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Monday, January 16, 2012

The Shape Of My Heart: Katawa Shoujo

I just finished the last route of Katawa Shoujo, the ‘much dreaded’ Shizune route. Much dreaded by me, at least. There was – by hearsay – negative reaction on 4chan too, but I never bothered to check.

Katawa Shoujo was started as a tribute … or shall we call it challenge? to the Japanese VN form. It was started as a 4chan pet project approximately 5 years ago. Just to dispel any ambiguity, the people involved met on 4chan – it was a collective project, but ‘collective’ doesn’t mean including Skippy, Skippy’s dog and his Mom. People came and people went away during the five years of intermittent development, which means no one character is entirely the work of only one person. Writing the five path scenarios (once again according to the Internet grapevine) was allocated by drawing lots. I guess what I’m driving at is that KS is truly a collective work, falling within my definition of fan work – not a single concept from one author, but a shared bubble of concepts with different authors following a chosen form.

The original core of developers decided to put the protagonist – called Hisao Nakai – in the setting of a special boarding school for disabled kids. Since he had to belong there, they thought a heart condition would meet both the conditions of sudden onset (in the end they chose heart arrhythmia, a condition that can go unnoticed amidst the growing pains of adolescence) and chronicity (he’s supposed to stay sick to a certain degree, making it easier to empathize with the other students). Naturally, he's supposed to meet there the gamut of game paths/potential love interests/girls, each defined by a specific disability: a deaf-mute girl (Shizune); a blind girl (Lilly); a girl with disfiguring burns (Hanako); a double leg amputee (Emi); an armless girl (Rin). The deaf-mute imposed the need of an interpreter, whom they decided to include among the characters – and thus pink-haired, bubbly and loudspeaker extraordinaire ‘Misha’ Mikado became part of the gang. 

VNs, just like normal literature, allow the players to experience romance vicariously as the main character in an interactive novel format. In one of my previous attempts at a general definition, a VN is supposed to exploit script ramifications deriving from a. unfamiliarity with the story settings and characters, or b. tension points of the narrative. The two principles overlap when you have to gauge your best options with (fictional) people in situations that could swing either way, drawing you closer or setting you on a divergent path.

The large majority of VNs I’ve encountered are romance-driven. That means ‘you’ (the protagonist) are supposed to get romantically involved with the members of the cast, towards a rewarding ending (good or true end) or a kick-in-the-nuts bad ending. Still, when I say ‘romance’, I don’t mean the classic, ‘happily ever after’ kind of romance, but the paperback modernistic abortion of random meetings, sudden (sexualized) romance and inevitable parting of ways. Also, according to Internet wisdom, the massive bulk of VNs are coming of age romance, so what’s at the other end of the tunnel is the beginning of adult life and adult responsibilities. That kind of wraps the ‘inevitable parting of ways’ requirement.

If such mention was still necessary, these VNs are set in a high school environment. I don’t think I have to address why the VN creators follow that formula, but I might take a pot shot at why their intended audience likes it that way. I guess that’s because we didn’t have such a glorified high school experience. We were through with high school before being aware it’s supposed to be fun, too. I think the only people who ‘lived the dream’ of high school romance were too busy playing football, hooking up and sexing up their friends, instead of reading about it.

The other thing involved in playing VNs is a more general affair. See, living vicariously through other people, especially fictional people, means playing things safe. On one hand, you’re behind a proxy, so there’s no possible harm in taking chances. On the other, you’re not losing any prestige/face in being emotionally involved. In fact, sentimental resonance with fictional characters is not only expected, but even encouraged (if only to humor literature professors in class). So it’s a win-win situation.

(A third fact is that somebody else is driving, i.e. there’s no hassle with making decisions … up to a point).

Or, if you want a bit of philosophical-literary comment: have you ever stopped to consider how much of your literary diet consists of loss and redemption stories?

The sensation of loss is not a unique, limited-to-humans experience; what sets us apart from other living beings is our coping strategy for loss. That big, beautiful knowledge engine called the human brain has applied its most vaunted intellectual tools, inductive and deductive logic, to find out where did this beast come from, where’s it hiding, and how can we smoke it out of there and kill it.

Joking aside, loss is up there with the most universal human experiences, rubbing shoulders with pain and curiosity. There isn’t any one person that hasn’t experienced several instances of loss, not just during the whole lifetime, but within a single day. We apply this sensation to countable and uncountable things, objective and subjective items, real objects and potential things. It’s not rocket science: you have something, then you don’t have it anymore.

What always fascinated the human mind was the particular case of loss of choice. Every conceivable event ever has a simple binary switch: 1 – it happens; 0 – it doesn’t. Similarly, every possible action can be taken or not. Loss of choice happens when one of the binary choices becomes unavailable. Some external factor forces the issue and one of the paths can no longer be followed. The human peculiarity is that we applied the wonderful instrument of logic to extrapolate the magic moment which is the last contiguous instance with both choices available. The very next moment, one choice is arbitrarily removed. From this moment, human mind has further extrapolated the mystical last moment where loss of choice could be avoided – let’s call it the fate switch. See how nicely we made up a concept to cope with loss? Fate is the turning point of any event going irreversibly and immutably on a path with no other alternatives. Which is why we instinctively fear “fate” – it’s a terminator line.

