I was first intrigued by Katawa Shoujo when I read Leigh Alexander’s write up of it two years ago, but only recently got around to playing it. Katawa Shoujo is an eroge visual novel in which the protagonist Hisao has a heart condition called arrhythmia and is sent to Yamaku High School for disabled students in which he learns to live with his condition and find friends and maybe find love.
The game is incredibly sensitive and respectful to its subject matter, which is maybe surprising considering that the idea for it originated out of the 4chan imageboard website, a controversial place not generally known for its maturity or compassion.
The Eroge genre is not commonly known in the West with the nearest Western equivalent perhaps being the Choose Your Own Adventure story genre. Katawa Shoujo does contain explicit sexual material, as is consistent with other Eroge visual novels, but it never feels exploitative or gratuitously pornographic. Instead, the sexual aspects of the story are presented as a natural development of the relationship between Hisao and whichever of the girls at Yamaku High School he closely befriends and romances.
This is not a game about fetishizing people with disabilities, but rather it’s about depicting them as just other human beings who have the same wants and desires as all of us do. It’s not about representing them as freaks but as people with unique personalities who have their own sense of agency.
One may argue though if it is necessary to stress that people with disabilities deserve respect and to be treated as equal human beings. After all, shouldn’t this be obvious?
In a perfect world, it would be obvious, but we don’t live in a perfect world. Neither do the characters in Katawa Shoujo. At one point in the narrative, Hisao expresses his confusion to Lilly the blind girl that there exists prejudice among students at the high school designed for disabled students. He expects that kind of misunderstanding and narrow-mindedness in the outside world, but in a place meant exclusively for people with disabilities, he assumes there would be more tolerance and understanding. She kindly tells him that he’s naive. The kids in Yamuku have disabilities, but they’re also just as human as anyone else, and with that can come all the ugly preconceptions that any person can have.
That prejudice includes me too, as Katawa Shoujo humbled me and forced me to reflect on my own disabilities and how I treat others with disabilities of their own. It’s to my shame that without any malicious intent, that there have been times in the past when I have met people with obvious disabilities and found myself uncomfortable and uncertain on how I speak to them. How do you ignore the elephant in the room?
I can recall a friend of my grandmother who was born with small undeveloped arms caused by her mother taking the drug thalidomide during pregnancy. I remember meeting her about a decade ago and feeling uncomfortable around her. Her arms! I couldn’t get past them. I couldn’t look her in the eyes without thinking about her deformity. And why was this so? She was still a person just like me or anyone else. She couldn’t help what happened to her before she was born. So why was I so uncomfortable when speaking to her? I feel like a monster for recalling my awkwardness around her then, but as Katawa Shoujo reminds us, it’s not so unusual. I should know too as I can’t forget how people react to my “disabilities”. They’re not physical disabilities, unless you count asthma which never feels like it hinders me thanks to preventative medication that prevents asthma attacks, or short-sightedness which is pretty damned common and at least I can see with the aid of glasses. Instead, what I’m referring to are mental disabilities. I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Social Phobia. I’m always hesitant to reveal this about myself because I know how people can react to physical disabilities (as I did!) let alone mental disabilities such as these. I have to admit that I’m nervous about admitting it here on the internet of all places because I’m aware of the misconceptions that people can have. I’ve had people grimace at me when I’ve told them before as if I’m some nutcase. So why was I so uneasy with my grandma’s friend’s disability when I should have been aware how people can be towards mine? How hypocritical of me. I suppose it shows that I was as human as anyone else with my prejudices. It doesn’t make it right, but I’m glad that I can reflect on it. We fear what’s different without taking into account that we too are different and that there is no perfect human.
Sometimes people whom I tell are surprised especially about the Social Phobia. However, Anxiety Cat knows how I think on that. I’ve described it before as like a duck swimming on water. It looks calm on the surface, but meanwhile it’s frantically paddling underneath in order to stay afloat. I either let myself crawl into a cave and drown or I go on living regardless of my limitations.
It’s what I love about the characters of Katawa Shoujo – how they don’t let their disabilities stand in their way. They don’t let their disabilities define them. I love how Rin is a girl born with tiny stumps for arms (similar to my grandma’s friend) and yet she’s an artist! She paints with her feet. Emi is a girl with amputated legs below both her knees, and she is a runner. She describes herself as, “the fastest thing on no legs”. These are people not to be pitied and feared. They are people to be admired. They are people who know their limitations and succeed in what they want anyway.
Ultimately, that’s the strength of Katawa Shoujo – that it depicts characters who are people first and disabled second. It’s how we should view everyone we meet regardless, but as the game’s story points out and as my own experience had demonstrated with how I viewed people with disabilities or how people viewed mine, we don’t always act that way. It compels me to never think of people with disabilities as I did before and it encourages me (as the girls in the game do) to not let my own disabilities hinder me in succeeding in my goals.
That we should treat everyone equal is a truism that needs repeating (because how many times has the human race repeatedly screwed up in doing so?) and Katawa Shoujo with its honest and heartfelt storytelling is a game that needs to be experienced. It’s available for free from the developer’s website.
I have no patience for arguments questioning if it’s really a videogame or “just” a story. It gives an experience through the use of digital media and I’ll take its experience any day over another bland videogame about generic dudebros fighting aliens and zombies. It’s one of the best videogames that have appeared in recent times, and it needs to be experienced and enjoyed. The game has touched a lot of people, myself included, with its earnest storytelling. The graphics are beautiful with some gorgeously painted cutscenes and the original music is also amazing and appropriately accompanies each scene instead of being just background filler. Overall, I can’t recommend Katawa Shoujo enough and I hope you enjoy it as much as I have.