There are many things Katawa Shoujo could be accused of, but cynicism is not one of them. It is in fact the most uncynical, unironic, utterly earnest thing I’ve played in years, and it should be lauded for that, I think. Everything in Katawa Shoujo is borne out of love: love for the genre, love for the style, and most importantly love for the characters. Gosh, how it loves its characters, even if you don’t.
It should likewise not be a matter of dispute that Katawa Shoujo exoticizes and in some cases fetishizes disability. This is explicitly in the title of the game, which translates to “Disabled Girls”. The game not only lumps a bunch of disabilities together under a tenuous premise but it makes them objects of desire. And there are generic constraints: this isn’t a game about coming to cope with a disability and to see to the core of people in spite of their appearances; it’s about building a heterosexual relationship with a girl, and with a particular sense of urgency.
I followed Rin Tezuka’s route, largely because her writing was the quirkiest. By the end of it I was pretty well over her, even if she had stomped on my heart about a hundred times. I’m just confused by what has happened here. Rin and the male protagonist seem utterly incompatible and, as even the protagonist points out, they seem to actively hurt one another. They both have a backlog of emotional issues that make me wonder just who has hurt them in the past, moreso than how they can complete each other in the present. Because they don’t. They’re two struggling teenagers, fumbling desperately through messes of hormones and fast-approaching real life. And that, really, is where they become sympathetic to me. I may be cynical, but everyone was young and inadvertently hurting the one they loved once.
Moreover it becomes apparent that what Rin’s “disability” is (not in the sense of living with disability as many PWD do, but to be hampered with incomprehensible difficulty, the way abled people tend to view the disabled) lies not with what’s on the outside but inward. She was born with her condition and says explicitly that she doesn’t think of it as a difficulty. What does become a barrier for her is the emotional sabotage she’s been cultured into reproducing, believing she cannot express her feelings and that no one is able to either understand or be kind to her. So, in that respect, I felt like the game was trading fetishization of her external differences for a more conventional, emotional set, very similar to what Mattie Brice observed with her playthrough of Hanako’s path.
I think Brice’s analysis is a worthwhile one, because I do believe Katawa Shoujo, for all its hidden strengths, is also deeply problematic. Which is not to say it’s a game that only eroticizes disability, at least not dramatically moreso than any other love sim which sexualizes emotional vulnerability (that is, pretty much all of them). At some point, it becomes part of the form: see weakness, heal it with heterosexual norms. What separates Katawa Shoujo from straight pornography, aside from the shyness of its erotic scenes, is a lack of sociopathy. Part of this was set down by the omake sketch which inspired the game, asserting that “gigolo play” was a quick way to end up with no one, but moreover I think it’s the methodology of the game’s structure itself. You can be as flirtatious as you want in the first act but after that you are essentially locked in with one girl, after which you deepen that particular relationship and ignore the others. In a sense, it commands commitment from you. And it is nothing if not deliberate in how it wrecks your heart and plays upon your sentimentality once you start down that path.
If you didn’t know going in that this was a game written and developed by Westerners, you could easily be fooled into thinking it an authentic Japanese visual novel. The art seems right, the tone is right, and consciously or unconsciously, the tropes are right. This is not a game which critiques or subverts generic cliches: it plays everything straight without much apparent self-awareness (just enough to avoid mixing in norms from other literary traditions). The language is even slightly stilted in the way you might expect from a deliberately literal translation. The only departure from this is typically the overwrought prose of the male protagonist’s narration, which will just have to be forgiven– for as much as the script is weighed down by too many adjectives and awkward alliteration, there are a few moments where the writing is so evocative, so sincere, and so raw that it genuinely pulls at the heart strings. I, too, chuckled a little in cynical agreement when other bloggers suggested its fans were being suckered in by bad melodrama. But as I’ve already said, nothing about Katawa Shoujo is cynical.
Everything in Rin’s path –from the uncommon innocence of the scene in which she and the protagonist share cigarettes while watching the stars, to her lamentations of not being able to articulate her thoughts into words, to the gradual way in which Hisao normalizes his new environment largely through Rin’s eyes– feels just so authentically adolescent in the best possible way that it really did seem to be written from the heart. Sappy, overwrought, cliched, yes– because they’re teenagers. At one point I fully expected this arc to end in a double suicide, so dramatic were the emotions involved, so tragic was the way they reacted to everything. Again, teenagers.
In a way I envy the writing of this game. Not the excessive adjectives perhaps, but the youthful way it looks at life. It’s so spirited.
Like those tiny seeds scattered into the wind, I’m sure that Rin too can take her place in this world without the need to create her own inside of it.
Maybe she believes it too, and standing as close to heaven as possible, she is giving the world a big hug.
To me it seems like the entire world really could fit there, between those small arms of hers, inside of her all-encompassing embrace.(the game’s last monologue)