‘We’re very proud to have the only cloakroom in Dublin actually filled with cloaks’, proclaims Eirtakon’s Twitter account. I can try, but honestly, you’re not likely to get a much better picture of the convention than that.
Arriving at Croke Park on Saturday morning, I instantly feel like that jerk who shows up to your lavish Halloween party in a t-shirt and jeans. The corridors are teeming with people in costumes ranging from the last-minute to the near-professional, and from the recognisable to the totally baffling. I spot a good number of Pokémon characters, which reassuringly bolster the delusion that my childhood is still culturally relevant; a genuinely terrifying, larger-than-life Sauron from Lord of the Rings stomping around the halls; and more Sailors Moon than I possibly can keep track of.
What strikes me early on is that it’s not just Japanese culture on display here — at least half of the costumes (and admittedly, most of the ones I recognise) come from American comics, TV, and films. ‘We started out as an anime convention,’ says director Sinéad Cawley, ‘but it’s just expanded.’ Associate Mark Murphy, who’s been involved with Eirtakon for nine of its eleven years, explains, ‘Initially it was just some screenings, but we thought to ourselves, well, anime fans, they like console gaming, they like card games… These interests tend to overlap.’
‘By proxy,’ Sinéad continues, ‘most of the people here are interested in Japanese culture as well. They’re interested in anime, they’re interested in manga, they’re interested in the language, and plenty of them would like to travel there.’ The event is sponsored by the Embassy of Japan, along with a wide range of other organisations and companies, so they clearly see some merit in promoting the country through its pop culture.
‘Pop culture,’ says Yuichi Yamada, cultural attaché for the embassy, ‘covers things like anime, manga, games, J-POP, fashion, and food culture, which are widely enjoyed by Japanese people, and have the power to represent the real spirit of Japan. Forms of “traditional culture” such as pottery and the tea ceremony were the “pop culture” of their day. With a view to furthering people’s understanding of Japan, I am doing my best to promote pop culture as well as traditional art and culture.’
Dr Ryoko Sasamoto, lecturer in Japanese at DCU, agrees that pop culture provides a useful lens through which people can gain insight into Japan. ‘What I see amongst our students,’ she explains, ‘is that popular culture gives them an easy access to such a distant culture to their own. As anime, manga and games are so accessible, it makes it less daunting — probably! Once they have an interest, they become more open to other aspects of Japanese culture. And of course, being “popular” culture, these aspects are common amongst ordinary Japanese people. So students can experience “real” or ordinary Japanese culture from the very beginning.’
Most of the attendees at Eirtakon echo this; though many of their costumes have no connection to Japanese culture, they all claim that anime, manga, or Japanese games sparked their interest in the convention, and that a love of cosplay (a Japanese portmanteau of ‘costume play’) helps to sustain it.
‘I studied Japanese in school,’ Michaella Cambe – cosplaying as Arcade Riven from the League of Legends videogame – tells me. ‘I think it’s a great way to get into the culture. Since anime and cosplay both originate from Japan, and they’re spreading through cons like this, it lets more and more people know about it.’
Shawna Sheridan, who’s dressed in a complementary Arcade Sona costume, adds, ‘Just getting to meet people with a similar interest in Japanese culture is amazing. You wouldn’t really get the chance otherwise.’
If there’s one thing in that’s definitely evidence at this con, it’s similar interests. ‘It’s weird,’ I overhear a couple saying in the lift. ‘It’s like everyone here already knows each other.’ They’re not wrong. I chat to a group dressed in various Doctor Who costumes for a while without even realising that they just met this morning. One of them tells me that he’s actually only here because his daughter wanted to come along. His costume says otherwise. ‘She’s probably outside hanging her head in shame,’ he laughs. ‘Eirtakon is probably one of the friendliest conventions you can get. Everybody knows what they’re doing, and everybody’s incredibly welcoming.’
Talking to the cosplayers, there’s no doubt that people know what they’re doing. ‘My costume’s all handmade,’ Deirdre de Feu – dressed as Snowstorm Sivir, another League of Legends character – tells me. ‘The boomerang’s made from cardboard and paper mâché, the rest of it’s made from fabric and fabric paint. It took me five days to make the whole thing. So many sleepless nights! I didn’t sleep for 36 hours at one point, just to get it all done. The weapon took three days in total. And the outfit took, like, twelve hours on top of that.’
‘My first time at a convention, I did a Catwoman that I threw on last minute. It was a Halloween costume that I had from years before. Things have definitely changed from there. I won the cosplay masquerade last year! I was Maleficent *[from Sleeping Beauty]* with the wings and the horns and everything. I’ve come a long way.’
