I first heard of Katawa Shoujo when a friend told me about a game about dating disabled girls. This was characteristic of the game’s early reputation, which was more infamous than illustrious at the start. As the collaborative effort of a bunch of 4chan regulars inspired by the sketches of a hentai artist, the game stoked fears that it would be a hot mess of fetishism and exploitative romance.
When the game hit the internet, it quickly put the rumors to rest. Early reviews were united in praising the way Katawa Shoujo had handled its subject matter.
Far from being fetishistic or patronizing, it had given its disabled characters complex stories; written with maturity and respect.
Despite its occasional lapses in visuals and prose, the game was a resounding success overall. It was soon considered an exemplar of the visual novel genre—and had distinguished itself for its focus on representing disability.
In making disability its central narrative focus, Katawa Shoujo forged into new territory. Because while many games have simulated disability, few have represented it, let alone focused on it. As a consequence, however, the reviews that praised the game had limited points for comparison.
Not only are similar video games nearly nonexistent; mainstream literary analysis often overlooks problems in representing disability. So while Katawa Shoujo is worth celebrating, it’s also worth looking at more closely. In what ways does Katawa Shoujo succeed as a story of sickness and disability? In what ways does it fall short? And given these, where do we go from here? Naturally, these aren’t questions that can be resolved in a single article—but they’re ones that should be asked.
In reexamining Katawa Shoujo, it’s worth first asking: what makes for a good representation of disability? It’s another of those inexhaustible questions. But for the purposes of this discussion, there are a few problems worth focusing on:
- Disability has often been used as a mere metaphor.
- It is often presented as an individual, rather than societal issue.
- That the conditions that make disabled characters compelling can also make them difficult to identify with.
More than Metaphor
The first of these problems is one that many will recognize.
The more banal examples are where physical impairment signify some inner twistedness—think Disney’s Captain Hook and Uncle Scar. Other cases are more difficult to spot. In these stories, the disabled might seem ennobled. But closer examination reveals that disability is used to illustrate some other moral or social issue, rather than the fraught condition of disability in itself.
Most of the praise for Katawa Shoujo focuses on its success by this standard: Deeper meaning is ascribed to each of the characters’ conditions, but without obscuring the actuality of disability. In one example, Rin’s lack of arms reflects the difficulty she has with social bonds and embracing others. In another, Shizune’s deafness resonates with her unwillingness to heed others’ preferences if it means changing her ways.
At the same time however, the direct consequences of their conditions—both physical and social—are consistently foregrounded.
Rin struggles with a lot of manual tasks, but also with the fact that the art world considers her a curiosity. Shizune doesn’t go through the extra effort of communicating with others. And this rotted in how her family’s reaction to her deafness discouraged her from reaching out.
Much has been said about the metaphoric weight behind each character’s individual conditions, so I’ll not delve further into that.
Rather, I’d like to emphasize the game’s attention to the non-physical consequences of disability. These are things that simulations cannot convey: the constancy of a condition and the prejudice and self-doubt it entails.
At the end of Katawa Shoujo’s prologue, we may not quite understand what it’s like to have a constantly irregular heartbeat; to live knowing it will fail sooner rather than later. But we find ourselves moved by Hisao’s struggle with estrangement from his classmates. And with the betrayal he feels from his parents sending him off to Yamaku and the implications of that decision: he is disabled and that’s not going to change.
With a Wider World
Yamaku Academy is something of a conundrum. On the one hand, an institution of its sort would hardly be feasible: its students require widely varying equipment, regimens and oversight. On the other hand, it’s a pretty accurate mirror of the idea of disability itself.
The various impairments, illnesses and traits that constitute the category of “disabled” are so different from each other that to establish their common ground would boggle the mind. As it is, the idea that disability is primarily a physical condition has long been rejected by serious figures in academic and civic circles. In the 1980s, the Social Model of Disability gained popularity in the UK and, from there, in other parts of the world.
The model posits that disability is the result of societal factors, rather than physical conditions. That the largest obstacle to the disabled aren’t their physical differences; but the hostility of a society that would rather abandon them than embrace them. While the Social Model has been critiqued in the intervening years, it is still widely accepted that societal factors are the primary obstacle to improving the lot of the disabled.
