A visual novel about disabled girls with origins from 4chan based on some extra pages in some doujin sounds like the most horrible thing and shouldn’t exist, but it exists and is actually not horrible at all. But everyone knew that already when the demo came out, what, three or four years ago? Everyone was waiting for it, but kind of like Starcraft II, I don’t think anyone expected it to get released within our lifetime.
So, the story goes the main character, Hisao, gets a heart attack and discovers he has a heart condition which leads to him being enrolled in a high school for students with disabilities. And then life becomes an adventure with choices.
Katawa Shoujo is a galge and seeing as how I played it right after I finished Little Busters, it was really hard not to compare it to Key’s brand of visual novels. I’d talked about Little Busters before and mentioned that it seemed more ridiculous than the usual Key stuff. Instead, Katawa Shoujo was able to get me to care about the characters more, simply because what they were going through was a real thing that could happen.
And because these were real things, the characters felt more like real people. A big reason why moe template characters don’t feel like real people is because the only flaw that they have is whatever otherworldly problem manifests soon after they meet you. Real and serious problems make the characters more believable and it seems like the writers really had to think about the implications of what each disability meant for the development each character.
For instance, one of the more interesting characters in Little Busters was Kud, whose problem was basically being half-Japanese and half-foreign and not knowing where she belonged. Of course, her Engrish was played up for the uguu factor occasionally, but her being unable to find belonging made her much more interesting than other uguu~s.
Realistic problems affect the characters. Some of them are born with them. They act differently than those who weren’t. Some of them overcompensate for what they don’t have. Some of them don’t care. In some ways, it’s not so much the disability affecting the character, but how the character’s personality is magnified by how they deal with it.
The characters have very strong and distinct personalities. Normally, the main character is a blank stand-in so that you can feel like that guy, but Hisao has just enough written about him that he’s his own character. At the same time, he’s still undefined enough that his personality changes depending on which girl’s route you’re on. A result of this is that in every route, he has really good chemistry with the heroine.
So since the individual routes matter and hit upon different things, let’s go through them.
Shizune’s route was the least enjoyable. I’ll admit that a large part of why I didn’t like Shizune’s route is because I didn’t like Shizune or Misha. They’re interesting when they’re together, but I didn’t like either of them because I don’t think I’d get along with them. I’m not really into the short hair or megane either. But most importantly, I thought most of the route was kind of boring, probably because the problem in this route was relationship drama.
Lilly’s route was enjoyable. Like Shizune, Lilly’s had her disability since birth, so she’s used to it by now and none of her problems really come out of that. And in fact, she’s a well-adjusted person who’s doing well, so she’s not having any problems on that front either. Most of the route is actually about Hisao dealing with his new life and how that affects his relationship with Lilly.
Emi’s route was one that I didn’t expect to like as much as I did. I don’t usually like the archetype that Emi’s character is drawn from, but I think her trolling with the nurse made her more likeable than just the energetic girl. She’s one of the characters who wasn’t born with her disability and has it play a role in the story (the other being Hanako). While the theme in both of their stories is kind of the same, their stories are different in the way they handle their situation. Emi is pretty conscious about her situation and does stuff about it, whether or not it’s actually helpful. Also, the nurse seemed eerily similar to Souma from Working!! (and by transitivity, Izaya from DRRR!!).
Rin’s route was the most surprising. In the other routes, Rin’s disconnectedness and resulting lines are pretty amusing, so I went into it kind of expecting some eccentricity and laughs. It turned out to be rather serious and not hilarious at all. It definitely colours her responses, even outside of her route. Like Lilly, her disability isn’t the root of any problems she’s facing. I can’t recall off the top of my head of any other visual novels where the protagonist and one of the heroines have such unpleasant development and struggle to understand each other.
Hanako is my favourite character, if not necessarily my favourite route. Out of all the characters, I think Hanako’s backstory and story are the most Key-like. She’s basically the shy, quiet girl with tragic past (so the opposite of Emi) and most of the route involves protagonist-kun breaking her out of her shell. Well, at least until the end, where the resolution to her route is not very Key-like at all. While the ending was good, it seemed kinda short. Or I don’t know, maybe I just wanted to see Hanako be happy some more.
Obviously, Katawa Shoujo isn’t about disabilities or disabled people or how disabled people are people just like us. I’d like to think that we don’t need a visual novel to teach us that. And, I mean, the central problems to the stories have very little to do with the characters’ disabilities. It’s all about Hisao learning to understand people, especially the girls he’s building relationships with. The caveat is that they, and most people, make that very hard to do.