Written off as a series merely about "cute girls," it can be a bit strange to see someone of my age and gender talking about Touhou Project constantly, so I feel like I need to put a disclaimer up front here.
The series is extremely light on sexual fanservice, which is rare for something focusing around girls and women. It's not a series focused around teenagers or children in general, either, with most of the central characters, including the protagonists, being adults with adult responsibilities, going out drinking after a hard day's work.
It also has a lot to say about the world, in ways I find profoundly meaningful in my everyday life, from the nitty-gritty of political discourse, to philosophical questions about the nature of reality. It also helps that it has a lot of high-octane action with incredibly witty dialogue and characters which make it charming beyond belief.
In a lot of ways, this article is my response to the nagging feeling that a large portion of the fandom keeps selling it short for how deep and awesome it truly is as a work of fiction.
I'm sure that sounds too good to be true. But that's why I won't stop screaming about it.
Since this article covers a lot of areas, I want to lay out the basic structure.
- Basic overview of the history and subculture of Touhou Project.
- The setting of the world.
- The characters and representation I enjoy thje most.
- Examples of some of the deeper stories and themes within the series itself.
- An overview of how it's positively impacted my life and mental health.
As a general warning, there will be discussions of spirituality, mental health, tragedy and loss, and some mentions of global politics and climate change.
Touhou Project (lit: "東方Project", "Eastern Project", pronounced "Toe Hoe") is a long-running series of top-down vertical shooter games in the same vein as IKARUGA, consisting of an ensemble cast of new and recurring characters. It's created primarily by the enigmatic artist known as ZUN, and his very small company Team Shanghai Alice, consisting almost entirely of himself. Various manga artists and indie game companies he's brought onto the project over the years have fleshed out much of the side-content, though he still writes the stories even when someone else takes over for the art. As far as the main-line games go, he's created most of the character designs, code, and (prolific, iconic) music. It's been running since 1995 with the release of Touhou Reiiden - Highly Responsive to Prayers, and now has 17 first-party mainline games as of this year, in addition to numerous first-party side-games, spinoffs, indie games, mangas, and so on.
Touhou Project is an independent, unlicensed "doujin" series ("doujin" is typically used as "indie" is in the west), meaning ZUN hasn't had to bend to the will of trends, committees, and corporations about what to include in terms of content. It has an absolutely massive fanbase, being Japan's number one doujin/indie series, with a few "official" series-focused conventions in Japan, and large followings in the English-speaking world as well. Independent illustrators and musicians have created fan-works based on the series for over 20 years, and it remains one of the most popular series' on Japanese art sites like Pixiv.
Half-franchise, half-subculture, ZUN encourages everyone to take his work in Touhou and remix it to their liking, and even sell those works for a profit. The only restrictions he places on the series are to ensure that a large business like Disney doesn't try to come and capitalize on it - your work ought to be independently created and published as much as possible, and you must come up with your own art, although remixes are totally allowed as well. In this same vein, while directors of Disney movies might tell you "we wanted to let the fans decide," with Touhou, that doesn't feel like an empty gesture. ZUN encourages everyone to come up with their own interpretations of his work, and put them out there for everyone to see. "Fanfiction" in Touhou isn't what we usually think of; in Touhou, fanfiction is canon.
Touhou largely bases its spiritual systems and aesthetic on Shinto, the primary Japanese religion and cultural institution. I am absolutely not an expert on this subject, so I'll try to not say too much, but very broadly speaking, one of Touhou's core foundations is the belief that the more people collectively believe in something, such as spirits or Gods, the more power they exert over the world in real and tangible ways. Conversely, spiritual beings can cease to exist entirely if nobody believes in them. In addition, there is a great emphasis on "balance," especially when it concerns things like society and nature.
In addition to that, the supernatural bread and butter of Touhou is 'youkai.' 'Youkai' is a very important concept you will hear about constantly - and I really do mean "constantly." 'Youkai' comes from Japanese folklore, and a good localization of the concept would be "supernatural creatures," similar to the western concept of vampires, werewolves, fairies, and so on, but obviously it's more specific to eastern folklore and history.
The main bulk of the story takes place in a land known as Gensokyo ("Land of Fantasy"), a pocket-dimension adjacent to and separated from our really-existing "Outside World." The world we live in currently exists diegetically within Touhou; for example, 2019 in our real world is also 2019 within Gensokyo, and they're mostly aware that countries like the United States and others exist elsewhere, even if they don't think much about it, given their distance and isolation.
It's protected by the Great Hakurei Barrier, usually referred to simply as "the Barrier," a powerful spiritual force-field separating Gensokyo from the Outside World. The Barrier was conceived and created by a group of like-minded Gods and youkai in the mid-19th century as a response to the "age of reason," the Industrial Revolution, and so on, causing magic and spirituality to slowly disappear from the world.
Gensokyo became a place where 'youkai' could go to protect themselves from that cultural change; western vampires and eastern Gods alike could find a place in Gensokyo if they were willing to move themselves there and abide by the rules of the land. By concentrating the supernatural into a singular place, there would always be something fantastical afoot, thus ensuring that faith in the supernatural would be ever-present. You can think of it as a critical mass of supernatural entities causing a chain reaction and sustaining the spiritual population in a mutually beneficial arrangement.
