How Empathy Makes Katawa Shoujo Worth Playing
Visual novels (VN) have often had a bad rap of being glorified dating sims that contain hentai, or mature sexual content. However, there are many that stand out among the rest for their exceptional quality and their ability to tackle mature topics. One of the most prolific of these visual novels is Katawa Shoujo, translated as “Disability Girls.” Released in 2012, it originated from a sketch of girls with various disabilities by Japanese artist RAITA. The image circulated the 4chan image board in 2007 where members of the image board formed Four Leaf Studios, named after 4chan’s four leaf clover logo. The studio, consisting of fans brought together by a mutual love of VNs, was created to develop and produce a visual novel based off the image which is now available in English, French, International Spanish, and Japanese. The story revolves around Hisao Nakai, a boy who is forced to transfer to Yamaku High School, a school for the disabled, as a result of a heart condition. Initially bitter about his situation, the player, controlling Hisao, can create relationships and interactions with other students where he learns to grow as a person.
There are five main girls that Hisao can interact with: legless Emi Ibarazaki, scarred Hanako Ikezawa, blind Lilly Satou, armless Rin Tezuka and mute and deaf Shizune Hakamichi. Each of these girls have their own disabilities and routes, which are determined by the choices of the player and can result in good, bad or neutral endings. Each of them have their own effect on Hisao which changes the way he views the world and the decisions he makes in life. So what makes Katawa Shoujo special? Unlike most other visual novels, it has an important and always present theme that it carries throughout its entirety: empathy. It also has the goal of teaching the player a lesson about our preconceptions about disabilities as well as breaking the mold of visual novels before it.
The following will contain minor spoilers, although the writer has tried their best to include as few as possible. The writer highly recommends that you experience Katawa Shoujo on your own time. It should also be noted that Katawa Shoujo does contain mature content, although most of the material can be censored in the options. As a result, it is recommended only to those 18 years of age and up. The article is appropriate for all ages.
Katawa Shoujo teaches a lesson about empathy and pity
When Hisao first comes to Yamaku High, a school for the physically disabled, he’s jaded and lost. After the long hospitalization, Hisao finds himself with no friends, distant parents and a loss of his independence. He starts the story with nothing but a broken heart, literally and metaphorically.
What gets him out of his sea of languor is the time he spends with the main five girls. Despite their situations, they prove to him that they’re not defined by their disability and are capable on their own, if not more capable than Hisao himself. Emi is a track star, Shizune is the student council president, Lilly is her classroom’s representative and Rin is a talented artist. Hanako is special out of the five as her disability doesn’t directly influence her ability to act, but instead comes in as a lesson near the end of her route. To avoid spoilers, this won’t be elaborated on too deeply, but her bad end comes from being overprotective and not giving her the space she needs. By playing the role of the “white knight” as expected of the player in visual novels, they can do a lot more harm than good. Lilly says it best herself: ” If you’d pitied us, I would have been quite offended.” In the end, the girls don’t need Hisao to be their Prince Charming. Katawa Shoujo tries to get the player out of the hero mindset because Hisao isn’t a hero like in other visual novels – he’s every bit as flawed as the rest of the cast. This comes back to empathy – Hisao can only grow his relationship with others by learning to empathize for them rather than pity them.
The help that Hisao gets isn’t out of pity either; every girl treats Hisao as their equal despite Hisao’s own views on himself and his illness. Depending on the route, Hisao learns to see his life in a different light. He changes from this apathetic and unlikable character into someone who accepts that his life will be tough with his disability, but it isn’t over. He changes from someone full of angst over the idea of going to a school for disabled people into someone who realizes that his disability doesn’t define him or the people he meets there. On the other hand, the player is like Hisao in many ways: an average, able-bodied person who enters a completely foreign world of disabilities. Both the player and Hisao start with an almost socialized negative view on those with disabilities. By putting the player in the shoes of someone who is now part of this disabled group, Katawa Shoujo allows for the player to see the world as someone who they would normally shun or pity as well as interact with the kind of people who most normally wouldn’t interact with. As Hisao changes, the player begins to change too. He learns to accept others, what life has thrown at him and most important, himself. We learn to view people with disabilities as more than just their disability.
