Why I See Gensokyo More Clearly Than Any Anime World

This is the only result I got for 'Gensokyo map' ROFL

One of the things that anime is surprisingly not very good at is creating a fully-realized fictional ‘world.’ When you open up a fantasy book (and fantasy is of course the best genre for fictional worlds) you are often confronted with a ‘world map’ right off the bat. You will be given details about all sorts of countries and locations and customs, etc., to bring this world to life as you read. The reason that this doesn’t really happen in anime is for the same reason it does happen a whole lot in JRPGs – time.

Anime aren’t long – usually, they are 4-8 hours long, which is hardly enough time to create a whole world and fill it with meaningful characters (Lord of the Rings trilogy took about 10 hours – around 30 episodes of anime? And good luck finding many any as good as LOTR). Actually, the biggest beef I have with a lot of anime stylistically, especially in fantasy and adventure series, is the lack of a fully realized world. It’s the meat that makes you feel like what you are watching is really happening somewhere, and not just anonymously existing in a world bent to the convenience of the story.

I like Scrapped Princess, but it had this terrible lack of sense about the world. We knew that the characters were fleeing one country for the next, but we never knew how big these countries were, or how far along they had traveled, or what this country was like. That show comes forth with a lot of details that are so out of left-field that they have you constantly reconciling new developments against what you’ve seen so far, and then you have to realize ‘the world was always intended to be that way, they just didn’t tell me so.’ (I guess that’s what the novels the show is based on are for.) Even a series with a beautiful, stylized world like Last Exile fails to give you any real sense of the world, and that show too gets a little head-scratchy when the world suddenly looks different in ways you didn’t expect late in the game. All of this is why most anime stay away from world-building altogether and reuse the same familiar landscapes, or otherwise make the world ‘consistently random.’

A series like One Piece or Kino’s Journey can use a set-up to their advantage where they keep certain things consistent throughout the series so that the world all feels ‘together’, but use the fact that all of the locations are far apart from one-another to make each one unique on the author’s whim.

If there is one series that stakes the claim of moving in the right direction, it’s 12 Kingdoms (I guess deserving of it’s title as one of the greatest anime fantasy series of all time) which gives you a world map and does a lot to develop that world and… until it ends after 45 episodes, leaving a lot of it yet to be explored, and therefor alien to the viewer. As it stands, I think that the only anime that have even been long enough to do a good job developing their worlds have been shounen action shows like Dragon Ball and One Piece, but once again, they are so random in their consistency that it’s hard to think of the world as cohesive.

But Digiboy! What about Glie?!

And I’m not saying here that anime cannot create good ‘settings’. Haibane Renmei, the Aria series, and now Sora no Woto have shown us that anime can create an amazing setting, but you’ll notice that all of those series take place almost entirely in one city. That, I’m afraid, I cannot consider a ‘world’ (even a continent might be fine for that consideration, but not a city.) I want to see a ‘world’ like a JRPG has – I can fully visualize the world map of Tales of Symphonia 5 years after playing it because it was such a fully realized, fully explorable, and immersive world. But then wait – why the hell can I see Gensokyo more clearly than any other world?!

I’m not basing that on non-canonical Gensokyo, either. If you’ve ever played any Touhou, a ‘bullet hell’ shooter game series, then you know that the background art is quite generic, and you can only even get a semblance of where you are at any time by the game’s vague dialog. However, there is something magical about what ZUN has created in the Touhou franchise, and I feel this applies to the characters as well as the world they live in – it’s built entirely on implications.

Having a look at, for example, the story of Embodiement of Scarlet Devil. From the past games in the series, we have established that the lead character, Reimu, lives in a shrine in the world of Gensokyo, which is largely populated by all sorts of classical Japanese monsters, some humans, and a lot of eccentric people. In EoSD, we learn that there is a mansion somewhere that Remilia Scarlet and her family lives in, and it’s where the main character goes to beat the game. The first stage has the character flying through a long forest, the second over a massive lake, and the third at the strange-looking entrance to the mansion. Therefor, we can create an image in our head that if you leave the forest surrounding Reimu’s house, fly for quite a while, and pass over a huge lake, you will eventually get to the Scarlet Devil Mansion. We learn that the mansion has a massive library, as well as that it is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside, and that it is populated by many, many maids.

We are given only a couple of lines of dialog from each character we meet with only the tiniest implications of their personalities. ZUN has written some background information on them, but it is mostly ‘telling.’ He tells us a lot of things about the characters, but even when he does, he is sketchy about it, claiming a lot of things to be ‘rumors’ or stating that sources may be more or less correct than they seem. The only time he gives us any scenarios involving the characters, it has a strong bias on the part of the narrators in question, skewing information further.

Point being, there isn’t a whole lot that is given to the player as ‘facts about Touhou’, but a lot of things that are given as ‘inspiration.’ With Touhou, it is possible to completely create the world and the characters inside of your head, all your own, and yet be correct about it.


