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Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Shape Of My Heart: Katawa Shoujo closure

We Can Fly: Shizune

I have dreaded writing about the Shizune route ever since I finished playing it. I felt the most conflicting things about this route, and about Shizune; in the words of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sam Gamgee, her route takes a week of explaining, or none. I also struggled with the title (one of my fixations), until I remembered the newest Yes release, We Can Fly From Here. The album title is good, the song title - even better.

This route is unlike any other route in KS because, about a quarter in, it becomes The World According To Shizune, a story on its own. I … don’t like people like Shizune in real life. Overachievers and underachievers have a hunter/prey relationship. The former is riding the latter with boots, spurs, riding crop and all, towards their own objectives. It doesn’t matter if it’s more than anyone asks for, or shooting over the Moon: they’re locked on target, and they don’t know how to give up. Or when. And I’ve met quite a few in my life.

The good thing about overachievers is, they often make the impossible, possible. They’re a tremendous force pushing society forward. We probably owe our cozy modern living to them. Zero sarcasm here.

I went ahead and explained about the Act 1 segment of the Shizune path in the previous intermission. Unlike the other routes, Hisao sticks around the two Student Council girls. I mean, what’s the deal with this Shizune gal, she’s so over the top; and where does the Shizune input end, and the Misha input begin? Wouldn’t you be curious? And, let’s face it, they’re rather cute.

So, by a mixture of curiosity and wry amusement, Hisao starts giving them his time voluntarily. There’s never a dull moment when the Council girls need his help, often frogmarching him to the council room. They lure him out for lunch, introducing him to the Shanghai café, where Yuuko the librarian works a second job as waitress. Shizune’s constant attitude of “I double dog dare you” is really out of this world … but she also does things for fun alone, never forgetting to slip a wink and a nudge about the perks of being in the Student Council. When the festival preparations reach crunch time, Hisao ruefully accepts the job and joins the Council. He’s been spending much of his time with Misha and Shizune, anyway. Compared to this, the rest of the year should be manageable.

It’s not a bad choice, as it turns out. The girls are really pumped up about the festival, dragging him all over the place. They want to hit all the game stalls, and compete each other like there’s no tomorrow. It’s like Haruhi and the SOS Brigade invaded the academy; a Haruhi that needs an interpreter. And they replaced Mikuru with Chris Rock.
Like I said before, the Shizune characters is written larger than life. She’s supposed to feel like too much to be true. The lack of direct communication with her – however good Misha is, you’re supposed to doubt her literal translations – makes her a little mysterious. What’s going on behind that intense gaze and snappy attitude? She’s so overbearing, but she’s hardly menacing – is that all Misha, or does she put on an act? Set your IFF to something readable, girl: are you friend, or foe?
Set against this background, the rooftop episode takes on a deeper meaning. When Shizune spreads her hands to say “look at all this”, it’s not hard to read “this is all mine (my doing)”, but it’s also readable as “this is what you helped me build”, ended in a characteristic Shizune imperative: “Seize the day! Enjoy being alive!”. It feels almost like a challenge: “wanna see how far we can go?”. I don’t like this girl but damn if I don’t want to pick up her challenge.
The first step, though, is taking down the language barrier. MIsha is fun and all, but I’d like to ask my own questions without assistance, you know. Still, Misha is the first person to turn to, in case there are sign language classes in school. This little foray for knowledge comes with some extra benefit: I get some genuine Misha piece of mind in the process. So she’s studying to become a sign teacher herself – small wonder she’s so proficient. She’s been Shizune’s “voice” for years now, and the full immersion shows in everything she does – even that loud voice is “professional” when working with the hearing impaired. Well, that rounds up Misha’s character a little, and it’s nice to know she’s not just Shizune’s shadow in a spare body or something.

