Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Cosplay Superheroes -- Fantasy Goes Dutch

We’re now nearing the end of an annual L.A. event called the Anime Expo. It’s a huge celebration of Japanese pop culture that unfurls in Downtown L.A.’s convention center for four days, ending on the Fourth of July. Because what could be more American than a festival featuring cartoons, videogaming, karaoke, and a chance to dress up as your favorite comicbook superhero? Angelenos, whose enthusiasm has made this the largest anime convention in North America, love the opportunity to show off strange outfits and revel in outlandish kitsch. 

Come to think of it, this passion for comic book culture is not solely American. When I recently got off the train in the Netherlands’ sedate capital, The Hague, I was prepared for sleek modern  buildings, quaint town squares, a royal palace, and tony embassies. The Hague is the home of the great Mauritshuis Museum (home of Vermeer’s “Girl with Pearl Earring”) as well as the World Court, so I anticipated a certain amount of gravitas. What I didn’t expect was a hotel lobby full of zombies, seven-foot warriors wearing costumes made of cardboard, and French maids with pink hair. It was, I learned, a gathering of mostly Dutch anime enthusiasts (some of them pretty long in the tooth), who gather each year for a cosplay weekend at some large convention hall. There were screenings, merchandise sales, and special appearances to entice them, but they spend most of their days hanging out and snapping selfies with their new friends. Some of them looked scary, but it was soon crystal-clear they were a harmless bunch. Mostly, perhaps, they came off as children who’d never quite grown up.

What is there about the urge for fantasy that makes the Dutch (normally considered a sensible group) dismount from their bicycles and indulge in fancy-dress? Some of those costumes can’t be cheap, and there’s also the cost of travel and lodgings to consider. My time in various Dutch cities also reminded me of the new passion for tattooing. As popular in Amsterdam as it is in L.A (or maybe even more so), tattooing seems to be one more way of seeking personal uniqueness by way of outrageous—even sometimes deliberately obnoxious--display.

Perhaps there’s something about modern life that is short on color and glamour. In many ways, despite some grim things in the news, we’re statistically safer now than in previous eras (I can’t imagine the Dutch rushing to single themselves out during the dark days of World War II). And so we crave fantasy that gives us a heightened sense of the drama of our own lives. That’s partly why we cling to the magical world of Harry Potter, as well as to the candy-colored manga at which Japanese animators excel.

I just finished spending the morning before the 4th of July exploring a fantasy escape-room along with members of my family. I’m not sure how long this escape-room fad has been around, but it’s fascinating to learn that it began in Russia, where escaping the dismal present is a long tradition. I hear that some of these elaborately-themed escape-rooms suggest a world that is somber and even bloody. Happily, my group entered the Wizards Workshop, which puts a definitely PG spin on the genre. To leave, we had to solve eccentric puzzles galore, but there weren’t a lot of grim surprises. But goodness! the world looked bright once we were finally back outside of the wizard’s lair. We’d had the fun of feeling ourselves inside a movie, just like Harry Potter and his crew. Next time I’m wearing a cape.

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