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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

The Shape Of My Heart: Katawa Shoujo 2 (the second flood)

I’m Running: Emi
(just in case you were wondering, these are song titles from the Yes albums Big Generator and 90125)
I jokingly told someone on a forum that Emi only has one flag in Act 1: you have to try and keep up with her. It’s funny, because reaching the good end with her is like that. You chase after Emi until she lets you reach her. There’s just one big hurdle, and all it takes is not giving up.

Emi is like the most straightforward path of the game. You get the basic facts quite early: she was in an accident and lost her legs through amputation, she got into running at her father’s prodding and she kept running because of him, but he don’t seem to be around after the accident. She’s tenacious and stubborn, which is why the nurse keeps an eye on her – to keep her from abusing her no-legs. It’s not hard to piece things together. And that big tease of a mother she has is pretty transparent about it.

The Emi route is by no means short, but it’s pretty linear. Hisao takes an interest in getting back in shape. He starts doing morning runs with Emi, first to get in shape, then to spend time with Emi, and finally to let her know he won’t stop chasing her … in a good way. Emi is the fastest thing on no-legs. She has this look on her face when sprinting – like she’s putting everything behind her, leaving worries behind. As Hisao gets more and more wrapped up with her, he finds out this is real in more ways than one. Emi is running to prove herself nothing important was lost in the accident. If she can prove herself that, again and again, she is able to go on without regrets. Except there are natural regrets, all part of the natural process of grieving and healing, and instead of accepting them and moving on, she’s been running in ever shrinking circles from her issues.

That’s about it, really. With Emi, things always lean towards the positive. When they don’t, she tries to will them into a positive shape – like that picnic in the rain, or her leg infection, or even the aftermath of that shed experiment that had 4chan so riled up. “It’s a good thing I’m in a wheelchair. This way I won’t have to explain the nurse why I’m walking funny”. Yep, it’s probably the first thing you thought just now.

Still, being with Emi is fun, and refreshing. The only cloud is her stubbornness – she won’t let people fuss over her, or act like she needs help. It’s all that festering wound – psychologically speaking – that she whitewashed over. Nothing of value was lost. Not her legs, not her mobility, and especially not her father. Oops, cat’s out of the bag. But, like the proverbial skeleton in the closet, it has a tendency to spill out unexpectedly. When Hisao is invited over to her house, he can’t help asking. He can’t help caring for her. And no matter which way he goes about it, they get in a fight and she kicks him out of the house.

The Emi route really has little in options, because there is so little conflict (what with Emi being so positive all the time). Here comes the only crucial choice. It’s natural to feel down and angry, but there’s only two choices anyway: you keep chasing after her, or you give up. If you give up, whoosh, it’s all gone. All the good times, all the fun you shared, it’s like it never happened. But, if you can buckle up and keep going, it’s all about to come unwrapped. When she opens up, you will understand why it was so hard. And, at the end of a good emotional purge, there’s a big reward waiting, and you don’t want to miss that.

Our Song: Hanako
(I briefly entertained the idea of calling it Love Will Find A Way 2)

I think the Hanako route has the best concept of all KS … but I’m not happy with the execution. This is entirely subjective, you understand – my first opinion about the writing is a word starting with ‘ju’ and ending with a river in North Africa. I’m not saying it’s bad; I’m saying it’s not the best treatment it could get. It’s too schematic towards the end, even if it captures the right spark of emotion. Something happened with the best part of the story, because it didn’t make the final cut.

All this bitching aside, this route is made up to 40-45% of events taken from the Lilly route, seen from a slightly different angle.

