Katawa Shoujo (KS), originally released fully in 2012 by Four Leaf Studios, is a VN that has since stood the test of time. Set in a nondescript location in Japan, the game’s story is based around Yamaku Academy, a fictional high school which caters to the needs of students with disabilities. The player character, Hisao Nakai, due to unforeseen circumstances, has stumbled his way here in his final year of schooling. Through him, you witness various students at Yamaku, all with their own specific disability. Eventually, in true VN fashion, you end up romancing one of them before graduation commences and you’re sent off into the world.
If you have never heard of this game, I highly suggest you play through it now. It is completely free, no strings attached. You can find the game here. Even now, it remains one of the most impactful VNs I’ve read, influencing my writing and world view. Please, don’t be thrown off by the nature of it. The disabilities therein aren’t for the sake of drawing menial publicity. Instead, they’re more than integral to the story and message. The dialogue and description feel genuine; the care of the writers felt in each word. At the end of the day, the story is one with a classic theme: the efforts of humanity in the face of adversity.
However, as simple as the theme sounds, there are of course the tucked away details which truly define KS. In this article, I’ll be explaining my own interpretation, as I don’t believe many people are taking away everything they can from such a brilliant visual novel. Once more, I’ll advise you to read Katawa Shoujo if you haven’t already. While this isn’t an explanation of the plot, I’ll be covering several points integral to characters’ routes. You have been warned. Without further ado, here is the most common takeaway of the game I refute:
“They [the disabled characters] are still human, despite their disabilities.”
I completely disagree with this explanation. To know why, we need to break apart the sentence. The first fragment, “They [the disabled characters] are still human,” is fine. It serves to key the reader into who the sentence is about. In addition, it affirms the notion that they are still human. Although, the implementation of “still” does pose a minor problem. To see why, we need to go further. The second fragment, “-despite their disabilities.” is where the crux of the problem is located. “Despite” is innocently used, more naive than anything close to malevolent. Nevertheless, it’s important to choose our words carefully. Ultimately, minor conflicts have a habit of blowing out of proportion. In this case, the small misuse changes the meaning from the intended. For that reason, I propose my own message:
“They are human because of their disabilities.”
This is the point where I have to be very careful in my usage as well. Let me explain how this message differs from the previous. Once more, let’s break up the statement into two fragments, “They are human,” and “-because of their disabilities.” The first is simple enough, the fact that they [the characters of Katawa Shoujo] are human is evident. The second is a bit more on the nose. “-because of their disabilities,” is my main argument versus the second fragment of the previous message, “despite their disabilities.” It’s to my understanding that all humans have flaws in them. I don’t believe this can be argued. There is no basis for the perfect human. Idolize all we like, as we continue to strive for perfection, we inevitably stumble. Regardless, we rise again a stronger person, our experiences shaping us. This is the same for the cast of KS, their disabilities aren’t who they are, yet because of them we can clearly see their humanity shine through.
Take Lilly’s route for instance, a half Scottish half Japanese student who is also blind. Hisao has a habit of repeating the same response multiple times: “I see.” It’s not meant to be rude, it’s simply a phrase that has been perpetuated. Were Lilly to take even a modicum of defense, she does have some justification. Does she though? No. Less than offended or irked, she’s completely understanding with Hisao. She doesn’t mind the phrase, recognizing it simply as what it is. Rather than impose on him, she even asks Hisao not to change how he speaks with her. At her core, she realizes that she is no different than anyone else. Whenever people overly cater to her or view her as fragile [directly related to pitying her], this is when she feels irritated.
From all routes of Katawa Shoujo, Lily is the one with the most wisdom. She can read the hearts of people, discerning their issues and bringing them to a relaxed state. In a thematic sense, she is the one with the clearest sight. This role reversal, seemingly paradoxical at first glance given her disposition, is the same for every other route of KS. Emi’s route, and therefore her reversal of contemporary thinking, has a very straightforward way of presenting itself. The lack of subtlety is due to the probability that she is very likely the first route player’s will read through given how easily accessible it is. Her disability is the fact that she’s physically imparied, missing both of her legs. Players first seeing her may be surprised at her participation in school activities: a prominent (and fastest) member of the track team. Her state doesn’t stop her from fulfilling her dreams. Conversely, it motivates her to work even harder to earn her place in the world.
Shizune’s route very quickly presents us with another obvious paradox. While she herself is deaf, her presence is palpable. Being the president of the student council, she commands authority and respect. Through unspoken words, she controls the room. Even despite being deaf (thereby not being able to fully convey her words unless through sign language), she doesn’t allow that to undermine here innate personality. Rin’s route drives the point home again, once more fairly obviously. She is a painter with a difficult time expressing herself. Often, her thoughts can’t be transformed into speech, coming out in blurbs at random times. Thus, all her opinions are put to the canvas. This is all done without the use of her arms; missing them due to a birth defect and subsequent surgery. Even with both her philosophical mind and her lack of arms, her effort is clear. Based on her work, it would be wrong to call her simply talented.
Hanako might be the most difficult to explain. Saying that, I believe it’s also very easy to understand. As a person, Hanako is very shy. It takes a while for her to open up to people. She is very conscious of the burns which riddle her body. This appearance forced onto her draws the eye of every passerby. When talking to anyone, she’s afraid that she is constantly being judged, people put off by the scarring. While there’s no activity she’s specifically hampered by given this physical alteration, there is still a paradox to be found. Past the quiet exterior lies a beautiful person. When she opens her heart, it reveals a trove of preciousness. No matter what people may think, she always strives to be the best person she can be. Always, she is accepting of everyone, never judging based on preconceptions.
Our disabilities are not us. Although, they are an undeniable part of us. They, in combination with a multitude of other factors, are who we are. All our achievements, all our faults, and everything in between are what makes us human. This is not despite the disabilities of Katawa Shoujo’s cast. Let me remind you: humanity isn’t graceful. We’re all stumbling idiots trying to get by in a broken world of our own design. Even still, we hold limitless potential; every single one of us. We are all human precisely because of our disabilities. Though they may not be on a comparable level to the characters previously mentioned, this is a poignant fact. They make us work harder to disprove the universe. They key us in to what we desire. They are treasured all the same. If there’s anything I’d want you, the reader, to take away, it’s this:
“You are who you are. Even if you may not love that person you see, know that you are loved regardless.”
Finally, in closing, I’d like to present a post made on 4chan that encapsulates a lot of what Katawa Shoujo is. I couldn’t find the exact source, only various reposts citing the site it was originally posted on. You’ll have to forgive me this time but it’s worthy to show nonetheless.