As such, the characters are all acutely aware that they live in a fairytale, and that fantasy is their lifeblood. They know that they have to maintain a balance in order to continue on existing, and will frequently discuss how to maintain that balance amongst themselves. They're intensely self-aware and often fret about what could happen a major upset were to occur to that balance, fearing "extinction" all together. Thankfully, they continue to work together to maintain the peace, while making sure the entire place doesn't stagnate either.
The Usual Plot
The main protagonist, Reimu Hakurei, is a stern yet kind-hearted human shrine maiden (lit: "miko", a Shinto priestess) who is the sole proprietor of the Hakurei shrine, and the protector of the Great Hakurei Barrier, although despite her name, she isn't the one who erected it. She and her partner Marisa Kirisame, a local "western-style" witch, act as informal peace-keepers within Gensokyo, keeping the varied and wide assortment of youkai, fairies, Gods, and cryptids from starting too many fires and burning the whole experiment to the ground. There's a roster of rotating protagonists in the games, but I'll be focusing on Reimu and Marisa, as they appear and are playable in nearly every main-line game, forming the backbone of the series.
Usually, a new resident will appear, or an older one will get restless, and try to impose some half-baked scheme on their neighbours, resulting in strife. One of the protagonists will have to show up tell them politely, but firmly, to stop. Since the protagonists are often "mere humans," and the one causing issues is usually a God or powerful youkai, they're usually laughed at and told to bugger off by the antagonist. And, usually, the protagonist has a good reason for trying to stop them, so a duel then takes place - known as Danmaku (lit: "curtain fire"). If you've ever seen those intimidating pictures of players dodging 500+ bullets on a screen all at once, this is where that comes in. The protagonists are usually victorious one way or another, and they give the antagonist a lecture about asking others for permission before they go messing with things. The antagonist usually decide to abide by it, and life goes on.
In game-lore, these are called "Incidents," and it's the basis for nearly all of the mainline games.
But Why Do You Love It So Much?
To be honest, while the games are good fun (and hard as hell, of course), most of my enjoyment of the series doesn't come from the games themselves. A lot of people come back time and time again because of the meditative experience bullet hell games encourage and demand, but I've never been able to get into that zone for very long myself. Either way, here's a short video by Mike Rugnetta that does a concise job of explaining that side of things.
Many fans find themselves drawn to the series for a variety of other reasons - the characters, the world, the music, and the community. I'm going to focus primarily on that.
Touhou's main stories are all full of dry wit and absurdist comedy. This isn't to say things don't get serious at times - we'll get into that later - but overall the series tries to keep things light and fresh, even when it gets into the nitty-gritty of things. The series isn't "ironic" or mean-spirited, either, so its comedic elements are often meant as hopeful, light-hearted self-awareness, hoping that you'll be both in on the joke, but capable of taking it seriously as well. Much like its subculture, Touhou is about creativity and confidence, first and foremost, and striking a balance between having a good time and being appropriately serious.
When it comes to the characters, I love how varied and unique all of their attitudes towards life are. Since many are based on mythological figures, there can be a slight reliance on archetypes at times, but even then it tries to say something unique and powerful about the lives of the characters involved. No character feels two-dimensional or "stock," everyone feels like they've got something unique going on in their lives, and the world changes and becomes more complex because of it.
For now, I'm going to focus on the confidence I talked about, and give you two examples of it.
It's no secret that my favourite character is Marisa Kirisame. You've probably seen her before: the cool magician/witch character who's always wearing a gigantic hat and a silly grin on her face. She's a stubborn, loudmouthed bookworm who duels Gods and demands reparations in the form of feasts and liquor. While Reimu's powers derive from her connections to the divine and the spiritual, an innate part of her existences, Marisa is a "completely ordinary human" and is the epitome of a 19th century European literary superhero: she's a self-made woman and gained all of her powers by reading as many books on as many magical subjects as possible. Her goal in life is to be the best magician in Gensokyo. True to her ambitions and persona, her special attack, Master Spark, is a giant magical laser that fills the entire screen with bright blinding light and intimidating sound. Even being as cocky and headstong as she is, she doesn't try to hurt anyone needlessly, and does her best to resolve Incidents amicably.
She's not perfect, of course. It's explicitly depicted that she has issues with hoarding, to the point of kleptomania at times, getting her into trouble with the local youkai and Gods. Her backstory explicitly mentions that she's broken off contact with her family, having refused to talk to them for many years for unspecified but deeply personal reasons. Her frequent references to alcohol consumption are also troubling, but she seems to have it under control. Although Reimu and Marisa are inseparable as a pair, she still feels like she needs to put in the extra effort to keep up with Reimu and "prove herself," taking on Incidents by herself to prove that she's capable of protecting Gensokyo, though thankfully, she's usually successful. A typical trope that would occur between a naturally-skilled protagonist like Reimu and a hard-working deuteragonist like Marisa would be one of intense rivalry. Touhou has largely gone beyond that, and the pair of them are practically chosen family for each other, given that neither of them have blood-relatives they can rely on anymore.
Occasionally, Marisa will get into trouble for making mistakes, but it's not the same sort of "taking down a peg" you see of leading women like her in other forms of media. Marisa is never going to end up "fridged" or hurt so badly she can't go on, if only because ZUN has a proven track record of being kind and compassionate towards his characters.
Marisa is a fan-favourite character and utterly iconic, as many people who don't even know her name or where she's from can recognize her on sight alone as "that one cocky witch."
