Getting a Feel for Katawa Shoujo

Hisao Nakai

I gave a lot of consideration to not even writing this article. Writing a series of essays which critically examine various video games is a pretty dorky way to spend one’s time, but even the dorkiest video game fan could be forgiven for looking on a game like Katawa Shoujo with incredulity, suspicion, or derision. The fact that the game’s development and release were relatively high profile events lead to a certain degree of skeptical jeering around the time of the game’s January 2012 publishing. The game has a very dedicated cult following, but perhaps understandably the majority of people who keep their finger on the pulse of gaming news regard it as a morbid curiosity obsessed over by perverted fanboys who delude themselves into insisting that no, really, it’s actually very well written! In fact it was this same bile fascination that lead to me trying out the game in the first place. How could anyone resist trying a dating sim created by 4chan that fetishized the handicapped? Surely it would be the most morally repulsive thing the site had ever produced!

And yet, in the weeks that followed the game’s release, something strange started happening. The sites that were expected to report on how truly vile a product this was ended up reporting that it was actually respectful and sensitive about its subject matter. Rather than fetishizing the disabled, it actually presented a balanced and empathetic portrayal of several characters who lead the closest thing to normal lives that they can manage, all while working around or with or against what we might consider “handicaps.” Rather than being a game in which sleeping with special needs students was the goal, it was a narrative focused coming-of-age story in which the main character learns to overcome his own health difficulties and discovers that the characters around him are not defined by what makes them superficially different from the people who lived outside the walls of their little community. An official quote from one of the game’s developers describes the game’s expected reputation versus its reality quite well:

“It’s actually not about seducing and nailing disabled girls. The girls happen to have disabilities, but the more you get to know them, the more you come to realize that they are girls just like any other. They are humans with hopes and dreams, and messy, fucked up insecurities about being alive and happy. They are not strange people- they are regular ordinary human beings who feel the way they feel not because they are disabled, but because they are ordinary.”

It’s optimistic, it’s understanding, it sympathizes with its handicapped characters without infantalizing them, it presents the girls as complicated and conflicted as people, rather than as damaged goods to be fixed by the healing power of the main character’s affection. So let’s take a moment and a few thousand words to appreciate Katawa Shoujo, the best written game I’ve ever played in which you can have anal sex with a girl with no legs in a track and field equipment shed.

For this article we’ll be taking off our “gameplay and story intersecting” hat and putting on a more traditional “critical examination of the text” hat. We’re basically just going to be exploring a few of the game’s themes, independent of the mechanics, because the game basically doesn’t have any mechanics worth mentioning. As usual, I’m more or less taking for granted that you’ll be familiar with the game already. If you haven’t played it before and you’d like to give it a whirl, you can download it for free right here. Keep in mind that this is a visual novel style game, meaning that 98% of the experience is going to be reading text. If that isn’t your thing, you probably won’t get much out of this game, but then again I didn’t think it was my thing before I started and I got a great deal of enjoyment out of it. Also worth mentioning is that a grassroots project has started on Youtube to voice the entire game. It’s called Katawa Seiyu, and although it’s still a project in its early days, so far the casting choices have been pretty on point. In particular the woman they’ve got playing Rin is basically perfect. All that said, let’s jump right into one of the game’s major themes.

Rin Tezuka

Rin Tezuka comes up with a phrase during Act 1 that is pretty typical of her ability to both utterly fail and totally succeed in communicating what she’s thinking: “doing something you can’t, just because you can.” She is specifically trying to explain to the game’s player character, Hisao, why she paints even though she doesn’t have arms. Throughout Rin’s route we learn that she is a character who struggles to express herself in conversation, and has a great deal of difficulty in social situations, so she expresses herself through her art. Art is how she communicates with the world, and how she lets people into her life (or keeps them out.) But her admission to Hisao in Act 1 is telling- her drive to paint is at least partly an attempt to overcome her own disability, an attempt to demonstrate that the “handicaps” that Yamaku students deal with are mostly superficial, and that they can be lived with. This is a specific expression of one of the game’s broader thematic throughlines: an exploration of the assumptions we make about people based on superficial elements, the conclusions we draw based on insufficient evidence, and how those assumptions and conclusions are not only wildly inaccurate, but are detrimental to both the person being judged and the person doing the judging.

