Editors Note: The author of this article is a disabled individual. The writer in question attended a school for the disabled, ultimately obtaining a BA Degree in Mental Health and Care (which includes physical disability care).
“Katawa Shoujo” is a bishoujo-style visual novel set in the fictional Yamaku High School for disabled children, located somewhere in modern day Japan. The game which was developed by and available from Four Leaf Studios, follows the school life of Hisao Nakai, a student who’s recent heart trouble (Chronic Arrhythmia) forces him to transfer to a new school catering for disabled students.
When first released, the game stirred some controversy for two main reasons. The first was quite simply that it was inspired from and created by users from the now infamous “internet hate machine,” 4chan. While this “fruit of the poisonous tree” mentality may be debatable in respect to merits, the second reason for said controversy does make a bit more sense. Within the name of the game itself. “Katawa” when adapted from the original Japanese, can be translated to mean literally “cripple,” which some people may consider a derogatory term. However, as the developers of the game have stated)
“It’s not like we intentionally want to offend, and we did not come up with the name ourselves. The origin of the name is of course Japanese itself, with Raita and his original concept picture”. Katawa Shoujo is a visual novel that falls into the broad category of Hentai Visual Novels or “H-Games”. However it is unto itself, unlike many other visual novels that you may have played before. Many hentai games focus on sexual conquest and while you do learn about the characters, their drives and motives in most games of that ilk, it is usually pushed to the background. Katawa Shoujo is far from this model of the average adult visual novel.
Our first introduction to Hisao is during a romantic meeting between him and his school sweetheart, Iwanako. In the sequence, the stress of the romantic situation leads Hisao to collapse and be rushed to the hospital where he and his family first learn of his Chronic Arrhythmia of the heart, due specifically to cardiac muscle deficiency.
This hospital scene is itself a very interesting experience. Within it, the story succeeds in capturing and visually representing the transfer from “normal” schoolboy to a young man with a disability that requires he take several different medications just to stay alive. The game uses imagery that includes sterile hospital surroundings, with jumbled and overlapping names of different medications, to illustrate how Hisao is currently experiencing his situation. During this time, Hisao laments that the sympathy from his classmates feels less genuine over time and by his words their“Sympathy wasn’t real and felt more like a class project”. In these early stages of the game, this variety of imagery and writing drive home the point that Hisao is stressed by his transition from being able-bodied to disabled, and conveys well how he feels like he is being segregated from society.
To Hisao, it would seem, the idea of being forcefully transferred to the Yamaku Academy (a boarding school specialising in educating and rehabilitating disabled students,) is more like a prison sentence, akin to being sent away to a leper colony rather than being allowed back into “normal society”. Upon his arrival and first few days of schooling at Yamaku, Hisao learns that the Academy caters to students of many differing disabilities and capabilities. Despite this, the abilities and mental states of most of the students seems to counterbalance the abundance of accessibility and rehabilitation services as many of the students are able to and continue down the things that interest them most.
This juxtaposition of the service provider and service recipient attitudes aids the game in driving home the point that, in general, “normal” isn’t exactly a universal constant. Apart from one student currently experiencing depression, each student has found a new “Homeostasis”. In essence, Katawa Shoujo is not a pity party, it doesn’t ask you to feel sorry for the disabled students in the game, rather it asks you to understand them, their experiences and how their disabilities affect them or how they have been able to overcome them.
One of the more complex and possibly interesting love interests is introduced relatively early on in the game. Hanako Ikezawa, a reclusive girl with scar tissue covering roughly thirty to forty percent of her body, starts to slowly open up to the protagonist after a few minor meetings. Her disability seems to come less from her scar tissue (caused by severe burns) and more from her depression over the events which to the scars. Within this character dynamic, we are even presented a particular (and quite common) type of self-blame associated with those events known as “Survivor Guilt”. In this, we learn that her scars are not merely physical, but psychological as well. Throughout the story, though slowly at first, she is able to open up to our protagonist over time when more and more trust is earned.
There is one big reason that Katawa Shoujo breaks in the mould in terms of adult visual novels; it doesn’t fetishize what it’s presenting. In this case, the game isn’t trying to make a fetish out of the girl’s disabilities, in fact the game forces to player to try and understand the lives disabled people may lead and that they are, in fact, people before they are disabled people.
Katawa Shoujo does have one downfall, however… Beyond the good art, well-written story and amazing characters, it follows a rather hard line visual novel style. This “hard line” means that if you didn’t pick all the right things to say in the right order, you’re not getting your porn. Sorry guys and girls and everyone in-between, but just as in real life, if you’re not picking the right options then you’re lewdness will remain elusive and hidden away from you. So save before every choice or be prepared to play the game many times over.
In essence, Katawa Shoujo is well written, well drawn, has good music, decent writing coupled with great character development and (if you can get to it) pretty solid lewdness at the end. This, coupled with the fact that it is also a free game means that it’s something that you as a lewd gamer yourself, have few excuses not to experience.