A Weekend of a Lifetime, Anime Weekend Atlanta 2013

Touhou Cosplay Photoshoot AWA 2013

Touhou Cosplay Photoshoot AWA 2013

It’s Sunday afternoon. I’m standing outside the door of a small conference room with Solamarle trying to catch my breath. It’s about to happen, I’m about to sit down with the father of my fandom for an interview. No less than 4 hours earlier I had been running circles, trying desperately to scavenge what I could of a destroyed weekend. I had come to Anime Weekend Atlanta poised to make my first professional strike at covering press at a convention, and I had been completely unprepared for what awaited me.

Anime conventions are a subculture I had only dipped my toes into for years, only making the trek to Otakon to meet up with friends I knew online. We didn’t goto Otakon for the convention, it was just merely a convenient excuse to meet up, so I never truly delved into it. Despite how dedicated I was to the Touhou fandom online, I had actually spent little if any time with them at conventions, for various reasons both personal and practical. That changed 2 years ago when I met my roommate, an avid conventioneer, and I got sucked into the circuit with him. So when the word came out that ZUN was coming to America, it wasn’t a matter of if, but of when and how. School would be starting around that time, but I had a flexible job and my press credentials got approved, so I made Anime Weekend Atlanta a “workcation”. To have a chance to not only meet the man behind one of my biggest obsessions, but to interview him? It was the chance of a lifetime.

I arrive Thursday, after a long 2 day trek to carpool with friends of mine living in Raleigh. It was as eventful as a usual convention car ride goes, horrible music being blared as we try to sing along horribly, and making random goat, cow and banjo noises at farm animals as we pass by. The usual, always fun of course, never gets old. I was excited. Thursday is the usual calm before the storm. It’s when everyone slowly trickles in, and massive shouts and screams of joy as people reunite with friends from all over the country. We made it in too late to get our badges, and half of my crew was staying in another hotel so we went and shuffled them over. Imagine the look on my face when I saw the giant Touhou poster that had been plastered on the hotel elevator. I was giddy. My crew chose to make a very sleep deprived trek to Waffle House (and not the first). We tuck ourselves in afterwards and I try to, unsuccessfully of course, get a bit of sleep.

Friday, wake up extra extra early (or sleep very very little depending on one’s perspective). I don’t think I had eaten as big of a breakfast as I had that morning. I was wired, ready to pounce and get my press badge and take on the world. While I didn’t plan on cosplaying in Touhou Friday, that didn’t stop everyone else from. Normally I’m used to seeing a token costume here or there, but steadily, as the number of conventions I’ve went to increased, so has the number of Touhou cosplayers. And Anime Weekend Atlanta was obviously an explosion.

The costumes were fantastic, it was amazing. I remember when just spying someone cosplaying a Touhou character was a big deal, but to see so many people, with such amazing work and detail done, it floored me. I had expected somewhat of a turnout, but not this kind of a turnout. And I’m sure the staff at Anime Weekend Atlanta were having the same thoughts as well. In the end attendance ended up being bigger by almost five thousand people compared to 2012! I’ve been going to conventions since 2005, and this was the first time I actually felt like I belonged to something far bigger than just me. To share in that moment was breathtaking. Friday rolls on, and the Q&A panel for the convention’s guests is coming up. And the Touhou fans are lining up hours before it even starts. That’s some serious dedication. We get in the room and it is packed to the gills with people.

ZUN at the Friday Q&A Panel AWA 2013

ZUN at the Friday Q&A Panel AWA 2013

Q: How do you decide what youkai to use in your games?
A: I start from the general theme of the game and choose youkai that fit in with it, trying to find appropriate weaker and stronger ones.

Q: I’ve heard a rumor about Touhou being released on Steam. Can you comment on that?
A: Steam is great, isn’t it? Unfortunately while I’ve considered doing something like this I have no set plans right now. Besides, there’s no guarantee I’d get accepted on Steam if I tried; it would be a shame to say I’m doing it and then have it fall through.

Q: How much of your personal time do you spend making Touhou games?
A: I release about one game per year. I spend a lot of time thinking of ideas and planning things about. About 1/3 of my time is directly spent making games, so about four months. During that time, practically all of my waking hours are spent working on Touhou.