Katawa Shoujo isn’t just about dating girls or having sex
This sounds like a controversial statement considering that the player does end up dating one of the five main girls throughout every route of the story, but it’s important to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. Although Hisao does enter a relationship, it’s secondary to the real lessons he gets from each of these routes. He makes mistakes. He does new things. He learns to see life in a different light and he gets something out of the story that’s more important than the girlfriend. Even the mature sexual content can be censored out completely without sacrificing character development. Compared to other VNs where sexual content can be gratuitous and shoe-horned in as fan service, Katawa Shoujo keeps it as tasteful as possible and portrays it without glorification. The characters are occasionally intimately involved as part of their relationship and the VN keeps it at that.
Every character’s route in the visual novel comes with a question about their story. Emi’s asks “Can you stand up for yourself?” while Lilly’s asks “Can you see what I see?”. Hanako’s asks “Can you face your fears?”, Rin’s asks “Can you seize the day?” and Shizune’s asks “Can you tell me what you think?”. Asides from their reference to the character’s disabilities, these questions give insight into what Hisao and the player need to do. Can we answer those questions? If the player can understand the characters and see them as more than just goals in a dating sim or as disabled things to pity, we can guide Hisao to make the right choices to the good routes. The player is rewarded for their sense of empathy.
The most heart-breaking and the most heart-warming moments come from the challenges that Hisao and the five main characters have to face and whether they can overcome them. Most of these challenges are ones that people experience commonly in life like parental pressure or loss of a family member. These are real issues and as the player, we can empathize with them. More importantly, Katawa Shoujo makes the player want to understand. We can see ourselves in these characters, characters that become people in every sense of the word. They are flawed, damaged and have insecurities just like the rest of us. They have their moments of happiness that we want to treasure with them. They’re just ordinary people who happen to have disabilities and problems that we can understand.
Katawa Shoujo was made by the internet with a love for VNs in mind
With the release of the Japanese translation, Four Leaf Studios has said that they’re mostly finished with Katawa Shoujo. From its origins on an image board in 2007 to its complete and final release in 2015, it’s been a long journey from a sketch to a fully fledged visual novel. In fact, during those five years there was doubt that the project would ever have been finished. Taking on the challenge of creating a visual novel was hard enough, but to make one as high quality and respectful as Katawa Shoujo was a different matter entirely. What makes Katawa Shoujo so special in the end was the love that was put into it by communities all over the Internet. Not made for profit or for fame, Four Leaf Studios pushed forward through the five years of development while the rest of the community pushed them from behind. From humble beginnings of a single drawing on 4chan, communities from across the world gave their input and talents into translating and making Katawa Shoujo the best it could be. In the end, it’s the product of people from all around the world, of different races, beliefs and cultures, coming together through the internet and making something that they love together. That’s something special.
Katawa Shoujo is pure and sincere. It does its very best to invoke empathy in the player while being witty, thought-provoking, and an emotional ride all the way through. It looks and plays like a visual novel, but it doesn’t bring the baggage that visual novels carry like gratuitous sexual content. It stays grounded in our reality, making it so much easier to connect and relate to. It comes from the hearts of people connected by the Internet and brought together through a mutual interest. Written with love, drawn with love, composed and designed with love, Katawa Shoujo came to be, all thanks to the overwhelming and heartwarming support of communities that came together in 2007 and stuck it out to the end.
As the article suggests, I’m a huge supporter and fan of Katawa Shoujo. If you’d like to experience this on your own time, you can download it for free. I highly recommend that you sit down and put in the time to play at least one of the routes before you look up walkthroughs or spoilers about other routes.
What do you think? Leave a comment.