The Emotion Whose Name You Do Not Know: A Katawa Shoujo Retrospecive

It’s strange to think that if Raita hadn’t made those sketches in the back of his pornographic magazine when I was six years old that my life might have gone very differently. But he did and set in motion a bizarre chain of events that would collide with my life only twelve years later on the tenth of January 2012; a hot Summer night that would leave me in tears and inspired to improve my life. I wasn’t the only one. That Summer, 4chan’s horrible boards were inundated with the most positive community I’ve ever seen in my life; people who’d developed a sudden and drastic desire to improve themselves. Thousands took up distance running, drawing, writing, and tea drinking. All wanted to be kinder to others. And curiously, most of those affected claimed to have lost all desire to masturbate; a phenomenon that normally persisted for weeks; and which I can personally attest was real.

The catalyst for these events was the release of the visual novel Katawa Shoujo, by the now defunct 4 Leaf Studios. KS skyrocketed in popularity and, for a time, was discussed more than all other visual novels combined. It was so strongly and widely praised that nine years on, bringing it up tends to elicit only jaded eye rolls, and declarations that it was never really that good. Katawa Shoujo was flawed – very flawed in places – but it’s undeniable that it had a profound and positive impact on an enormous number of people. To me, the question of whether it was good or not is infinitely less interesting than unravelling how it affected me and so many other people more than any other artwork that I know. In the nine years since its release, I have not heard that question answered. I’m going to rectify that. Here, I’ll talk through the moments and design choices that made KS as impactful as it was, those which tainted its reputation, and the psychological mechanism I believe it exploited: the titular emotion you do not know. But first, for the uninitiated, I will explain KS.

I’ve mentioned Honjou Raita; Japanese artist of “Doujinshi;” essentially, self-published works. Back in the year 2000, Raita helped to produce the doujin “Schuppen Harnische;” essentially a pornographic fan magazine of the manga and anime “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.” The doujin would probably have been consigned to the dustbin of history if, in the back pages, Raita hadn’t included three sketches, each proposing a mock visual novel. The first was “Armour girls” about girls in strange suits of armour. The second was “Drill girls,” about mechanical girls with drills for limbs. And the last was “Disabled Girls” – or, in Japanese, “Katawa Shoujo.” The sketches were never meant to be anything more, and probably wouldn’t have been if, in 2006, an anonymous person hadn’t coloured the Katawa Shoujo one and posted the result to 4chan’s /a/ board. Some people there wanted to make it. The incredible five-year journey has been extensively chronicled, so I won’t go into it except to say that a central development team eventually coalesced from the primordial soup of 4chan and called themselves “4 Leaf Studios.” In 2009, they released Katawa Shoujo’s first act as a demo; with the full thing following in 2012.

It goes like this: on a Winter’s day in 2007, Japanese high school boy Hisao Nakai is getting asked out by his crush, Iwanako, when he suffers a violent heart attack. After surgery, he wakes up in hospital, and is told he’s been carrying a latent cardiac arrythmia – his heart is weak. In a moment, his life-expectancy is slashed to around twelve more years, and if he’s hit hard on the chest before then, by a punch or bad fall, he could be instantly killed. Hisao gives in to despair. His friends, and Iwanako, visit at first, but slowly stop coming, until he’s completely alone. The person he was, and the dreams he had for the future are gone; never to be reclaimed. He stays in that limbo for four long months – until, one day, his parents and doctor approach him. They’ve decided to transfer him to Yamaku Academy; a specialised boarding school for the disabled. Hisao’s incensed – him, disabled? But he knows he doesn’t have any choice. Once he’s at Yamaku, Katawa Shoujo really begins. It’s essentially an anthology of five romance stories, each of which sees Hisao fall for a different girl with a unique disability.

Act 1 – Life Expectancy

On a surface level, Katawa Shoujo is about disabilities. And it is; but only in the sense that the Bible is about a group of Jews taking a road trip. Those elements feature, but they’re not what the stories are about, or why they resonate. Katawa Shoujo, like the Bible, achieves its resonance by evoking a specific emotion, one most often called “Elevation,” or “Kama muta.” This is The Emotion You Do Not Know; one you feel when you see a relationship suddenly intensify – like when two people finally become a couple; or are reunited after years apart. It often feels like warmth in the chest, moist eyes, tears, a lump in your throat, “the chills,” or feelings of buoyancy. But the most powerful form of elevation comes from watching somebody selflessly reach down to pick up someone in the absolute depth of self-loathing, or despair. Let me give you an old example:

“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

The Samaritan’s magnificent example evokes significant elevation. It dissolves your cynicism, opens your heart, and fills it with boundless warmth and gratitude that move you to be a better person in real life. Katawa Shoujo is the same. And while the best examples take place on the five routes, there are still examples in Act 1; woven into its narrative while it’s introducing the heroines and getting you onto their routes. So: let’s start with those.

The Grills

ZOON

When Hisao arrives at Yamaku, he’s fresh from four months in hospital, where his life and future were ripped away from him. His happiness, and everything meaningful to him, are gone. He is openly depressed, and ashamed of his new weaknesses. He’s then placed under the wing of his class representative; the deaf-mute Shizune Hakamichi; first heroine of Katawa Shoujo – as well as Shizune’s best friend Misha; who’s fluent in sign and translates for her.

Anywhere else, Hisao’s miserable attitude would get him ditched immediately. Not at Yamaku. Misha and Shizune realise he’s depressed and go out of their way to cheer him up. They do have an ulterior motive: Shizune’s the head of the student council, of which Misha’s also a member – the only member, in fact. They want to recruit Hisao. He isn’t keen, but it’s just what he needs to give his new life some meaning. If Hisao considers joining, then he spends an entire evening helping Misha and Shizune build stalls for the upcoming school festival. It’s hard work done in his own free time. It should suck – but it doesn’t. It’s a warm night, they’re the only ones left in the school, and working the hammer feels peaceful, and reassuring. And, afterwards, when they step back, there’s a sense of pride and camaraderie as they bask in the radiant plywood glow of what they’ve made. Hisao’s been given a place and a purpose. Shizune buys him a drink as thanks, and that small gesture seems to solidify the sense that he’s become their indispensable friend.

