Last week I jumped into the unknown and attended J-Con Dublin, a conference dedicated to Japanese culture taking place in Croke Park.
Even though I hate exhausting the metaphor of Alice in Wonderland, I’ll follow through with it.
While we have arguably firmer connections with Japanese culture in Lafcadio Hearn as you can hear in my documentary about him, modern pop culture of Japan is incredibly popular here.
Audiences were a sea of pink, purple and and bright blue hairstyles, topping off costumes from anime, manga, and video game favourites.
They gave rapturous support contestants in a ‘pocky eating competition’. I asked rather lougly what a pocky was, prompting another audience member to shoot a rather bewildered look at me.
For anyone else who’s in the dark, a pocky is a chocolate coated biscuit snack popular in Japan.
I hedged my bets on the little man in the middle of the table because I sensed he had spirit and an insatiable desire for pockys. A risky bet? Maybe.
Especially considering that another contestant was coasting ahead in the middle stages.
However, he got cocky and began showboating, so my (person who ate like a) horse made up a lot of ground in the late stages and went home with the top prize by the slimmest of margins.
Apart from eating contests, it opened my eyes to a raft of cottage businesses. Trade stalls sold cosplay implements, original prints, handmade jewelry, even Japanese food.
Irish board game creators showed off their wares, including one that is based on making the best pun.
However the highlight of the event in the time I was there was the cosplay competition.
You got a sense of this when you walked around. The vast majority of attendees were dressed up as some character. Some of the outfits were phenomenal.
One of the contestants in the ‘professional’ category was dressed up in Japanese samurai armour all day for just a couple of seconds on stage.
The fact they even had a professional category for this shows how seriously people take this – judges came from as far as mainland Europe, and further.
Some of the ‘celebrity’ cosplayers there have a following that is well into the tens of thousands.
It’s an industry you could easily compare to fashion – but with some significant differences.
It feels much more gender inclusive than fashion. I’m probably leaving myself open to correction here, but I suspect more women would attend a fashion show in Paris than men.
At J-Con, the audience was a 50/50 split, of people of all ages.
And coverage of it in the media is much sparser, which I find surprising given the energy and the interest in it.
I spoke to the winner of the professional category, Irish cosplayer Eimear O’Connor who wowed audiences and judges alike with her Avatar Unipey cosplay, complete with spear.
Eimear’s outfit turned out spectacularly, and it was no mean feat as she explains: “The biggest challenge with Unipey by far was the body paint.
“I’ve made many mistakes in life, and deciding to design a costume that takes six hours of makeup before the con is definitely one of them!
“Originally I used some water based body paint and some sponges to turn myself blue, but I quickly bought an airbrush after only going through that ordeal once.
“I may invest in a body suit in future to save on ‘prep’ time.
The outfit doesn’t include shoes – but given everything else she overcame, it was the least of her worries: “I rarely end up outside at a convention but if I need to, I carry flip flops with me when in costume – I just throw them on and off I go!”
The cosplay competition Eimear won offered a cash prize, and this, she says, is a symptom of the growing cosplay movement in Ireland.
She said: “While I’ve only been around for the last 2 years, I’ve seen a larger number of con attendees cosplaying.
“I feel that this has been acknowledged by the con organisers as well, and as a result many competitions have begun to offer large cash prizes to encourage people to compete.”
Before her Unipey cosplay, she showed design prowess with her first “official” cosplay, Chell from Portal 2 back in 2015.
After that, she went for a more ambitious project in her Cynder the Dragon quadsuit, based off the Spyro videogame character.
“From experience, I much prefer quadsuits! It may seem like a strange choice but they’re the easiest ones in terms of con prep.
“There’s no need for makeup, so the only thing you have to do to be cosplay ready is suit up, simple as that!”
Travelling to different conventions can often be tough if you’ve got a heavy outfit like that to lug about, especially if it’s fragile.
Eimear has learned to take these things into account when she designs: “I would love to travel abroad to different cons, but I’ve yet to make a cosplay that travels easily.
“After Cynder, I made sure to take this into consideration when designing Unipey, which is why her spear can split into two segments for travel.”
Eimear wouldn’t be drawn on what’s next for Obsidian Dragon creations. But she did tell me this: “As for my next project, it’s a secret!
“I usually post vague hints about it, mainly because if it doesn’t work out then I won’t let anyone down if no one knew what it was going to be.”
So keep your eyes peeled.
Another cosplayer who attended J-Con is Emmet Bird, AKA Darkworlf Cosplay.
Emmet is an IT Management graduate by day, and a Cosplayer and costume designer by night.
