Geek Mythology

Doron Halutz
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Doron Halutz

It wasn't Purim, just an ordinary hot June day, and the girls didn't just pile random shmatte on themselves. They had created the costumes themselves, in order to look as much as possible like Gohan and Bulma from the 80s TV series "Dragon Ball." "It's really old anime!" they said, surprised at the question, "a Japanese animated series that lots of children grew up with. It was aired in Israel on the Children's Channel."

The two, Tamar Yaron (16 ) and Adi Zilka (18 ) of Be'er Sheva, arrived with about 20 friends, almost all of them dressed as characters originating from Japanese comics and animation. It's called cosplay - a combination of "costume" and "play." "On Purim you can dress up as anything, but in cosplay the objective is to be a specific character, to dress like him and to 'play' him," explains Liad Bar Shilton. "You sit beforehand in front of the television series or the computer game in which he appears, in order to learn different positions, and there are also people who enjoy recreating scenes that appear on the screen."

Bar Shilton, from Tel Aviv, is wearing a blond wig and a very low-cut black tank top and jeans, which together are supposed to transform her into the character of Aya Brea, from the computer game "The 3rd Birthday" (part of the Parasite Eve series ). "I sewed the top and tore the jeans myself," she says. "As opposed to Japan, where the emphasis is on the acting, in Israel the emphasis is on doing it yourself. Deep down, I feel a need to apologize for coming in a simple costume. But I have another one in my bag, a Gundam uniform [from the eponymous - and numerous - anime series], so I can always change if I get dirty looks."

It's almost 90 degrees Fahrenheit outside with 300 percent humidity, but the cosplayers are wearing robes, wigs, uniforms, gloves - some sporting three layers. They've been in the park since morning, and only at about 4 P.M. do they slowly return to everyday clothes. "I'm dying from the heat," reports the Dragon Ball in the blue wig, Adi Zilka, who even made the shoes herself from an old pair of flip-flops. She began participating in cosplay in eighth grade, following in the footsteps of her older sister, "and since 11th grade I've been doing cosplay by myself. My first character was Allen Walker of 'D.Gray-man,' but I didn't know how to sew and it came out looking awful."

Is it an expensive hobby?

"Yes. We have a friend whose next cosplay will cost NIS 3,000. She's in 10th grade. But friends of ours who already have a normal job say, 'You're high school kids and you have no money, so we'll buy it for you.' And I also work in a bakery."

"A friend just bought me a wig," admits Yaron, "and we also use our pocket money. I haven't bought [normal] clothes for years because of cosplay." "If it's a dress with lots of fabric, it can cost several hundred shekels," says Bar Shilton, 26, who works as a substitute teacher in an elementary school, "but usually I don't spend much money on it. I sew a lot of cosplay costumes, not necessarily for special events."

The meetings take place once every few months. "At first it was once a year, but after we started it was impossible to stop," says Sveta Rod, 27, from Be'er Sheva, one of the founders of the local scene. "At these meetings, you try to bring the character to life and to present it as a real person. It gives you a sense of satisfaction," she adds.

The Israeli cosplayer community grew from the broader community of lovers of Japanese anime and manga (animation and comic books ). Over time, some of them - including Rod - founded AMAI, the organization for manga and anime in Israel. "I conducted a Japanese animation forum on the Internet," Rod recalls, "and I suggested having a Purim meeting where everyone would dress as an anime character. I saw there were such conventions abroad, and I wanted to do something similar." The initiative quickly gathered momentum.

"I've always loved to dress up, and at the age of 16 I discovered the world of Japanese animation," continues Rod, who has a bachelor's degree in management and marketing from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, and has just taken a break from her business administration master's degree studies at the Open University. She has four jobs (working as "technical support, in two cafes, and I translate English-Hebrew-Russian" ), but she still found time to come to the park dressed as Head from the series "Star Driver." Her ensemble includes a purple wig and blue-yellow-red jacket with a pointed collar. "Everyone has a hobby," she says. "Some collect stamps, some go out to pubs, and I spend my time on this."

