Oh, Touhou. Where do I even start with you.

 The Touhou project is something that came into my life when I was about 13 years old. I had an extremely japanese friend who introduced me to the series via a few videos on youtube, and it was curious and weird at the same time. All I saw at the time was weird japanese shit about girls and magic and nonsense. However, apparently, there was some huge cult following about it, and it completely bewildered my 13 year old mind. Do you know why? Because even to this day, I couldn't tell you exactly what Touhou is.

 Touhou started as a game series, mostly of the Bullet Hell genre, back in the mid 90's in Japan. The original designers were a group of college students calling themselves Amusement Makers, however, the major staple of everything was a man referring to himself as ZUN. ZUN makes games and designs them largely by himself - as Touhou went on, it became more and more about just him making it, and by the time the 6th game came out and the series transferred over to Windows (instead of being on the PC-98, a japanese computer), the name Amusement Makers had all but dissapeared from the series.

But, that still begs the question, what the hell is it, and why is it so popular?

 If you're like 90% of Americans, you've never heard of it, but if you find someone who has, they know some pretty extensive shit about it. They can name off dozens of characters, plenty of storylines, they might have gigabytes of music downloaded from it, hundreds of wallpapers, a dakimakura, whatever the fuck they might be into - there's something with Touhou written all over it. But the other thing you may notice is that you can't figure out where any of this is coming from. If you look up on Google exactly what official Touhou material is, you'll get this:

 Something like that already gives a few initial impressions. One might say "Oh, so it's an arcade shooter, kind of like Raiden, but with a fuckton more bullets." Another might say "Is that a maid up in the corner? Why are there so many knives?" Yet another person might just be confused and not know what to make of it, especially since in their search, they also found something like the picture at the top of this page. And, well, the first guy is partly correct, the second guy isn't seeing things, and the third guy is onto something.
 At its base, it's a game series about a bunch of girls going around and solving assorted incidents in a realm called Gensokyo. Gensokyo is described as a part of Japan that was sealed off in the 1800's to protect things of mythological nature: magic, fairies, things like that. The reason behind this is that faith in things like old gods and magic was dwindling, and humans were standing up for themselves and trying to make a more realistic society. So, to ensure their survival, those magical creatures sealed off a large chunk of land with assorted powerful magics and charms, to the point where it may as well be a different dimension. Within the borders of Gensokyo, all of these mystical and surreal concepts about Japanese culture survive, alive and well, while the rest of the outside world advanced into society as we know it today. The games themselves follow the adventures of a shrine maiden named Reimu Hakurei as she tries to keep balance and order in this land. Seems simple enough, right? Problem is, that's a -gross- understatement of what the series actually is to most people.

 When ZUN designed these games, he gave the series a -huge- amount of characters. Every single entry has at least -one- new character in it, and most of the non-spinoff games have at least 6 to add to the cast list. Some are mainstays, like Reimu and her friend Marisa Kirisame, a more western-styled witch, while others are only relevant within the stage that they appear in, and are never to be seen again. ZUN also made his games fairly vauge in their dialogue, storytelling, and character development. However, this is actually the key part of the series in itsself. While usually I'd be dissapointed in a series for doing something like this, the way ZUN set it up, it's almost completely genius. Instead of a weird mess, it's more like a barebones framework; a skeleton of what a fully filled out story is. Then, Japan being Japan, the fans took these skeletons of stories and put meat on them. Why? Well, why the hell is Nyan Cat such a big deal? Or Gangam Style? Or any other internet phenomenon? People just attatched to it, and began to fill out it as they saw fit. For those who are confused, let me give an example.

