Should your hobby become your life?

Complex AgeTitle: Complex Age
Genre: Drama
Publisher: Kodansha (JP), Kodansha USA (US)
Artist/Writer: Yui Sakuma
Serialized in: Weekly Morning
Translation: Alethea Nibley & Athena Nibley
Original Release Date: June 14, 2016

I have been both a comic reader and a cosplayer for quite a few years now and surprisingly these two hobbies rarely cross. It’s true that I cosplay quite a few characters from comics but I rarely come across any kind of comic (manga, webcomic etc) about cosplay, and those that I have found have been less than impressive. I usually attribute this to the fact that most comic book artists aren’t also cosplayers, both are very time-consuming hobbies after all, but whenever cosplay does come up in a story I usually feel like the creators just don’t “get it,” like how cosplay in Genshiken is meant more as a way for the manga-ka to show off what series are popular at the time than to provide insight into the characters with their costume choices. In these stories you don’t have long sequences showing the characters making or shopping for the outfits, complaints about how hard it is to get dressed etc, it’s just window dressing for a larger tale.

Complex Age is a story where it feels like manga-ka Yui Sakuma understands cosplay and understands me.

Nagisa is on the older side for cosplay; she’s 26, has a job that doesn’t seem to involve a lot of overtime or outside commitments, and cosplay is her main hobby. Nagisa does cosplay from multiple fandoms but it’s clear that her true love is for the children’s magical fighting show “Magical Riding Hood Ururu.” Nagisa does a stunning cosplay of the main character Ururu; she painstakingly tailors her outfits to create the illusion of anime character physiques and she’s even taken a posing class for better photographs. Nagisa also isn’t alone in her adventures; she has true friends that she’s met through cosplay and while Nagisa is snippy and bossy at times she also channels this into educating and helping newer cosplayers.

I’m an American cosplayer so this story doesn’t perfectly reflect the cosplay scene that I’m familiar with but a lot of the other little details matched up with what I’ve heard about the Japanese cosplay scene and many of the moments are universal as well. There are the those unkind, spontaneous thoughts you have when you see an imperfect cosplay, the people who cosplay in a group more to be with their friends than because they have an undying love for the series, and that person who would really be a dead ringer for character A but they really want to do character B instead because they just like their personality better.

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The “role-playing” part of cosplay comes up more subtly in this story. Nagisa cosplays Ururu a lot because she likes being her and the attention she receives. Sometimes she even likes the negative attention! When another character messages Nagisa telling her about a very explicit up the skirt photo Nagisa just laughs and says “this is the tax we pay” and this twisted mindset makes a little bit of sense. For Nagisa this “tax” means that she’s still “good enough” to warrant the attention, she can still convince other people that she is Ururu. Conversely, it’s a comment Nagisa overhears about how she’s “too old and giant” (ie, nobody should be paying any attention to her) that really tears her down.

That idea brings me to the one worrisome part of the story (other than the characters saying you can dye a wig by boiling it for two hours; please do not boil even your heat-resistant wigs for this long); this volume also includes the original Complex Age one shot which is a radically different story about an aging lolita who, despite having good friends in the community just like Nagisa has in hers, gives up the fashion at the end. Every time I see a story with this harsh ending, that you must be adult and professional even in your most private moments, it makes me cringe, and for a story that feels this true to life seeing an ending like that feels like an attack from within the fandom itself.

In some ways cosplay isn’t very new at all — it originated at Worldcon in 1939 — although it was only after several decades of being kicked around around the world that it has arrived at its current form. And that current form is far more recent than most people seem to realize. I recently saw a cosplayer posting photos from their first con in 2004 and the level of cosplay looked nearly identical to what I saw at my first con in 2008. I don’t believe that cosplay is a fad but I do believe that the fandom isn’t quite sure how to age with it. Ut’s far more common to see people drop the hobby altogether due to real world interference than say, become more involved in historical costuming, quilting etc. This feels especially odd as actors embrace their “nerdy” sides and other people have turned their nerdy interests into careers by being Youtube stars and such, although few other hobbies are as obviously and irresolutely nerdy as cosplay. Cosplay is sometimes the hobby where you vie for attention and simultaneously hope no one recognizes you at all, which it looks like Nagisa will be dealing with in the next volume.