Touhou Project

By bluemist on April 27th, 2009

If there is one franchise that you can call sort-of open-source, it would be Touhou. Originally a series of doujin bullet-hell 2D shooters, it is now a megamultimedia metafranchise (if those words even exist or are applicable) that is impossible to contain in my limited scope of knowledge in writing this article. It’s like searching for an elusive treasure chest, that if you like the initial contents, you can decide to go “inside the chest” and realize that it is potentially bottomless. For those who don’t care about doujin works, this may really not apply to them, but who doesn’t nowadays? In an world where anything can be a meme and something can be a rehash of something else, fan-created fandom is rising to levels that even mainstream entertainment seekers understand.

So what do I know about Touhou? Well, if I recall correctly it all started personally with this IOSYS viral video called Marisa Stole the Precious Thing. It was a hyper-catchy song with a PV that is just as hectic. Needless to say, I loved it, and so my curiosity got the better of me. I started searching. This… is… doujin music? Honestly, that was my first taste of the modern doujin era, something which I either have never heard about, or have never cared about before. I realized that indie music like these can be just as awesome as professional ones. And so I started getting more of those kinds of songs.

I do admit that my Touhou music playlist is primarily limited to very few doujin groups I know. These include my personal top 3: COOL&CREATE, Silver Forest, and IOSYS. I don’t usually include instrumentals and non-vocals, and most of my songs are of the cutesy stuff. But there is an entire multiverse of Touhou music out there from hundreds of doujin groups, mixing and remixing the Touhou soundtrack from the original games. We’re just dealing about music here, and we’re already lost in the millions of hours worth of potential entertainment. It’s so hard to filter out the crap, or rather, hard to find the really good ones. If you listened to one song and you liked it, there’s probably a remix of the same theme out there which is better.

Soon enough I got to know the characters in the short PV of that IOSYS song. Who is Marisa? Who is Alice? And who the hell is Reimu? To me, they are characters without many things “canon” about them. They didn’t come from anime or manga, they just came out of a doujin game. It hit me again, doujin characters. Original characters made by some guy out there. This is a path I have never treaded before, because part of the appeal of fictional characters are their stories. Touhou characters? I almost have no story to associate to them, having not played the game. But I like them anyway, because they can be cute… sometimes.

I do admit that my knowledge of Touhou characters is primary limited to some main characters. Aside from the three I mentioned, at the top of my head are Eirin, Cirno, Reisen, Kaguya, Sakuya, Patchouli, Nitori. There may be a hundred of them out there, and that’s an epic lot. But the revolutionary thing about these characters is how doujin makers have been using them to be portrayed differently with each incarnation. As I said, there’s almost nothing “canon” about them, they are whatever doujin artists like them to be. You can have a normal miko Reimu, tsundere Reimu, meganekko Reimu, or whatever. She has a familiar basic structure, but anyone can play around with it to his or her liking. Following or breaking that structure, anything goes as well. As I said, Touhou is the closest to open-source, and that’s why it’s fun randomly browsing for Touhou pics in Danbooru or many other otaku-related photo sites because really, you’ll never know what you’re gonna get. Moreover, mix those characters and you have something else. Inter-character relationships are just as open. Whether you like two characters as enemies, friends, lovers, or whatever, it’s perfectly fine.

It doesn’t just end in music and pictures. As I said, I started to like Touhou because of that IOSYS PV. Now we go to the world of animation then. If you browse my small list of animeme videos, chances are you will see Touhou featured, whether it be a Touhou original, another meme, or some anime or game OP parody. They have been drawn in 2D and 3D, and they come to life brilliantly. There have also been multiple attempts in making a doujin anime out of it.

Wait a minute, I actually haven’t talked about the original source material yet. So… how do I start this… Touhou is a series of doujin bullet-hell 2D shooters created by some group called Team Shanghai Alice, which in this case is really just one man. I repeat, Touhou is made by ONE MAN, affectionately named ZUN in the internet. Yup, this one guy did all the work in those 12 or so mainline games. To think that his series of games created an entire legion of followers simply blows the mind. I think aside from the game itself, the music and the characters he creates are the ones driving all the fandom, because of all the derivative works each has sprouted. The continued success of Touhou lies on how he is kind and smart enough to allow other doujin creators to build upon his idea in whatever shape or form. The original games have stories, fine, but the magic of doujin works is with how anyone can remake, remix, or rehash that source material into something else. According to some sources, Touhou never really transformed into doujin material until the sixth or seventh game of the series. From there, we see its popularity rise year after year.

Maybe let’s focus more on ‘why’ it is popular and why it’s getting popular every minute. I think the genius factor that ZUN had in his personal Touhou Project is not only about how he allows his work to be freely manipulated at will. With the advent of the internet, ANYTHING can be freely manipulated at will anyway. So what is Touhou’s true charm then? I’m guessing that either by purpose or by accident, his work has just the perfect balance of GOOD and BAD in it. This may be most prevalent in the music and characters. For example, his MIDI music is quite good, BUT it could have been better. The music ZUN makes is good enough that other people had taken it up to themselves to improve it. Therefore remixes surface. Another example, his characters and character drawings are rather good, BUT it could have been better. That is why people flock to make their own versions of those characters, in an effort to draw the character better. Actually, improvements and making it better are not entirely accurate descriptions, because the flipside can work as well. If you make a wildly horrible remix of Touhou music, it can also be entertaining. If you make a really bad Touhou drawing, it can be amusing as well. Maybe “interesting” is the right word.

