Topic: Touhou at the academic conference Replaying Japan 2015  (Read 2530 times)

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cuc

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Touhou at the academic conference Replaying Japan 2015
« on: May 23, 2015, 03:56:38 pm »
(Via @yakumo415's twitter: 1, 2)

Replaying Japan 2015 is an academic conference about video games, held by Ritsumeikan Center for Game Studies, Ritsumeikan University, Kyoto from May 21 to May 23 (today).

Today's presentation session of the conference focused on the cultural analysis of games. Of the four talks, two are directly related to Touhou. They are:


Visual, Ludic, and Narrative Excess in Phantasmagoria of Flower View by Paul Martin


The Bullet and the Mandala: Ludic-Visual Tension in Danmaku Shooting Games by Michael Craig

(Note: "ludic" is an academic term meaning "of or relating to play and playfulness")

One attender has put up his notes on the conference, allowing us to catch a glimpse of what was discussed.

Some quotes:
Quote
Danmaku is an excessive experience. Players have to get used to "seeing" the hitbox which is smaller than the sprite. One needs to see what is important (hitbox) in the face of the excess.

Quote
You can't just stop and admire the visual beauty. You have to duck and run through the curtain of bullets. It isn't clear if appreciating the beauty is part of the playing or not.
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cuc

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Re: Touhou at the academic conference Replaying Japan 2015
« Reply #1 on: May 23, 2015, 03:57:03 pm »
Now here's my TL;DR opinions on these lectures, based on the available notes.

I find the second lecture OK, like a lot of Kill Screen articles. It started with a solid observation (the similarity between mandalas and danmaku patterns), and introduced its titular tension between the visual (appreciating the beauty of danmaku) and the ludic (trying to survive, which seems to detract you from the former). It then moved to the issue of whether the state of mental concentration when we play games can actually benefit our lives, which seems a bit overly broad for the topic.

What did I think of when I saw the title?
For Touhou in particular, I would point out the debt it owed to Saint Seiya, one of Shounen Jump's top-ranking manga ZUN grew up reading. What's interesting about Saint Seiya is that despite weaker draftsmanship and storytelling than its peers (Dragon Ball, City Hunter, Fist of the North Star, etc), it made itself stand apart by evoking the readers' sense of wonder and awe. One method it employed to achieve this was copious replication of stock images, such as mandalas, animal photos, and classical architecture, to provide background images to its characters and their special attacks, giving them a greater sense of beauty and personality than the manga can convey through dialog and action scenes (the actual action scenes in Saint Seiya are extremely simplistic). I believe this is an important inspiration for the spell card system, both in concept (character personality in danmaku gameplay, and cultural context in spell card names) and implementation (those stock image backgrounds!).


For the first lecture... I can only judge using the notes, but it's not looking good.

The good part: the lecturer referred to danmaku as "a baroque late genre form", which is true, danmaku is the product of a genre late in its lifecycle that increasingly caters to a niche audience. Even if most people may still shudder at the sight of Touhou screenshots, ZUN have actually done much to create (and inspire others to create) danmaku games the non-hardcore can play, through focusing on the visual patterns, slowing down the bullets, and building a charming fantasy world; I'm not sure if the lecturer has dealt into this.

It seems to me, the central idea is that the lecturer wanted to find meaning in the form of danmaku (that's not wrong in itself - "the medium is the metaphor"), and concluded that because a) Touhou shows some nostalgic sentiments, and b) Touhou's danmaku display a huge amount of bullets in aesthetically pleasing patterns, said danmaku can be read as representations of Japan's past opulence during the economic bubble, and the player's tension with the danmaku (again, the danmaku is beautiful, but the player must be able to resist its distraction) as both celebration and critique of the bubble era.

To reach this conclusion, it seems the lecturer had to disregard the actual text of the work he examines. The lazy and rude Reimu became a symbol of "traditional characteristics", and the hardworking Marisa became a phone-in for the "bored post-bubble generation".

What the lecturer wouldn't know was that ZUN was never hit hard by the bubble burst. He was certainly not old enough to experience the blow when it happened; he was also unusually lucky. Growing up in a relatively well-off family in a remote mountain village, he went on to live a happy university life, where he learnt to make games, and immersed himself in doujin game culture. He graduated, in his own words, during the "ice age of employment" of 1999~2000, yet was immediately hired by Taito, the maker of his favorite games, because he was the rare college graduate who had made games all by his own. His suffering only began when he experienced the reality of a salary worker, which I think would happen to him regardless of the era. While ZUN definitely understands the hardship of recession, I'm not sure the difference between the bubble and the recession holds as much personal meaning to him as to many others. He didn't even watch Evangelion - the biggest symbol of post-bubble depression - when it was being broadcast.

What did I think of when I saw the title?
I don't think the post-bubble generation is an important theme in Touhou - when creating Touhou, ZUN seems more concerned with larger-scale and less discussed issues of modernity and Japanese history. However, PoFV really happens to be the game that engages with recession era Japan.

