Revisiting Katawa Shoujo

Content warning: this review’s discussions of ableism will include brief uses of potentially harmful language. It will also include commentary on some sexual content (although no graphic imagery is included), and the section on Hanako’s route will address a sex scene involving some issues of questionable consent.

Like a lot of English-speaking visual novel fans, my first introduction to the medium came from Katawa Shoujo. A friend recommended it to me not too long after its release in January 2012, giving the same pitch that I’m sure a lot of others heard at the time: “Can you believe a bunch of people who met on 4chan made a porn game about dating disabled girls, but it’s actually really heartfelt and sweet and not nearly as exploitative as you might expect?” I was intrigued, and I soon found myself completely immersed in the world of Yamaku Academy. I loved the story and characters, but even more than that, I was blown away by the whole concept of visual novels. I was continually excited to be reading an illustrated story that felt a bit like a game, that gave me the power to make choices and affect the narrative, and that also integrated sexual content that felt fitting to the characters and their relationships. All I wanted to do after reading Katawa Shoujo was find more stories like it—and almost a decade later, I’ve made countless other friends through our shared interest in visual novels, and even written some of my own. I don’t think it would be an overstatement to say that Katawa Shoujo kind of changed my life.

But more recently, I started to wonder whether it would still hold up on a reread. I’m sure it will always have a lot of personal significance to me, but I’ve read so many more great visual novels since then that rank higher in my list of favourites. And when I look back on some of the other VNs I read in those early days, I see a lot of flaws that I didn’t notice at the time. Back then, I was so excited to be experiencing this new way of storytelling that I wasn’t thinking very critically about it yet. My own writing and editing skills have improved a lot over the years as well, so I’m a lot more aware of issues that I used to overlook. Is it possible, I wondered, that if I reread Katawa Shoujo, I might not find much enjoyment in it beyond nostalgia? Is Katawa Shoujo actually good?

In the rest of this post, I’ll review and reflect on this classic from my college years, separating my musings on each route into separate sections. And while this isn’t really the kind of game that has big twists to spoil or anything, I will be talking about some major plot events.

My General Impressions & The Common Route

If you’re not familiar with the premise of Katawa Shoujo, it follows the life of a teenage boy named Hisao Nakai, who transfers to a special school for students with disabilities after suffering a heart attack and being diagnosed with arrhythmia. (This heart attack actually occurs right after a girl named Iwanako confesses her feelings for him, and the trauma of that event and the resulting awkwardness with Iwanako affects Hisao throughout the story.) One of my first impressions on beginning my reread was that those early scenes in which Hisao struggles to come to terms with his condition are especially well-written. I could really connect with the descriptions of the depression and isolation he feels in the hospital as his classmates gradually stop coming to visit and he wonders what his future will be like with this major health problem hanging over his head. The soundtrack is also something that really stuck with me through the years, and it was great to hear my favourites again, like “Afternoon” and “Innocence” and that little jingle that plays with the logo animation in between scenes. And while some of the art was a little bit rougher than I remembered, I was also really impressed with the attention to detail in some CGs, like the ones that have extra students in the background. The little animations that begin each route are also lovely.

However, the art and writing in Katawa Shoujo can sometimes be a little inconsistent in distracting ways. It’s easy to tell that there was a relatively large team of people who were all creatively involved, but who varied in their style and skill levels, as well as possibly in their overall visions for the project. I do think that this problem isn’t unique to Katawa Shoujo and can affect a lot of VNs by nature of their typical structure, but sometimes the separate routes vary so much in tone and pacing that it doesn’t always feel like one cohesive work. And now that I’m much more familiar with other visual novels that likely influenced this one, I’m more aware of points where it seems a bit formulaic or derivative, especially in some of the basic tropes of high school romance eroge. But of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with just being similar to other media, and Katawa Shoujo does have a lot of elements that set it apart from its predecessors as well. I’ll continue to explore some of those elements as they come up in each route that I read.

The Major Themes Introduced in Emi’s Route

I decided to read Emi’s route first this time, because I remember that it was the first route a lot of other people read back when the game first came out—the choice for Hisao to keep pushing himself to run laps with her, despite his health concerns, was a popular one. Back in the day, I chose to “take it easy” there instead and got Lilly’s route first, but since Lilly ended up being my favourite, I saved her for last on the reread.

