GeekOut

Costuming at Dragon*Con: Why I’ll be a Japanese fox this year

If there's one thing any self-respecting Dragon*Con attendee does not want to do, it's "Halloween it."

Dragon*Con, the Southeast's largest fantasy and sci-fi fan convention, has long been a venue for impressive costuming. But as cosplayers, costumers and artists continue to develop sophisticated fabrication techniques, the bar for an awesome costume is set higher at Dragon*Con than at any other fan convention in the country.

Dragon*Con attendees don't just put on a costume: they sculpt gravity-defying wigs, they vacuum-mold armor, they airbrush their entire bodies.

The costumes of Dragon*Con send a complicated message of commiseration, appreciation and imagination.

Costuming, in the nerd community, can be a deeply soulful thing. The choice to display a persona, well-known or mystifyingly niche, at once communicates what media you consume, (video games? anime? comic books?), what attributes you value (are villains more interesting?), your artistic ability and aesthetic, as well as the fact that you are part of the tribe of fans that admire a particular franchise or idea.

In essence, costumes are a nerd calling card.

So those wearing only store-bought  fright wigs and fairy wings will likely not win over the crowds when more than 50,000 people descend on Atlanta, Georgia, this weekend to attend Dragon*Con

If you could bare your soul with a costume, what would you say? This year, I've chosen to broadcast my interest in Japanese mythology.

I've been drawn to Eastern mythology since I was a child. There's so much magic in those stories - and not just wizards and miracles.

Chinese and Japanese myths are filled with dragons and phoenixes, totemic animal demons, amazing weapons and spirit-soaked nature. These ideas are irresistibly manifested in Hayao Miyazaki's films, anime series like "Mushi-Shi," "InuYasha" and "Bleach" and kung fu movies like cult favorite "Zu Warriors" or more recently "The Sorcerer and the White Snake," starring Jet Li.

My interest was more firmly cemented by my first trip to Japan in 2010. When you travel to forested parts of Japan, like the Nakasendo Trail or Okuno-in, the vibrant hues of the moss and the  seemingly impossible height of cypress trees, towering above, bring those myths to life. These are indeed enchanted forests.

Despite the fact that the locales are halfway around the planet from my home, they seemed so familiar to me. I'd seen them before - in ancient wood-block prints illustrating encyclopedic entries about talking animals, and in glimpses of forest spirits in "Princess Mononoke” or "Spirited Away." Even the clouds in Japan look like the pictures I'd seen.

After years of filing away facts about ancient Japan from so many PBS documentaries and childhood library forays, at some point I stumbled upon the story of Tamamo no Mae.

This mysterious and captivating figure in Japanese mythology so intrigued me that I set off to learn everything about her. She's a fox spirit, but not just any fox spirit: a nine-tailed fox spirit. According to Japanese lore that means this demon has lived for 900 years, growing all the more powerful each century.

The fox spirit holds a fascinating place in Japanese folklore. As in Western fables, foxes are wily and cunning. They can be chaotic trouble-makers. Known as "kitsune," (pronounced "kit-soo-ney") they often transform into women and marry human men; their dedicated and happy married life hides their demon nature, which they never willingly reveal. Kitsune are still celebrated in Japan today, through festivals across the nation.

Foxes are familiar iconography of the Shinto religion; they are seen as messengers to Inari, the deity of rice. One of my favorite shrines to visit in Japan is Fushimi Inari Taisha, a mountainside snaked with Torii gates erected so close together that they form vermillion-colored tunnels. Dotted along this Torii gate trail  are shrines guarded by statues of fox demons. Worshipers tie red bibs on the stone foxes to protect them from the elements.

The legend goes, Tamamo no Mae, the nine-tailed fox spirit transformed into a woman and found a place in a prince's court. She was beautiful and beguiling. It was said she was exceedingly intelligent and well-read for her age, and she always smelled sweetly. She quickly won the prince's adoration, along with the rest of his court.

But soon enough, the prince fell ill. His soothsayers and magicians struggled to solve the ailment, until one day Tamamo no Mae's supernatural nature was found out (and the fact that she was working for a rival lord who wanted the prince's throne.)

She transformed back into a fox and escaped to a nearby mountain. The prince ordered his strongest warriors to hunt and kill the fox. They did so with a magic arrow, and the fox's body turned into a cursed stone that killed anyone who touched it. Tamamo no Mae's spirit was said to haunt the stone. This story lives in books and dramas (including Noh and Kabuki).

Aside from the fact that Tamamo no Mae is the cultural ancestor to countless fox demons (like the one in "Naruto") and wolf demons (as with the "Spice and Wolf" series) in manga and anime, she's a powerful female character born of a society that is staunchly patriarchal. She threatens the men who hold power. It takes the two strongest warriors and a magic arrow to stop her. She can be pretty and smart. And as depicted in Heian Era/period prints, she gets to wear elegant robes, striking a regal silhouette as they trail the ground behind her.

This chick is so cool!

She's a character that speaks to my interest in the Japanese aesthetic, mythological creatures and Eastern pop culture. By wearing a Tamamo no Mae costume to Dragon*Con, I hope to find my people. They don't have to know who Tamamo no Mae is - it's a fairly esoteric story to the average American - and they don't have to know the cultural history of fox spirits within the Shinto religion.

They just have to find the idea of this Japanese myth as beautiful and alluring as I do.

Having a fun costume idea is one thing - bringing it to fruition is an entirely different endeavor. Check Geek Out! for tales of my journey to becoming Tamamo no Mae for Dragon*Con 2012. I'll speak with costuming experts and narrowly avoid tetanus shots as I sew ancient Japanese robes.