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Cosplaying transforms fans into their favorite characters

Courtesy of the San Francisco Anime & Cosplay Festival
Famous cosplayers Reika and Cheru at the San Francisco Anime & Cosplay Festival


I’m at Joann Fabrics in Colma, looking for fabric and materials with my friend Kasey. We’re searching for the right materials to make our costumes.       

I’m a cosplayer. That means I dress up on more days than just Halloween. Typically, we’d choose a character from a video game or TV show we like. I really enjoy becoming someone that isn’t myself, usually a character from a series that I have an emotional connection to.

After we get our materials, we head home. Kasey and I cut out the pieces of fabric and begin sewing them together. I’m making an outfit worn by Rui Ninomiya from the anime "Gatchaman Crowds." I wanted to cosplay him because he’s unique, because he wants to improve society — and because he cross-dresses to disguise himself.

The word "cosplay," combining “costume” and “play,” was coined in Japan — but cosplaying actually started here in America, back in 1939, at an early science fiction convention in New York. A couple dressed up as characters from an H.G. Wells film called "Things to Come."




Kiba Shiruba has been cosplaying since 2011, and from it has learned new skills and new self-esteem.

“I used to hate the way that I looked,” says Kiba. “But through cosplay, I learned to love certain parts of me. For example I didn't like the way my eyelids worked. But it forced me to learn to do my own makeup. I'm more willing to bare more skin when I'm in cosplay versus when I'm not. Like I've cosplayed Black Rock Shooter and that's basically wearing nothing.”

Right now Kiba is planning on cosplaying as Mila Babicheva from the anime "Yuri on Ice." But cosplaying doesn’t just allow people to get comfortable with their looks.

“I like the act of making things and being able to wear it and say that I made it,” explains Kiba. ”And like being able to be able to show off my craftsmanship to other people. And getting to know other people that are also really good at making things.”

In addition to the actual cosplayers, photographers also are a critical part of the scene. Without them, cosplay wouldn’t have spread so widely. Carl Valencia is one of the amateur photographers in the local cosplay community.

“When it comes to cosplay photography,” he explains, “it was mostly a friend's thing. It was a great way to meet a lot of people. Photography itself is kind of a neat art form.”

Each photographer has a different style, some specializing in storytelling, others in shooting portraits. But they all come together at anime events and conventions.



Big events, such as Fanime, SacAnime, Kraken Con, HydraCon, and Anime Destiny, are bigger and last for days. The San Francisco Anime & Cosplay Festival is a smaller festival that Kiba, Kasey and I are preparing for.

This cosplay festival takes place in San Francisco’s Japantown every year. Yoko Hiji is the executive producer of the event and she’s also a cosplayer herself, but she’s been too busy to make costumes herself.

“I don't have that much time to do it now,” she explains. “I used to make my own costume, but now I buy them.”

The festival was started when Japantown was looking for a new way to bring younger people into the neighborhood. But cosplaying here in America is different than in Japan. Yoko says that cosplayers here are more open about it.

“America is very accepting of cosplays and costumes,” she explains. “So many cosplayers actually cosplay from home to the venue. You get to see cosplayers at the intersection, cosplayers driving, cosplayers at the stores and restaurants and stuff. But in Japan, the hobby of cosplay is something that should be kind of secretive. So the conventions usually have dressing rooms and dressing areas available.”

Even though she puts on the event, she doesn’t have as much cosplay experience as the cosplay senpais. Those are cosplayers that have had many years of experience. “Most of the cosplay senpais we have, have more than 10 years of experience. I don't think I've hit 10 years.”


It’s the day of the event, and I’m excited to finally see my cosplay friends I haven’t seen in months! As usual it’s crowded, and cosplayers are all over Japantown.

I’ll be meeting the two cosplay guests of honor, Reika and Cheru. I’m super nervous to see them face to face. I’ve been looking up to them since I started cosplaying, always striving to reach the skill level that they’re at.

They both introduce themselves as Yoko Hiji is translates for me. Reika is a cosplayer from Osaka, and it’ll be her third time coming to this event. This will be Cheru’s first time coming here. I asked what they enjoy most about cosplaying.

“I enjoy shopping for fabric,” says Reika.

“I really enjoy being able to connect with friends that have the same interests,” explains Cheru.

As I walk around the festival I see so many cosplayers, all with their own style. Some people have casual outfits on while others have full-blown cosplays. There’s a stage show going on that features “crossplayers” — cosplayers who crossdress.

One person is dressed as Yuna from the "Final Fantasy" video-game series. They explain why they’re dressed as Yuna: “Because she kills god, her boyfriend's imaginary, and she goes on a lesbian road trip”

Everyone looks really good. All the cosplayers’ costumes are very clean and appealing to the eye. There’s a character from the anime "Steins;Gate" — he’s wearing a pink maid dress and has a pink twin-tail wig. And there’s 2B from the game "Nier" carrying a white sword and wearing a black dress with intricate designs lining the skirt.

At the end of the day, there are only a few people left in the plaza. As the festival comes to an end, people slowly make their way out of Japantown. Cosplayers take off their wigs, their makeup and their costumes. It’s back to the workshop to begin working on their next cosplay.

Ellie Herbert was part of KALW’s high school summer internship program in 2017. She is a student in the San Francisco Unified School District at Phillip & Sala Burton High.