Inside the strange, wonderful world of Youmacon, Detroit's Japanese culture festival

"Check it out," I overheard someone say. "There's a transgender pineapple." There aren't many places where this comment would be appropriate. At Youmacon (pronounced yo-ma-con)—an annual Japanese culture festival that took place continuously from 8:00 p.m. on Oct. 29 to 6:00 p.m. Nov. 1—the behavior that inspired this comment is the norm.
The "con" in Youmacon derives from "convention," but refers to a subset of Japanese-inspired conventions, the most famous of which is Comic-Con International in San Diego, which attracts over 100,000 attendees each year. Youmacon doesn't have nearly the same draw or the caliber of celebrity appearances—the most famous guest is a voice actor—but it is by no means a minor event. Far from it. Youmacon's website boasts that 16,400 people attended in 2014. Those that attended this year said it felt even bigger.
Photographer Nick Hagen and I, two relative outsiders to this culture, decided to see what goes on at a con and spent an entire day at the festival, which overtakes downtown Detroit's Renaissance Center and Cobo Center. We were totally blown away.

The most conspicuous feature of these cons is the "cosplay" -- one of many Japanese-derived words -- short for costume play. The vast majority of attendees come costumed as their favorite anime (cartoon), manga (comic book), or video game character. Non-Japanese costumes are common too. Among the countless Sailor Moons, we saw characters from Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and various superhero franchises.
These are not your run-of-the-mill Halloween costumes; cosplayers take their hobby very seriously. Cosplayers are eager to pose for photographs, and are fast to compliment one another. An amazing feature of Youmacon is that attendees can be whoever they want to be without fear of judgment. People who in their everyday life might get ridiculed for their proclivities find universal acceptance at Youmacon. The lack of self-consciousness is refreshing.
This was the first time Amber, a 10-year veteran of Youmacon, wasn't in cosplay. "It's a lot of work to put together my costume, and I wanted a more relaxed time this year," she said, opting instead to take photos. Usually she goes as Sesshomaru from the "Inuyasha" manga series, a costume that takes an hour to put on.
Her friend Chris was dressed as Cloud from the video game Final Fantasy VII, but his best costume is Chris Redfield from Resident Evil. "I could take you through every second of that game right now," he said.

Chris and Amber at Youmacon
Why does Amber return year after year? "The people," she answered. "There's a small segment of snobs, but everyone else is amazing and accepting." Though she did admit that she enjoyed the convention more back in 2005 when it was a more intimate affair.
Cosplay is so fundamental to Youmacon that a whole support structure develops around it. Lisa started a mobile "Costume Repair Station," carrying around a glue gun, industrial size rolls of string and tape, and a sign. She wasn't affiliated with the festival and didn't charge for her services. "Last year I just needed a little tape for my costume all day and when I went to CVS, they were out of it," she said. "So this was a fun alternative I came up with. One person called me a godsend."
Early in the day, even before it got oppressively crowded, eight people waited for Lisa's help. "Do you have any hairspray?" one asked. "I've got bobby pins," she offered.

