This past weekend (11/14-11/15), I visited the Toei Kyoto Studio Park (Toei Uzumasa Eigamura), where a special cosplay event called The Joraku Matsuri (Matsuri = Festival) took place. At this event, visitors dressed up as historical characters from anime featuring the Sengoku to Bakumatsu or late-Edo periods (roughly late 1500s to 1860s). There were also special attractions, such as a chindonya street performance group (see photo below), and special talks about the Japanese katana.
Why is there such a large range in years? These historical periods and characters have recently been the subject of many popular anime, films, manga, and television shows. Over the past year, I’ve watched the television drama Nobunaga no Chef (A Chef of Nobunaga) featuring the Sengoku/Warring States period warlord Oda Nobunaga’s who aimed to unify Japan through war and food. I also started watching the anime Gintama (Anime News Network link here), because it combines social commentary with Bakumatsu period images of Edo-Tokyo and kimono and hakama-clad characters. I eventually realized that the show’s historical characters also featured in other anime and popular cultural media, especially Bakumatsu era shinsengumi (police force) characters such as Kondo Isao and Hijikata Toushiro.
At the studio park, I recognized several people dressed up as Gintoki, Kagura, and Shinpachi—the main characters from Gintama and felt both a flash of recognition and uncanniness as I watched them the crowds of people around the studio park’s open set. I could vaguely identify Kondo-san and Hijikata-san characters from other anime, because of the style of dress that generally conveyed those characters’ personalities but distinct from the style in Gintama. I also saw one Naruto and many other characters I do not know from anime that I am not watching.
Wearing colorful wigs of varying lengths, costumes, and color contact lenses, groups of two to six women in their 20s and 30s looked for prime photo locations, followed by cameramen with suitcases containing their camera equipment. For hours, even in the rain on the first day of the festival, they posed carefully in front of, inside, and at the side of buildings and under trees while their cameramen took photo after photo. If they were in a group, they helped each other adjust their wigs, their kimonos, and their props—especially the katanas. When they took breaks, many groups shared seating areas inside the buildings and I saw many of them become fast friends with each other based on the common interest of cosplay.
One of the things that surprised me were a jointly-held conversation by the katana craftsman KAWASAKI Akihira, the katana metal engraver KINOSHITA Sofu, and the creator of the manga KATANA (English-language information here), KAMATA Kimiko, with katana event producer OIKAWA Shiro as the introducer. The trio frequently travels around Japan, giving talks for katana events. In the Studio Park’s Nakamura-za theater, an audience of about 70 people listened in amazement as they talked about the different parts of the katana that have not been revealed in museums or the popular media. Kinoshita-san mentioned that a small ornate stick stored near the katana’s hilt was used by samurai to pick their ear wax, but revealed that it isn’t too effective. Kawasaki-san demonstrated the differences between drawing a katana on foot and on horseback, due to the distinct angles where the sword is located depending on one’s position.
At the end of the talk, the speakers invited several audience members to come up to the stage and hold real katanas which was a rare experience for many people. (I bought a katana from a Kyoto souvenir shop, but it was an unsharpened imitation katana that still required a note from the store attesting to its imitation status for US customs.) The audience didn’t stay in their seats, however, as they rushed forward to the edge of the stage to watch Kawasaki-san and Kinoshita-san show the others how to delicately hold a katana in their hands. They took photographs for about 20 minutes and came closer when the two craftsmen showed them the katanas from the stage.
I was surprised to learn that cosplayers are very interested in katana. Kamata-san actually expressed that she wanted women to learn about katana as beautiful objects through her manga, rather than killing tools that are limited to men. Just yesterday, I learned a recently popular word from a friend describing women who are fascinated and love katana—katana joshi (刀女子).
The next day, Oikawa-san held an informal conversation about katana in the studio park’s Tera Goya (Temple School) building. This time, he sat behind several imitation katana and told the audience to come forward to the stage, rather than remaining at their seats. The audience was from all ages, from girls who looked like they were in their late elementary school/early middle school years to women in their 20s and 30s, to couples in their 50s and 60s. As Oikawa-san discussed topics from how to wield katanas to decorative swords styles, and festivals in Japan, people studied the scabbard patterns, touched the side of the blades, and practiced how to take the blades out of the scabbards. They also took photos of each other, as they interacted with the katanas and embodied movements associated with using katanas. Although the conversation was only for an hour, the time passed by very quickly.
This festival brought together many different actors that I hadn’t thought of regarding cultural events—samurai actors in the studio park, the chindonya performers, craftsmen, a manga artist, a katana event producer, cosplayers, and even material objects such as the katana and costumes. It was gratifying to see how they all interacted together these last two days.