Every character in the series has her fans, and each one has a larger-than-life attitude, driven and purposeful in what they do, even if they're not quite as competent. Cirno, the self-proclaimed "strongest fairy," is also fairly well-known outside of the fandom. While she's just as loud and cocky as Marisa, she doesn't have the experience, expertise, or self-control to back it up, meaning she frequently gets herself into difficult and comedic situations. Despite that, people love her, and at a convention I went to recently, there were just as many Cirno cosplayers as Marisa cosplayers. While Marisa is a confident woman with the skills to back up her boasting, Cirno is much more innocent and silly, frequently picking fights she can't hope to win. She's the lovable fool of the series, like a bratty younger niece desperately trying to impress you.
In Gensokyo, you're also allowed to be a complete disaster who doesn't know what she's doing.
They all dress in intensely powerful feminine aesthetics pulling from a variety of sources, mixing traditional Japanese, Chinese, 19th century European, and contemporary styles together into what I can only describe as "high-femme tomboy." There is certainly a significant portion of the aesthetic inspired by Elegant Gothic Lolita (EGL), involving frilly skirts and petticoats, large hats with bows on them, and Mary Jane flats. What you might think of as "contemporary Victorian fashion" is a huge aspect of the EGL aesthetic.
For the characters, the clothes nail that particular aesthetic while also being useful and easy to move around in. The petticoats will cut off at the knee and they'll often wear short-sleeved shirts so they can have the freedom of movement to get messy with everyday chores and duels. Try to think about it: if you wanted to wear frilly clothes every day, for absolutely everything, from dawn until dusk, what features in your outfit might you want to make it comfortable? Touhou's aesthetic constantly asks that question.
The aesthetic of Touhou could be an entire article onto itself, but I'll leave it there for now. Needless to say, it has quite a striking one, and one that lends itself to "contemporary fairy-tale" quite well.
Toby Fox (of 'Undertale' fame) credits ZUN for being one of his most influential inspirations for both the music and the characters of his games, and this shows most prominently through the musical motifs they both share.
ZUN's primary artistic prowess is composing. He's produced some of the most iconic character themes in video games, with tracks like Bad Apple and U.N. Owen Was Her? being some of the most recognizable. His music fits in perfectly to the flow of his games, making you feel excited and pumped during your epic duels with the supernatural. As I mentioned, "bullet hell" games are primarily about achieving a flow and deep focus, almost like a meditation, and ZUN's music goes a long way to getting you into that mindset.
Every single game has its own original full-length soundtrack, in addition to various side-albums and arrangements. There are literally hundreds upon hundreds of remixed Touhou tracks out there on YouTube, BandCamp, and anywhere else you can think of. Metal covers, EDM covers, orchestral covers, smooth jazz covers. if you name a genre, there's probably an arrangement in that style somewhere.
There's not much else to exposit on. Here are some of my own personal favourite tracks, in my personal favourite style, which is Metal:
(I'm linking RichaadEB's fantastic covers as there's no "official" Touhou YouTube channel and I'd rather not link to some random person's low-quality rips from the games.)
I've already mentioned how Touhou does right by the women in the series in terms of their treatment and designs, but it leans into it even harder than that.
When you get right down to it, Gensokyo is effectively a matriarchy; there are no men in any tangible positions of power, and as far as the destiny of the land is concerned, women decide everything of real importance, from protagonists, to antagonists, to those behind the scenes, and even those beyond the Barrier in the Outside World.
As I mentioned before, the true strength of Touhou is that "fanfiction is canon." That being said, there are some specific examples of representation within the first-party stories by ZUN that I'd like to highlight, just to show how deep some of these characterizations and themes go within the series.
When it comes to "shipping," or romance between the characters, the fact that many of the women in Touhou are all low-key into each other is practically background radiation to the series at large, difficult to miss and even harder to ignore. Lesbian OTPs and OT3s (ships between three characters) are everywhere in the Touhou fandom. While there's no game or manga out there that explicitly has Reimu and Marisa turn to the camera and say "we're lesbians and we're gay married," the pair of them already treat each other as familiar as family, and it's essentially accepted that the pair of them are in a deep and affectionate relationship. They eat most meals together, go nearly everywhere together, investigate things together, and are incredibly familiar with each other in every respect. Marisa often sleeps over at Reimu's shrine, which Reimu appreciates.
To give a more concrete example, in the 8th game in the series, when Marisa and Reimu are duelling each other over a misunderstanding, Marisa loudly proclaims that her upcoming spell is specifically meant for Reimu, and she calls it "Love Sign," literally filling the entire screen with bright rainbow lasers. There's not much room for misinterpretation there.
That's not the only chosen family within Touhou, either. Kanako and Suwako, two Gods who live in a rival shrine to Reimu's shrine, effectively adopted one of the recurring protagonists, Sanae, when they moved to Gensokyo in 10th game of the series. Sanae wears both of their symbols in her hair (a frog and a snake) and is given helpful life-advice from the pair of them, no different than parents talking to their child.
