Out of the Comfort Zone

Your average visual novel tends to have a number of different narrative paths to explore, each of which focuses on a different character from the main cast. The free visual novel Katawa Shoujo is no exception, with each of its routes focusing on one of five different girls — each of whom has a different disability — and what the protagonist Hisao learns from his relationship with them.

I found the path that centred around the deaf class president Shizune to be rather interesting, because I spent a lot of it not being entirely sure if I actually liked her or not. Her competitive, dominant, bossy nature is somewhat at odds with what I personally find attractive, and so I found myself wondering if pursuing her would have the same degree of emotional impact as the other girls Emi, Hanako, Lilly and — still to come — Rin.

I still haven’t quite made my mind up about it, as it happens, but it was certainly an interesting story, despite being the least interactive of all the paths through the game, with only one meaningful choice to make.

Two girls, one voice. But is it that simple?
Two girls, one voice. But is it that simple?

At the outset of Katawa Shoujo, the player is trained to think of the deaf and mute Shizune and her bubbly interpreter Misha as a single unit. It’s difficult not to, as they’re always together for most of the story, Shizune only appears to speak in ellipses, and Hisao has to understand everything she says through Misha. Misha, being something of a wild child, has no sense of when Shizune is being sarcastic or scathing, but Hisao proves himself to be fairly astute early on, mostly understanding the intent behind Shizune’s words but occasionally being surprised.

Shizune is proud, and doesn’t back out of the consequences she sets for herself, even if she does lose sometimes.

Despite her businesslike exterior, Shizune is actually quite immature and childlike underneath. She enjoys competition — making everything a game. At the slightest possibility of something becoming competitive, she’ll challenge Hisao to “beat” her at it, usually offering punishments for the loser rather than rewards for the winner. She is proud, though, and doesn’t back out of the consequences she set for herself, even if she does lose sometimes. We see this in the scene where the pair are carrying a crate belonging to the legally blind (and rather oddball) student Kenji back to his room — she’s the first to stumble and is perfectly willing to wind up carrying it by herself as a consequence for her “failure”.

Shizune's competitive nature is infectious, even temporarily bringing the shy Hanako out of her shell for a game of chess.
Shizune’s competitive nature is infectious, even temporarily bringing the shy Hanako out of her shell for a game of chess.

Shizune’s competitive nature, it turns out, is a coping mechanism she developed to get people to interact with her. As someone who could neither hear nor speak, she was isolated by her very nature. When we meet the rest of her family, including her cross-dressing brother and irrational, trolling father, it becomes very clear that her childhood couldn’t have been easy. The rest of her family obviously had no desire to learn how to communicate with her in sign language, and she came to resent having to communicate using a notepad. This is abundantly clear from how resistant she is to using it in conversations with Hisao when the two happen to find themselves alone together without Misha in tow for once.

Shizune’s competitive nature is a coping mechanism she developed to get people to interact with her.

Shizune’s story ends up being as much about Misha as it is about Shizune, however. When we’re initially introduced to her, the player is left wondering exactly what she’s doing at the game’s setting of Yamaku Academy, a special school designed to cater to students with disabilities. It’s actually one of the other narrative paths where we find out that the school isn’t solely composed of disabled students, however, and since Misha appears to be free of physical deformities, we find ourselves wondering if she might have some sort of non-visible chronic condition — something along the lines of Hisao’s heart condition that causes him to wind up at the school in the first place — or some kind of mental illness. Her seemingly unstable, manic depressive personality is arguably strong evidence for the latter, but we also find out in another path that Yamaku doesn’t cater to those with mental disabilities, either, so it transpires that it can’t be that.

The near-constant presence of Misha by Shizune's side leads to some interesting tension in the story.
The near-constant presence of Misha by Shizune’s side leads to some interesting tension in the story.

Misha, it seems, is simply there because she wants to learn sign language and go on to become a teacher in it. Hisao, to his credit, doesn’t immediately assume that there’s something “wrong” with Misha, but it’s a perhaps understandable conclusion for the player to reach, given the way the story is set up. As we get to know her throughout Shizune’s path, however, it becomes clear that it’s simply the sort of person she is — wild and bubbly for most of the time, but with occasional moments of clarity or even depression. And, of course, a love for trailing off sentences into a tilde~

We find ourselves wondering if Misha might have some sort of non-visible chronic condition, or some kind of mental illness.