Whatever happens, Act 1 ends a week after Hisao arrives, at the aforementioned school festival. If Hisao’s closest to Shizune, then you get one of the best scenes of the act. Knowing he’s depressed, Misha and Shizune drag poor Hisao out to have fun. Out in the sun, among the crowds, he starts to enjoy himself for the first time since his heart attack. It’s the only time in Act 1 that he openly laughs. He plays a ball-throwing game, wins a stuffed cat for Shizune, then works on a second for Misha – when, he has a heart scare. In an instant, his good mood evaporates, and he’s plunged back into the depression he had when he first arrived at Yamaku. It’s one of the best bits of writing in the act, so I’ll read it out:

NARRATOR: “It’s depressing that even something as small as this is enough to make me realize my own mortality. I guess there won’t ever be a time when I’ll be able to forget about it. Even today, when I thought I would be able to just enjoy myself, on this beautiful night and in this beautiful place, I can’t escape the reason why I’m here. I’ve never felt so at peace in my life, in this place which is like nowhere else I’ve ever been. It’s hard now to keep from thinking the unthinkable: That I may just have been sent here to die.”

NARRATOR: “These past few days have been some of the best of my life. The first time in a long time that I’ve ever felt truly alive. But in the end, I’m someone who finds himself reminded every time he climbs too many stairs or throws a ball too hard that he could die at any second. I’ll always be limited by this. I feel depressed by that, and angry as well. In the end, I care about my life, and I enjoy it, and now it’s more transient than ever before.”

This poisoning of his fledgling happiness is bitter, and unfair. He can’t shake it, either, as he trudges up to the school roof with the girls to eat dinner. He’s still feeling it when Misha falls asleep there sometime later.

Then, at last, Shizune’s had enough of his shit. In a fit of frustration, she gets up and throws her arms out wide against the sky; as if trying to hold it between them. It’s as if she wants him to look at what’s in front of him; the glittering festival grounds, the colourful clothes, the firefly sparks, and the mighty, infinite sky. He thinks he understands what she’s getting at: some things in life are so beautiful that to poison them with a bad mood would be unforgivable. He starts to mumble some unfelt thanks – but she isn’t done. Shizune grabs his shoulder, points at the sky – and fireworks start to explode; in showers of gold and violet and green, against the black of night. They’re accompanied by a salvo from the nearby town, so the prismatic storms play off one another like a glittering duet. And when at last they’re finished, Hisao knows her real point: he may have lost everything. His remaining life may be short. But it will still have beautiful things in it, and it will definitely be worth living. Shizune looks happy, proud, and carefree – and why not? Through force of will, she’s wrenched Hisao out of his depression for good. Its darkness will never swallow him again. And, in his own words:

“I feel warm and alive, even in this chilly night air. The image of Shizune standing forcefully before the stars themselves, denying my self-pity, does not leave my mind easily. If… if it only takes a moment for there to be love, I think I may be falling in love with her. Just a little bit.”

Like the Good Samaritan, Shizune pulled up a person in the depths of despair, with no expectation of reward, because it was the right thing to do. This act evokes a ton of elevation. Unusually for KS, I’s the art that lets the moment down; there’s no image as beautiful as the one conjured with words. Still, it’s fantastic.

Lilly and Hanako

That’s not how things had to go. For some readers, even Shizune’s best can’t make up for how irritating she can be. They aren’t the only ones. Shizune has an ongoing feud with the representative of another class: Lilly Satou; second heroine of Katawa Shoujo. Hisao actually meets Lilly long before the festival; the afternoon of his second day. Searching for the library, he stumbles across a disused classroom, where he finds a very tall, very blonde, very beautiful, very blind girl, sitting alone at a desk. Lilly.

She isn’t just a Good Samaritan, Lilly is basically Jesus Christ. Boundlessly patient, perpetually warm; she sees all the world’s needy as her flock. The strength of this scene, and all of her best, is the aura she emits: one like a continual mother’s hug: that carries a sense that all will be well, and that you are special, worthwhile, and loved. This first time, even though Hisao’s a stranger, Lilly offers to make him a cup of tea, and invites him in to sit down. He’s lost and despondent. Lilly changes all of that. Her peaceful aura of warmth and acceptance leaves him happy, and at ease. And afterwards, Yamaku doesn’t seem so cold anymore.

They talk for so long that the sun burns down to a warm orange. Hisao then has to find the library. Lilly’s heading there herself and offers to guide him. Once they’re inside, he goes off to find a book. Down the back though, Hisao finds a dark-haired girl from his class, one he’s seen coming and going at weird times. She is Hanako Ikezawa; third heroine of Katawa Shoujo. When Hisao approaches, she grows stiff and visibly frightened. When he sits beside her, Hisao realises that half of Hanako’s body is covered in terrible burn scars. His reaction isn’t subtle. He tries to talk, but she grows more and more tense until she bolts, stricken, from the library. Hisao hurries back to the front to explain what’s happened. Lilly goes off to find Hanako, leaving the poor boy behind.

Eventually, Hisao learns that Hanako is cripplingly shy, and can hardly face a conversation. Lilly is her only friend – though “friend” is much too weak; they love each other like a mother and child. Their relationship is almost archetypically elevating: Hanako is deep in self-loathing over her own perceived ugliness and fragility, while Lilly loves her in spite of them; recognising the beautiful person that Hanako is. Their interactions generate colossal elevation, and if Hisao befriends them, then he gets to feel it from both sides.

