Interview: Joshua Adams and U.K. Li of Cosplayer Nation the Documentary
What do you think of when you hear “cosplay?” Do you think of weirdos in their basements? (I hope not). Do you think of anime? Sci-fi? Renaissance costume parties? Well, I got a chance to talk to Joshua Adams and U.K. Li about their documentary (and now community) Cosplayer Nation over Skype. Cosplayer Nation dives into the history of cosplay, stereotypes about cosplayers, and the community today.
Charline Jao (TMS): Can you tell me a bit about Cosplayer Nation and what it means to be a citizen of Cosplayer Nation?
Joshua Adams: Cosplayer Nation is a group of people that get together, who cosplay. To be a citizen is pretty much to have an open mind and to have a great view of the world, of course [laughs].
U.K. Li: It’s something that we didn’t think of when we made the documentary because when you’re making a documentary it’s like, “it’s a movie,” but here we are. Now, we’ve got 5 thousand people, or citizens, and also different groups who are joining. So yeah, just people who want to learn more about cosplay and just trying to give it a name. We expanded Cosplayer Nation from the documentary into what is now really is “a cosplayer nation.” People from America joined and suddenly we have people from South America and France and Russia.
Adams: We’re very open minded, we’re also very…we love to have people come in and ask questions. That’s what it really means to be a citizen, because if you think about it, cosplayers are really artistic and they love doing that sort of stuff. People that love to learn always love to broaden their horizons.
TMS: It seems like that first scene in saw in the preview was almost like National Geographic, the ways that people will talk about cosplayers. There aren’t a lot of really honest representations of cosplay, was the documentary a reaction to that?
Adams: I wanted to educate people, that’s what the documentary is about: education. Back in 2004 when I went to Boston for the first year, I always thought cosplay was an interesting subject. Well, it’s a little bit of a sad note for myself, but my mother passed away in 2010, and I was doing a lot of things to create something that would be educational and just to broaden myself and my horizons. I saw U.K.’s mockumentary called Transcendent 4 at a party and I thought maybe, since my mother had opened the door, my father, who was an artist–both families showed me a broad spectrum of humanity, of people–I would do something for my mother who passed away in April of 2010, something to broaden the horizon of other people because a lot of people in the media, like you said, don’t understand it.
Li: Yeah, and just to expand on that, when Josh and I met, as he mentioned it was at an afterparty of a movie I had made. It was cosplayer-involved (think of it as The Office meets cosplay)…but we just went with the idea and we decided to just go with it. Josh got the idea to make a documentary so we went from something that was clearly fake to something that was real–but it still involved cosplay.
Those first couple minutes you saw, where there’s that news footage, I didn’t think to put that in at first but some people gave us some clips and we kind of toyed around with “what if we did this” and “what if we did that,” and it is tough because how do you want people to perceive it? I guess we went with that because 1. a lot of people found it funny cause “oh, this stuff happened and here’s a playful way of putting it,” and some though “it’s too villifying, too hateful,” but I think, in the long run, as long as we showed it wasn’t all villifying, then people understood that this is sometimes how American media looks at cosplay. Then you look at the documentary and you see what it truly is. And, there are some other media sources, especially when we get to the SDCC and PAX East part where you see media that really adores and celebrates it.
TMS: Yeah, I definitely read that scene as funny. Especially when they said C-O-S-play, cause no one says that! What are some of the stereotypes about cosplay that the documentary wants to correct or explore?
Adams: A lot of people think cosplayers are people who live in their parent’s basements, cellar dwellers who just watch tons and tons of anime and read tons and tons of manga. That’s not true at all, but that’s what’s perceived. We interviewed one woman who still lived with her folks at the time and whose older sister didn’t understand cosplay completely. That’s actually in the documentary, and it just goes to show you how many people just either watch or read or see stuff on television and they perceive that as true. And like you said, c-o-s-play, that’s where it comes from. Or, they perceive it as positive in PAX like U.K. said, but that’s where you get those sort of perceptions you know like “‘Bahhhhh!’ Dungeons and nerds!” But we’re trying to break that wall.