Q: What are your biggest musical inspirations for the Touhou soundtracks?
A: Hmm, that’s a hard question. I suppose the biggest influence would be older game soundtracks, especiallytracks from the 80s and 90s. Mostly instrumental tracks, before voices in games were common.

Q: A somewhat related question. We’ve seen that a lot of mythology, history, and personal experiences go into Touhou. How are you inspired to come up with the stories in Touhou?
A: Usually I start with past experiences and use them as basis to do further research on ideas. I draw on a lot, like childhood memories, travel, and even just daily experiences.

Q: What’s the most interesting American beer you’ve had since you’ve been here?
A: Well, I’ve had quite a few! The problem in America, though, is that the foodportions are too big, but there’s not enough beer.

Q: Can you tell us about Rin Satsuki, the unused character from Embodiment of Scarlet Devil?
A: I’m sorry, can you repeat the character name? …Aaaahhhhhhhhhhhh! You see, I’d originally planned to do a lot more with EoSD. Since it was my first Windows work, though, my time estimations were off, and I had to cut out a lot due to lack of time. She was simply a character I had to cut due to time constraints. I’d planned to make her a player character.

Q: Would you be interested in making another Phantasmagoria game, or maybe other STG genres?
A: If I had the time and was struck by the interest, I might.

Q: What’s your favorite JoJo line? (Asked in Japanese)
A: “Daga kotowaru!” (“But I refuse!” Rohan refusing to lure JoJo into a trap in part 4)

Q: Would you ever add any boy characters to Touhou games?
A: I think that would probably affect the balance of the games. But adding more male characters outside of games would be fine.

Q: What VSTs do you use to make your music?
A: Do you mean what software? I use Cubase.

Q: But what software synthesizers?
A: It’s actually something fairly old, but it’s Roland’s SD-90. (Note: this is a hardware PCM synth, not a softsynth)

Q: I came over 3000 kilometers to see you. (Where? – from San Francisco.) What are your favorite fan works?
A: To be honest, sometimes when I’m looking at fan works, if they’re too good, I get a little jealous. I can’t really answer that question, though; there are so many good fan works, but I can’t really afford to play favorites among them.

Q: Through PoFV you distributed MIDI versions of the soundtracks with the games, but you don’t anymore. Would you consider doing that again?
A: I have to say I think the age of MIDI has probably passed. When I started, people’s computers weren’t as good so it was more of a necessity, and Internet distribution wasn’t what it was today. Now it’s easier just to generate and include the WAV version, so I’ll continue to do that.

Q: You’ve said you’d keep making Touhou even if it wasn’t popular and nobody else liked it anymore. Do you still stand by that statement?
A: At this point it feels like I can’t make anything other than Touhou anymore! I enjoy making Touhou, and I primarily make it because I enjoy it, and I’ll keep on doing it as long as I enjoy it.

Q: Is PC-98 canon?
A: The world they’re set in is the same. However, when I first started making Touhou, I didn’t think I would keep making new games as long as I did, so I’m aware there may be some contradictions. In those cases, please take the latest games as more correct.

Q: What is your favorite brand of beer?
A: I get this question a lot, so it’s easy to answer. Kirin.

Q: Why hasn’t the Moriya shrine been involved in the latest few games?
A: They’re still around! There’s no real reason. There just hasn’t been any reason for them to be involved in the most recent games’ plot.

Q: How excited do you get about the comics and music and games other people make based on Touhou?
A: I really enjoy making Touhou, and it’s exciting to see what people think of it, but their reactions aren’t why I make it.

Q: I won’t ask which of the songs you’ve made is your favorite, but which one are you the most proud of?
A: Let’s see, I’ve made a lot of songs, you know! Generally, though, it’s the music I’fe written for my latest game.

Q: Do you have a date for when you’ll release a localization of Touhou?
A: As I mentioned, I don’t have any plans to release Touhou in the West at this time. If that happens, though, I may not do a localization because that’s a lot of work.