Lilly

Take Lilly. If Hisao befriends her, then one afternoon, he’ll find her by the school gates; on top of the hill on which the school stands. They’re both heading into town, and their descent is magical. The background is a beautiful hill lit by golden sunset, while the nostalgic track “Afternoon” sets a peaceful mood. These elements compensate for the weak descriptive writing and complement the conversation. Hisao opens up to Lilly about his struggles to fit in at Yamaku. She listens; which is all she has to do, because Hisao eventually says that he’ll probably just get used to it; earning a pleased, matter-of-fact nod. It’s a key story beat; one character shows a vulnerability and is met with warmth and support by another; evoking elevation, and deepening their bond.

This is repeated in town, where Lilly asks Hisao to guide her through her weekly shopping. He agrees – meaning she’s now shown a vulnerability, and he’s responded with warmth and kindness. Again, their bond is deepened. Finally, as they walk back up the hill to the school, Hisao’s terrible heart makes his breathing laboured. Lilly shows some concern. If you choose, then Hisao can open up to Lilly here and explain his arrythmia. It’s the only time in Act 1 that he feels comfortable enough to do so deliberately, and Lilly listens without mocking or rejecting him. More than almost anything else, this helps Hisao accept his new self, and be happy with his new life at Yamaku.

Unfortunately, Lilly’s festival scene is far weaker than Shizune’s. There’s no fireworks, or great break through depression. Hisao simply spends the day with Lilly and Hanako, before they all end up at the town’s teahouse, the Shanghai, where they watch the fireworks. Lilly says it’d be a pleasure if Hisao joined them for tea sometime. And though it’s small, it shows that he’s found a place at Yamaku, with people he likes who’ll accept him. Depression never troubles him again.

Hanako

Of course, Hisao can also get closer to Hanako; an experience that’s nearly inverted. Her crippling shyness and insecurity require Hisao to show her warmth and support. And while it’s great to receive them, there’s a great sense of elevation in giving them, too, and watching Hanako grow more comfortable around Hisao. At first, she can hardly stand to be near him. But that gradually changes until, one day, they hang out alone, again, in the library, in the exact same place that they met. This time, a joke from Hisao manages to win a badly hidden smile from Hanako. From anyone else, it’d mean nothing. But seeing it on her face feels like a major achievement and brings a colossal spike of satisfaction. Instead of Hanako running away, she tentatively thanks Hisao for hanging out with her, when he goes to leave. It’s sweet, but speaks volumes about how low her self-esteem is, and how lonely she normally feels.

That’s reinforced at the festival. If Hisao spends it with Hanako, then he realises she’s playing a game as they walk through the corridors; stepping only on dark tiles. It’s childish, and Hisao could easily mock her – but he doesn’t. She’s shown him a vulnerability, and he’s responded with warmth and acceptance. Showing such patience and kindness to someone who’s normally so miserable evokes considerable elevation.

The end of Hanako’s festival scene is much like Lilly’s: the trio are at the Shanghai, watching the fireworks. It’s enchanting enough to enthral Hanako; leaving a child-like look of wonder on her face as her insecurities disappear. It stirs a strong protective instinct. And it’s interesting: though the trio are isolated from the Yamaku students, there’s no sense of their being outcasts or ostracised. Rather, their little group feels complete. Lilly and Hanako are close enough to be family, and Hisao’s now part of that too; a friendship so strong that it will put any the reader has themselves to shame. In supporting Hanako, Hisao’s finds a powerful place and purpose at Yamaku; sufficient to put depression out of his mind.

Emi

Hisao’s depression largely stems from his arrythmia. He can learn to live with the condition – or, he can choose to surpass it. Early on, the school nurse tells Hisao to start exercising, and after some pushing, the boy finally heads to the track one morning. It’s a beautiful day; the sun is out, the grass a vivid green, and the Yamaku grounds silent save for the tap tap tap of someone running around the track – a girl, lacking both legs beneath the knee. She waves, bounds over, and screeches to a halt on metal prosthetics, before introducing herself as Emi Ibarazaaki; the “fastest girl on no legs,” and fourth heroine of Katawa Shoujo.

Hisao met Emi on the previous day, when she ran into him in the corridor and almost literally killed him. It was typical Emi. She’s irresponsible, brash, brazen, careless with rules, boundlessly optimistic, energetic, friendly, and quick to laugh. All that, with her girlish looks, makes her really, really cute. She’s one of the more popular heroines; kind, but down to earth, in the sense she’s foul mouthed, inattentive to her studies, and immature to a degree that’s equal parts charming and an actual problem. She can brighten up a room by walking into it. And, above all, she’s an incredible runner.

Hisao discovers that when he starts running and finds he can’t keep up. His first efforts feel pathetic, and Emi could easily mock him – but she doesn’t. She smiles warmly, and says it’s only important that he’s started. If he can hold out longer and longer, then eventually Hisao will be great. This is essentially what Lilly did: Hisao’s revealed a major weakness, but rather than use it to bring him down, Emi’s told him it doesn’t matter, and encouraged him to keep going, even if things seem bleak. Elevation.

If Hisao’s inspired, then he’ll come back another morning for another run. Emi’s surprised, but welcomes him, and they take off once again. This time, Hisao’s so frustrated by how badly he’s losing that he considers racing Emi. If he does, then his heart goes haywire, and he’s suddenly at risk of actually dying. He stands rigid, eyes wide, desperately trying to get it back under control. A worried Emi grabs his arm, picks him up, and hauls his ass to the nurse, whose door she practically kicks in to announce what’s happened, in tears.

Hisao is fine, luckily – but it’s another one of those moments: he’s shown a crippling weakness, and Emi’s immediately shown support. Without even meaning to, they’ve established a bond. Emi feels guilty about racing him, and apologises by inviting Hisao up to the roof for a “really really good” lunch. If he accepts, then they hit it off, and the next day, Emi offers to make Hisao her official running partner; complete with a full diet and exercise plan.

