Cosplay is one of the cornerstones of pop culture celebration. Whether it’s science-fiction, fantasy, western, or eastern animation, it feels like you don’t have to go far nowadays to come across people that wear their love for these mediums on their sleeves in a very literal way. Granted, in my passive research, a lot of media use cosplay as an extension of nerd fandom or otaku culture, but very rarely is it seen as a focus of cultural significance in and of itself. So as someone who has cosplayed for roughly the past decade with a fluctuating involvement in the larger cosplay community, do I think the text accomplishes that goal of proper focus and attention? Yes I do and with flying colors to boot.
The best way to describe Cosplay: The Fictional Mode of Existence would be that it is an amazing outline for a cosplay 101 class that could be taught in a college semester. Yes, I understand that to some people that might sound silly because there can’t possibly be that much informed history and social analysis to actually teach a class over an extended period of time…right? I will admit I was one of those people. Of course I knew cosplay had to have started somewhere and that the way things are now probably wasn’t the way they were 20 or 30 years ago. However, the sheer extent to which things have evolved that got us to this point shocked me to my very core with questions that I didn’t even think could be asked. A speculative yet thorough look at the origins of cosplay and spaces that celebrate them? Oftentimes across different cultures and locations? Check. An extensive breakdown on the parasocial relationship that cosplayers have with their performances as well as the costumes they wear as a form of love and artistic expression? Check. How the evolution of cosplay As a social construct correlates to how collective people evolve as a culture? Check.
This is the most scholarly and straightforward approach to the idea of cosplay that I have ever seen. Granted, I didn’t look very far for media like this, but I feel like this book covers so much ground and then some, you could walk away feeling like you just took an extensive course on how interesting this medium is from an angle where you don’t even have to cosplay yourself. I feel like I could write half a dozen pages on some of the interesting passive and direct influences that the very concept of cosplaying has had on society and vice versa. I don’t feel confident in proclaiming whether or not Lunning considers themselves a cosplayer or as a part of the larger cosplay community. But the sheer love and respect displayed right out the gate in this book feels like it also deserves equal recognition.
Although I will say I’m curious if the author had an extra year or two to include how recent difficult events have affected the cosplay The community as well, as COVID-19 not only shuts down a majority of the events that are discussed in this book, but in my personal experience, it has also given life to a much more prominent online culture born from people who shoot from home. That’s the funny thing, things are always changing and cosplay has always sort of adapted and grown with the times dating back to before the term cosplay was even developed. There was one sentence towards the end of the book that really stood out to me “Cosplaythen, is an art form that may or may not last, but even if it does not, it will always-as it does now-evolve.”
Thankfully the book doesn’t try to present itself as some kind of definitive Bible on how cosplay works. It also avoids purporting any definitions revolving around the culture or history above others as some accounts of events can be conflicting and different places might consider different angles. If anything, the book makes it apparent very early on that it is the culmination of various different thoughts, opinions, and definitions from dozens upon dozens of people who could give even a passive insight into this evolving culture. This didn’t just include cosplayers old and young but also photographers, historians, scholars, performers, writers etc. all of these are very well cited and documented at the end of the book in a way that is easy to refer to with proper citations (although I will admit reading this in PDF form was a little difficult since I had to constantly scroll back-and -forth. Definitely get a physical copy.) The book is even filled with pictures from the variety of different conventions, plays, and countries in order to add further context to some of the key examples that are talked about.
Unfortunately, that overall thoroughness and passion for detail might end up doubling as the book’s greatest weakness. This is not a book that I think most people could reasonably absorb in a short amount of time. Not only does the text cover a wide spectrum of times, cultures and fandoms, but it also presents that information in an extremely direct and scholarly way. Obviously given the overall intention and subject matter, such density is to be expected. However, this even bleeds into the sentence by sentence prose. Granted, I do not have the most astute attention span, but when certain sections can be filled with sentences that go on for 5 to 6 lines at a time, it’s easy to get lost and not properly absorb the sheer amount of detail without a couple of reads. None of this is helped by the fact that reading this as a cosplayer can sort of be a double-edged sword because while you can appreciate the information that is not commonly known to a lot of people, some sections can feel redundant in how they explain or set up events that are already obvious to those who have had those experiences. Looking back, I do think some sections could’ve been a bit more condensed or perhaps there could’ve been a more efficient way of easing readers into the sheer bulk of history that is about to be dropped on them.
However, the fact that I found a historical and cultural analysis of cosplay overwhelming is kind of an accomplishment in and of itself. Every section was filled with new information that only made me grow more and more respect for the medium. It was amazing seeing this almost logical progression of cosplay culture from the early days until the present day and a culture that is still evolving as I am writing this review now. If anything, this book made me feel proud to be a cosplayer at a time when circumstances make certain forms of expression more difficult than they used to be. I have nothing but respect and appreciation for the amount of love, thought, and care that went into this book. You might have to set aside a good amount of time to go through it, but I definitely think this is a must read for those curious about cosplay or for those who are at all interested in where things got started or want to theorize on where things might go next.