Another more recent but still popular ship is between the two characters Tenshi and Shion. Tenshi is a Celestial, which you can think of as an angel of sorts, blessed with naturally good luck, boisterous and more-than-slightly narcissistic. Shion is a "poverty God," sewing her many late-payment bill notices into her clothes to patch the many holes in her old outfit, cursed with perpetual bad luck, timid and quiet. The pair of them met each other and in the old saying of opposites-attract, they took to each other. Their relationship was fraught at first - Tenshi being overbearing and a little too self-absorbed, Shion not able to say "no" or articulate her feelings - but as time went on, they learned how to respect each other's boundaries and uplift each other, and now they're practically inseparable. Their relationship is a great example of the tenderness I love Touhou for, where two people with interpersonal issues can help each other become better, kinder, more honest people.
When it comes to shipping, some casual observers will get frustrated at the lack of "canon" confirmation within Touhou. The big difference between the attitude of "letting the viewers decide" when it concerns big-tent films from Disney and the way Touhou Project manages things is that the attitude within Touhou make it feel earnest. ZUN has frequently highlighted romantic fan-comics from indie artists, for example, publishing them alongside his own works, so it's not as if he shies away from acknowledging that people romantically ship his characters together. It feels like a genuine attempt to say that everyone is allowed to have their favourite ship, and he'd rather not limit anyone's options.
The ships I mentioned here, after all, are just some examples. Some people ship Reimu with Sanae - two shrine maidens from competing shrines. Some people ship Marisa with Alice, another magician that lives near Marisa's house. Rather than dictate how people must enjoy Touhou, ZUN wants people to find their own ways of self-expression. Fanfiction is canon.
When it comes to gender expression, there's Toyosatomimi no Miko, the Taoist Prince. Based on the mythological figure of Prince Shoutoku, she was historically referred to with masculine pronouns. Rather than pass it off as "the historical record was inaccurate," the series does something more awesome with her. Miko was sealed away for centuries as the result of a holy war, but once her seal was broken, she decided of her own volition that she would, in this modern era, take on the identity of a "modern woman" and use feminine pronouns. To her, this means a soft-butch aesthetic with a long, flowing violet and gold cape. She is charismatic and charming, a natural leader, remaining refined and soft-spoken from her noble upbringing.
Nobody in Gensokyo takes issue with the knowledge that she at one point identified as masculine. While the word "transgender" isn't used explicitly, Miko makes no effort to "go stealth," discussing her masculine life with frankness, invoking her past accomplishments and even her former name as a power-move against her opponents. Simply put, you cannot make her feel ashamed of herself over it. It's very, very easy for such a character to feel tokenizing or "missing the point," but to me, she embodies an aspirational power fantasy: to live in a world where one doesn't have to deny their past, and can actually view the changes they've made to their selves and bodies as sources of true pride to put on display. Miko is proud of herself in a way that feels genuine and sincere, and within the stories of Touhou, she is allowed to take an incredible amount of initiative and to make her presence known in ways that feel meaningful to the series and plotlines at large. By allowing her to take such pivotal roles, in ways that feel meaningful, she moves well beyond any fears of tokenization and becomes truly awesome in her own right.
That's to say nothing of the fact that, in Gensokyo, deciding that your gender doesn't fit is apparently so mundane that nobody thinks twice about it.
In terms of disability, the series recently confirmed that an important character, Okina Matara, one of the initial creators of Gensokyo, is a wheelchair user. Like many wheelchair users, she doesn't use hers all the time, having a variable disability that leaves her with different levels of functioning throughout each day. Much like all of the other women in Gensokyo, she is powerful and intense, bucking the patronizing stereotypes that usually accompany people who use assistive devices. She is as feared as she is respected, positioning herself as a kind of puppetmaster from behind the scenes, sometimes getting into duels herself when she feels so inclined, dubbing herself the "Secret God" of Gensokyo.
Most of the characters in Touhou have odd and specific mannerisms, even within the context of it being an "anime-styled" series where intense mannerisms are the norm. Myself and many of my neurodivergent friends consider many of the characters to be powerful representations of neurodivergence. Gensokyo is "a place to go if you're too weird to exist in the Outside World," so naturally everyone's going to be eccentric to the nines. Reimu, the central protagonist, is characterized as being somewhat awkward and lonely, often hanging out with a very small but close-knit group of friends almost exclusively, sometimes being so blunt to the point of coming off as rude even when she doesn't intend to be. She alternates between getting excited when interesting things happen, and being intensely put off when her routine gets disrupted. She dislikes it when people are coy and inscrutable, preferring that people speak plainly and clearly. Quite a few fans interpret this as Reimu being on the autistic spectrum. You can check out this twitter thread for a more in-depth analysis of this interpretation.
There are also characters who suffer from PTSD, social anxiety, depression, and anger management issues. I'll expand upon this later, but one of the core themes of Touhou is "second chances," and that extends very broadly to depictions of mental health. I don't want to bog you down with too many new names, so I'll just give a general overview of their backstories:
An otherwise normal girl becomes cursed with immortality, doomed to watch the centuries tick by without purpose or meaning. She engages in a ruthless cycle of duelling to the death with her arch-nemesis, absorbing the power of a phoenix, stewing in centuries of suicidal depression, unable to die but also unable to live. Eventually, she cautiously befriends a local schoolteacher, and in the process of experiencing true friendship for the first time in several lifetimes, decides to live gentler life, wandering a cursed forest and guiding lost humans away from danger, mostly putting her hatred of her arch-nemesis to rest. She's challenged by the protagonists after being put up to it by her arch-nemesis, causing her temper to flare, but afterwards, she decides not to continue that old rivalry after all, opting to return to her quiet life as a self-appointed guardian of the forest.