This carries a deep significance. Running isn’t just running for Hisao; it’s an opportunity to overcome the disability that destroyed his life and refuse to let it define him. Through exercise, he’ll be departing on a dangerous journey; and Emi’s offered to support him and act as a guide. It’s an immense gesture, even if neither quite grasps it. Hisao’ll be entrusting his life to Emi each morning. There’s no word for the kind of relationship they’re taking up; far more intimate than friends; especially because running is private and personal, involving just the two of them, away from prying eyes. Hisao doesn’t grasp any of this – but I think he feels it; and the gratitude stays with him long after.

Emi’s my favourite KS heroine, but even I think that her version of the festival is far and away the worst. Her writer, the Hivemind, said that this was one of the only demo scenes they considered going back to change. They didn’t, so it still sucks. Hisao meets Emi briefly. There’s some banter. Then Hisao goes back to his room and reads through the fireworks. Compare that to the transcendent moment of growth he had in Shizune’s scene. Fucking phenomenal.

Rin

While Emi’s my favourite girl in KS, she doesn’t have my favourite route. That belongs to her best (and only) friend – the final heroine of Katawa Shoujo, Rin Tezuka. Hisao meets her last, midway through festival preparations. Stumbling into a supposedly empty art room, Hisao finds Rin sitting alone, eating her lunch with a fork between her toes – because she has no arms.

When trying to describe Rin, Hisao goes for “unique.” Emi just snorts and says she’s “weird.” Rin has a tenuous connection with reality. She often spaces out, spits out non-sequiturs, and is ignorant of tact and social cues. Aura, her writer, said that he conceived of Rin as a kind of VN “antiheroine.” He succeeded; she’s a perfect inversion of the girl who normally stars in these VNs. Rin’s noted in-text to be “not particularly pretty,” except her eyes. Her artwork backs that up – even as an anime girl, Rin isn’t very good looking. Her personality isn’t alluring either. Even Aura was confused as to why anyone would want to date her. Rin isn’t especially warm, friendly, cheerful, thoughtful, or selfless. In fact, she doesn’t immediately have much to recommend her as a friend or a romantic choice. Her actual route is tonally divorced from the rest of KS, being dark, raw, and cynical. That’s the thing though – Rin isn’t a great partner choice, but she is the perfect vehicle to tell an excellent story. Unfortunately, that left 4 Leaf Studios with a quandary. How were they supposed to “sell” Rin to you in act 1, when she has to compete with four idealised girls?

Their solution wasn’t good: throughout act 1, Rin’s weirdness is presented as charming, funny, and whimsical. Take the scene where she meets Hisao. The girl uses some Sherlock Holmes-esque logic to deduce that Hisao’s disability is a busted penis. Much later, during the festival, Rin starts squirming uncomfortably, and when Hisao offers assistance, Rin just flatly admits that she’s having her period, but doesn’t feel she knows him well enough to let him pull down her pants yet. These moments are funny, but Rin’s route isn’t. It produces an enormous gap in reader expectations. Many people are confused when they start Rin’s route; feeling like they didn’t get what they came for. I was one of them, and it’s why I hated the route when I first read it.

To be fair, Rin’s more interesting side is on display in act 1; that being a girl who sees the world in a weird way and thinks about it much too hard. That’s conveyed through Rin’s mini arc, which sees her painting a mural for the school festival. That’s Rin’s thing – she’s a painter, despite her lack of arms, just like Emi ran without legs, and Shizune leads and represents without a voice or sound. In fact, all three girls seem to deliberately be doing the very things that their disabilities would suggest they can’t. Rin even muses on it: while Hisao sits around watching her paint, Rin tells him the story of a blind boy who joined the art club to sculpt. His sculptures are terrible – but he keeps going. There’s no deep point or moral, Rin just thinks it’s interesting. And it is. The only remark that Rin makes is that maybe we’re all like that boy, deep down; trying to do what we can’t, because we can.

Pseudo-philosophical, feel-good bullshit? Maybe. Back when I was growing up, I could never play sports. If there was a race, speed or distance, you could bet I’d be coming last, or close to. I couldn’t run. That was an iron-clad rule of my universe. But, on finishing KS, I was one of those who was inspired by Emi’s route to become a distance runner. And while the idea of a one-kilometre run seemed insane… it was like she said; I kept holding out longer, and longer, until… well, I never became great. But that impossible one-kilometre run became a stepping-stone to a ten k. Nothing amazing, but to me, it felt incredible – to discover that my limits were only ever limits in my own mind. I’m not trying to pass on some trite bullshit like “You can do anything you set your mind to!” I just want to say that, again and again in my life, as a runner, and as a scientist, and as a writer, and even as a man who always thought he’d be dying alone, I’ve found myself doing things that I always believed I couldn’t – because I could. And Rin’s parable of the blind boy, sticking at his sculptures, speaks to that, as do watching Rin, Shizune, and Emi do, with some effort, the things that people would have always thought that they couldn’t – because they can.

Anyway, Rin continues painting her mural. Sometimes, she gets Hisao to help her fetch and mix paints. Sometimes, he just sits there, providing her a reassuring human presence. She’s not really friendly, but she never tells him to leave, either, and doesn’t seem to mind the company. When Hisao does ask her what she wants him to do, she simply says “Just be.” Those words stuck themselves somewhere deep inside me, and as a young man trying to find his place in the world, I often thought back on them, and remembered that whatever was happening, in the end, it was okay to just be.

Even after they started development, 4 Leaf Studios continued to refer back to Raita’s one-page sketch and deviated surprisingly little from it throughout development. The page actually describes Rin as “The hardest to get,” and she broadly fulfils both meanings of that phrase. Rin is not only the hardest heroine to understand, but you’ll only get her route if you miss or skip all opportunities with the other girls first. If you do that, then Hisao can spend his entire festival with Rin.

