Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Making Sense of Dollers

The fearsome Asaro Mudmen of Papua New Guinea: A rare example of a lost tribe that has succeeded in remaining autonomous following their first contact with the outside world. Not all are as lucky. Perhaps their proto-Zardoz clay masks help ward off evil. Perhaps just enough missionaries go missing in the region each year to keep the yoke of globalization at bay. Regardless, their unspoiled culture offers rare insights into our own human nature and fascinates us with its mysteries.

Estimates suggest there to be only around 100 uncontacted tribes remaining throughout the world. Well, you can cross another off the list! Last week TSB ventured down into the uncanny Valley of the Dollers to observe their largest annual gathering. Little is known about what lies behind the mask--until now. Join us as we explore the secrets of the Dollers, or as they are known in their native land, Kigurumi.

Welcome to My Doll 2012!

My-Doll celebrated its fourth year with over 250 participants, 100 of those being in costume. We enjoyed charades, dancing by established Department H personality Cheriss Q, helpful vendor stalls willing to put up with our prying questions, and photos, photos, photos! If it weren't for the plastic masks, I could have almost sworn that we were at your average cosplay event. Almost.

Cheriss Q rocking out to Space Sheriff Gavan, a track near and dear to the TSB family.

Before we can discuss what Kigurumi are, we have to understand what they are not.

Kigurumi are not Disney Land mascots or those hooded pajamas sold at Don Quixote. The term “ani gao” (anime face) is used to delineate our subject from the pedestrian vernacular.

Joe Public's interpretation of Kigurumi. (Source)

Kigurumi are not super sentai heroes, though they do wear flesh colored, full-body zenshin tights. There is a strict No Power Ranger rule in effect.

Kigurumi are not allowed to speak or de-mask while in character, though they may write messages via pen and paper, iPad, Etch A Sketch, etc.

Kigurumi are not cheap. Masks start at 60,000 yen, with a custom mold going up to five times that. Wigs are styled by professional beauticians. Clothing needs to be tailor made. And silicon breasts don’t pay for themselves. The process is a labor of love.

Bed head should not be confused with aho-ge. Remember to comb your wigs, boys!

Kigurumi are not as far away from you as you think. Masked dancers are featured in the Madonna music video Give Me All Your Loving which recently debuted at the Super Bowl, while David Guetta's Turn Me On delivers the whole package with full-body tights, albeit with realistic masks as opposed to anime-inspired proportions.

 I'd skip ahead to the 1:20 mark.

This leaves us with the positive defining characteristics of Kigurumi:

Kigurumi are a subcategory of cosplay that is paradoxically secretive while at the same time proactive in recruiting new members. Hence, our invitation as outside observers.

Kigurumi are nearly exclusively men, while the characters they play are primarily bishojo--that is to say, beautiful young girls. The ritual of suiting up opens otherwise unattainable vistas into realms of the cute and fabulous.

Fujiko works it for the camera.

Kigurumi are closely related to mimes. They rely on over-exaggerated body language and gestures to compensate for their fixed expression and mutisim. According to photographers, this “playful” nature makes them better subjects than de-masked cosplayers. Likewise, playful touching is another communication tool in the Doller's bag of tricks.

Posing outside with nature as a backdrop makes you feel like the heroine of of a visual novel such as AIR or CLANNED.

Kigurumi are loved by children and feared by adults. In addition to the sanctioned stage performers (Pretty Cure and their ilk), groups of wild Kigurumi can be found roving amusement parks on the weekends. Spouting off, “It’s for the kids” is also a handy Get Out of Jail Free card.

No, this wasn't salvaged from a fire-bombed apartment: A plastic mask hot of the presses begins its life looking like a dirty potato before being crafted into a stunning bishojo by a talented painter.

Kigurumi are extremely near-sighted and hard of hearing. The pinhole eye sockets in the mask greatly restrict vision. The mask itself covers your ears, turning it into an equilibrium-shattering echo chamber. Also, the full body tights make overheating a very real danger. In the interest of safety, a Kigurumi shouldn’t wander too far away from their wrangler, or “handler” as they're known.

Invisible eye slits marked in pink. (Source)

Our guide for the processions, the lovely Mirai-Chan of Danny Choo fame.

It's like my favorite anime playing out before my eyes IRL!

When the curtain rises on the Dollers, that's your cue to turn down your ears and crank up your heart.

Military otaku are welcome as well, so long as they play beautiful child soldiers.

I take that back; it really is just like any other cosplay event.

Now that I’ve piqued your interest, intrepid reader, I’m sure you only have one question--how do I get involved with the Kigurumi community? That all depends on if you want to be behind the camera, or behind the mask.

You should have a contact card even if you’re there just to photograph. Our biggest faux pas of the day was leaving the business cards at home. Every successful shoot should climax with the intimate exchange of information. You’re there to make a personal connection with the subject, not just snap bromides!

For those of you adventurous enough to start suiting up, there’s online support groups. Animegao is a bilingual blog aggregate to keep you connected to the community. Kigurumi Cosplay Society houses a repository of tutorials with knowledgeable forum-goers. Ayame Shoten offers rental and custom costumes for all your physical needs. Zukokan does international orders, while Cospatia is the preferred cosplay tailor for domestic customers. Once you've assembled the components, let everyone know about your new identity on the Facebook group Kigurumi Interntional “Know”.

Words and photos alone can not do justice to the inscrutable world of Kigurumi. It must be experienced first hand. Before you ask, TSB does not offer chartered tours, nor will we be held responsible for your transgressions in the Valley of the Dollers. Fear not the unknown, and make danger your sole traveling companion. But be forewarned--the first step down is longer than it looks.

Job well done girls! Until next time, may you stay ventilated and well hydrated.


  1. Thanks for the hard work with reporting the event and the introduction on Kigurumi.
    Glad you guys had a good time too.
    There should be a good number gathering at Summer Wonder Festival. Otherwise there is always next year. ( ^_^)/

  2. Lovely to hear about kigurumi from someone who seemed genuinely interested, rather then just another person out for the "shock and awe" perspective. I've loved costumes my entire life and kigurumi is such a joyful pantomime of everything I love about anime girls brought to life. Wonderful pictures, wonderful report. Great job!

  3. So much in common here with cross dressers and trans people, though there are major differences, of course. Achieving the look, movement, and voice of a sex other than one's own is very difficult, and few "pass." Many use padding and corsets, and wigs are essential. Few successfully manage to live en femme or boi, even part time, at home or at work. Cross dressers are mostly men, and almost all are heterosexual.

    Because there is so much discrimination in society, there is also discrimination within and between these groups as well. So an open life is difficult unless one has transitioned physically or learned to modify one's appearance successfully enough to fool everyone, all the time. The smallest movement, an ill-chosen phrase, or a slight voice difference can reveal them.

    For almost all, cross dressing is a fantasy experience, perhaps a fetish, and often a sexual outlet, begun in childhood. Most cross dressers go through cycles of purging their wardrobes and rebuilding them.

    Because dollers adopt the movements and mannerisms of established characters, and then only for a few hours at a time, making themselves believable to others is, though expensive, relatively easy. The hard part, again, is avoiding breaking character.

  4. I've recently heard of the term 'Dollers' and seems at first I got a weird impression about them but when I've discovered they are related to Kigurumi's it became my passion as well. I've ordered some stuffs and doll faces from which would be my first purchase of dolls!

    1. The site only appears to carry onesies that you'd find at Don Quixote. Though I'd be interested to see a mass-market shop that specializes in anime-gao Doller faces.