-Kris “Kaz” Sturm
All seems normal for our protagonist Hisao Nakai until one day in winter, his friend Iwanko confessed to him. Natural response? Get hospitalized after having a heart attack. Things don’t look good for him as he sees his life crumble away with prolonged time spent in the hospital, starting with his classmates, his friends and even the one girl he ever liked eventually leaving him. Diagnosed with a case of arrhythmia, it’s recommended that he spend the last of his time in the high school of fellow physically disabled students, from nearly every condition known to man. It is here that we’re introduced to the scenery that makes up Katawa Shoujo.
Katawa Shoujo, interestingly enough takes its roots from 4chan of all places, originally taken from their /a/ thread, Katawa Shoujo could be considered a fetish-like venture into the visual novel/dating sim gaming industry. As mentioned before (and if one looks into the translation of the title itself), this game focuses around people with various physical handicaps. Whether you’ve lost your legs, are blind, have heart complications, a deaf-mute, are a hyper-sensitive and social phobic burn victim, or have no arms with which to hug people (just scratching the surface of any number of complications one might possibly have), Yamaku High in KS caters to all who are still in their high school developmental phase of their lives and as best phrased by Mutou, the teacher:
I will say, if there is one majorly noteworthy thing I could bring up about this game, it’d have to be the writing. DEAR GOD, the writing was… augh. I can’t even start with how well everything was written (where some may consider only by comparison to other mediums). As cliché as it sounds, there were several points where I laughed, I felt my heart get warmed, I was saddened and hell, I CRIED. I had my heart wrenched and I felt it being warmed into a puddle of melted Jello. I know it sounds a bit much, but I felt damn near an entire emotional spectrum from this one particular visual novel and in the loosst sense of the phrase, dating sim. Not only that, but by introducing the elements of physical disabilities and handicaps, understanding how characters have come to adapt to their conditions and overcome them comes off as quite a bold and powerful movement; one that very few artistic venues have tried to convey over the past few years.
The characters were well fleshed out in the course of the game; the women of which each getting their own storylines as Hisao, our protagonist, goes through and pursues romantic relationships with each individual, except for poor Misha who is a special case. Needless to say, the characters were well made to complement their own disabilities and inevitably use these to show is how even with a physical condition that might cause a lack of full capabilities, they can be overcome to show that life doesn’t have to be less fulfilling as a by-product. This in mind, we have:
Shizune Hakamichi: Designed as a deaf-mute girl, Shizune runs the student council of Yamaku High; she makes a point that being deaf-mute doesn’t have to be a disability as she commands her power in the student body (even being depicted as tyrannical) and has a very competitive nature about her with a consistent streak of following a sort of one-upsmanship. Her independent nature comes off as a by-product from a sociopathic father who thinks her being deaf is a sign of rebellion (has NEVER attempted to learn the language to understand his own daughter) and has a socially inept trap of a brother named Hideaki who doesn’t understand why people think he’s misleading and confuses penises. Irritation at lack of a good enough form of clear-cut communication tends to run in her family.
Misha: Sadly is the only character of the game that doesn’t have any clear cut disability with fans speculating she has anything between COLD (Compulsive Obsessive Loudness Disorder), slight deafness, cancer, ADHD, a brain tumor that causes her to be obsessively happy (and tire quickly), autism and many more. Nobody has definitively come to a conclusion for what “ails” her but the one conclusive thing mentioned is that she is a lesbian. Again, people could very well argue that she happens to be a bisexual, but with a very heavy preference to females. She is best known for her bubble gum pink hair and the drills of her hair that can pierce the heavens.
Lilly Satou: Born as a blind girl, she commands an air of primp and properness, almost mechanical in her actions as she handles herself as an individual as though she is entirely unaffected by her blindness; even with the ability to play chess with a good deal of skill. Only once in the course of gameplay is the player allowed to see her vulnerable (in which she beats herself up over) and even tried to demonstrate just how difficult it can actually be to be blind.
Hanako Ikezawa: Most likely the shyest individual ever born, Hanako was actually born normal human being until one fateful day, her house caught on fire, orphaning her and giving half of her body that trademark burn of hers. Her character design has been likened to Phantom of the Opera with both the scarring and the social ineptitude of hers. Over the course of gameplay, she steadily works her way out of her shell, but as an individual, she’s categorized by her ability to ability to more than handle herself through very calculated moves in chess and by how much of a surprisingly good runner she is.
Emi Ibarazaki: Self-proclaimed “the fastest thing on no legs,” Emi was actually born a perfectly normal girl until one day, she got in a terrible car accident that cost the life of her father and the amputation of her legs just under the knees. Stubborn to a fault, she pushes the bounds of her own physical capabilities, even going far enough to injure her legs and not doing anything about it until it becomes a seriously pressing issue. Living for the moment, rather than the future, she could be considered reckless, but quite happy with how things are and considers herself completely self-reliant.
Rin Tezuka: Quite possibly one of the most intriguing characters of the game, she was born with no arms yet doesn’t let this affect her ability to strive towards being a fantastic artist, known for decorating Yamaku High’s wall mural single-footedly and is known for her… unique attitude. She has also been known to even lampshade herself in the fact that her mind is so one-track, she could only focus on roughly four things at a time and yet has a very philosophical approach to some of her thinking. There are other times when she's blunt and forward with her thoughts...
Now for the million dollar question: “what about the sex scenes?” I’ll answer with a Horatio. 'It doesn’t matter if you toggle adult content on or off, all of the sex scenes are disabled anyway.' "YEEEEEEEAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA-'"
In all seriousness though, adult content can be toggled on and off, skipping past the sex scenes, still leaving the player with an overall satisfying visual novel. Even with the content enabled, everything is handled in a very tasteful manner and rather than being displayed as pornographic is depicted as tastefully erotic. Why do I say tastefully you might ask? Because rather than going into explicit detail, the scenes themselves are well written and detailed -just- enough, and comes out at best just under the length of an erotic novel. There’s just something about it that comes off about how precise its timing is, with -just- how much detail was used and with how well its overall quality is presented.
There are more "graphic" scenes in different routes, but so nobody gets butthurt over it, I would like to use this as an example to show that smut and eroticism are two completely different elements. Given Shizune being deaf-mute, by tying up Hisao's hands, she effectively muzzles him; adding to the thrill of the scene itself.
I had a certain set of expectations about Katawa Shoujo and hell, even then I thought it would be good. It was only after dedicating hours upon hours upon hours of my time going through in an attempt to break down all of the intricacies that are present of the game. Four Leaf Studios, I have to say I honestly loved your work here and I’m sad to hear that this would be your one and only game. I do hope in the future you could present more games but if it’s asking too much, understandable. I can definitively say that I’m glad that you decided to take up this particular subject matter and showed that even though a person can be physically disabled, it doesn’t have to limit them from being more than what they could possibly become and that they’ll be DAMNED if you say they can’t find love.
Reviewed By: Kris “Kaz” Sturm
Reviewer Rating: 5/5
Additional notes: While I have stated that the content of this game is utterly phenomenal and that I would recommend to any person with a computer because what can be taken FROM as there are several points that come up in the game which can be considered food for thought, I would say that if a younger audience might be present, disable the adult content. This way, the game gets turned from a 16+ game (just due to content) into borderline PG-13. I’m sure a bulk of the audience won’t pay much attention to any adult content, but given how I wish for the game to get as much publicity as possible, I feel that for all intents and purposes, it would be best to make sure this point is brought out in the open.