A youkai with the compulsive and incontrollable ability to read minds becomes hated by her community due to her powers, the extreme social anxiety of which causes her to despise her own existence. Instead of becoming a vengeful, angry spirit as would often be the case with hated youkai, she damages her spirit purposefully in such a way that she becomes incapable of turning into that monster, all so she can continue to be her genuinely caring, cheerful, and helpful self. She wanders Gensokyo in search of novel people and things, befriending them, helping them, and moving on, leaving them unable to remember her more than a sense of passing deja vu. Upon meeting the protagonists, she wonders if she shouldn't try to make friends again.
A divine spirit witnesses the death of her family, leaving her without meaning or purpose. In the hopes of achieving a pure and righteous revenge against the perpetrator, she purifies herself of all other motivations and emotions other than vengeance, but in the process of doing so, ruins her creativity, ability to strategize, or to see the grave consequences of her actions, putting the entirety of the world at risk - both Gensokyo and the Outside World. But of course, without any ability to think beyond her own singular purpose, she is soundly defeated, and after her short-sighted plan falls apart. It's implied that, perhaps, her defeat has given her something to consider, that perhaps she's made a mistake in pursuing things they way she has. When we see her next, she's still seething and biding her time, but there's a glimmer of hope as well: her best friend, a powerful goddess from Hell, has been trying to help her open up to new experiences and to the beauty of the world, and, for the time being, she seems to be a little happier.
Themes & Meaning
Beyond the characters, the aesthetics, the representation, the music, and the folklore, there's the reason why I go back to it time and time again: the themes and meaning, emotionally and practically. If powerful women are the hook, then what are the lines and sinker? What sort of message is it trying to send?
Things will get a bit more serious from here on out, so buckle up.
As I said before, Touhou is a series about second chances.
One of the most striking things about the series is, as one of my friends puts it, "you meet the characters effectively at the end of their arcs." They've already decided, sometime in the past, to grow and change and adapt to their often-unfortunate circumstances. Things have happened and of their own volition they have decided to take action and direct their own lives as they see fit. They're not waiting for the protagonists to show up and save them from their circumstances, even if that's often what ends up happening.
When the antagonists meet the protagonists in combat, something is often missing from their lives: a reality check. The characters are often so wrapped up in their own worlds that they forget their actions have consequences or that they affect the people around them at all. When they duel, and inevitably lose, a catharsis sweeps over them, and it causes them to think about the path they're taking. Sometimes they continue onwards, deciding that their decisions have been correct all along. But sometimes, they decide it's time to take a step back and figure out if it's still working for them.
Even if you screw up in a profound way, there's always a path to be reintegrated into the community. Nobody is assumed to be doomed by default. Everyone gets the benefit of the doubt.
In a sense, as much as Reimu and Marisa are peace-keepers, they're also healers, trying to restore balance within the people they meet, as much as they're trying to keep Gensokyo safe from wider harm.
The characters in Touhou are frequently discussing the realities of the Outside World, including even hard-hitting topics like immigration and environmentalism.
When one of the local newspapers in Gensokyo decides to develop a hit-piece against "immigrants" in Gensokyo, directly taking phrases and memes from western right-wing news outlets, a powerful Goddess from Hell shows up to tell them that if they "close their borders" and "build a wall" to keep new youkai out, Gensokyo will stagnate and decay into nothing, and that the very lifeblood of Gensokyo is fresh youkai keeping things lively and interesting. Her words are so moving and intense that the newspaper decides to pulp the entire issue and leave it unpublished.
In another story, a Wind Goddess begins to worry about Gensokyo's energy independence from the outside world. Fearing that eventually Gensokyo will "industrialize" on its own and lead to pollution and the decay of its natural wonders, she wants to get ahead of the curve and tries to develop a renewable energy solution in the form of a fusion reactor. It causes an incident when the fusion reactor turns out to be a youkai who lets the power get to her head. Once Reimu and Marisa deal with the incident, the Wind Goddess decides she'll try to find a less troublesome way of bringing renewable energy to Gensokyo.
These are hardly one-offs, too. The topics come up shocking frequency for a series usually thought of as "escapist." Given that Touhou has many comedic elements sprinkled within, many fans are shocked to learn that Touhou goes out of its way to discuss these topics with such seriousness and directness.
A Better, Scarier World
This seriousness gets more amplified when we move to the stories that concern the Outside World and the few human characters that live outside of Gensokyo.
If you'll indulge me, I want to get into some specific but important stories and describe them in detail. I've tried to skip any of the technicalities and "mechanics" to keep it simple, so I'm hoping you'll be able to follow along easily enough.
Sumireko Usami is a human high school girl - and the youngest addition to the Touhou story. She lives in our "present day" of the mid-to-late-2010s, with a smartphone, social media, and all of the trappings of modern life, yet she finds much of it unbearable. When she was much younger, she manifested psychic and telekinetic powers after being temporarily spirited away to Gensokyo when she fell asleep at an abandoned shrine in the Outside World. Since then, she became increasingly invested and transfixed on conspiracy theories and the occult, with one of her goals being to entering Gensokyo to prove that "youkai are real." She's loud, full of herself, pompous, and too smart for her own good, wearing an absolutely magnificent cape with a gigantic popped collar. (I've frequently referred to her as "Doctor Strange but an anime girl" to those not acquainted with the series.)
