Dead Letters: Katawa Shoujo
I don’t know when you were released, I don’t know when I discovered you, and after having occupied my hard drive space every year since 2012, I no longer care about what I’ve felt during that period of time in which you were hyped, and in which I first read you. But I also don’t know how best to say my praises to you, as I’ve done so much of that already, and to discuss you so often feels like I’m propping you up to be an idol instead of a piece of art. And like you have done with the service of your characters, who defy archetypes and are instead so real, I wish to see you solely as you are.
Opinions by definition cannot be objective, though they can be biased, and I am very much biased towards the novel by the name of Katawa Shoujo. You have affected me in ways innumerable and imbued in me what my juvenile mind never knew. You escaped the hellish Channer culture you were born out of and showed more competence than you would have ever expected from your circumstances. You have gone beyond cripple porn and transcended beyond the status of novelty, where you are more sincere than even those works that try too hard to be sincere. Like who you depict, you are great for what you are, and not what I can read on the surface.
I admire how you can take something so politicised as disability and turn it into a moot issue through the use of humanising those who we often see, in the choice between “Normal” and “Other”, as those people we see as errors instead of people. You have taken who we pity and have turned them into who we admire. And in doing so you avoid the saccharine, Saturday – morning cartoon message of universal positivity towards those who we would rather pretend didn’t exist, who in darker periods of history we would try to make not exist, and see disability as what it is: a series of inconveniences you get used to, and after a period, stop caring about at all.
But you are so sweet, too. Would I have expected a romance novel called “Disability Girls” to impart on me such beauty, such wisdom, and such a reasonable and realistic depiction of the world? Well, let me ask another question: would I have expected it from a team consisting of virgin weeaboos, crackpot writers, amateur artists, and one infamously popular hentai producer? No. Absolutely not.
And yet despite the circumstances of your birth — with a topic that one never knows how to write for, a development structure involving anonymous assholes communicating only through the Internet, the intention to make this the ragtag studio’s first and only release after five years of development hell, and all the inspiration germinating from a single page of Year 2000 character art posted in a single thread that could have been easily skipped over and yet was intently focused on seven years later — you excel at almost everything that not only a visual novel, but literature itself, aspires to be.
Although your stories are spent enclosed in the company of six different ladies, there is a homogeneity to what you are trying to say. In essence: treat people as people, and treat yourself as one, too. There are discrete themes in each of your routes, ranging from reliance on motherly love to coping with mental trauma to dealing with someone who just won’t love you as much as you do for them, and almost all of them are brilliant in what they say, and if not what they say, then how they say it.
If you were to take out any fiction book from 2007 – 2012 and read the first two pages of prose, you would understand that the vast majority of writing in fiction is uninspired, overwrought, patently dull, and is nothing you would ever hope — or desire — to emulate. Modern authors have an allergy to great prose, diluted by editors who chase trends instead of success, and so publishes work which is just competent enough to avoid being a fundamental failure, allowing the proles to enjoy today’s distraction from the grave. “Voice” is something that other people have; the contemporary reader does not care. They are reading an organised series of insults to their intelligence, and yet they are not intelligent enough to realise they are being insulted. The success of Dan Brown is my greatest proof.
And yet the writing within your walls, despite how neutral it first seems, is made with that particular type of personality that could only come from a single author who is extremely good at their job. It covers an emotional spectrum from annoyance to stoic joy, to dispassionate hatred to feeling at one with the world, all the way to the highest highs and lowest lows of what our main man Hisao is thinking through his days. How were there so many writers working on this thing who managed to keep the quality consistent no matter what point in the story it is?
Do you realise just how many authors phone it in during the middle bits, along the cracks where nothing really matters at the time, and so the prose nosedives into didactic descriptions of things that don’t matter? How did you manage to write this over five years and still have enough passion to care about what you were creating? It could be said that you excel best in your middle bits, where the idyllicies of life take over and you describe so well the beauty of what it means to be alive with who you care about. How brilliant are you to nurture what so many overlook?
And even the art style, something which we all appreciate but cannot explain in easily – expressed terms why it affects us and why it’s important compared to the leading art style, captures well that washed – out, imprecise nature of our relationships, and in this imperfection — backgrounds slathered in paint with the portraits with a modern edge — makes its visuals unforgettable as a sum, even if its individual paintings are not so beautiful that you would want to look at them every day. Except for the “Wizard” wallpaper, which I have seen every day for the past sixteen months.