The first thing they do is look at Rin’s complete mural. And… it’s weird. The actual mural was drawn by Climatic, a particularly odd member of 4 Leaf Studios. Aura once described him as “A true artist in a team of artists, in both good and bad.” It sounds about right. For a long time, the project’s oekaki; which hosted official and unofficial fan art, was haunted by Climatic’s work. It was almost always surreal, hideous, and slightly creepy; and gave the impression that Climatic was touched in the head, but also weirdly brilliant. Rin’s mural feels like the climax of Climatic. It’s a confronting Picasso-esque amalgamation of body parts, eyes, shapes and tones; full of creepy and deformed figures. How did it come to be? Did Aura give Climatic specific instructions on what Rin would paint, then asked him to make it? Did Aura tell him to go nuts, and he obliged? I don’t know. Most interpretations of the mural tie the large number of body parts to the disabled students of Yamaku. You can read into it whatever you want; much later in Rin’s route, you’ll discover why that’s a waste of time. I think that Rin says it best: It’s a mural, and it portrays a mural. Nothing more, nothing less.

After checking the mural out, Rin has the period problem I mentioned before. Once she returns, she sits beside Hisao, and the two watch the day pass. It feels… boring, and sad. So many cool things are happening, but they make a conscious decision to waste the day as hard as possible. Still… there’s something comforting too, in the way they’re bored and alone together.

Late in the day, Rin breaks the silence to ask Hisao what clouds are. She thinks that they’re like the thoughts of the sky; white, fluffy, and slow. Her own thoughts are like that, which makes her feel like her mind is the sky. This, of course, sounds completely insane, but it’s par for the course for Rin. She isn’t trying to be weird – she’s trying to convey as best she can how she feels. It’s a metaphor; an artist’s answer. Hisao replies with a scientist’s: “Clouds are water. Evaporated water. You know they say that almost all of the water in the world will at some point of its existence be a part of a cloud. Every drop of tears and blood and sweat that comes out of you, it’ll be a cloud. All the water inside your body too, it goes up there some time after you die. It might take a while though.” There is something in this answer that is legitimately profound. The idea that all of our sadnesses, all our struggles, all of us will someday be immortalised inside the profound mountains that drift over the sky; along with every other person, as eternal monuments to all we were, is oddly beautiful.

Hisao and Rin eventually fall asleep – before Hisao is woken by fireworks. Rin soon wakes up too, and they watch the flashes of fire paint the night sky like an abstract painting, with flowers of red, and green and gold. Rin says she likes fireworks – but they make her sad. They’re loud, and bright, but when you look, they’re already gone, like they never were. It’s not just fireworks. Every symphony, every beautiful sunset, every attractive woman, and perfect moment – nothing lasts; and all is fated to fade; first to memory, then someday, to nothing. If you fixate on this, then the best moments of your life will be tinged by an unbearable sadness, as you lament your joys slowly slipping away. There’s only one counter to that kind of thinking, and Hisao gives it to Rin: while everything will fade, we, for now, are alive, and experiencing something wonderful. By seizing hold of that, you can walk forward, and ward off any further grief.

So it is that Rin’s festival variant, which starts so badly, works itself through some beautiful and profound discussions to a gorgeous finish. That’s the side of Rin which makes her route so good, and it’s enough for some of us, even if we’d prefer to swallow knives than actually date her.

The Bad End/Kenji

That’s it for the five threads of act 1. In all of them, Hisao managed to open up and connect with somebody else at Yamaku. But what if he didn’t? What if your choices led to a sixth and final bad end? What if Hisao spent the festival with his crazed neighbour from over the hall, Kenji Setou?

Hisao met Kenji back on his first day at Yamaku, when he made the terrible decision of knocking on his neighbour’s door. From the depths, Kenji emerged, looking something like Harry Potter on crack. Kenji is legally blind, and fucking nuts. His existence is centred on an unshakeable belief that feminists intend to wage an apocalyptic war on men from their secret extra-terrestrial base. In Kenji’s mind, he is the one sane man that can stop them. Kenji is principally a comedic character, and the humour comes from the appalling mismatch between his heroic self-estimation, and the irascible nitwit that he plainly is, as he rants, raves, and waves his arms in the face of a confused and increasingly miserable Hisao.

One of the loose “rules” of storytelling is that if something can be cut, you should cut it. Kenji demonstrates why that advice should never be followed too stringently. He exists as a benign cancer on Katawa Shoujo; contributing nothing to its theme of disability, or to any arm of the plot. In a story built on realistic conflicts and characters, Kenji is a cartoon. The Hivemind, Emi’s writer, claimed that he disliked Kenji for being a pointless, one note character. That’s true. Nonetheless, Kenji is responsible for some of the most genuinely hilarious moments in the VN. Do they need to be in it? Absolutely not. Are they a joy to read? Abso-fucking-lutely. In his finest moment, Kenji cheerily asks Hisao “Hey, you need some lip balm? I accidentally bought two because I thought the store had started selling individual double A batteries.” The joke is funny on at least five levels, I must have read it two dozen times, and still burst out laughing whenever I think of it.

If Hisao doesn’t open up to any girl, or doesn’t try to get close to them, then he wakes up on the day of the festival feeling lonely. It’s exactly what would happen in real life. If you’re unwilling to put in the effort with people, or to make yourself vulnerable, then you’re going to wind up very alone. Or, you’ll be forced to spend the school festival with that weird kid nobody likes because you don’t have anyone else, and even he’s better than being alone. That’s how Hisao finds himself spending the festival up on the roof with Kenji, getting drunk, and listening to him rant about women. Hisao has to wonder how he screwed up his time at Yamaku so badly, before he leans against a fence which gives way; drops him far below and kills him.

