosplay frames of experience
Scholars interested in studying role-playing have often used definitions of play inspired by the works of Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois, whose texts have become linchpins of the study of play and games in social sciences. It was Huizinga who started looking at the influence of play on culture and the 'great archetypal activities of human society,' such as language, war and art. Following Huizinga, Caillois turned to the question of how different forms of play manifested themselves in different societies, and proposed a classification system that accounted for competitive games (agôn), games of dice (alea), of make-believe (mimicry) and of vertigo (ilinx). Each category included a variety of games that ranged from ones centered on improvisation and joy (paidia) to those that called for gratuitous challenge (ludus). Scholars involved in the study of games have found Caillois's categories to be useful, helping them show how certain emerging forms of play like 'pen and paper,' 'live action' or computer role-playing games were cutting across different categories. This definition of play has also been used by scholars to further investigate how 'shared fantasies' are sustained, or how identities outside the game can be bracketed out while role-playing. Furthermore, because cosplay can be identified as mimicry and paidia, it is a kind of play that differs in many ways from these other contemporary role-playing practices that are more clearly defined through their explicit rules and goals.
Although Huizinga and Caillois help to situate these practices, they do not provide many tools to understand the articulation of identities beyond immediate situated play. To explore these questions, it is useful to turn to the works of George Herbert Mead and Erving Goffman. They first used play and games as key examples of both socialisation and emergence of the consciousness of self in early life, an activity by which children were said to internalise social norms through their interactions with others— that Mead called the 'generalised other.' Following a similar tradition and focusing on both interactions and the diversification of normative expectations in everyday life, Goffman defined three identity concepts. The first is social identity, or that which informs us of an individual's category and his or her attributes. The second is personal identity, or the 'positive marks or identity pegs, and the unique combination of life history items that comes to be attached to the individual.'  Finally, Goffman called the 'ego,' 'felt' or 'self' identity the 'the subjective sense of his [or her] own situation and his [or her] own continuity and character that an individual comes to obtain as a result of his [or her] various social experiences.' Many years later, Goffman used play to more clearly define the social organisation of interactional experiences, namely frames that mobilise these three dimensions of identity. How we understand situations and negotiate expectations therein were found to be a feature of the interaction order, and 'frame analysis' was the theory by which to further understand these questions of experience. As they engaged in cosplay, participants were simultaneously negotiating multiple frames of experience: they were Japanese people in Japan, men and women enjoying a pastime, participating in specific events, following certain rules, meeting strangers, friends and favorite characters. They were also playing with stories, characters and friends.
Goffman identified play as an example of 'keying,' a process that stands for 'the set of conventions by which a given activity, one already meaningful in terms of some primary framework, is transformed into something patterned on this activity but seen by the participants to be something quite else.' In cosplay events, participants embodied and played characters, which included their relationships and storylines. Experiences of cosplay were not simply framed as everyday life, nor were they actually thought to be the fantasies that were played. They were framed as something in between, the mundane enchanted through other ways of understanding, doing and being. These interactions were comprised of multiple 'layers' of experience. To play a character that was itself imbedded in a social reality meant to play a character playing something. The fantasies that layers see, hear and read are the realities that authors have created by keying the social frames they have come to know through their own daily lives. It is because these storylines are themselves keyed from these intelligible social frames that it is possible for us to identify with them, riddled with the experiences we have lived, could live or long for. As there is no curtain to rise or fall, how interactions will unfold through these co-constructed frames of experience is something that cannot be determined in advance.
Because playing engaged different frames of experience, playing with the costume sometimes meant very different things, even inside of cosplay. Of course, frames of experience were most often keyed by using the original sources, or other material that came to be connected to them. Furthermore, even if events rarely provide opportunities for organised dramatic scripting, layers do indeed carry out performances to varying degrees in the course of their interactions. Because participants were often weary of bothering others, such performances mostly happened when co-present individuals either were not able to identify the layers or knew them personally. An example of the first would be in the case of kigurumi cosplay. Tetsuya explains:
I try to erase myself, my personality, like if I was standing outside [my body] and introduce that character to everyone. So I do the character in a way that I don't in josō and cosplay situations. If I have the chance, I do scenes and stuff. During normal cosplay, I don't think about that, but if I did that, I would think to myself that it might bother other people. So I don't.
