In an innocuous hall at the Royal University of Phnom Penh’s Institute for Foreign Languages yesterday morning, five doll-faced women with hair in shades from pink to turquoise paraded on a stage, dressed in stockings, horns and frilly shirts.
They made superhero poses while Japanese music blasted from speakers and a scrum of teenage male onlookers scrambled to take pictures.
After they had descended the stage to an ambush of fans, Miku Hatsune, the character name for one of the women who graced the stage — in real life a student from Thailand — explained the show quietly.
“We learn their moves and their personality and we try to become that character,” she said.
Welcome to the world of cosplay. Fans of the pastime, an abbreviation of “costume play”, dress up to emulate fictional characters, such as those portrayed in anime, or Japanese animated productions, and manga, Japanese comics.
Yesterday’s event at the Institute’s Cambodia-Japan Cooperation Centre, which featured stage shows and photo ops with the characters, attracted some 400 avid cosplayers, as well as fans of anime and manga, according to organisers.
Most were Cambodian, illustrating the growing popularity of the activity in the country.
In February, the centre held a show as part of the Japan Cambodia Kizuna Festival 2013, but yesterday’s was Cambodia’s first standalone cosplay event, said Hidekazu Kondo, the 44-year-old organiser.
Interest has proven so strong, he intends to organise another in October.
He has arranged cosplay events all over Asia, and agreed that although it is a less popular pastime in Cambodia than in neighbouring countries, that status appears to be slowly changing.
On what the draw is for fans, he said, “Cosplay is part of the Japanese culture, but it’s different from popular culture. Cosplay is a style, a fashion and it’s for young people.”
Nang Monin, 26, a civil servant for the Ministry of Interior, moderates the Facebook group KH Anime Fanclub in his spare time and said he was hopeful the fanbase would grow.
“Cosplay is new [in Cambodia] and we don’t have many fans here — mostly they are isolated and don’t meet — but since the event in February our group has become more active and many more people have joined,” he said.
Although most fans are men, the overwhelming majority of the people dressed up yesterday were women.
“In Japan, usually men want to see beautiful women in costumes,” said Japanese expat and magazine editor Shinnosuke Kobayashi, 24.
His female companion Rin Hoshino, 20, a maid, was kitted out in a revealing baby pink maid’s outfit bought in Japan.
Kobayashi explained the phenomenon of cosplay with the Japanese word otaku — a term that refers to those with an obsessive interest, but is most often associated with those crazy about anime and manga.
While Kobayashi may be among the minority for now, it might not be long before more Cambodian residents become self-confessed otaku.