My favorite Touhou themes

No, it’s still not the end-of-month post, but that’s still on the way. By contrast — this post probably should have been written years ago, and here it is now. Talk about a post with niche appeal, anyway; a lot of readers might not know what the fuck I’m even talking about this time without some background. So let me briefly introduce you to Touhou (which I’ve done before on the site once or twice, but once more won’t hurt.)

Touhou Project is a bullet hell/danmaku shmup series created by Japanese indie game designer/music composer/beer enthusiast ZUN. Touhou is primarily about shrine maiden Reimu Hakurei and mischievous witch Marisa Kirisame along with a few other recurring main characters fighting a bunch of youkai who are also all cute girls who fire lasers and make puns at each other. This all takes place in Gensokyo, a part of rural Japan that was cut off from the rest of the world with a magical barrier in the 1880s, the result being that it now exists in its own dimension.

Touhou has been going strong for nearly three decades now, getting its start on the PC-98 in the 90s when ZUN was still a designer working at Taito. However, his work apparently didn’t get much notice until the release of Touhou 6: Embodiment of Scarlet Devil, which came out for the PC in 2002. With EoSD and its followups Perfect Cherry Blossom and Imperishable Night, Touhou exploded in popularity on the indie scene in Japan and among the Western niche weeb weirdo circles that I moved in back in the mid-2000s (and that I still do today, of course.)

If you’ve played or seen gameplay of an original Touhou game, a few aspects of it probably jumped out at you, like the intricate, colorful, and often extremely difficult to dodge bullet patterns or ZUN’s famously not-so-great character portraits (which have been long beloved in the community anyway, a lot like Ryukishi07’s slightly scuffed character art in the Higurashi and Umineko VNs.)

But to me and many other past and current fans, the most standout aspect of Touhou is its music. Each of ZUN’s games come with an excellent soundtrack, with pieces generally sorted into one stage and boss theme each over six stages, along with a few extra boss themes and a main theme. As it plays in sync with all that colorful bullet hell going on, the music adds to the effect, and it’s no exaggeration at all to say the games wouldn’t be nearly as enjoyable to play muted.

That said, here are seventeen themes from Touhou 6 through 8 and 10 that I rank as my favorites. Yeah, seventeen, that’s right. I couldn’t possibly have reduced this list any more than I have. In fact, I still feel bad about leaving a ton of excellent themes out of it; that seventeen could just as easily have been seventy. The only reason I’m even limiting the selection to four out of the now 20+ original ZUN-made Touhou games is that these are the ones I played when I was really into the series way back before I kind of fell out of it for a while. So if you’re wondering where your favorite DDC or LoLK track is, I’m not putting those down at all — it’s just that I’m not as familiar with those soundtracks and games in general. I’ll also be listing these by order of play if you were playing through the series chronologically, since I can’t bring myself to rank them in quality either. But that also means you get to see some of the evolution in ZUN’s sound, which is pretty interesting in itself.

1) Shanghai Alice of Meiji 17Touhou 6: Embodiment of Scarlet Devil — Hong Meiling’s theme

Starting with one of the first hard hitters in the PC-era series. I’m not sure who “Shanghai Alice” is, aside from being the name of ZUN’s doujin circle — there’s an Alice who shows up not here but in Touhou 5 and again in 7 and ends up sticking as a major character in the series — but Hong Meiling is Chinese as the “Shanghai” suggests. But then the song sounds not Chinese but western. According to ZUN, he was thinking more about the 19th century Shanghai French concession, which would explain the western sound and the “Meiji 17” in the title, i.e. 1884.

More importantly, this theme fits Meiling’s character — she’s usually considered comic relief as early stage bosses sometimes are, but she’s no joke in combat, and the fast pace of “Shanghai Alice” reflects that.

