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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Katawa Shoujo: Mission Profile ~continued~

Welcome back to my breakdown of the h scenes of Katawa Shoujo. The first section has been dealing with the more active girls - Lilly, Emi, Rin and Shizune. It is time to talk about the less sexualized girls, Misha and Hanako.

A bit of preamble first. A literary heroine is an idealized person. That means she may exhibit unwanted human traits but they are not perceived as offensive. But, just like asymmetry feels more beautiful than perfect symmetry, a tiny dose of imperfection is generally added to give an impression of plausibility. Plausibility is important for a character, because a certain amount of projection goes into the reader’s identification with the story premises. Certain expectations should be met, both positive and negative. It’s the same deal as with any replacement for a real thing – too artificial is bad, too accurate is ridiculous (why not use the real thing then?). The essential is to give the same feel and functionality.

Despite their particular physical disabilities, the Katawa Shoujo girls also fill a peculiar requirement – inaccessibility in real life. For one thing, their types are certainly rare in any given demographic (let’s see: a stylish girl with lady-like manners groomed in a Catholic school with a hint of foreignness about her; her friend, a social recluse with bookworm habits and stilted conversation; a scatterbrained but funny artist girl with nearly non-existing social skills; a fiery go-getter with communication problems in tandem with a loud and exotic parrot girl). I’m not listing Emi here because an athletic girl willing to make a new running partner is not that rare – just inaccessible to cellar dwellers with pale skin and an unhealthy body mass index. For another, their real life counterparts are a lot harder to pursue – they’re hard to approach, out of your league, high maintenance, too mental, etc etc. If you look closely at my description, two girls – colorful Misha and reclusive Hanako – are neither rare nor inaccessible. They are the least idealized girls of the lot. They still present a difficult approach, one hiding behind her loud and cheerful persona, the other actively rejecting people in general. If you look at it this way, they both put up a defensive wall, just by different means.

First come, first served – let’s take a look at Misha. Did I just say she’s avoiding people? Oh, come on. She has “the grace of a rhino charging into a china shop”, to quote myself. Surely you cannot call such a person “isolated” – she’s as isolated as a charging tank.

I’m not looking to build an imaginary drama around Misha, just to make her appear tragic or something. I am just pointing out that she has manufactured a new persona for herself after her romantic failure: pink hair, drill bangs (Hisao makes fun at some point about how she must be up at the crack of dawn to curl her hair every day), loud voice and presence (she enters, stage left, just as loud as she speaks, pushing a “Wa-ha-ha!” in front of her), constant cheerfulness (Hisao again: Misha is going through the motions, because appearances are important to her, like her cheerfulness that isn’t always real), always curious and inquiring. The very last bit is entirely for Shizune’s benefit, because she can’t pick up the chatter around her and nobody else is voluntarily including her in the small talk that goes on naturally. If that’s not a mask, I don’t know what is; and what is the purpose of a mask, but to provide something you can hide behind? Something to prevent the other side from reading you?

Can I also point out that most of her mask is transparent to Shizune, because it involves things she cannot perceive or gauge? The hair styling change is obvious – Shizune thinks it’s sophisticated and imposing, so that about clears up where she got the idea. The excessive laughter is highly visible, which is probably why she’s always telling her something that gets brushed off with an audible “really, Sicchan?” (but does she ever sign this back to her?). Otherwise, Misha is Misha, always there, always fulfilling her function as Shizune’s “voice” and extra pair of hands. Whatever else the essential Misha is, or thinks about, is behind the mask. It takes a radical act to rip this mask off, and the right person – someone who also likes Misha; someone who has managed to communicate with her face to face (no concealing masks); someone who is precious to her. Yep, that’s right: it’s Hisao.

I was just perusing the Extras/Library section for something I accidentally picked up.  If you go back to my regular discussion of the paths, I once mentioned that the pairing of the girls – Emi with Rin, Lilly with Hanako, Shizune with Misha – sends Hisao’s life down a common set of events that branches depending on which girl he pursues. The other girl of the pair keeps crossing his path, but in lesser and lesser focus, until she becomes just another background character. To a lesser extent, you keep crossing paths with some of the other girls – I’m not counting Yuuko, who acts like a human fixture on all paths, or even Miki Miura, who plays a certain role in raising an interest flag on Emi’s and Hanako’s routes. I mean something like running into Lilly on the Shizune route, in the later half of her path. She’s there to set a reflection point, an occasion for Hisao to see how Shizune and Misha changed his outlook on things and to gather his resolve for the oncoming conflict. Equally, Hisao runs into Shizune and Misha on almost every single route. I guess Shizune is watching out for Hisao even when she isn’t getting romantically involved with him. And so does Misha, on her own. She’s there on the Emi route, expressing the Student Council’s disapproval of kissing in the hallways,  (“especially when Shizune is watching”):
You can tell the "cutie" and "adorable" comments are hers, stapled to Shizune's mock sternness.

