A sea of vibrant red, purple and yellow hair can be seen at the Benton Convention Center in Winston-Salem. Teenagers, adults and families of various ages weave their way through – some wielding intricate silver swords, while others adorn glittering wings on their backs. Upon entering the convention center, some might think they have entered another world. In a way, they have – it’s the distinct world of Anime Con.
The Triad Anime Convention (“Triad Con”) meets from March 18-22 and has attracted attendees from across the Piedmont Triad. Anime is an animation style originating in Japan marked by distinct colorful graphics, flashy storytelling, and rich characters. Anime acts almost like a subset culture with an extensive fanbase and community.
At these anime conventions, cosplayers, fans, and artists come together due to their love of the genre. However, due to this unique subset of culture, anime is often criticized and stigmatized, labeled as childish, weird, and even “satanic.” What the stigma doesn’t recognize is the community and freedom that anime conventions provide. It’s a place where people of all backgrounds and identities can come together to come to terms with the best and worst aspects of themselves.
As you descend the escalators inside the convention center, tables line the hallways leading to the game rooms, exhibit halls, and dealer rooms. People gather outside the rooms and along the hallway walls – some posing for photos at the entrance and others waiting to enter into talks with guest artists. Assistance dogs accompany the cosplayers, and groups of friends sit in the corners of the long hallway, watch videos on their phones and talk.
Three blocks south of the Benton Convention Center, away from the convention center and close to the Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts, is a jagged rock pavilion. Lined with concrete steps and open to sunlight, it’s a place where people take prom photos and displaced citizens sleep for the night – but it’s also a place where anime cosplayers hang out. .
Posing on the rocks were ten cosplayers. The cosplayers helped each other pose for photos, smoothing each other’s dresses and wiggling wigs against the harsh North Carolina wind. Laughter, Tik Tok references and compliments filled the space. At first glance, everyone seemed like lifelong friends, but in reality, it was the first time they had met.
Of the ten cosplayers, I spoke with MC, Vi, Imani, and Hannah. MC and Vi were Winston-Salem natives and siblings who created an Instagram group to find people to join their cosplay group for Triad Con. They stood next to each other, smiling and looking at the cosplayers around them. Besides MC and Vi, the group had only communicated in the months leading up to the event via text. However, no one could tell, as they all blended seamlessly – one cohesive family. They checked on each other – noting if another cosplayer was off to the side or seemed tense. MC and Vi stood close to each other, helping each other with costume hiccups and keeping an eye on the clock before heading back to the convention. “Can I take a picture with you?” a young boy asked as he approached Vi and MC.
Everyone looked like superheroes, especially MC. MC, dressed as Shinobu from the “Demon Slayer” anime, wearing a white cape with decorative butterflies.
MC started attending anime conventions in 2017, buying her costumes mostly online. Now they make a variety of their costumes themselves, like their Shinoubu costume with an intricate butterfly clip made from PBC board and glitter spray adhesive.
“I relate very much and identify with this character,” MC said. MC relates to Shinobu as a protective brother and keeping their family together. MC said that coming to an anime convention as a group is special and gives them a sense of power.
“I feel powerful. It’s like wow…we’re living our best life,” MC said. And they look like they’re living their best life with MC and Vi looking happy, posing confidently for each other and the camera.
Vi stood next to MC dressed as another “Demon Slayer” character, Mitsuri. Vi – an eight-year veteran of anime conventions – dressed in a white overcoat with a pink and green striped braided wig. Mitsuri is often made fun of for her looks and eating habits and often holds her back from eating.
“I think it’s a beautiful message – eat and be yourself. I just want to tell her: eat, my daughter, eat! Vi said. Vi later said that Mitsuri was truly self-aware and cosplaying gave her the confidence to feel and act freely.
“Like Mitsuri, I need to tell myself to eat sometimes. Like, if I want to eat, eat,” Vi said.
To the right of MC and Vi was Imani, another cosplayer and South Carolina native dressed as Tokito from “Demon Slayer.” She stood next to her partner Damon, who was disguised as Tokito, brandishing a samurai sword. Triad Con is doing its 25th anime convention.
“In my real life, I like to have fun, but sometimes I feel a bit distant, like calm and myself. And it’s the same with this character,” Imani said. For Imani, the anime convention acts as an open space, a space where making friends and being herself is easy.
“If you don’t know anyone at an anime convention you can literally walk into the arcade and start playing a game with someone or literally yell at someone for liking their cosplay and knowing his character — then build it from there,” Imani said.
Hannah sat on the rocks across from Vi, MC, and Imani, cosplaying Sketchy the Fox from the “SK8” anime. She sat down on the concrete, her hands running through her hair.
“It’s a great vibe, especially for people who can’t be themselves at home,” Hannah said, her black eyeliner shimmering in the sun.
For MC, Vi, Imani, and Hannah, there’s a pattern of acceptance that goes through cosplay. Victoria Albarn, one of the chief organizers of Triad Anime Con, aimed to ensure that the convention was not only accepting of attendees, but also to extend this movement of inclusivity to the volunteer environment.
“Usually the way it works is that [anime conventions] too end up as a business. And it makes people feel like their voice isn’t meant to be heard if they have a suggestion or they have a problem. And we’re an anime jerk – we’re a group of people who have generally been bullied anyway, but we don’t want people to feel like that in a space like this,” said Albarn.
Anime convention workers strive to create a welcoming environment with volunteers stationed around the convention center – attentive to attendees’ needs and cosplays and complementing each other’s costumes.
“And so we always try to look around and if we see somebody who maybe doesn’t feel welcome like they haven’t come with friends… and you can kind of see them standing outside. A lot of our employees will say things like, ‘Hey – question – do you like people watching? Do you want to do a badge check with us because usually we have two people inside? “We want to make sure this jerk remains a place to make friends because it’s such a niche community,” Albarn said.
The niche community aspect of the convention brings all humans together to celebrate their love for one another and liven up. Walking around the convention center as an anime newbie, I was in awe of the costumes and how the cosplayers mimicked specific details in their costumes. Cosplay gives people a sense of agency – it gives them the means, the power and the space to express themselves and explore their identity. It provides space for individuals to step back and see themselves through another lens and develop the self-confidence to not only love others, but also to accept themselves.
In the corridors of the convention center, a group of cosplayers stood grouped in a circle. A man was standing taking pictures of another man in a wheelchair. The man in the wheelchair was dressed in a silver suit – his arms and legs were adorned with silver sprays and mechanical designs. With the help of his friend at his side, the seated man pressed a button on his chair, which allowed him and the costume to stand in full form – a silver Transformer figure . Pride shone on her face as people complimented her costume.
What I realized then was that it didn’t matter if you knew the anime or not – people and kids were in awe of the superhero in front of them. This moment encapsulates the spirit of convention and the anime community – that while anime characters may be fictional, they offer anime lovers the power to become superheroes.