Although K-Pop largely commandeers Cambodia’s musical attention, Japanese youth culture is also kicking off in the Kingdom – if you know where to look. The past three years have seen the blossoming of cosplay aficionado groups in Phnom Penh, with the past-time becoming more widely known and accepted.
Cosplay, which is a portmanteau of costume and role-play that originated in Japan, describes the hobby of dressing up as characters from manga and anime series. Dedication to the impersonation ranges from simply donning a wig all the way up to ordering custom made costumes and spending hours on prosthetics. There are even cosplay celebrities within the subculture – the Japanese cosplayer Reika, named as a favourite by many Khmer cosplayers, has almost 300,000 Facebook fans and attends cosplay conventions across Asia – including a 2014 fan event in Phnom Penh.
The Kizuna Festival held at the Cambodia-Japan Cooperation Centre in 2012 included Cambodia’s first cosplay event. The Narutail Cosplay Guild, a Cambodian cosplay group which currently has 30 members, was formed shortly afterwards. A Narutail guild member, who goes by the name of Kaden, has watched the rise of popularity of cosplay in the city. “Before the first event, there were only about seven cosplayers,” he says. “But around three months later, that number had risen to over 100.”
Fellow Narutail guild member Vuth Saranadanka explains the hobby’s charm. “We’re like a family,” he says. “We don’t care where the costume comes from or if it’s close to the character -- we just dress up and are happy together. Everybody is connected by anime and cosplay.”
“I know people who are really lonely and then start cosplaying and make a lot of friends. Because anime talks about real things like bullying and loneliness, anime fans know each other’s feelings well. It’s easy to communicate [with each other],” he adds.
Although the option of buying costumes online is becoming more popular, many cosplayers chose to make their own costumes or take designs to local tailors. A 19-year-old university student and cosplayer who wishes to be identified only as Mio H practices DIY. “Since I had a sewing machine at home, I thought I should learn to use it. It’s cheaper than buying costumes, and I can add detail,” she says.
“At first, my mum was against it. She thought cosplay was a weird, [especially] when I wore wigs and weird clothes and made a mess in the house making costumes. But later I explained to her about cosplay, and I improved my sewing skills, so she accepted it,” Mio adds.
A fan since 2007, Mio has also seen the Cambodian cosplay scene grow. “I’m one of the admins of the ‘Kh Anime Fanclub’ Facebook group. When I first joined the group, there was less than 200 members. Now there’s over 3,000,” she says.
However, the increase in popularity means the all-inclusive spirit of cosplay is diluting. “Some people just want to cosplay because it looks like cosplayers are famous, but they don’t even have passion for it. They just start doing it to get attention,” she says.
Since 2014, Kaden says that the Khmer cosplay community is now established enough to organise meetups and events themselves, rather than leaving it to foreign cosplay event management companies. There is even a potential commercial market for Cambodia’s cosplayers.
“We’ve been contacted by a company that would like to hire the cosplayers for a show in AEON mall,” says Khun Vateysreyleak, event planning coordinator at CJCC. “It’s expensive to hire cosplay teams from abroad so it would be better for them to hire Cambodian cosplayers. Cosplay in the future can be a business in Cambodia for performances and commercial appearances. Already, Narutail Guild has shows where they perform in cosplay and take pictures with the crowd at TK Avenue.”
It seems that despite the reservations of the cosplay purists, the once misunderstood pursuit is set to keep on growing in Cambodia.