To explain this a little, Act 1 is made of a number of events that introduce the cast: being corralled by Shizune and Misha into the Student Council room and playing Risk (playing aggressively will raise the Shizune flag, and close the Lilly-centric routes); looking for the library and meeting Lilly; finding the library and introducing yourself to Hanako (raising only one of the many flags necessary to ‘get’ Hanako); looking for Misha’s festival supplies and meeting Rin in the art club room; being bumped into by Emi, and taking a morning run with her (racing with her will raise her flag, and close all other routes); having lunch with Emi and RIn on the rooftop; meeting Lilly, and then Rin, on the late evening shopping trip to town (being too cavalier about Hisao’s illness will trigger the ‘manly breakfast’ scenario for the festival day). Act 1 ends with the cultural festival day & night, and depending on the route you’ve ended on, it’s spent in the company of the girl you will fall for during Act 2. Shizune will take all over the festival grounds; Lilly will be busy with a food stand half the day, and spend the other half in the tea room with you (Hisao); Hanako will spend the day in the library, playing chess with you, and joining Lilly and you on a trip to the Shanghai café in town; Emi will be on your case about keeping a healthy diet, blocking your food splurge; Rin will be so tired after marathon-painting the mural, she will spend the day propping a wall and dozing, and you will join her. The manly whiskey breakfast is a bad ending, putting Hisao out of his misery right there.

The Lilly and Hanako routes have common flags (meaning you avoid impressing Shizune, don’t race Emi, and side with Lilly when Shizune blows her top about that budget report), up to the evening before the festival. If you choose going to town, the Lilly route opens up; if you choose going to the library, the elusive Hanako route becomes your yellow brick road. (Speaking of elusive routes, I ended on the ‘secret Rin route’ by starting on the Shizune path and not siding with Lilly in the conflict, IIRC).

Having played the Lilly route, I could appreciate all the path crossings, but I felt a little let down by Lilly’s elegant reserve in dealing with Hisao. It’s good to be Lilly’s friend, but it’s outright pedestrian compared to being her boyfriend. It really is a huge difference in charm, but the logic behind it is obvious – you’re not supposed to hit on her best friend when you’re nominally chasing Hanako. However, Lilly’s benevolent shadow falls over most of her path, and she even offers you sound advice (if a little coming out of left field) at a crucial point (beware of negative flags, yo). She’s discreetly pushing you both together without being too obvious. First, she asks you to accompany Hanako on a shopping trip to town (and you find out Hanako is making cooking attempts). Then she asks really pointed questions in the cafeteria and, after passing some positive judgment on your behalf, calls you over for tea in their room, after hours. She comes up with the birthday present idea, which is a common event with her route, except this time it’s just you and her (and no Akira and Hideaki). While you visit the same antique shop as in her route, she drops another piece of the Hanako puzzle: she likes porcelain dolls. Only, this time, the other gift is a chess set, and it’s also for Hanako. And she cooks up the trip to the jazz club where you end up shooting pool with Hanako (and you also find out she’s enjoying other things than chess). When it comes down to it, Lilly is the enabler for the little revelations about Hanako, which makes sense, since Lilly has been her friend way longer than Hisao, and she’s a little slow to open up. And speaking of opening up …

It’s been at least a week since I played this route, and I’m still mad. Hanako being a little childish, and giving up a little about herself in a I-show-you-mine-you-show-me-yours game during the pool match was OK. She’s starving for friendly interaction, I can buy that. Doing the same trick a second time on the downtown café terrace is, let’s say, Hisao following up with a stratagem that worked before. But I RESENT deeply how the same thing is played the third and final time. That’s inconsistent logic, even if it’s played like ‘one thing leading to another’. I can NOT agree with Hanako being not innocent, but dumb. Even if it leads to a plot major point, the words ‘jumping the shark’ keep coming to mind. Or I might retreat into calling it juvenile again.

