This is a talk I gave at Barcamp Bangkok 2 on August 31, 2008. It gives a little introduction to Touhou and tries to answer the question why Touhou is so popular.
On May 25th 2008, in the rain, an fan waited in lines that stretched across the street to the next train station to go into the venue of Hakurei Jinja Reitaisai 5, a game related convention. Thirty thousand people, he heard, were attending the event, and this was three times the number the staffs expected. After several hours, he arrived at the entrance and was informed that only those who had purchased the “catalogs” could enter.  Too bad for him, the catalogs were sold out since 10am. Disheartened, he retreated home and would later complained in his blog about the lack of relief measures and the random bad things that happened when the Touhou series, the subject of the convention, became exceptionally popular as it is today. 
Touhou is a series of “bullet hell” vertical shooters, a niche and rare breed of shoot ‘em up games in which the player has to weave through intricate and dense bullet patterns in order to stay alive. It is already impressive that such beginner-unfriendly games have a convention dedicated to them. Even more impressive was that Reitaisai 5 had about as many people attending in a day as Square Enix Party 2005, a trade show in which, over the course of two days, 47,000 visitors flocked to get sneak previews of the next Final Fantasy. 
The list of impressiveness does not end here. The Touhou games were created single-handedly by a hobbyist game creator ZUN. He did everything by himself, be it programming the engine, drawing characters, writing stories, or composing music. ZUN has been creating one or two Touhou games a year, and 14 games have been released to date.  However, while starting out as a small hobby project in 1996, the Touhou series has transformed into a media-mix franchise with, in addition to the games, three manga and two novels currently serialized in parallel. ZUN writes the novels and the stories for the manga himself, so Touhou has become his second job.
But the most impressive was that the surge in Touhou’s popularity that made Reitaisai 5 a disaster to many was a result of unintentional grassroot viral marketing. Touhou is ZUN’s work as much as it is a gigantic repertoire of fan-made manga, games, music, and video clips. I estimate that there are roughly at least three thousands short manga, five hundred music rearrangement albums, and one hundred derivative games created since 2003. These works are traded mainly in conventions dedicated to them, and some commertial firms are starting to capitalize on their popularity. Doujinshi shops like Tora no Ana and Mandarake have shelves dedicate to Touhou comics. And Amazon.co.jp are carrying CDs of arranged/sampled Touhou music (but not ZUN’s originals). More and more people are attracted to the franchise because its diverse derivative works provide a variety of entry points for potiential fans. In fact, Touhou’s popularity skyrocketed when it became one of the killer content of Nico Nico Douga, a Japanese equivalent of Youtube launched one year and a half earlier. There, Touhou content spreaded like wild fire and gave rise to many recurring memes and tens of thousands of mashup videos. To give a sense of how popular Touhou is in Nico Nico Douga, 18 of 100 most viewed videos are Touhou-related, and the best Touhou video ranks the 6th.  Plus, you would always find tens of Touhou videos in Nico Nico Douga daily ranking charts. As a result, bloggers and otaku news sites said in unison that Nicochuu, litterally “Nico Nico Douga n00b,” were the cause of Reitaisai 5′s overcrowding. 
What we see here is the rise of a media franchise from obscurity to stardom, riding on creative energy of its fans. Touhou inspires its fans to create. Fan creations then would become integral to the franchise itself, and would bring more fans to be inspired to create yet again. This chain reaction bestows Touhou with free publicity and a community of loyal fans/producers, an extraordinary feat for a project with such little capital investment. (Need I remind you that ZUN does nothing but writing a game a year and spending his time after his day job on the novels?) Touhou demonstrates that participatory culture can create successful grassroot entertainment that rivals its big media counterpart.
In this article, I would like to discuss the how and the why of Touhou’s success. I argue that Touhou’s imperfect and postmodern construction captures the aesthetics of Japanese otaku and inspire them to create. Moreover, ZUN’s laissez-faire policy on derivative works and his willingness to acknowledge them have casted Touhou as a free-for-all playground everyone, encouraging fan creativity even further.
