"I'm just a regular, amateur cosplayer," says Ushijima Ii Niku, or Ushijima "Good Meat", in a swish Tokyo hole-in-the-wall eatery. By day, she has an office job, photoshopping adult-related pictures, and in her free time, she cosplays. She's anything but ordinary.
Her fans range from the Akiba faithful to artists like Street Fighter II character designer and famed illustrator Akira Yasuda, who released a "doujin" erotic comic featuring Ushijima. "She's appealing because she's beautiful, sports a bowl-cut hairdo, doesn't wear a lot of make up, has good figures and a nice figure," Yasuda, who is better known as "Akiman", rattles off to Kotaku.
Ushijima considers herself "Akiba-kei" or an "Akiba-type"j and has been interested in gaming, manga and anime since she was a kid. "I love fighting games," she says. That, and ero Evangelion comics. The 27-year-old first came to the attention of Japanese otaku in 2007 after a set of her cosplay photos took the internet by storm. Since then, she's become the country's most famous cosplayer, garnering attention from the Japanese media. In Akihabara, Tokyo's geek district, she's achieved idol status, with fans snapping up her self-published photo CDs.
"I got into cosplay by accident of sorts," she says. A cosplayer acquaintance said she should release a set of cosplay photos in 2006. "I only sold 13 copies," she says. "And seven of them were bought by friends, so I really only sold 6." She had taken the stage name of Ushijima Ii Niku after trying to decide an easy to remember email address. She took the name "Ushijima" from the manga "Yamikin Ushijima-Kun". "Ii niku" or "good meat" sounds like obvious fetishization of the flesh, but she chose it because it's a Japanese word play on the numbers "1129" (ichi ichi ni kyu), the last four numbers of her email address.
But by 2007, she made waves with a series of cosplay photos based on Dragon Quest Swords. Since then, she's built up a following online thanks to her saucy pin-up cosplay pics.
"I wanted to do erotic cosplay, because I think it's more interesting than regular pictures," the Tokyo-native adds. Her fans would agree. Besides the game and anime references, her photos show the influence of imagery from the S&M scene and the Japanese sex industry. She's like the Bettie Page of Japan, except that she does not do full nudity. It's easy to look at the psycho sexual elements in her photos and write her off as yet another young woman who is being taken advantage of. However, it seems that she is anything but.
She produces and self-publishes all her own videos and photos. She selects all the costumes or commissions them, picks the locations for her photos and decides the poses, leaving the nuts and bolts of the photography to the cameraman she selects, conceding that, of course, she is not a professional photographer. The imagery in the photos might appear masochistic, but Ushijima appears to be completely in control. "I don't show anything I don't want to show," she says, "and I don't do anything I don't want to do."
There is a concept, perhaps a Western one, that for women to be in power, they must explicitly be in power, wearing pants, talking like a man, whatever. Ushijima's photos snub their nose at that. While other popular pin-ups might enter a Japanese talent agency and sign with a manager to help plan their career, Ushijima has no interest in that whatsoever. "What do I need a talent agency for," she asks. "They'd just make me do stuff I don't want to do. They might not let me meet my fans, for example." In the mainstream Japanese entertainment business, talent agencies rule, micro-managing and controlling the lives of their talent. Ushijima has no interest in that whatsoever, making her a bit of an anomaly. She regularly communicates with fans, and even did a series of photo-shoots in their rooms.
Wearing skimpy outfits and flashing her underpants, these photos are actually more revealing about the person whose room is featured than Ushijima, offering a peak at the otaku fans who inhabit the space. In some of the photos, the fans play video games, while Ushijima is sprawled out reading a comic. Ushijima poses next to PlayStations as if she's a living, breathing version of the plastic figurines that occupy the shelves and desks of Japanese otaku.
"I want to be a figurine," she says. She further explains that it isn't that she simply wants to be a figurine, but she wants to be posed as one for photos. There is a sub-culture of otaku who purchase pricey figurines and then photograph them. Ushijima considers herself to be "raw material" for the photos. It's as though she is no more important than the background or the costume she wears. While this might come off as degrading, Ushijima's photos are not just about her or the costumes or her own sexuality, but the interplay between them as filtered through otaku culture.
Once one looks beyond the skin, it's easy to read more into Ushijima's work. She does cosplay performances in art galleries and her photos do have more substance than one typically finds in work of this ilk. "These are not art," she's quick to say, adding that one must really define what art is. "These are just images, and there is nothing I want to say." But when probed further, she does have explicit reasons why she selects certain costumes or certain themes. Nobody has a $US3000 Evangelion-style rubber suit made on a whim.
Ushijima's reached the top of otakudom, with a successful cosplay cottage industry and fame with fans, who often recognise her on the street. "Though, I usually wear frumpier clothes," says Ushijima, decked out in a sailor suit-style tunic, and an impossibly short skirt, tittering on stiletto heels. "So I blend in better." Other popular cosplay models might make a beeline into mainstream popularity or the less mainstream, albeit popular, adult film business. "I'm not interested in doing either," she says. "I'm not going to show people that." Rather, what she's interested in doing is producing cosplay photos for other up-and-coming cosplayers, taking advantage of the skill-set she's developed over the past few years. "But at the end of the day, this is my hobby," she says. "I'm doing what I want to do."
Culture Smash is a daily dose of things topical, interesting and sometimes even awesome - game related and beyond.