The very way in which the characters are embodied makes it easier to frame what is happening as make-believe. Onlookers can only see the character, as the layer is hidden within the full-body costume. A popular fantasy when interacting with kigurumi is that 'there is no one inside' (naka no hito nado inai), and Tetsuya said he felt more like the internal organs (naizō) of the character he played. In most cases, kigurumi layers do not even talk, feeling their voice might not match the one of the characters they play. Maybe more so than in other forms of cosplay, individuals doing kigurumi cosplay come to see through the screened eyes of their characters.
Other situations framed as make-believe mostly happened between friends, and were usually situations where layers joked around with each other. Mai, a twenty-seven-year-old female layer who has been practicing cosplay for fourteen years, gives this example:
When we did Vampire Knight, I did a character that had a split personality. She's normally quiet but, when she goes into scary mode, like, she becomes strong, because she's a vampire—a vampire lady aristocrat. Sometimes, because of her gestures, people around get really scared of her. She's that kind of character, so, I was messing with my cellphone, with a serious face and such, and it's like a dark vibe came down. Everyone went, 'Bwaaaa' [scared face]. That was fun. It was a joke, but making that face and having people around acting frightened, that was really amusing.
These kinds of situations are more common, but are relatively short lived. In such cases, instances of play transformed the way layers could participate in interactions, as they enjoyed themselves with others and embodied the characters.
Accounts of specific cosplay interactions and broader self-narratives articulated social, personal and felt dimensions of participants' identities. Although change and transformation were reported as some of the main reasons for starting to cosplay, layers often emphasised that they were themselves, and that they did not really believe they were the cosplayed characters. Turning to Goffman, we can understand this as a strategy to separate their own personal and felt identities from the social identities that they played with. In doing so, they aimed to disarm alarmist discourses anchored in popular notions of escapism and alienation, as layers felt and feared that these representations were feeding outsiders' understanding of cosplay. However, even if we believe layers when they say they do not really, sincerely believe that they are the characters that they perform, we should refrain from unequivocally separating play from everyday life and the imaginary from so-called 'reality.' As Goffman writes, 'the total number of man-hours a population spends per day in privately pursued fantasy constitutes one of the least examined and most underestimated commitments of its resources.'
As experiences accumulate, they become organised over time in the self-narratives that we call (and recall as) our identities. But as play and recognition make it possible for individuals to explore other potentially unexplored trails, they threaten the social norms and categories that are performatively reproduced with such speed and zeal that we often mistake them for essential realities. Through cosplay, embodied narratives transform into social interfaces that connect individuals differently and enable alternative and potentially creative forms of sociability. It is something that is not only worn and taken off; through time, much like a symbiote, it etches itself into layers' experiences, into their ways of understanding, doing and being.
As a research object, cosplay and the broader category of kosupure can help us further understand how cultural practices mediate the relation between individuals and societies. Furthermore, I argue that kosupure practices have the potential to help us more clearly define instances of social reproduction and social change. Here, I have sought to use cosplay and gender to further understand how play can act as a catalyst to (re)articulate identities and the social categories through which they become intelligible, keying experiences and shifting the norms and expectations that structure interactions in and out of play.