Media scholar Henry Jenkins suggests that consumers have become more active participants in media consumption, and their fan-like activities have had siginificant influences on media industry. In order for a entertainment work to be successful, it must become a “cultural attractor” and a “cultural activator.” That is, it must first be interesting enough to a diverse groups of people, and, once it has drawn them in, it must motivate them to engage in some meaningful activities. 
Touhou excels at being a cultural attractor. It successfully attract three groups of fans with very different tastes: hardcore gamers, anime/manga otaku, and music lovers. For hardcore gamers, Touhou games attain a distinguish status because of their extreme difficulty. The game in “Easy” mode is harder than any mainstream shoot ‘em ups, and, to clear the “Nightmare” mode, player must have precise hand-eye coordination and full knowledge of where enemies will appear and what kind of bullet patters they willunleash. A nice feature of the games is that players can record their performance in “replay files” that they can share with fellow gamers. So, despite being single player games, Touhou games encourage player to compete and socialize. In fact, there are a number of internet reposotories for storing replay files, allowing gamers to showcase their performance and study the skills of their peers. 
Nevertheless, great gameplay alone would not turn Touhou from a series of games to a media franchise. ZUN made Touhou because “I couldn’t find any games I liked myself. Year after year the games keep getting split between big games and cheap games. I wanted a game that appealed to me, so I had to start making games myself.”  So, if gameplay had been the only feature Touhou had, only shooter fans, a rare breed of otaku indeed, would flock towards Touhou. It is the characters and the setting of the games that attract anime/manga otaku, the arguably most common group of Japanese geeks, to the games and started the transformation process.
The reason why Touhou appeals to otaku is probably the same reason why Casablanca became a cult film. Semiotist Umberto Eco argued that it is because Casablanca contains almost all stereotyped situations found in storytelling: “Casablanca is a cult movie precisely because all the archetypes are there, because each actor repeats a part played in other occasions, and because the characters live not the “real” life of human beings, but a life as stereotypically portrayed by previous films. Casablanca brings with it the scent of déjà vu to such an extent that the specator is ready to see in it also what happened after it.”  The same is true for Touhou, especially for its 90+ characters, which belong races as diverse as human, vampire, fairy, ghost, demons, bunny girls, Shinto god, and various Japanese supernatural creatures such as kitsune (shapeshifting fox), nekomata (two-tailed cat), kappa (water imp), oni (ogre), and tengu (long-nosed bird-human). Each character is a hodgepodge of stereotypes itself. For example, let us take a look at arguably one of the most popular characters in the Touhou-verse, Kirisame Marisa:
She’s a witch whose getup, except for the white apron, looks exactly like that of the archetypal Wicked Witch of the West. She ends each sentence with the copula “-ze,” making her a cheeky tomboy. She can unleash a powerful energy blast like those you can see in Dragonball Z. Lastly, she’s a kleptomaniac who plunder her friends’ houses for magical books, making her somewhat of an Arsène Lupin. Marisa is a composition of archetypes, yet she defies all of them because she does not fit into any one particular example. Umberto Eco puts this the best: “when a repertoire of formulas is used wholesale, then the result is an architecture like Gaudi’s Holy Family Church — the same vertigo, the same stroke of genius.” 
The sheer number of characters do not only give fans “a world about which one play puzzle games and trivia contests, and whose adepts recognize each other through a common competence,”  which is what Casablanca gives to its cult followers. Literary critic and philosopher Hiroki Azuma observed that
“To understand the evaluation/consumption structure of otaku culture, it is necessary to distinguish two levels of otaku’s desire. One is the level of simulacra where the odd images like the examples above fill the market. The other is the level of database that consists of the types and elements and regulates the scope of simulacra. Otakus evaluate, decompose and re-create their imagery through a kind of round-trip between these two levels. Their desire toward those two levels are quite different from each other. In one hand, otaku is addicted to and absorbed in the given simulacra imagery. … We can call it a “wet” and exclusive desire. They can satisfy it alone without any social communication with humans. However, in the other hand, otaku is perfectly “dry” towards the works in the level of database. They rather feel big zeal in decomposing the unity of the given work or character into types and elements, rearranging them and making another new work or character. The big amateur market called Comike is supported by this desire.” 