In the end, she achieves her goal of reaching Gensokyo, but at great personal cost. She nearly becomes trapped in Gensokyo, unable to truly leave, as the Barrier threatens to make her disappear from the Outside World entirely. Her "Dream World" self achieves consciousness and diverges from her own personality, becoming a megalomaniac bent on taking over her body and trapping her in another world forever. Before long, her existence becomes splintered between three separate selves in three separate worlds. Sages, Gods, and youkai alike try to assist her in undoing the damage she's caused to herself, with variable success, but for the most part, she survives all this with minimal damage. Her "beginner's luck" winds her up in situations that even veterans of Gensokyo had never seen before, much to their morbid amusement.
Despite everything, she achieves her goal of establishing a permanent presence in Gensokyo. Once she has a moment, she explains that the reason she's wanted to visit Gensokyo so intensely, to the point of putting herself through all of that pain and torment, is because of her extreme disillusionment with the Outside World. She mentions how she perceives her world to be damned to enforce an incompatible and cruel status quo on the young, that mass media by multinational corporations is attuned only to the desires of the privileged, and even the Internet, with all of its promises of free and open communication, has lead to a surveillance state and a gargantuan vector for harassment and abuse.
Many of those in Gensokyo initially assumed Sumireko wanted to visit for petty, selfish, or juvenile reasons, but loosen up on her when they find out her true motivations. She doesn't fit in anywhere else, with people frequently finding her "cringey" for espousing literal beliefs in youkai, so of course she'd want to go to Gensokyo, a land of fantastical possibilities, where those oppressive rules of "common sense" don't apply. Merely being in Gensokyo has given her a renewed zest for life: she's found a place that actually feels like home, even as scary as it can be at times. Reimu and Marisa in particular commit to keeping her safe, and while they do invite her to their parties, they decide to not let her have any alcohol until she's older.
The Desert of the Real
The second story concerns Maribel Hearn, a psychologist, and Renko Usami, a physicist, two humans living in the Outside World sometime in the speculative future, likely around the turn of the 22nd century. These stories are focused around the stand-alone Music CDs, which have been published alongside the main games since 2002, and tell a unique story about these two characters.
Their story paints a bleak picture of a world ravaged by economic, ecological, and social collapse. Japan still exists as a nation with laws, infrastructure, and society, but the most privileged members of humanity have hoarded wealth to such an extreme that they take vacations on the Moon as the world itself roasts alive from the effects of climate change. Their shuttle launches are seen from the ground by the poor and disenfranchised, leaving those who remain, like Renko and Maribel, to sort through the ashes. Entire cities are abandoned and left to decay in an almost post-apocalyptic fashion. Crops fail, populations collapse, and the temperature rises with accompanying extreme weather. With the climate becoming so erratic, even so much as growing flowers has become difficult, causing society to try to hide the truth from itself, putting up plastic trees and plants in their place. Maribel remarks that young children know, intuitively, that their futures have been stolen out from underneath them before they were even born, refusing to smile for anything anymore.
In the midst of this apocalypse, Renko and Maribel discover that they have psychic powers. As an inseparable pair, they try to discover what little they can about magic and the occult - and Gensokyo. Renko has an uncanny precision when it comes to direction and space, meaning she can never get lost, even in completely foreign environments. Maribel's gift, however, is especially powerful, and she discovers that she can manifest herself into different realities merely by closing her eyes. In many instances, Maribel will close her eyes, only to find herself transported in a random location in space-time in Gensokyo, sometimes hundreds of years in the past. It's these experiences in Gensokyo that drive and inspire the pair of them to continue studying the occult and to see how far they can push their powers.
Maribel believes very firmly in the idea that subjectivity matters more than objectivity, that a person's experiences shape the world more strongly than any specific measurement or consensus truth. With this belief, and through their experiments, Renko and Maribel discover other humans in the Outside World who have found themselves drawn towards the magical and the occult, landing themselves in a small community of like-minded individuals. They talk to those kindred folk about what they've found, trying to make sense of what they all individually and subjectively experience. In one story, Maribel begins talking about her experiences in a popular occultist bar. Maribel uses her power to show the other occultists that what they experienced was real and valid, and some begin crying in relief. Not only did they find someone who truly understood them, but she helped them experience their subjective truths that seemed so maddeningly elusive.
At one point in their journey, Maribel begins to worry that she's being unable to tell the difference between her dreams and reality. Renko, perhaps joking, tells her, "why don't you make your dreams a reality?" It's these conversations that form the basis of a very popular theory about Maribel Hearn, and with good reason.
Since I keep saying the words "fanfiction is canon," I'm going to get into one of those theories that gets discussed a lot. This is by no means "confirmed" within ZUN's stories, and it may be that his ending changes entirely, but I think it's a neat example of how people interpret Touhou in their own meaningful ways. So, again, to reiterate: what follows is a theory about the fate of Maribel Hearn, rather than anything ZUN has explicitly written.