Li: Yeah, so some of them off the top of my head, cosplayers are into sexual fetishes, though there is a certain side of that. Obviously there’s a certain subgenre of that, there are people who cosplay steampunk, people who cosplay as furry animals. The furries, that’s another one, people think all cosplayers are furries and there’s a whole stigma against that and we included that in there too–we talked to some furries briefly to add their say, since we didn’t want to just leave it at that. How American media, particularly one CSI episode, decided to make it national for everyone, about a murder at a furry convention and you hear their opinions.
Some other stereotypes I’ve seen, the basement thing, and also this is one I really find annoying: people thinking that cosplay is all just anime, and that’s it. It’s not–it’s actually, we’ve heard from people and they watched the documentary like, “Oh this is great I just wish it wasn’t so anime-orientated” and we do talk about some of the comic books and the sci-fi and the video games that are also very heavily cosplayable. In fact, the whole cosplay revolution was from sci-fi, Star Wars, Star Trek, even the horror conventions and comic books back in the day. One could go even further, so yeah it’s not just anime, but I think people think that because the word cosplay was created in Japan. I really wanted to break that out that it’s a whole bunch of things.
Adams: Some people think “oh they’re just cellar dwellers or they’re anime fans,” but most people in the world have cosplayed at some time. People don’t think about how halloween, for crying out loud, is a giant cosplay event.
TMS: Yeah, I remember there was a clip of a sports event which showed that when people are passionate about something, whether it’s anime, nerd things, or sports, they’ll dress up! Cosplay is a wide category. So I was also really interested in that, split between anime, more western comics, sci-fi, and all these groups with a different claim to “cosplay.” Is there a divide there?
U.K.: Yes, and it is very interesting when you, I’ll break it down into this based on my travels. You go to the anime conventions and the younger kids, college age to maybe teens, the comic conventions, I usually see slightly older ones, and then some sci-fi conventions you’ve got veterans, people who know the nook and crannies of sci-fi or some comics, physical machinery, its ins and outs, and things like that. So depending on what convention you’re at, and I don’t want to just categorize it like that, but it’s just my experience when I’ve been to so many conventions and Josh as well, there is a certain history that each person knowns, despite your age, what you know as “cosplay.” It’s definitely way different from when I had to rip VCDs and watch anime from someone’s VHS tapes. Now it’s on Hulu, it’s really accessible, and people who didn’t have that privilege they had to go through a lot of means.
Adams: I remember daisy chains ok? If you don’t know what a daisy chain is you’re a little younger than me. Back then that was the only way you could get Japanese animation. My mother used to watch Kimba the White Lion, and that was the 60s. They had Astroboy too, they thought it was a cartoon.
TMS: The terminology wasn’t really there yet.
Adams: Yeah, and there somewhat of a kind of divide, but there’s also times you’d walk into an anime convention and see Spider-Man or Batman, even nowadays the comic conventions, you’ll have younger kids, they’d be dressed up as characters from video games.
U.K.: The other divide I’ve found because of the older vs younger generation is because of how easy it is to get outfits nowadays–they didn’t have Ebay or Amazon back then–people had to make their own outfits. Now, of course, everyone’s got their own reasons why they have to buy something online. It’s not like it’s bad, we even talk about it in our documentary: there’s nothing wrong with buying your costume vs making it, it’s just a matter of maybe a deadline or I’m in school; but back then they didn’t have those options.
TMS: It’s interesting that there’s all this overlap of categories.
Adams: That’s not to say this is something that’s growing bigger though. Someone might do a more full-on investigation of this, but with our documentary hopefully we can educate people about this and people can see how they can do one or the other. You can buy it if it’s convenient for you, or you can decide to build it and learn from someone who’s been there for a while. We’re trying to bring the mix of genres and people together, break the boundaries, if you will. Cause I know some amazing people who are ten years old and they’ve built wings and put cardboard together and it’s great to see what people can do. These days with the internet, besides getting anime at your fingertips, you can get free tutorials and access. Hopefully, to bridge the gap.
TMS: So congrats on the awards and nominations, what had the reception been like for cosplayers or people who don’t cosplay? How have people reacted?
