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Nightmare and Serenity: Brief Analysis of Touhou

Since I am so adamantly against this game and yet frequently returning to its subculture, I thought I ought to address it. First, to be sure I wasn’t completely blabbering nonsense, I did some research on the Touhou Project at wikia (UPDATE: use this source instead: the Touhou wiki). This post is divided into two large sections:

  1. A primary review – I’ll “briefly” discuss what Touhou is, its world, and talk about why I don’t like it. This is by no means a thorough presentation nor intended to be any sort of an apologetic argument as to why you shouldn’t play the game. If you aren’t religious or a parent, you’ll view this section as a rant.
  2. A glance at Touhou’s success – I’ll talk about what I do like about Touhou, both from business and gamer perspectives as well as the fan culture.

Let us begin…

Part 1 -Primary Review **************************************

What is Touhou?

Touhou is a series of danmaku verticle shoot-em-up games (shumps). Each game features a single player-controlled character “travelling” across worlds (2D or 3D backgrounds) while trying to avoid bullets being shot at them from enemies that appear on the screen. The games are notorious for their beautiful showers of death in the form of hundreds of bullets in coordinated patterns.

bullet rain

Who created Touhou?
Touhou is created by Team Shanghai Alice whose only member is a man named Zun. Singlehandedly, Zun creates all of the official Touhou games. (There have been spinoff games created by others with his help, such as the fighting games like Touhou 7.5).

Zun began making these games while part of the student group Amusement Makers at Tokyo Denki University, and up until game 6, all of the games were published under that group.

What’s it all about?

The game takes place in the land of Gensokyo (literally, the “Land of Illusions” or “Land of Fantasy”). As the story goes, it’s a desolate place where youkai used to haunt people. Then the youkai were sealed off in 1884 A.D. (and time there seems to have frozen since then) as the rest of the world grew more scientific and skeptical.

Interjection: What’s this “youkai”?
A youkai is a ghost in Japanese folklore. Though they come in many forms, they appear primarily in humanistic form.

Within the Touhou world are ghosts (spirits of dead people and animals), phantoms (which are like ghosts but aren’t necessarily the spirit of something dead), and poltergeist (creatures with telekinetic ability and talent for chaos) and such. Some of you aren’t bothered by this. This section of the blog post isn’t for you. If you aren’t bugged by ghosts wandering around, since they are real, perhaps you might still be unsettled by the fact that the games cause the character to travel through the land of the dead (and get to see all the lovely flowers… NOT!). But it’s like the Oddessey, right? (Did you even read that?)

Isn’t everything in Gensokyo? Yeah, it’s the borderline between the netherworld and the land of the living. At the border is the Hakurei Shrine where the human shrine maiden Reimu lives. She dwells there, investigating the disturbances in the land, and keeps the ghosts at bay using magic from some unidentified source. Anyone else think “Jedi”? – Not quite, though there is definitely eastern religious influence in Star Wars (sorry, all ye evangelical fans).

On a related note, Zun relates the timeline of Gensokyo to the real world, even associating Lunarians with the damage of Apollo 13 (during a lunar war). Also listed on the timeline is the disappearance of dragons. What’s that have to do with ghosts? Hurray! The subject of religion returns! Turns out, some dragon is god of the land. Yes, god is a serpent-like creature with horns. I hear Aslan roaring in the background, but I’ll pick on the symbolism of Lewis later. My point being? Religion is mixed up in this galore.

I really don’t care to associate the common representation of witches (I’m looking at Marisa Kirisame, a human magician) with positive characters. If you’re like me, you’re picky about the religious aspects of things. Everything has a place. (That’s one reason for not playing Legend of Zelda games, but I may comment on that some other time). I find it in horrible taste too that evil spirits and humans can become friends, as in Touhou they indeed can (though admittedly, even “friend” spirits can turn their backs and attack). Seriously? Befriending something that (yes, according to my research) maybe wants to eat your soul?

Anything words of advice?

If you’re like me and you’re bugged about thinking about the dead, don’t study the game details, skip all of the in-game dialogue (if you bother to play), learn to forget about what you just saw, and go study cheerful things for awhile afterwards. Edit: Better yet, go find something better to do that play this.

Here’s an interesting observation: you tend to notice what’s going on more when you aren’t playing. For example, you’ll be more sensitive about death and killing watching someone play Call of Duty than the person actually playing and watching the game for hours. Of course, once they quit playing the game, sit down and really analyze what they are doing, their sensitivity to it may increase. If they don’t notice, they have what religious people call a “seared conscience” and what psychologists call a different “tolerance” level.

Things I noticed (this list to be appended to at any time):

Shintoism immensely influenced Touhou. (The Hakurai shrine is an old shinto shrine, and Reimu’s weapon is a yin-yang orb.) I’m not sure whether Zun has any religious beliefs himself, though I’m assuming he connects Gensokyo with the real world (yes, Gensokyo is supposedly connected to the real world) out of fun, especially since the place is “Land of Fantasy”.