We have just discussed how Touhou satisfies the first level of desire. For the second level, the gigantic repertoire of Touhou characters add to each otaku’s database new objects which are similar to what he/she is already familiar with, giving them new materials to mash up. This results in a large amount of parodies featuring Touhou characters.
Touhou also motivates fans to create because it has serious flaws: ZUN knows how to create wonderful characters, yet his drawings leaves much to be desired. If Touhou were a commertial endeavor, none of his drawing would appear in it, but ZUN has kept the Touhou games as amateur works from the start. Fans are frustrated with the drawing style, so they take upon themselves to beautify ZUN’s drawing. A large amount of fanarts that are “better than the real thing” follows. Ironically, many fans (myself included) are attracted to Touhou because of these secondary artworks.
|ZUN’s artwork||Fan’s reaction|
I surmise that the same reasons explain why Touhou appeals to music listeners. ZUN’s music are imperfect: while they contain many catchy motifs, they don’t sound harmonious and can be arranged better. Again, because they can be improved and have many good parts, Touhou musics became popular among remixers. Some groups such as dBu music republish ZUN’s compositions song by song, changing only the MIDI instruments. Other groups would arrange the musics into different styles (such as Jazz), recombine motifs them to make new musics, or add lyrics. These musical arrangements seem to be the most effective advertisement for the Touhou series nowadays. Many oversea fans discovered Touhou through a flash video clip used to promote “Marisa ga Taihen na Mono wo Nusundeikimashita,” an arrangement of Alice Margatroid’s theme by IOSYS. Touhou musics are also widely used to make MAD movies in Nico Nico Douga. Popular songs such as “U.N. Owen ha Kanojo nanoka?” and “Native Faith” would have hundreds of MAD videos under their belts.
The original version of “Necrofantasia,” theme song of the extra lass boss in Touhou Youyoumu ~ Perfect Cherry Blossom.
“Necrofantasia” as arranged by dBu music.
Jenkins observes that “more and more, storytelling has become the art of world building, as artists create compelling environments that cannot be fully exploredor exhausted withing a single work” because a world would allow multiple product lines of a media franchise to develop. The Matrix masterful execution of world building, he believes, is one factor of its success.  ZUN places much emphasis on world building. He said, “The point of Touhou is to express the worldview of Touhou … As Touhou evolves, the characters and the game systems change, but the basic feel remains the same.”  In 2007, he released Touhou Gumonshi ~ Perfect Memento in Strict Sense, a book that gives details on Gensoukyou, the land where Touhou games take place. The book is encyclopedic in nature, containing entries on Gensoukyou’s species of living creatures and “dangerous locations.”
It is interesting to note that, in the case of The Matrix or Planet of the Apes, the creators created deep and consistent worlds so that viewers can be absorbed in uncovering the details.  Gensoukyou, however, is a shallow and inconsistent composition. It situates in a mountain in Japan, yet there are European vampires living in it. “I like to put western things in there because it’s ‘Eastern’, hehe,” said ZUN.  Also, the culture of Gensoukyou is that of 19th century’s Japan, all Touhou games take place in the years they are released. For this, ZUN commented that “Well, I live in modern times, so it makes it much easier. And I get to include things like rockets. If I had a setting in the past, I’d have to study a lot of history.”  Moreover, the Hakurei Border that separates Gensoukyou from the outside world is porous, allowing people and objects from modern Japan to go in. In fact, the demon controlling the boundary even knows how to use iPod! It’s clear that ZUN chooses to make a malleable world rather than a consistent world so that he can keep making new Touhou games easily. While this choice deters fans form deciphering the world, it encourages fans to create their own stories because nothing in Gensoukyou is sacred and a lot can still be added to it. The large amount of doujinshi accounting daily lives of Touhou characters is a proof of this tendency. Moreover, one popular video type in Nico Nico Douga is the “Gensouiri Series,” which features stories of characters from other manga/anime or avatars of the video makers being spiried away into Gensoukyou and interacting with Touhou characters.
Touhou became successful not only because of ZUN’s skills as a game maker and as a character designer, but also because of his lack of drawing skills and his decision to make the world of Touhou malleable.While Jenkins believes that one needs professionals to do world building to have a successful media franchise, I believe that one only needs to create an imperfect sandbox world that fans can easily modify to suit their tastes , and let the fans do the rest. Yes, the world still needs to be interesting, but it doesn’t have to be deep or consistent.
