Happy New Year to all of my readers out there. I want to begin 2011 by talking about one of the greatest, and perhaps most surprising, success stories in recent years. Most of you can probably guess what I’m talking about: Touhou Project.
This may not be very well-known on Behind the Nihon Review, but I’m big into Touhou. I tend not to talk about it here because Touhou Project isn’t an anime. In fact, it is everything but an anime now. The franchise has spawned figurines, plushies, card games, spin-off games, thousands of doujin music CDs, and countless doujinshi. According to an industry insider, Touhou-related purchases account for around 70 – 80% of Comiket’s total profit. How did a sidescrolling shooter made by one drunk guy get so popular? What does Touhou have that other series with much larger budgets and merchandising don’t have? Let’s take a look:
We begin with Touhou’s setting, the mystical and intricate world of Gensokyo. ZUN, the mastermind behind the Touhou franchise, drew heavily upon Japanese mythology and Western folklore to populate his world. This approach, which relies on re-interpreting classic stories and familiar characters, creates a sense of historical continuity, which generates interest. In addition, by relying on familiar folk narratives, ZUN allows fans to bring their own interpretation of Touhou’s backstory to the table— similar to how very well-known fairy tales have local variants.
However, this would not be possible if Touhou’s plot and characters were strictly defined. The brilliance of Touhou comes from ZUN‘s refusal to create complete backstories for his creations— each character has very strict parameters which he defines— but details are left to fans’ imaginations. In addition, in-game dialogue is sparse, revealing little about the characters’ personalities and motivations. It is the work of the fan to populate the empty space with his own interpretation of events, creating his own, unique complete character. In other words, my Reimu is not your Reimu… but they’re both canon.
Thus, Touhou is a fan-driven franchise, which is quite unique in the world of moe. While other series like to hit us over the head, spoon-feeding us information and inundating us with official stats and figures (You know, blood type, three sizes, etc…), Touhou does none of that. It refuses to reveal too much about itself. Fans have to work to fill in the blanks, which definitely drives fan-created content and participation and interest. In this manner, Touhou is an interactive franchise, which stands in stark contrast with most mainstream anime and moe series, which rely mostly on officially branded goods and special goodies to generate revenue. Looking at doujinshi for any given series (Bakemonogatari, say), we find that most of it is pornographic in nature. This is not true for Touhou. While porn certainly exists (like any other series), the vast majority of high-quality doujinshi sought by fans are non-pornographic original stories which feature Touhou characters.
More importantly, looking at Touhou on the meta-level, it is not exploitative. The characters (at least, in official art) are not moe (in fact, they’re rather poorly drawn), and there are few officially sanctioned books and manga series. Again, contrast with most other franchises, which peddle official wares like nobody’s business. (I’m looking at you, JC Staff; I see you there with your figurines for a show that hasn’t even aired yet.) The strength of Touhou comes from the intricacy of its characters, the richness of its setting and the limitless room for expansion— not from moe tropes or flashy art. In an age of cross-platform marketing and goods bundles, it stands alone. The core canon of Touhou is incredibly small— a dozen or so sidescrolling shooters, two or three manga series, and three published books. ZUN refuses to work at anyone else’s pace other than his own, leaving fans to find new ways to create their own content and contribute to an explosively expanding corpus of work.
However, even if ZUN does not exploit his fanbase, others do. Touhou is being strip mined faster than any other series in history. Entire lines of figurines and plushies are being rolled out every four or five months, and everyone wants a piece of the Touhou pie. This commercial strip-mining of the series may be the death of it, but it seems right now that Touhou is still going strong, mostly thanks to a dedicated fanbase and the relentless work of independent authors who refuse to stoop down to commercial pandering.
However, Touhou’s general refusal to be exploitative is, most definitely, the secret to its success. Shows which sell on moexploitation have a tendency to be forgotten or replaced— because substance is more or less nonexistent in these shows, their characters can be replaced by the next big group of moeblobs. Consider your list of favorite anime characters. How many of them are on that list because they had good character design, or because they looked hot? Probably very few, because these days, all 2D girls look hot. They’re designed to be that way. While good animation quality and beautiful character design can entrance us and improve a series, it can not save a poorly written story or boring characters. We remember and cherish series which are substantively strong, not ones which are pretty and lifeless.
Touhou’s unprecedented growth and popularity can teach us much about what makes franchises iconic. Needless to say, substance is incredibly important, even in the moe industry; nice looking characters may be able to sell goods, but only memorable ones will last long. In addition, creating a series which is loosely defined allows space for fan participation, which is attractive to most people. Some of these lessons are not directly applicable to the anime industry— after all, how are we to create a “loosely defined” anime series? Other lessons, however, should be noted. The industry is too concerned with creating something which will sell in the short term— most series are only as popular during the time that they are airing, and perhaps a few seasons after that. OreImo will die before 2013. Touhou, however, has been around since 2005— and is still growing. Every franchise that has withstood the test of time has done so by creating fresh, new and innovative content without relying on cheap gimmicks. Doing so makes them unable to be copied or disregarded. While moeblobs and beautiful animation can create brands, only substance can produce icons.
1. I do believe that Touhou will die someday, but its resilience is remarkable, especially in an industry where things fall in and out of fashion within a matter of months. It will most likely die when (if?) ZUN finally caves and sanctions an official anime to be produced… but who knows?
2. Moexploitation isn’t inherently bad, but relying on it guarantees that your franchise will be short-lived.
3. Questions? Comments? Disagree? Come shoot the shit with me at irc.rizon.net/#nhrv, or hit me up @Akirascuro on Twitter. Picture credits go to T-RAy.