Cosplay Culture and Presidential State Dinners: Matsuricon 2018 vs. 2019

by Laila Winters

Nestled in the heart of downtown Columbus, Ohio, the Greater Columbus Convention Center is a massive 1.8 million square foot facility. With its numerous exhibition halls and ballrooms, overhead skywalks to several nearby hotels, and its beautiful water fountains that serve as stellar  backdrops for photoshoots, Columbus’ primary convention center is the perfect home for Matsuricon, an annual anime convention hosted at the end of every summer. 

This past weekend was my third time attending Matsuricon, and as always, this convention did not disappoint. Dressed as Ash and Pikachu from the popular TV show Pokémon, my girlfriend and I wandered the halls among thousands of cosplaying anime fans, their costumes far more intricate than ours. 

For those unfamiliar with cosplay, I often describe it as “Halloween in August” to our Lyft drivers. Although it was known to North Americans as “costuming” in the 1930’s, the term “cosplay” was coined by Japanese reporter Nobuyuki Takahashi in 1984 after he attended Worldcon in Los Angeles. Derived from the words “costume” and “play,” to cosplay simply means to dress up in costume as a fictional character. 

Cosplays: Raven (@ladychocobo) on Instagram, and Starfire (@midgarrose on Instagram) from Teen Titans.

While Matsuricon (“Matsuri” meaning festival in Japanese) is welcoming to cosplayers from every genre of fiction, the convention finds its roots in Japanese anime and manga. Popular anime includes My Hero Academia, Pokémon, Sailor Moon, Naruto, and Dragon Ball Z. There’s always a Deadpool or two hiding around every corner, but you’ll most often find cosplayers dressed to impress in costumes from their favorite Japanese media. 

Day one of Matsuricon is always the most laid back for us: we wake up early, dress in a casual cosplay, and head to the convention center to buy our weekend badges. This year, as we were waiting in a slightly jumbled line (“Pre-reg over there, everyone else over there!” “The lines of the floor don’t make sense!”), I thought back to 2018, a Matsuricon that was one for the books. 

Not because the cosplayers were at the top of their game or because Jen and I were tired and anxious, but because President Trump was hidden somewhere in the building, preparing to host a state dinner. Protestors were rallying outside, shouting across the street because they weren’t permitted on the premises, and cosplayers were lined up at a prop check, multi-colored zip-ties wrapped around props that passed security’s inspection. 

Cosplay and cosplayer: unknown.

But that year, as we waded through the crowd dressed as characters from my novel (Astraethea) nothing felt too off-kilter. We knew the Secret Service was among us, and I remember looking for wires in people’s ears. We’d discussed the night before what we’d do if things got out of hand, and we’d mapped our exits from the convention center. But despite cosplayers wearing horrible Trump masks, all was calm on the floor, Trump’s dinner guests the only clue that something else was going on. They scurried through masses in black dresses and suits, eyeing cosplayers like we were the ones out of place.

This past Friday (August 16th, 2019) went off without a hitch. Jen and I raided the Dealer’s Room and Artist Alley, our favorite part of any convention. We spent a great deal of time browsing through novelty anime items and handmade jewelry, and by the end of the day we’d bought our fill of Pokémon, She-Ra, and Sailor Moon merchandise. 

Crocheted Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune owls from a wonderful vendor in the Artist Alley, 
Yarn Goddess Cosplay

Day two of Matsuricon is always far more hectic, but it’s no less fun than day one. People bring out their best and biggest costumes, and on Saturday, Jen and I debuted our Sailor Moon and genderbent Tuxedo Mask cosplays. But this year, we had ourselves a tagalong, and my seven-year-old niece (known as “M” on Twitter) accompanied us to the convention center dressed as Chibi Moon, Sailor Moon and Tuxedo Mask’s daughter-from-the-future in the show. She basked in the attention we received just moments after walking in the door, and we were stopped all day by con-goers wanting to take our photo. 

Sailor Moon, Tuxedo Mask, and a spritely seven-year-old before Matsuricon wrecked us.

Just like her two favorite aunts, M enjoyed the Dealer’s Room and Artist Alley. She was locked and loaded with birthday money, and she was determined to spend every cent of it. We encouraged her to buy most of her trinkets from the Artist Alley, and while M was browsing over the tables, we came across Rabharta Creations. Listed as “Nikki” on her business card, M was overwhelmed by her sparkling resin art.

While M was picking up trinkets and setting aside what she liked, Nikki and I discussed the show Sailor Moon and how the character of Sailor Uranus helped us realize that who we are and how we felt was “normal.” Uranus, also known as Haruka Tenoh, is a character whose relationship with Sailor Neptune / Michiru Kaiou is widely debated; in the Japanese anime, they’re referred to as “partners,” but in the original English dub (“dub” meaning translation), they’re cousins. Her gender is also widely debated, though when describing her, Sailor Neptune explains that Uranus doesn’t identify was either a boy or a girl.

A Haruka Tenoh (Sailor Moon) trinket tray from Rabharta Creations.

Soon after cleaning out Rabharta Creations, the convention center is thrust into chaos when someone pulls the fire alarm. 6,000+ people rushed for the doors to exit the building, unaware that the alarm was false and that someone pulled it as a prank. We held a crying M close, confused and searching for a way out, until an announcement came over the PA system declaring that the alarm was false. The entire convention center fell silent to listen. 

In that one moment, in light of the recent mass shootings, we were more afraid than we were during President Trump’s visit. Were the alarms pulled with the intent of sending everyone outside? Were there shooters waiting beyond the doors? We didn’t know, but even after the alarm was dismissed, after accidentally meeting Robbie Daymond (Tuxedo Mask’s voice actor!) and tracking down a Loki for M, we high-tailed it out of the convention center and left Matsuricon behind. 

Attending an anime convention is one of the few times a year I willingly leave my apartment. Despite a few hiccups and some chaos, I feel safe and accepted among my fellow cosplayers, and I always recommend going to a local convention, even if you don’t want to cosplay. It’s a welcoming environment, one that I enjoy sharing with my niece in hopes that it helps teach her acceptance. 

Those of us who cosplay are self-proclaimed nerds (or weebs, if you’d like to get technical!) and to find yourself among cosplayers is to find yourself among a group of friends. 

Laila Winters
Laila Winters (she/her) is an anxious, cosplaying YA author of science fiction and fantasy. Also an avid reader, she squeezed a small library into her 600sf apartment and continues to add to her collection, much to her fiancée’s dismay. Laila is part of the LGBTQ+ community and identifies as both a lesbian and asexual. When she’s not writing, Laila enjoys cosplaying, crocheting, and watching documentaries. She’s a shield maiden at heart, has a love for snarky pirates, and is distantly related to Blackbeard. She lives somewhere deep in the Midwest with her fiancée and bulldog, Moo.