Given that I'm 31 years old, and Touhou is an "anime-styled" series, I feel the need to point out one of the critical details about it before I get into the nitty gritty: as far as official material goes, in the form of games, manga, and music-story CDs, Touhou has none of the sleazy, gross stuff you've probably come to expect out of the style in recent decades. Like with any series that gets large enough, no matter what it is, there are certain unsavoury elements in the fandom, but as far as the official material goes, there's absolutely, positively none of it. The creator won't stand for it in any of the mainline stuff, and you'll see what I mean later on if you keep reading.
Absolutely none! Wow! There's no "fanservice," no exploitative misogyny, no sexual violence or "fridging" of its characters for dramatic effect, or any of that nonsense. As far as the main protagonists of the series go, they're nearly all characterized as and act like they're well into adulthood, inherently avoiding the awkward and creepy stuff you get with younger characters. It's a long-running and somehow still-popular series where adult women take front and centre, and have agency over their stories and surroundings.
In this media landscape, it probably sounds a bit too good to be true. 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.
- A basic overview of what the series is about.
- General introduction to a few specific concepts, characters, and representation.
- Shifting gears into some more serious and thought-provoking topics, with more in-depth looks at some powerful stories I personally identify with.
- A discussion of how the series has impacted my life and mental health in a positive and meaningful way.
As a general warning, there will be discussions of spirituality, mental health, tragedy and loss, and some mentions of geopolitics 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 mostly of himself and his spouse. 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 music (and oh god, the music). It's been running since 1995 with the release of Touhou Reiiden - Highly Responsive to Prayers, and now has 17 official mainline games as of this year, in addition to numerous official side-games, spinoffs, indie games, official 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 franchise, with two series-centric conventions a year in Japan alone (Reitaisai and Reitaisai Autumn), and large followings in the west, with enough participants to justify a photoshoot even at smaller western conventions. 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.
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 exposit as little as possible on it, 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.
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 in the world, 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 sages, Gods, and "youkai" (a western localization of this word would be "supernatural" beings, similar to vampires and werewolves) in the mid-19th century as a response to the "age of reason" causing magic and spirituality to slowly disappear from the world.
Gensokyo became a place where supernatural entities 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 occurring, 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.
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" magician, effectively act as ad-hoc 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.
What I love about the attitudes of the characters is how varied and complex they are. In a lot of manga- and anime-styled series, it can feel like many of the characters are cardboard cutouts, interchangeable with any other save for their name and hair colour. In Touhou, while there still is a certain reliance on archetypes at times, there has been so much time and variation throughout the years to give them deep and meaningful personalities and histories.
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, most powerful magician in Gensokyo, and eventually, the entire world. Her special attack, Master Spark, is literally 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. She's got a slight inferiority complex when it comes to Reimu, always feeling one step behind her and often taking on Incidents by herself to prove that she's capable of protecting Gensokyo, though thankfully, she's usually successful.
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 in a fridge or hurt so badly she can't go on, if only because the creator 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."
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.
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 hyper-confident adult woman with the skills to back it up, 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, unapologetically 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 as well. Of course, with all of the characters wearing these clothes constantly, including when duelling and fighting, it's the equivalent of putting on a large, ornate frilly dress to do grocery shopping, take out the recycling, go on a long hike through the wilderness, or play rugby. That's just how it is in Gensokyo.
One interesting characteristic of the aesthetic is how many of the characters will wear wide skirts with layered petticoats, but will usually have their arms free and open, often with short-sleeved shirts and tops. Functionally speaking, the fashion demands you take up as much space as possible with bold fashion choices, but also to be prepared to get your hands dirty with duelling, old-fashioned fisticuffs, or who knows what else the world throws at you. You can be as practical or "extra" as you want or need to be, so long as you do your absolute best to nail it.
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 outside of the Barrier, with direct affects on the political atmosphere of their world. That's not something you typically find in "cute girls doing things" media like Idols or Magical Girls.
Touhou is fairly unique as far as women-centric series' go that you don't need to rely on fan-works to get the most out of it, even though the sheer volume of fan-works is impressive. There's enough excellent material and representation within the official materials alone to make it worth while, at least in my opinion.
Beyond that, there are specific examples of gender and neuro-diversity I'd like to highlight as well.
I'll start out with some of the best examples. First, there's everyone's explicitly-trans darling, Toyosatomimi no Miko. She was written into the history books as a "Prince," historically referred to by masculine pronouns, and was magically sealed away for centuries. Once her seal was broken, however, 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. In the Land of Fantasy, where anything might happen, being trans is mundane and unremarkable.