Q: How do you come up with your bullet patterns? Because a lot of times I’m playing and I’m like, am I gonna make it? Am I gonna make it? OH NO, I’m DEAD!!
A: I usually start by trying to make it look flashy. For the difficulty, I often have to try playing it myself to see if it’s possible. If I have a lot of problems with it, I may have to adjust the difficulty.

Q: I have a question from overseas. (From where? – Iceland.) What do you see as the biggest challenge facing independent developers?
A: I think it’s important to pay attention to the past. If you don’t, you’ll run into even more problems.

Q: Where do you get your hats?
A: A lot of places. Stores, flea markets, events… I generally just buy whatever catches my eye.

Q: Do you have any advice for aspiring game designers?
A: The most important thing is to just make games!

Q: How has Touhou influenced you or changed your outlook on life?
A: It’s become my life work. I’d say that’s the very definition of influence.

Q: Would you ever bring back older characters like Mima that haven’t showed up in a long time? (Asked by a Mima cosplayer with a great sense of presence)
A: I won’t say no. But…

Q: Would you ever be interested in releasing orchestral, band, or ensemble versions of some of your music?
A: Well, to be honest, the fans will do it for me!

Q: The profile for Letty Whiterock says she’s not fighting at her full strength. What is her true power?
A: Hmmm, if she were to use her full strength it would probably cause an incident (i.e. like the red mist incident, the spring incident, etc.)

Q: Which two of your characters would you want to be trapped in a hot spring with?
A: Hmmmm. A hot spring? Leeeeeet’s see……. well. Hmm, can I think a bit? *takes a sip of his beer* Well, it would probably be bad if it were some of the odder characters, so let’s say Reimu and Marisa.

Q: Please leave us with a few last words.
A: I really didn’t think there would be so much interest in Touhou here. I was afraid it might be a little lonely since the games haven’t been released here. There’s so much cosplay, even a lot of big strong people. There’s still a lot left at the convention, and I’ll be doing more events here. If you see me walking around, please feel free to stop and say hi. I’ll do my best to study more English!

While it didn’t go quite as planned, the Q&A session was endlessly entertaining. It was a chance for fans to interact and talk for the first time with ZUN himself. He was completely taken aback by the interest shown in his work. He didn’t think anyone here really knew Touhou that well, so to see such a turnout was completely unexpected for him. In some ways he was just as surprised and excited to see us there as everyone else was to see him.

Saturday, the fan day. This was the day planned chock full of activities for fans of all shapes, sizes, and interests. The photoshoot was fun, as always, although having so many people made it akin to herding cats half the time.

Big props go to Kilga and everyone else who managed to keep that mess together. I guess it pays to be 6 foot tall sometimes.



Along with the photoshoot came the fan panel itself.

This was amazing seeing so many people in one room at once, and then getting a chance to speak to everyone and share how much it meant to me to see how big the fandom had become. After the fan panel was the trivia panel, which unfortunately I had to bounce from to take a much needed break, but thankfully Murein (the person responsible for all this video THANK YOU!!!) captured it in its entirety.

Afterwards was the “Playing with ZUN” panel, where we got to watch someone play the newest Touhou game, Double Dealing Character, with ZUN himself providing commentary! But before that, came the scroll presentation. This was an absolutely monumental work put together by Totaku and several other members of the Western Touhou Community, to create a scroll with every character drawn by a different artist. ZUN was absolutely floored when he was presented it.

Sorry for the blur, I really wish I owned a better camera :(

Sorry for the blur, I really wish I owned a better camera 🙁

Once again the fandom had outdone itself. I myself was absolutely astonished when I saw the final results, and from my understanding ZUN mentioned he was going to hang this right in his office as soon as he got home.

The commentary was excellent. We got to delve into his creative processes when developing each game, and in a lot of ways, see the expression of pride on his face when he saw others enjoying his work. And it wasn’t short of any humor as well. ZUN is a very silly and laid back person, I think he was just pleased enough as it is seeing a room of thousands cheering on while watching his game played. Not once did I see a smile leave his face.

