By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
Rafu Entertaiment Editor
Under the wig of golden tresses, behind the platinum-blue contact lenses and several layers of makeup, the sinister-looking figure covered with spikes and crosses made a quiet admission.
“I still don’t want to be exposed in public,” said Mikarin, the woman inside the dark but majestic costume that was attracting a cautious group of young onlookers at a Sherman Oaks park on Wednesday. “I suffer from vicious stage fright,” she revealed.
Mikarin will be among the scores of performers and fantasy fans who will be taking part in the 2010 Anime Expo, which runs July 1-4 at the Los Angeles Convention Center and L.A. Live. It is the premiere event dedicated to Japanese-originated animation and manga in North America.
This year’s expo will be the largest ever, with more premieres and live performances, plus the added glitz of the Nokia Theater as one of its venues. Scheduled appearances include “Cowboy Bebop” and “Mobile Suit Gundam” animator Toshihiro Kawamoto and 48-member, all-girl J-pop group AKB48.
Mikarin is a seasoned veteran of cosplay–short for “costume play,” which has exploded worldwide since first popping up in Japan at least a decade ago. The movement grew out of love for Japanese comics–manga–and animation, and fans began to dress up as and assume the identities of their heroes.
When she arrived in Los Angeles from Tokyo in 1994, Mikarin’s focus was squarely on her studies. As she toiled as a music major at the College of the Canyons in Valencia, the idea of anime and cosplay were nowhere on her radar.
“I suddenly became very homesick,” she explained. “I was working all the time, on a symphony with some other students, and it was eight hours a day, doing nothing but that.”
To help relieve her pining for home, Mikarin sought refuge in Japanese movies, a very limited selection rented from the local video store.
“I was watching films from Beat Takeshi, Kurosawa, all those classic ones, but they didn’t have many,” she recalled. “After I’d seen them all, I looked over at the next shelf and it was anime. In no time, I was hooked.”
Mikarin–who keeps her identity guarded due to a recent unsavory intrusion into her personal information–said she became so enamored with the character Hitomi from the anime “Escaflowne” that she bought a costume on eBay, and soon thereafter entered a contest at the 2004 Animagic Convention in Lancaster.
“My husband thought I had gone insane,” Mikarin said with a gentle smile. “He freaked out, but I couldn’t believe how much fun it was. I was completely awoken.”
The cosplay movement, in many ways, echoes the feelings of semi-anonymous free expression that made karaoke such a phenomenon beginning in the late 1970s. Broad self-expression is traditionally discouraged in Japan, and like karaoke–where novice singers felt protected within the womb of the evening pub–cosplayers have the veil of a costume to shield their everyday identities.
“I do cosplay to express, to tell a story and visualize and create a scene,” Mikarin explained. “One enjoyment of cosplay is that you can become anything, even if it isn’t human.”
Becoming anything requires more than imagination, however. Mikarin quickly discovered that bringing the personalities from the printed page or television screen to real life required making the costumes herself.
“I hadn’t sewn anything since I was 7 years old,” she said, “ But I bought a home sewing machine and started to try and make things.”
On Wednesday, Mikarin was dressed in her stunningly elaborate costume of Father Hugue de Watteau, from the novel series “Trinity of Blood.” The imposing black outfit, enhanced with tridents and crosses, was created piece by piece, stitch by stitch, by Mikarin.
“This is my favorite,” she admitted. “I started it in 2007 and it’s never finished. Each time I go to a show, I’m constantly checking, adjusting. If I ever finished it, I wouldn’t know what to do next. I’d get lonely.”
Beyond teaching herself the ways of the seamstress–it took countless tries to figure out how to properly sew spandex–she needed to create the accessories crucial to the authenticity of some characters. She has become a skilled molder and sculptor of medallions, jewelry and weapons, all faithfully produced in her small apartment.
Her deftly crafted pieces have done more for her than win costume contests. Some of her accessories earned her a scholarship for the Costume College convention last year in Van Nuys, where the latest tricks of the trade are taught and shared. She’ll attend again this year.
For the Anime Expo next week, Mikarin is working on making herself into a hologram, a challenge that she admitted she hasn’t yet solved. She is also looking forward to being reunited with fellow cosplayers she only meets during such events, and attending some of the panels.
The main event for Mikarin remains the contests, though. It is the spice that complements her regular existence as a student and store clerk, and gives her a sense of being singularly special.
“I want to say something through my craft, something in a script or in a song,” she said. “I hope in some way I have a gift that I can share.”
At this point in Mikarin’s life, it’s safe to say that those feelings of loneliness and homesickness have subsided.
“I think I’ve found a place where I don’t have to be shy,” she said.
The 2010 Anime Expo runs July 1-4 at the Los Angeles Convention Center and L.A. Live. Advance tickets from $35 for a one-day adult pass to $75 for a four-day adult pass. To register, visit www.anime-expo.org.