One aspect of Shizune’s personality seems to have rubbed off on Hisao: the ambition to perform exceptionally. It is unthinkable to Hisao to make a half-assed attempt just for sympathy points; he wants to be almost level  with Misha before Shizune finds out he can “talk” to her directly. He’s getting there, but his secret has been entrusted to Misha … an open book for anyone to read. When the Tanabata preparations overlap with Misha’s remedial classes, she sort of lets it slip to Shizune. For a while now, we have been experiencing “double hearing” (a pun on double vision), [hearing Shizune in sign language] and hearing Misha deliver her lilting translation. There’s quite a bit of Misha defusing the harsher, direct statements of Shizune, going on at all times, because it’s hard to get mad at a bubbly pink haired girl talking too loud and bursting into laughter all the time. Now, it’s time to experience [Shizune talking] to Hisao without a middleman.

Let’s say, it’s like meeting her for the very first time. Shizune is always prepared, like in playing chess, with plans for several moves ahead. Small details come up, about the former Student Council, about why Shizune took over, and about how the less resolute members drifted away (I believe she accused them of being wishy-washy). The talk is prompted by Lilly Satou drifting by the working site where Hisao and Shizune hammer away piecing together the stalls for the coming festival. There’s a funny moment when Hisao has to edit Shizune’s caustic comments to Lilly, and Lilly’s biting remarks to Shizune (she allegedly can’t read lips … but by the end of the game, this is no longer quite true). It’s good to know Hisao doesn’t like to side on personal Issues with Shizune, though he’s leaning more and more towards her side.

Finally being able to talk with Shizune lifts the veil from her motivations, in general. For instance, Shizune likes to troll people hard, to get honest reactions. Just like her very loud knuckle pop, it’s something devised to attract attention. Mute people can’t afford the luxury of making introductory throat noises, or attracting attention through gentler means. They need to capture attention and initiate communication abruptly, phrasing things in unequivocal ways. Shizune has perfected this in her own way, “slapping” people with direct statements that require direct reactions. This way she can classify them against her requirements, into malleable and worth the effort, and dead wood. But – and it’s a relevant “but” – it’s not to promote herself, and she doesn’t give any thought to collateral damage. The Student Council, in Shizune’s opinion, is there to make the school experience enjoyable, and it should aim high at all times to stir a bit of envy. Envy makes people think up bigger and better challenges. Shizune hates wasting effort on dead ends.

The Tanabata festival is the Iwanako point of Shizune’s route, happening way ahead of the arrival of the letter proper. Misha and Shizune dress up for the occasion in traditional yukata, Shizune sporting a big, slightly too mature looking hair pin shaped like a flower. The Council trio has been hanging out a little more than usual lately – partly to compensate for Misha’s absence during the preparations, and partly to fall back in synch. Misha is the first to pick up a difference in the atmosphere of their group: Hisao and Shizune are now conversing openly, sharing a growing mutual knowledge of thought and expression. Hisao feels he may be imposing on the girls’ need to make up for the time spent apart; Misha feels she’s imposing on a budding romance. She takes the first opportunity to leave the two alone, under pretext of visiting Yuuko at the Shanghai. Her instincts prove to be correct: Hisao confesses his love to Shizune, observing the fashion of asking permission to become her boyfriend. Shizune fumbles, blushes, and eventually accepts, turning their romance into an official affair.
Here we come to something really interesting about the game mechanics of Katawa Shoujo. The girls are paired two by two: Shizune with Misha, Emi with Rin, Lilly with Hanako. The first pair has a slightly complicated relationship (i.e. Misha is gay for Shizune; Shizune knows, but she’s not chasing her away because she hates losing a friend over any kind of difference); the other two are conveniently linked by proximity (Emi is Rin’s next door neighbor in the girl’s dormitory, and the same goes for Hanako and Lilly). They have developed bonds of friendship and support during their stay in Yamaku Academy; Hisao’s arrival and emotional entanglement with the girls will put these bonds on a secondary plane after a while. Before that happens, the girls share a number of common events, which show up on the paired paths, regardless of which path you are following. For instance, Emi’s athletic event is common to her route and Rin’s, and so is the rainy picnic proposed by Emi (the girls will take turns in catching a cold because of it). On Lilly and Hanako’s routes, there’s Hanako’s birthday, and the trip to the city to buy her birthday presents; also, Lilly’s first trip to Scotland shows up in both routes. A “secret” relationship between Lilly and Shizune (they’re cousins) makes one event on the “long” Lilly route appear in the Shizune route, albeit under different circumstances. Lilly and Akira stay overnight at Shizune’s family mansion in town. On the Lilly route, it’s on the eve of leaving Japan for Scotland, presumably for good; on Shiuzune’s, it’s also before a trip to Scotland, but it appears to be the first one (the chronology is a little bit shaky, but Lilly is back at Yamaku after a while).