If you read me a lot, you probably have seen me talk a lot about ‘creators intent’. If there is one thing I think of myself as great at, it is metering creator intent. I look at the background info of a show, the previous works of a creator, what I can find about their personality, what the scenes and the dialog mean at their core, and I gauge what it is I think the creators of a series really intended for you to see with their part in it. Because of this, I don’t really use my imagination too much about what isn’t given to us in a series. I don’t go adding things into a fictional world that I may not know have a place there, because I am more interested in what the creators wanted me to see (and likewise, when I create things, I don’t like to leave much open for debate – I want you to fully understand my message, which is probably why I qualify my statements so much, lol.) Now, if I truly feel that I grasp the intent of the creators, I can expand on it. I would feel comfortable writing a fan-fiction about the future romance of Ryuuji and Taiga from Toradora, because I feel that I grasp their characters and their story perfectly, and that I could represent them in-line with the narrative. However, sometimes, there are series that give you more breathing room.

I’m talking about when the creator’s intent is for the viewer to find their own meaning. I find myself taken to the band System of a Down, who in interviews would always state that they would never ‘explain’ the meanings of their lyrics, because they wanted the fans to come up with their own. As a lifelong listener of their music, I have of course developed meanings for all of their songs, and I can completely be confident that all of my meanings are ‘correct’ because the band stated themselves that their intent was for me to assume that of my own interpretation.

Touhou is likewise a series wherein I feel a lot has been purposefully left to the consumer. ZUN will tell you some things and dispel some rumors so that the characters and the world have some ‘official’ aspects, but the whole of the worldview is also ‘officially’ as you interpret it. Therefor, even though there is no provided view of the world of Gensokyo, I can be utterly confident in my vision of it, as comprised from the random facts and ‘inspirations’ laid before me. In my head, there is a calculated distance between the human village, the Eientei mountain, and the Scarlet Devil Mansion, and I can mentally travel the characters from one location to the next and let them interact with one another in the perfect light that I imagine them to interact.

This is why Touhou is such an engrossing franchise for me. It has endless possibilities, because it is not weighed down by what content exists. I love Neon Genesis Evangelion, because it provides me with a lot to think about, but the bottom line is that it will never be more than it is to me. As much digging as I could do to find all of it’s treasures, I will eventually ‘know everything about Eva’, and while I will love that, it will simply be all there is. I will never run out of scenarios for Gensokyo. In my mind, I can make anything happen there, and therefor I can never stop finding new things to love about the series. I think it’s pretty amazing that I feel so attached to the characters and their world just from reading straightforward facts and concepts surrounding them, but I have already imagined so much of their existence that it’s like I’ve watched them for hundreds of episodes. I can safely say that I know more and have a better vision of Gensokyo than I ever have had of an anime world.

16 thoughts on “Why I See Gensokyo More Clearly Than Any Anime World

  1. I know nothing of Touhou, other than its ridiculous difficulty, but upon reading this a thought about its construction from an in-universe perspective hit me. If we were to think about the game’s universe from the perspective of the “3-D World,” Gensokyo would appear as a black box. They may know that it exists, but they can’t see into it. All they might have are stories that would trickle out (there’s weaknesses in the barrier, after all), and from there they would have to connect all the lines together. While inside the box, there is probably a “definite” order of things, from outside the box it’s a complete abstraction. So even looking at it from in-universe, the same perspective would be used. Neat.

    Of course, I might go even further and state THIS world is the “3-D World” of Touhou, and therefore we ourselves are in-universe as far as the series is concerned. That might be just a little too wild/pretentious though.

  2. the fundamental issue I see with touhou for myself is that I am generally not a fan of shmups

    which sucks because setting-wise it’s interesting

  3. I think you would really like some aspects of pop culture theory. There’s a good bit of research done on fandom, and the way fans interact with the settings they love. It’s more or less the sort of thing you describe here: If you give fans room to run wild, they will. Witness Harry Potter roleplaying, or (to turn your Eva example on its head, forgive me) the many, many spins on Ayanami Rei’s personality over years of fanfiction.

    Part of why I think Touhou is so lively is because it’s so well-built for those purposes. It’s like the perpetual motion machine we’ve been dreaming of, not in metal but in meme-space and the human capacity to fill in gaps. Or something like that.

    • Actually, Japanese people don’t need to research since it’s based mostly on their folklore and culture. But yeah, in order to understand how amazing and viral Touhou is, you’ll have to do some background work. And since ZUN simply adds twists to the stories by throwing in the most unique of characters, the secondary content just keeps on pumping. No wonder fans are confused on their status as Touhoufags!

      That applies to you, too, Digiboy. Stop that secondary fan self-flagellation and start dodging bullets.

      • You know, I don’t actually support the theory that you should always be a primary fan. It’s fine to love Touhou even if you can’t play the games. I just personally am trying to get good at them. i.e. please don’t spoil my fun with your bitching.

        • Not spoiling your fun, just telling you to play the games. Pay tributes to the source material by taking fan content. Pay tributes to fan content by taking the source material. That’s basic, and you did it, so consider myself dismissed.

  4. Pingback: When The Pillars Of Touhoudom Collide: Original Material VS. Fan Material « Rainbowsphere

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  6. My favorite Touhou game so far is SWR. It strikes me as funny when Suika stumbles around before beating the crap out of her opponent. Her horns are not decoration. Gensokyo’s appearance is mostly in the mind’s eye like you said, but the Doujin Manga also made by Zun-san adds some details not given in the games.

  7. Oh shiiiiit and then Undertale did the exact same thing (letting the viewer experience intimate-but-abstract details about characters) using the exact same style of gameplay. Nooooooooooooooo video games why do you do this to me you are so beautifullllllllllllllllllllll.

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