An important feature of post-WW2 Japanese society is the idea of "100 million all middle class" - a high degree of income equality. The post-bubble recession is also a process of breaking down this equality. In 2005, the year PoFV was made, the "lost decade" of the 1990s had already been going on for another five years, and living the respectable life promised by Japan's lifetime employment system had increasingly seemed an impossible dream to many. This was the background against which the trending buzzwords referenced by PoFV like "winner at life", "calculating the value of your whole life" and "loser dog" came into prominence.

In the comment for Eiki's theme, ZUN wrote that its image is a combination of "Japan + rebirth + land of cherry blossoms", and the song is for an "as-yet unseen most beautiful land of cherry blossoms". Could the recession be one of the things on his mind when writing this?
« Last Edit: May 24, 2015, 02:12:28 am by cuc »
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Re: Touhou at the academic conference Replaying Japan 2015
« Reply #2 on: May 23, 2015, 04:14:31 pm »
This is great! How nice seeing academics take a crack at wrestling broader meanings out of Touhou Project (even if, as you say, it probably would have helped them a lot to read the source material, that's a lot of material to cover and I don't know how much prep time these guys had).

I recall some "notorious troll" on Twitter once asked ZUN if he was worried his evoking of Shinto and medieval Japan in Touhou would be used by far-right parties to drum up support. The idea is laughable, of course, but ZUN does often play with the conflict between myth and modernity. I think Aya Syameimaru is a good example of this, even in her name. Shame the academics didn't delve into this, but again, it's a pretty broad cast to acquaint oneself with.

Also, boy can I identify with "[y]ou can't just stop and admire the visual beauty". This is why I keep dying. ;-;

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Re: Touhou at the academic conference Replaying Japan 2015
« Reply #3 on: May 23, 2015, 08:02:30 pm »
That's super interesting! Thanks for sharing.

To reach this conclusion, it seems the lecturer had to disregard the actual text of the work he examines. The lazy and rude Reimu became a symbol of "traditional characteristics", and the hardworking Marisa became a phone-in for the "bored post-bubble generation".
Martin seems to have tried to explore some interesting ideas, but it feels like he massaged the data to fit his point on Japan's economic bubble's effect on Touhou. It feels like a bit of a stretch for the reasons that cuc stated, but the full material might have addressed it in a substantial manner. Unlikely, but possible. Seems like he was working backwards from his conclusion, and tried to shoehorn Touhou into the narrative he was trying to build.

I'd ague that childhood nostalgia and the longing for a forgotten cultural past is the overarching theme in Touhou, and not "nostalgia for pre-modern Japan and for pre-recession Japan".

I'm also interested in why he chose to focus on PoFV. Touhou is a huge series, and I'd like to see his justifications for picking out PoFV.

Quote
Craig questioned how close game flow is like meditation. Are we tempted to justify gaming action by comparing them to meditation. Is "playing without playing" ever really more than playing?
I like this line of questioning. It reminds me of how Japanese arcade games tend to get players to into a kind of meditative flow during the process of gameplay mastery. Rhythm games and shmups come to mind.

Craig has some interesting points, and seems to handle his argument better. On his point of how it "isn't clear if appreciating the beauty is part of the playing or not", in my experience it seems more likely that beauty is used to mask danger, create a false of security, and misdirect players. (From an evolutionary perspective, beauty tends to point towards favourable conditions) It's kinda like sleights of hand in magic, where you have to see past the illusions to understand the tricks.

======

As an aside, do you have any plans on writing a critical, analytical piece on Touhou, cuc? Academic or otherwise, I think it'd be a cool read.

cuc

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Re: Touhou at the academic conference Replaying Japan 2015
« Reply #4 on: May 24, 2015, 02:45:41 am »
A Hong Kong postgraduate student at Ritsumeitsukan wrote a brief report in Chinese.

I'd ague that childhood nostalgia and the longing for a forgotten cultural past is the overarching theme in Touhou, and not "nostalgia for pre-modern Japan and for pre-recession Japan".
Some other overarching themes: a Zhuang Zi-inspired longing for individual freedom in a conformist society; the formation of and tensions within the supposingly homogeneous Japanese nation.

Quote
I'm also interested in why he chose to focus on PoFV. Touhou is a huge series, and I'd like to see his justifications for picking out PoFV.
That's my question, too.
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Re: Touhou at the academic conference Replaying Japan 2015
« Reply #5 on: May 24, 2015, 03:39:41 am »
Maybe it's about the chaos in PoFV that you don't get anywhere else?

There's no real patterns in it, so you can't memorize what's going on.
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Re: Touhou at the academic conference Replaying Japan 2015
« Reply #6 on: May 24, 2015, 06:11:15 pm »
Some other overarching themes: a Zhuang Zi-inspired longing for individual freedom in a conformist society; the formation of and tensions within the supposingly homogeneous Japanese nation.

This seems to be a pretty common theme in anime as well. Arakawa Under The Bridge springs immediately to mind. I think any hyperconformist culture is going to have this kind of fantasy wish fulfilment in the arts.

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