It probably all started with Noh.
Derived from the Sino-Japanese word for “skill” or “talent”, Noh is a major form of classical Japanese musical drama that has been performed since the 14th century. Noh is often based on tales from traditional literature with a supernatural being transformed into human form as a hero narrating a story. Noh integrates masks, costumes and various props in a dance-based performance. Related to mimes in some aspects, emotions are primarily conveyed by stylized conventional gestures while the iconic masks represent the roles such as ghosts, women, children, and the elderly. Written in ancient Japanese language, the text vividly describes the ordinary people of the twelfth to sixteenth centuries.
Fantastical stories. Stylized conventional gestures. Masks/facial traits assigned to characters based on their age, living, or undead status.
Sounds like anime’s earliest roots, if you ask me.
In everyday Western culture, we’re no stranger to masked performances. Sports are a huge deal in America, and for every football team, there’s a dude wearing a mascot head ready to use his body/acting skills to get the crowd pumped. Every day, people pour into Disney Parks all over the world, just dying to hug Mickey Mouse in his big, crazy mascot head. With a few waves and a hand over his mouth to hide a laugh, children are thoroughly convinced their hero has come to life. Combine that with the Disney Princesses and Princes roaming around the park with impeccable clothing, hair, and makeup, ready to take photos with you, and Disney fans everywhere will laugh, cry, and geek out for a piece of attention given by one of their beloved characters.
So why then, is Animegao Kigurumi any different?
The premise is easy enough to understand. “Kigurumi“ comes from a combination of two Japanese words: kiru (“to wear”) and nuigurumi (“stuffed toy”). Traditionally, it referred specifically to the performers wearing the costume, but the word has since grown to include the costumes themselves. Animegao literally means “Anime Face”.
Essentially, it’s a full-body costume with an anime mask, not too different from mascot characters we’re used to here in the states. The contrast here is that Animegao Kigurumi, even in the context of an Anime Convention, tends to get a stronger reaction from the untrained eye than let’s say Winnie the Pooh wandering around Disneyland. I’ve heard the words strange, weird, uncanny valley all assigned to Animegao Kigurumi.
But as with any media, we need to take a step back and question why. As you know, Nerdbot is big into cosplay; we even have live streaming shows dedicated to it every week! But when the opportunity comes to learn about a new side of it, we’re ready! So, as with any mascot character, Kigurumi actors are just that- actors. Like the Noh theater actors from the past, cosplayer than choose to dress in these full anime faces/suits are faced with the challenge of truly emoting and acting with their entire being. They are conveying a character and a story to you using only their bodies.
And with most things on the internet, most people are trying to take that story to a dark or inappropriate place.
I teamed up with my friend Natalie, an extremely talented and popular Children’s Entertainer and Kigurumi actress, and had a conversation with her to set the record straight.
Can you speak in the mask?
There are a few “rules” or “guidelines” to Kigurumi, and not speaking in mask is one of them. It allows the person portraying the character to uphold the illusion of character. This also puts more emphasis on the acting abilities of the performer. If you’re able to be active and interact with in meaningful gestures, you don’t need a spoken voice.
Official Kigurumi live shows don’t have speaking roles at all, they instead have a prerecorded track using music and voice actors that the stage performers act and mime to. Depending on the show, an MC or host may talk to the characters after the performance is complete, but the characters only respond back with actions, to continue that illusion of character. Some of the bigger properties like PreCure even have meet and greets after the shows, where they sign autographs and interact with kids and other attendees – again, silently. It takes a lot of practice to learn how to emote using a singular, static face, but good performers transcend that limitation.
Let’s talk about the costume itself. How many parts go into the average Kigurumi costumes?
The basics of a Kigurumi costume are the mask, zentai (the bodysuit matching the skin tone of your mask), and costume. No one part is more important than the others, they all play a role in bringing out the character, and are all necessary. The mask and zentai are what you – the performer – become. The idea is that there’s no one inside the costume, you are your character. The costume is what goes on top of the zentai – depending on who you are as your character, this is whatever they’d wear. With my character, Lily, I like to just wear clothing that I personally enjoy wearing as well, so much of what Lily wears is from my own closet, or specifically purchased to match her aesthetic and hair colour.
The other big “rule” of Kigurumi is that you must be wearing all parts of your costume at all time in public, so that means you must have a zentai. This also encompasses the general rules of being a costumed character, so no removing your mask in view of the public. In most public spaces that Kigurumi is performed or worn at, there are generally children around, so breaking that illusion for them is like telling them that Mickey Mouse or Santa Claus isn’t real, and a lot of kids will make that connection on their own as soon as they see even one character proven to be a person in a costume. Keeping the dream alive for the audience is a big part of the performance.
I’ve totally gone broke just doing regular old cosplay. I imagine these Animegao Kigurumi costumes don’t run cheap. Are you saving up for more?
I am absolutely saving up for more! If I could, I’d love to have costumes and masks for numerous characters, but they are pretty pricey. A quality mask alone can cost between $800 and $3000, with the average sitting around $1200. Some custom work can be even more expensive than that, especially if the maker isn’t using a premade mould for the mask base.
A good quality zentai – which I ABSOLUTELY recommend for any level of Kigurumi performer, can be $200-300 if made to measure.
Where does the cosplay line end and Kigurumi begin? Do you identify as a cosplayer?
