Sunday, February 23, 2014

Touhou Project and the Single-Gender World

I believe that a society without gender distinctions is a powerful ideal.

Theoretically, the ideal of universal "androgyny" entails no gender.  Simply, if no one is assigned to either the male or the female category, individual expression becomes unlimited and undefined.  Anyone could express any mix of traits formerly delineated under those two categories, without being arranged into any sort of hierarchy.

...But technically, in a world of one gender  for example, a world identifying female only  you could similarly say that there are "no gender distinctions."

(fanart from

The provocative premise of a single-gender society comes up quite a bit in feminist science fiction.  It also comes up in... a Japanese shoot-'em-up PC game?  Sort of!  Albeit in a completely different context, the ongoing Touhou Project series (1996-current) comes pretty darn close to being an ideal, single-gender world.

Touhou Project is a franchise of dojin (indie) games which have become phenomenally, memetically popular thanks to their gorgeous music and cute character designs.  If you haven't played a Touhou game, you've probably still heard of Bad Apple!!, or Marisa Stole the Precious Thing, or any one of twenty-million remixes of U.N. Owen Was Her?.  Touhou is everywhere.  A large part of the series's charm lies in that enormous range of derivative fanwork – and the very fact that it's so malleable and exploitable might be relevant to the topic, too  but the canon itself has plenty to explore.

Its setting, the mysterious country of Gensokyo, is a literal fantasyland that has been sealed off from reality.  It's notorious for strange incidents involving yokai (supernatural beings), and it's the home of a certain shrine maiden named Reimu Hakurei, whose duty is to resolve those incidents.  Also, it's full of girls.  Witch girls, ghost girls, fairy girls, beast girls.  Girls.  Over a hundred characters, and all girls.

Official art:  The playable cast of Touhou 09, Phantasmagoria of Flower View.

There's no explanation as to why it's full of girls.  There's no plot-related reason behind it, and there's certainly no direct social statement behind it.  The one-man creation team behind the Touhou games has said that, once the series became known for its Improbably Female Cast, it has simply felt more appropriate to maintain that image for future installments.  Men aren't explicitly banned from Gensokyo nor are they necessarily nonexistent; a few non-humanoid males have appeared in minor roles, and at least one human male appears in supplementary literature from the Touhou canon, though not in a playable game.  The games simply choose to focus on girls because... because.

Gameplay of Touhou 07, Perfect Cherry Blossom.  Can't you
see the feminist utopia behind this curtain of colorful bullets!?
As previously noted, single-gender societies make up a common motif in feminist literature.  The aim, in that context, is generally to demonstrate that women are strong and capable of self-governing.  While the magical bullet-blasting ladies of Touhou are unquestionably strong, I wouldn't say that's the agenda here.  Then, why?  While the male creator (and the heavy male majority of the audience) might seem like a red flag for perverted ogling motives at play instead, I wouldn't say that's necessarily the agenda either.  The appeal is more aesthetic than sexual... honest!  But whatever the reasons, the results are worth thinking about.  The result I find relevant is that of a bunch of characters existing in the same world without any comparative gender frame.

What's the positive significance of an all-female world?  How is it similar to an androgynous world?

1.  In this sort of world, the heteronormative element is gone, the natural inclination to romantically pair off males with females.  Unless specifically targeted to a niche audience as shonen-ai (boys'-love) or shojo-ai (girls'-love), the average show or game tends to lend itself to heterosexual pairings by default... because that's just the way it's supposed to be, right?

Well, obviously not when that "default" is removed as an option altogether.  The games themselves, far more concerned with delivering mythological backstories and fancy complex bullet patterns for players to dodge, offer virtually zero romantic or sexual subtext.  This is a rather rare case for an Improbably Female Cast, which is often implemented for the sole purpose of such fanservice.  Still, if the fans want to see characters pair up, essentially the only choice is to match girls with girls.  In the most famous of many examples, the fanmade Touhou animation Marisa Stole the Precious Thing tells the story of the titular kleptomaniac character "stealing" something, which adorably turns out to be another girl's heart.  Of course, this never really happens in the games.  But, in theory, the absolute shift away from the ingrained ideology of heterosexual naturalness is an interesting effect of a single-gender environment.