The most interesting scenes with Misha come towards the end of the story, as Hisao’s relationship with Shizune deepens. Misha comes to Hisao, utterly depressed, and asks him to comfort her. If he does, the two end up having curiously dispassionate sex, with the feeling afterwards that things have irreversibly changed. And sure enough, down this route lies the “bad ending”, down which it’s Shizune’s nature that causes her to end up alone.

A rare moment of calm and peace.
A rare moment of calm and peace.

It’s this side of Shizune that is the most interesting thing about her, and a key part of her relationship with Misha, also. Shizune says to Hisao throughout the course of the story that the games she plays are a means to draw people in, to bring them closer. It works, too — we see even the chronically shy, retiring Hanako join Shizune in a game of chess at one point, drawn in by Shizune’s magnetism.

Shizune grew up in a family environment that wouldn’t have been all that supportive of her disability, and wouldn’t have had a good model of what “people who are close” did with one another.

What Shizune has trouble with, though, is knowing what to do with people once they are close. This is perhaps partly due to her difficulty in communicating with them, but it’s also part of her personality. Given that we’ve established she grew up in a family environment that wouldn’t have been all that supportive of her disability, she wouldn’t have had a good model of what “people who are close” did with one another. This explains her detachment and her businesslike nature in all matters. It also perhaps explains why when she and Hisao have sex for the first time, she ties him down and takes total control of the situation.

Shizune can clearly live without Misha, but can Misha live without Shizune?
Shizune can clearly live without Misha, but can Misha live without Shizune?

This detachment is a source of difficulty for Misha, who fell in love with Shizune some time ago. She sees how well Hisao and Shizune’s relationship goes, and this depresses her — it’s something she could never achieve — leading her to the potential late night liaison with Hisao. If Hisao displays some strength of will and refuses to go with it, however, Misha eventually gets back to her old self — and it’s largely thanks to Shizune’s positive influence on Hisao.

Shizune spurs Hisao on to learn something out of his comfort zone — in this case, sign language. Her competitive nature also has a positive impact on his own personality. While he doesn’t become as outright competitive as she does, he takes on some of her better traits, such as refusing to give up on people when they have given up on themselves. This particularly helps Misha, as Hisao absolutely refuses to let her sink so deeply into a pit of depression when it’s clear that she and Shizune were such good friends.

By the end of the story, it’s only Hisao who ends up left without a firm idea of what he wants to do once he graduates.

Eventually, we see Misha realising that she can’t keep trailing along behind Shizune the whole time — Shizune has her own plans for the future, which involve becoming by turns a ruthless businesswoman and subsequently a philanthropist, and which do not appear to involve Misha. Misha, meanwhile, finally elects to pursue what she is good at, even going so far as to take out-of-hours classes to improve her grades and score herself an international scholarship to continue her signing studies.

All's well that ends well.
All’s well that ends well.

In fact, by the end of the story, it’s only Hisao who ends up left without a firm idea of what he wants to do once he graduates, and the realisation dawns on him that after the journey he took over the course of the year, he wants to help others. He wants to make sure that others turning up to Yamaku as depressed as he was when he first arrived are met with the same degree of friendship and support as he found when Shizune and Misha latched onto him. He decides he wants to become a teacher, accepting the fact that his heart condition means he’ll probably die younger than other people, but wanting to make the most of the years he has.

Ultimately, Shizune’s ending is much like Shizune the person — practical and businesslike. It doesn’t have the romance of Lilly’s ending, the raw emotion of Hanako’s ending, the “finally, we understand each other” nature of Emi’s ending — but it is a positive outcome for everyone involved. Hisao’s life looks set to take a turn for the better as he has a clear goal, and his time with Shizune taught him that.

So while, personally speaking, Shizune may not have been the most appealing character, she has a positive, inspirational effect on Our Hero. And such is true for many things in life; the things that are best for us, the things that lead us on to Great Things aren’t necessarily the things that provide us with the most instant of gratification.

I can certainly relate to that.


This post originally appeared on my personal blog I’m Not Doctor Who.

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3 thoughts on “Out of the Comfort Zone”

  1. I really enjoy reading this blog and especially the entries about Katawa Shoujo! I am torn between wishing for the last entry to come out asap because I want to read it and wishig for it to take a really long time to be posted, because I know it would be the last one!

    Like

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