Yeah. Like Kenji, the bad end is gratuitous as hell, and doesn’t gel with the rest of the act. Its great strength is its unambiguous finality – you get full closure and don’t even question why things end. As a contrast, consider the VN Clannad: If its protagonist misses his chance with every girl, then one day he goes home, collapses onto his bed, and the story ends. It’s not outlandish, but it lacks closure very badly. As the credits roll, you can’t help but wonder why he doesn’t just get up. Other VNs just have no bad end at all: their choices are structured so that whichever decisions you make, you will get close to one girl. KS could have done that. However, its bad end carries an unspoken lesson: if you don’t put yourself out there, you’re gonna have a shit time. That’s good, and the actual conversation with Kenji is pretty funny, it’s just… I don’t know. The ending feels… out of place. It’s not bad. But it’s not incredible either. It’s just… there.

Yamaku Academy

Story-wise, that’s all for act 1. But before I move on to the routes, I want to talk about some other elements that make act 1 – and the rest of KS – as good as they are. The first is another character: Yamaku Academy itself. The school can literally fade into the background, but the VN’s tone and feeling depend on it. Crucially, Yamaku evokes the Western idea of heaven. Its population is wonderful; it’s isolated over the world, and it embodies the principles of peace, beauty, warmth, and awe. I don’t think the parallels were deliberate; I suspect that we all have a vague sense of what heaven should be, and in making Yamaku wonderful, 4 Leaf Studios tapped into that. There is no other reason why you would place a school for the disabled – who often go into town for supplies – on top of a hill.

How does the school evoke “peace?” There are no busy roads at Yamaku; no news from outside, or pressure to study. It’s in the country. Life there moves at its own pace. Compared to modernity’s chaos, that’s extremely comforting. Likewise, consider “beauty.” The school features wide-open green spaces, and bright blue skies. Glorious golden sunsets bathe things in radiant light. Its architecture – derived mostly from Brown University – is attractive; with classic, old-world designs. Look at “warmth” too, where the developers went to town. The VN takes place in summer, so the sun is usually out. Yamaku’s colours are also warm, with red bricks, and gold-wood desks. There’s no sterile or artificial white, or steel; colours that can feel cold and foreign. Likewise, people almost never use phones, and Hisao never touches a computer. Communication is natural and human. Lastly, there’s awe; an emotion triggered by things that are vast. Again and again, KS creates it using the sky.

These feelings are best evoked on the school’s roof, which is why many of the VN’s biggest scenes are set there. When Hisao looks down from it, the sun shines from a perfectly blue sky. Warmth touches his back. A cool breeze sweeps over him, carrying the scent of trees and flowers. The only sounds are the wind, and far-off happy voices. No gray skies, no cold, no scent of smog or exhaust, or car horns, swearing, or truck brakes. It’s a world you yearn for when life is getting you down.  

Where 4 Leaf Studios succeeded, and almost every other writer has failed, was in creating a heaven that you would actually want to live in. People want to believe that heavens are perfect, but perfection implies stasis; a lack of change, that is antithetical to human nature. We need change, and growth to be satisfied. That’s why Yamaku works. It’s lovely, but it’s constantly changing, and only a short-term place to be. It isn’t perfect – which, oddly, is why it is.

Hisao

The next critical part of act 1 is the character of Hisao himself – or, his lack of it. Hisao is not strongly drawn. The boy has vague interests in science, soccer, and books, but that’s about the extent of him. Many VNs use similar “blank” protagonists, because they’re easy for readers to imprint themselves onto. You feel like you actually are Hisao; an illusion bolstered by your ability to make choices on his behalf. It maximises your immersion into the story, which increases its power. That’s essential for evoking elevation.

One thing hurts the immersion, though: Hisao’s depression. Losing his friends, dreams, and crush casts a long shadow over the boy. The trouble is, you hardly feel it. You don’t know Hisao’s life from before his heart attack, so when it’s ripped away, you hardly care. To avoid that, 4 Leaf Studios would have needed to have shown you Hisao’s life and gotten you invested, so you missed his friends when they were gone. There would have been costs to that, though; beyond the increased development time. If you’d arrived at Yamaku missing Hisao’s old crush, then you’d have been much less willing to embrace his new ones – the entire point of the VN. Giving you Hisao’s depression would therefore have been counterproductive, and while the disconnect is unfortunate, the trade-off was worthwhile.

4 Leaf Studios also knew their aims well, so they got you to Yamaku as soon as possible – scene 3, in fact. Lesser visual novelists might have expanded Hisao’s time in the hospital; shown him waking up on his first day of Yamaku; his nerves over breakfast; his parents’ attitudes; his lingering resentment; or his feelings as he approached the Yamaku region. That all could have been yoked for emotional power, but again, it would have sucked oxygen from the VN’s actual point: It’s disabled girls, NOT disabled Hisao. 4 Leaf Studios knew that and put your attention where it matters.

Choices

Next, let’s talk choices. I’ve already explained how they can immerse you into Hisao, and teach you lessons with bad ends. Their next benefit is how they create narrative uncertainty. In traditional media, you know that stories will be ending happily. Choices and bad ends destroy that certainty. You know that if you screw up, things will be ending miserably – and, you’ll be to blame.

Still, the main use of choices in KS is determining which of the five heroines’ routes you will get. Let’s start with Shizune’s. For her route, you first have to make two of three early choices in her favour, which show that you’re the kind of bold and decisive man she’d find attractive. You’re also given three choices relating to Lilly and Hanako around this time, and again, you have to make two or more in their favour to get onto their routes. Unlike Shizune’s, these ones test if you’d like hanging out with Lilly and Hanako, and if you’d get along with them. Are you curious about the library? Are you gentle with Hanako? And do you think that she’s cute? Unfortunately, the last choice is particularly bad. When you ask the reader to choose a girl so blatantly, the artificiality of what you’re doing becomes clear, and wrecks the reader’s immersion. There’s an even bigger problem, though, which might just be the biggest issue of the act 1 decision tree: early on, Lilly and Hanako share their points. That means that if you don’t find Hanako cute, you’re seriously hurting your chances with Lilly. It’s counterintuitive, nonsensical, and dumb.