In both English and French academic literature, the treatment of cosplay is too often brief and superficial. The discussion of cosplay appears briefly amidst broader discussions of Japanese popular culture, which does not lend itself to nuanced reflection. Ironically, despite all the introductory writing on cosplay, we still do not have a clear definition of the practice. Given these limitations, it has been difficult for scholars to appreciate the potential of cosplay as a research object or to situate it amongst other practices considered similar. To address some of these issues, in this article, I have provided a working definition of this practice and situated it within a broader category of kosupure. Furthermore, I have looked at the way play organises experiences of cosplay, and the contexts in which identity matters. Taking examples that were related to gender, I explored how participants play alternative selves, as well as how such doings came to challenge and reiterate certain social norms and categories associated with gender. Doing so made it possible to expand the concept of 'doing gender' in contemporary Japan, both in and out of play. Play frames experiences in a way that enables both recognition and alternative forms of sociability. Keying experiences through cosplay makes new forms of intimacies and desires possible that are felt as more difficult to conceive, verbalise or act upon in the context of un-keyed experiences.
Experiences of doing and being are both influenced by the normative conceptions of attitudes and activities we understand as appropriate for the various social categories that come into play and that are (re)produced during interactions. When multiple frames of experience mix and organise a situated interaction, unexpected and creative things can happen. Much is at stake when interactions take place, as the social categories that constrain experiences are endlessly challenged and reproduced, but without which individuals could not recognise themselves. They encounter different and sometimes incompatible forms of selfhood, and sometimes come to value and desire them. As individuals play make-believe and pretend that they are that which they have come to desire, they might indeed access, embody and experience forms of identity previously considered unavailable or impossible. Maybe those identities are ones that other individuals are trying to metamorphose out of. Maybe such identities can help them understand themselves in new ways. Like Tetsuya, Mami and Kaori, they might feel like opening up, identify differently or feel the desire to be strong and stand up for themselves. Maybe the selves they desire would seem unrealistic after all, or maybe it would feel almost within reach. As layers undertake this journey to explore and more clearly define their identities in a context where culture's role is being redefined, cosplay truly becomes a 'career' for them—'the moving perspective in which the person sees his [or her] life as a whole and interprets the meaning of his various attributes, actions, and the things which happen to him [or her]'.
 Candace West and Don H. Zimmerman, 'Doing gender,' Gender & Society, vol. 1, no. 2 (1987): 125–51, p. 127.
 West and Zimmerman, 'Doing gender,' p. 146.
 Candace West and Sarah Fenstermaker, 'Doing difference,' Gender & Society, vol. 9, no. 1 (1995): 8–37.
 Candace West and Don H. Zimmerman, 'Accounting for doing gender,' Gender & Society, vol. 23, no. 1 (2009): 112–22, p. 114; Harold Garfinkel, Studies In Ethnomethodology, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1967.
 James W. Messerschmidt, '“Doing gender" the impact and future of a salient sociological concept,' Gender & Society, vol. 23, no. 1 (2009): 85–88, p. 88.
 Daliot-Bul, 'Asobi in action. contesting the cultural meanings and cultural boundaries of play in Tokyo from the 1970s to the present,' Cultural Studies, vol. 23, no. 3 (2009): 355–80; Sepp Linhart, 'From industrial to postindustrial society: changes in Japanese leisure-related values and behavior,' in Journal of Japanese Studies, vol. 14, no. 2 (1988): 271–307.
 Daliot-Bul, 'Asobi in action,' p. 355.
 Beverley Skeggs, Class, Self, Culture, London: Routledge, 2004; Beverley Skeggs, 'The value of relationships: affective scenes and emotional performances,' Feminist Legal Studies, vol. 18 (2010): 19–51; Beverley Skeggs, 'Imagining personhood differently: person value and autonomist working-class value practices', The Sociological Review, vol. 59, no. 3 (2011): 496–513.
 West and Zimmerman, 'Accounting for doing gender,' p. 118.
 Isaac Gagne, 'Urban princesses: performance and 'women's language' in Japan's gothic/Lolita subculture,' Journal of Linguistic Anthropology, vol. 18, no. 1 (2008): 130–50, pp. 142–47; Yuniya Kawamura, 'Japanese Teens as Producers of Street Fashion,' in Current Sociology, vol. 54, no.5 (2006): 784–801, p. 784.