2) Locked Girl ~ The Girl’s Secret RoomTouhou 6: Embodiment of Scarlet Devil — Patchouli Knowledge’s theme

“Locked Girl” takes a much more somber tone than the last boss theme, again fitting for its character. I admit Patchouli is my favorite Touhou character — she’s a shut-in who lives in a library reading all day and never even bothers to change out of her nightgown, what’s not to like about that? Very relatable; I’d do that too if I could get away with it. But it’s not just favoritism working here, because Patchouli’s theme is excellent too, and a nice showcase of ZUN’s skills at different sounds and styles.

3) Septette for the Dead PrincessTouhou 6: Embodiment of Scarlet Devil — Remilia Scarlet’s theme

And it turns out the big bad boss of Touhou 6 is a small vampire girl. Remilia might not look intimidating at first, but like a lot of the other girls in Touhou she has serious magical ability and can fuck you up with it. Remilia also claims to be the daughter of Vlad “The Impaler” Tepes, aka Dracula, the 15th century ruler of Wallachia in modern-day Romania. She’s confirmed to be over 500 years old, but her claim of descent from Dracula is a lie according to the Touhou wiki.

Even so, she’s powerful, and her stately theme fits her character perfectly. “Septette” is famously based on the third movement of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” sonata. They diverge pretty quickly, but the beginning of “Septette” is very similar, showing some of ZUN’s western classical influence.

4) U.N. Owen was her?Touhou 6: Embodiment of Scarlet Devil — Flandre Scarlet’s theme

Of course I couldn’t leave out this iconic piece. “U.N. Owen” is the theme of Flandre, Remilia’s younger sister they keep locked in her room because anyone having contact with her other than Remilia and a select few others ends extremely badly, usually as a splatter of blood and guts on her wall. Flandre’s theme is appropriately chaotic compared to her sister’s, and her fight is hard as hell. Even getting there requires you to beat the game at least on normal mode to unlock the extra stage, which is no small feat itself. I do like how Flandre’s theme is a little playful as well, though — she really just wants someone to play deadly danmaku laser games with and doesn’t seem to fully appreciate her own power.

The “U.N. Owen” in the song’s title is also a reference to an Agatha Christie novel, though I still don’t get the connection there. Maybe it’s all just meant to fit the generally western theme of the game.

5) The Doll Maker of BucurestiTouhou 7: Perfect Cherry Blossom — Stage 3 theme

Continuing the more western, European sound with “Doll Maker of Bucuresti”, my first pick from Touhou 7. The stage themes in these games are often considered character themes by the fans, even if they technically aren’t meant to be, and when the stage is dominated by one enemy character she ends up with two of them in a game (and sometimes more if she comes back to fight later on.) “Doll Maker” perfectly fits Alice Margatroid, pictured above, a returning character from the PC-98 era who ended up becoming one of the most prominent usually non-player characters in the series (maybe thanks in part to a remix of the next song on the list by IOSYS that got insanely popular in the mid-2000s.)

6) Doll Judgment ~ The Girl Who Played With People’s ShapesTouhou 7: Perfect Cherry Blossom — Alice Margatroid’s theme

And here’s Alice’s other PCB theme, the proper boss battle one this time, and it also fits with her character very well. Alice is one of my favorite characters in the series, usually depicted as somewhat of a loner who lives in a house in the woods with all the autonomous dolls she makes for a living. Despite the ominous sound to her PCB themes, Alice after this game is usually a friend to the protagonists, especially Marisa (though that relationship is sometimes depicted as more than just friendly, and sometimes extremely complicated. It’s been long accepted that the fandom makes up most Touhou lore.)

7) Border of LifeTouhou 7: Perfect Cherry Blossom — Yuyuko Saigyouji’s theme

One of my favorite final boss themes from Touhou, Yuyuko’s theme is a great mix of beauty and power that the series is known for. It fits especially well considering Yuyuko has an extra-tragic story, even if the fandom has made her into a bit of a joke character thanks to some of her lines during her appearance as a player character in Touhou 8. Well, that’s on ZUN, isn’t it? But this is still one of my favorite themes of his.

