Katawa Shoujo is a visual novel I have been hearing talk of for a few years now but one that I honestly hadn't paid too much attention to before it was completed a few days ago. I never did pick up the demo for act 1 and so going in all I had was a bit of curiosity and no real expectations for how this would play out. I wasn't sure if Katawa Shoujo would turn out to be an excuse for some bizarre fetish porn or attempt to take a more serious look into the lives of these crippled girls. I am happy to report it as the latter.
I have been pleasantly surprised with how professional this visual novel feels. The music in particular really managed to impress me with how much it adds to the sense of atmosphere. What surprised me the most however is how much this story really hit home in a personal way. I was home schooled as a kid well actually all the way though high school. My only real experience inside a classroom has been a course I took at my local community college a few years back now. Because of this high schools in fiction have always been a nostalgia free experience for me as in my mind they are nothing more than a fantasy world. But enough about me for the moment I'll get a little more into my story later on.
Usually when playing though a visual novel I don't really play it at all. Before I even turn the program on I will hunt down an answer key that will guide me through the choices and just read the story instead of trying to navigate through it. I decided against doing that with Katawa Shoujo. I thought it might be fun to experience at least one route this visual novel had to offer the way it is intended. I am glad I did as the first route I wound up on is one I can very much relate with. Now that I have completed Shizune's route I want to share a bit of it here through my eyes.
Shizune Route Spoilers Ahead!
Shizune is one of the first characters you meet in Katawa Shoujo. She is the deaf-mute student council president who is seemingly joined at the hip to her happy go lucky translator Misha. The two create an interesting dynamic as Misha is a loud energetic girl who is really good at sign language and will sign everything she hears and says constantly. Shizune is a serious girl with a childish competitive streak. The two girls go out of their way to recruit the main character Hisao into their student council.
The first strong impression Shizune made on me was playing risk during one of her attempts to get Hisao to join the student council. It's quite obvious that Shizune loves a challenge and will be quite good at risk but Hisao is caught up in playing with her anyway. He is destined to lose with no way around it but Hisao has two ways he can go down. He can either hold out and try and defend like a coward or attack her aggressively and die like a man! not one to run away from a challenge myself the aggressive path was the only one I could find acceptable. Shizune still slaughtered Hisao in the end but she was impressed with his daring. This was my first clue that I might be heading toward her route.
This was the second strong impression. Shizune and the class rep from another class Lilly clash over some deadline's Lilly has had extended. This scene struck me as something thrown in mostly for comedy but it managed to get me thinking. The joke here is that Lilly is blind and can't actually speak to Shizune directly at all. At the same time I found myself pondering just how difficult it must be to communicate to someone through proxy. At the time I didn't realize just how much depth there really was to this theme.
When Shizune tries to drag the main character into the argument you are given two options. You can either defend Lilly or defend yourself. You are burning a bridge either way so I decided to burn Lilly's. I am pretty sure that at this point my fate was set and I would be spending the rest of this story with Shizune.. my assumption turned out to be correct.
It's not long before the main character starts to become more interested in Shizune and begins learning to sign a bit. He has become inspired by her challenges and wishes to stand on equal ground with her feeling he needs to be able to communicate directly to do that. One of the days where the student council has nothing to do Shizune drags Misha and Hisao to the club room to play games. It becomes more and more apparent that Shizune is the type who expresses herself though overcoming a challenge. Even if she is the only who brought the challenge about in the first place.
While the three of them are deciding what kind of game they wish to play Hanako a girl with burns on one side her body walks into the student council room looking to replace her student ID. Shizune catches her eying the chess board setup in the room and not being one to miss an opportunity challenges Hanako to a game. While they are playing Hisao thinks to himself that it would be nice if Shizune and Hanako could become friends through playing the game. The two seem to be on equal footing at first but eventually Shizune wins. They play a second time this round it's speed chess and Shizune wins nearly instantly. Hanako being the timid sort runs off before she can be challenged a third time.
The moment that follows Hanako running off Shizune asks Hisao if he likes games that involve luck. Hisao says something about how he doesn't like luck based games but most games have a little bit of luck involved in them, that is what keeps them interesting. Shizune's reply hit home.
Keep in mind that the following are Shizune's words as they come out of Misha's voice. Hisao is still not very good at signing yet.
"That girl isn't good at chess."
"Chess is a formulaic game. So~! it's a game that isn't suited for her... There was nothing formulaic about her. Someone who plays chess like that, looking only at the next piece, playing shallowly, can't be called a serious chess player."
"Anyone who loves chess to the point where their eyes sparkle like that when they see a chessboard would be the kind of person who would study the game."
"If you study it just casually, you can learn to see at least two moves ahead, even against pros."
"Why would someone who loves the game so much... with that enthusiasm.. know so little about it? Even less than someone with just a passing interest in it?"