To mention your music? Well, we all know it’s good. Perhaps the perception of it in context is as the same sort of peppy stock music that you would find playing in the background of a political television advertisement. Maybe in its simplicity and crisp sound it has an alien quality to it, like it’s the type of music we never hear because we never look for it and just accept it exists in the bylines between popular culture and obscure new – wave genres. And it’s a shame that you have been ignored in this respect, because your soundtrack is everything I admire: a simple production with emotional torque and enough complexity to be interesting without assaulting my senses.
I say almost every part of you is brilliant. There are exceptions. Hisao’s personality changes based on the route; sometimes he’s so confident and honest that you look at him and think “that’s a real man right there”. Sometimes he’s a petty high schooler who accepts the banalities of life as they come while still moping about it. And sometimes he’s more formal than I would have ever expected, although still breaks the façade enough to be human. None of these break his character or make him feel like he’s written flippantly. As far as “self – insert brown – haired light novel protagonist” goes, he’s one of those with the most personality, who exists as his own entity and not as what we make of him.
The routes vary in quality and ideas. Lily is a romance – squee gut – punch that doesn’t say too much but deals with abandonment and changes reasonably well. Rin and Emi are about deep – seated insecurities and the frustration of seeing your girlfriend as her own entity with her own problems rather than existing to make you feel good. Hanako is about the infinite patience, sympathy, and tact required of those particular types of paranoid and socially – dead individuals, and how they came to be this way.
What is Shizune about? Not a damn clue. It is by far the least interesting and most boring route of them all. There are some topics of fascination, such as deaf culture and sign language and the various subtleties that come with deaf mutism as it applies to physical relationships. But they are too subtle, and I got most of the discussion from the TV Tropes page. There is a difference between the nascent flavours of a glass of milk compared to the inoffensive and unremarkable neutrality of a glass of water. This route doesn’t say anything, and is unfortunately the longest route, and so has no flavour about it. Reading it induces in me the same feelings as Haruhi Suzumiya’s Endless Eight arc.
You can tell the talent of a writer by how memorable they make their side characters. I can say, without a doubt, that the side characters of this novel are some of the most memorable I have ever read — up there with those of Douglas Adams. Everybody in this novel could carry a spin – off series of their own, from the nurse being one of those doctors that tries to be funny and remains deathly serious about his craft, the art teacher being both an optimist and a bit of a psychopath with a long and hidden history, and the somewhat out – of – it homeroom teacher who remains faithful in his education of science despite how little his students (or him at times) seem to care.
Though they may be archetypal, they are not mouthpieces. As far as fiction goes, they are as much of their own characters as we could reasonably expect from a twenty – hour romp. They do not exist as feel – good, inspirational messages designed to be consumed like popcorn chicken. They are to be thought about, to be digested, and to take with you for the rest of your life, as I have taken them when I was young enough to really feel everything you were trying to imbue into me. I had become a more learned man because of your ideas, and I began to understand just how petty our hangups about certain classes of people really are. It’s not about “turning disabilities into opportunities” as the Christian Rock Propaganda Station broadcast this morning. It’s about accepting the lot you’ve gotten in life, and to accept the lot that others have as well.
The miracle of you is that, at any point during your conception, you could have gone very, very wrong. You could have butchered the stories you were trying to tell. You could have misrepresented those people who you most likely aren’t. You could have suffered from unreadable prose, unlikeable characters, ideas that don’t go anywhere, and become the cripple porn that your detractors ignorantly call you. But these are all could – haves and what – ifs. The practicality is that you exist, you are beloved, and you have earned your right to be beloved.
You did not become a multi – million dollar media franchise, you are not Clannad, you are not Steins;Gate, and there is not going to be an anime and manga series with a tie – in film released in Japanese theaters. But you have, for your part, stopped visual novels from being seen as an obscure, uninteresting, and unprofessional enterprise designed solely to sell pornography and generic anime girls. This is the type of novel that benefit most from globalisation; if not for the combined cultures of everyone who worked on you, we would have seen one dominate too handily, and we would not get the universal appeal that you have now.
But you are here, you are great, and you are even licenced under reasonable terms. I could discuss more often about each and every aspect of your creation, about the fascination of your being, and about what forces came to work in order to make what you are today. But why bother? Speculation is not my forté, and although I have high praise for you… it is just my opinion. And through this opinion, one thread emerges: Katawa Shoujo is incredible, just incredible, and even as the years go by and I become even more learned, I have yet to see anything quite like the novel you see before you now.
Bad art stagnates. Good art lives. Great art becomes a cultural touchstone, and this is what you are.