Katawa Shoujo Review: Disabilities and Defining Oneself

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Well ever since I finished Lilly’s route I’ve been pretty much done with Katawa Shoujo, only needing to go back for one scene.  This last week has been pretty busy with projects and finals to deal with so I didn’t get time to post again, but now that I’m out on summer vacation it’s a good time for me to write about my final impressions on Katawa Shoujo as a whole.

Reiterating my description from almost a month ago when I finished my first route (Rin’s), Katawa Shoujo is a visual novel about a boy named Hisao Nakai who learns that he has arrhythmia.  Because of this, he is forced to abandon his old life and transfers to Yamaku High School, a school for students with disabilities.  Though he struggles to adjust to this, he meets five different students who serve as possible romantic interests for him.  Each person has her own distinct disability and in spite of the difficulty that comes along with whatever it might be, they all have learned to adjust and live with their conditions.  Of course, this doesn’t mean that life is happy and easy all the time, as Hisao learns that he must cope with his own feelings about his situation as well as help his love interest cope with her problems too.

KS is basically my first “real” visual novel completion experience.  Now I have played a few other ones, but those are particularly different.  The Ace Attorney series feels more like a video game than the conventional visual novel, the Narcissu series was in the form of a kinetic novel with no choices, and I only ever played up to the conclusion of Fate/stay night’s Fate route (and still haven’t gone back to see the alternate choices or dead ends).  So Katawa Shoujo is really the first one I’ve finished when it comes to a VN where your choices influence the course of a romantic relationship.  Now obviously that’s not the only reason to play Katawa Shoujo, and as the description shows I’m sure this is very clear.  Romance is certainly a key component of Katawa Shoujo, but there’s much more to it than that and that’s what makes it so special.

In any case, obviously when it comes to distinctive characteristics of this visual novel, one would immediately think of the disabilities of the cast.  This is certainly different from many other stories, and one might worry that such a game could tread on dangerous territory and distastefully make light of serious conditions.  Of course, this is not the case in the slightest.  Katawa Shoujo treats its story with a great deal of respect and does not at all make any offensive or insulting remarks about these disabilities and the characters who have them and is a very touching, realistic story that can hit closer to home than the average reader might anticipate.

The beauty of Katawa Shoujo is definitely its sense of realism.  Even though the idea of people with disabilities is one that many people might not be particularly familiar with, there’s still this sense of familiarity with the characters and their personalities.  This connects to one of Katawa Shoujo’s major themes: the disabilities do not define the person.  This idea is a constant aspect of this game across all the routes, and it’s a powerful message that can really connect people in an amazing way.  In spite of how disabilities and conditions may distinguish people from each other, the fact remains that at the end of the day, we’re all human.  Our personalities and experiences may differ, but all of us are still people who value friendship, bonds, and many values all the same and the characters of Katawa Shoujo are depicted as such.  Each character manages to find a way to adapt to having a disability, and it doesn’t take long to understand that all of the girls are simply regular people who just happen to have a disability.

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Katawa Shoujo has the interesting ability to really engage the reader with the first route.  My first route in this game was Rin’s, and truth be told I hadn’t been particularly interested in Rin and she was probably my last choice upon first impressions.  However, upon finishing her route I connected with her in so many ways and really thought about the ideas of change and developing oneself.  Now the other routes were also great experiences and each one taught me something different, but Rin’s route remained my favorite to the very end.

As awesome an experience as Katawa Shoujo was, however, it wasn’t quite perfect.  I’ve said in multiple cases that the endings of the routes weren’t always satisfying.  Many of them end quickly, almost abruptly, and there is very little content following the resolution of a route’s great conflict.  Probably the only route in which I felt content with the ending was Lilly’s, although Shizune’s route had a good ending as well but that owed more to the route progression as a whole than to the conclusion itself.  Furthermore, with each route being short for the most part, development did not always progress as much as I would have liked.  There were some aspects of character development that I wanted more of (the background of Rin’s condition, more about Hanako’s past and her family, etc.), and in some cases the characters themselves did not grow to a major extent (particularly Shizune, who did get some development but did not really “change” as a result of the story events).

All of the routes were very enjoyable, some more than others.  My previous posts elaborate more on each individual route, but I would say my list of preference (from highest to lowest) would be:

1. Rin
2. Lilly
3. Emi
4. Hanako
5. Shizune

Now this is not to say that the lower routes are necessarily “bad,” and honestly it was difficult for me to rank them since a lot of them are very close in quality.  Hanako’s route was almost equal to Emi’s and even in the case of Lilly I struggled to place her and ultimately decided that the balance and strong conclusion were enough to put her’s as #2 but it’s honestly difficult.  Also, one thing I need to note is that this is not the order of character preference I have either.  Rin still remains at the top, but for the rest I honestly cannot rank them because each of them are likeable and quirky in their own ways so I cannot say I like any of the others more than the rest.  Rin simply has the first route advantage and connected with me the most personally so that explains her position.

I’m sure this is probably quite obvious from the ratings I’ve given for each route, but Katawa Shoujo as a whole earns an 8/10 from me.  However, I must say this: Katawa Shoujo is more about the values and themes than anything else.  In terms of story and character development, Katawa Shoujo certainly did its job, but was far from perfect.  That said, such things were never Katawa Shoujo’s strong point; Katawa Shoujo’s strength is rather its ability to make the reader think about life and how to improve as a person.  The characters all have their own struggles and obstacles, yet they fight on and continue to live their lives to the fullest.  It’s truly inspiring to see that people in much worse situations than the average person are capable of putting in such great effort to make the most of their lives, and personally this made me wonder what I should do to improve my own life if they could do it.  Katawa Shoujo is about the lives, struggles, and successes of people and the emotions they experience throughout their journeys.  Though I gave Katawa Shoujo an 8/10, its impact is much more profound than that.  Katawa Shoujo may not have the strongest story, but I feel it’s no exaggeration to say that it’s a life-changing series.  In a world that is far from ideal and full of evil deeds, stories like Katawa Shoujo are the beautiful reminders that there truly is value in humanity and that goodness truly can exist in ways that we take for granted.

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