Throughout Katawa Shoujo, characters’ disabilities are used as physical representations of “the superficial,” as a symbolic manifestation of who people are on the surface, of the side of them that we tend to judge them by when we don’t yet know them properly. For Hisao, learning to disentangle his own prejudices about people’s disabilities is a big part of his arc. When Hisao first arrives at Yamaku, he struggles with how much he ought to be acknowledging the handicaps of those around him. He wonders about how life is different for people whose handicaps are plainly visible, versus people like him, whose handicaps are internal or come with no visual signifiers. He wonders if it’s considered proper etiquette to mention his condition when he meets people, wonders if it is for some reason unfair that some people’s conditions are so obvious while his is almost secret. In other words, when he first arrives at Yamaku, Hisao is single-mindedly focused on the superficial, the surface-level element of the various characters that he meets. In his earliest days at the school Hisao is, unconsciously, categorizing people based on their disabilities, using their most obvious physical traits as a shorthand for recognizing or understanding them. By completing one of the game’s five routes, Hisao will come to learn that the girl he grows to love is much more than her disability- much more than her most superficial or obvious characteristics. Since we’re the players rather than the character, though, we can recognize this about all five of the game’s main romantic leads. Let’s take a look at how this theme is specifically expressed in each of the girls’ routes.

When we talk about handicaps being symbolic of a character’s most superficial traits, we can see this theme expressed most clearly in both Emi and Rin. Both of these characters have bodily handicaps, so for them handicaps are not necessarily just symbolic of their most superficial characteristics, their handicaps are literally their most superficial characteristics. At a glance, the first thing anyone would be likely to notice about Emi is that her legs have been amputated from below the knee, while Rin would be mostly easily recognized for her arms being missing above the elbow. The characters have even been designed specifically to highlight these elements, Emi wearing her obviously artificial running blades instead of her more natural looking prostheses, and Rin with the sleeves of her boys’ uniform tied off at the mid-point to emphasize her armlessness. Despite the obviousness of their handicaps, or perhaps because of it, Emi and Rin represent the clearest expression of the dichotomy between a character’s most superficial elements and their deeper personality. Emi and Rin don’t just challenge the preconceived notions of who they are based on their most superficial traits, they are the opposite of what those traits should suggest. Emi is a star track and field runner despite not having legs, and we’ve already mentioned Rin’s dedication to painting despite not having hands. Through Emi and Rin we can see the theme of the inaccuracies of prejudice expressed most clearly- here we have two characters whose deeper personalities are a direct contradiction of what they ostensibly “should be.”

Slightly less obvious is how this theme is expressed through Lilly and Shizune. Although both of their conditions come with some visual signifiers, Lilly and Shizune’s handicaps are not necessarily immediately visually obvious. For our purposes this means that their handicaps are more purely symbolic of the superficial, where Emi and Rin’s were simultaneously symbolic and literal. Even though their disabilities are less immediately clear, however, Hisao still zeroes in on them once he notices them, underlining his early fixation on the superficial. For Lilly and Shizune, all evidence of their conditions is behavioural, rather than simply physical- Hisao notices Shizune signing to Misha, and the practiced nature of Lilly’s movement, which allows him to deduce their reasons for attending Yamaku. This behavioural manifestation of their disabilities is reflected in the deeper personalities of these characters that their disabilities obfuscate.

