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Fur suits and rocket launchers

The tall man in front of me blinks shyly from beneath a white side-swept fringe - or at least, as shyly as anyone can do dressed in white leggings so tight I could tell if he had varicose veins. He's painted blue and is wearing a diamond-patterned yellow and red cape, as you do, because he's dressed as Ghirahim, the villain from the video game Zelda: Skyward Sword. He's a cosplayer - from "costume" and "play" - part of a growing band of young people who go to conventions dressed up as their favourite game, TV or film character. The trend might be most associated with Japan but cosplay is popular all over the world - 17 countries competed at the 2011 World Cosplay Summit, which was won by Brazil.

Here at the Hyper Japan expo in Earls Court, I'm just watching a "pre-judging", which mostly seems to involve people taking photos, but the competition element is taken deadly seriously. Ghirahim's costume took six weeks to make, and others - such as a frighteningly realistic depiction of Kratos, from the God of War games, modelled by a chilly topless man to my left - much longer.

A decent bra

There are enough cosplayers in Britain to have their own social networking site, Cosplay Island and 10 per cent of the 52,000 visitors to the MCM Comic Con expo, held in London's Docklands in October 2011, came dressed up.

It surprises me that there is an even mix of men and women, although the lack of female anime characters depicted in anything you could wear a decent bra underneath is a recurrent complaint in forums. One solution is "crossplaying" and, sure enough, there are two girls here as male characters from the manga comic strip Ouran High School Host Club. They're giggling and giving out plastic flowers, watched by Katherine, dressed as a male white wizard from the Final Fantasy series, whose two-foot staff was rustled up from newspaper and duct tape at 3am.
Despite the effort involved, the most any of these competitors can win is a 42-inch telly, and the runners-up get a sewing machine - or, more likely, another sewing machine, as it's thought quite infra dig to buy bits of your outfit on the internet.

Japanese animation has what some might term a Freudian obsession with massive swords and other weapons, so cosplay rule books can be alarming. "The following must not be brought: real guns, rifles, or rocket launchers," intones the one from Comic Con, adding: "if a costume is bulky, you must have at least one person with you: examples include full fur suits, armour, wings, and robots." (The rules for Kitacon in Birmingham contain this understated sentence: "Startling police officers with toy guns is generally considered something of a social faux pas.")

Thankfully, no one's brought a rocket launcher to Hyper Japan - although if looks could kill, Kratos would find himself in trouble with the man in the generic ninja costume, who is getting a mere tenth of the attention from photographers.

I check his sword: I sincerely hope it's made from newspaper and duct tape, too.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 05 March 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The last Tsar