2.  In this sort of world, too, gendered stereotypes are impossible.  When every character is a girl, there is no way to look at one and assume, "This one is weak because she's a girl!"  "This one is emotional because she's a girl!"  That makes no sense.  Much like in a universally androgynous society, gender is rendered useless as a tool for descriptive identity or prescriptive assumption, and everyone instead gets characterized very individualistically.  In addition to their dialogue, which is necessarily limited by the genre, Touhou games find plenty of ways to communicate the framework of a character's personality:  through their mythological roles, through their vivid and thematically-patterned attack styles, through their expressive and intricately-composed leitmotifs.  With the framework set, all implications hinging on self-contained details rather than social stereotypes, the rest is to be enhanced by fan interpretation.

It might sound unfair to imply that other series don't develop characters in this sort of dynamic way, but in fact there are still shows and movies being made that don't satisfy the "Bechdel test" that is, the perfectly reasonable condition that a story feature at least two women, who speak to each other at least once about something other than their relation to a man.  Often, that means, a character literally will not get developed beyond "being female" in relation to a male.  Well, that's the benefit of removing gender distinction.  In a single-gender cast, that relation is irrelevant, so the Bechdel test is in the perpetual process of being aced.


...That's a nice metaphor for androgyny and all, but what about some actual androgyny in this review?

Of course!

Out of Touhou's many dozens of female characters, here's one named Wriggle Nightbug.  She is an androgynous little yokai with an androgynous name.  Her design is based on a firefly, and she has the ability to control other insects.  Ready to stand up for the importance of small things, she'll challenge the player as the first-stage boss in Touhou 08, Imperishable Night.  And whether you think she looks boyish or not, she was never meant to be a trap.  She is officially female, like the other 99% of the cast.  This should be a moot point.

Still...  In a universe built upon giant hairbows, colorful dresses, frills, and more frills, fans are instinctively suspicious to encounter a character in shorts and a cape.  
Perhaps the stereotypically boyish "insect" motif drives the suspicion, too.  Ironically, the androgynous aesthetic, which ought to be the most natural and inclusive, often forces a character to be the odd one out!  Ironically, the one style that renders gender least conspicuous makes gender the one thing on which viewers fixate.

Indeed, most fanwork that addresses her primarily addresses her androgyny.  Some art, in fact, even turns her into a male.  The option of gender-bending in fanwork is proof that there is some very transformative power in interpretation, to an extent that might invalidate my two points above:  As long as gender distinctions exist in this world, viewers will continue perceiving gender distinctions even in the freest of fictional worlds.

Fiction, or "fantasy," can be an interesting mirror of reality and vice versa.  Funnily enough, this particular series manages to demonstrate in both canonical and meta-canonical ways how this tendency toward dualism (fantasy versus reality, human versus nonhuman, female versus male) is a huge natural part of existence, no matter how blurry the border.  Where a norm is challenged, judgments are applied.  Then, what's needed in real-life society is to consider a deconstruction of "norms."

(fanart from
Sorry, Reimu.  Those puns were uncalled for.

Using an all-female society to highlight feminine strength is one thing, but more important than "strength" in characters is individuality.  While neither gender nor lack of gender ought to hinder that, the framework of androgyny helps put things in perspective about how gender affects our views, and offers the incentive to adjust them.

...Thinking in binary male-and-female terms?  There's no need to be such a Double-Dealing Character.  It may be a Dim. Dreambut I have a Mountain of Faith in the possibility of unthinking that Natural Law.


  1. I don't actually know how i ended up here while i was googling something, but i must say this was a good read. I was expecting some errors and things about touhou in this article but instead it turned out to be an awesome analysis. Not to mention the last paragraph and Reimu's reaction to it =D.
    I read somewhere that all cast is female because danmaku(Bullet hell) in these games needs some sense in beauty, hence the danmaku becomes beautiful and colorful. And this sense of beauty can only be found in female characters.

  2. Many anime\manga (and stuff inspired by their tropes) have a female characters who is written gender-neutrally, uses "boku" pronouns to refer to herself, and acts and dresses tomboyish\androgynous. Such as Crona, Hanji Zoe, or Kino from Kino's Journey. Wriggle is Touhou's version.