The old and the new: How cosplayers are widening the scope of Sakura Matsuri
Visitors to Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s annual Sakura Matsuri are likely to see Taiko drum performances, Japanese tea ceremonies and freshly-bloomed cherry blossoms.
But festival-goers may also notice a crowd that knows how to dress for the occasion.
Cosplayers in manga costumes — think Naruto or the Sailor Scouts — flock to Brooklyn for the event, posing and performing in front of the park’s spring blooms.
“You have some older Japanese women in their kimonos that are coming to do the tea ceremony,” said Charles Battersby, who has cosplayed at Sakura Matsuri for about eight years. “There they are, seeing cosplayers from Kill la Kill; you know, really bizarre outfits. There’s a great deal of culture shock for both groups.”
People dressed in cosplay (short for costume play) are part of a growing crowd coming to Sakura Matsuri in the past decade. The event has historically honored traditional Japanese customs — but through manga and anime-themed attire, cosplayers pay their respects to contemporary culture.
The cosplay community has steadily grown each year for the past decade, said Battersby. Organizers added anime and manga-themed events for a crowd interested in late-20th century Japanese culture. The Cosplay Fashion Show, discontinued this year, was the high point of the weekend for cosplayers in the past.
Even without the fashion show this year, cosplay events are still alive and well, said Elizabeth Reina-Longoria, director of communications at Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Sakura Matsuri will host an anime quiz game show both days for lovers of Japanese comics, video games and animations.
“Eight or nine years ago, acknowledging the cosplay crowd and the anime fans — that was a new thing,” Battersby said. Now, cosplay is a main attraction.
“I think it was done because the people at the festival started to see that the definition of Japanese culture is changing,” Battersby said.
In the past decade, the number of Sakura Matsuri visitors — including cosplayers — has grown steadily, Reina-Longoria said. The park typically sees tens of thousands of visitors over the weekend-long festival, the largest public garden event nationwide.
The combination of a large cosplay community and a unique outdoor venue has made Sakura Matsuri comparable to a Comicon, said cosplayer Dhareza Maramis. Maramis, who co-hosted the fashion show last year, said the festival offers photo ops that cosplayers don’t see at other conventions, usually held in hotels or warehouses.
“Obviously people who usually go to Sakura Matsuri are all about seeing the cherry blossoms,” Maramis said. “But now imagine these beautiful cherry blossoms blooming all over the place, followed by these beautiful costumes.”
While many come to Sakura Matsuri dressed in Japanese manga and anime costumes, the festival has also become a magnet for cosplayers of Marvel, DC Comics and even Disney princesses. Anna Nakhodina, a 32-year-old accountant from Brooklyn, says the “melting pot” of characters has been a driving factor in the festival’s growth.
“It definitely has gotten a boost since comic book culture came into play,” Nakhodina said.
Nakhodina has cosplayed a different character each year since she started coming to Sakura Matsuri in 2013. Like many participants in the fashion show, Nakhodina makes her own costumes.
Intricate, hand-made outfits may take up to a year in advance, especially for challenging constructions, Nakhodina said.
“Sometimes, we sit around telling stories about how we bled on this costume because we accidentally pushed too hard to get through four layers of fabric.”
Astrid, of Disney’s How to Train Your Dragon, is one of Nakhodina’s favorite characters to cosplay. And for that costume, the beauty is in the details: hand-sewing the leather panels, molding each metal spike and picking the best foam for the sword.
“That’s why we are always so excited to wear them in front of the crowd and in front of the camera,” she said.
Like Nakhodina, Battersby finds preparation for cosplaying at Sakura Matsuri to be hard work. But for Battersby, the craft itself is what makes the process so rewarding.
Battersby, who uses they/them pronouns, is well-known in the community after 26 years of cosplaying. Walking the runway at all but one of the Cosplay Fashion Shows, they now host panel discussions and encourage cosplay beginners. This year, Battersby will moderate the much-anticipated anime quiz game show for Japanese comic enthusiasts.
While cosplay is certainly a celebration of contemporary Japanese culture, it is also a form of experiential art, Battersby said.
“There are a lot of wide-eyed, gaping looks from people who just don’t understand what’s happening,” they said.
Wide eyes, gaping looks and all, Nakhodina hopes to see the cosplay fashion show return next year. But she still looks forward to dressing up for this year’s event.
“When you change from who you are every day into a character who is supernatural, it’s an amazing feeling,” she said. “It’s the feeling that you can conquer the world.”
Amanda D’Ambrosio is a freelance journalist that writes about health and social issues. She currently attends the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY in New York City. You can follow her work on Twitter.
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