She and Shizune also cook up an opportunity for Hisao to take his mind off the gloomy thoughts of separation on the Lilly route ("I think I broke Misha"):
They have in fact arranged an "accidental" meet-up with Lilly in the Council Room, just for old time's sake:

Of course this event is also planned by Shizune for her own benefit, but it's obvious from how they waited for Lilly and Hisao to leave together that they were aware of the painful rift between them and wanted them to patch things up.

One of the facets of being an idealized character is having a write-in past. A character designed for the kind of interaction required by an eroge (or, in general, a VN) will have enough of a past to justify her status at the entry point and the established traits that place her in one of the ‘usual suspects’ types (the energetic type; the klutz; the violent tsun-tsun type; the stoic type; etc) or combinations thereof. There will be enough gaps and holes where the player can presume a past to his liking, or assign a personal emotional coloring of the events from her past that are being offered. Some characters simply come ‘as is’ – their past doesn’t factor in at all, or is being withheld on purpose.

Katawa Shoujo isn’t exceptional in this regard. We have a range of ‘depth of field’ about the girls’ past that goes from fairly elaborate (Lilly) to spotty (Shizune and Emi) and indifferent (Rin and Hanako). Misha draws the short end of the stick here too, because her past has almost no markers – she just came to Yamaku and started building from there. One of the things barely explained in KS is the social status of the girls before joining the special school (we know Lilly and Shizune come from well off, related families; there is no mention, however, of what was the status of Emi’s, Rin’s or Hanako’s family, and the only thing we know about Misha is that she could not have afforded the school as a normal student without enrolling in the sign language program). What we have is a lot of circumstantial data – we visit Emi’s pretty furnished house and we know her Mom drives a car; we visit Shizune’s ample mansion and ride in one of her family’s cars; we see how easily Lilly pays the antique shop keeper for the doll, and I guess she paid the train fare for the whole group when they went to the vacation home; Rin’s family may or may not have been able to afford her art supplies (she’s a phenomenon, it’s not inconceivable she got an art scholarship somewhere along the way; almost everything she owns is art related, except for her clothes, and we don’t even know how many she has, or if they’re off the rack or hand-me downs). Hanako’s belongings are presumably all new – there’s no mention she could salvage anything from the fire that took away her family and her home. She was in an orphanage until joining Yamaku, but that's not indicative of having no other living relatives, just not having any willing to take her in. We do know she could not afford the expensive cell phone Lilly bought for her, but that’s about all we know. The only people ever complaining about cash shortage are Hisao and Kenji (Shizune doesn’t count, she’s just skimpy with money). And Misha is probably always on Shizune’s tab as long as it’s Student Council expenses (the one time we leave her to pay alone a three person bill, she’s not complaining, but that may be irrelevant – with Shizune’s idiosyncrasy about “throwing” things, Misha may in fact hold the Council wallet). That still doesn’t tell us anything about how well off or poor she is on her own. We receive a bare minimum of info about her: that she doesn’t have a disability (see below); that she enrolled at Yamaku only on the scholarship for sign language, because she couldn’t afford it otherwise; that she feared being hated at this new school; and that she burned the bridges behind her (she’s not keeping up with any of her old colleagues from before joining Yamaku).

(4chan had a field day … make that a 4 years field day speculating what is Misha’s disability. One of the frequent guesses was some form of attention disorder, or even Angelman’s syndrome (also known as the “happy puppet syndrome”). Nominally, she has none. Her apparent lack of thought continuity comes primarily from the long association with Shizune – she's too focused on the constant need to [translate to sign] everything she hears, says and what Shizune is [telling] her to translate. It’s really hard to both run your mouth off and simultaneously translate it in sign. However, Hisao notices an interesting detail – her voice doesn’t so much modulate in tone with a speech pattern, as it increases and decreases in volume. My medical guesswork is that she may suffer from a form of dysphonia. She also has a slightly limited vocabulary – or at least not as extensive as Shizune’s, which seems to be derived from reading books. Shizune puts her in front of complicated terms that she has to spell out for her, literally.)