On another thought… from my point of view, then, I’m getting tired of people associating things we typically think of as evil with things that are good. (Harry Potter comes to mind.) “Oh, but’s all fairy tale.” Let witches be witches. We ought to be able to identify the villians somehow, right?

The music of the games fits the setting, very eerie sounding most of the time.

My summation of Touhou:

… but looking something more like this…

Part 2 -The Success of Touhou

Touhou is successful for many reasons. First, it’s a fun game. There will always be fans of danmaku games, even cheap ones like rRootage. More than that, Touhou is currently (and in my opinion) thee most artistic (visually and musically) danmaku created, and that’s saying something. If it wasn’t, I’m sure I would have heard of another game. That says nothing about it’s gameplay, which is extremely challenging, requires memorizing patterns, and rewards its players with a sense of completion (particularly in story), as all good games should do.

Then there’s the fan culture. Zun isn’t your typical businessman. He allows his fans to do whatever they want, just so long as they don’t share the extra stage endings as screen shots. He wants some secrets to reward players. Anything else, including fan stories, fan art, game packs for language translation: all permitted. That’s exactly what fans want. It allows them to create a culture that is very cool and unlimited in potential. Also, being that your fan base is primarily composed of fanatics willing to take the challenge of dodging floods of bullets, the fans will do other crazy things…

like crazy difficult animation…

or anime shows in general. One excellent example is Memories of Phantasm, whose opening is lovely.

(full song version:

Lyrics to the song (“Though the Scent Lingers the Flowers Scatter”) aren’t great (interestingly enough, they begin with the first line from Iroha, an ancient Japanese poem), but they fit the song like all pop music lyrics do. The song is adapted from Mountain of Faith: The Gensokyo Gods Loved.

Then there’s the remixes of game music. Re-live the nightmare of Flandre from Touhou 6 with this awesome but disturbing mix:

Or, on the opposite spectrum, enjoy the relaxing, almost Thanksgiving season serenity of songs that seem like they shouldn’t be Touhou, like this particular piano remix:

If you want truly epic, listen to the WAVE remix of Border of Life, which itself is already an exciting song.

(Another song to add to the mix is a jazzy version of Bad Apple by Tokyo Active NEETs on their album 東方爆音ジャズ –
watch here: http:// www. youtube. com/watch?v=3apDiG0wqdc& )

Furthermore, there’s the fan-art. If it’s an art style that’s been done in anime before, chances are, there’s a Touhou version of it. e.g. chi bi

“Collection:R” by 萩原


Of course, I could sit here posting images all day, but you get the idea. Incidentally, there are some funny comics out there you’ll find.

Lastly, there are fan games, because some people were so inspired they wanted to make their own games. One popular example is Concealed the Conclusion by danmaq. Want to try?… but can’t read Japanese? Here are the direct links: I believe one link is the version for XP and prior windows OSs and this other link is for Vista and up. Note that the Vista version is in Microsoft XNA.

Incidentally, there are games based on Touhou, including those jacked from other sources. Touhoumon is one example.

Concluding remarks

All in all, I leave this luke warm. On the one hand, I hate the content. On the other hand, I can’t help but approve of Zun’s business policies and be pleased with the size and excitement of the fan culture. If you can keep fantasy as fantasy, you might say it’s an enjoyable experience and nice to be part of such as awesome and extensive subculture.

I can’t help but admit that I’ve been influenced artistically in all ways: the imagery, animation, music, and story has influenced my works. Why? Touhou has attributes of things people want (though not necessarily in the form we all want them): excitement, mystery, spirituality, impressive visuals and sound, and all concealed away in a land disconnected from reality. Isn’t that what we want? – an escape from reality where we can do our own thing?

That’s my take on it. Sooner or later, I’ll want to add to this post or edit it… There’s just sooo much to talk about.

Update Sept 18, 2015: Though it’s been some time since I wrote this post, I find it necessary to add another spiritual comment, esp. after hearing about the number of Christians who might be interested in Touhou. My advice: Stay away from this. There are a number of repercussions for getting involved, including (esp.) various forms of tolerance (such as tolerance of (and of watching) evil represented as good, tolerance of the activities of evil characters as “normal”, tolerance of various associations, tolerance of the eerie music, etc.). Also, you may end up being bothered by demons (no joke).  Side effects include nightmares, contemplating suicide, family struggles, and increased interest in the use of magic or occultism, among other things. And notably, some of these side effects occur in less than a week after a period of voluntary exposure. To put this scientifically, I noticed that, in the absence of other causes, voluntary exposure to this stuff is followed shortly thereafter by these side effects. I recall playing the demo of game 13 (or 14?) and, in the following couple of days, had all of side effects combined to such an extent that it was one of the most miserable weekends of my life. I’ve never played the games since, but I’ve still experienced these side effects the following night and day after voluntary exposure, which deters me even more. I do have friends who can stomach this content, but the spiritual explanation for that is that they are coaxed by the demons (who wouldn’t want to scare them away) and whose conscience has been seared by a number of other hideous games they play, whereas I’m more spiritually sensitive and haven’t played games (much less games with immoral or objectionable content) much in the past several years.


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