As far as fandom goes, most people assume that all of the women in the series are into women. You can find thousands of "yuri" (lit: "lily", the Japanese word for lesbian fiction) indie comics all over the place depicting relationships between any and all of the characters. Being a woman-centric series, the shipping is, of course, epic in its scope and depth. 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 are everywhere in the Touhou fandom, and with there effectively being no men to speak of, the fandom and canon both run with it. Ihile 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 some sort of long-standing relationship. It's heavily alluded to the fact that Kanako and Suwako, two Gods who live in a rival shrine to Reimu's Hakurei Shrine, jointly adopted one of the recurring protagonists, Sanae, since Sanae seems overly-familiar with the pair of them, and she wears their symbols as hair ornaments. 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.
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 canonically defined as "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.
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 eons 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 very 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. Will she change? Or will she continue the cycle of fruitless retribution? Time will tell for her, but either way, the protagonists decide to give her a chance to change her ways.
In terms of what the series could improve, I'd say one thing I'd like to see more of in Touhou is different body shapes. It's definitely one thing the series could improve upon, especially for a tall woman like myself. The series is also somewhat exclusive to women, so as unfortunate as it is, there isn't any solid representation along the masculine or non-binary spectrum aside from a handful of characters, meaning that some trans masculine folks may find themselves without much to go on. From my perspective, though, there aren't too many series primarily focused on women with such varied personalities and motivations, with things like She-Ra in the West being one of the few exceptions. In any case, we shouldn't consider it a zero-sum situation.
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 utterly change their lives.
And yet, when the protagonists do meet them, something is often missing from their narrative: a reality check. The characters are often so wrapped up in their own stories that they forget their actions have consequences or that they affect the people around them. 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.
In a sense, as much as Reimu and Marisa are peace-makers, 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.
A Better, Scarier World
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 canon. 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. These were all things the average magical denizen of Gensokyo would have a decent awareness and caution around, but Sumireko's inexperience, from not having any direct exposure to the way Gensokyo "makes things weird," causes her several nearly-fatal mis-steps. Doppelgangers form and try to switch places with her in the outside world, the Barrier marks her has a citizen of Gensokyo refusing to allow her to return home, and the Dream World traps her in an endless battle against false phantoms of the people she thought of as friends. 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.
Eventually, she finds a way to Gensokyo that doesn't involve that sort of spiritual trauma. 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 hegemony of the outside world. She mentions how she perceives a world damned to enforce an incompatible and cruel status quo on the young, mass media by multinational corporations attuned only to the desires of the privileged, and even the Internet, with all of its promises, has lead to a surveillance state and a gargantuan vector for harassment and abuse.
Many of those in Gensokyo initially assume Sumireko wanted to visit their home 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 with some unscrupulous youkai always threatening to cause trouble with any humans they see.
The Desert of the Real
The second part fast-forwards to the late 21st century. Renko Usami and Maribel Hearn are humans who live in the speculative future of the "outside world." The pair of them are university students; Renko studying physics, and Maribel studying psychology. Renko is always wearing Sumireko's trademark hat with the large white bow, so they're evidently related somehow.
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.
Although not entirely canon as of yet, as their story is still being written, there is a well-founded and textually-supported theory 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. Assuming this is the case, and it seems very likely to bee, 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 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."
The following is my own conjecture, but it's also a popular expansion on the widely-accepted theory above, backed up quite nicely by canon text.
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 likely, given the things she says in her stories, that Maribel wanted to save the world. As her naive, younger, human self, 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, from the Enlightment destroying the spiritual world on which so much life depended. Perhaps she didn't intend to go as far back as 1300 years, but either way, she found her way back to medieval Japan, and established herself as a key player in history.
At some point, she waged a war in the pursuit of a powerful artifact, one that could have conceivably given her enough power to fulfill her mission of saving the world. She loses that war swiftly, with nothing to show for it except the bitterness of defeat and powerful enemies she holds onto for the rest of her existence in Gensokyo. She'd given up everything - her humanity, her relatively comfortable life, her partner and family - to achieve a particular goal, and yet, it seems as if she was never able to make her plan work.
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. Given the grandiosity of her previous plans, it seems likely that this was never her original intent, but rather a back-pocket ace in the hole in case all else failed. At what point did she realize that her naivety had gotten the better of her? At what point did she realize that she wouldn't be able to fix everything so that those children in her future's past would smile again? Did she always know she would become her own percursor, creating Gensokyo, the place that inspired her when she was a younger human girl studying occultism for the first 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. In 1300 years, she couldn't save the world. 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. Maybe, with tempered expectations, that's enough for her.
And I wonder - and this is complete conjecture on my part - that 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. Some delusions can be harmful, but why do we lump the harmful ones in with the ones that bring us the joy and motivation to create a better world? 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. I think we all know that by now that the status quo evidently can't continue as it is. Fundamentally, what is the difference between delusion and inspiration, 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 growing up, that 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 lesbian 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.
I used her as a role-model. In a lot of ways, I embodied 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 10 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. 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 in the box in order 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 spells they cast, or the Gods and spirits that inhabit the world. 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, something unique and wonderful. Who knows?
Besides that, Touhou gives me a good template for how to live my personal life, as strange as that probably sounds. 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.