These choices lead to a scene at the start of lunch one day. If you have enough points with Shizune, or with Lilly and Hanako, then you can choose to hang with either group – but only them; and you can never pursue the others. It’s good choice design; narrowing down the available routes, while also feeling natural in-story. Strangely, this choice has a later mechanical repeat. Shizune starts an argument with Lilly, and acts like an unjustified bitch. You’re forced to side with one of them. Mechanically, it’s unnecessary; you’ve already eliminated one group, and now you just risk eliminating the others. But here’s the thing: because Shizune is acting horribly, almost everyone will side with Lilly. If you’re already on track for Lilly’s and Hanako’s routes, then great, this changes nothing. But if you’re on track for Shizune’s, then you have to really commit here by being unfair to Lilly. Shizune is a divisive character, so readers ideally won’t get her route unless they really want it. This decision checks that they do.

If that wasn’t enough, there’s another hurdle to get onto Shizune’s, Hanako’s, and Lilly’s routes – Rin’s too, in fact: you have to open up to your friends. For Shizune, she and Misha come to your room, and start to look through your medicines. Hisao is furious; he hates discussing his arrythmia. But he’ll ruin things with the girls if he kicks them out angrily instead of firmly explaining himself. For the others, Hisao has to open up to Lilly about his arrythmia, in the scene I mentioned before. These choices don’t change the girl you get, so I can only imagine they were included to impart a moral: “If you want to get close to people, you’ll sometimes have to open up.”

If you’re closest to Lilly and Hanako, then you have to make one final choice: which of their routes do you get? You can either go into town and meet Lilly, or to the library, to meet Hanako. It’s a decent choice. Instead of blatantly asking “Ya want the blonde or the other one?” it feels circumspect and natural, while leaving you reasonably certain which option will give you what result.

The most infamous quirk of the act 1 decision tree is how easy it is to get locked onto Emi’s route. In one survey, 58% of respondents said they got it on their first go. It’s not hard to see why: unlike Shizune, Lilly, and Hanako, you only have to make two decisions to get Emi’s route, and almost everyone makes the first. The day before Shizune and Lilly’s argument, the school nurse locates Hisao, and presses him on the importance of exercise. You can take him seriously, or not. Given that you’ve seen Hisao’s arrythmia nearly kill him, though, almost everyone takes him seriously. First hoop for Emi’s route: jumped through.

When you exercise with Emi, you’re then given the choice I mentioned earlier: push yourself to race her, or don’t. Young male readers, getting beaten by a girl? Oh no. Needless to say, most of them race her. And, just like that, you’re on Emi’s route. You were all set for Lilly’s and Hanako’s? Tough. You wanted Rin’s? Suck a dick. Ready for Shizune’s? Well in that case, and that case only, you can choose between her and Emi. Otherwise, it’s all aboard the Emi train. You have to wonder why 4 Leaf Studios made it so imbalanced. Aura claimed that he put the act 1 decision tree through rigorous testing and was happy with the results. So – what gives?

While I can’t say for sure, I suspect that it comes down to this: Emi is not the most popular heroine in the VN; that’s either Lilly or Hanako. But Emi isn’t far behind. And more importantly, while I can’t prove it, I suspect that Emi is the least disliked heroine in the VN. I’ve seen people complain that Lilly is unbelievable, that Rin is unattractive and weird, that Shizune is an uptight bitch, and that Hanako is kind of boring. On the other hand, complaints about Emi are rare. She’s down to earth, cute, easy-going, and fun. Even if she’s not your favourite, you’ll probably like her. On top of that, her route is well structured, and fun. The odds people will like it are high, and it’s probably the safest of the five to recommend someone. Thus, unless a person has strong feelings about a particular heroine, giving them Emi’s route first is a good way to sell them on eventually trying all five routes.

That only leaves us with Rin. As I told you before, her route is gotten by the lowest number of first-time readers – 3%, in one poll. Again, you have to ask why you’d design it that way – and again, an obvious answer emerges. Barring Shizune, Rin is the least popular heroine in KS, and her route is also divisive. Its detractors feel that Rin is legitimately unlikeable, and that her route is pretentious, depressing, confusing, and downright forced at times. Of course, those who like it find it beautiful, brilliant, and profound. It’s complex and experimental and appeals to a narrow band of people. I suspect its writer, Aura, knew that, and designed the decision tree accordingly, so that Rin’s route would be tucked away, hard to get, down the back.

It’s only if you’ve blown your chances with Emi, Lilly, Hanako, and Shizune that you can even go for Rin. With nothing to do, Hisao just winds up sitting beside her while she paints. The school’s art teacher stops by and asks Hisao what drew him to Rin. You can answer “I just stuck with her, I guess,” or “I’m interested in the art club.” In other words, if you’re only hanging out with Rin because you’ve blown it with everyone else, then you don’t care enough to keep seeing her. On the other hand, if you show an active interest in art – and not Rin – then you might be interested in the themes of her route and could enjoy it.

How Japanese is the story?

That’s it for choices. But as complex as they are, they would have been just one element that 4 Leaf Studios had to consider when outlining and shaping KS. As I said, a lot of that was set by the directions of Raita’s initial design document. One of them was the setting, a Japanese high school. Some members of 4 Leaf Studios grew to strongly dislike it by the end of the project, and it was probably one of the things that Aura once jokingly called “The stuff we’d like to change but can’t.” Aura himself said after the VN’s release that he’d probably set it in a Russian orphanage if he had to do it again.

I get where he’s coming from. The Japanese high school, as seen in a thousand VNs and twice ten thousand anime, is probably the most overplayed location in all of fiction. Everything that can be done with it has been done with it, and if you have even a passing familiarity with VNs or anime, then Katawa Shoujo’s setting will likely have you rolling your eyes. The irony is that KS was actually my first experience with Japanese high schools. The first time I read it, the setting even seemed novel, and I’ve seen others say the same. It’s therefore weird – KS does have a trite setting, but by coincidence, a large slice of its audience probably weren’t familiar with that setting. I’m not sure what to say then, except that maybe setting KS in a Japanese high school was – ultimately – a good thing.

