A Journey Through Gensokyo, Part Two: Style and Beauty of Eastern Wonderland

by eternal on May 22, 2010


If you’ve played any Touhou games other than the 2D fighters, you probably know that ZUN isn’t the world’s best artist. However, as most Touhou fanartists have realized, beneath the technically flawed character portraits lies a wealth of creative, memorable, if not gimmicky character designs. I’m sure we can all think of one character off the top of our heads whose design stands out from the rest, a character who would instantly catch our eye while scrolling through the picture collection. Every game has one of them; frankly, every game has lots of them.

One aspect of ZUN’s character designs that I find interesting is the fact that they occasionally tie into the story and the character’s personality. Sometimes this takes the form of a visual motif; a distinguishing trait, be it an article of clothing or a story-related magical power, that’s always capitalized upon in fanart, and sometimes even in-game. Amazingly, the danmaku that the player struggles to dodge can be more than just a mess of shape and colour! Be it through clothing or hair colour or magical vampire wings and frog-eyed hats, here are a few characters whose designs are slightly more than meets the eye.

(Since all fanartists portray characters slightly differently, it might help to click on the links in the characters’ names to see their official art on Touhou Wiki)

[azuma syoujuan]

Yuyuko Saigyouji, the ghost princess. Being one of the main characters of the strangely popular Perfect Cherry Blossom, Yuyuko is probably one of the most recognizable bosses in the series. She’s also one of the most memorable.

There are two words that come to mind when I see Yuyuko: “Japan” and “Pink”. Clearly, her character design is very Japanese, complete with the kimono and hitaikakushi. There are some frills here and there and a pair of ribbons on her shoes, but it’s probably not enough to qualify as wa-loli. For the most part, she keeps with the general “eastern” theme of Touhou’s shrine maidens and moon princesses.

Yuyuko is also very pink. Considering her role in the story, it’s natural that the cherry blossoms would be her main motif, enforcing the Japanese aura surrounding her. Most fanart portrays her with either cherry blossoms or butterflies, matching with her hair colour and complementing her light blue clothing. You can even see these colours in some of her spellcards, although the background takes a darker purple tone to make the battle feel more tense. A Japanese-style fan also floats behind her during some of her non-spellcard attacks, much like the one that she’s occasionally portrayed with in fan works.

Incidentally, the white, wispy butterflies drawn in some fanart are likely a reference to this spellcard, although I don’t believe they have much to do with her otherwise.

[yukitarou/yuuki tatsuya]

Fujiwara no Mokou is supposed to be a human, but you wouldn’t think so if you fought her in Imperishable Night’s Extra stage. Thanks to her immortality in Touhou canon and her ability to control fire, Mokou feels more like a phoenix than anything else.

Despite the fact that her story describes her only as an immortal human with power over fire, Mokou has taken on a unique role in fanon. Indeed, much of her fanart portrays her with her element of choice, but it also portrays her as a bit of a tomboy – or in some cases, a flat-out manly shounen protagonist. It’s hard to imagine what pants and suspenders can do to a 2D girl’s image! Of course, she plays the role of Kaguya’s enemy in the story, and being a powerful opponent, it’s natural that fans see her as more cool than cute. Perhaps that’s why it’s so fun to draw her as a tsundere.

In the game, ZUN maintains Mokou’s “cool” image, enforced with the burning hot passion of her 1300-year life. Most of her spellcards are red in some way, contrasting with the deep blue background, and many of them make use of her fire motif. The phoenix symbol appears in the background in a handful of patterns, so it isn’t a fanon invention.

Finally, note that Mokou doesn’t appear to be very feminine to begin with. Aside from the obligatory hair ribbon, she possesses none of ZUN’s signature silly hats and frilly dresses. It’s a wise character design decision because she looks more or less like she acts.


Last but not least is Koishi Komeiji, Hartmann‘s beloved youkai girl. (Worst pairing ever or worst pairing ever?)

Much the opposite of her older sister, Koishi is an energetic youkai who has a bit too much fun with her ability to manipulate the subconscious. Her Third Eye is symbolic of her special ability, possibly a reference to the mythological background, and it’s literally woven into her character design in the most creative way. Just like Satori, Koishi’s eye is like a long, winding ribbon that circles her body; I wouldn’t be surprised if it took a few playthroughs for everyone to figure out just what the thing is. For something so unusual, it looks perfectly natural on her.

The most important aspect of Koishi’s character design is her heart motif. The hearts are likely a reference to her ability to read the “hearts” of others, considering that they can also be seen on Satori‘s character portrait, but they only play a role in Koishi’s spellcards. From a stylistic point of view, they do a good job of reminding the player that they’re up against one of ZUN’s signature playful loli characters with more bullet patterns than can ever be healthy. A couple of her attacks make use of the hearts in a manner that would feel comical if they weren’t filling the screen with impending doom. The hearts are also woven into her portrait – take a look at her shoes and the shape of the Third Eye’s cord near her shoulder.

Lastly, Koishi is adorned with all of the necessary light, effeminate clothing and gimmicky hats to make her popular with the male fans – and, frankly, to make her a solid target for doujins. Koishi looks just as cute and cuddly as her sister, but her difference in personality speaks through her beaming smile.

– – –

As you can see, there’s a bit more to the Touhou characters than meets the eye. Even in terms of pure visuals, some of the characters have obscure references and motifs in their attire that hint at their personalities and their role in the story. Of course, many of the characters are simply drawn to look good, but there are some unquestionable trends in fanart that led me to some important realizations about the original designs.

Having said that, ZUN will never be the greatest artist in terms of technical details – all of his talent appears to have gone toward music. However, his creativity is astounding, and you’d be surprised to see how well thought out your favourite characters’ designs might be. The next time you look for fanart or challenge a boss to a battle of danmaku, stop and think about what your eyes are seeing – you never know what clever secrets you might uncover.


{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

mefloraine May 22, 2010 at 5:41 pm

Are there any Yuyuko fanarts at all without butterflies or cherry blossoms? ;) (Kidding, I’m sure there are, but it’s definitely prevalent.)

I did not know anything about Koishi beyond her name until now. It’s nice to see that there is an actual point to the hearts.


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