The theory goes that Maribel permanently travels back through time and space, becoming one of the initial creators of Gensokyo. Her physical resemblance with her presumed alter ego, "Yukari Yakumo," is practically identical. By the time we see Maribel again - this time, as Yukari - 1300 years have passed for her, and she's transformed herself into an incredibly powerful and unique youkai. If you were to think about it in terms of western fiction, she's become the personification of the Space Stone from Marvel comic books, able to create stable wormholes, or "gaps," at-will with a mere thought. She never tips her hand, never lets on how she actually feels about anything, always being the mysterious, coy, inscrutable eldritch woman who has seen far too much. Gods, youkai, and humans alike all give her a wide berth, never getting too close, lest they be swallowed up by one of her "gaps." In some ways, it almost feels like she cultivates that image for herself, in order to force people to respect her in a more serious way.
This is a pretty standard interpretation of things - that Maribel is Yukari, one way or another. Some people wonder if it isn't a case like Sumireko, where she's splintered herself into multiple bodies in multiple worlds, and that Yukari is merely one facet of Maribel. But below is my own interpretation of her character, and one that speaks to me, personally.
Given the things she says in her story, it feels likely to me that Maribel wanted to save the world. She's understandably distressed about the state of the Outside World, given how many things seem to be falling apart. As her naive, younger, human self, perhaps she thought that with her impressive abilities, impressive even within the context of the most powerful youkai, she might have been able to use them to course-correct the world and prevent the Industrial Revolution from utterly wrecking the planet, or from the Enlightment and the "age of reason" destroying the spiritual world on which so much depended. Perhaps she didn't intend to go as far back as 1300 years, but either way, under this interpretation, she found her way back to medieval Japan, and established herself as a key player in history.
At one point, she wages war with a powerful and ancient civilization to steal one of their most coveted artifacts, one that would have granted her an immense amount of power, so it's apparent that she had grandiose plans in the works, and yet, it seems like very few, if any, came to fruition. Whether she was aware of it or not at the time, she ends up being the one who creates the Great Hakurei Barrier, the thing that allows Gensokyo to exist in the modern era at all. Was the Gensokyo Barrier a "Plan B" to her all along? Had the youkai that could perfectly control space simply run out of time?
In the present-day era, in the time of Reimu and Marisa, there is a certain air of defeat around Yukari, despite how she puts on her mysterious and conniving airs. All of her grand plans seem to have failed in one way or another over the years, and she could only save a world, and a tiny one at that. Perhaps, though, through that quiet experiment of hers in an unassuming mountainside of Japan, through Gensokyo, a new and unique type of society entirely could flourish.
And I wonder if the reason why she seems so intent on collecting so many youkai, Gods, and spirits in one place, is because she's learned she can't save the world on her own.
Magic & Chuunibyou
There's a relatively modern concept in Japanese culture referred to as "chuunibyou" (中二病). It literally translates to "middle-second syndrome" (as in "middle school, second year"), and a more localized interpretation would be "delusional middle-schooler" or "delusional 8th-grader." Usually, it's shorted to "chuuni." It alludes to the fantasy play of adolescence, where one might perceive themselves as having special powers and secret knowledge that nobody else possesses, trying to be like the cool characters from cartoons, books, comics, and so on. I'm sure some readers can remember a time in their lives when they experienced those feelings, and perhaps even remember when they stopped, for fear of not fitting in, of not being "normal," or simply growing distant to it. There is a large contingent of people who deride things that are "cringey" and try to force them back into line through socially coercive means, often through online harassment, and so children learn to suppress these sorts of things at younger and younger ages.
In a lot of ways, there's been a cultural examination of the concept of "adolescent delusions" and what they mean in the grand scheme of things. "Chuunibyou" peaked in Japan as a derision of the concept all together, but recently, people have wondered what place it has in a world where we're slowly strangling ourselves to death with a warped adherence to the status quo - economically, ecologically, socially. To create a better world, to believe that working towards an ideal of a better world will have a payoff eventually, with no direct evidence that it ever will, or that you'll ever live to enjoy it, requires a certain level of faith and suspension of disbelief. Even to create art, to build something new, it all inherently requires you to embrace the "delusion" that what you're working on will be worth it in the end, to believe in your abilities even if you have no way of guaranteeing it will be successful, or at the very least, an important part of a journey of discovery. Fundamentally, what is the difference between delusion and creativity, if both take an intangible belief in something greater than yourself?
Sumireko, the human girl who kept trying to find her way to Gensokyo to prove "youkai are real," describes herself as "chuuni." Instead of using it in a self-deprecating way, she wears it as a badge of pride. She doesn't care that people label her "cringey." She doesn't care that people don't believe her. She knows what she's seen, and she's driven by the pursuit of her own personal truth. She frequently jokes about being blocked on social media by people assuming she's "role-playing" or making things up (i.e: chuunibyou), but it doesn't phase her. How could it? She sees and lives the truth every day. She's becoming fast friends with Reimu and the other denizens of Gensokyo, the mysterious women from that ever-alluring pocket dimension that keeps calling to her, day and night.
The concept of chuunibyou is wide-spread enough that even ZUN, the creator, felt the need to "officially" comment on it in one of Maribel and Renko's side-stories (translated from Japanese):
"Chuunibyou" is an easy word to toss around, but understanding that as a motif isn't so simple. I think the source of it is how people tend to think of their childhood as embarrassing, as part of how they progress from a state of innocence to adulthood.
In becoming an adult, one becomes different from their past self, and in that same vein, different from those around them. As a result, they think for no reason that they're an utterly unique individual.