 Erving Goffman, La mise en scène de la vie quotidienne. 1. la présentation de soi, Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1973, p. 25.
 Goffman, La mise en scène de la vie quotidienne, p. 25.
 Skeggs, Class, Self, Culture.
 Andreas Reckwitz, 'Toward a theory of social practices. a development in culturalist theorizing,' European Journal of Social Theory, vol. 5 (2002): 243–63, p. 249.
 In cosplay communities around the world, choosing to cosplay a character of the opposite sex category is referred to as 'crossplay' (cross-gender costume play). In Japan, I have observed that the term crossplay is not well known nor used. Individuals refer to this simply as 'wearing women's clothing' (josō) or 'wearing men's clothing' (dansō).
 Alexis Hieu Truong, interview with Tetsuya, Tokyo, 2012.
 Alexis Hieu Truong, interview with Tetsuya, Tokyo, 2012.
 Patrick W. Galbraith, The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insider's Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan, New York: Kodansha International, 2009, p. 51; Matthew Thorn, 'Girls and women getting out of hand. the pleasure and politics of Japan's amateur comics community,' in Fanning the Flames. Fans and Consumer Culture in Contemporary Japan, ed. William W. Kelly, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004, pp. 169–87, p. 391.
 Gagne, 'Urban princesses,' p. 131; Kawamura, 'Japanese teens as producers of street fashion'; Roland Kelts, Japanamerica. How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S., New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006; Mari Kotani, 'Doll beauties and cosplay,' in Mechademia 2. Networks of Desire, ed. Frenchy Lunning, Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2007, pp. 49–62; Masafumi Monden, 'Transcultural flow of demure aesthetics: examining cultural globalisation through gothic & Lolita fashion,' New Voices, vol. 2 (2008): 21–40; Theresa Winge, 'Undressing and dressing Loli: a search for the identity of the Japanese Lolita,' in Mechademia 3. Limits of the Human, ed. Frenchy Lunning, Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press, 2008, pp. 47–63.
 Hiroki Azuma, Otaku: Japan's Database Animals, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009; Daliot-Bul, 'Asobi in action'; Emily Taylor, 'Dating-simulation games: leisure and gaming of Japanese youth culture,' Southeast Review of Asian Studies, vol. 29 (2007): 192–208.
 Kelts, Japanamerica; Antonia Levi, 'The Americanization of anime and manga: negotiating popular culture,' in Cinema Anime. Critical Engagements with Japanese Animation, ed. Steven T. Brown, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, pp. 43–64; Toyoshima Noboru, 'Longing for Japan: the consumption of Japanese cultural products in Thailand', Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia, vol. 23, no. 2 (2008): 252–82; Cathy Sell, 'Manga translation and interculture', in Mechademia 6. User Enhancement, ed. Frenchy Lunning, Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press, 2011, pp. 93–108.
 Larissa Hjorth, 'Playing the gender game. The performance of Japan, gender and gaming via Melbourne female cosplayers,' in Gaming Cultures and Place in Asia-Pacific, ed. Larissa Hjorth and Dean Chan, New York: Routledge, 2009, pp. 273–88; Hyeshin Kim, 'Women's games in Japan. gendered identity and narrative construction,' in Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 26, nos 2–3 (2009): 165–88.
 Ian Condry, 'Anime creativity. characters and premises in the quest for cool Japan,' Theory, Culture & Society, vol. 26, nos 2–3 (2009): 139–63; John Ingulsrud and Kate Allen, Reading Japan Cool. Patterns of Manga Literacy and Discourse, Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2009; Thorn, 'Girls and women getting out of hand.'
 Galbraith, The Otaku Encyclopedia, p. 52.
 Levi, 'The Americanization of anime and manga,' p. 60.
 Goffman, Frame Analysis. An Essay on the Organization of Experience, Boston: Northeastern University Press,  1986, p. 53.
