Geekscream: Touhou Project and Copylefts

Welcome to the slaughter!

Welcome to the slaughter!

There is, honestly, very little reason for me to write this particular post, except that I’ve only now become completely addicted to Team Shanghai Alice (AKA: ZUN)’s flagship (read: only) game series. Touhou’s been big for years, driven less by the actual game itself (which is addicting, but massively frustrating), and more by its bizarrely creative fanbase. The Touhou Project fandom has created enough derivative works to lay waste to small forests, every year producing massive quantities of comics, games and even music. And it’s been covered to hell and back by various bloggers, and even some papers. It’s hard to ignore the dent it’s made to otaku culture when the Reitaisei, a convention for Touhou and Touhou only, very nearly threatens to challenge Comiket for superiority by numbers.

Yeah, Touhou’s something of a big deal these days.

The Master Himself

The Master Himself

For the scant few otaku that aren’t familiar with it yet, however (and there are some), here’s a quick rundown on what the game’s like. You’re a magical girl, you fire bullets and the occasional bomb, and you’re going to get killed many times over by the first boss. Many, many times over. Touhou’s difficulty curve is something like climbing Mt. St. Helena during a snowstorm. And that’s on easy. Normal, they strip you of your clothes.

On Hard, you’re climbing through an avalanche. Just imagine what Lunatic’s like.

You have to be somewhat masochistic to play this game. But you’ll also discover that there is, in fact, a part of you that enjoys the pain. Touhou’s deviation from standard bullet hell design is that the projectiles they toss at you move slowly – but despite being simple, low-res objects, are gorgeously patterned and colored. They’re not necessarily shooting at you directly – but the sheer quantity of moving bullets and darts fills the entire screen in intricate, complex weaves, severely limiting your avenues of movement. Even on Easy, there will be moments when a mix of lack of foresight and simple overwhelming threat forces you to bomb or die. It doesn’t matter how good your reaction is, it sometimes doesn’t even matter how often you’ve played – the game’s mechanics forces you to take risks that often puts you in… uncomfortable positions.

As for the fandom itself, it is surprising how much has developed from so little. ZUN’s genius is purely in the gameplay design – the dialogue is sparse and vague, and much of the background material can only be found in side-works and game manual. But as vague as he makes the land of Gensokyo, a Shangri-la equivalent that the game’s universe is set in, the personalities of the girls in the game – and, with few exceptions, it’s an entirely female cast – are distinct enough to win fans.

At that point, the border between what belongs to ZUN and what belongs to the fans becomes… indistinct. Very indistinct, actually, as the game creator himself has admitted that much of the fan-made back- and side-stories have influenced his own approach to the characters and to the events of the game.

Let’s note right here that such a thing would be impossible here in the United States. The difference between the US and Japanese approach to intellectual property is like night and day. ZUN, as a doujinshi creator, has basically allowed Touhou to flourish as common, public property – though his influence as the originator and the most prolific collaborator gives shape to much of the fandom, all he can do is influence. He’s powerless to actually stop people from, say, making an anime out of it.

In fact, he is famously on record as being against the (so far) one-episode anime made of it. But, unlike US law, his legal ability to stop its production and distribution is… vague.

Is this necessarily a bad thing? I’d adamantly argue against such a perception. There is no doubt that Touhou’s continued popularity is primarily fan-driven, and by fan works at that. By making the characters and ideas mostly common property, ZUN’s made more money than he would have from Touhou otherwise, as – ultimately – it’s an interestingly conceptualized series of shooters with a beautiful soundtrack, but very primitive and formulaic in execution, and the hand-drawn art is laughably amateurish. The totality of its life and cultural influence is solely because there are no real restrictions upon derivative works – it is, instead, its sole strength and foundation.

Touhou shippers are frighteningly prolific.

Touhou shippers are frighteningly prolific.

I would love to see an American equivalent. Or an Australian equivalent. Or British equivalent. There are no human cultures that lack creativity – merely human machinations that suppresses it. ZUN isn’t unique in having something great to sell the world, but he does live in a legal system with a uniquely lax perspective on derivative works. Only China has less restrictive policies, of which they’ve used to devastating economic effect.

Why shouldn’t we have an intellectual arms race? Why shouldn’t we force creators to maintain the quality of their works? Intellectual property was designed to safeguard the deserved rewards for creativity, but so far as historical evidence has indicated, all it’s done is excuse copyright holders to rest on the laurels of past glories, spewing crappy sequels to movies and games in their lackadaisical indulgence, and artificially inflating the cost of medical goods. While it’s hard for even me to draw a clean line between Touhou’s success and medical policy, it’s easy enough to assert with the controversies of either that, for both artistic and pragmatic reasons, it is in our best interest to copyleft as much as possible, and let the fruits of our creativity flourish into whole orchards of thought.

In the meantime, everything in here’s under a Creative Commons license anyhow, and Kaguya’s still kicking my ass on Easy. I’ve done my part in spreading the word of the copyleft movement – do your part while I try and not die to her third spellcard.

Kaguya, Moon Princess

Kaguya, Moon Princess

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~ by Gonzo Mehum on March 20, 2009.

6 Responses to “Geekscream: Touhou Project and Copylefts”

  1. Speaking of Touhou shippers, straight line ReixMari here.

    The game’s learning curve isn’t so much a curve, but a straight line that goes up. You’d be hard pressed to even find a slope >_> haha. One day I’ll beat a game on Normal… one day…

  2. The difficulty difference isn’t that bad. The difference between Easy and Normal on Embodiment of Scarlet Devil is at its most drastic at Cirno’s Icicle Fall (Easy) vs (Normal), but the rest of it is actually fairly similar.

  3. I was googling for translations of the Touhou Policy. I ended up reading this topic.

    Very well said. The little information given for the paradise-like setting of Gensokyo have drawn my interest to Touhou, besides the game having such a large fanbase (most of them with the cuteness factor) and an all-female cast.

    Also, it’s nice to hear that ZUN himself reads fanworks of his own creation.

  4. Oh, so they’re magic bullets and not suppositories? I came here literally “through the back door” to try to find out what the hell this is.

  5. Great analysis of touhou. I would also argue that beyond the legal system, there exists elements of Japanese culture that also cultivate these types of works. Although the legal system is a rough representation of a culture’s morals, japanese law certainly does have copyright, but creators simply often choose to not enforce it.

    Also, the Japanese have a greater understanding of “fan works” and even have the word “doujin” to refer to these works.

    America hardly has a concept that people can make fan works because many companies are too afraid that the consumer will mistake fan works as those of the original creator.

    Furthermore, the Japanese are more open to purchasing these micro-published works at places like Comiket, while Americans may simply steal it. Certainly, most non-Japanese have pirated copies of touhou.

    Finally, Japanese culture is collectivist, whereas American culture is individualist. These are merely “ideal types” and it is not to say that Japanese cannot be individualists or Americans cannot be collectivist (Zun of course is very much an individual). The American mindset truly favors the concept of “owning” an idea.

    Anyways, excellent post. I too hope to see the non-Japanese equivalent of Touhou. At the moment, nothing even comes close !!

  6. Does anyone have the source of the image of kannushi ZUN? Some kind of video interview?

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