If you start with Emi, her route provides a good introduction to one of the main themes of Katawa Shoujo: the lesson that you can’t simply fix other people’s problems. Throughout many of the routes, Hisao initially fails to understand what’s going on his love interests’ lives, often imagining that he could help them and make things easier if they would just let him. There are points in this route where his cluelessness about that can be aggravating to read, but it serves to make the point that the girls’ lives are a lot more complex than he assumes—not only because of the day-to-day struggles of living with their physical disabilities, but also because of many other interconnected issues, like Emi’s trauma from the accident in which she lost her legs. By the end of the route, he has to learn that there’s no easy solution, and that he can provide much more useful emotional support if he’s more patient and waits for people to open up to him when they feel comfortable.

I think this overall message is one of Katawa Shoujo’s main strengths, and something that still feels original and refreshing on a reread. Plenty of other romance VNs do give each love interest one simplified problem in their lives for the protagonist to swoop in and save them from, so it’s nice to read something a bit more realistic. Emi’s route also has a few especially well-written moments that stood out to me—I really like the part where Hisao finally goes back and finishes reading the letter he got from Iwanako earlier, as well as the conversation in which Emi “warms up” to telling Hisao about her trauma by listing a lot of details people don’t know about her, beginning with mundane things like her favourite colour. Overall, revisiting this route was still a good time, and it left me looking forward to reading more as I continued with the route for Emi’s best friend.

The Questions Raised in Rin’s Route

Rin’s route is one that I especially appreciated rereading with the developed perspective of adulthood. Katawa Shoujo first came out the year after I graduated from a specialized arts high school, where, in retrospect, I knew a lot of people who were kind of like Rin—troubled, eccentric young artists who didn’t fit in with their peers, and got the attention and validation they needed from artistic mentors who recognized their talents. As Rin’s route explores, these kinds of relationships aren’t always healthy ones, and can lead to issues like the artists overworking themselves in a quest for approval from adults who are more concerned with making “discoveries” that benefit their own careers than actually helping them. I don’t think I totally “got” that element of Rin’s route when I was younger, so I’m glad I read it again and understood it on a deeper level. The pacing of this route can feel a bit strange sometimes, with scenes sometimes cutting off very abruptly, but I think that for the most part, it works. It fits with Rin’s personality and the unconventional relationship she has with Hisao, which is also something I can relate to a lot more than the typical high school romance of Emi’s route. Rin’s route might actually be my new favourite.

But this point in my reread was also when I started to think about one strange overall issue with the setting of Katawa Shoujo: the apparent lack of mental health care for most of the students at Yamaku. A lot of this route deals with Rin’s depression—something that Hisao shares. Rin also seems like she’s heavily implied to be on the autism spectrum, and whether that’s necessarily true or not, she clearly struggles a lot to relate to most other people. She worries that she comes across as weird and makes people uncomfortable, but she doesn’t understand what she’s expected to do to change that. Other students like Emi have serious issues with past trauma. These are all things they could clearly use someone to talk to about—and you’d think that a school for students with disabilities might be especially aware of that, and provide resources like a school counselor to help out. But aside from one solitary nurse who checks up on Hisao’s heart—and a couple very brief references to Hanako having a therapist who sounds like they’re not even employed by the school—we don’t see any of the students getting any kind of personal one-on-one health care at all.

I realize that to a certain extent, you just have to accept this kind of thing in fiction sometimes; the writers want to explore mental health problems in a certain way that might not work the same if all the characters were already in regular therapy at the beginning, and they probably don’t want to bog down the narrative by introducing too many details or extra characters either. But in the particular case of Katawa Shoujo, I think Yamaku’s missing mental health support staff might speak to a larger issue of disability representation. I’ll be exploring this further in Shizune’s route, but first I’ll take a bit of a detour to address the particularly controversial route that I read after Rin’s.

The Sexual Content in Hanako’s Route

Hanako’s route fell in the middle of my playthrough this time, and like the rest of the visual novel so far, I mostly enjoyed it. Unlike the other routes that each had their own separate writer, Hanako and Lilly were both written by the same person, and it shows in how the routes are much more interconnected than any of the others. I like that some of the same events occur in both, and that getting to know either Hanako or Lilly as a romantic prospect also entails hanging out with her best friend and forming a good relationship between the three of you. In general, I tend to prefer that kind of story to one where falling in love with one character means the other ones drop out of the narrative almost entirely. However, the writing of these routes can also feel a little simplistic, especially after how much I enjoyed the uniqueness of Rin’s. The characters spend a lot of time in it just directly stating their feelings rather than giving you a chance to pick up on anything subtle yourself, and there are also some minor inconsistencies between them that just stand out even more when they’re following the same basic events. Those are more personal pet peeves than serious criticisms, but they’re part of what lowered my overall impression on rereading—even if only a little.

