- On 10th April 2017
- In Photokyo
Mac on Tokyo: Alex Tran
In this edition of Mac on Tokyo, Mac talks to Alex Tran. Alex, founder of AT Images and a Tokyo resident for three years, talks about his work in cosplay photography, his favourite spots in The World’s Greatest Metropolis, and where his next adventures will take him!
Maction Planet: Hi Alex. Welcome to Maction Planet. Straight off the bat, I’d like to say that is rare that I am completely blown away by portrait photography in the way that I have been by your work, especially in the cosplay niche. The depth of character you bring out in your work is extraordinary. How did you start off in this area?
Thanks for the kind words! I’ve had a lifelong interest in pop culture, chief among them gaming, and anime. I first got started in cosplay photography attending the local anime and video game convention in my hometown of Adelaide, and photographed the attendees in cosplay. I really wanted to capture the hard work and courage they displayed putting themselves out there in these amazing costumes. From there, I was invited to join a group of cosplay photographers, and participated in private shoots with cosplayers. Now part of the fun and beauty of cosplay photography is that you have a story built into these characters that can serve as great inspiration for a lot of great photos that tell a story. So as I shot more cosplay portraits, I started thinking to myself how I could tell a story more, with composition, poses, settings, lighting.
MP: Being in Tokyo must be the ideal location for all the inspiration to feed back on itself! How long have you called Tokyo home?
AT: I’ve been in Tokyo for over three years now.
MP: What brought you here in the first place?
AT: It was a desire to see new places, seek new horizons outside my comfort zone. Where I come from is a smaller city, many times smaller than the megapolis that is Tokyo. I first came to Tokyo at the end of 2010, on a holiday with friends as part of a broader holiday through Japan. I loved the country so much that I came again to Japan in 2012. The following year I reached a crossroads in my life, and decided that if I was going to make a move and break out, that was it. So for the following year I made preparations, scrimped and saved to make the big move to Tokyo.
MP: Fantastic. There are elements of your tale that I can very much identify with! How has being in Tokyo influenced your photography?
AT: Well, for one thing, it’s a lot harder in Tokyo carrying camera equipment around! The way I shoot relies a lot on strobes and lighting, and so it’s a lot harder to carry a whole studio’s worth of equipment on your back than it is to carry in a car. In addition to the much smaller shooting spaces in Tokyo, you learn to do a lot more with less – one, two light setups, with more compact modifiers.
In addition to that, one thing that I think is unique to Japan, at least for cosplay photography, is the existence of shared cosplay studios nationwide. They are amazing shooting spaces – dedicated cosplay spaces that are reasonably priced and have a variety of amazing sets that you can shoot on. It really lets you work with a variety of different backdrops that might be hard to find in Tokyo, like say a gothic study or a European castle.
MP: I have visited some of those studios and they are truly incredible. The props and backgrounds are so meticulous!
Given the nature of cosplay – the characters and stories – you just have a few great stories yourself! Any you’d like to share with us!
AT: Well, I found out last year that there is a service that lets you rent out love hotel rooms for photo shoots! So I was invited by a group of cosplayers to come and shoot them at this love hotel in Kawasaki. It was amazing – I shot in this huge, opulent room in a love hotel. I’m talking a spiral staircase that took you up to a second floor, decor like a tacky, low budget version of a Louis XIV apartment. It was less like a room at your typical love hotel and more like some kind of tacky old hotel room from the 80s, which it most probably was.
Last year, I was fortunate enough to be invited to a cosplay event at a wedding chapel! We all could schedule time inside the chapel for whatever shots we wanted. There was a big ball room too where we could shoot. It must have been a big event, because I was asked to help with filming a TV segment about the cosplay event happening there that day for the local TV station, complete with interview. I even made the news that night!! The most crazy thing though, was that they staged a full on cosplay wedding. They had the whole works – cosplayers dressed as the bride and groom from some anime, we got to make use of the wedding chapel. They even had a choir and a foreign minister! I think that would stand out as one of the most bizarre experiences I’ve had in my time in Japan.