 Touhou 7, Perfect Cherry Blossom, is the second game in the series to be for Windows. The story is that Gensokyo was having an extremely long winter, so much so that it was still snowing quite heavily into late March and early April. Being a land of fantasy, Reimu figured that somebody may have meddled with the fundimental laws of nature - that is, somebody stole the essence of Spring. Reimu sets out to find out who, the only way she really knows how: duel suspicious people until she gets a lead. Marisa naturally decides to do much the same, as she tends to be eager for adventure and mischief. The maid of the Scarlet Devil Mansion, Sakuya Izayoi, is also ordered by her mistress to investigate. Those three girls make up the playable characters. First, the player attacks a winter spirit, Letty Whiterock, thinking she may have something to do with it. When they figure out she doesn't, they continue searching until they find a village of cats, and are ambushed by one Chen, the apparent leader of them all. Pressing forward, they run across Alice Margatroid, a dollmaker and magician living within the Forest of Magic who's usually up to secretive things. Alice doesn't know anything either, but the heroine notices cherry blossom petals flowing toward somewhere in the sky - a sure sign of spring.
 Following the petals, the heroine finds the gates to the Netherworld - a place where spirits go after they die to live in peace. While approaching the gates, they run into the Prismriver sisters - Lyrica, Merlin, and Lunasa. They're poltergeist performers, each able to play musical instruments, and they claim they're going to play at a cherry blossom viewing event within the Netherworld. Not wanting the event to be ruined, the sisters attack, but are fended off by the heroine. Going further in, they find the road to the mansion Hakugyokurou (try saying that three times fast), which is an infinitely long staircase. Near the top of said staircase, they run into a girl wielding two swords - Youmu Konpaku. Youmu is the half-ghost gardner and personal servant to the princess of the Netherworld, and doesn't like intruders very much. Naturally she fights you, but after being soundly defeated, she explains that she was ordered by her mistress to steal the essence of spring. Youmu felt that this would make the giant tree in the garden, the Saigyou Ayakashi, finally bloom - something it hasn't done in hundreds of years. She allows you to go forward to the mansion itsself, and it is there that the heroine is met with a giant, dead-looking cherry blossom tree, and the princess Yuyuko Saigyouji.
 After mentioning that she can manipulate death (which has to do with a bit of Japanese folklore involving people going to rest forever underneath cherry blossom trees), Yuyuko reveals that she instructed Youmu to steal the essence of spring to make the tree bloom, which would in fact release a spirit which was sealed underneath it from before Yuyuko's very existance. Not believing it's a good enough reason to steal all of spring's essence, the heroine proceeds to duel her for the fate of Gensokyo's spring. Eventually, Yuyuko is defeated, and spring's essence is returned to the land.
 This story seems simple and lighthearted enough, but there's a catch - every Touhou game has associated profile notes to every character involved, written by ZUN himself. The notes on Yuyuko are particularly revealing to the true nature of the game - it's revealed that the spirit within the tree was actually Yuyuko herself, as she was sealed underneath it after committing suicide due to fearing her own morbid power. Yuyuko was sealed by an unrevealed person so that she may never reincarnate again. This was implied to have been done because the person cared - they didn't want Yuyuko to feel any more pain. However, due to her death, and long "lived" time as a spirit, Yuyuko didn't remember about her mortal life as a human, and was about to undo what her unnamed friend had wished for her.
 A few days later, Yuyuko goes and mentions to the heroine that the border around Gensokyo is weakening, and that she has a friend who may be directly responsible and/or able to fix the problem. Setting out, the heroine runs into Chen again, who's explained to be the shikigami (summonable servant) of Ran Yakumo, who is a kitsune (9 tailed fox) spirit, who's actually a shikigami herself to one Yukari Yakumo. Yukari seems lazy and carefree, but agrees to fix the border - if the heroine can beat her in a duel. While it's not directly related to the story, every game has an "Extra" stage for assorted extra storytelling, this game having 2, and it usually at least has a loose tie in.

And all of this was gained from an 8 stage playthrough of a really simplistic game.

 So, here's where the fandom comes in. They take a character, be it based on their looks, personality, fighting style, or whatever they like really, and run with it. The games themselves offer a canonical progression to the characters themselves, or a start, even if it's simplistic, and the fanbase will just expand it like crazy. They'll also draw high quality pictures, remix all the music from the games, write manga about these characters, pretty much anything you can think of. Think of it this way: If you had something like, say, Star Wars, and you just really wanted to create some fan-tribute to it, what would you do? Someone might make a metal remix of the Imperial March. Another person might make a really cool picture of Luke dueling Darth Vader. Some third guy might write a fanfiction where Han and Leia have kids. And this is pretty much exactly what Touhou does.

