Let’s talk about Hanako, one of the heroines from 4 Leaf Studios’ excellent free visual novel Katawa Shoujo.
As you’ll know if you’ve read the previous posts on Lilly and Emi, Katawa Shoujo is a bold, remarkable work that tackles a variety of difficult subject matter. The most obvious demonstration of this can’t be missed: it’s a game where the main characters all have disabilities.
But that’s not all there is to it. It becomes abundantly clear over the course of the five main narrative paths through the game — each focusing on one of the heroines — that all of the characters are dealing with deep-seated issues other than the outward signs of their disability.
Hanako, the character whom you first come to recognise as the shy girl with the burn scars all over one side of her body, is no exception. Understandably traumatised by the events that made her look the way she does, she’s a character riddled with mental health issues — many of which are highly relatable to a general audience.
I was expecting Hanako’s path to be one of the most difficult to deal with, not necessarily from a choice-making perspective, but from an emotional perspective. While I personally can’t relate to the trauma Hanako suffered when she lost her parents in the fire that caused the scars over half her body, I can relate to her social anxiety — that urgent feeling in your brain that when surrounded by unfamiliar people you really, really want to be somewhere else, and fast. I’vgottogodosomething!
In Hanako, we see a scared, fragile little girl in a teenager’s body. She’s afraid to leave her childhood behind, even after it was ripped from her.
Like Hanako, I don’t suffer it all the time. I have close friends with whom I can hang out, relax and chill out with for indefinite periods of time, just as she has Lilly and subsequently the protagonist Hisao. But at the same time when thrust into a situation that will require socialising with people that I don’t particularly know — or, worse, like — I often have a “fight or flight” response, usually ending in the latter. It’s something that has got somewhat better over the years, but I can vividly recall on a number of occasions at university being out with a group of friends on the town, and just quietly slipping away at some point throughout the course of the evening because I couldn’t take it any more. Often my departure and subsequent absence went unnoticed.
We’re here to talk about Hanako, not me, though. In Hanako, we see a scared, fragile little girl in a teenager’s body. She’s afraid to leave her childhood behind, even after it was ripped from her by the death of her parents. She latched on to Lilly as a mother figure, and Lilly, as the caring, kind and gentle sort of person, accepted her. The two enjoy a good relationship, though Hanako becomes extremely dependent on Lilly’s support, as we see by how terrified she is when it becomes necessary for her to talk to people when Lilly isn’t there. She stammers, she fumbles her words and, occasionally, she simply bolts.
When Hisao comes on the scene, it’s the beginning of something new for both him and Hanako. Hisao and Hanako both feel as if they are damaged goods, for different reasons — Hisao for his heart problems, and Hanako for her visible scars, which she does the best to cover up at all times with her hair and clothing. They begin to discover that they’re able to relate to one another for these conditions that they’re ashamed of, and, on the route to Hanako’s good ending, come to bond over their scars. Hisao may only have a single scar on his chest as opposed to burns all over the side of his body, but it’s still there as a constant reminder of his weakness.
Hisao and Hanako both feel as if they are damaged goods. They begin to discover that they’re able to relate to one another for the conditions that they’re ashamed of.
Their finding each other comes to be less beneficial for one another than initially appears. While they support each other, they quickly fall into a codependent relationship, with one relying on the other. Hisao uses Hanako as an excuse not to have to think about the future, thinking of her as a special case who needs protecting. Lilly picks up on this and calls Hisao on it towards the end of the story.
If following the good ending path, Hisao ends up with Hanako late at night. He shows her his scar, the reminder of his painful past. In response, she strips down and shows him her naked body, scars and all — “this is me, all of me,” she says — and the two end up having rather awkward sex. It’s not until afterwards that Hisao has the sickening feeling that he wasn’t even sure if she said “yes” — it was just something that happened, though he feels afterwards that it shouldn’t have; that all it has achieved is put more walls up between the two of them.
Up until this point, Hisao has been somewhat absorbed in his own “white knight” quest to “fix” Hanako. Indeed, Hanako’s bad ending sees her flying into a furious rage as he gets so absorbed in his role, so utterly convinced that he can somehow “save” her that he fails to see — or accept — that she wants and needs the space to work things out for herself, and to be independent, despite how much she has relied on others.
The final scene of Hanako’s good path, however, reveals the girl’s true intentions — “I wanted you to see me as someone more than someone you had to protect,” she says. “All I ever was to you was a useless person, like a child.” Hisao initially wants to deny this, but realisation finally dawns on him.
“She had become to me what I had been to my friends after my heart attack,” he thinks. “A broken person.”
Hisao knows firsthand how awful it felt to have people he loved fall away from him because of his own issues.
He realises that this is actually the last thing he wanted to happen. He knows firsthand how awful it felt to have people he loved fall away from him because of his own issues, and at this point, he realises that he’s been doing the same to Hanako. She didn’t want to lose him, but her own feelings of inadequacy meant she felt she was unable to pursue him and admit her true feelings. We see this from the last thing she says in the story — her kiss is a “gift”, and “something she should have given [him] a long time ago”.
Hanako’s feelings cut deep. I can’t count the number of times over the years that I have felt similar feelings to her. Feelings of inadequacy, of being unable to measure up to impossible, undefinable standards that I’ve conjured up from somewhere. Feelings of being “useless”, of being a “broken person”. Feelings that came to a head as my marriage and life as I knew it came tumbling down around me a few years back. I had fucked up, made a mistake, ruined everything. And who would want someone so broken?
My own feelings, of course, don’t come from physical scars or feeling responsibility for a past traumatic event. In my case, they’re born from depression and, I imagine, whatever mental scars my own less-than-pleasant childhood and puberty at school left me with. The result is the same, though — a depleted sense of self-worth, the feeling that you’ll lose people simply for being somehow “useless” or “inadequate”.
I haven’t felt those feelings to the same degree for some time now, but Hanako’s story resonated deeply with me precisely because I understood what was running through her mind, if not the exact circumstances which caused such thoughts. While I shan’t say that experiencing her story was particularly “comfortable”, containing as many truths and familiar things as it did, I’m glad I went through it, and it remains, to date, my favourite of all the stories that Katawa Shoujo tells.
This article originally appeared on my personal blog I’m Not Doctor Who.