MP: Those are incredible tales Alex. Thanks for sharing. Over the years of cosplay photography, have you spotted any trends? Popularity of different costumes or other changes?
AT: Well, popular anime, and by extension, the costumes from those anime, come and go. At the time of writing, hugely popular among the (primarily female) cosplayers is Touken Ranbu, a game about collecting swords, with each sword anthropomorphised as a handsome guy, each with their own look and personality. Also popular is Kantai Collection, with World War 2 Imperial Japanese Navy ships also anthropomorphised as pretty girls.
As well as that, cosplayers tend to go with what is popular in the Japanese pop-culture zeitgeist – at the moment a lot of idol stuff like Idolmaster or Love Live is popular so a lot of cosplayers do that. While Osomatsu-san was airing in 2015 and 2016 there were a lot of people who wanted to cosplay as characters, considering the ease of cosplaying it.
One perennially popular cosplay is Hatsune Miku, whether it’s the standard look with the grey sleeveless shirt, the black skirt and the green pigtails, or an alternative look like the Senbonzakura design, which fuses Miku’s standard look with a military-esque furisode for a different look.
MP: With the growth and popularity of the Marvel movies, Walking Dead and other franchises have you seen an increase in Japanese fans cosplaying Western characters?
AT: I think that it is growing, but it’s still a very niche group. At first I think it was the odd group of cosplayers at Comiket cosplaying as Marvel characters amid a sea of characters from Japanese works, but I think that a sign of growth was that Japan hosted the first Tokyo Comic Con in December 2016. It was a success despite controversies like a translation error leading people to think that male crossdressing cosplayers were not allowed. Virtually the entire event was packed with cosplayers, the majority of them Japanese, cosplaying as characters from DC and Marvel works – I saw quite a few Harley Quinns (Suicide Squad movie), the odd Iron Man here and there, several Batmans (Batmen!?) catching a Joker, and of course a very authentic unmasked Deadpool!
MP: The Tokyo Comic Con had some phenomenal cosplay. I really enjoyed the Biohazard competition they held there. Some amazing teams of cosplayers. And I lost count of the Harley Quinns – not just movie-inspired, but some original comic book costumes, and even an awesome Injustice one.
Moving away from cosplay, what are your favourite spots in Tokyo to chill out in?
AT: I live in Nakano, so I like hanging out around there. I’ve got a nice spot just north of Nakano Broadway, so I often like going around there, Nakano Sun Mall with all the food and also the side streets next to Nakano Sun Mall and Nakano Broadway. I believe it’s the best ward in Tokyo!
Outside of Nakano, I have a few go-to spots I like to go to. In Kichijoji there’s this awesome little donburi place, imaginatively called ‘Kichijoji Donburi’, where they serve huge amounts of meat that I like. There’s also a nice vegetarian place in Shibuya, Nagi Shokudo, and a really nice soul food place, Soul Food House, in Azabu Juban. Near my workplace is also Kiba Park, which has a great view of Skytree and from my work is an excellent view.
MP: Sadly Alex, you’ll be leaving Tokyo soon. Can you tell us what the next leg of your adventure will be?
AT: I’m headed back to my hometown of Adelaide, South Australia. I want to continue photographing cosplay while I’m over there, while continuing to expand my portrait photography. Of course, this isn’t goodbye forever to Tokyo … I’ll still continue to come visit this wonderful city.
MP: And you’ll always be welcome! That’s seems like a fitting place to end our conversation. Thanks Alex for your time and insights into a fascinating world. Anything you’d like to say before we sign off?
AT: If you get the chance to move to Tokyo, you should take it! It’ll provide you with a unique experience and many beautiful photos no matter what interests you happen to pursue!
MP: I couldn’t agree more. Thanks again Alex. Sayonara!
Maction Planet can incorporate ‘Otaku experiences’ as part of your Bespoke Tokyo Tour, as well as arranging cosplay photo sessions, or customised photography lessons or photo tours around The World’s Most Photogenic City. Get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange yours.