A costume repair station at Youmacon
Megan, dressed as Lucifer from "Hunter x Hunter," needed help with the broken spine of her Bible. She said she's a well-known cosplayer in the Midwest and goes to a con almost every month. "Cosplaying gives me skills, like crafting and socializing, that help at my job," she said. While talking to Megan, Nick maneuvered to get a photo of her and she instinctively posed for it. "I have a sixth sense for when photographers are in the vicinity."
Later we met Kyle, dressed as Spawn. It was a very impressive costume, replete with belt, mask, and full-body spandex. However, there's one major flaw. "Going to the bathroom is annoying," he said.
During our brief conversation, three people asked if they could take Kyle's photograph. "The people here are so friendly," he said. "There's no judgment no matter what you're like. Everybody's living out their fantasy and having a good time."
Non-judgment was a constant refrain at Youmacon. The most striking manifestation of this was the amount of cross-dressing -- women with pencil beards and swords, men with bras and gowns. Cons seem like one of the more transgender-friendly subcultures.
Phoenix costume.The most elaborate cosplay we encountered was of Phoenix, a giant yellow bird-like creature created by Osamu Tezuka, "the father of manga." The costume -- a full-body suit with 100 LED lights and feathers individually glued on to its styrofoam shell -- was designed by Frank and worn by Lisa, who wouldn't have been able to see were it not for the video screen mounted inside the detachable head. "She's a real champ," said Frank. "You can do anything if you're nuts." That seemed to be an appropriate motto for Youmacon.
Photography is as ubiquitous as the costumes themselves. People expect—in most cases want—to have their photo taken. At one point, a seemingly organic, three-ring deep semi-circle formed for groups to take turns in the middle while people on the outside photographed them.
In Cobo's lobby, a young girl took photos while her father, K.J., sat and watched. K.J. is a con photographer and has attended around 20 in the last three years. "As a photographer, I want to focus on something interesting, and there's no lack of visual subjects here," he said. Having sampled a number of cons, K.J. described Youmacon as above average in size. "The cosplay here is as impressive as anywhere, though," he said. "There's a higher quality of homemade costumes."
Youmacon provides many outlets for cosplay, including a masquerade, general cosplay ball, and competitions with categories depending on how many previous awards the contestant has won.
Being unfamiliar with con culture, it's hard to shake a base-level bewilderment when attending one of these events. Moments frequently occurred when we wondered what, exactly, was happening, like during an incomprehensible sketch between songs by the band Steam Powered Giraffe. The sold-out audience ate it up while we shrugged.
Youmacon offers dozens of panel and speaking events on such diverse topics as "Martial Arts History," "Philosophy in Video Games," and one titled, "I Don't Care if She's Fictional, She's Still My Waifu," whose description starts with the question, "Do you remember the first time you saw that special character?"
We wandered into a presentation on the video game series Persona. When the presenter asked how many people had seen the Persona movies, almost everyone raised their hand. When he asked how many people bought the Playstation Vita just for the Persona game, about half raised their hand. This was clearly an audience conversant in the quirks of Persona. The presenter pulled up a video and prefaced it by saying, "This is my favorite scene in the whole series." A dog ate from its bowl and a woman with a robotic-looking expression peered from around the corner. The audience erupted in laughter. Again, Nick and I shrugged. Much of the humor at Youmacon came from such insider references.
Our curiosity got the best of us, so we checked out the panel titled, "Lolita 101," which thankfully had nothing to do with underaged, sexually precocious girls. Rather, it was about the intricacies of a cosplay whose practitioners wear modest, frilly, Victorian-inspired dresses. The panelists asked for Lolitas in the audience to display their outfits. "Oh we have two sweet Lolitas," one panelist said, referring to the most saccharine Lolita category. "So pink. So cute."
Two men were among the impromptu fashion show. "Some guys love to wear dresses. That's awesome. Rock it."

"Lolitas 101" event at Youmacon
The underbelly of Youmacon
Sometimes the scale of Youmacon worked against the festival. Disorganization and poor communication were persistent issues. The free festival handout was rife with scheduling inaccuracies, causing us to miss the "Socializing at Anime Cons" workshop -- a big loss in our opinion.
Another issue was that most of the Youmacon staff were incredibly overworked volunteers, which contributed to the chaotic feel at times. Often these volunteers weren't sure what events were happening where or when. Everything was at least 30 minutes behind schedule.
We popped our heads into security's cramped quarters. The staff of four were friendly despite the demanding task of keeping Youmacon's masses safe while staring at computer screens from a windowless office on a diet of pizza, chips, and soda. I asked how many hours they had worked so far and they responded by laughing. One guy had just left his shift for the first time since Thursday to shower. "He's superhuman, a medical case study," said Greg, head of security. "We all attended [Youmacon] before doing security. It's fun, believe it or not."

Greg, a member of Youmacon's security team.
I asked them to tell me the strangest problem they'd dealt with so far. Greg thought for a second. "You're asking about the unusual, but here that's the norm."
Finally, Nick and I wandered into the gaming room, probably the densest collection of people at the entire con. The giddiness of the festival was absent here. There was a stark dichotomy between the stationary, externally insensible gamers, and the cacophonous medley of artificial gunshots, J-pop music, and button mashing. Few people here were in cosplay.

Gaming at Youmacon
Scanning Youmacon's message boards prior to the event, I came across this gem that seemed like appropriate (if unheeded) advice for those in the gaming room: "SHOWER SHOWER SHOWER BATHE!!!!!!! otafunk is the #1 detractor from a con atmosphere, do not contribute to air pollution! We will ALL thank you for saying hello to Mr. Soap, and his good pals, Mr. Deodorant, and Mr. Toothpaste. and even their bastard children, senior gum, master mint, d.j. body spray." [sic]
The same scope of the con at large applied to the gaming room. There were hundreds of games from various systems and eras -- arcade, PC, even long-forgotten consoles like Sega CD and Dreamcast. A thousand-player Super Smash Brothers tournament was underway with streaming commentary online.
Back to reality
After an entire day at Youmacon, I was drained. In the end, I couldn't quite acclimate myself to the atmosphere of the con, which was at times overwhelming. Nor could I partake in the esoteric references.
Amber, the woman who usually cosplays as Sesshomaru, saw I was nonplussed, and interpreted that to mean I was thoroughly impressed and would come in cosplay next near. While she's wrong on that count, I appreciated Youmacon's maxim of acceptance. In that vein, do I mind that someone spent over 50 hours making a bird costume? Certainly not. Would I ever want to do that myself? Certainly not.
But I'll be a willing spectator. See you at Youmacon 2016.
Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.
All photos by Nick Hagen.

Read more articles by Aaron Mondry.

Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.
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