Any performer in a costume that covers their whole body and face is technically a Kigurumi performer, so even Furries fall into that category by the definition of the word. Animegao Kigurumi is the division towards the style I perform. Animegao is then separated into the professional shows, and the cosplay hobbyists. I don’t perform with my personal characters as a paid actress like I do for my job, so I consider it to be cosplay when I’m at a convention for fun. That being said, when I am performing at a convention in Kigurumi, I don’t perform any less than I would if I were paid to do it. A poor performance is obvious to any audience, so knowing how you’re standing and acting and interacting with people is just as important as doing it for a show.
That said, I absolutely identify as a cosplayer! Non-professional level Kigurumi is still costume-play, isn’t it?
I have done regular cosplay in the past, and still might in the future, but with the limited time I have at conventions, I’d much rather perform in Kigurumi than non-Kigurumi cosplay, since it’s what I enjoy the most. There really isn’t a substitute for the enjoyment I get bringing smiles to peoples’ faces with my characters and acting.
I also bring some my cosplayer friends along in Kigurumi adventures at conventions as well! I love getting my friends into costume with me and they always have so much fun doing it too! It’s an interesting, anonymous experience for some of the cosplayers who are recognized immediately at cons too. You get to step away from yourself and perform as someone else entirely.
Let’s talk about the fans. Is there a specialized community for fans of Animegao Kigurumi? What are they like?
Like any other form of art, there is a community of fans of it. In my years of experience, I’ve seen and interacted with all kinds of fans. It’s hard to talk about fans of something so unique with broad strokes, but for the most part, fans of Animegao Kigurumi love it for the same reasons I do: it’s a fun performance art that allows you to look exactly like the character you want to portray, and it’s just so cute! In fact, there are specialized cons in Japan for Animegao Kigurumi, even ones as specific as cons for specific mask makers!
I really hope that Kigurumi catches on in a bigger way in North America, but I understand that the cost can be a limiting factor for lots of people, even if the interest is there. I love interacting with other good Kigurumi performers when I do see them on the floor at cons. The big anime convention in Toronto, Anime North, generally has a booth set up for Kigurumi performers, and meetups for photo-groups as well. For the most part, I tend to avoid sticking around at those for too long, since I like to be mobile in costume.
But going back to the fans, of course, as it is a type of cosplay, you tend to attract the occasional “fan” who won’t stop messaging you about the things they find attractive or sexy about you and your cosplay. It comes with the territory of being a girl in the cosplay scene, and for the most part I try and avoid giving them too much. While I may act cute, flirty, or even suggestive in costume Kigurumi is, at its heart, a performance art for children. As an actress for largely children-oriented shows, I find it unsettling when people sexualize the actors and actresses and their costumes and characters.
Are you ever asked to take commissions? Are there people out there who don’t understand that Kigurumi is a performance art?
I’ve been asked through DMs and messages all kinds of things, from simple things like “write my name on a piece of paper and take a picture with it” to “can I get videos of you undressing” – neither of which nor anything in between have I ever fulfilled. Sometimes I’ll post some things that are a little saucier, like a Valentines’ Day post or a lower cut outfit, but nothing overtly sexual, and those are the days I usually get the most DMs asking for things that go way too far. That being said, I love getting DMs from people actually interested in getting into Kigurumi, and I’ll always answer questions they have to the best of my ability. I really want to be a positive ambassador to the community, and I try to give any assistance to people who are genuinely interested.
And as for commissions, if anyone wants to pay for a costume of their favourite character, I’ll gladly do any characterized shoots ripped from the anime or manga to best represent them! I love finding new character space to explore!
How do people typically react when they see you in one of these masks at an anime convention?
It’s funny, at most “anime” conventions, the reaction is generally a little less than at “comic” conventions. Because most anime cons have anime fans, Kigurumi is something they’ve likely seen already and isn’t exactly new territory. But with the recent and gigantic boom in the size and scope of nerd-acceptance and popular media touting ComiCons and the like, comic conventions tend to be the most fun for me! Kigurumi is a brand-new thing for lots of people, and I tend to see way more children at ComiCons. For instance, at the most recent convention I attended, I was so swarmed by families and children asking for pictures, I couldn’t actually move anywhere and was stuck waiting for the crowd of photography to disperse on a regular basis throughout the day. It’s a lot of fun being the center of attention for these moments, and I love interacting with people when I’m in costume!
You’ve been so amazing to talk to, and I’m going to thank you like, every day forever for giving me this interview with you. Before we go, can you share a story of your most unique experience while in costume?
I couldn’t even begin to pin down my most unique experience in costume, since every convention day, every event, every online interaction is totally different. My favourites in Kigurumi differ from my favourites performing for work, and they’re such disparate entities sometimes that it’s hard to even compare them. At work I’m performing as well-known children’s’ characters. It makes you feel like a celebrity. The kids all know your name, and they all have stories to tell you about your characters’ best adventure on TV or what they love about them. It’s unbelievably heartwarming. I actually have fan art of characters I’ve played given to me by kids on my fridge at home. It reminds me as an actress how important it is to be the best performer I can, because sometimes I’m playing a character that means the whole world to a child. At conventions, the reactions I get are for a character that I have cultivated myself. For an entire weekend, I get to portray a personal extension of my cosplay life.
And that is really the most rewarding part of it all.
For more of her Kigurumi and cosplaying adventures, you can follow Natalie on Instagram.