There is, I should say, an extra character in Katawa Shoujo. It’s Hisao’s illness, or, I should say, his perception about his illness.
There’s two aspects to his arrhythmia: the physical affection, and the psychological impact. The former is manageable with drugs; it’s the latter that saps his strength most. He thinks:”It’s all over. I will never know happiness again. There’s no hope of getting better, just the hope that I won’t get worse”. He’s on his own, in charge of his own health, but really not hoping for much.
The developers of Katawa Shoujo wanted to stress out this point: depression is bad, indifference is worse. Not managing the physical symptoms means, sooner or later, premature death. To get the point across, they made this happen “sooner”. The specifics are unimportant, the lesson remains: don’t treat chronic disease lightly. Living with a chronic disease needs self management, and that requires constant vigilance. Acting all emo is not an option.
So, in very simple terms, the first adversary Hisao has to beat is his own depression. I’m no expert, but it stands to reason that the first thing to overcome is the phase of denial. From “this isn’t real” to “this can’t be happening to me” to “this can’t be lethal, can it?” and, most importantly “this is unfair, where is may say in all this?”. The first step is accepting the problem is real; one of the most important signs of overcoming the mental block is being able to talk about the problem with strangers. Putting things into words takes some of the fear away, makes the speaker feel like he’s got a handle on things. Being able to talk about it means being no longer mortally afraid of it. It’s the process of putting things in perspective … and accepting other people’s perspective, as well.
In these terms, you can see I wasn’t making empty wordplay with my titles. “Our song” is a reference to the ingenious way of dealing with Hisao’s condition, at the same time with Hanako’s condition. If we’re talking about denial, Hanako is right there with him, not about having the scars but about being unable to have friends because of the scars. There’s some point there – I think it’s during the pool game, but there’s several discreet things before that – where Hanako steps beyond what she’s allowed herself to communicate before. It’s harder to spot the same thing with Hisao, unless you’re playing the Hanako route first of all, but he’s also very reluctant to lay it bare and tell the whole story. For instance, he’s not explaining the importance of Iwanako and her letter to, IIRC, no one else (because I’m counting Kenji on the Shizune route as a big, fat, ZERO). Hisao is doing an instinctive thing trying to draw Hanako out: he accepts talking about his past, offering an equivalent coin for the exchange. The beauty of the concept is that, in the end, it works. Despite the gross mistake he made, it works (in a melodramatic way).
On the Rin path is next most dramatic victory against depression. Rin’s metaphor about ‘being under water’ is a reference to her own problem – feeling things get away from her grasp. In her own words, she can talk with (and through) her pens and brushes naturally; making art is the only thing she’s always been capable of doing right. Now, there’s people challenging her expression with questions of “what is the message/meaning of this/that piece”. Artists really have specialized areas on the brain work to the detriment of others, the ability of imagining things subtracting from the ability of conceptualizing things in words. Rin’s best explanation for art is making more art. She can feel there are certain expectations from her, especially from Nomiya, who wants to see progress, breakthrough. The current (art of) Rin, for other people, is showing promise, but it needs more; the current Rin feels there is nothing more to give now, and no way of making people understand. It’s a sensation of stifling, of slipping away and under while the world carries on in incomprehensible ways. The thing is, nobody understands where her art comes from, and she can’t really explain it. Emi is really not equipped to understand it; in her simplistic world, you do things because you can, and challenge things you can’t do. Emi can run, so her purpose is to run; Rin can paint, so her purpose is to keep painting. When a challenge comes along, Emi can keep training until she can run faster; when RIn faces a challenge, she can … what? Paint faster? Train more? Nomiya believes in training, but with Rin, he thinks she’s already past mastering basic techniques. And still he’s bringing her the biggest challenge, a personal exhibition, because in some way he’s as simplistic as Emi: he thinks performance comes from lots and lots of work.
Then, along comes Hisao, looking about as bad as Rin feels. And, perhaps because misery loves company, he sticks around, and seems to grow on her. Even Emi likes him. He’s sort of cool to hang out with, and he can take a joke. He just looks down all the time, like he’s forgotten how or why to smile. He knows how to listen, and he knows how to keep quiet. He seems to be smart, but he’s not beating anyone over the head with his smarts. Say, if he sticks around, maybe he can listen and help, unlike the Worry Tree. Unlike Emi, he may understand these are worries for the future, not the right now. Emi never thinks of the future. And worrying seems right up his alley.
Hearing about Rin’s problem, Hisao has a small epiphany. He’s been following the path of least resistance, hanging out with people who search him out or might need his help. But he’s sinking slowly, drifting away without aim of purpose. His thin connection with things is his interest in Rin‘s art. Well, more like his interest in Rin. Rin’s art is like making slow magic. Her talent is so out there. As a matter of fact, Hisao is convinced Rin has the strength to beat her own problem.
