Katawa Shoujo is a romance heavy Visual Novel (VN). For those of you who aren’t familiar with Visual Novels, they’re a marriage of a book and a video game. In them you read through a story that has lots of visuals, with varying degrees of interactivity and make choices when the plot demands it that shape the story. One thing that Katawa Shoujo does that’s quite unique with the formula is that rather than have the main character be a nameless self insert, it chooses to have you follow the shoes of a man named Hisao. He has a clearly defined personality with clear flaws that cause conflicts in the various routes. He was diagnosed with severe heart arrhythmia after a girl confessed her love for him and he had a heart attack. He then spends four months in the hospital where the girl that confessed gradually visits less, initially visiting every day, before stopping her visits altogether. After Hisao’s heart is fully recuperated he is given a lot of medicine to take regularly and the doctor suggests he change schools to Yamaku Academy, a school designed for disabled students with 24 hour nursing staff on site. Though he cynically thinks of it as a step down, Hisao ultimately decides it might be good to get a new start.
As Hisao interacts with students of varying levels and types of disabilities, five in particular he gets much closer to. These are the five “routes” or romanceable characters in the game that are determined by the choices of the player as Hisao adjusts to his new surroundings. He also interacts with many adult characters that become more important in some routes. Each of these routes is legitimately worthy of a nomination on this subject, so I’d like to briefly cover each of the girls and their routes before concluding with my pick for this article. Each girl has a quote that really helps describe their personality and a unique theme, so I’ll be including both.
Emi is an energetic, feisty and optimistic girl who is missing both her legs below the knees. Despite that she is the fastest girl on the track team. Whilst she’s extremely cheerful and optimistic, she has a hard time relying on others and does everything herself, much to the chagrin of her nurse that keeps tabs on her. Her quote is, “Can you stand up for yourself,” and her theme is Standing Tall. Much of her route sees her caring for Hisao’s heart health and getting him to exercise and adopt healthier lifestyles so he can enjoy life without worrying as much. Fittingly you start her route by taking up the Nurse’s advice to try light exercise. Of the route’s this would be my second pick for this article and was the first route I ‘unlocked’.
Second up we have Shizune, the representative of her class and head of the student council. She is deaf and uses sign language to communicate. As such a girl named Misha was assigned to follow her around and translate to and for her so that Shizune can properly interact with all the students. Shizune is extremely strong willed and even forceful at times, taking charge of whatever situation she’s in even if she may not always be the best person to handle the task. Her quote is, “Can you tell me what you think,” and her theme is The Student Council. Her route is the one I’m the most lukewarm on. It has a lot of interesting themes involving friendship and rejected feelings, plus Hisao learning sign language so he can communicate with her is quite touching, but overall the route was just ‘fine’ for me.
Hanako has perhaps the most unique circumstances of the group in that her disability isn’t entirely physical. When she was a child she and her parents were in a house fire that badly burned much of her body and killed her parents. She suffers from extreme anxiety and suffers frequent panic attacks when too much pressure is put on her, and thus has an extremely small circle of people she is open with. Her quote is, “Can you face your fears,” and her theme is Painful History. Her route is the one I have the most mixed feelings on. I adore her character and love the balancing act of Hisao wanting to take care of her without making her feel incapable of caring for herself. Her route also has the hardest hitting ‘bad ending’ in my opinion. My biggest hang-up is that she ends up becoming quite dependent on Hisao over the course of their route, whereas in a different route she ends up becoming independent and even going out to meet up with new friends. It makes me feel that she’s better off outside of Hisao’s route which is a weird feeling overall.
Rin is my personal pick for ‘Best Girl’. She is creative, philosophical, confusing and blunt. Due to a birth defect she is missing both of her arms below the elbow and has adapted by using her legs and occasionally her mouth for everything. She is best friends with Emi and the school’s most promising artist, often painting complex abstract art. She struggles to communicate her emotions vocally with others, instead painting her emotions into her art in hopes that it will let other people understand her. Her quote is, “Can you seize the day,” and her theme is Parity. Boy howdy do I love this character, but what is rough for me is that Hisao and her personalities do not mesh well in about 80% of their scenes together. He can’t understand her and expresses frustration at that, which deeply pains Rin at times to the point of pushing her to tears. It’s depressing to understand the character and what they’re trying to say so much more than the main character. She’s the character I would pursue in that circumstance, however that does not make her my choice for this article. This article is based on the best romance in the context of the story, not who my favorite romance option is. And thus I present to you..
Lilly is a gentle and caring soul. She goes out of her way to take care of those around her and despite being blind, is extremely dependable, to the point that all of her classmates seek her out for help and often forget she’s blind. She is best friends with Hanako and over the course of getting to know Lilly you end up befriending Hanako as well. Her quote is, “Can you what I see,” and her theme is Concord. You first meet her on your first day of school. Lost and unsure where to go you stumble into the room and see her sitting peacefully at the table and drinking tea. She gets you a cup and you talk with her, mentioning not knowing where to find the library. Her caring personality immediately reveals itself as she grabs her cane, shows you around the school, and takes you to the library. You fell guilty for having someone blind show you around, unconsciously and unaware that those thoughts demean those around you.
