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Katawa Shoujo (Review)

There are very few internet-savvy people who have never heard of Katawa Shoujo. Katawa Shoujo is a bishoujo-style visual novel about dating disabled girls. It is also an eroge. While adult content can be disabled, I'm hesitant to classify it an eroge - the sex is very teenage-ish, meaning it's awkward for both the characters and the reader, it's funny, and it advances the plot. Despite the premise, Katawa Shoujo is handled very tastefully. In fact, it's been known to reduce several grown men to tears.

When first released, Katawa Shoujo gave the internet multiple fits. This can be attributed, at least partly, to its origins. The history of Katawa Shoujo (which translates to Disabled Girls, but literally means the somewhat less polite Crippled Girls) is long and complicated. To begin, we would have to go back to 2006.

The genesis of Katawa Shoujo can be traced back to 4chan's /b/ board, which is also known as the "anything goes" board. If you've never heard of it, consider yourself lucky - /b/ aims to be as shocking and gory as humanly possible, which results in some very creepy fetishes, gore photos, and child porn. I believe it was Gawker that once jokingly said "reading /b/ will melt your brain". That's not too far from the truth.

In 2006, stories began appearing from a poster who claimed to be a male nurse who had just received a seven-year-old girl as a patient. This half-Japanese girl was also missing an eye and three limbs from a car crash that had also left her orphaned. This being /b/, the poster seemed aware of the pedophilia jokes that would ensue. What he apparently had not been expecting was the genuine sympathy that emerged as more updates appeared.

Thus, the male nurse was dubbed Nurse-kun, the patient Amputee-chan (shortened to ampu-chan), and the saga begun. You can read the full story on Encyclopedia Dramatica, but be warned: pedophile and amputee snark lurks there.

Now, we have to go even further back for a bit. In December 2000, doujin circle Zettai Shoujo and its artist RAITA released a doujin called Schuppen Harnische for Comiket 61. This was a doujin for, of all things, Hayao Miyazaki's Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (you can even read it here!). On an omake page, RAITA drew concept art for a disabled girl dating sim, which he dubbed Katawa Shoujo.

Fast forward back to 2006. The saga of Nurse-kun is at its peak. Both 4chan's /b/ board and its anime-focused /a/ board saw a major surge of disabled girls artwork. A single, unknown Western fan translates and colours RAITA's omake page before uploading it to 4chan's /a/ board...

...and accidentally becoming the most important person in the development of Katawa Shoujo, credited with not only starting the whole project, but singlehandedly deciding the colour scheme of the school uniform as well as the hair and eye colours of the main characters. 

When this coloured and translated concept was uploaded, /a/ goes absolutely mental over it for no apparent reason. Posters began to demand the game be made right now. They wanted it so bad, in fact, that they went and made it themselves. 

And so Four Leaf Studios (or 4LS) was born, assembled of an international team of amateur game developers. While they've tried to establish themselves as independent of 4chan, the name remains a nod to its 4chan heritage and the culture that inspired the creation of Katawa Shoujo. 

4chan and 4 Leaf Studios

You play as Hisao Nakai, a normal boy living a normal life until a congenital heart defect gives him a heart attack. After a long period of hospitalization, Hisao is transferred to a Yamaku, school for disabled teenagers, where he - you - can find friends and just maybe love... provided you play your cards right. 
Art by raemz-desu
There are five main characters in Katawa Shoujo, excluding Misha who isn't a romanceable option (to the great disappointment of many fans).

Rin Tezuka

Rin's arms are tiny stumps due to a birth defect and subsequent surgeries. She uses her feet and mouth to do everything from eating to painting, the latter of which she is very talented at.

art by yukira0

Because Rin is prone to philosophical thoughts and rambling, she's not very easy to understand. She's a little weird, she's artistic, and she's almost the very definition of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. If this was any other game, I would hate a character like Rin. However, because this is Katawa Shoujo, the trope is completely destroyed. Rin doesn't teach Hisao to live wild and free, and her quirkiness isn't funny or cute either. In fact, Rin herself is frustrated at how nobody seems to be able to understand her, whether through words or art. 

Rin's route is especially painful for me because I know many artists and writers in real life. Like Rin, they have problems communicating, and devote so much of themselves to their respective art that they begin to self-destruct if necessary. 

Communicating with Rin is almost a Titanic task. She's very good at pointing out the obvious ("What are you doing?" "I thought you had a heart problem, not an eye problem."), but any sarcasm directed towards her goes completely over her head. She's prone to lying on the school rooftop to stare into space for some reason (see eye problem above), she takes two minutes to process even the simplest question, and if you do get an answer it probably won't be the answer you wanted and you'll have to spent two minutes running around in circles just trying to figure out what she wants to eat. 

Oh, Rin.

That being said, Rin's good ending is beautiful. It's possibly one of the most beautiful endings in the game, in my opinion. On the other hand, her bad ending will destroy you. 

Emi Ibarazaki

Emi's route is, I think, the funniest. Despite having both her legs amputated below the knee after a car accident, Emi is one of the happiest and most carefree person on the globe, nevermind the school. Emi loves running, and is on the track team. 

Art by yukira0
Hisao and Emi seem to get on very well. They exchange insults and jokes like they've known each other for years, and I actually laughed out loud several times when replaying Emi's route for this review. Hisao is naturally very sarcastic, even in his other routes, but it really comes out in full force during Emi's route.

Emi's route has you dealing with Emi - the real Emi. You'll learn why she runs, why she never talks about her family, and why she seems to be perfectly okay with losing her legs. It's not one of my favourite routes, but there's a lot of memorable quotes and legitimately laugh-out-loud funny moments during it. 