One nice effect of these common events is to imply life is going on for the other characters, even if you don’t interact decisively with them. It’s like the characters have an independent life going beyond the visible scene. The player can gauge how much his interaction is altering the girls’ lives, by noticing all the things that didn’t happen, all the developments that didn’t occur, and how lessened their existence seems if you don’t reach out to them. By showing first how far you can bring them out of their respective shells, it’s disheartening to see them going towards their unexciting appointed fate without a twitch of improvement – and of recognition. There’s a sense of gain from interacting with the girls, of better understanding their characters; all this is lost when you interact with them like friendly strangers. I find it merciful that, what with the pairing I was talking about, you only meet two or three of the other girls outside their own route. Meeting them all as indifferent strangers would be just too much. It’s bad enough as it is.

Why am I bringing this up? Well, look at these two characters:

They’re Lilly’s twenty-something elder sister Akira and her cousin (no, it’s not a Scarlet Macaw). His name is Hideaki. Hideaki is Shizune’s baby brother. Considering they’re related to Lilly, they stay mainly on Lilly and Hanako’s routes(truth be told, no Hideaki on the latter). The most you get to chum with Akira is on her sister’s route, where she takes the unenviable role of harbinger of ill news. She’s the one telling Hisao they’ve been summoned to Scotland, for good. It’s a nasty shock, especially because Lilly already made up her mind to heed the call. Akira herself has to cut ties with her boyfriend to meet the family’s deadline.

(Ah yes, Akira’s boyfriend. What a riot. I think at some point the developers wanted to troll the audience into thinking Akira is a shotacon. A type of pedophile preying on young boys. Akira is quite fond of Hideaki, so on the surface of things, she looks guilty as charged. Besides, there’s a lot of juxtaposition of Akira mentioning her boyfriend (and implying some adult activities) and then showing up with Hideaki. The revelation that they are cousins is played to great humorous effect.)

Back to Shizune’s route, the next big event after Tanabata is meeting Shizune’s family. Shizune, Misha and Hisao are going to spend some time at her family’s mansion in the city. They’re hardly in through the front door when they meet Lilly, Akira and Hideaki. Sparks fly instantaneously; Akira breaks the huddle saying she would like fish for dinner. Shizune turns this into a fishing challenge, and the gang is shortly packing off in the family van towards the nearby riverbank with fishing rods, lures and all. It’s one of the instances of people being sucked into the Shizune Maelstrom, ending in a memorable competition and all around fun for the participants. Considering Lily and Akira are going away to Scotland, it’s not a bad memory to share with everybody.
The next day, it’s “spending time with Hideaki” day. Shizune and Misha are off to charm some business partners of Shizune’s Dad, and Hideaki is in charge of entertaining Hisao. To be honest, I charged through this segment in tl;dr mode. Yeah, Hideaki is a little strange, but he grew up with an asshole for a Dad, no discernible mother, and a very competitive sister. The best thing I can say about him is that he’s harmless, and probably color challenged. By day three, we meet Shizune’s Dad, and he proves to be an antagonizing asshole with a disproportionate ego. He never learned sign language to communicate with his daughter, but he paid private tutors to have her educated to normal standards. He’s probably never admitted being wrong in his whole life. His business card proclaims he’s a “consultant”, but his only skill appears to be rubbing people the wrong way. Well, now we know where Shizune got her boorish ways from. Compared to her dad, she’s not even half as annoying.

It’s easy to miss that Hisaso is gaining cred points with Shizune by standing up to her father. I mean, the old man’s almost asking to be punched in the face. Other girls would worry about it; Shizune, instead, gets horny. She signals Hisao to follow her into the house ([bonus points if you can get Hideaki too]), and they chat a little about Misha’s new haircut (yep, she cut off the drills). A little fumbling with her glass of ice water makes them fall in the old steady “wah, what am I doing on top of you?” position. Still, this is Shizune we’re talking about. It’s not fun if it’s not on her terms. So they don’t have hot monkey sex on the couch, but manage to drift into Hisao’s guest room, and Shizune ties him to the chair first. Just kidding, it’s only his hands that get tied. What follows is covered in your local copy of Kama Sutra, under “sitting facing each other”.

