A hot, muggy day in mid-July might not seem the ideal time to be covered in fake fur, but 21-year-old Emily Hanby of Delaware, perched on a step outside of the Baltimore Convention Center, is bedecked in the bright red mask and wooly white pelt of the character San from the Princess Mononoke movies.
“We put up with a lot,” says Hanby, lifting up the mask to reveal a flushed, damp face. She is among the 26,000 registered attendees of Otakon, the annual convention for devotees of anime, or Japanese animation. There are subsets of people interested in video games, fantasy, and graphic art, many of who dress up as their favorite characters, necessitating rules like this, listed in the Otakon guidebook: “Prop weapons shall be limited to less than six feet six inches (6’6”) in height and less than 50 pounds in weight.”
The three-day convention includes panels of artists and experts, video game demonstrations, movie screenings, and concerts, but for most attendees, the real attraction is what insiders call “cosplay,” short for costume roleplay.
“I just come to walk around, take pictures, soak up the atmosphere,” says Tom Piccolo, a 22-year-old from Carlyle, Pennsylvania, who is attending his third Otakon. He’s spent two years of weekends creating his Biker Scout costume from the Star Wars movies. Strictly, speaking, Star Wars isn’t anime—“I’m a little out of my element,” he admits—but Otakon has come to represent something broader. It’s a place where obsessives of all stripes can come and be themselves—even if that means dressing up as somebody else.