In the same way that Emi is characterized by her running despite not having legs or Rin is characterized by her painting despite not having hands, Lilly is characterized by her piercing insights despite not being able to see. During Hisao’s phone call to Lilly while she is staying in Scotland, to name just one example, she is able to tell instantly that something is wrong with Hanako. On Hanako’s route she is even able to tell that Hisao is attempting to “rescue” Hanako- and can tell already that it would only make things worse (she’s right, too- ignoring her advice will push you towards a bad ending.) For Shizune, though, the relationship between her superficial and her deeper characteristics is different from the established pattern. Shizune is characterized by her fear of isolating people, which is symbolically represented by her inability to hear. Shizune’s type-A personality causes her to take charge and give orders through most of her route, and we learn that her unwillingness to listen (cough) to the input of other members lead to a mass exodus of student council members. She acts headstrong and self-assured, but throughout her route she confesses to Hisao multiple times that she’s unhappy with how she drives people away and is worried she’s going to alienate Hisao and Misha if she doesn’t change. For Shizune, rather than her deeper personality being the opposite of what we might assume based on her disability, her deafness is instead a physical expression of a much deeper personality flaw of the character.

This relationship between the superficial and the true depths of a character’s personality is most potently expressed, though, through Hanako. Hanako as a character represents a synthesis of Emi and Rin’s “physical” expression of our current theme and Lilly and Shizune’s more “behavioural” expression. Hanako’s condition is expressed at both a physical and a psychological level- she carries physical scars on her body and emotional scars underneath. Hanako’s “true” reason for attending Yamaku is primarily psychological, though- Mutou himself tells Hisao on her route that what Hanako needs from Yamaku is “time and space.” So for Hanako, there are two “superficials” to take into account- the literally superficial (her physical scarring), and the symbolically superficial (her depression and anxiety.) For Hisao, this essentially means that even attempting to look deeper than the physical surface level will still only allow him to understand Hanako on a symbolic surface level. What this means for the player is that merely recognizing that Hanako’s scarring is not her disability, and attempting to “treat” her psychological issues, is still not sufficient. Instead, both Hisao and the player need to look past her health needs altogether, to find a character who doesn’t need more doctors or therapists in her life, and who doesn’t need someone to coddle and infantalize and attempt to save her from herself. What Hanako needs as a character is somebody to support her and be there for her. Not a doctor, but a friend.

Emi Ibarazaki

Importantly, the game also makes a specific point of extending this message beyond the walls of Yamaku. Hisao’s arc is concerned primarily with his classmates and attempting to understand their relationships to their various handicaps. Inside the walls of Yamaku we’ve already seen that handicaps are representative of a character’s superficial traits, but two characters serve the purpose of opening up this message and giving it much more breadth and applicability. Those two are Lilly’s older sister Akira and Shizune’s little brother Hideaki, who play a major role in three of the game’s five routes. Although the two of them don’t have handicaps to serve as symbolic representations of their superficial characteristics, they do express this same theme with different physical signifiers: their gender presentations. The masculine, pinstripe suited Akira is mistaken for a man when Hisao first meets her, and the girlish, delicately dressed Hideaki is mistaken for Shizune’s younger sister in the same manner. By introducing these two characters and having Hisao not only misunderstand, but totally misgender them at their first meeting, Katawa Shoujo is expanding its thematic horizons. Inside Yamaku Hisao’s arc is about learning to understand his classmates as more than just their handicaps. But outside the walls of Yamaku, this line of understanding and empathizing is just as important, and ought to be applied to everybody.

Finally, and crucially, this theme even applies to Hisao himself. In his earliest days at Yamaku, when Hisao is still attempting to determine the ins and outs of life as a disabled student, he spends a lot of time dwelling on the conditions of others, and dwelling on his own condition, and worrying that his classmates are dwelling on his condition as well. For Hisao, judging people by their most superficial characteristics isn’t just something he projects onto his classmates, it’s something he internalizes. He begins to think of himself only in terms of his heart condition. Even in an environment ostensibly defined by catering to special needs students, Hisao still feels ashamed to admit to being sick, and attempts to hide his condition from the game’s other characters for as long as he can manage. Hisao’s journey through Katawa Shoujo is not only about learning to understand that the woman he falls for is more than her disability, and not just about learning that his classmates are as complicated and conflicted and ordinary as anybody outside the walls of Yamaku. Hisao’s journey is also about learning that he is himself more than his heart condition, more than his own disability. And in the same way that Emi runs despite not having legs, or Rin paints despite not having hands, Hisao learns to love despite having a broken heart- learns to do something he can’t, just because he can.

