In the world of so-bad-it's-good cosplay, a few costumes come up time and time again. Cardboard box Gundam. Party satin Samus. That Flareon fursuit with the dead, dead eyes.
But the one that I will always love is this beautiful, phallic, muppety take on Death Note's usually terrifying shinigami demon Ryuk - and that's because it made its first and only appearance at my very first convention. So here, from a dark time in Australian cosplay history, is the story of that Ryuk costume.
The year is 2007. Cosplay is taking off in Australia. One of the biggest events is Animania, a now defunct anime convention that then was held among the architectural beauty of Sydney's Town Hall. Most cosplays are sewn, armour and big builds are few and far between. Cosplayers have only just started sourcing wigs instead of spray colouring their hair.
The community at this time is tight-knit, organised around local convention forums and the glorious hub of Cosplay.com. Cosplay skits are common, almost mandatory for those entering comps. They're often cringy and almost always designed around a number of community in-jokes. Every skit has at least one record-scratch sound effect.
This is the world that created this terrifying masterpiece.
A cosplayer going by the nickname 'Tsubaki' was one of the more prominent figures in the local community at the time. She was the creator behind this ambitious Ryuk costume, made only a few months after the anime finished its initial run.
The secret of the fantastically goofy Ryuk was that it was never really about the costume, as much as the skit that went with it.
"I made this costume on a whim with a friend of mine back in 2007 for a convention in Sydney called Animania." Tsubaki explained to me in a message.
"We were going through a phase of parodying our favourite series at the time and we were both in love with Death Note. Skits were my favourite part of cosplaying at the time, and I was at university with not a lot of time to dedicate to costumes."
Not only was the skit the real focus, the costume was also made on a deadline that would make even the most dedicated last-minute cosplayer think twice.
"Overall it was probably a week between uni and work that I spent on the costume, without much thought really going into how I was going to make it.
"I just kind of went "yeah, I'll cosplay as Ryuk" not really considering that I may need to think about what I was agreeing to."
"We probably spent most of the time writing jokes for the skit performance and picking music. I spent most of the week making the pleather portions of the costume - my pants and top - thinking to myself 'yay, I'm so proud I've made some decent fitted pleather pieces.' I even put in some effort molding little beads and pieces to hold my pouch for my death note.
"So, suddenly it's the night before and... Crap I still need to make the head. In between recording lines for the skit I was pulling pieces of lycra over a malformed chicken wire tube to cover my actual head. That night, 'Ryuk' was born."
Between a general lack of planning and a lack of time, the foundations were in place for a beautiful monstrosity to be born. The cherry on the cake was the creative range of materials used to bring him to life. At this time in the cosplay world, speciality cosplay shops and materials didn't exist, so most costumes had to be cobbled together from whatever odd bits and pieces you could find at the local hardware store. This was the same for Ryuk.
According to Tsubaki, the following were what Ryuk's glorious head was mainly composed from:
- Chicken wire, for building the form of the head.
- Blue lycra, to stretch over the wire head form for his skin.
- Mini free torches from an easter show show bag and Ping pong balls for his eyes.
- Black plastic leaf bunches, for his shoulders
- And finally black fabric paint, to finish his pupils and lips with.
Another defining feature of the costume was Ryuk's gormless (and toothless) grin, which as it turns out was more a matter of form than function. "I had to make sure I cut his mouth's dumb gums open enough for me to see through whilst wearing the head," Tsubaki explained. "I also decided to make my arms longer using those extendable claw arms you can buy from toy stores, which I covered with pleather plush gloves I'd made to look like hands. You know, to complete the other world strange body I was imagining." Clearly it worked perfectly.
Unlike most cosplays, where the most cherished moment comes the morning of the convention when the cosplay is finally worn all together for the first time, Ryuk's peak came after a long, sleepless night.
"I'd stayed up all night trying to pull this thing together for our skit, and I finished the whole thing by about 6am. At that point we both looked at it, sleep deprived, and burst into uncontrollable laughter at the disturbing new Ryuk baby we had brought into the world. We spent so long just laughing at the head and how absurd it looked that my friend's mother came in a few times to check we were okay and still sane. It was the kind of laughter that brought tears to the corners of your eyes.
"I should probably mention we caught the train into the convention that day. I was awkwardly walking around in a pleather suit carrying a terrifying blue head under my arm.
"The actual convention though... my god. People were actually super cool with at the time, weirdly. I felt so accepted and not awkward in this glorious get-up. I found friends and made them laugh as much as I was at myself.
"It was such a comfortable and fun atmosphere. Definitely got a lot of questions about the costume, as well as a lot of laughs from the audience during our skit.
"I doubt the same kind of reaction would happen at a modern convention, but I totally had a wild time wearing this bad boi Ryuk."
Ryuk wasn't to be the pinnacle of Tsubaki's cosplay career, luckily. Only a year later, she and her partner Ella Lowgren went on to win the first ever Australian round of the World Cosplay Summit, representing Australia in Japan. However the ghost of that old cosplay still haunts her. One of the more recent WCS teams created a motivational poster from pictures of Ryuk's hapless grin, bearing the message "if she can win WCS, so can I".
The costume has done the rounds as a number of different memes over the years, most commonly as some kind of 'end my suffering' image macro.
While Tsubaki isn't widely known as the cosplayer behind Ryuk's toothless grin, photos credited to her are surprisingly hard to find. It gets only a brief mention on her cosplay Facebook page, if you know where to look (spoilers: it's in a folder fittingly titled "SHAMEFUL COSPLAYS" with the fantastic subtitle "THESE ARE COSTUMES I SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF, BUT I'M REALLY NOT.").
While the photos of this cosplay have made their way far and wide across the internet, the videos thus far don't seem to have been discovered. This is a bit of a tragedy, as you haven't truly lived until you've seen this masterpiece in action:
And here's another of the same skit from a different angle.