A good media franchise inspires its fans to create. There are probably even more Harry Potter or Star Wars fanarts than Touhou ones, but these franchises do not make use of fan’s creativity like Touhou does. They don’t need virtal marketing because big media has all the big money to do advertising. They don’t have to care for fan creations because the original works are creative and polished enough already. Instead, these franchise would try to control fans to protect their product’s integrity and reputation. Jim Ward, vice president of marketing for Lucasfilm once said ”We love our fans. We want them to have fun. But if in fact somebody is using our characters to create a story unto itself, that’s not in the spirit of what we think fandom is about. Fandom is about celebrating the story the way it is.” 
Touhou doesn’t work this way. ZUN lets fans have fun with Gensoukyou and its residents in any way they want. He said, “In general, feel free to create derivative works — I don’t really mind. If you ask, I won’t say no. The basic rule is that derivative works are something entirely different from the original. It’s not mine, and there isn’t really anything I could do to stop it if I wanted to, and it would be bad if I did, I think.”  So, while George Lucas is allergic to erotic Star Wars fan fiction, ZUN would turn blind eyes to (or even read!) a dojinshi featuring Patchouli Knowledge being raped by a tentacle monster. Instead of ruining Touhou’s reputation, however, fan creations, both with and without erotic content, add more interesting content and draw even more people in.
One example of famous Touhou content that is transformed by fans beyond ZUN’s original creation is the character Alice Margatroid. ZUN describes her as a reclusive witch who is too enthralled in her magical research to care for other people’s feelings. However, most fans cast her as a “tsundere” character: she is madly in love with Marisa, but would pretend to be cold towards her. Some fans depict her as a lonely girl who always tries to make friends with other characters, but never succeeds. This makes Alice a very popular joke character. Many doujinshi comics and Nico Nico Douga videos tell stories of Alice getting jealous or being tricked into professing her love for Marisa only to profusely deny it later. In fact, the wildly popular “Marisa ga Taihen na Mono wo Nusundeikimashita” is a song Alice sings to herself of how she loves the other witch.
Another example is the “Yukkuri Shite-ittene” which is disproportionate stupid-looking heads of Hakurei Reimu and Kirisame Marisa. Originally a fan’s failed attempt at ASCII art in Japanese discussion board 2ch, the Yukkuri is now a fad in Touhou community and Nico Nico Douga: currently, there are at least 1,000 Yukkuri videos, and the most popular one received 1,000,000 views in only less than a month.
ZUN not only tolerates fan works, he also acknowledges and utilizes them. ZUN commissioned a number of fan manga artists to draw short comics for Touhou Bunkachou ~ Bohemian Archive in Japanese Red, the first Touhou commercial book. One of the short comics features the story of Alice misunderstanding relationship between Marisa and Patchouli, becoming jealous, and causing a commotion. Chapther 12 of the official manga Touhou Bougetsushou ~ Silent Sinner in Blue contains the phrase “Yukkuri shiteru ba-ai jya nai yo!” (It’s not time to take it easy!), implying a nod from ZUN to the Yukkuri Shite-ittene. Moreover, a number of fan artists are now writing Touhou manga professionally.Aki Eda , a fan artist who has been drawing Touhou fan comics featuring romantic relationship between Reimu and Marisa since 2006, is now illustrating. Silent Sinner in Blue. Toshihira Arata, whose Touhou fandom dates bake to 2004, is drawing Touhou Bougetsushou ~ Inaba of the Earth and Inaba of the Moon. Lastly, fan artist Makoto Hirasaka turned pro to draw Touhou Sangatsusei ~ Strange and Beauty Nature Deity.