Shizune Hakamichi

In my Ni No Kuni article I mentioned being enamoured with a film called Tekkonkinkreet. That film follows two orphaned brothers: the older Black, a headstrong leader type with a violent streak, and the younger White, who is creative and innocent. Black is White’s guardian, he protects his younger brother from the unforgiving world. Partway through the story, an elderly acquaintance offers some insight into their relationship: he posits that it is actually White who is protecting Black from himself. When the two brothers are separated the old man turns out to have been right- without White there to keep him grounded and focused, Black becomes feral, unhinged, and indiscriminately violent. White explains their situation to his de facto foster parent in his typically childlike manner- he claims that God made the two of them broken. Black is missing screws from his heart, White explains, but it’s okay because White has all the screws Black is missing. The two of them are incomplete without one another- Black and White are a package deal, they need each other in order to be whole, healthy, and happy.

This is the same sort of paradigm that is explored in Katawa Shoujo. In the same way that Tekkon positions its two main characters as two halves of a whole, the world of Katawa Shoujo hypothesizes that people complete each other, that people who are perfectly complementary can gravitate together to form units that are mutually beneficial (or occasionally, mutually destructive.) What’s particularly smart about the way this idea is presented in Katawa Shoujo is that characters who have gravitated together because of their complementary personalities also have their compatibility expressed physically. In a lot of stories introverted characters get paired up with their corresponding extrovert, or goal-oriented characters with their people-oriented counterpart, but in Katawa Shoujo characters who form discrete units in this way are also physically complementary. Let’s take a look at how this is accomplished in the game’s main interconnected pairs.

Emi and Rin were specifically partnered up to be floormates because their disabilities reflect one another- in Emi’s own words, if you put them together, they “have all their limbs.” This is a clear physical manifestation of the theme we’re discussing- Emi literally has the “missing parts” that Rin needs, and vice versa. The two also complement one another in personality. Emi is excitable and extroverted, while Rin is patient and introverted. Emi is chatty and sociable, while Rin is socially awkward and has difficulty expressing herself in words. Emi is athletic, while Rin is artistic. The two of them even have tonally opposed romantic arcs: Emi’s route places herself and Hisao in a fairly straightforward boyfriend/girlfriend dynamic in which both of them are unambiguously improved by their relationship to the other, but Rin’s route is an emotionally complicated story of two people who are both attracted to and repelled by one another, and their relationship causes each of them joy and suffering in equal amounts. The two characters are almost perfect opposites of one another, but they “fit” together- each one has the parts that the other one is missing, and as a pair the two of them form a complete “whole.”

Although the two of them don’t physically complete each other in the way that Emi and Rin do, the theme of interconnectivity is still expressed through Lilly and Hanako’s disabilities. Part of Hanako’s psychological profile is that she is insecure about her widespread scarring, so she finds comfort in her friendship with Lilly, whose blindness prevents her from dwelling on Hanako’s burns. The two of them fit- a character who is anxious about her appearance and a character who can’t see. Like Emi and Rin, the two of them complement each other on a personality level as well. Hanako has spent much of her time in isolation, and is anxious in social situations, while Lilly is a natural leader and flourishes socially. Unlike Emi and Rin, Lilly and Hanako’s relationship is also informed by several similarities- although the superficiality of the similarities serve to underline further differences between the two. Both Lilly and Hanako enjoy reading, for example, Lilly because she was raised in a borderline aristocratic environment and because she enjoys practicing her English by reading books, while Hanako retreats into books because she prefers them to human contact. Both Lilly and Hanako also have sparsely decorated bedrooms- though Lilly’s bedroom is considered “utilitarian” due to her blindness, while Hanako’s room is considered “bleak” and is a reflection of her melancholic personality.