Now, to the other half of our formula – redemption. Human nature has long known itself to be pretty hung up on loss. We’re not taking it too well. Further exploration has shown us that there are two options and a dead end in coping with loss: roll with it; deal with it; wallow in it. The former means being prepared and accepting loss; the latter means active opposition to loss or its effects; wallowing is a shit choice, let’s not talk about it ever again (see what I did there?).

Now, redemption can be achieved through both the active coping strategies. “Redemption” is a loaded word due to its multiple meanings and, while what I’m aiming for here is the meaning common with “recovery”, I am mighty pleased to let the spiritual meanings overshadow it. The recovery I have in mind comes after considerable struggle to find a workaround for those – remember? – lost choices. Losing a choice doesn’t automatically mean losing a path. Redefining your approach to a path blocked by loss of choice is a process of self-discovery and personal reevaluation; the sense of personal (spiritual) gain is very strong, often proportional to the adversity encountered. In plain English; no pain, no gain.

Well, then. I believe you can connect the dots: loss, choices, redemption. It’s not just the formula of almost every VN out there, but the specific formula of Katawa Shoujo as well. It starts with loss, it follows with taking choices, it ends with redemption.
“The action has to be set against the looming menace of graduation. To keep the script reasonably short, let’s give it span about a year or less. That means Hisao must transfer – and have his heart attack – somewhere around his third year of high school. Throw in a hospital stay of four to six months, tops. And we have to have some common (school-wide) events for our routes, so the best time frame would be between spring and summer. This way, we can drive Hisao from the low end of getting out of hospital with a grim, lifelong condition and being transferred to a completely new environment, to a high end of rallying his resources to meet the future, accepting this new environment, and getting a steady girlfriend. Well, the girlfriend is optional. Let’s keep it trashy, meeting-sexing-parting. But he needs a girl to help him get his feet underneath and thinking of the future.”

Before going further with reverse engineering KS (not really, it kills all the fun), let’s make a certain plot point clear. The girls represent the challenges of this environment. That means they’ve been here a while now, and are at various stages of coping with things, but they already came through the thick of it. That’s a major plot point. This way, Hisao will need them more than they need him, but they will affect each other anyway, even if there is no ‘ever after’.

Well, I think I have my thumb here on what makes KS a good and touching story. The average VN is more about the journey than the destination (remember, no ‘ever after’). Hooking with the girls will change their lives for ever. Protagonists, on the other hand, don’t change much between beginning and end. Except, Hisao does change.  KS is good because the healing is often mutual.

And now, let’s get down to the brutal part of personal opinions.
I played the routes more or less in the order of personal preference … and hivemind influence. Back when I first played Act 1, I rated Rin as the most interesting girl, Emi as the most accessible, Lilly as the most relaxing. Hanako was a bit of a non-entity in Act 1, like an afterthought on Lilly’s route. And I think I stayed the hell away from the Shizune route. When the whole game was released, as I was browsing 4chan (waiting for the game to install), I saw someone recommend going to town for the ‘best girl route’. It’s where Lilly’s route is branching from the ‘meet the cast’ chain of events. So I thought to myself, why the hell not? There were Lilly screenshots everywhere, and I liked what I was seeing. In the end, I trusted the word of strangers in chosing the first girl … but it was a rewarding choice.

Love Will Find A Way: Lilly

Lilly is THE young woman of the KS ‘harem’. She’s level headed; she’s capable; she’s got an excellent handle on her resources. She even plans for the future. And she’s a lot of fun to be with – she has all these quirks like not getting along with Shizune, liking her glass of wine, calling out Hisao on small things of etiquette. And, if you stop to consider it, despite being blind, she takes Hisao to the farthest places (I mean, even Miss ‘Let’s Get Physical’ Emi takes him no further than the next town … to her own home). She is lively, she is funny, she’s a little motherly, she’s a very good friend to Hanako, she has great taste in clothes (man, those pajamas; and the Chinese dress!). She’s independent. The only sour note is a past she’s not comfortable with, and a family that treated her as a blight on their status.

With a girl so well adjusted, there’s not much healing left to do. Of course, Hisao is enabling her to challenge her condition more and more, but she’s quite set on her course. For most of her route, you’re totally riding her wave, dude. And then, to quote a Van Halen song, love comes walking in … hand in hand with sex. Fortunately, this is very touching (har har), and before long you find out she likes to indulge in her pleasures, like any healthy woman would.

And right when you think you’ve got the future by the proverbial short hairs, that past of hers comes waltzing back like a bad joke. The family who dumped her and her resourceful sister Akira in a Catholic boarding school (like d’oh, she’s wearing a crucifix) suddenly decides to acknowledge her, and summons her to Inverness, Scotland. Of course, she could choose not to go. That was the most frustrating moment of her route, when she drops everything to bridge the gap with her estranged family. I couldn’t help blaming her for cutting our tie so out of the blue. And she’s too composed to say she is sorry. God f#@*ing dammit, I raged. Then I went back to see what could have been done better. And, suddenly … paper crane. The good end path opened up. It went up with hope, it came down with despair … it stalled in the pits of self pity. And then, again, Lady Fortune played a little tune, and Katawa Shoujo came this close to offering a ‘happily ever after’.

