The Making of an Icon

Rockstars of the Moe World.

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, or hit me up @Akirascuro on Twitter. Picture credits go to T-RAy.

12 Responses to “The Making of an Icon”

  1. I’ve been meaning to take a look at the Touhou franchise but it does seem quite intimidating considering the number of games and fan-works. Is there any specific starting point I should go through first?

  2. My big question: is this formula for success replicable?

    You’ve highlighted a lot of characteristics that the franchise has that contributes to it being a success, but I’m also inclined to think that just because someone makes an attempt to make a franchise by incorporating those characteristics together doesn’t mean it’ll be successful. Necessary/sufficiency conflicts in other words.

    So without having the shmup background that many others have, I can only ponder as to whether it’s the quality of the games themselves that managed to propel the franchise forward. I remember being killed by my first hail of bullets from Hong Meiling’s shotgun spread attacks, but also being in awe at the pretty bullet patterns. I haven’t played any game since giving up on UFO, but if one thing’s for sure, it does hold a special place in my gaming heart.

  3. Aelms: It really depends on you, really. Are you a gamer with quick twitch-reflexes? Then you start with the games. Are you more of a music lover? Then check the ZUN-made tracks, then check the Doujin-remixes. If you’re wondering about the background, then the official and semi-official comics Wild and Horned Hermit, Inaba of the Earth and the Inaba of the Moon, and the Three Fairies stories are for you.

  4. My big question: is this formula for success replicable?

    I doubt it. I honestly believe Touhou’s success with fan driven content was completely unintentional. There is some lauding upon ZUN for things that I do not believe he had any forethought about. The ultimate irony would be that ZUN is hardly creative at all, and all of this is just evidence that the guy couldn’t come up with squat beyond the basic foundation.

    Anyway, if someone wanted to do this again, and intentionally so, I think it would be met with cynicism. Touhou was embraced and took off without provocation and expectation. Forcing the issue would lead to failure.

  5. It might just be me, but from what I can see, the flagship of the Touhou series, and the primary reason why it has managed to live so long, is pretty much Touhou 6. I mean the sheer amount of material based off of that game is absolutely astounding, and really no other Touhou game has managed to capture the hearts of fans like the introduction of the SDM and Cirno. Sure there are some Doujins concerning the other Touhou games, but I tend to find that Doujins concerning Touhou 6 remain relatively consistent in number. No other Touhou game has managed to completely weave together a group of characters with as interesting personalities as Touhou 6. I get the feeling that the Touhou boom can be largely attributed to the success of that single game.

    That said, I completely agree with the idea that Touhou is an interactive franchise, and that that has largely been the reason for its continued existence. The success of BL can be attributed to the same reason, and it’s just barely below Touhou in terms of fan popularity, to the point that it gets its own day at Comiket.

    As for whether the success of Touhou can be emulated, I highly doubt it. The success of Touhou was incredibly organic, and considering just how deeply entrenched Touhou is already, it’d take something extraordinary to beat out an entrenched 5 year fan base.

  6. You raise an interesting point about the business angle of creating a large universe with intentional gaps left for the fanbase to fill in. It’s hard to generate the initial popularity that would give you those fans to begin with, but it’s easy to add oil to the fire by cleverly expanding the franchise while giving fans the opportunity to explore it. I’d say that a lot of these elements are unique to Touhou’s case – one reason why it can afford to be so vague is because story isn’t the main focus of shmups – but it’s an interesting observation nonetheless.

    (By “business angle” I mean that it allows for the creation of a ton of merchandise and fan works that help build the universe rather than setting things in stone and clearly defining canon through a series of games. In this case, ZUN is hardly profiting from this tactic so I suppose it’s a misnomer).

    On another note, I’m pleased that you mentioned that there’s an art to writing good moe characters. People often criticise commercialized moe titles as being the doom of anime, but it’s really the shallowness of some of these titles that turns them into disposable entertainment, not the moe elements in themselves. I don’t want to start a K-on argument and I don’t know what your opinion on the show is, but I hold it up as a solid example of how to make substance out of a more or less insubstantial source material. The plot is empty but the characters grow into their quirks as the series goes by, eventually becoming more than just well-animated archetypes. That’s certainly one of the reasons why the franchise has such a huge following compared to the other cut-and-paste moe titles that air every season.

  7. Touhou’s success may have well been just because ZUN’s a drunkard – something that was made not for money, not for fame, not to stay in serialization or bring in profits from merchandise sales.

    That, I believe, is something you can only replicate, if you don’t intend to replicate it.