The “physics” of the game are inverted in this path, with Iwanako’s letter coming really early, so it falls a little ahead of the turning point it’s supposed to mark, not slightly after. The effect is still the same: the past is behind and will never come back. There’s no sense in clinging to it. Clean the slate, hey-ho, let’s go. This way, when Nomiya brings his challenge to Rin, Hisao sees an opportunity for her … and a way of contributing to things himself. It’s selfish, but it’s bringing a sense of implication, of helping things become as they should be. He’s a man on a mission. Rin’s tense behavior takes him back a little, but with several things happening – Emi’s rainy picnic, the makeup hug on the roof, dopey Rin taking too much cold medication – he sees that he started to close the distance a little, and maybe Rin has come a bit closer too. Partly out of a conscience attack, partly out of care, he sees himself more like Rin’s minder and close friend, and she becomes his main worry.
The most direct approach to beating the shadow of his disease comes, as expected, on the Emi route. Emi is a little dynamo of a girl, packing a disproportionate amount of energy in that little toned body of hers. If she’s going anywhere, she’s running there. She’s overbearingly positive all the time; not the sharpest tool in the shed, but a truly loyal friend. Getting to know her means being infected by her optimism. Even Rin seems more lively around Emi. She has like a gravitational pull of her own, shedding impulse to anyone getting closer to her.
She’s not hard to get involved with. She is there to help a more health conscious Hisao do something about his physical state. Like any sports enthusiast, she is a little too demanding. That will precipitate a little crisis really early on, but this way the cards are laid on the table quickly. Emi finds out about the heart arrhythmia, and trying to hide it becomes a non-issue. From here on, it’s full cooperation with her health program, which means seeing the head nurse about every working day. That takes care of medical aspects … until her Emi-ness rubs on Hisao and he forgets to take his pills. Despite that, there is no shadow of doubt nor lack of management with regards to the heart condition. The only heartache left is the good kind that brings healing and closure.
Now, using Emi as a median line, we get to the two routes based on self empowerment: Lilly and Shizune. Up till now, it was up to Hisao’s mood to like or dislike the girls, and throw his lot with them. Emi is an option easy to follow, and she is inspirational up to a point (and her stubbornness is “moe”). With Lilly and Shizune, Hisao is aiming higher than his station, and it shows.
With Lilly, he is impressed by her gentle grace and demeanor. She is inspiring his sense of pride and he tries to emulate her gentleness and responsibility. Being with her is bringing out the best in him – I feel this is closest to the Hisao of before the accident, if not better. And at one point, they start feeding on each other’s presence, until they fall in nearly perfect synchronization. At that point (let’s call it the Iwanako point), Hisao has nearly forgotten his illness – the psychological shadow, not the physical discomfort. The physical illness remains very much manifested on the Lilly route, because it’s part of the plot hook. Lilly will only confess her love after Hisao overexerts himself and nearly drops unconscious. However, this is a strong Hisao, eager to live, eager to share his feelings with Lilly. His medical setback is of low consequence, and turns into a spectacular good development (just an afterthought, I think I read something related in Bread Upon The Waters). Spurred by love, he really starts planning for the future, and not even the oncoming crisis (Lilly’s impending leaving for Scotland) will derail him from his plans. And, I might add, I felt heartened by Hanako’s surprising development by entering the newspaper club. That Hanako cannot be met anywhere outside the Lilly path, and is a living testament to Lilly’s influence on others.
I discussed Hisao’s final gamble elsewhere, but that was really well played. A little on the illogical side, like any extreme act of love, but what a delivery.
Shizune is the other lady inspiring Hisao to better himself on his own accord. Where Lilly stops to consider, Shizune moves in to conquer. Their personalities are different, but they share a common trait: ambition. Lilly allows for personal differences, and isn’t too keen on forcing other people into work they wouldn’t like doing. Shizune is like [CONQUER ALL THE ENEMIES!] (“Really, Sicchan? Wa-ha-ha-ha!”).
Joking aside, Shizune is quite something else. The beginning of her route is familiar ground, her and Misha trying to recruit Hisao into the Student Council. It’s a little scary at first, what with Shizune making everything into a competition, or a wager, or something that has to be won or lost. Nothing really stands out on her path in Act 1 as much as the fireworks moment. Hisao has been having a bit of a hard time due to his heart condition while trying to dunk the bottles and win a second cat plushie for Misha. The effort caught up with him and he had to admit defeat. And then, the three of them went on the roof to get a better view, and Misha fell asleep. Just when the fireworks were about to begin, Hisao went into a blue study, and Shizune did a very effective bit of pantomime, telling him to enjoy this as something well deserved. You can almost hear the crypt of Hisao’s past slide shut right there.
Somewhat like Emi, Shizune needs to be chased after. The first order of business is communicating with her (I’m thinking Blackadder’s The Queen of Spain’s Beard here). Hisao finds out from Misha about sign language classes; fortunately, Misha’s also studying sign (for a teaching career), so she can refer him and keep it secret from Shizune. Hisao wants to be fluent in sign language before he can let her know. The secret is blown by the time they work together on the stalls for the Tanabata festival. From here on, we “hear” Shizune herself, with all the nuances lost in MIsha’s translation. A lot of things fall into place; but perhaps the most important is that Shizune thinks, if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing BETTER. Because doing things better is inspirational, and it can awaken the competition instinct in others. That’s Shizune, a vortex wanting to pull people into her world, because in her world things are happening, inertia is taking a beating, people are moved. Hisao is on the path of discovering an unexpected new person, the inner Shizune.