Also, lemon pie. You'll understand once you play Emi's route.

Shizune Hakamichi

Shizune is a deaf-mute who cannot read lips and as a result, communicates purely through sign language. Because many people - students included - are unable to read sign language, Shizune's personal interpreter, Misha (real name Shiina Mikado, but it appears only their teacher calls her Mikado), is always seen with Shizune. They're a package deal. 

art by yukira0
Shizune is bossy, stubborn, and manipulative. She is also a fierce rival with Lilly Satou, another girl with whom you can have a route. One of the earliest scenes in the game is of Lilly and Shizune facing off, complete with sound effects and zoom ins! 

Shizune and Misha are the Student Council. No, they don't belong to the Student Council, they are the Student Council. Right from the beginning of the game, they will attempt to rope you into joining the Student Council. If you pick Shizune's route, you agree and join. 

I found myself having to force through Shizune's route. While this might have to do with the story (there are several unnecessary characters and scenes that do absolutely nothing to further the plot), it mostly comes down to this: I dislike Shizune as a character. Shizune is the exact opposite of me. She tends to bowl people over with her need to control everything, and I hate that, both in real life and in fiction. It's a good thing I'm not a character in Katawa Shoujo, because I might actually make her blind as well as deaf/mute. 

Although she does look good in a yukata.
However, the central conflict in Shizune's route is painful. It really is. It comes out of nowhere, so when I first read that part I had to sit back for ten minutes to collect myself before resuming. Misha and her trademark "Wahahaha~!" is a magnificent person. Not necessarily a person I'd like in real life, but she's written so well that I can picture a real life Misha running around annoying everyone. 

The best part of Shizune's route, I think, is that it feels more 'complete' than the other routes. Shizune's route has the longest time span of them all (with Hanako's being the shortest, I believe), and the story ends when they graduate. Despite this, I don't recommend new players try Shizune's route first, as it might leave you with a bad impression of the entire game. You should try it at least once, though, as while Lilly's route does go into the backstory behind Lilly and Shizune's rivalry, this route explains it more.

Lilly Satou

Oh, Lilly. Rumour has it that Lilly's route is the supposed 'canon' route of Katawa Shoujo, and I can almost believe it. Lilly is blind, but you'd never know it by how she conducts herself. She's gentle, serious, and very classy - Hisao even notices how elegant her movements are and comments that she must have had a dignified upbringing.

Lilly is naturally a nurturing figure. Despite being blind, it's mentioned that she used to cook for her sister, Akira, when they lived together. She is Hanako's only friend and takes that responsibility seriously. When Hisao transfers to Yamaku, she takes him under her wing. 

Lilly is somehow both similar to Shizune while being vastly different. Shizune is on the Student Council, is controlling, bossy, and as loud as a mute can be. Lilly, on the other hand, is Class Representative, is nurturing, quiet, and prefers to have a less hands-on approach than Shizune.

art by doomfest

Hisao's arrhythmia plays a huge role in this route - more than in any other route, in fact. It makes his disability that much more important, whereas in the other routes, you can be forgiven for forgetting that Hisao even has a heart problem. When you consider the fact that Lilly is blind and won't be able to see when or if Hisao has a heart attack, her terror is very relatable. 

It also helps that she has the best one-liners in the game aside from Emi. 

Hanako Ikezawa

And last but not least, we have Hanako. Hanako was the first route I ever played in Katawa Shoujo, and even now I feel like I'm cheating on her if I play someone else's route. 

Hanako is the least disabled of the five main girls. As Hisao points out in-game, she is one of the few who'd ever get the chance to drive a car. Hanako has massive burn scars that cover the right side of her body, from her face to her thighs and possibly even lower. She has massive self-esteem issues (can you blame her?) and does not socialize. 

Hanako's only friend is Lilly, and she can be seen relying on Lilly a lot. I'm not an expert, but I know social anxiety well enough to recognise it in Hanako (along with a veritable army of self-confidence and anxiety issues. She had a panic attack during class!). 

My initial reaction when playing Hanako's route was to protect her, and if you're anything like me, so will yours. Hanako herself is quite confusing. Unlike Shizune, she has no problem speaking (well, physically, anyway), but I think she actually speaks less than Shizune.  

Both Lilly and Hisao can be seen coddling Hanako. They think of her as a vulnerable, fragile little flower - Hisao thinks to himself, on several occasions, that he should protect Hanako because he doesn't want her to break. They have good intentions, but forget that nobody likes to be pitied. 

From Hanako's perspective, she cannot trust anyone due to a very traumatic past. When she meets Lilly and Hisao, she opens up a little - but only a little. Where Lilly and Hisao see themselves as 'protecting' Hanako, she sees them as smothering her and forcing her into the archetype of damsel in distress. It's a deconstruction of the White Knight trope (this route even makes it onto the trope page!) that is rarely seen. 

Note: the sex scene in Hanako's route is very painful. While it is consensual, it is the furthest thing from erotic as I've ever seen a visual novel go. They're both emotionally unprepared, and a lack of communication has caused a rift between the two. This has caused several people to consider it rape. It's a very divisive topic within the fandom. 

Personally, Hanako's route was my favourite, because I empathized with her situation. My favourite routes in order would be: Hanako, Lilly, Rin, Emi, Shizune. I don't consider Shizune or Emi's routes bad, just weaker compared to the emotional impact the first three have. 

If you're starting out with visual novels or are just looking for a new one to read, try out Katawa Shoujo. It's available for free on their website via torrent or direct download, and you can download their artbooks for free as well. 

-Written by Dee 

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