The investment included sewing lessons: "I only started sewing this year - until then friends sewed for me or I went to a seamstress. When people sew for you, you're only a model. When you sew, you're involved in the process and connect to the character. And if you don't sew for yourself, you can't enter the competition."

The competition is one of the high points of the year for cosplayers, whose hard-core comprises a few dozen people. At the semiannual AMAI meetings, there's a competition involving individual, couple and group categories, in which contestants are judged on "achievement and implementation," according to Bar Shilton, who ran the competition last Purim. "Over 40 people registered in the individuals category, and another 20 as couples, and the hall was also filled with interested people without costumes," she recollects. Gleb Nebolyubov, 20, from Ashdod, teamed up with friends and they dressed as characters from the computer game "Tales of Vesperia." Together they took first place in the group category.

The affection for Japanese series is part of a broader interest in Japanese culture - from rock music to sushi, origami to cherry blossom celebrations, and even visits to Japan itself. "Cosplayers who hear that there's an event at the Japanese Embassy rush there immediately," says Nebolyubov. "We come in costume, and people ask to be photographed with us." Some even speak Japanese. "I learned a little when I was studying about East Asia, and before that with a teacher," says Bar Shilton, who has a number of tattoos in Japanese. The word "kizuna" is tattooed on her forearm - "it means bond," she says.

"I studied Japanese from the computer and TV series," says Nimrod Gold, 16, from Kadima. He and his twin brother Omri are brown belts in karate ("It's also Japanese" ). The twins came to the park dressed as Rikuo Nura from the manga series "Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan." Both have blue kimonos and Japanese wooden clogs (from the Nahalat Binyamin market in Tel Aviv ), and they differ only in their wigs, which were ordered on the Internet and cost - together with another wig - $150 ("including shipment from China, not so expensive" ). They sewed their costumes using guides "that we downloaded from the Internet. We learned to sew from a private teacher that our mother found."

Omri Gold: "It gives you a sense of satisfaction that you can be a character you love. The visual appearance puts you into the character. It's a character that is three-quarters human and one quarter demon."

"At night he's a demon, which is me now," explains Nimrod, "and during the day he takes the form of a person. And his personality also changes in the transition from day to night. We connected to him because he has two forms and we're twins and wanted to do something together."

How did you decide who the demon was and who the human being was?

Omri: "We just decided. There's nothing behind it."

Do your parents encourage you?

Omri: "Yes. They think we're developing through this because we create things by ourselves. Soon we're flying to the United States and we want to sew something in order to be photographed in the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco."

Talking of botany, Barak Harel, 24, from Kiryat Ono, is wearing a khaki shirt on which he sewed branches. "I'm a tree," he explains with a smile, "not a specific tree, but in every anime series there's a tree."

Harel is studying for a master's degree in financial mathematics at Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan. "I came to cosplay through people I met at other nerdy hobbies - war games with miniatures, when everyone has an army and we fight; and other role-playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons, in which everyone plays his character but you don't have to dress up for it. Cosplay is entertaining, and sewing is fun."

"Geek is the new cool," explains someone in the background. "The geeks from 'Glee' are the new cool, not us," answers Daria, another cosplayer, in a pink wig and a black tank top. "There's a hierarchy of nerds," she explains. Cosplayers freely admit that you won't find the most popular girl in class here: "Everyone who comes to this community feels deprived," says Rod. "He isn't popular enough in school, or can't find a direction in life. And here many people receive the confidence and popularity that they don't get in real life."

Clinical psychologist Emilia Perroni, editor of the book "Play: Psychoanalysis and Other Disciplines" (Yedioth Ahronoth ), suggests looking at the cosplay hobby in terms of "a search for acceptance." She compares it to someone who thinks he's regarded as a miser, and tries to fight the label by means of extravagant donations. In the same way perhaps that someone who feels invisible in everyday life is likely to search for ways to stand out and be seen - for example, by means of exaggerated costumes.