He suited up in a futuristic set of body armour from the Halo videogames
The costume was like something you would see in a movie, complete with a moving machine-gun accessory and LED lights.
And it was all home-made: “My Halo Reach custom Noble 6 armor, took about 3 months of work to complete.”
“Though it was far more complex [than my first cosplay], I had enough experience working with foam and patterning that it was far easier than I had anticipated and I got it made quicker than I could have hoped.”
“The hardest parts on that build were incorporating the LED lights into the suit, something I had no experience in.
“Soldering is just hard for me, and the work I did is sloppy to say the least, the lights on one of my legs were flickering and knocking off all day as a result.
“They look pretty sweet when they work though!”
I can attest to that. They look pretty damn sweet.
Emmet got into cosplay after he was inspired by cosplayer Andy DFT after he saw his work online.
“I loved seeing peoples’ creations and I always thought I wasn’t artistic or creative enough to give it a go myself, but I was happy enough just looking.
“I caught the cosplay bug about 4 years ago after a Cosplayer/Youtuber I like, Andy DFT, made a tutorial for a Halo ODST.
“I followed his tutorial and made some of my own modifications to create my first ever cosplay, which has served me well these past years.
I wore it to my first ever con, MCM Dublin in 2016, and I’ve been cosplaying ever since.”
Cosplaying in Ireland can be very much a solo path, and until you go to an event like J-Con. You could be the only person you’ve physically met who shares your passion.
While none of Emmet’s friends got into their own cosplay, he says it piqued their curiosity and they always showed interest in his work.
“None of my friends were into doing their own cosplay, it’s not really their thing, but they were always interested to see my progress.
“My cousin was a huge help when I was making my first cosplay. Being an art student she helped me draw up templates and such.
“My girlfriend is extremely supportive of my cosplay, and always volunteers to be the bag carrier at conventions, and she’s always picking up after me, quite literally when my costume falls apart.”
The cosplay scene in Ireland continues to grow with more and more cons popping up every year, and Emmet tries to get to them all regardless of size.
He said: “I try to get to as many as I can, especially some of the smaller ones such as Celtic Con.
“The large ones like MCM and DCC are great and I love the atmosphere, but walking around in bulky armor is super hard when there’s hundreds of people walking around you.”
Emmet has his eyes set on the prizes further afield like San Diego Comic con and MCM London. However, like Eimear, he has a few logistical challenges to overcome before he goes there.
He said: “The biggest thing that’s been stopping me from going is ironically my costumes.
“They’re bulky and fragile, and I just can’t trust an airline to handle my luggage with enough care.
“Maybe one day I’ll at least venture over MCM London, hopefully in 2018!”
Emmet already has the idea for his third cosplay in mind, and this time he’s trying something new.
He revealed: “In a shocking turn of events, it’s NOT going to be another Halo build.
“My next cosplay is going to be a set of Kingsguard armor from Game of Thrones.
“It’s such a beautiful set of armor that you don’t see a lot of people rocking.
“So keep an eye out for that!”
You can check out DarkWold Cosplay on their Facebook page.
If you liked this article and want to explore more cosplayers, here are the recommendations from Obsidian Dragon Creations (Eimear) and DarkWolf Cosplay (Emmet)
Eimear said: “Stuckshocker cosplay and Eimscosplay, or Glenn and Eimear respectively, are two I’ve gotten to know well since 2016.
“Glenn’s ‘foamsmithing’ skills blow me away with each new costume (I’m convinced he might actually be a foam wizard).
“Eimear’s sewing skills are unbelievable; even a broken sewing machine didn’t stop her from finishing the ruffles in her Samus ballgown by hand (check it out, you’ll see what I mean!).
“Still, the two cosplayers I’ve known the longest were also the first I got talking to way back in 2015 when I was only just discovering cosplay.
“War Panda Cosplay and Dark Wolf Cosplay, or Chelsea and Emmet absolutely blew me away with the incredible level of craftsmanship of their costumes.
“Seeing what they were able to do really inspired me to strive to be able to create costumes as brilliant as theirs some day!”
Emmet said: “Andrew Cooke AKA Andy DFT is my biggest inspiration. I wouldn’t be a cosplayer if it weren’t for his tutorials.
“I’m also a huge fan of Bill and Brittany Doran of Punished Props, their stuff is amazing.
“Kamui Cosplay also have a ton of useful books for learning about foam work and electronics.
“And generally any member of the 405th, a Halo costuming community.
“And of course, the amazingly talented local cosplayers like Team Emerald Cosplay, Obsidian Dragon Cosplay and War Panda Cosplay to name a few, their stuff is always inspiring!”