Emi is the first path most players end up on when playing Katawa Shoujo for the first time, so it’s fitting that we begin an in-depth exploration of the game with a look at her story.
Katawa Shoujo, lest you’re unfamiliar, is a Western-developed visual novel that was inspired by a Japanese doujinshi artist’s sketches of girls with a variety of disabilities. It attracted controversy due to its subject matter — plus the fact that its title translates from Japanese as “cripple girls”, which was understandably considered somewhat offensive — but those who took the time to play it discovered a game that was surprisingly sensitive with its subject matter, and which told some very moving stories.
The nature of the cast (and, for that matter, the protagonist’s personal journey) in Katawa Shoujo pushes the player into initially identifying characters by their disabilities, meaning that at the outset Emi’s distinguishing characteristic is that she doesn’t have any legs. Progress through the narrative, however, and certainly in Emi’s case, her disability becomes arguably the least important aspect of her whole.
Emi is a runner — she describes herself at one point as “the fastest thing on no legs”. Her early interactions with the protagonist Hisao see her as a bubbly, enthusiastic, popular and young-looking girl who is really into sports, and who really wants to help Hisao better himself through the sport that the school nurse ordered. Hisao quickly notices that Emi seems like a different person when she runs — while she’s ditzy, girlish and flirtatious when she’s talking, when she runs she is determined and focused. Nothing matters except the task she has immediately in front of her.
Progress through the narrative, and Emi’s disability becomes arguably the least important aspect of her whole.
This particular aspect of Emi’s personality is the most important thing about her. She is independent and determined. She makes her way around on her prosthetic limbs without needing help from anyone, and pushes herself physically daily. She doesn’t like to admit when she gets hurt, and on the one occasion in the story where she finds herself confined to a wheelchair for a limited period, is bummed out when she has this feeling of power taken away from her. When she is in the wheelchair, she has to rely on other people, and she is not used to that. She is used to being in control — both of herself, and of the situations she finds herself in.
This extends to her attitude towards sex, also. While we never quite find out whether or not Emi is actually a virgin prior to her first liaison with Hisao, it’s clear that she knows what she likes, but is not necessarily that experienced. She quickly takes control of proceedings, often dominates Hisao and is very difficult to embarrass — the one exception being the occasion where the two decide to try anal sex and both end up finding it a somewhat disappointing, mildly humiliating experience. Emi also uses sex as a way of getting what she wants or as a diversionary tactic to get her out of difficult conversations — further evidence of her need to remain in control of the situations in which she finds herself.
Emi’s biggest fear is losing the control and sense of independence she has.
What Emi discovers through her relationship with Hisao, however, is that despite his reticence he is someone who causes her to lose control and relax her grip on the power she holds over herself. We see this on the occasion where she falls asleep in his arms and has one of her regularly-occurring nightmares about the death of her father in the accident that cost her her legs. Emi realises this around exam time, and regains control of the situation by informing Hisao that they can’t see each other until after exams. She even tells him why. Hisao accepts this, but feels like he is being pushed away.
Emi’s biggest fear is losing the control and sense of independence she has. She feels that she is obliged to struggle through life by herself. She was very close to her father, and having both him and her legs suddenly removed from her life after the accident left her hesitant to get too close to anyone or anything for fear that she would once again lose everything she held dear. When she is confined to the wheelchair, she is upset because she feels like she has lost the independence that her prosthetic legs brought her — even though it is only for a short time. She resents the few occasions on which she has to ask for help, such as when she can’t get the wheelchair over the lip of a doorway.
She handles the difficult process of opening up much like physical activity — starting with something easy and simple, ending with the most demanding and difficult challenges.
Emi’s relationship with her first boyfriend initially mirrors the journey which she and Hisao subsequently take. The difference is that the first boyfriend couldn’t take the being pushed away by Emi’s refusal to rely on anyone but herself, while Hisao remains determined and resolute in the face of adversity and resistance — traits which he learned from Emi — and stands by her, even as she claims she doesn’t want or need help. While this leads to conflict between the two on several occasions, with Emi showing uncharacteristic anger when pushed too hard, she eventually comes to the conclusion that Hisao is just as determined as she is, and wants to be a part of her life — not to be her knight in shining armour and “fix” her, but to simply be there for her.
Her opening up to Hisao is both sudden and gradual simultaneously. After a particularly nasty spat between the two, they eventually make up. Emi invites Hisao to “come and see her dad” on a particular day — an invitation which everyone else who knows Emi realises is a big deal, but which Hisao is hesitant to make assumptions about. It’s clear to the player long before Hisao that the visit to her father is a regular trip to visit his graveside, and that letting Hisao in on this deeply personal experience is a huge, sudden step for Emi.
She is strong, determined and initially unwilling to accept help even though she needs it — not because she is weak, but because she needs an outlet.
She can’t handle it all at once, however, so while they are standing by the graveside, she works her way up through a string of personal, private admissions, starting with her favourite colour that very few people actually know, and eventually concluding with what really happened on the night of the accident. As Hisao observes, she handles this difficult process of opening up much like she handles physical activity — starting with something easy and simple to warm up, working into a good rhythm and then ending with the most demanding and difficult challenges. By the time she has burst through that “wall”, she has come to the conclusion that having Hisao around might not be such a bad idea after all. She accepts that opening up to another person is not a sign of weakness or a lack of independence.
Emi, like the rest of the cast in Katawa Shoujo, is a deep and complex character. While she has a disability, she does not let it define her, nor does she let it be an inconvenience to herself or others throughout the course of the game. She is strong, determined and initially unwilling to accept help even though she needs it — not because she is weak, but because she needs an outlet. Her nature changes Hisao, too — he becomes stronger, more impulsive, determined and willing to take risks. Not only that, he, too, refuses to let his disability define him. While he is embarrassed about his heart condition at the game’s outset and strongly wishes to distance himself from the rest of the student body whom he sees as not “normal”, by the conclusion of the Emi plotline he’s ceased to think of things in such black and white terms. He stops using the word “normal” and instead focuses on the person he’s talking to. He becomes determined to overcome adversity and push his own boundaries without breaking them. It’s the determination and stubbornness that he learns from Emi that cause her to eventually open up to him in the end.