8) Song of the Night Sparrow ~ Night BirdTouhou 8: Imperishable Night — Stage 2 theme

Sometimes early stage themes aren’t quite as impressive as the mid- and late-stage ones, even according to ZUN himself, who writes notes for each of his songs he puts out with the games. But “Night Bird” stands up very well to a lot of the other pieces in Touhou 8, with plenty of tension building the player up to what’s coming next. And it’s no good scoffing at early stage bosses anyway — Mystia Lorelei, the stage boss and night sparrow of the title, doesn’t put up much of a fight on the Touhou scale, but she does have an interesting gimmick that can really annoy you your first play through. My favorite section starts at 1:27, which is perfectly synced up to Mystia’s appearance (where she starts shooting at you before her fight proper even begins — pretty common in Touhou games to have bosses drop in on you during the stage itself.)

9) Plain AsiaTouhou 8: Imperishable Night — Keine Kamishirasawa’s theme

Keine has one of the more interesting jobs in the Touhou series, even if she doesn’t show up so much these days — she protects the human village of Gensokyo from youkai threats through her power of hiding/erasing history so they can’t find it. Or eating history, which she can do in her animalistic form that she turns into during a full moon, which just happens to occur during Imperishable Night, so you’ll be seeing her again later on. I’m still not sure exactly what “eating history” involves, but there are a lot of weird concepts in the Touhou universe that you just have to accept.

No matter what pair of characters you’re playing as (these team-ups being another unique aspect of 8, at least at the time) Keine presents a fair challenge. But trying to play “Plain Asia” is way more of a challenge. ZUN really went nuts on the piano for Touhou 8; might be part of why it features probably my favorite Touhou soundtrack.

10) Love-colored Master SparkTouhou 8: Imperishable Night — Marisa Kirisame’s theme

In Touhou, sometimes you have to fight your friends, and so it is in stage 4 of Imperishable Night. If you’re playing as Marisa and Alice, you have to fight Reimu, and if you’re playing as Reimu and Yukari, you have to fight Marisa (and you still have to fight one of them if you’re playing as Sakuya/Remilia or Youmu/Yuyuko, but I forget how that breaks down.) I think Marisa might have had a few different themes throughout the series, but “Love-colored Master Spark” seems to be the most associated with her, and I can hear why. It has more of a rock sound, maybe thanks to the electric guitar-sounding synth in there, and fitting with Marisa’s somewhat wild and carefree attitude.

Now that I think about it, Marisa is sort of the Sonic the Hedgehog of Touhou in that sense, making the rock-sounding theme even more appropriate. I don’t know if anyone else has made that comparison, but it feels right to me. Does that make Reimu a non-oblivious version of Knuckles, then? I’m not sure. Maybe this character match-up doesn’t actually work so well.

11) Cinderella Cage ~ Kagome-KagomeTouhou 8: Imperishable Night — Stage 5 theme (or Tewi Inaba’s theme, why not)

“Kagome-Kagome” is another great stage theme that builds up the excitement as you approach the final parts of the game and hope to any and all gods or spirits or whatever else you like that you don’t run into a stray bullet or get boxed in by a pattern without a bomb to clear the screen. The title might be familiar — the main melody is based on a song that accompanies an old Japanese children’s game of the same name.

No idea what that has to do with moon rabbits or Princess Kaguya or anything else that Imperishable Night is about, but the piece works really well here anyway. “Kagome-Kagome” is also the closest thing stage mid-boss Tewi Inaba has to a theme as far as I know unless she received one later on. Usually these mid-boss-only characters don’t get much popularity, but Tewi is a pretty big deal in Touhou, even being featured on the Wikipedia page for the obsolete kana that’s part of her name. Do you have the distinction of being featured on the Wikipedia page for a dead letter? I certainly don’t, but if I had the chance I’d want to get on the page for ȝ.