There’s always the question: why was Misha afraid the students at Yamaku might hate her? Because she is normal? Some of the students don’t have visible defects, and no one seems to begrudge Mutou, Yuuko or the head nurse their physical integrity. Hisao himself looks pretty normal on the outside, as does Shizune, and they aren’t shunned for it. No, if she was afraid of being hated, it must have been that she was … not so popular where she came from. And she’s not regretting any of her old colleagues. That puts her directly in the outer belt of the new social group she encountered at Yamaku. Being seated next to Shizune was her stroke of luck – her abilities at sign language were poor at first, and her drive just lukewarm; it was the Shizune juggernaut that propelled her to her current performance. In fact, she owes to Shizune not just a place in the Yamaku Universe and a professional ambition, but her friendship as well. Whatever shortcomings Shizune has, she plays lifeguard to a few people (yes, even Lilly) whom she picks up, dusts them off and sends them on the path to their own ambitions. Those who owe her the most are those who hang around trying to pay her back in friendship and support – and I obviously mean Misha and Hisao.

At first, Misha appears to be so integrated in the good cop - bad cop routine with Shizune, that she hogs all the "good" traits of exuberance and femininity in the act, leaving Shizune with all the butch/dominant traits:

Hisao is left wondering how did they come up with such an act, so he inquires a talkative Misha about the roots of their relationship. It's one of the first times Misha talks outside a script "penned" by Shizune, and she does a spontaneous thing - she thanks Hisao for joining the Council, something Shizune clearly forgot to do. Then, she offers him the PR version of how she came to befriend Shizune, but it's a story with several white lies: 
 (here's the McHuge version for tiny text readers)
The image above is an interesting parallel between the story she gives Hisao in the beginning, and the real story that surfaces after she drops her mask. On the left, she's Sizune's first aide and sidekick, confident and only a little self conscious; on the right, she's the real Misha, candid and vulnerable, worried about her complicated relationship with Shizune becoming unraveled. It's a huge contrast, not just in terms of who approached who, but also in terms of confidence invested in Hisao. What is even more interesting is that in the meantime, Misha has had a lapse better illustrated by these pictures:

Cutting her signature drills is an anime trope jokingly called "character development" - a character seeks a radical change of self image by altering its outer appearance. It's an arbitrary, self imposed new beginning, when the old ways don't work anymore. Misha didn't just feel the new atmosphere developing between Shizune and Hisao, but she went into open rebellion against Shizune by dropping something inspired by the latter (her peculiar haircut). She's still Shizune's trooper in everything else - hanging out with her, running errands for her father, and stepping voluntarily into the verbal crossfire between Jigoro and Hisao, to allow the latter a narrow escape with Shizune. We already know how that episode ended. But all this while, Misha has been pulling away from Shizune (and Hisao) with mincing steps, feeling more and more confused. The second picture occurs after Shizune's lap dance, and it could mean a number of things, among which even the knowledge that her friends have enjoyed carnal union. I mean, why would she run away from Hisao like that? There's only one thing that really changed between them, and that's his newly acquired status as Shizune's f*ck buddy.

This is the origin of Misha's apparent breakdown that culminated in seeking consolation in Hisao's arms. In a sense, it's good news: Shizune has found a new best friend, one that can both converse in [sign language] with her, help with the Council work, and help keeping her entertained and/or sexually satisfied. That's in fact one item more than Misha ever managed to do, and not for want of trying. By accepting Hisao in this position, Shizune has practically decommissioned Misha, who is now free to pursue her own objectives, kept on back burner by the overriding objectives imposed by Shizune. It's a little more liberty than Misha can handle, at first. She has to shuffle priorities back to her own career plans, and that means facing some facts about the future. Unfortunately, this future holds the grim perspective of graduation and venturing in the wide world without her closest two friends. With dawning horror, Misha understands that their time together is drawing to an end, and she has to resolve her sentimental conflict with both as soon as possible, if she wants to stay their friend. What's tearing her inside is the knowledge that they've grown closer to each other, and any attempt to come between them would probably hurt them both, but especially Shizune. It's a damned if you do, damned if you don't scenario.