 Taking Perfect Cherry Blossom as an example, it already establishes a cast of characters - Reimu, Marisa, and Sakuya returning from older games, with Letty, Chen, Alice, the Prismrivers, Youmu, Yuyuko, Ran and Yukari being new additions to the series (Well, not really Alice, but that's a different story.). Each character has their own personality, their own abilities, and their own little backstory. Some are given to be more fleshed out than others, such as Yuyuko being extremely important, wheras Letty was only an issue for a small while. The game has a set storyline with conflict and resolution. Now, while this exact game may not be as big as Star Wars was, the Touhou series is actually -quite- expansive - as of this article, there's 14 official games, with several side-games inbetween. ZUN has also written supplemental print works, be it manga or articles written from the perspective of characters, to further flesh out the world he's created. So, with all this base knowledge - knowing that Yukari is lazy, or knowing that Yuyuko and Youmu share a very close master-servant relationship, or even just really liking Chen's theme song - Japan sort of went completely nuts over this series. Again, don't ask me why, the point is that it did happen. And, really, the concept itsself isn't that bad - it's a fantasy game about a lot of really interesting characters going around doing assorted things - some frivilously hilarious, some deathly serious.

 One thing to note is the cast - it's pretty much all girls. There's only a very, very choice few male characters in the entire series, and most of them are only -mentioned-. Of the ones that are even shown, one is a turtle (an actual turtle, not a turtle-based person), one is a giant cloud with a face in it, and one is a shopkeeper. So, for all intents and purposes, the cast is female. This gives the series a very interesting dynamic, depending on how you look at it - either it's a man's paradise, where beautiful women are abound and a girl of any type or character is bound to fit your desires, OR, if you're not as perverse, it's a place where women are simply more important than men in terms of power. A third option is that it actually creates some sort of sense of equality, despite being primarly female. The official works themselves never really play into the fact that they're -all- girls - it's just natural. The girls don't act slutty, they aren't constantly on the lookout for boyfriends, they aren't making out with eachother at every turn - they just act normally. Now, that's not to say those sorts of subjects don't come up with the fans. Believe me, those sorts of subjects come up with the fans. Especially the whole lesbian thing.


Blame the internet.

 Yet, again, this just goes to show that Touhou ends up being whatever the fan wants it to be. There are some extremely ridiculously light hearted things out there that are nothing but cutesy girls doing funny things in completely innocent settings (like Life of Maid). There's also completely NSFW things, ranging from fanfiction, to pictures, to mangas, and I'm pretty sure there's even cosplay porn with real girls dressing up as Touhou characters. However, there's ALSO things that are dark as all hell, with a metric fuckton of gore, broken sanity, and mindrape. This is the main appeal - everyone can find whatever they want to find out of it. Even if you'd rather them all be men, there's something known as Brohou that's just a genderbent version of all of this.

 Touhou is so expansive that I literally cannot do it justice on one page. There'd be so many links to videos, games, songs and manga that it may as well be its own website. My best advice if you want to know some more gritty details about the series in general is to head over to Touhou Wiki and just start reading something. Treat it like TV Tropes - click on some page on the front of it, and every time you see a link to something that looks interesting, click it and keep reading. I guarantee you'll be there for a while, and you might actually find something you really like. Just realize that, as with all things that are heavily Japanese, the series and its fandom -are- a bit weird. Japan has a strange sense of humor sometimes, and their style of jokes can seem a little offputting if you're not used to them. If you've ever watched anime before, though, it won't seem -that- weird. Most the time. I mean, sometimes, even Japan can't figure out what the fuck they're doing when it comes to Touhou, because since it's so expansive, it literally can lead to -anything-. There's one picture in particular I found, a page from a manga, that actually explains it very well (read panels right to left, for all you people who've never read a manga before):

And Touhou is just that. It's something for you to make what you will of it.

 

Written by Yoshio, AMZ. - January 18th, 2015
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