The artistry of cosplay in S. Korea

Photos by Michael O’ Dwyer, COSIS, CSL
Photos by Michael O’ Dwyer, COSIS, CSL

The artistry of cosplay in S. Korea

by: Emma Kalka | . | .
published: October 02, 2018

To the outsider, cosplay could seem like a frivolous or odd hobby. People dressing up as their favorite game, comic or anime character. Going to conventions or doing incredible photoshoots. But for many cosplayers, foreign and Korean alike, it’s more than just that.

It’s a community. It’s an art. And for the lucky few, it’s a job.

But whatever it is to the individual cosplayer, it’s something that brings them joy and allows them to test their skills in makeup, prop making, costume design, photography and at times, even acting.

Professional Cosplay

Korea has several professional cosplay groups that promote themselves on Naver and Facebook. Their work varies. Sometimes it’s attending events for certain companies while dressed in costume, or posing for photoshoots.

Other times it’s manning a booth at a convention or event. Some groups specialize in specific looks – ranging from video game characters and large, armored costumes, to animation characters. Often the work depends on what the client asks for. Usually these groups will also compete both locally and abroad in various cosplay competitions, such as, the World Cosplay Festival here in Seoul, or the World Cosplay Summit in Japan.

CSL – Costume Stage Laboratory – is one such group. It was started in 2010, back when cosplay was not viewed too positively, according to one of its members, Park Jeong-hoon. At the time people who were part of other smaller cosplay groups came together to start a new group that would hopefully change that image.

Fellow member, Christy Bell Goh, believes Korean culture has contributed to the cause of cosplay’s negative image, and may even be the reason some people still don’t understand it.  Though, both she and Jeong-hoon agree, progress has been made.

“Cosplay is a Japanese hobby to a lot of Koreans. (And) Korea has this stigma against Japanese culture,” she said. “So, cosplay is Japanese culture–that’s why a lot of people don’t take to cosplay in Korea.”

Goh said that sometimes when they post photos on their Naver page – which goes out to normal people who don’t understand cosplay – they do sometimes get nasty comments and criticism.

“It’s quite painful,” she said. “We hope that people could be more friendly.”

The rest of the group added that they hope, through their efforts, more people will broaden their understanding of what cosplay is and that it’s more than just a Japanese hobby.

“Cosplay is a lighthearted hobby for people to watch. You are happy and you see people you like and pass it on,” she said. “We’re just having fun with the character and doing it correctly, so we have brought out the life in it.”

Negative attention or not, the group hasn’t let it stop them. CSL has had members represent Korea at the World Cosplay Summit (WCS) more than five times and has been invited to compete as the Korean national team and perform at the Asia Cosplay Meet three times. Goh has been among the representatives, twice.

The world of professional cosplay is not easy, so many of the members are either freelancers or they hold other jobs while working with CSL. However, that doesn’t detract from the level of professionalism that they bring to their work. Goh says they are constantly working to build up their skills.

“We actually put a lot of effort into our cosplay and our photoshoots. If you look at our photoshoots, they’re not like white background and pose. They tell a story,” she said. “We actually put a lot of thought into the whole photoshoot process. We should have this kind of pose. And we should have a storyline. And then we do post-processing. So a lot of effort and concentration is put into it. So it’s quite hurtful when people say its rubbish and ‘You guys should stop cosplaying.’”

When the group started, Goh said they did a lot of “League of Legends” (LoL) cosplays – mostly because the members love the game so much. They did it so much so, that as CSL built a name for itself, it became known for its LoL cosplays. Even now, they still mostly focus on game characters, though when it comes to paid gigs, it’s up to the client.

Another group called COSIS consists of both professionals and hobbyists, which started in 2015. Executive of the group, Song Kyung-hwan, manages the models, but said among their 10 members, they have those that only model, those who only work on design, and those who do both. Also, some members do mostly paid events while some just participate for fun.

“Nowadays, it’s (cosplay’s) pretty popular. Celebrities are getting into it. Three to four years ago, it wasn’t so popular. Because these politicians and entertainers, these notable people, are doing it, it became popular,” he said.

While they do cosplay for events and TV shows, they also take part in competitions and have members who are invited to be guest panelists or judges at conventions overseas a few times a year. Member Gong Kyung-min has been cosplaying since 1999. He goes to conventions for professional purposes once or twice a year. He also attends two to three competitions a year, and has been a panelist or judge at 10 overseas conventions.

Their cosplay of Winston – a giant armored gorilla from the game “Overwatch” – won them a trip to Blizzcon, put on by Blizzard Games, in California. According to Kyung-min, it was one of his most memorable cosplays to date, especially since he was the one wearing it and had on stilts.