Glen Dixon, who’s dressed as Ahri the Nine-Tailed Fox from League of Legends (it’s completely inescapable here, apparently), tells me that his costume took about two months to make. ‘An entire month for the tails! They’re made of fur and garden wire. Oh, and a piece of wood that’s shoved up… well… my spine, let’s say. I’ve been going to a con for a the last two years, and this is the second time I’ve worn this costume, though I added some armour because it was shown in a new trailer that was released. I have two anime cosplays as well, and a lot of game cosplays. I do both, it just depends.’
Melissa O’Brien and Fiona Mooney, dressed as Lumpy Space Princess and Flame Princess from the Adventure Time cartoon series, are another pair of long-time attendees. ‘I used to be on the committee, so this is my first time here without being staff,’ says Fiona. ‘Some downtime at last! We’ve been doing group costumes for a while now, but I’ve got no skills – Melissa does it all. I hate doing body paint, though this is probably my tenth time doing it. I always say I’ll never do it again. The taxi man this morning was a bit… surprised. “You’re very colourful, ladies,” is what we got.’
‘This is my seventh year cosplaying,’ Melissa says. ‘It’s a tradition at this stage. You’ve just gotta come every year. I started making things because of cosplay, but now it’s my career; I’m a costume designer. So it’s a bit of fun, I guess!’
Caitie Pearce, also in an Adventure Time costume, took up sewing because of cosplay as well. ‘I wasn’t really into making stuff before I started this. I only learned to use my sewing machine when I started cosplaying! But I spent about 20 hours on my costume this year – in spurts, not all in one go. This is my third Eirtakon. I went to ones in London and Belfast as well this year, but I think I like Dublin’s one better. You kind of know everyone who’s going to be there. It’s a fairly small community.’
Not as small as it used to be, though. Sinéad and Mark tell me that it’s gone from strength to strength over the years, despite humble beginnings. ‘It started off entirely run by the DCU Anime and Manga society,’ explains Mark. ‘But it’s grown past that now. We’re looking at about 4,000 visitors this weekend, up from 3,200 last year. Every year we just find more to do with it, more to go into. It started off as a very student-orientated, friends-of-friends kind of thing. You’d know everybody there.’
‘The founders certainly never saw it in a place like this,’ adds Sinéad. ‘They just wanted to watch anime with some friends. Now look at it! It’s kind of grown itself. Every year we try to put on more events. We sit down and ask how we can make it bigger. We’ve been lucky to get a bigger audience every single year, which means more money, which automatically opens up new opportunities and resources. This year, for example, we’ve got musical performers and a huge PC-gaming section for the first time.’
‘In the beginning, it was always us reaching out to people. But now we get people coming to us. We have to take applications for the panels these days. It’s easier to reach out to guests now, too, and some of them are even approaching us first. The Embassy helps us to get in touch with them – they know people are interested in Japanese culture here, so they’re always really helpful in arranging that.’
‘A lot of the guests really want to come to Ireland, and they tend to go on holidays here while they’re over for the con. Our main guest *[voice actress Michelle Ruff]* is going to Kinsale and Dingle over the next couple of weeks, and a lot of others do the same. It’s nice to be contributing to the Irish economy a little bit! Luckily people tend to want to come here. Ireland itself is a big draw.’
‘We’ve already booked out the whole venue again for next November,’ Mark tells me. ‘We’re going to start booking guests pretty soon. We’ve actually been working towards 2016 for a couple of months already – when it’s this big, it’s takes more than a year to plan.’
If you’re hankering after some Japanese culture in the meantime, though, Eirtakon is far from the only way to experience it in Ireland. The Little Museum of Dublin is currently hosting an exhibition dedicated to Lafcadio Hearn, a literary figure largely unknown here in his home country, but hugely celebrated in Japan, where his ghost stories and folktales made him one of the country’s most famous writers.
‘It’s a privilege to host this show,’ says Simon O’Connor, curator of the Little Museum, ‘and an amazing opportunity for the people Ireland to discover one of their most successful and influential writers, and the enchanting effect he had on Japanese culture.’
Brian J. Showers of the Rathmines-based Swan River Press, who have just collected a number of Hearn’s essays and stories in a volume entitled Insect Literature, adds, “The variety of Hearn’s experiences, thoughts, and themes make him a citizen of the world. One whose range as a writer is not bounded by these shores. But there’s no reason we can’t celebrate him as an Irish author too, or at least a writer whose life was formed by his Irish upbringing. As he wrote in a letter to Yeats, “I had a Connaught nurse who told me fairy-tales and ghost stories. So I ought to love Irish Things, and do.”’
The exhibition, Coming Home: The Open Mind of Patrick Lafcadio Hearn runs until January 3rd, 2016.
Words: Emily Bourke
Photos: Mark Duggan
Main pic: Noel McGillian