Probably ZUN’s laissez-faire policy towards fan creations results from his view that one cannot be creative without making use of others’ works, he said at a lecture at Hitotsubashi University that “Nico [Nico Douga] is an interesting place that makes it easy for people to create new works by tying together existing things — which is the essence of creation. … Following the progressions of evolutions from original works will probably result in something entirely new.”  Indeed, letting culture flows freely and allowing it to mix with one another can give us countless nice surprises. Let me tell you of my favourite example of this “principle” in action. Flandre Scarlet’s theme song “U.N. Owen ha Kanojo Nanoka?” is probably the catchiest of all ZUN’s composition. It got remixed by amateur music remixer COOL & CREATE into an upbeat techno piece “Saisyuu Kichiku Imouto Frandre S.” Someone uploaded both songs to Nico Nico Douga, and somehow Ronald McDonald came to dance to these two songs in the ultimate brainwashing video “M.C.Donald ha Dance ni Muchuu Nanoka? Saisyuu Kishiku Doukeshi Donald M.,” which is now the 7th most viewed videos in Nico Nico Douga. Ronald’s videos made its way oversea to Youtube, and get rechristened “McRoll’d.” One American (who probably had too much time in his hand) imitated the dance to all its gory details in “McAlec’d.” And he is only one of not quite a few people of the world affected byFlandre’s and Ronald’s insanity. Even John McCain is one of them!
One has to wonder how far can grassroot entertainment go in the age where big media monopolizes capital for creativity and publicity. Surprisingly, the answer is “very far.” The Touhou franchise shows us that, by being open to fan creations, it could utilize the fans’ creative energy to promote itself to prominence. More specifically, by relinquishing his exclusive control on his creations, ZUN is much more well-off than doing the opposite in two ways. First, he receives much help from his fans in promoting the worldview of Touhou to more and more audience. Second, the Touhou that fans help build is much more interesting than his original Touhou alone. Touhou gives us a counterexample of the myth that a successful media franchise needs big money and strict copyright control. The franchise wlll only get more and more popular now because it is free culture. And free culture works.
- It is a common practice for a convention dedicated to a particular anime/manga/game to require each visitor to have purchsed a catalog, a book published by the convention’s organizing committee about what fan artist groups are participating in the convention and where their boots are, in order to gain access to the venue.
- 謎鳥, “[戯言]例大祭の光と陰” Retrieved from http://d.hatena.ne.jp/n-kashima/20080526/1211736305 on September 1, 2008.
- Square Enix North America. “Square Enix Party 2007 Announced for May 12-13, 2007.” Retrieved from http://www.square-enix.com/na/company/press/2007/0327/ on September 1, 2008.
- For the complete list of games, see the Touhou Wiki. Two of the games — Immaterial and Missing Power and Scarlet Weather Rhapsody — however, are not create mainly by ZUN.
- These statistics are collected from http://www.nicovideo.jp/ranking/view/total/all on August 29, 2008.
- newAkiba.com, “ニコ厨のせい!? 例大祭が異常な混雑で大変なことに！” Retrieved from http://www.new-akiba.com/archives/2008/05/post_15621.html on September 1, 2008.
- Darrel Berry. “Henry Jenkins: On Convergence Culture.” Retrieved from http://www.bigshinything.com/henry-jenkins-on-convergence-culture on September 1, 2008.
- One of such repository is 東方うｐろだ4 although it stores almost everything. Some replays are archived at イナバ 物置観測.
- ZUN. Interview with Player1 Magazine. Retrieved from http://touhou.wikia.com/wiki/Interview_in_Swedish_Player1_Magazine on September 1, 2008.
- Umberto Eco, “Casablanca: Cult Movies and Intertextual Collage,” in Travels in Hyperreality, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1986.
- Hiroki Azuma, “Superflat Japanese Postmodernity.” Retrieved from http://www.hirokiazuma.com/en/texts/superflat_en2.html on September 1, 2008.
- Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture, New York: New York University Press, 2006, p113
- Solamarle. “Notes on Genyou Denshou Lecture.” Retrieved from http://www.gensokyo.org/archives/92 on September 1, 2008.
- Jenkins, Convergence Culture, p115.
- ZUN. “Meiji University Touhou Lecture.” Retreived from http://touhou.wikia.com/wiki/Meiji_University_Touhou_lecture on September 1, 2008.
- Solamarle. “Notes on Genyou Denshou Lecture.”
- Amy Harmon, “‘Star Wars’ Fan Films Come Tumbling Back To Earth,” New York Times, April 28, 2002.
- Solamarle. “Notes on Genyou Denshou Lecture.”