"Her feelings are real, but her feelings for the game aren't real. Do you understand, Hicchan?"
"There is no luck in chess~! It's very important to realize that. Luck in games is good because it gives everyone a chance. Just enough to matter, but not so much that skill is penalized. Chess is boring because it's not a game; to me, it seems like formulas."
"Hanako isn't the kind of person who would love something like that either~."
"If you value something, you fight. Struggle is proof of precs- preciousness? I think so, at least. Or~! You concede immediate~! Since it's so precious that it stops your thinking. The first is a passionate love. The second is a gentle love."
"I tried to fight her, chasing around her king, and trying to bait her. I didn't succeed though, because she stuck to only what would work."
"The trickiest moments were when she moved the fastest. That means she knew exactly how to deal with those situations."
"That means someone taught her. Do you understand, Hicchan~?"
"If you love chess that much. but you can't give it your all, it's because you love the memories attached to it and not the game; it's too precious to her to see as a tool for true competition."
"Due to that you can't become friends over it. Not without words."
The reason I chose this bit to excerpt because this is the part that really hooked me and got me thinking. Partly because I realized that I view chess the same way Hanako does or at least in a similar way to how she does. The part that really hit home was the underlying theme of making friends through playing games. The reason this bit hit so close to home is because that is how I've made most of my friends and really gotten to know them, by playing games with them.
Which brings me back to my personal story. Remember how I mentioned earlier that I was home schooled? Well it wasn't quite as simple as that. I think my parents would have home schooled me no matter what but I had a something that disabled me pretty badly for most of my early life. From the time I was born till sometime between the ages of 18 and 19 I couldn't sleep correctly. It's an issue I don't mind talking about now because it is completely gone. If you are wondering it was an issue with the top of my spine that a chiropractor was able to fix completely it just took me 18 years to figure out that was the problem.
When I was younger it was common for me to go days at a time without sleeping. I originally started playing online games because I would be awake in the middle of the night with nothing to do so I would slip onto my dad's PC and play something usually wanting to play something multiplayer so that I could be with other people. Maybe I was just lonely since I was the only one awake, I don't really know and I can't remember well enough to figure it out at this point. There are two problems I remember really well from back then. One was that I simply couldn't remember anything it didn't matter how recently I had heard it, It was in one ear out the other and made learning anything really difficult as memorization was out of the picture.
The second was that I was always drained and couldn't communicate with people very well because of how tired I was. Because of this my oldest sister who was almost always with me would do 90% of the talking any time the opportunity came up. Trying to understand other people was pretty much the most exhausting thing I could think of. It wasn't that I didn't want to be around people I just didn't want to talk to them. Because of this I didn't really make any friends growing up despite my parents best efforts to find people to befriend me. Because of this my dad told me later in life that he even suspected I was autistic. Which by the way if I haven't made this clear enough yet I'm not.
Why am I summing up my life story in a blog you might wonder? Well I am not entirely sure myself and do feel a bit silly for it actually. But I think the reason I want to share this is because Katawa Shoujo really made me stop and think about my uncomfortable past. Something I honestly haven't done in years. It's not that it is painful really but rather that I really don't remember it very well it's kind of all a blur so thinking about it can be kind of pointless. That said Katawa Shoujo managed to bring a lot of back to the top of my mind. Maybe this is weird but I never do feel a large degree of nostalgia for my early life when I am reading a story, watching anime or playing a game. I think Katawa Shoujo may be a first for me on that.
I've often heard the phrase that opposites attract. It's one my mom likes to use a lot. I think that in a good story it's the opposite. You look for bits of yourself in the characters and grow along with them as they work their way through the plot. Perhaps because of the fact that this visual novel was actually written for and more importantly by a western otaku audience the characters really jumped out at me in a way I wasn't expecting.
If you told me a week ago that I would be able to relate my own inability to make friends without the use of games and see so many other parallels between myself and a deaf girl I would have thought you mad. Or if you actually knew my history I would have likely been offended at the very least. Yet here I am wishing there was more of Shizune's and Hisao's story I could read.
It's been a real pleasure reading this story and I want to thank everyone involved in making this a reality, especially since thanks is the only payment I can give. I feel pretty melancholic having finished this but at the same time I feel inspired. I haven't given much thought to my own hopes and dreams for the future lately. I am generally a jaded pessimistic person who attempts to wears the shell of an optimist to fool anyone outside my nerd circle into leaving me alone. That is something that likely won't be changing but I feel challenged to try a bit harder to be a bit more creative myself in the coming year, maybe try and write a story of my own, I don't really know what come of it yet.
In the end I think the theme that I really appreciated the most is that these disabilities neither break nor define people. It's really a beautiful concept when you stop and think about it. If anyone else is out there on the fence about giving Katawa Shoujo
a shot I can't recommend it enough.