A perfect balance of GOOD and BAD can make or break a certain idea. Make it too bad, the fans won’t pick up your idea (in this instance, your game) and it won’t become popular at all. Make it good or better, and this would simply be the usual entertainment we see everyday. Touhou is not your usual entertainment. It is good enough to make people care, yet it is bad enough to make people care. Funny how that works. Now because of that kind of “imperfect perfection”, the franchise is just as interesting as the next fan-derived work that is made. Again, open-source doesn’t just apply to software, in Touhou’s case, it applies to entertainment. ZUN has hit the sweet spot within in ways I didn’t think it could have been done. It’s a phenomenon in every sense of the word.

Of course, let’s be realistic in that only otakus, geeks and fans get it. This is in essence just a part of one visual subculture in Japan, and the people into Touhou are mostly the ones who like cute girls and moe~. But within this subculture Touhou just encapsulates and encompasses every single kind of entertainment media possible. Whether it be games, videos, music, pictures, or even simple text, Touhou has landed on every single one of them. With one man creating the sandbox, and the fans playing with it, we fellow fans are able to enjoy any aspect of it at will. Imagination and time is the only limit. So if you’re an anime, game, or Japanese subculture fan who hasn’t gone into the world of Gensokyo yet… what the heck are you waiting for?


Posted By: Zeroblade On: April 27, 2009 At: 3:33 pm

Ah, your first exposure to Touhou was the POV huh? If I remember correctly, mine was around 4, 5 years ago when I was reading Megatokyo in Xiamen; Dom wrote a rant about it and well, it all fell down from there. I was playing the demos up a storm ’til I was able to acquire copies from my then-newly acquired DSL connection.
Try not to get too into it though; I eventually burned out around a year or two ago. Now I’m more a fan of the older TH games than the newer ones (EoSD, PCB, and IN in particular), but it’s still neat to take a look at the works that the series has caused people to churn out – I’m still actively following a whole bunch of doujin groups actually – Alstroemeria Records (Masayoshi Minoshima) and ALiCE’S EMOTiON (REDALiCE) being just two of them.

Posted By: piyo On: April 28, 2009 At: 8:15 am

Your misuse of “open-source” has caused me to type in this comment box AAARRRGH. 😉

In the strict software sense, the game’s source code is not available, hence it is not open source. Zun does not allow you to directly use his binaries (code or assets) from his games, so even a quick hop to a derivative work is not enabled. Finally, Zun himself prohibits commercial derivatives, unlike most open source software. I think Touhou is a unique, multi-faceted phenomenon that can’t be captured by this word. Use the right word: derivative.

> genius factor that ZUN had in his personal Touhou Project is not only about how he allows his work to be freely manipulated at will

This is not true in the full sense. He has recently set down guidelines, and casts a disapproving glare on a doujin made anime with full voice overs.

I’ve had many memories with the Touhou games. The music is great. I recommend that if you play the games, start with one of the earlier ones, like 東方紅魔郷 〜 the Embodiment of Scarlet Devil. The later ones are more esoteric and outright difficult. 😉

And yes I love the derivative illustrations. I wrote about it once here:

Posted By: piyo On: April 28, 2009 At: 8:17 am

Blog restrictions did not allow me to post the two additional English interpretations of the original Zun blog post:

You may find interesting material there.

Posted By: bluemist On: April 28, 2009 At: 9:39 am

Nope I’m not a 2D shooter gamer so I won’t dare try the games. If it’s true bullet-hell I won’t even survive in one stage.

Yes apologies, maybe open-source is not the right word. I’m not in the OSS industry. I’m mainly an end-user of some OSS software, so my viewpoint is limited to that, the same way I consume Touhou derivative works. I wasn’t referring to the shooting games though, I meant that the themes like the characters, music, and other aspects of Touhou are being manipulated by other people.

Also, I didn’t mention about the commercial aspects (forgot to), but indeed there are these limitations. That one doujin anime was kinda pushing it, but thankfully it didn’t become as commercial. It may be similar to those OSS licensing agreements, but then again my open-source comparison is not strictly correct anyway hehe.

Posted By: BenNelsey On: August 04, 2009 At: 8:10 pm

quotes and comments:
“IOSYS viral video called Marisa Stole the Precious Thing.”
“I started searching. This… is… doujin music?”
“personal top 3: COOL&CREATE, Silver Forest, and IOSYS.”
“ONE MAN, affectionately named ZUN in the internet”

OMG I just found a copy of myself O: (you)

“his characters and character drawings are rather good”
nah, only touhou 12 had drawings (that he made himself) that were actually good
touhou 9 – someone else drew the art
touhou 7.5 and 10.5 fighting games – he definitely didnt draw anything in-game there

which is why a term called ZUN-art exists, to mock and praise him at the same time 😀