But, I’m still mad. The difference between bad end and good end feels thinner than a hair, and yet in one you never see each other again, and in the other you’re so obviously committed to each other. Oh, hang on. Committed. What did Hisao do, besides falling in the street and thinking he was dying like a dog, without any recourse to fate? He staked his all. I was looking at the wrong side of the exchange. Lilly didn’t need to change her view. Hisao had to grasp a once in a lifetime chance. All he had to do was  show in uncertain terms he could not – would not - live without her.

Owner Of A Lonely Heart: Rin

My second route was Rin. See, when I first played Act 1, I fell for her wry humor. I mean: “The end of the world as we know it. Like every weekend. Only more dire.” Behind that disconnected façade, there was a vital person with an incredible gift. I wanted to meet that person and tell her it’s OK, don’t worry. I’m here.

Which is, like, exactly what “I” (Hisao) am doing. The problem is that Rin’s route is taking  a turn for the serious way too soon. That dubious, pink-spectacled art professor Nomiya starts pushing her to open a personal exhibition. Rin starts retreating into her shell when the pressure is on. The script calls for Hisao to throw his weight around with Rin, and push her against better judgment to do it. It’s not something I enjoyed doing. It was too much strain, too soon. In retrospect, though, it may have been the right time to make a bad choice. During Act 1, we’ve been fed the false lead that Lilly takes care of Hanako, and Emi takes care of Rin. The former is largely correct, the latter – a whole lot less. Emi is … busy being Emi. She can wake Rin up, check If she’s eating enough, call up medical attention when Rin is under the weather. But it kinda stops there. Rin is weirding her out with the strange talk and apparent lack of coherence. When it gets too much, she bolts. So being Hisao, and being on Rin’s case, is ultimately helping. Sort of.

Meanwhile, though, Rin goes Weirdsville – meaning she’s trying to mature as an artist overnight. Because she doesn’t know how to change her art – her art-making process is something like a visual stream of consciousness – she feels she has to change herself to change the art. Thus, she tries to ‘destroy’ herself by stripping away the few things that make up the current Rin, to liberate a better Rin. The theory is hokey of course, and it’s not faring well being put in practice. What Rin gets is a lot of disorientation, AND alienating the one good friend she has – obviously Hisao. The fact that Rin isn’t very articulate when under stress – and the weird path she chose to walk towards her goal – are composing Hisao’s frustration step by step, until he feels like throwing in the towel. She won’t accept his love. She won’t accept his presence. She can not, or will not, explain how he can help. So he sort of gives up on her, halfway, but then his conscience won’t let him. That would be when he hears what happened to the artist whose studio Rin is inhabiting. He finds her more lost than ever, in the middle of a sad attempt at self comforting. The adult scene that follows is … marginally less sad, but still pretty hollow.

Well, I’ve surprised myself here by being a lot more dispassionate than I felt when playing the route. You see, I know about that weird disconnection thing. I’ve done it myself. I have the creative bug. Sometimes, when the muse comes calling, there’s just no space for anything else in my mind. So I tell the world to go hang, I’m busy with an Idea over here. I don’t know how long it will take to exorcise. I haven’t been shown often what happens to people caring for artists; I might say I'm enlightened now.

Things come crashing down when Rin has her opening night. If Hisao keeps pushing – it’s like a sick joke, like telling her to get up there and perform – she will just fade away into the indifferent ending. Hisao is left feeling like the tool he’s been, while Rin leaves for art college. That route has ‘early burnout’ stamped all over it. If he relents, Rin has a chance to unwind into a more tolerable version – but Hisao still acts like a tool, raving at her for not being happy with the choice she made (under pressure, and with bad counseling). And then, at the end of a lot of tension, comes the puzzling second adult scene. Well, it’s not that puzzling: this is makeup sex. And Rin proves that she can talk straight when it counts. On one hand, it’s such wretched timing, but on the other, she came to give him the answer he wanted. It’s a mess. It’s bliss. It’s … something only Rin can pull off like that.
 (Something to do with Emi and helping breasts fit in a bra. Wisecracking Rin is back, huzzah!)
Yeah, but how about the mutual healing? Rin’s lack of hands is so inconsequential. It’s like she wouldn’t even need them … except for peeling oranges. And hugging. Her eccentricity isn’t a disease, even if it drives other people slightly mad. She’s not high maintenance, despite Hisao’s frequent fussing. She just needs someone to bridge the gap. It’s not always a fordable gap, but if someone will wait for her on this side, she won’t feel so alone on the other side. And Hisao … he learned to care for someone else than himself. It's the first step on a long road, but he finally took it. The final scene – the dandelion motes flying away – is a little heavy on the symbolism, but it ends on such an open note. 

 I guess it’s love.

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