"It's something extravagant, which may involve a search for improvement," Perroni says, "because what is specific about costumes is the visual element." In addition, a costume makes it possible "to play with various parts of identity. It's curiosity about seeing the unfamiliar sides of our friends, because the costume shows what the person wants to be, or what he wants people to think of him. Let's take a person who dresses as a prostitute: He wants to show that he has vulgar sides and wants to see how others react, if he is accepted with those sides. You hide your familiar identity and play all the time with another aspect of identity, a dark aspect that you're ashamed to display. It's an interpersonal game and one inside your soul. And I assume it's done in a group because alone it's more bizarre, and the group provides confirmation that these sides of your personality are acceptable. If you go dressed-up alone in the street, the reaction is liable to be demonization, rejection. The group makes it possible to show these sides in a manner that contains them and provides legitimacy."

"It's fun to be another character. It's like being stupid, but without people saying that you're stupid," agrees Nebolyubov. "I like the acting part. After I immigrated to Israel I was in a theater group for eight years. I found a place where you could do stupid things, and it's socially acceptable."

"I used to think we were very strange," admits Bar Shilton, "but the more I get to know the people, the more I think we're more normal than many others. We're just looking for relationships with other people, and for some people it's easier inside a costume, which is his release. With all the weight on the costume, it's easier to approach someone new that way and to conduct a conversation. Without a costume I might be embarrassed."

Others enjoy playing around with gender roles by means of cosplay. Tamar Yaron likes to dress up mainly as male characters: "Female characters don't suit me, it's too feminine and I'm more of a tomboy," she explains. Nebolyubov says that his first cosplay was as a princess.

In spite of the almost automatic attribution of cosplay to the Japanese fashion and cultural scenes, it actually started in America, says Bar Shilton. "But the Japanese have a tendency to adopt things and introduce their own motifs so that it looks as though they invented it. Cosplay can also be done with non-Japanese things. On Purim I did cosplay for 'Sleeping Beauty.' There's also cosplay for 'Star Wars,' for Disney, for everything."

What happens if two cosplayers come to a meeting dressed as the same character?

Bar Shilton: "In the past there were quarrels, because the group is small. Today there's some coordination beforehand. When a new game comes out, for example, people rush to do those characters in order to be first."

Can you also do Hello Kitty and "Pokemon"?

"That's not as highly regarded, unfortunately, but in principle everything is legitimate."

Nebolyubov: "The most highly regarded characters are those that are hard to prepare. Maybe the creators want to abuse us deliberately. They only draw pictures, and afterward I have to figure out how to walk around with wings or a robe and with hair 1.5 meters high. It's a challenge."

The combination of natural shyness and the tendency to walk around in colorful costumes in public places, bragging afterward about the pictures they took, has made the Israeli cosplayers circumspect. The little media coverage they've received has tended to make them look ridiculous, or at least that's how they perceive it. And it's not only the press. Ordinary people also raise an eyebrow, judging their antics. "There are all kinds of comments," says Nebolyubov. "They say 'What, is it Purim?' And lowlifes, who maybe boost their self-confidence that way, ask 'Are you gay?' or call you 'screwed up' or 'a retard.' It's really strange to them, a boy in a colorful outfit who's wearing makeup. So it's hard for them, but what do I care?"

"We're used to it already," says Bar Shilton. "People look. The moment I'm in cosplay, nothing can embarrass me. I feel immune, even if people say things."

There can also be increased suspicion in the dating arena. "When I had a female partner for three years, I dragged her along to it," says Rod. "We would dress up as a couple, and she continues to dress up with me. On the other hand, I have a friend whose boyfriend would remark to her about it, and in the end they broke up. It's not a mainstream hobby but if you meet someone at a convention, you know he won't raise an eyebrow."

"I've had a girlfriend for almost two months," says Nebolyubov. "We met at one of the conventions. But I also had a girlfriend who was less enthusiastic, and when I suggested she come with me to a convention, she said 'No, it's embarrassing.' I also have friends who say it's strange, but they know that basically I'm all right."

The studio photographs on these pages were originally taken for Liad Bar Shilton's graduation project.