I tried my best Venusian logic to put a positive spin on her coming to Hisao for consolation, but it just wouldn't float. Sure, Hisao seems to be her only friend besides Shizune. Most people tolerate her, but she hasn't connected with anyone the way Hisao did, despite trying her best to treat everybody as nice as she could (well, she's the "mouth" of an abrasive and bossy mistress). She's just getting the hostile fallout for Shizune's overbearing behavior, but she's also collecting some resentment for her own busybody attitude. Since no one gets close enough to her to actually know better, she is judged at face value as disruptive, noisy and intrusive; also, a little witless. Without Hisao's better perspective on her, we'd judge her the same way. So, she really doesn't have anyone else to turn to in her hour of distress. But that doesn't make it right, either. Hisao is Shizune's boyfriend. No amount of twisting perspective around can justify the negative impact of her action. She didn't come to have the heart to heart conversation they eventually had on the roof; that would have been quite OK for both, even helpful. No; she came to forge the love triangle that connected her to Shizune, Shizune to Hisao, and now Hisao to her. It's just that human relationships don't work this way. When Hisao came after her on the roof, he didn't do it because of lust or some form of sexual imprinting. He came out of friendly concern. Their one off encounter really achieved nothing positive, just a lot of negative baggage to lug around on the rest of the route.

Poor Misha. Despite being a likable girl (she really turned my opinion around), all her flags are negative: getting her in bed is not challenging, it just happens; she's cute but (comparatively) plain, a regular girl in almost all aspects (except perhaps her sexual orientation), non-idealized and posing a crisis that cannot be solved, just avoided in a rather hax manner (i.e. the player's actions don't do sh*t anyway, it's all a matter of not betraying Shizune on her nominal route). And there's no emotional payoff after boning her, just a descent into slowly setting futility. It's one of the reasons I don't like the Shizune route as a game route, despite liking it for the character development. It's a cool story, bro, but as a game sequence, it sucks. And while I'm at it, the scriptwriter really went overboard with making Misha talk in circles exactly like Shizune. Is that supposed to be beating around the bush? Anyway, yet another anime trope was sneaked in at this point: "Are you thinking something perverted? If it's you, I don't mind". You know what, that's believable. At three separate points, starting with this one, Misha tries to find out if Hisao likes her (as in "like like", not as in "like to bang"). He keeps his mouth wisely shut in public, but his inner monologue says "yes". As a last technical detail, this isn't about Hisao not wanting to bang Misha, or Misha keeping back until he signals it's OK; this is about Hisao refraining from banging Misha, which has already kissed and nuzzled him. This is taken after he decided not to comfort her:
Even though he has to kick her out of bed (almost literally), the whole scene has the interesting effect of making Misha drop the act (or "mask" as I called it). It takes a wholly different kind of trust to get in a situation like this one and not wreck your friendship with the person who rejected you. If the friendship holds, then it's safe to drop all the bullsh*t. From here on, Misha will be telling the truth and nothing but the truth. She was alone at first, until Shizune made it her priority task to befriend her. At that time, Shizune was still using a pen and notebook to communicate, but she found out Misha was learning sign language, so she refused to use them anymore until Misha could [talk] to her directly. When Shizune got drafted into the old Student Council, she brought Misha along - and Lilly. Then the old Council graduated and Lilly left ("I am not a trained seal" and all those accusations of dragging in only people who would agree with Shizune), and the Council started dwindling down to its two-girl team. Meanwhile, a blossoming Misha fell in love with Shizune, and one day gathered her courage to confess. Shizune turned her down, and Misha bummed out of the Council, thinking it's all over between them. But Shizune wouldn't let her be, and kept searching her out until she could pass her the important message: ["Come back. You're still my friend."]. From that day on, Misha became Shizune's most loyal aide, sticking with her through thick and thin ... until Hisao came to their class. Then Shizune got a new pet project, and it was fun getting him to rally both to the Student Council, and to the fun things in life in general. But one thing led to another, and now Hisao was Shizune's boyfriend, which left Misha feeling stranded alone on orbit around them. Misha tried deserting them; hating them; betraying them; none of these things stuck, because, in her simplicity, Misha is all about love, not hate. Finding her place again in their three-way team meant finding a place where she could be her own person again. She went the wrong way about it, but in the end she made it - because both her friends wouldn't let go.

