Anime Cosplay Origins

So I Knitted Myself a Totoro Hat

ImageI found the pattern for free on Ravelry. For the stitches I didn’t know how to do, I looked up how-to videos on YouTube, i.e, how to do knit with two colors and decreasing stitches. The pattern was easy once I figured it out: knit stitch (no purls), following the pattern around four times, and then changing over to double-pointed needles for the decreases. You can see the Totoros along the bottom, and above them, the sootballs. Add a puffball at the top, and I had a Totoro hat. Not bad for someone who’s only been knitting for a couple of years now.

My grandmother knits, but I never had the patience to do the large afghans and blankets that she loves to do. It was only when we moved to Wisconsin that I discovered that hats and gloves and scarves are a given up here. I got a Stitch and Bitch book as a Christmas present and thought, well, why not. So far, I’ve knitted scarves, fingerless gloves, and a sort of shawl which could be a poor excuse for a Snuggie. But this was my very first hat, and I’m proud it turned out well.

But that’s not what this post is really about.

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The very first anime I remember watching was Battle of the Planets in the early 80s on Channel 32 in Chicago, before it became the Fox station. I didn’t know it was anime at the time or that it had been through the slash and hack of censorship. All I knew was it had people with wingcapes, their ship turned into a fiery Phoenix, and the weird pop-eyed kid always went “boop-beep-boop” every time he said anything. And it was awesome.

Of all the Saturday morning cartoons I watched, the ones that really stuck with me were the imports from Japan: Battle of the Planets, Robotech. Voltron. Even Superbook and The Flying House, which was definitely anime, but shhhhh… don’t tell the Christian stations. They all had stories that felt deeper than the standard repetitive mindless slapstick usually shown on Saturday mornings. There was character development, consequences of actions, a narrative that didn’t reset, and most surprisingly, endings. I remember being absolutely stunned when Robotech finished, because I never saw that happen before. (Robotech was also the first cartoon that showed a black woman/white male dating relationship, which strongly impacted me, though I didn’t know it at the time).

It wasn’t until I discovered Sailor Moon in college — and the bootleg copies of Sailor Moon that had uncensored episodes — that I truly became an anime geek. I gobbled up all the videos I could find at Blockbuster. I traded tapes. Joined the anime club (where I sat sheepishly in the back, acutely aware I was the only black girl in a club of mainly white guys). And every week, I drove 45 minutes out to the Japanese Supermarket Yaohan, where I bought the entire Sailor Moon manga in Japanese, then taught myself Japanese so I could read it.

And then I discovered Miyazaki.

What was the first Miyazaki movie I saw? Princess Mononoke? Kiki’s Delivery Service? I can’t remember, but I know which one stuck with me the most. Omohide Poroporo. Only Yesterday. I watched it all alone at the Art Institute of Chicago, during a film festival, back when I was working as a secretary in downtown Chicago, and most of my friends were still in college. I was lonely, bored, and an anime movie was just what I needed. Taeko’s story of getting away from her job, her wistful memories of her childhood and first crush, drew me in. As she discovered more about herself, I found that she mirrored my own feelings of longing to be true to my childhood dreams. By the end, I had fallen in love completely with the movie.

I own only two Miyazaki movies: Only Yesterday, which I finally was able to watch again after buying the blu-ray direct from Japan, and My Neighbor Totoro. Because it’s Totoro, of course. I have a weakness for cute things.

But that’s not what this post is about either.

***

Up until the last few years, I’ve never been comfortable with seeing myself in pictures.

It’s not that I don’t think of myself as beautiful. I’ve spent most of my life battling against what the media and culture says what black women are supposed to be like. We’re either supposed to be sassy, loud-mouthed, large-bootied, brash, oversexualized hoes or strong, empowered, sexy, stylish, classy, cool queens.

I’m not any of those.

It’s easy to ignore the first half of the statement. It’s just a stereotype. But it’s harder to feel the second half of that statement because oftentimes, I don’t feel strong or empowered or classy or stylish or cool. I got a fat stomach. I got a big butt. And I go all dorky over anime. I feel I don’t fit the definition of sexy, let alone cute.

But that’s changing.

Last year, I met Briana Lawrence at Geek.Kon, and she was the first black cosplayer I’ve ever met. I never got into cosplay; never had the courage. But her photos are amazing. They range from adorable, to lovely, to sexy, to strong. There are jerks who’ve made nasty comments on her size and her blackness, but this hasn’t stopped her, and she has gained a following who find her beautiful and fabulous.  As well they should. Briana is just one of the many black women that are crashing stereotypes, cosplaying anime, goth, loli, steampunk and doing it well.

She’s given me courage to start showing off my own geekery. Maybe I’m not ready to cosplay as Sailor Moon yet, but I can start by knitting a Totoro hat. And you know what? I look pretty darn cute in it.

When I took that picture of myself, I wasn’t thinking about stereotypes. I just wanted to take a picture of myself that showcased my two loves of anime and knitting. But in doing so, I’m joining the ranks of people of color who take pride showing off their geeky side. In doing so, we are saying, this is who we are. We are gorgeous. We are lovely. We are awesome.

We are not redefining what normal is. We have always been this way — we’re just being more proactive in showing it off.


So yeah. I knitted a Totoro hat. It’s awesome. It’s adorable. And if you think I look pretty darn cute now, just wait until you see the Totoro mittens I’m knitting to go along with it.

7 comments

  1. I see some of myself in this, and it surprised me. I never looked for me or representations of me in fiction or media, in part because I couldn’t really identify with any of them; I had the appearance, but I didn’t have the substance – and it made me feel a bit self-conscious, because then: expectations, which I would of course fail to meet.

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    1. I hear ya. I hope you get to see more representations of you. Also, permit me to fangirl wildly at your presence (I met you at Chicon a couple of years ago and I was so happy to meet you!)

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