 One possible exception is the annual World Cosplay Summit in Nagoya, as well as the various preliminary events that precede it. The event includes stage performances that are popular overseas, the founders of the World Cosplay Summit were inspired by the cosplay competitions that they saw at events like the Japan Expo in France.
 Fan-Yi Lam, 'Comic market: how the world's biggest amateur comic fair shaped Japanese dōjinshi culture,' in Mechademia 5. Fanthropologies, ed. Frenchy Lunning, Minneapolis; London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010, pp. 232–48, p. 233.
 Based on my own observations and interviews with informants, hall events and dance parties can gather anywhere between a couple of hundred layers to over 1,000, depending on factors like the popularity and size of the venue and weather conditions. Such events can be found on a weekly basis, although dance parties seem to happen less frequently than hall events.
 Layers also do cosplay outside of events, for example at home, renting space or simply going to various public locations after getting the proper permits to take pictures.
 Tristan S. Bridges, 'Men just weren't made to do this. Performances of drag at “Walk a mile in her shoes" marches,' Gender & Society, vol. 24, no. 1 (2010): 5–30.
 All quotes were taken from interviews with participants during the fieldwork. Pictures of participants were also taken by the researcher during events. All names have been changed to protect confidentiality.
 Alexis Hieu Truong, interview with Kaori, Tokyo, 2012.
 Alexis Hieu Truong, interview with Kaori, Tokyo, 2012.
 See Galbraith, The Otaku Encyclopedia, p. 171.
 The most expensive non-professional costumes I saw were reported to have cost over US$1,000.
 Pierre Bourdieu, La distinction, Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1979.
 Alexis Hieu Truong, interview with Kaori, Tokyo, 2012.
 Roger Caillois, Les jeux et les hommes, Paris: Gallimard, 1958, p. 111.
 Celia L. Ridgeway, 'Framed before we know it. how gender shapes social relations,' Gender & Society, vol. 23, no. 2 (2009): 145–60, p. 145.
 Alexis Hieu Truong, interview with Mami, Tokyo, 2012.
 Alexis Hieu Truong, interview with Daisuke, Tokyo, 2012.
 See Sharon Kinsella, 'Cuties in Japan,' in Women, Media and Consumption in Japan, ed. Lise Skov and Brian Moeran, Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1995, pp. 220–54.
 Alexis Hieu Truong, interview with Kaori, Tokyo, 2012.
 Alexis Hieu Truong, interview with Mami, Tokyo, 2012.
 Alexis Hieu Truong, interview with Tomoko, Tokyo, 2012.
 Alexis Hieu Truong, interview with Tomoko, Tokyo, 2012.
 Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, Boston: Beacon Press,  1971.
 See Gary Alan Fine, Shared Fantasy. Role-Playing Games as Social Worlds, Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1983; Anders Tychsen, Thea Brolund and Manolya Kavakli, 'Live action role-playing games. control, communication, storytelling, and MMORPG similarities,' Games and Culture, vol. 1, no. 3 (2006): 252–75; Denis Waskul and Matt Lust, 'Role-playing and playing roles: the person, player, and persona in fantasy role-playing,' Symbolic Interaction, vol. 27, no. 3 (2004): 333–56.
 Fine, Shared Fantasy; Waskul and Lust, 'Live action role-playing games.'
 George Herbert Mead, L'esprit, le soi et la société, Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1963.
 Erving Goffman, Stigma. Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, Engelwood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963; Goffman, La mise en scène de la vie quotidienne.
 Goffman, Stigma, p. 57.
 Goffman, Stigma, p. 105.
 Goffman, Frame Analysis, p. 8.
 Goffman, Frame Analysis, p.43.
 Alexis Hieu Truong, interview with Tetsuya, Tokyo, 2012.
 Alexis Hieu Truong, interview with Mai, Tokyo, 2012.
 Goffman, Frame Analysis, p. 52.
 Everett C. Hughes, 'Institutional office and the person,' in American Journal of Sociology, vol. 43, no. 3 (1937): 404–13, p. 409.