When disability is framed that way, it becomes clear why it should be shown as a societal problem, not an individual struggle.
In stories where a person overcomes their impairments, it is too often concluded that the solution to the plight of disability lies in individual excellence, rather than societal action. It’s a view that’s ultimately counterproductive.
This is where Katawa Shoujo stumbles. Most of the story happens within the confines of Yamaku, and there are few opportunities for the story to engage with the wider world. Even the nearby town, where most of the off-campus events are set, seems to become an extension of the campus. None of the locals are noteworthy except for Yuuko, who works at the school, too. Within and around Yamaku, the rest of the world barely registers.
You could look at this positively: the school and the nearby town imply a possible future for the disabled. In this potentiality, institutions provide proper care, rather than tyrannizing or abusing their wards. The bulk of society doesn’t bat an eye at disability, which is considered common enough.
This optimism seems flimsy, though, when you consider that it hinges on a place like Yamaku, where the disabled are sent to be apart from society.
As wonderful as the school may seem, its distance from any major cities is telling. It’s positioned to be out of sight and out of mind. This is especially unnerving if you assume that the game is set in Japan, a society that has achieved some notoriety for hushing up violence against the disabled.
That said, the game deserves credit for lifting the veil on an aspect of disabled life that’s often ignored: romance and sexuality.
For all the criticism leveled at Katawa Shoujo and its sex scenes, their presence and execution are a rarity in stories and art of any medium—and a welcome contribution. The game doesn’t de-sexualize its characters, as the disabled often are in public perception. Nor does it limit sex as something done to them, the cause of much abuse of the disabled.
Rather, Katawa Shoujo presents its characters as sexual, romantic subjects. They have agency, preferences, kinks; they enjoy and experiment. And if a relationship ceases to be healthy, they have the wherewithal to end it.
Speaking of Sickness
The idea of other-ness is ultimately one of the largest problems that representations of disability must overcome. While the worst of stories and art show disability as something grotesque and undesirable; sometimes the well-meaning ones instead portray it as something exotic. Blind painters, deaf composers, and crippled athletes all inspire a kind of awe. But it is one rooted in a sense of the exceptional.
People are drawn to their stories because of their singularity. But because of this, readers tend to come away with a sense of difference rather than empathy.
Video games present a unique opportunity in this regard. By putting players in the position of their characters, they encourage a dissolution of barriers. Players can become their characters, throwing their lot in with them as they invest in their decisions.
When Hisao considers whether he wants to be more like Emi or Rin, or whether he should trust Hanako or coddle her; these are things the player must face as well. Hisao’s experiences are the only thing the player can trust—and so the barriers of ownership break down. Character and player share narrative. This is all the more poignant when you consider that Hisao’s relationships are an extension of his attempts to grapple with disability.
As Arthur Frank says in his treatise on stories of sickness, each person has to find their own style to deal with their conditions. It just so happens that Hisao—and the player—finds it in other characters. The substance and form of the game’s narrative come together to encourage immersion within the struggles of its characters. The plight becomes personal, and one can only hope that such concern extends beyond the game.
Stories about disability, chronic illness and other physical differences are often silenced by a multitude of social forces.
There is little room in the modern world for bodies that are not reliable or productive. One is either healthy or working to get back there; a path that involves submitting yourself to doctors, pharmacists, and bureaucratic allowances for illness.
Think about it: what is there to say to the sick except “Get well soon?”
If we are to find better ways to confront health, illness and physical difference, we need to find alternatives to the same old stories we’ve been told before. These are stories we can find among the disabled, long relegated to the margins of society. But the truth is there is no hard line between what is well and not; and there is no single standard for a “normal” body. Disability as we know it comes from taking a knife to our shared experience of embodiment and drawing a line in blood—it wounds us all.
Katawa Shoujo is a reminder that these new stories can be found in unlikely places, like 4chan, and unlikely mediums, such as gal games. But it’s also a reminder that we have only begun to explore these possibilities. There is work yet to be done and stories that must yet be told.
We haven’t reached the good end just yet.
Have you played Katawa Shoujo? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!