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It takes a village: behind the Scenes at the World Cosplay Summit

Team UK took the stage by storm in Japan, UK organiser Emma shares her WCS diary for an inside look at the journey to become World Champions

WCS Team UK 2023 - World Champions
Image credit: World Cosplay Summit

Talk to any of the past participants of the World Cosplay Summit (WCS) and you can tell it’s somettahing more than just another cosplay competition. This unique experience in the homeland of modern cosplay leaves a lasting impression on everyone that takes part.

Cosplayers from nearly 40 countries gather together each year to compete, meet new people, and share unforgettable memories at the finals held in Nagoya, Japan. Founded in 2003, originally as only a cultural exchange, it has grown to a festival of cosplay and WCS’s mission remains to connect people around the world through pop culture and spread 'Cosplay Everywhere.' Throughout the festival there are events for local Japanese cosplayers, while the international finalists take part in trips to sponsored locations, cultural visits and public parades.It even has its very own theme song, 'We Can Start,' written by Japanese voice actor Toru Furuya.

The festival culminates in the grand world championship stage show. The championship itself encompasses both craftsmanship and performance, but it is the wider experience shared with the teams that makes WCS so special to those that take part. International friendships are forged backstage that last, and it helped create a path to international cosplay guests at events around the world by making connections and standing as a well-regarded marker of cosplay excellence.

In 2020, like so many events companies, WCS faced huge difficulties with the cancellation of the championship and loss of sponsor support, resulting in them turning to a Kickstarter campaign to fundraise to survive. The outpouring of support from their international network of supporters saw them reach their minimum goal to stay afloat and in summer 2021 they held a video championship for international teams, which was shown on stage in Japan as part of a scaled back festival for local cosplayers.

Of course, no-one anticipated how long we’d all feel the effects of the pandemic. 2022 saw a hybrid competition with some international teams feeling able to travel to Nagoya to take part in a stage competition and a video division for those who could not. Their strategy to keep the international competition alive worked and August 2023 saw a return to WCS in its familiar form with 33 of the countries making it to Nagoya for a World Cosplay Summit as most people remember.

WCS Team UK at MCM in 2019
Image credit: N8e

Tsupo and Clood were selected as Team UK at MCM London Comic Con in October 2019 in impressive cosplays of Hakuryuu and Judar from Magi: The Labyrinth of Magic. Plans were made, flights were booked and then the world stopped. The MCM team felt strongly about maintaining their chance to compete on stage in Japan so placed selections on hold until the situation became safe for travel again. The WCS experience starts well before the team’s arrival in Japan. Once the dates were confirmed at the start of the year and they committed to competing this summer, Tsupo and Clood set about making upgrades and improvements to their qualifying costumes and engineering stage props that would better fit the impressive stage at the Aichi Arts Centre and travel well. Clood estimates they have invested over 1200 hours into their championship costumes. WCS requires all the information to produce the final, including costume progress books, well in advance of the competition so the pressure starts early and time runs out fast.

The experience in Japan itself is magical but also incredibly intense, with the sponsor visits and other activities happening alongside rehearsals and preparation for the Championship itself. All while dealing with the intense heat and humidity of Nagoya in August. Thankfully each team has an organiser, or supporter, sent by their selecting convention to look after and guide the team through the schedule. I was a cosplayer before I became an organiser and I still love getting very hands on and being able to help cosplayers shine on stage so it was a real privilege to be there to support Tsupo and Clood this year through their journey.

World Cosplay Summit: We Can Start

World Cosplay Summit 2023 - Courtesy Visit

Tsupo and Clood decided to arrive in Nagoya a couple of days early to settle nerves and shake off jet lag. I, like the majority of teams and organisers, arrived on Tuesday. The WCS staff were there to greet everyone and they arrange special transport from the airport to the hotel for the many large and unusual pieces of luggage the teams travel with. After settling in to the hotel it’s a good night’s sleep needed to try and shake any jet lag in hope to be bright and breezy for an early start next morning to get into costumes for the ‘courtesy visits’.

These first visits are usually to organisations across the city that support WCS. The teams are split into groups for all of the scheduled activities. One cohort headed to Aichi Prefecture Government to meet the Aichi Governor, another headed to Nagoya Tourism Bureau for a shibori dying workshop. Our group headed over to the City Hall to meet the Nagoya Mayor, Takashi Kawamura, well known for his enthusiasm for cosplay. He did not disappoint! The self-proclaimed “crazy mayor” arrived in a cosplay of Hanamichi Sakuragi from Slam Dunk and serenaded us with “I can’t help falling in love with cosplay” to the tune of the Elvis classic! After photo calls and chats with members of the press we headed back to the hotel for a quick change and then off to the Brother Museum. Brother has been a major sponsor of WCS throughout and as well as learning about Brother’s history the teams got to try out and see some of Brother’s latest technology in the demo room.