ZUN giving commentary during the show match AWA 2013

ZUN giving commentary during the exposition AWA 2013

That was the end of official festivities for Saturday, but the festivities did not end for the Touhous, at least not the ones I was involved with. After 3 hours of drunken Cards Against Humanity (a convention staple now) and Quao (pronounced Cow, hilarious game) a lot more alcohol later we made a drunken hike to Waffle House (again). This time I lead our intrepid pack into a parking garage and get us lost. Don’t ask how, but I have this amazing power to get lost anywhere, why I was leading at all was a question nobody could answer. We winded the night down, and prepared for the last day of festivities. I was exhausted and somewhat annoyed. A lot of the press related things had not gone as planned and I had some unrelated issues at the time. While I was still impressed by the whole turnout, at the time I was feeling bittersweet and somewhat miffed. The open Q&A format had resulted in no opportunities to ask any sort of question (although several of my friends in the audience managed to sneak a few in), and I was tired and frustrated after a long day. The alcohol helped me wind down a bit, but didn’t prepare me for the next day, when I would receive word that our interview was cancelled entirely.

At the start of the process, when we put in for our press credentials, we were told to submit to whomever we wanted to interview with and we would get interview slots. Seems perfectly natural, so we put in for ZUN, Toshio Furukawa and Kors-K. When we got there we hadn’t received any word when our interviews were supposed to happen, and nobody seemed to know. Friday night I get an email stating that things were still being worked on, and Saturday I end up receiving an email that all interviews had been cancelled. I was somewhat furious, the main reason I put in for press credentials was pointless. The Q&A panel was made open to the public, which meant my badge was mostly useless. I felt defeated. Later I would learn it was a misunderstanding with their press director, Josh Pugh. He had just picked up the job 6 months prior to this convention, and prior to that there was no formal press setup. I was frustrated, but thanks to his efforts, and the personal intercession by the CEO, Faisal Ahmed, we were secured a personal interview with ZUN. He had actually declined all personal interviews, but after hearing our plight, agreed to a short interview before he left on his flight home. I was ecstatic. I couldn’t believe it was actually going to happen. His final goodbyes were short, but sweet, and helped capped off an amazing weekend for all of us.

Q: Is this your first time coming to Atlanta?
A: Yes.

Q: What’s your favorite memory from this weekend?
A: Hmm, it’s hard to go first every time. Before I came, I didn’t know what this event was going to be like. I was surprised to see so many costumes, and didn’t expect there to be so many Touhou cosplayers, even though a lot of them were men. But there were also some cute little kids in costume, and I got to get my picture taken with a lot of people.

Q: In your thoughts, what are the defining works of our time? [seems to be interpreted by the panelists as YOUR defining works]
A: Unlike the other panelists, I’m just a regular working man who also happens to work on games. I’ve really only done Touhou.

Q: It sounds like you all really enjoy your work, but I’m sure you have your difficulties. How do you deal with work and schedule problems?
A: Really, my work is very different from the others here, but perhaps we have something in common. Drinking is a nice way to relax, right?

Q: Why did you choose to come to Atlanta?
MC: Was it because of the beer?
A: No, but the beer *is* quite good! I don’t usually come to events like this.

Q: To us fans, you all look like gods, but you must be human. So, what do you do for fun?
A: I do lots of things, but what more can I say at this point? Well, you know I enjoy beer and programming, but I also program while drinking beer.

Q: Do you have any parting words for us?
A: Hmm, well, let’s see. I’ve been to a number of Japanese events, but none of them are quite like this. Conventions like this have a lot of energy thanks to their participants. It really feels like you can do whatever you want here.

Q: Is there somewhere fans who want to know more can contact you all?
A: I spend a lot of time making games, so I may not post much, but my Twitter account is @korindo

After the goodbye panel, Sola and I rushed over to the conference room set aside for him. Giddy with excitement, this was it, the moment I had been waiting for a long time. We had been asked to respectfully keep conversation away from Touhou, and in the interests of time we kept the interview to a more informal conversation.

Solamarle: Are you returning to Japan right away?
ZUN: Yes, I’ll be going back tomorrow.
Solamarle: So you want have any time for sightseeing?
ZUN: Oh, well I came in a day early for the event, so I did a little then.