Well then, back to my impressions. It is obvious Lilly has been nudging us closer, one step at a time, easing Hanako into social interaction that doesn’t involve just her, Akira and classmates. She went in small steps, proceeding only after positive results. Hisao finally gets it, but he makes a dreadful mistake by assuming Hanako will play along with just anyone. And … there’s a much bigger assumption he makes, which isn’t supposed to be overturned until the very end, so I’ll leave it alone for now. Anyway, bringing Hanako into a study group with Shizune and Misha (who are on their best helpful behavior) is the straw that broke the camel’s back. There is a mitigating factor for Hisao here – he knows nothing of Hanako’s yearly depression around her birthday, so he steps right onto that landmine. And, let’s face it, Shizune (judging by appearance alone) is a pushy and demanding person, and Misha has all the grace of a rhino breaking into a china shop. Hanako just folds under so much attention, and has a good old fashioned catatonic nervous breakdown. In class. In front of her new found best friend Hisao. Welp, so much for unassisted (and misdirected) help.
Of course, this is also crisis for the sake of crisis. On each route, Hisao does something to blow it, big time. With Lilly, it’s being too proud to ask her to reconsider going to Scotland. With Rin, it’s acting like an ass when she bolts out of the gallery on the opening night. With Emi, it’s not having patience to let her deal with the past at her own pace. Here, it’s feeling disappointed that Hanako can’t open up to other people like she opened up to you. Way to miss the essential detail, asshole. Anyway, once a tension point has been established like that, it’s easy to insert a fork in the road. A splitting of ways. A choice nexus. You get the point. HIsao has to (rather theatrically) gauge his position with the girl he’s chasing, and tip over the point of no return, or stay an asshole and lose her. It’s part of the VN formula.

Back in the narrative flow, it’s Lilly to the rescue again. She finally breaches the issue of Hanako having a hard time dealing with people around her birthday, a little too late. She also has to bring up her trip to Scotland (another common event with her own route), so it only makes sense to move the party plans to an earlier date. We go see Hanako in her room, where we find her at the second most fragile moment of the whole game. But, instead of Hanako throwing a tantrum … or shutting us out … she is willing to communicate, at least a little. A day later, she’s enough over it to suggest we have a game of chess when I come visiting. And, just like in Lilly’s route, Akira brings booze to the birthday party … and Hanako gets positively smashed on it. Considering she’s trying to put the class incident behind, she needs a little help like that. It’s also meant to summon a little courage for the clumsy pass she makes at Hisao when he takes her to her room. Hisao at least remembers to act like a gentleman, and not make KS any trashier than it already is.

(Whoever wrote the scenario also leaves a hook here … if Hanako really likes Hisao, she will make a more effective pass the second time. Still, considering how their relationship goes back in low(er) gear right after, that’s bullsh@*t.)

Maybe it’s time at this point to talk a little about that nifty plot device called Iwanako’s letter. It’s an object of little consequence outside of the Lilly route – and not even there. Iwanako is the girl Hisao has been trying to confess his love to, right when he had his first heart attack. She’s a figurehead for Hisao’s normal, healthy past; receiving her letter in any route is supposed to mean that Hisao has finally accepted the change in his life. He starts every route by feeling depressed for having his life changed so dramatically, perhaps even shortened considerably. He’s feeling sorry for himself, and not very excited about this new school. Meeting disabled kids every day is driving home the notion that his condition is irreversible. Besides, he’s a city kid, and this school feels remote and isolated up on its hill. It’s up to external influence – meeting and getting involved with the girls – to motivate him into adapting to his new life, and finding other dreams worth living for. So, at one point, this memento of the past arrives, and he finds out he doesn’t give much of a damn anymore. Iwanako has the decent idea to release him from what was before, and Hisao takes stock of his new life to find it much improved over his first days at this school. In the Lilly route, he also uses it to take stock of his relationship with her, and he feels free to pursue his love for Lilly, now that the past is clean out of the way.

During the pool game, Hisao and Hanako play their truth or dare game, by talking about their past. It’s easier to talk about the past now that Iwanako’s letter has provided a bit of perspective, and it’s time to get a little perspective on Hanako, too. Is she just shy in dealing with other people? Why is a burn mark several years old keeping her back like that? And why is she opening up to Hisao, and Hisao alone, on some things not even Lilly knows about? See, with the right questions, the hints should gather into an image … but trying to be overprotective is a big temptation. Still, there are the little facts: when she ventures out of her shell, Hanako is competitive, ambitious, and even jealous (of Yuuko, who plays her biggest role on this path). There’s even some repressed aggression in there. Would such a girl want to be treated like a fragile and broken thing? Well, gee, isn’t hindsight always 20/20?