It’s funny how in Katawa Shoujo, the girls who are the closest to real life models (or the least idealized girls) are approaching sex for the wrong reason. The VN format allows them to turn this around into good outcomes, but I cannot shake the bitter conclusion that the KS devs (developers) made in passing a social comment with this – in real life, sex between teenagers is rather random and resembling a train wreck (i.e. things go bad when you just assume you can forge ahead without proper signals).

Just to clear a wild idea from my system – all VNs are wish fulfillment scenarios. This is why I pointed out that the KS girls, despite having their physical disabilities, are shaped after hard to get types of real girls. Their physical handicap is here a means of keeping them captive in the environment of the game – Yamaku Academy. For good or for worse, the girls are “captive” here just like the protagonist. As I also pointed out, they have already adapted to their disabilities, to the point of being able of leading a (semi)independent life; their own ambitions, or the god-in-the-game replacement for ‘fate’ will set them free after a while (Lilly goes to Scotland; Rin goes to art school). Emi, Shizune and Misha can just start avoiding Hisao, and return to the life they were leading before he came. There’s an opportunity window in Act 1 and Act 2, and a commitment/parting option in Act 3 for almost all the girls (‘almost’ because the Shizune route was not written as a game route, doh). Within this window of opportunity, the relationships with the girls are to be initiated, cultivated, and bear fruit; otherwise, they’re just trains in the night, receding out of sight into could-have-been-land. The thing is, the game has them confined within your reach, so that you could accomplish what is a lot harder in real life – to catch a singing bird. The bird of love and hope.

But, like I said, two girls are not that hard to get in real life. They too have been given a handicap to meet the wish fulfillment criteria. Hanako is the girl who avoids all people. In any wish fulfillment scenario, she’s a DIY, paint-by-numbers Cinderella, waiting just for you to reveal her (which is, in fact, bollocks). Misha is an even simpler type: she’s the girl always bugging you with school business, as a student representative or some other elected position. Unlike her real life counterpart, she’s actually friendly and caring, and has a soft spot for you. Also, she’s not entirely unattractive, once you know her better.

But, in reality, Hanako is not Cinderella. She’s not Pygmalion’s Galathea, either. When I tried to find the character that suited her true nature best, what came closest of all was the servant from The Frog Prince, Iron Heinrich (or faithful Heinrich/Henry). He was so upset with his master’s misfortune that he reinforced his heart with three iron circlets, lest his heart burst from grief. When the curse was lifted, his three iron seals burst, one by one, allowing his heart to adapt. Well, that’s our Hanako. She lived with survivor’s guilt for many years now. The unburned part of her skin, the side her mother protected from the fire with her own body, is a living testament that somebody loved her and wanted her to live. So she lived on, but at the cost of having these iron seals on her heart. The original seals were there to keep Heinrich’s heart from bursting with joy, too. Hanako’s seals play the same role. She chose to live, but she's not expecting any happiness in her life. It would seem indecent towards her dead parents, to just seek out love and happiness. That's why she has a breakdown every year on her birthday. What sense does it make to celebrate your life, when the ones who gave you life and protected you are dead?

However, Hanako is like a green shoot. Green things tend to grow towards the light. Hanako cannot postpone her life indefinitely; she did it during middle school and at the orphanage, but the siren call of living with her peers is growing stronger. She tried to learn about life as an abstraction, by removing interaction with people, from books; thus, like any teenager, she knows a number of things she has no experience with - like romance, love, and perhaps even sex.

Which brings us to another interesting speculation about the protagonist of the game, Hisao: how experienced is he, really? Just like Hanako, he seems to 'know' things he never actually tried, but his real experience is limited to meeting Iwanako after receiving her love letter ... and that's it. For Hisao, the Iwanako point I've been trying to define earlier is where factual knowledge (about girls, love, sex) stops, and theoretical knowledge without experiential knowledge, starts. From his performance with the other girls, he's aware of what he's supposed to do (with a naked girl, in bed or in the shed or wherever), but there's not much to substantiate that he did such things before. That sounds more like theoretical knowledge, not experience. So he and Hanako are quite evenly matched on that front.

(More audiatur et altera pars: there is this passage, where putting the condom on - for Emi - makes him react 'gasp as always'. This 'always' could be a reference to previous experience, but there's nothing to infirm it isn't previous experience with Emi herself, in an 'off camera' episode or two)

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