WCS Team UK at the Brother Museum

In the evening, following an introductory meeting to cover some important points and introduce the staff, there was a party organised by the army of angels otherwise known as the WCS Omotenashi Student Corp. Each team has a dedicated student and they are all there for the teams throughout the experience, always ready to do anything with a warm welcome. The party was where the teams shared their omiyage, usually little gifts of cos cards and national treats, souvenirs, trinkets, or stickers. It’s a tradition I understood originated at WCS but now common throughout most international cosplay competitions and it’s so lovely to explore all the tasty and unusual treats and other little pieces of culture everyone shares.

World Cosplay Summit: Judging & Rehearsals

Thursday brought our first day at the Aichi Arts Centre. For rehearsals and judging the teams were split in half to balance the schedule, with one half setting up props and rehearsing while the others had costume judging. Team UK had judging first and this was our probably most intense day of the whole trip. With judging taking part in the Arts centre, as opposed to at the hotel like in many previous years, Tsupo and Clood had not been able to fully unpack and prepare the costumes in advance beyond a quick check to make sure everything had arrived in one piece, so we negotiated getting to the Arts Centre earlier than our originally scheduled coach provided by WCS. The Arts Centre is equipped with numerous dressing rooms and the teams are split across the rooms in performance order, there were 6 teams in room 110 – Colombia, Latvia, UK, Germany, Malaysia and Japan. Once they arrived Tsupo and Clood started steaming and unpacking the many elements of their costumes before starting the time-consuming process of makeup and prosthetics. Both costumes have many elements and layers and some clever but slightly complex construction to attach parts extra securely for stage, it took an hour to dress Tsupo alone once the make up was complete.

In a major change from previous editions, WCS altered the format of the judging panel this year. Previously ALL of the international organisers participated in the craftmanship judging. You read that right, up to 40 people looking at you while you present your costumes. This time a panel of 8 judges took on the ominous task, made up of organisers who are members of the rules committee (that assist WCS with setting the regulations each year) and other nominated organisers from around the world. It felt like a really good improvement. Each team has 8 minutes presenting, followed by 2 minutes questions and 5 minutes hands on inspection by the judges. Once their judging session is over each team heads into the photography studio for the official photos.

WCS has strict limits on weights and sizes of props and adding to the intensity of judging day we unfortunately also had to have the size and weight check on Thursday. We weighed everything in stages, costumes were weighed whilst worn then subtracted their undressed weight, stage props were weighed in pieces. We were holding our breath as everything was added up, after weighing the costumes we were worried it had edged over the limit of 40kg total and were preparing for penalties. Final total - 39.2kg! Roughly one third of this was Tsupo’s costume alone. Once they could get out of costume we headed backstage to put the props partially together so the size could be checked too. It was a much longer day than any of us wanted but it did save us some time on rehearsal day, which turned out to be a blessing.

WCS Team UK in rehearsal
Image credit: Eetu Lampsijärvi

We headed back to the Arts Centre on Friday morning to finish setting up props and prepare for rehearsals. Clood’s aunt, Gilly, also joined Team UK backstage to lend extra hands and capture some of the behind the scenes action on film. Backstage, each team has a marked square to store their props ready for the show. When preparing for the checks on the previous day it became clear that some things had warped in transit and there was a lot of snagging to do to make sure everything made it onto stage in one piece and worked as planned. Making props lightweight and to fit inside luggage requirements is a whole new skill set of its own. The incredible flat-pack cardboard throne construction was particularly impressive, it was strong enough to sit on. Each team has an allotted time on the stage to rehearse and can run through as many times as that session allows, team UK managed 2 full run throughs. Rehearsals went smoothly, bar some slightly temperamental stage props.

Once rehearsals were finished it was time to get into cosplay again for the Eve Festival. This was the formal opening ceremony of the weekend long event at Oasis 21 in the form of a grand red carpet parade through the mall, introducing each team, while the Nagoya University of the Arts Orchestra played a medley of pop culture themes.

World Cosplay Summit's Championship day

WCS Team UK 2023
Image credit: World Cosplay Summit

There was one last full rehearsal in the morning before Tsupo and Clood started preparing to get into their championships costumes for the real thing, taking a short break half made-up whilst all the teams rehearsed the end of show presentations together.

The performances are judged by a panel of invited guests. This year’s panel included Toru Furuya, video game designer Yuji Horii, producer Nao Hirasawa, manga artist Yuki Suetsugu, cosplayers Yaya Han and Yuegene Fay alongside the winners of WCS 2022 and contributors to the Otaku Judge website and app (operated by WCS). The overall results of the championship are weighted equally between craftsmanship and performance.

Shortly before the performance spot we moved the props to the side of the stage in preparation. There were a couple of minor heart attack moments just before the performance happened, when a stagehand tried to step over one of the delicately prepared props while we were waiting in the wings and clipped it and when the throne backdrop wasn’t quite placed on the right stage marker the first time. I’d been drafted in to assist carrying the throne on and off stage, so while the team began their performance I sprinted back to the holding room to watch on the big screen they had provided for us, hoping that everything would still work as planned. The first reveal prop that had caused so many worries backstage worked perfectly, the banner reveal went as planned … and then after a brief moment, where it just hesitated 2 seconds too long, the temperamental left hand fan behind the throne did drop and completed the epic finale of their performance.