Shizune and Misha form a complete “whole” in a pretty clear way- Shizune needs Misha in order to communicate with people. If this element of their relationship- the “physical” manifestation of their cohesion as a unit- seems one sided, that’s by design. Shizune and Misha’s relationship is informed by a power imbalance between the two, caused by Misha’s unrequited infatuation with Shizune. Misha serves as Shizune’s interpreter, but Misha herself doesn’t strictly speaking “need” Shizune the same way Emi and Rin or Lilly and Hanako need each other, in a symbiotic way. The fact that Shizune needs Misha and gets a great deal of practical use out of their friendship while Misha receives essentially nothing in return is an expression of the asymmetrical friendship the two share. Nevertheless, the two serve to complement each other well as characters. Where Shizune is a goal-oriented task master, Misha is much more people-oriented and easygoing. Shizune is stern and stoic where Misha is jubilant and emotional. And most importantly, Shizune has a sensible haircut while Misha has drills.

Shiina Mikado

Although the theme we’re discussing is best recognized in the symbiotic relationships of the game’s three main pairs, throughout Katawa Shoujo there are a number of secondary pairings that are informed by the idea of interconnectivity. The relationship between Lilly and Shizune deserves special mention in this category. Lilly is written as compassionate and nurturing, and in this way contrasts with the more utilitarian Shizune. Consider the difference between Lilly’s borderline maternal relationship with Hanako and Shizune’s above mentioned almost parasitic friendship with Misha. Furthermore, Lilly is blind and Shizune is deaf, meaning that by themselves the two of them are incapable of conversation, relying on Misha (or Hisao on Shizune’s route) to facilitate communication between them. In spite of this massive obstacle, the two of them have taken class representative positions that require them to constantly interact with one another. The difficulty these two have understanding one another being expressed physically through the characters’ disabilities is an inspired touch, and really reinforces the way these characters’ personalities conflict. The two of them cannot communicate- figuratively or literally.

The game’s secondary characters are also frequently paired off into complementary duos. Although Akira and Hideaki have no disabilities through which their complementary traits can be thematically expressed, they reflect each other through their already discussed atypical gender presentations. Akira presents as an alpha-male type business tycoon despite being a woman, while Hideaki plays the traditionally feminine role in their relationship despite being a boy. On a personality level, Akira is easygoing and casual despite holding an important position at her family’s company, while Hideaki has a formal personality despite having no real responsibilities. Akira is comfortable and approachable in social situations, while Hideaki tends to increase the awkwardness of social situations. And of course, while Hideaki is uptight, Akira plies her underage sister and her friends with alcohol.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that Hisao has his own complement in Kenji. Hisao spends much of his time early in the game worrying about the ‘invisibility’ of his condition, and worrying that it somehow separates him from some of his classmates, so his ‘other half’ is legally blind. Their personalities also represent two halves of one whole the same way the above examples do. Hisao’s arc is about becoming more trusting and open to people, which contrasts him with his shut-in neighbour from across the hall. Specifically Hisao’s arc is necessarily helped along by his romantic partner, whoever that may be, which a reversal of Kenji’s undisguised misogyny. In fact, you could say that for Hisao, the whole point of Katawa Shoujo is to become as unlike Kenji as he can manage. Failing to navigate Hisao onto one of the game’s five paths will result in Hisao instead having a manly picnic with Kenji, becoming more like him instead of less- with fatal results.

Lilly Satou

As the old joke goes, now that I have your attention, let’s talk about sex.

