The film begins with a bit of disorientation—an institutional building, a cacophonous crowd, a group of men in soldier uniforms. Was that man carrying a giant sword? A woman with striking blue raspberry hair walks past, as the camera weaves through the crowd following a group of three young Hmong women up an escalator to a room where they transform themselves. In the next scene they emerge as a trio of characters from a Japanese animation, or anime.
The mini documentary, Never Seen Before, begins on the ground at the 2012 Anime Detour, a convention of “anime, manga, and Japanese culture” held in Bloomington, Minnesota. Shot on a small handheld FlipVideo camera, the verité effects of a jerky camera, fluorescent lighting and low quality sound evoke the immediacy of a vacation video and are disorienting at times. Yet, the pageant of fantasy characters, dressed in colorful costumes and often toting exotic gear, that parade in front of the camera are undeniably interesting. Curiosity grows as the camera captures costumed crowds milling around the Hilton Hotel talking with one another, participating in various activities, and taking lots and lots of photos. Like an anthropologist of some exotic ritual, the filmmaker Ms. Kazoua Thor, a senior East Asian Studies major at Hamline University, sets out to learn as much as she can about the way a group of Midwestern Americans of various backgrounds practice Japanese popular culture through cosplay.
Cosplay, a Japanese neologism created from the words costume and play refers to dressing up as a character from Japanese comics, film animation or video games—often in groups at a convention or other social event. It is equal parts performance art, dress up, and role playing. While costumes can be purchased, as Ms. Thor’s documentary illustrates, cosplay enthusiasts are very creative and industrious in the ways they fashion costumes—bricoleurs of the second-hand and masters of the glue gun.
Throughout the film she introduces us to a number of cosplayers and we get to watch as they describe their costumes and their hobby. The subjects of the film come across as honest, lovable folk who impress with their commitment to an activity so filled with wonder. I particularly enjoyed one cosplayer who tells stories of making a chainsaw sword larger than he is tall, and describes how awkward he felt when strangers started coming up to him to hug his character. His cosplay goal: to create elaborate costumes “never seen before” in Minnesota.
As we watch the cosplayers talk about the details of fashioning their costumes and the characters they dream of playing, Ms. Thor cuts to images of the fantasy characters and the players in costume. The effect of the montage is fascinating even if you have know idea who the characters are. Most impressive to me is that none of the characters the cosplayers choose from the vast pantheon of Japanese pop culture ever appear to repeated. For the entire length of the 36-minute documentary we are introduced to a seemingly endless stream of characters from comics, anime and video games.
The most interesting part of Never Seen Before comes at the end when, after really getting to know some of the cosplayers, the film begins to record the motivations for their hobby in their own words. For some it is the healthy practice of a rich fantasy life, for others it is an entertaining escape from everyday life, for yet others the mythos of manga offer imaginative narratives of ideal human interactions. Japanese popular culture offers unintimidating access to places where heroes still dwell. By the end of the film, I wanted more.
Rather than a written thesis for her final senior project in East Asian Studies, Kazoua decided to take a chance this semester and try something entirely new. The fact that she has never worked with video before shows through at times in this documentary. What impresses me most, however, is how well she established rapport with the folks she interviews, and how her final project demonstrates a genuine respect and care for its subjects. I really enjoyed advising her on this project and hope that in future years some ambitious senior might be interested in doing a similar project.
Here is Kazoua’s documentary film about Cosplay. I hope you enjoy it as much as I have!