Adams: We’ve gotten a few criticisms but for the most part people have been positive in seeing the documentary. Cosplayers, when they watch it get astonished, they go, “I didn’t know this, I didn’t know that,” and they say, “I want to show my friends, my parents, I want to educate people.”
TMS: There’s something in there for everyone.
Adams: Yeah, there’s one scene of the movie, of a woman condemning cosplayers on camera where we’ve gotten some criticism, but that’s because some people thought the woman talking about the furries like “eww”–they thought she was scripted. And, no that was her! Those were her thoughts, what she said!
Li: And that happened by accident, but I’m happy we put that in because as a documentary you want to be-
Adams: As neutral as possible.
Li: Right, be very well rounded. We didn’t want to–we wanted to show the highlights and why people should get involved with it; but at the same time we wanted to show, and this goes back to those news reels, we wanted to show what other people had thought. And I thought it was a really real example. She talks about how they’re basement dwellers, jobless, otaku. People did think it was interesting that we added that in there. We also heard that the documentary inspired people to do cosplay of their own, there’s some who’ve told us they wanted to do their own documentariess on cosplay or something related to anime or nerdom, and some have told us the haven’t seen a doc about cosplay at this level until now. We feel very honored that we’ve gotten a lot of reviews and pots about this, we’ve gotten tremendous support. And the film festivals, big shout out to NYCC Super Week, GeekFest Film Fests based in CA, Tucson Comic-Con, and Super Geek Film Festival at Florida Supercon, where we won an award.
TMS: This took you, what, 3-5 years?
Li: About three years in the making, it was supposed to be done by the 3rd, but Heroes of Cosplay had just come out. Yaya Han, we got an interview with her at Dragon con the year that Heroes of Cosplay was just about to come out and we originally weren’t going to include that footage; but somehow it worked out thanks to Jim Gillespie, Shea Leigh, and DC Head of Media Relations Dan Carroll, and that delayed it another couple months.
TMS: You two have probably become experts by now, was there anything during the process you encountered that was especially surprising or stood out to you?
Adams: When we first started out, I knew that it dated back to “Cowboys and Indians” in the ’50s, and took place throughout the year with comics and Halloween parties, but didn’t really it actually dated back the late 30s. I had some knowledge of costume making since my dad was an artist–he used to make my Halloween costumes–but I didn’t know it actually went that far. It even goes back to the Renaissance where they’d dress as “asian culture.” I didn’t know what we conceive as “costume play” dated back that far.
Li: I didn’t realize that it was really sci-fi and also the 1930s and back, that there was such a rich history of America. I want to say that carefully, so Nobuyuki Takahashi, who made the term cosplay– a lot of people think of anime and cosplay, but they might not have realized they got that term because he was in America at a sci-fi convention called World Con, where he saw people dressed up. It was sci-fi, fantasy, and all kind of stuff. So, seeing that America had a history behind the term cosplay was really cool to see.
TMS: I feel like I’ve met a lot of really inclusive and welcoming cosplayers. It’s people who are just really passionate and want to celebrate things.
Li: Being a Christian, we believe in loving each other and accepting each other no matter what, and I really take that into my mantra whenever I’m going around traveling. We always want to hear people’s sides of things and to hear them out because we do this so often and you can’t be one-sided–you have to listen to all views. You’ll notice in our documentary and community we have quite a range of people.
Adams: Being Jewish myself, it’s funny, my religious aspect is somewhat–we’re Reformed, so we’re more open minded. We have Seders where you can invite people to celebrate a community…we will talk about anything and everything.
Li: It’s about “come on in and have some fun.” People don’t get shunned. It happens sometimes, you have those people who say, “You’re not a cosplayer if you don’t make your costume,” or, “I just do this for the money,” but mostly those naysayers are too few in between, they are a small, small part of the community.
Talking to Adams and Li was a lot of fun, and their love for the culture and general geek culture really shows in the documentary as well. The two are taking a short break but have plans for a sequel sometime in the future. They’ll have a showing in Nebraska soon, but our analytics show that there aren’t too many of you there so keep up with them on social media to stay informed about future showing and possible streaming in the future!
—Please make note of The Mary Sue’s general comment policy.—
Have a tip we should know? [email protected]