If you consider it this way, "I have a cursed right hand" or "I can whisper into your mind" and so on aren't really the core essence of "chuunibyou."
The true nature of this adolescent posturing is the heat of life. It's an explosion of one's imaginative power. It's a form of resistance against a chilled society, wielding both purity and creativity.
Lately, I've been thinking: how can I maintain that "eighth-grade" attitude until the day I die? If I can do that, I can enjoy sake for my whole life.
To get personal here, I didn't have role models growing up. With absent parents and no community to speak of, I used to be so quiet, so anxious, so afraid of taking up space. When I was 20 years old, I'd go to social groups and not say a single word the entire time for fear of stepping out of line. I didn't think I deserved attention, or friendship, or love. I thought that if I acted just a little bit nicer, a little bit quieter, that I'd please enough people to be left alone.
I've learned the hard way that some people will never be satisfied until you cease to exist. I've been accused of being "delusional" merely due to my gender, my appearance, and other completely mundane things, sometimes just as a mean-spirited jab, but often as an attempt to keep me quiet and small. I'm in my 30s now, and I've decided, finally, to wear it like a badge of pride. Yes, I'm "delusional," in the sense that I want to be the best I can be, to learn new things, to be loved by my community, and to not make myself small for anyone, and to have unrivaled sense of personal fashion. Life is too short for anything else.
Marisa Kirisame, the loud and brash magician I talked about before, has become a major inspiration to me over this past decade. She's a high-key, high-femme, high-octane disaster working to be the best she can be, for herself, and for her community. She's embodies so many of the things I wanted to be but was never permitted to: being bold, being loud, being "extra," striving towards mastery of the self, and being confident enough to see it through so that she really is the best of the best, with a glorious sense of style and a intoxicatingly confident energy. She takes up space and isn't ashamed of it. She has no blood-related family she can rely on, but her community supports and loves her all the same. She has her place in a world that loves and accepts her.
In a lot of ways, I ended up embodying the concept of chuunibyou, of wishing I was as cool as a fictional character. I tried to be like her, tried to manifest her attitude and style as much as was comfortable. I didn't have anything else to go on, so, I figured, why not? I could've done a lot worse. It may have been that I was in the right place at the right time when I first learned about Marisa 12 years ago, but even (or especially) now, she stands out to me as wholly inspirational. I adore her. She's the reason that I wear witch hats, and the catalyst for how people know me as the confident woman I am today. Some of my friends even jokingly call me Marisa sometimes. I'd be lying if I didn't say it put a smile on my face.
I used to make excuses for all this, to down-play it, to be embarrassed of it, but increasingly, I've decided to say how I really feel:
I believe in magic. I'm a witch.
It's not about running away or hiding from your problems. It's not about believing that everything is good and wholesome while the world burns, or even worse, that the world is evil and that you must escape to fantasy to survive. It's not about being able to talk everyone down and negotiate everything so conflict never occurs, or that violence isn't sometimes the only tool left to deal with a difficult situation. Sometimes, justice can't be served. Sometimes, people can't be reasoned with. Sometimes, despite your best intentions, the world still burns. The world of Touhou accepts those realities.
What it doesn't accept are the ideas that everything is dire, that absolutely nothing can be done, that one must always push their faces against the grimdark grindstone, or that you can't build something new, can't create something that can endure, or can't learn from those trials and tribulations. It asks you to be as kind to yourself and others as you can muster without injury, that while the world might be cruel at times, there's no reason you have to be cruel back. It asks you to focus on restorative justice rather than retribution. It's about second chances and that even if you've suffered for longer than you can remember, healing might still be possible, if you're open to meeting the right people, and finding a place where you belong. It's about finding a new life, meaning, and purpose after experiencing trauma and loss, to become something new when you've lost all hope of becoming who you thought you were or ought to have been. If the world is bent on destruction, it asks you to create and protect anyways, and to accept a balance of tradition and novelty, of security and openness.
The real magic of Touhou isn't the Gods and spirits or the sorceries on display. To me, personally, subjectively, it's the power of storytelling, of imagining better worlds and then trying to make them manifest themselves for real in as many small ways as you can, as a direct resistance to the theft of creativity and energy our world often violently inflicts upon us.
As inspirational as Marisa has been to me, recently, I've started to feel a lot more like Maribel: an amateur psychologist at the end of the world, out of place and time, desperately trying to discover and build new realities so that something, anything, might be preserved, created, or explored. There's no way for me to time travel and become an eldritch God, but perhaps in my own way, simply by writing stories, introducing people to worlds that make them smile, and giving people something to care about, I could contribute something meaningful in my life. If I'm lucky, something new entirely might become possible, too. Something I could never imagine, unique and wonderful in its own right.
I'm hoping now that you understand where I'm coming from, and that the following words don't seem that odd anymore: Touhou Project gives me a good template for how to live my everyday life. Be the best you can be. Be unapologetic about who you are. Dress to impress, on your own terms. Find a community of people who understand and appreciate you. If disagreements occur, try to find a peaceful resolution if at all possible, even if it won't be sometimes. Allow yourself to be passionate about the world, about life, about living, about the things you discover and make, even, or especially, if it involves letting yourself become overcome by fantastical thinking, of wondering just what you could do if the sky was your limit, and what might happen if you pushed past that limit entirely.
You probably won't save the world, and that's okay. But perhaps, in your own way, you'll make your own little community a bit more magical.