12) Reach for the Moon, Immortal SmokeTouhou 8: Imperishable Night — Fujiwara no Mokou’s theme

Apologies to true final boss Kaguya for not including her theme Flight of the Bamboo Cutter ~ Lunatic Princess in this list (there’s her honorable mention anyway) but I like this extra boss theme more. Mokou is hell to fight, and her theme reflects that. If I ever got to be a boss in a game, I’d also want a theme with as cool a name as “Reach for the Moon, Immortal Smoke.” This one is the badass sort of piece that brings out the edgy 13 year-old in me, though I’m pretty sure that’s not what ZUN was going for.

13) The Road of the Apotropaic God ~ Dark RoadTouhou 10: Mountain of Faith — Stage 2 theme

Another excellent stage 2 theme with great build-up. The Mountain of Faith soundtrack feels like it has a lot more organ in it, which I like. Not much else to say about this one except I still don’t get the deal with Hina and why she’s constantly spinning.

14) The Gensokyo the Gods LovedTouhou 10: Mountain of Faith — Stage 3 theme

Now here’s a fucking song. “The Gensokyo the Gods Loved” is so iconic in the series that a lot of fans refer to it as the Gensokyo national anthem. A lot of them also say it has a nostalgic feel, which I agree with. Maybe it’s partly the fact that I’d gotten used to those synth trumpets ZUN loves so much (aka the ZUNpets, if you’ve heard that term — that’s what those refer to.)

I partly love this theme as well because of its contrast with the stage boss theme:

15) Candid FriendTouhou 10: Mountain of Faith — Nitori Kawashiro’s theme

Again, what a piece. More organ, with a slightly rock sound this time. I’m a big fan of Nitori as well, a kappa engineer who invents all sorts of strange machines some of which show up in later non-mainline games like Touhou Luna Nights (which I own, but I’m way too horrible at — I need to try it again.)

16) Faith is for the Transient PeopleTouhou 10: Mountain of Faith — Sanae Kochiya’s theme

If I don’t have as much to say about the Mountain of Faith pieces, it’s not because I like them less — I just wasn’t quite as hooked on Touhou by the time 10 came out and didn’t engage with it in quite the same way. I never stopped listening to the music, though. Sanae is another interesting character, a natural rival to Reimu as a fellow shrine maiden, though they eventually end up pretty cordial with each other. However, Sanae’s theme is appropriately fierce in Touhou 10, reflecting the fact that she doesn’t let up in combat either.

17) Native FaithTouhou 10: Mountain of Faith — Suwako Moriya’s theme

Of course. How could I not end this list with “Native Faith”? It’s another piece I don’t have a lot else to say about except how good it is. All of Mountain of Faith feels like it has an earthy feel to it, the music included, sort of like how Imperishable Night has a spacy one. Frog goddess Suwako’s theme caps that off nicely, though once again, as an extra stage boss she takes some effort to reach.

And that’s my list of favorite Touhou themes, again, with a lot of excellent music necessarily left out, otherwise this post would be even longer than 3,000 words, which is probably already too long. If you’ve made it this far, I hope I’ve been able to show just how special the music in this series is. Touhou is well worth picking up and trying out, though unfortunately most of the games on this list aren’t available to play legally very easily. I’m pretty sure the games from Mountain of Faith on are all on Steam now, but for practical purposes 6 through 9 are only playable as downloads unless you can track down physical copies. The PC-98 games take more work to play, since they require an emulator to run, but they’re available out there as well if you don’t have qualms about less than legal methods (and I was going to link to the fansite Moriya Shrine here and say ZUN apparently doesn’t have an issue with piracy of practically unavailable games, but maybe he does, since just last month it seems to have been hit with DMCA notices, so never mind? I own copies of EoSD, PCB, and IN but I got them at anime cons back when Touhou had more of a presence in those circles than it does now. Maybe go check the subreddit instead.)

Whatever path you choose, whether you’re already a fan or you decide to check the series out or leave it, I hope you at least enjoyed the music. If you did, there’s an unimaginably massive amount of fan-created Touhou albums out there in every style for you to explore, a few of which I’ve looked at here on the site, specifically the jazz stuff by Tokyo Active NEETs and DDBY, so be sure to check on those as well. Next post, I really will be getting to the featured articles from March and a couple of album reviews, so until then.