Solamarle: Is there anything you want to know about your Western fans?
ZUN: I think the one thing I’m most curious about is, how do so many people know about Touhou over here? It hasn’t seen any Western releases, after all.
Solamarle: Ah, yes. Touhou hasn’t had any releases over here, but there are a number of companies who go to events in Japan to buy the games and sell them over here.
ZUN: I suppose there’s some effect due to events like this, too.
Solamarle: Yes, that’s right. Fans will have panel discussions to talk about the games and play the games in game rooms so others can see, which helps increase the fanbase. Besides, since the 80s, the world has looked to Japan to see what new games are going to come out. At least here in America, a lot of people see game development as mostly centered in Japan and the US, so people have always been very interested in Japanese games.
ZUN: I wonder how true that is now? Sometimes it seems like commercial Japanese game development is starting to fall off a little bit. It’s not like it used to be, but there’s still a lot of activity overseas.

Solamarle: Speaking of overseas development, Japan has a long tradition of independent doujin game development, but overseas-
ZUN: Yes, it’s called “indies” overseas, right?
Solamarle: Yes. Are you interested in the indies game scene?
ZUN: Yes, I’m fairly interested. It seems quite active, and there are a lot of interesting games coming out. There are a lot of parallels between the indies scene and the doujin scene, though. I think it’s fair to say that in spirit, the Japanese doujin scene and the overseas indies scene have a lot in common.

Solamarle: I remember reading in an interview some time ago that you got into games because you were interested in making music.
ZUN: Yes, that’s right.
Solamarle: Well, what about music?
ZUN: You mean, what got me interested in making music?
Solamarle: That’s right.
ZUN: I’ve been interested in music for a long time, and I think it’s natural to want to make more of something you like. Oh, but I’m particularly interested in game music. It’s not so much that I wanted to start a band and make music that way; I always wanted to make game music. But, you can’t really have game music without a game to go with it, can you? So, for me, it was a very natural progression from one to the other.

I personally thanked ZUN on behalf of the fandom for coming out and for being so gracious and understanding at what was truly a momentous occasion. And with that ended my stay at Anime Weekend Atlanta, and a moment of a lifetime. I quickly had to hit the road to make my way home, but I felt good. Despite all the hurdles and bumps, I was on top of the world.

Now, 3 months removed from that moment, I recollect my feelings from that event. The rough and tumbles of that weekend, while stressful at the time, are a dull ache, they hardly matter now. But the joy I saw, and the energy and excitement I felt, has stuck with me this entire time. It has given me renewed hope and interest in my own dealings with this fandom, as well as a sense of accomplishment. From very humble beginnings, our tiny little fandom has become a global phenomenon. Touhou has fans from not only around the country, but around the globe, and a lot of those fans made that trek to visit ZUN and share in the experience. As for myself, while my first foray into professional press coverage was definitely a trial by fire, I’ve learned a lot about the drive I have to push through in the face of possible defeat, about being able to stand up in front of a crowd of thousands and speak with such passion about something so integral to her life. I’ve also come to learn some of my limitations and to not schedule conventions during the school year.

I’ve also gained a whole new level of respect for the staffers who work to put on what for a lot of us, is a vacation. They’re volunteers, unsung heroes, who take their weekends to work all hours of the day and night, to put together entertainment and events to please the attendees. It very much is a labor of love, from people who love conventions and want to share that wonderful experience with others. I will fully admit I used to take it for granted, and even got a bit curt and short with staffers at the conventions I’ve went to, but not anymore. After the heroics shown not only to me, but to what was an unprecedented growth in attendance, I will say in the future I plan on doing what I can to give back that appreciation, both through volunteering and my press work. I’m not sure the next convention I intend to cover as press, as for now my schedule is mostly filled with classwork, but I look forward to my next stab at it. Hopefully, this time I’ll be a bit more prepared and my expectations properly set.

Anime Weekend Atlanta 2013 was a magical weekend for me, a grizzled veteran of the con circuit, and it rekindled many loves that had somewhat dimmed in recent years. It gave me that sense of awe and surprise I felt my first convention so many moons ago, and it taught me so much. And of course, it didn’t hurt to meet my idol.

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