But more importantly, before writing this post, I looked around the internet a bit to see if any other interesting analysis had been written on Katawa Shoujo in the years since its release. And one major issue I kept seeing a lot of people bring up was their discomfort with the issues surrounding consent in the sex scene on Hanako’s route. When Hisao tries to initiate sex, Hanako isn’t really into it—but she wants Hisao to like her and be attracted to her, so she pushes herself out of her comfort zone and goes along with it. Hisao reads her as consenting in the moment, but later on, he reflects and realizes that he probably should have been more thorough about making sure she was comfortable. The scene in which she confesses how she really felt is a difficult one to read, and something you might expect a modern game to include a content warning for—but I think it’s also a well-written and realistic portrayal of something a lot of young people experience when they’re new to sexual relationships. The game certainly doesn’t hold it up as a shining example of healthy sexuality; it’s an issue that the characters address, and the route ends with them communicating about it and presumably moving on to have a better relationship in the future.

While it makes sense that not every reader would enjoy this part, I don’t really have a problem with the way it’s written and presented. In fact, I think it’s a great example of the way that the sexual content in Katawa Shoujo exists not just to be erotic, but to advance the plot and further the characters’ relationships. This still isn’t true of a lot of other visual novels, which often just include occasional porn that could be cut out without the narrative losing anything. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course—it can even be the smart, strategic choice if you want to reach a wider audience with a separate “all-ages” release—but the opportunity to explore your characters’ sex lives can be so much more interesting than that too. In my opinion, Katawa Shoujo pulls off something that not enough other visual novels even attempt with its approach to sexual content. It might not always be enjoyable for everyone, but almost nine years after its release, the character development that’s expressed through the sexual relationships it depicts still stands out.

And Now, My Hot Take on Shizune’s Route

First of all, I do not particularly like Shizune’s route—I’m just not a fan of the writing, in addition to the larger issues I’m about to address. I very deliberately placed it second-to-last in my route order this time, because I felt like if I either attempted to get through it first, or left it until the very end with nothing else left to motivate me, I would just end up dropping Katawa Shoujo and never finishing this post. In comparison to the rest of the routes, the pacing here feels especially slow, and the tone often feels very strange. It doesn’t have as much as the others in the way of a plot arc, instead dedicating a lot of time to Hisao just hanging around and bantering with side characters like the knockoff Ace Attorney witness Shizune has for a father. And since Shizune and Misha also just don’t personally appeal to me very much as people I would ever want to hang out with, reading a long slice-of-life comedy starring the two of them isn’t anywhere near my idea of a fun experience.

The one thing I do find interesting about this route is Shizune and Misha’s relationship—but it’s through an analysis of that relationship that I think one of the major problems with Katawa Shoujo becomes clear. Shizune is deaf and uses sign language, and Misha—a fellow student who elected to attend Yamaku because she wants to be a sign language teacher—is her only interpreter. Misha spends the majority of her life following Shizune around and acting as a bridge between her and anyone else she wants to communicate with, motivated by her interest in sign language and her love for Shizune. While Hisao does also become gradually more proficient in sign language throughout the route, Misha is still Shizune’s main interpreter, and no one else is ever shown taking on any of that responsibility. Without Misha, Shizune would be extremely isolated from others, which wouldn’t be fair to her; but because of this, Misha barely gets to live her own life apart from one friendship that doubles as a volunteer job, which isn’t fair to her either. The route does eventually explore some of the problems in their relationship, and Shizune expresses regret for taking Misha for granted—but what it doesn’t address is the much larger problem that allowed for that unhealthy relationship to develop in the first place.

In 2018, Ari Santiago wrote another reflection on Katawa Shoujo a bit similar to this one, interrogating the game’s representation of disability with the wisdom of hindsight. The article—which I highly recommend reading—does praise the game in many ways, but also raises some issues that I agreed with on my reread. One of them is that the idea of Yamaku Academy as a school for students who have absolutely any kind of physical disability is unrealistic; “disabled” is an extremely broad category encompassing such a wide variety of conditions that no single institution could hope to cater to them all. And while such breaks from reality can certainly be acceptable in fiction depending on the context, the story’s setting of this one special school in the countryside where families from all over the place send their disabled children also comes with the unfortunate implication that the students are outcasts who are being hidden away from society—which is sadly the way that many people with disabilities have actually been treated throughout history.