So Lilly has to go away to Scotland, leaving a depressed Hisao and a sad Hanako at the school gates. Should he provide her with the comfort of his company, or bug out and wallow in feelings of inadequacy? He’s a kid falling in love, of course he should try hanging out with her a little. Then, regular as any annual thing, the much dreaded birthday comes around, and Hanako takes her first day off … and the second. What else might Hisao think, but to tap the ever resourceful Lilly for some advice? The mindful player should remember Lilly has been around Hanako way longer; there’s a bonus advice for self improvement laying that way. Then, there’s the self sufficient route of trusting Hisao’s judgment. Remember what happened last time he did that? If you don’t, sucks to be you. Hanakozilla will tear a painful hole into you, and it’s curtains, Rocky.

Back when I first played through the route, I didn’t notice how I’ve planted not one, but two seeds of doubt in Hanako’s soul, first being caught talking to Yuuko (and craning my neck to look after her), and then offhandedly mentioning I’m writing to Iwanako. Way to spook the only jealous girl in the game. And the very next day, Hisao’s gets the notion to show her the surgery scar on his chest. The first domino tile falls in the chain supposed to justify the first (and only) honest lovemaking event on this route. The scriptwriter remembered there’s some loose ends (and the whole thing needs a little getting in the mood) so, like, really out of the blue, both Hisao and Hanako happen to go to the city on the same day and meet up at the downtown café (where he’s taken Lilly previously). It’s a nice moment, but it’s really grafted there like an extra thumb or something. The scene is just filling a gap: there's Hanako confessing that she's avoiding people because she doesn't like them, about life in the orphanage, and about having a pitifully small social circle, as testified by her phone contact list. So the forms of friendship are observed by exchanging email addresses. On a whim, Hisao buys her a little phone charm shaped like a flower. Aww, how cute. Doesn’t this sound like foreplay?

NOPE, IT DOESN’T. But that didn’t stop the scriptwriter from throwing them at each other the next day. I can make a short list of why this development might sound valid to a young person, but invalid to an adult: Hisao and Hanako are kids, and kids are hormonal; he’s falling for her; she likes being with him, even appeared to make a pass at him while drunk; they’re finally past the awkwardness of not knowing each other. And she feels her position as his girlfriend is menaced by other girls, like Yuuko or Miki Miura, who don’t have to hide scars (well, Miki does) like her. Also, they’re alone, and they’re using a quid pro quo game to egg each other into revealing things about themselves. Ah, and he’s wearing protection. Still, as an adult, I’ll say this won’t wash. The reasoning is full of holes, and I don’t think Hisao’s libido can account for things jumping so quickly off the rails.

Having a cringing moment with the previous scene still works in favor of the script. It’s an ugly and empty feeling when getting intimate with a friend only seems to drive you apart. Hisao starts questioning if he didn’t just take advantage of a delicate moment. He’s, in short, lost. Having sex set their relationship back by a mile or two. So he once again summons his gentlemanly ways, and calls her out in the town park. And here, it’s time for the ugly assumptions game to end, and the truth to surface. Yes, they rushed into sex because Hanako thought he would leave her. Yes, he kept pushing himself on her because he thought she needed to be protected. Yes, Hanako thought there is no such thing as real friendship, just people who grow tired and walk away. Yes, he didn’t think of hurting her, but he did anyway. I might add, yes, communication is when people ask relevant questions and listen carefully to the answers. Young ones somehow manage to make a lot of talk-like noise and still fail to communicate (/over 40 bitching). The pretenses are melting away. There’s some appropriate moments of crying and forgiving, and things get settled on a more true, solid base. Swell, and?

And she gives him the first kiss, and the credits roll. Wa-ha-ha-f$#k you, as Misha would say. Like I suggested, something happened with the best part of this route, and it didn’t make the final cut. What was that Muppet Waldorf and Statler routine? “It was terrible!” “It was cringe worthy!” “It was … short?” “WE LIKED IT!”

Yeah, I liked it, but only barely. I enjoyed the emotional ride but I didn't enjoy the execution.


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