Over your first week she helps you adjust to your new life and difficulty conversing with all the various and ‘strange’ people at the school. Wanting to repay her kindness, you help her and her class set up their noodle stall for an upcoming festival. Lilly is entirely independent and self sufficient, however she asks you for help doing something she can’t do properly on her own: Shopping. You walk into town with her and pick out the food she asks you to grab, trusting your judgement on the specific brands. You feel good helping her out, however this is way more exercise than you’ve had since leaving the hospital. On the way back your chest begins to throb and Lilly hears your chest pounding, finding out about your arrhythmia. At the festival you manage to convince her to take a break from duties for a moment to relax and enjoy the festival with you and Hanako for a while. You ask if she’d be okay with you joining them for lunch from now on, and thus marks the first step on your journey to know Lilly.
There is a ton of meat to this romance, and I would be doing both you and Katawa Shoujo a disservice by attempting to detail every event that happens in this romance. However, there are a few points that really hit home for me and a lot of people online that have discussed their feelings about the route. Up until this point everything I’ve discussed has been spoiler free/light, but I will now ask if you’ve got any curiosity about KS and want to experience it for yourself to skip to the second to last paragraph of this article until you’ve read through Lilly’s route yourself.
Throughout the first few months you have several moments where you have heart murmurs that cause you to lock up for a few moments, sometimes much more noticeably and painfully to the point of others noticing and worrying. It’s an awkward situation for you; you hate making others worry about you and feel frustrated that something you can’t control is affecting those around you. You always apologize for worrying the others afterwards, not knowing what else to say. However over a three day break you get from school you and Hanako are invited by Lilly to visit her summer home. After a train ride away you arrive at a beautiful small home in the countryside.
After arriving you all decide to go into town, a mile and a half walk away. However, partway through you have another murmur and realize you forgot to take your medicine yesterday, likely being the cause for the murmur. You all return to the home and you feel awkward again, but have fun around the house. Waking up the next morning you find Lilly outside without her usually calm demeanor. The two of you talk and confess your love for each other, ending with a heartfelt embrace in the field. You head inside and talk, apologizing for ruining yesterday with your heart murmur. However you aren’t prepared for her response. She tells you to stop apologizing for your heart, that you don’t need to. That she doesn’t apologize for being blind, and that people don’t need to be sorry for how they are. “There is no point in apologizing for who you are. You are a beautiful person, Hisao. Please don’t apologize for that.” This part hit me really hard. I have a bad habit of apologizing for everything that could be even vaguely construed as my fault, and can relate to Hisao’s struggles for reasons I’ll get into later. Having Lilly mention that we don’t need to be sorry for who we are was honestly something I really needed to hear.
The last moment I want to talk about happens in the 4th/final ‘act’ of the story. You and Lilly bump into her sister Akira (that you’ve interacted with a ton by this point) and she mentions how they’ll be leaving for Scotland soon to visit her family, but that there was a chance this time it would be for good. Lilly’s family lives away from her due to her fathers work, and while she returned home to visit before, the permanence of the situation hangs in the air and chokes you a bit. Lilly takes you out to dinner at a fancy restaurant and the two of you have a talk about love and the past. You talk with her on another date about the coming trip to Scotland and she mentions that as soon as summer break happens she’ll be leaving for good. You feel frustrated by this, like your relationship was futile and pointless if it was just going to end like this. You also notice Lilly acting more distantly than usual.
As the day of departure arrives, you and Hanako say good bye and can’t escape the feeling of something massive and irreplaceable being gone from your lives. You return to your room and think on your relationship. You think of all the ways she eased your burdens and feel angry with yourself for never returning the favor. A burst of motivation fills you, you hail a taxi and head to the airport, intent on telling her fully how much she means to you and asking her to stay. You push through the crowd, feeling your heart thumping painfully in your chest, refusing to stop early. You see her getting ready to leave and as you get ready to call out to her, your heart gives out and you collapse.
You awaken in the hospital, alone and angry. You failed to reach her and now you’re alone. Again. The doctor mentions you had a heart attack that, while it wasn’t as severe, still was serious and they installed a temporary pacemaker because of it. You fall asleep an emotional wreck and awaken to hear a music box playing. You recognize the tune, it was a gift you got for Lilly early into your relationship and find it beside your bed. As you sit up, Lilly enters the room and you have an emotional reunion where you reaffirm your love and promise to visit the festival together next year. You and Lilly talk with Akira about the missed flight and while Akira will be returning to Scotland on the next flight, Lilly chooses to stay in Japan with you. You walk home together, ready to face the future.
This game really hit home for me. I haven’t openly discussed it on here but as a person with a disability a lot of these stories and moments resonated with me. I struggled really hard with the idea of people loving me romantically and thought there was something wrong with me. I believed that people were better off with someone who was similar to me but fully healthy and that my disability made me unworthy of that kind of love. About a year after I lost my leg is when I found this game and it helped me see not only myself in a different light, but other people with disabilities as well. I honestly recommend you give this VN a thorough read through each route, it does an amazing job creating real feeling characters with disabilities that are defined by so much more than their disability. Their disability isn’t even their most defining trait, just a minor detail that informs a few habits of theirs. I also genuinely feel that this VN made me a better and more understanding person overall that thinks more on the circumstance of others and how my actions, even if well intentioned, might make others feel. I hope you guys have enjoyed this and considered giving Katawa Shoujo a read if you haven’t already. It’s free and it’s full of so many wonderful characters and moments I couldn’t possibly do justice here. Thank you guys for reading and stay healthy!