    That is also true genius.

    (although he’s just a drunk)

  8. need more emphasis on teh music and graphics, for the first time, we have a shooter that is truely beautiful in its attacks, not just another bullet hell in which all there is to be seen is loads and loads of purple dots. Bullets are all unique in a sense that not only do they appear colorful and have fanciful shapes, but also fall in line with teh nature atomosphere of the level, along with the music. The music is also godly as well, as for a drunk dude with nothing more than a synthesizer, zun has composed loads and loads of masterpieces that have gained a fanbase as well, theres literally a torrent with 800 gigs of touhou remixes

  9. I partly agree with The Typical Idiot Fan about that the whole Touhou phenomenon was not intentional.

    Zun just wanted to create games which he liked, which turned out to be successful. In other words: he and his work was in the right place at the right time. Also, there is a certain kind of grassroots feeling to the franchise, which can’t be repeated because the target audience is sensitive to astroturfing.

    But I disagree that he’s hardly have any talent at all. He has adequate talent in multiple categories. He programs, draws and creates the score for most of his games by himself. And while his characters aren’t as well drawn anatomically, I find his clothes designs great. Also, while his music is not perfect either, they’re catchy enough to inspire others to create remixes.

  10. It was a very interesting read, I am also surprised that Touhou is so resilient. People have been predicting its demise every year, and every year it surprises all of us with amount of doujin works produced in Comiket.

    I often look at amount of works produced in a comiket(C) to gauge how popular it is in Japan. (not very accurate!) While you see animes like K-on, clannad dominate C for maybe 2~3 Cs then diminish significantly overtime, Touhou just goes on and on and continues dominate C. However, I do believe Touhou reached its peak and its now on slow decline as ZUN said that he won’t be able to make games as much as before since his marriage.

  11. When faced with Tohou earlier I didn’t take it seriously but after few years when taking a look at Tohou material I can say that Tohou beguns now, predicting its demise ?? I think you should say predicting its expansion. Tohou is starting to grow into a powerfull and iconic franchise that might last till the end of time. I think were witnessing an accidental birth of the legend. We might say that Tohou is in fact a spiritual franchise that was made for the new era, and the fact ZUN was who he was made him ideal to start it…as lets face it no profesional would be bold enought to follow the vision so naivelly and ohnestly and this is what lead the franchise to sucess. The games mentioned are just a fragment of the Tohou phenomena that will exist no matter whether he will continue making his games with his name beeing immortalized in a fan interactive world that went beyound even his expectations….Tohou as mentioned is organic and it won’t die off nor dissapear cause the storyline can be continued in every condition everywhere by just about anyone and every single child …after reading about Tohou even I can make a manga my self that can be a parody of everything I like part of the fact that the world of the Tohou dosen’t take itself seriously is why it becomes iconic Tohou is a medium that can cover all kind a problems. Unlike most other profesionaly made anime series that are enclosed in often to enclosed realities. Tohou while supposedly beeing seperated from our world is free to interact with it unlike in other series were seperation is absolute, Tohou’s barrier only protects its inhabitants and dosen’t restrain others WHO COMPLY with GENSOKYOU’S world view to enter meaning that every person from the outside world that accepts Youkai’s and dosen’t fear them might enter Gensokyou ,while people who are affraid of Youkais or hold prejuice towards them will be kept out . So while most of the characters tend to not leave the Gensokyou others might visit them , part of its popularity might in fact steam from this in Japan where Gensokyou’s barrier and distictive order might be symbolic of Japanese Isolation period that predefined the Japanese society ….it also references and draws on elements native to Japanese beeing an awesome way to promote Japanese culture which contributes to Tohou’s usefullness and success which will also most propably keep Tohou out of commercial use as Tohou while used as marketing tool wasn’t ever made for comercial use .I think it won’t be a suprise that will see Tohou and Vocaloid as characters in Japanese course books as a way to popularize learning of the Japanese language …in this case Tohou is not ending and it will never end as its representative of a specific generation and becomes an element that defines culture and not just popular culture. So I believe the reviewer dosen’t quite understand what Tohou truelly is, its a representation of people who are into anime and internet Tohou is the first Internet cultural franchise alongside the Vocaloids

  12. I think the reason Touhou stands out is the fact , Touhou ain’t an anime franchise but a MEDIA franchise, I would love to point out that the anime’s we most often find iconic are these that are made a part of an media franchise which is a production that spawns different platforms. Nowadays we don’t see much tittles that are a part of a bigger production effort

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