Team Uk's Winning performanceWatch on YouTube

While the team headed off for an interview it was down to Gilly and I to move the stage props back to our holding space to start disassembly. When I tried to put the reveal screen back together for easier carrying, a metal loop that was part of the mechanism that held it together gave way completely, it had thankfully held on just until everything was done. Backstage, once each team had performed you could see the stress and worry lift and it was a real celebration of each other. Out in the parking lot Rescue the Princess was filming for a CMV so following the performance each team headed out to take part in that and some other short interviews and videos.

As well as the top 3 winners WCS has a number of sponsored prizes, each of them awarded for a different aspect of the costumes or performance, usually aligned with each sponsor’s specialty. Arguably the most coveted is the Brother Award, which is given for the Best Sewn Costumes. On championship day the teams with the top few sewn costumes from the craftsmanship judging are invited to briefly meet with the representatives from Brother so they can select the recipient of their award. Tsupo and Clood headed off for their meeting during the deliberation period at the end of the show, while J-Pop/Hip-Hop band MADKID performed live on stage for the theatre audience. All of the teams were called back on stage for the final presentations, a tribute to anime theme singer Ichirou Mizuki who had performed regularly at the WCS final, and announcement of the awards.

Backstage, the organisers and students gathered around the screen for the results. There were more than a few tears shed as awards were called out and everyone celebrated. Team Mexico, Chris and Lorainne, took 3rd overall. Dressing room 110 turned out to be especially blessed, with our roommates Team Latvia, Sayochuu and Sab Cosplay, also securing a sponsor award and placing second overall. And Team UK were awarded the Brother award and the title of World Champions. You can see a full list of all the awards on the World Cosplay Summit Website

WCS Team UK 2023
Image credit: Masaya Kaneko

Following a press conference for the winning teams there was some frantic packing to get everything away and back to the hotel. We were all completely exhausted but we made a little time to share a little toast, thanks to some help from our Team UK Alumni Nomes and Minney, before getting some food and rest.

'It takes a village' became something of a mantra at times backstage, when all three or four of us were part of dressing or working on a misbehaving stage prop, and it really sums up a lot of the experience at WCS. Even beyond what I share here about the time in Japan, the team’s families and supporters will have been living this experience through all of the intense preparation even if not directly hands on. It’s a huge test and you need a strong bond as a team to really make it work, not all teams come out the other side with relationships intact. But when things are going wrong or time is running out there is always someone there to lend an extra pair of hands, whether that’s another team, another organiser or any one of the students. Backstage, only the love of cosplay and celebration of each other’s achievement shines through.

World Cosplay Summit: Osu Parade & Finale

Sunday is a day of celebration with all the pressure lifted. The Osu Parade starts with the well known group photo on the steps of Osu Kannon, and then winds through the nearby shopping centre which was where the Cosplay Summit began. Even though the shopping centre is covered it is incredibly hot during the parade but the incredible energy from the hoards of locals that turn out to see the parade makes it so much fun to be part of. The teams were lead along the route by the orchestra, performers with flags and local Nagoya idol band O2.

There was a little free time in the afternoon, which was mostly spent packing ready for onward travel, before it was time for the team to get back into costume one last time for the finale at Oasis 21. The teams had a little time to explore the event for local cosplayers that had been taking place throughout the weekend, we definitely wished we’d had more time to explore and experience a Japanese cosplay event but it was quickly time to head down to the Oasis 21 stage for the closing ceremony. It was very emotional watching the credit reel that the WCS team had put together with clips from throughout the week and listing every single person who had been part of the summit this year.

On the last day, while the organisers took some time to share important feedback with the WCS staff the teams visited a selection of tourist sites before everyone headed to an Onsen hotel for a celebratory banquet and party before a fond farewell to all the new friends made.

There’s always going to be some difficulties with an event of this scale, with the compacted schedule this year there were some incredibly long days, times we felt very rushed which just added to already pressured situations, and the schedule on the whole left very little time for the teams to socialise and just enjoy Nagoya, which is such a key part of the traditional WCS experience. Hopefully WCS take on all the feedback to balance some of that and the success of this year will hopefully empower them to return stronger and re-establish some of the events and experiences that were missing from the schedule this time.

After such a long break, it was simply incredible to be part of this experience again. We are incredibly grateful to the WCS staff and student corp for all of their support and dedication they gave to the event to make it such a success and special experience. I’m looking forward to being back in Nagoya next year with a brand new Team UK to do it all again!

Applications for the WCS 2024 Team UK Qualifier at MCM London Comic Con in October close Friday 29th September 2023 – See the MCM Website for more details. You can Find a list of all the international events that hold selections on the WCS Website.

You can watch the UK Qualifier right here on Popverse for free on 28 October!

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About the Author
Emma Farnworth avatar

Emma Farnworth

Contributing Writer