I don’t think I have issues with having a sex scene at that point. If there is something about this kind of game setup, it’s the predictability of circumstances apt to lead to an adult scene. And the scene plays according to Shizune’s personality, always on top. What doesn’t work well here is the lack of a proper mood for such a scene. In the end, Hisao isn’t mad at being, well, raped, technically speaking, because he has this monologue inserted midway about how long it took him to fall for her (about a week). However well executed the scene is, it comes on abruptly, and then it just ends with no consequence. What the deuce, man.

You’d expect to have some mention here about how they become sex friends or something. Nope. Not even a whisper. We’re back in drama mode for the next to last arc of this route: “How we almost lost Misha”. The letter from Iwanako arrives somewhere around this point, but since it lost any significance with regards to plot, it just becomes fodder for a long talk with Kenji, that blasted idiot from across the hall. He goes on and on about his former girlfriend (too long, didn’t read & I don’t even care) while he’s hiding in “my” room to catch the Council girls in the act of delivering the mail. Well, business as usual.

The only big surprise comes at some later point, when Misha shows up on the doorstep, all “abandoned” by Shizune and asking for a little consolation. Joy of joys, there’s finally a multiple choice point in all this reading. But, it’s a trap. Having sex with Misha doesn’t really fulfill any of us. For one thing, Misha doesn’t really swing heterosexual. Before Hisao entered the picture, she confessed and was rejected by Shizune as a sex friend ... but kept around as a friend. For years, she devoted herself to Shizune, becoming her interpreter and sidekick, secretly treasuring every "good job". Now that Shizune can do the same things with Hisao, Misha has to reconsider what she wants to do with her regained independence. She also has to resign, once and for all, any hope of being more than her friend. The specter of separation at the end of the school year looms ever closer. Misha panics at the thought of losing both Shizune and Hisao. Besides, just as Hisao has taken sign language classes, Shizune apparently took some lip reading classes, so our private conversation stops being private real fast. We both try to humor Misha out of her slump, but it’s not really working. What’s even worse, Shizune hates losing anything, friends included. After quite a bit of running around ineffectively, she just gives Hisao the cold shoulder, and it’s time for the fat lady to sing. Bad end, check.

Poor Misha. Even after being paired with Shizune, she’s still a side character without a route of her own. Life just isn’t fair. I know, the script writer never gave her much depth to begin with. She was forever in Shizune’s shadow, ever content to be there. My perception of her character improved a whole lot on this route, though. Talking to her every now and then provided a consistent background and a plausible motivation for always being at Shizune’s side. Besides, she proved to have the heart in the right place when Hisao’s got really close to Shizune. The President – acting President, Treasurer, Secretary and just about everything else on the Council – never had many friends to begin with. Seeing her getting close to not just a genuine friend, but a boyfriend to boot, must have meant a lot to her. She always beat a tactful retreat when she thought we needed to be alone. We just took her for granted, after all. Misha will always be there, just like the Sun and Moon. Me, but mostly Shizune, forgot how long she’s been there already. I could have read the signs – how eager she was to receive Shizune’s little attentions, how Shizune’s needs always overrode her own (to the point of forcing her into remedial classes due to her high absence rate). You can’t have this kind of devotion without love; there’s just no other possible explanation. Misha loves Shizune. Misha likes HIsao for being Shizune’s boyfriend. He makes her happy, he gives her wings to fly. He loves her, and she probably loves him back. There’s no real need for an interpreter between them. The Council has always been Shizune and the occasional gofer flunky; it’s her own gig, top to bottom. It’s just that, in this brave new world, there’s no real need for Misha anymore.