The reason I’m bringing this up is that Shizune’s route really does seem to depict Yamaku Academy as an institution that is no way equipped to accommodate every individual student’s needs. I certainly can’t claim to be an expert in this area, but I would expect that at the bare minimum, a school that really wanted to create a positive environment for deaf students might hire some deaf teachers, as well as have trained sign language interpreters on staff to facilitate communication whenever necessary. Shizune deserves to have access to resources like that so that she can go to class and make other friends and generally live a happy life independent of Misha if she so chooses. The fact that those things aren’t available to her—that she needs to rely so heavily on a friend to get by even at a specialized school that ostensibly caters to disabled students—makes Yamaku Academy seem like it’s doing something wrong. If you think about these problems with Shizune’s route, alongside the others I brought up regarding the similar apparent lack of mental health care earlier, Yamaku Academy starts to seem like a depressing place that’s not really doing much to help its students at all.

And I think that this reading of the game points to a general issue with its representation of people with disabilities. I’m sure the developers didn’t mean for Katawa Shoujo to be interpreted this way—but the fact that they don’t seem to have thought very deeply about the potential implications of their setting just goes to show how little they knew about the issues they were trying to address with their work. The complexities of the resources that a school like Yamaku would realistically need in order to truly support its students seem not to have occurred to them. And along similar lines, they also once admitted themselves on the game’s development blog that they didn’t even initially realize that the Japanese word “katawa” (片輪) is a slur—they just adopted the game’s title and concept from Japanese artist RAITA without thinking about it very much (warning for lots of other slurs listed in comparison in that link). This isn’t a game that had very much research put into it, and it shows in some of the ways that its representation of people with disabilities falls short.

There’s a lot that I appreciate about Katawa Shoujo, and I’m about to move on to discuss another route that I really enjoyed. But it’s important to think critically about the issues with it as well, in order to learn from its mistakes and encourage better representation in the future.

Wrapping Things Up with Lilly’s Route

I saved Lilly’s route for last this time because she was my first ever “best girl” back in 2012, and I’m glad I did. While Rin’s route might have actually ended up being my new favourite from a story and writing perspective, Lily is still the character who appeals to me most in her character design and personality. And after having so many personal qualms and larger criticisms about Shizune’s route, it was nice to return to some solid enjoyable visual novel content with Lilly.

The stakes of the drama in Lilly’s route often feel a bit higher than in the rest of the VN. While the other routes often focus on a level of interpersonal drama that’s more typical of real life high school, Lilly’s includes a big dramatic love confession in a field, and culminates in a classic airport chase scene. It’s pretty cheesy stuff, but I’m willing to accept it because of my emotional investment in Lilly as a character. I also think this turned out to be an especially good route to end on because of how it’s the only one in which Hisao’s heart condition becomes an issue during sex—something he often worries about in the other routes. If you read it last, it’s like a final payoff to earlier foreshadowing. And the very end also provides a nice bookend to the beginning of the common route, with Hisao in the hospital again, and Lilly—unlike Iwanako—staying by his side.

I think it’s a generally positive thing about Lilly’s route that it explores the effects of Hisao’s arrhythmia a bit more than the others. The rest of the VN sometimes casts Hisao as an outsider to the world of Yamaku, learning to understand what life with a disability is like for other people. But while his condition is different than those of his classmates—and also something he’s just coming to terms with, while the others have been knowingly living with disabilities for much longer—Hisao does have a disability too, and Lilly’s route keeps that in focus. It becomes a story that’s more clearly about two people with different disabilities building a healthy relationship that can accommodate both of their unique needs, and I think that’s nice to read.

Overall, I’m really glad that I reread Katawa Shoujo. I was clearly a lot more critical of it this time around, and it was nowhere near the mind-blowing experience that it was back when I had never read a visual novel before—but of course, there was no way it was ever going to be. It was still enjoyable to revisit a story that once had such a big impact on me, and I still found a fair amount of it to be sweet and charming. It’s also just really cool that it’s a free VN developed by a group of amateurs who clearly shared a serious passion for the project. There may be certain aspects of it that I think they could have seriously improved, but they generally did a pretty nice job, and their work laid the foundations for so many other English visual novel developers to get started. I’ll always appreciate Katawa Shoujo for the influence it had on me and the community I’ve become a part of. It’s not my favourite visual novel of all time anymore, but it still has a place in my heart.

If you made it all the way to the end of this post, thanks for reading! You might also want to check out this short supplementary post listing a few interesting things that didn’t make the final cut.

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