“It (the costume) was really difficult to make and there are a lot of stories behind it. We got short notice and were supposed to do two characters, but we spent most of our time on the main one – the gorilla. It’s massive,” he said.

Winston is not the only massive costume the group has made. Kyung-hwan said some of the more difficult cosplays can take the group two to three months to complete with multiple people working on it, while the easier ones can be finished in as quickly as week. Last year alone, COSIS put together 30 large costumes.

Kyung-min and Kyung-hwan are both two of the members who work with COSIS full-time.

“In order to do it in a more professional way, we quit our jobs to focus on this,” Kyung-min said. “I was a graphic designer and a planner at a game company.” He continued, saying that the group’s members all come from various professional backgrounds – some are officer workers while others are students or freelancers.

And while they do many small events throughout the year, Kyung-min said it’s the competitions that they really enjoy.

“We are really excited to have fun when it comes to competitions, when we represent Korea and get invited,” he said.

Foreign Cosplayers

Cosplay is not just limited to the Korean professional groups. Over the years as more foreigners have moved to Korea, a burgeoning foreign cosplay community has started up, with a few groups on Facebook starting, including the Bundang and Seoul Cosplay Club.

Some cosplayers, like Dalila Fontanella, brought their love for cosplay with them. She’s been cosplaying for about seven or eight years, starting in her home country of Italy and continuing here in Korea. She said she got into cosplay through her sister and started attending conventions first.

“I met a lot of people, so I really enjoyed every convention. Of course it was hard making my own dress alone, but sometimes it was good to hear from other cosplayers how they make their cosplay,” she said.

For her, the joy of cosplay is the experience.

“Getting in character is more difficult than making its dresses. So I like the moment when I have to ‘lose’ my personality as cosplay makes me happy,” she said.

For American Elizabeth Recharte, it was the love of a character that got her into cosplay.

“I adore ‘Batman the Animated Series’ and dressing up for Halloween. I am from California and when I went to Comic Con for my first time it was like meeting the love child of my favorite things,” she said. Elizabeth started cosplaying as the classic version of Harley Quinn after “Batman: Arkham Asylum” was released in 2009. She said the character is by far her favorite.

“She is absolute madness. The manic laughter, her deadly flirtations, her temper. I’ve always enjoyed acrobatics and it’s so fun to carry around the ridiculous props,” she added.

For others, Korea is where they finally get to fulfill their cosplay dreams. Chris Harris, from the U.S., said he hasn’t participated in any cosplay events yet – back home there weren’t many opportunities as most conventions were too far away or too expensive for him to make the trip – but it’s something he’s always wanted to do and he is currently working on his first to wear at the upcoming Comic Con Seoul.

“I either found myself too busy or was unsure of whether or not I should give it a try. I finally got tired of psyching myself out and just pushed myself to just do it,” he said.

“There’s something special about cosplay where, by extension of the character you’re going as, you can portray inward qualities outwardly. Perhaps a character is heroic and selfless, maybe brash and reckless or even a pervy ecchi overlord. If those traits align with qualities you find within yourself, it’s a great medium for expressing yourself,” he said.

Korean Conventions

Currently there are about five large conventions that take place in Korea that cosplayers usually attend including, Comic World, PICOF and Bucheon International Comic Festival, as well as World Cosplay Festival, a major cosplay competition.

While they happen quite frequently, according to the members of CSL, the conventions come with a lot of regulations on cosplay. Goh said G Star, a major game convention, won’t even allow cosplay anymore unless you are a paid model working at a booth. Others limit the size of props and what you can wear.

“Like, you can’t be over 2 meters tall. Your props can’t be over a certain size. Then you cannot have wings. You cannot wear your lens or wig outside the event if it looks ‘abnormal’ and has a striking color,” she said. “Right outside the event you must be a totally normal human.”

Other members added that cosplayers can’t show too much skin and if they want to do a more revealing outfit, they must wear a skinsuit. Some, like Comic World, have even banned cosplays from certain shows, such as Attack on Titan, as there were too many incidents of fights breaking out after people bumped into each other and damaged props or costumes.

“Basically because Comic World, whenever an incident happens, they started adding regulations,” Jeong-hoon said.

Goh added that even events geared specifically for cosplay have a ton of regulations.

“There are rules against how heavy your prop is. Like the total shouldn’t be more than 40 kg. So if you want to do massive stuff, you have to make sure they are really light,” she said. “There’s a lot of regulations for the WCF as well. So that also limits the competition scale.”

She added that because of these limitations, it has restricted the variety of outfits that people can see at conventions.

Dalyla commented that Korean conventions are smaller than what she is used to in Italy, though she loves all the cosplayers.

“Everything is different from Italy. Location, cosplayers, cosplay races,” she said.

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