Here’s a question: is Katawa Shoujo pornography? Each of the five routes contains at least one explicit sex scene, and the game is often categorized as an eroge. In order to properly have this conversation we would need to have a functioning definition of pornography, but like “art” and even “game,” “pornography” as a concept is famously difficult to satisfyingly define. Most definitions focus on an explicit depiction of sexuality, but casting too wide a net with this sort of definition will catch all sorts of demonstrably non-pornographic films, games, books, etc. Plenty of movies feature highly explicit depictions of sex but would never be considered pornographic. Some definitions attempt to zero in on only those depictions of non-simulated sexual activities, but there are several inarguably non-pornographic films which feature unsimulated sex scenes. My favourite functioning definition of pornography comes from David Wong of Cracked, who conducted a casual study of pornography use and addiction in 100 volunteers. His definition was “any picture or video you suddenly lose interest in after masturbating.” I like this definition because it focuses on the utilitarian nature of pornography, rather than attempting the impossible task of defining the medium based only on what it could or could not depict. It positions pornography as something that is used as a means to an end, rather than as something that is enjoyed for its own sake. With this definition in mind, it’s worth mentioning that an informal poll of Katawa Shoujo players on 4chan revealed that 47% of those polled reported a reduction in their masturbation habits.

Plus, for those who still think that the game’s character and narrative work is in service of the sex, rather than the other way around, it is worth noting that the sex scenes can be disabled in the game’s options. They still occur as part of the story, since their inclusion advances the story and the relationship between the characters, but the particularly graphic stuff is tastefully glossed over.

So yeah, it’s obviously my position that Katawa Shoujo is not pornographic. It contains explicit sexual material, which is unusual for a non-pornographic game, but I maintain that in almost every instance the sexual material actually services the characters and story rather than being intended to be used as a masturbation aid. In Rin’s route, sex is positioned as something that separates Rin from Hisao. The sexual experiences the two of them share are awkward and have undertones of sadness rather than the wish-fulfilment or role-playing elements typical of strictly pornographic material. The two characters are disconnected from each other and don’t fully understand one another, and the two of them coming closer to a successful and fulfilling sexual encounter parallels the two of them growing closer together generally. Shizune’s sex scenes inform the character’s type-A qualities, particularly her first scene, in which she has Hisao bound and takes initiative throughout the whole of the experience. She takes the lead in her second scene as well, but after a while she encourages Hisao to take charge, indicating that the two of them are moving towards a relationship built more on mutual trust and respect. Hanako’s single sex scene is probably the most hotly debated among the game’s fans partly because of its almost funereal lack of eroticism. Her scene represents an important step forward for her character arc, as she explicitly admits to Hisao that she wanted to sleep with him to demonstrate that she is an adult capable of making her own decisions, and that she doesn’t want him and Lilly thinking of her as a child in need of protecting any more.

The only routes in which I would argue the sexual material is anything close to gratuitous would be in Emi and Lilly’s routes. The two of them are tied for the most sex scenes with three each, and there’s a case to be made that there is erotic material in these routes which advances neither the story nor the characters. Lilly and Emi are both self-admittedly highly sexual characters, so you could argue that their higher-than-average number of sex scenes is in service of this character trait of theirs. Still, I don’t know that the above mentioned anal sex scene could really be said to have been a necessary element of that character’s development. That said, though, Hisao and Emi have several sexual encounters that occur entirely off screen and without description, so the developers are clearly not interested in depicting sex merely for its own sake. Honestly I think even at its most titillating the sexual content in the game is always intended as a delivery system for plot or character information, rather than as a shallow peep-show.

Hanako Ikezawa

I understand that to the skeptical or to those who deride the game and its fans this sounds like the usual sad and desperate insistence on the quality of what must surely seem like a Japanophilic wank game. But there are those of us, like myself, who found themselves bizarrely touched by this game, and taken in by its even-handed portrayal of its subjects as complicated, beautiful, confused, fully realized individuals. Some of us came for the spectacle and stayed because it spoke to us, on one level or another. And plenty of people who came looking for a chance to gawp at a porn game about disabled girls instead found themselves moved and changed for the better. If you’re on the border, for what it’s worth, the game absolutely comes with my recommendation. I never in all my life thought I’d whole-heartedly recommend a dating sim, but what can I tell you? I’m a sucker for optimism. I appreciate a work that attempts to expand my mind and force me to question my prejudices. I like a game that forces me to consider issues I might otherwise never have given a second thought. And I especially like a game that leaves me a better person than it found me.

Or, in other words, no, really, it’s actually very well written.