Friday, January 21, 2011

WTF is Touhou Project?

Readers of this blog won't be too surprised to learn that I like collecting figures. Recently I've tried limiting my purchases to Transformers and poseable anime figures, and those poseable action figures being mostly figma.

And in the figure market I started noticing more and more figures from something called Touhou Project. So I naturally assumed Touhou Project was an anime, but when I typed "Touhou Project Anime", the only thing that popped up was something that was clearly fanmade called "Touhou Anime Project". None of my regular haunts had an anime named Touhou streaming anywhere, so I concluded it wasn't an anime. Time to check Wikipedia:

"The Touhou Project (東方Project Tōhō Purojekuto?), also known as Toho Project or Project Shrine Maiden, is a Japanese dōjin game series focused on bullet hell shooters made by the one-man developer Team Shanghai Alice, whose sole member, known as ZUN, is responsible for all the graphics, music, and programming for the most part."

Alright, now I was starting to get somewhere. I found it incredible that a bullet hell shooter had such a following. Also reading a little bit more I realized I actually had the first five games already in a pack of PC9801 ROMs I had downloaded a while back. I played them and they were fun enough, but I still didn't see what all the fuss was about.

From the 10th games in the series:

Then I stumbled upon the Touhou Wiki and realized I had just fallen into a rabbit hole that I probably wouldn't get out of for a long time.

Before I go any further, let me back up and try to explain what is at the core of Touhou Project. First of all, as mentioned in the Wikipedia article the games, which have over 12 entries now, are all created by one guy that does everything. Not only that, he does it all really well (except for the art. More on that later). Unlike a lot of bullet hell shooters that contain bizarre unintellagable stories, the Touhou games all have really rich quirky and lovable characters. This is an important point to make to understand the fandom around Touhou. The two main leads Reimu and Marisa, a shrine maiden and witch respectively, are at the heart of Touhou Project. Reimu is a shrine maiden who is laid back, a little lazy, but extremely powerful and effective at exterminating demons. Marisa is a loud outgoing witch who is also extremely powerful, but much more destructive with her power. The two form a Yin and Yang relationship that carries through all the games. In each game a new group of female yokai appear and join the ever growing cast of characters. Now on it's 12th-ish title, the cast has grown into the dozens of cute yokai, demons, witches, fairies, maids, and lunar rabbits. That creates a lot of merchandising material, which brings us back to the plethora of figures I mentioned at the start of this post.

But that isn't where Touhou Project ends, but where it begins. A few months ago I posted an article called, "What I want (wish) from Black Rock Shooter". In it I talked about how I hoped Black Rock Shooter would do for creative writers what Hatsune Miku did for music, and that is to give artists a spring board with already created characters to do with as they want. Well it seems that Touhou Project has already accomplished this feat.

Once you start digging into the world of Touhou you will find an overwhelming amount of fan created content dedicated to the cast of characters. Manga, anime, music videos, and most notably games.

As I said before ZUN himself isn't a very good artist, so the fan works of Touhou might be one of the few instances where fan created materials actually look better then the original. And this really stands out with some of the games. Some people have made 3D Fighting games, dungeons crawlers, and old school 8bit games:

And a lot of them are really well made.

There is also a large fan collective of music videos based on the excellent music from the games.

Probably the most popular is Bad Apple:

And of course you can say fan made without mentioning fan made manga (or doujin, although doujin actually refers to everything in this article even the official games because all are produced and made by "non professionals"). Since Touhou Project consists of only female members, what you will find is a large amount of yuri doujin, some hentai and some not. There are enough hints thrown in the official games at which characters might be pared up together but nothing official, and thus this is where the fanbase goes nuts pairing up certain characters. Personally I'm a Marisa/Alice shipper myself.

So lets talk canon. Technically, like any fictional work the only thing that is canon is the original authors work, in this case ZUN, and this is still true for Touhou. BUT I personally like to see it as a "choose your own canon" type affair. The games are written in a way that doesn't necessarily contradict any fan work. Of course I'm not saying every fan work could be considered canon, that is impossible, but if I wanted to play all the official games and read all the offcial manga that is the base, and then if I wanted to include a yuri doujin of Marisa and Alice, I could consider that canon if I want. ZUN has said he supports such reasoning and I'm going to go with that. Or if I want to say Sky Arena happened in the Touhou world I'm free to think that as well.

What I'm getting at, is this isn't a situation like the Star Wars Expanded Universe that is basically all fan fiction and then Lucas comes and changes something and then it makes something in the Expanded Universe impossible. With Touhou you can pick and choose which pieces you want to fit in your customized Touhou Universe. For that I find it a very impressive venture. It goes above and beyond what is typically thought of as fanfic and makes it something more legitimate as a community.

And all that is still scratching the surface of Touhou Project. An official anime anniversary is in the works by UFOtable, though it isn't endorsed by ZUN and a lot of fans have already written it off.

Also after playing the games I highly, highly recommend reading the manga written by ZUN (but not drawn by thankfully). It is really cleverly written and gives a better insight into the characters and their daily lives.