That silly git. Of course we need her. She never stopped being our friend. Shizune may be the main act of the Student Council, but there are no silent partners in there. We are a team. Misha may not know it, but she won my solid respect for juggling all these balls without anyone showing her how. I guess it’s Shizune’s influence rubbing off on her, but Misha has come a very long way on her own, and she will never be the same again. But, all this is rationalization. I just grew to like her, that’s all. She’s a good and caring friend. I’d really hate to lose her. Sure, I’d give her one big hug, just once, just to confirm she’s as soft and squishy as she looks. But sex between us wouldn’t solve anything. It would just damage the trust between us, a guilty secret we’d always have to hide. The short of this long story is, I have to clearly turn her down. We both know better.

Not quite shallow teenager stuff anymore, is it? But then, Shizune’s route has quite a number of not so shallow choices … too bad it’s mainly exposition, and not player interaction. It’s one of the reasons I liked reading this route, but it makes for a crappy game path. It turns out an interesting heroine, but it sinks the game setting as irrelevant – it’s now the Shizune Hakamichi Show, not Katawa Shoujo anymore. And because it turned out like that, having sex with Misha is bad, and nothing will make it right. On the downside of the same logic, not having sex with her solves everything. That's ... more than a little inconsistent.

Still, let's not go away before mentioning that we get the second glimpse at Misha approximately one year ago. We heard from her own mouth about running a soba stall with Shizune and Lilly at the initiative of the old Student Council. We even saw a picture of brown haired Misha sans drills at this occasion. During Misha's depressive spell, we have her recounting the mellow afternoon when she confessed her love to Shizune. For some reason, the scene gave me the warm fuzzies - both the confession itself, and how candid is the whole moment. Reminded me for a moment of Aoi Hana/Sweet Blue Flowers.

The very last arc of this path is the new Student Council election, which seems to have been penned by the author before he walked away. Not much to say about it, it’s a typical episode of Shizune finding it hard to step down from her function of Commander in Chief. She wants her legacy to carry on by recruiting people to her own liking for the coming elections. Clearly, Yamaku isn’t that high strung to have more than one Shizune around at any time; much energy is being spent on making posters, kvetching about ballot boxes, and running around the school putting up the posters (in a moment of enlightenment, Misha thinks up promotional bookmarks for the library, but has to contend with just putting up posters all over the place). In an uncharacteristic moment of parental care, Shizune’s tsundere Dad comes visiting the Council room, acting all stuck up and moronic as ever. For whatever Freudian reasons, the scriptwriter decided it’s sexy time for Shizune again, so in between taking care of business and running Council errands, Hisao and Shizune hit the hot monkey sex button again. In the Council room, after hours. On a desk, to be precise. Once more, I have very little issue with how the scene is written – quite well, for this kind of thing – but it’s so coming from left field, it’s not even funny. One other thing that isn’t funny is that, if sex has become so casual for them, how come this is only the second time they’re doing it? It’s so damn inconsistent. Either this is their twenty-something time doing it, or this is bullshit. And the reason they both felt like getting physical was … because Shizune got the hots? Hisao, my man, you’ve fallen to the function of boytoy. A.k.a. a sex slave at the beck and call of your mistress. Oh the shame.

No, it really is a shame. This is supposedly the story of two people falling in love, among other things. Hisao’s stance is, in all respects, that of a faithful boyfriend. But, no matter how much I rake my brains for it, I can’t remember much confirmation from Shizune. She comes, she sees, she takes; a little thank you now and then wouldn’t kill her.

The next thing that comes to memory during the final days is “us” (Hisao and Shizune) sneaking inside the school after hours in search of Misha. Mikado (funny how rare her real name pops up) is once again having remedial classes with Mutou, a clear sign of having returned to her ambition of going on to a teaching career (there’s even mention further on of a scholarship abroad). Seeing Misha hard at work prompts Shizune into talking about her plans for the future, and Hisao into mentioning his resolve to come back to Yamaku academy as teaching staff. It’s not a “future together” type of plan, but neither is it exclusive of such things. It’s also cute to appreciate that, deep down at the core, Shizune is still a kid. A mighty ambitious one, capable of the brightest dreams, but still a little idealistic and, in her own way, generous. In a way, the path ends here. There’s a coda about the school year ending and the new Student Council coming to pay respect to the old one, and the trio coaxing Yuuko into taking a picture together, but the story is pretty much told. The closing picture is a good one, but I’d rather post this one instead:

All for one, and one for all.

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