The setting did come with one awkward consequence, which 4 Leaf Studios never resolved. It’s the question of how to render Japanese names. Briefly, Japanese naming conventions are quite different from English ones. They usually run last name-first name, so that “Albert Einstein” would be “Einstein Albert”. Japanese names are also typically appended with honorifics. So, “Mr. Mutou” would become “Mutou-sensei.” Teenage boys often get “San,” or “Kun.” Lastly, it’s very unusual for Japanese students to call each other by their first names, so Hisao would probably be “Nakai-san,” whereas Lilly might get “Satou-san.”

The developers’ solutions to these problems, at least in act 1, were very awkward. Like when Mutou introduces himself with “I am Mutou.” Any Western teacher who introduced himself with “I am Thompson” would seem certifiably insane. “Mr. Mutou” would have felt more natural and given that Hisao even uses it later in the VN, it’s hard to understand why it wasn’t used from the start. Similar problems crop up with the girls. Three of them make a point of asking Hisao not to call them by their last names, while the other two ignore the matter completely and go straight for first names. Given how unusual both would be in Japan, it just sticks out as an artificial and awkward compromise. Had they gone straight for first names I don’t think anyone would have batted an eye.

Nudge Nudge

One thing the developers consciously chose to avoid was what Aura called “Nudge nudge.” In other words, reference humour. The most blatant example was in the demo. When Hisao was introduced to his class, one of the other students was clearly Lelouche Lamperouge; the protagonist of the anime Code Geass. Lelouche was removed from the final release – but why? Is that kind of in-joke so bad? Most readers probably wouldn’t recognise Lelouch, and if they did, wouldn’t the moment just win a quick smile?

Well, the smile would come at a cost. If you recognised Lelouche, you’d immediately stop thinking about Hisao’s class, and start thinking about Code Geass instead. That distraction is the last thing you want when you’re trying to show your audience that disabled people are normal human beings; a major point in act 1. Worse, Lelouche was a neon reminder that Yamaku is a fictional place. Seeing him breaks your immersion entirely. Immersion is critical for maximising the emotional power of your work. Spoiling it so early for a cheap gag would have bloody foolish. There is a time and place for reference humour, and that’s in light or comedic works that don’t take themselves seriously. They didn’t belong in KS.

There is a good kind of reference for KS, though: those which fit the story and enhance it. The best of these relate to Hisao’s habit of reading. He often name-drops the books he’s working through, which fits his character, and makes him feel more real. Even better are the moments when Hisao uses lines from the books he’s read, without realising it. Early on, Hisao remarks that when his parents learned of his arrythmia, they “practically had two hemorrhages apiece.” The line is directly ripped from “The Catcher in the Rye,” and Hisao using it implies that he’s read it; making him feel more real. Aura once remarked that A22, Shizune’s writer, used this technique often, and wished that the rest of the team had also done so.

Writing

I’ve dealt with the broader concerns of the first act. Now I want to get into specifics. First up: the writing. I’ve seen arguments about whether KS was well-written; none of which ever acknowledged that writing is comprised of many elements, like characters, structure, dialogue, prose, ideas, and themes, and that the quality of these varies enormously throughout KS, given that it was written by five people over five years, and edited by at least three more. I’ve already praised the structure and themes of the first act. Now I want to discuss some specific examples of prose.

Almost every visual novelist knows that the format’s prose is different to that of traditional literature. Having art on-screen art negates much of the need for physical description. Those descriptions are still valuable though, and not just for conveying non-visuals like tastes and temperatures. They also allow Hisao’s feelings, perspectives, and thoughts to colour the scenes. In act 1, this is principally used for humour. Take when Misha “crashes into the room with the elegance of a rhino.” An otherwise flat moment is made evocative and humorous by Hisao’s mocking comparison. Similarly, when Misha is talking to Mutou, she speaks in loud lilting inanities, which are horrific for him. In Hisao’s words, it’s “like looking at a man being tortured by drilling his skull open while blasting pop music at full volume at the same time.” Act 1 is full of touches like these that are genuinely funny and make the characters and world so enjoyable.

Careful descriptive writing can also enchant a scene with mood. Later, in Rin’s route, Aura develops a mastery of that technique. In act 1, however, there are few such moments, and all are crudely executed. One of the best comes after Hisao nearly dies at the track. He’s told to lie down in the nursery and recover. You then read: “The nurse is shuffling around on the other side of the curtains he drew to give me privacy. I can see his shadow shifting about in the sunlight. He has opened the window of his office. It’s windy outside. The clean white curtains flutter in the breeze in a heavy, lazy motion, like waves. Light sifts through them slowly, half absorbing into the fabric. I close my eyes. The breeze on my face feels like the soft fabric of the curtains. I listen to the sound of my heartbeat for a moment, trying to shut out the sound of the nurse tapping away on his computer, and my own heavy breathing. It’s steady.” This lowkey description builds a feeling of peace, warmth, and calm; feeding into the all-important atmosphere of Yamaku.

Outside of style, the KS writers (or editors) also had good eyes for environmental details that authenticate scenes. Take the first time Hisao meets Kenji. The half-sane boy leans in and peers at Hisao, who notes that Kenji’s breath “stinks of garlic.” That sharp and visceral note leaves a strong impression of the guy’s general unpleasantness and social ineptitude, while also making it seem like he’s been eating offscreen; so he feels more like a real person living his own life. Some more examples come when Hisao meets the school’s nurse. Although the background of the scene is a plain room, Hisao notes “His desk is neat and tidy, but the bin under the table is overflowing with used medical utensils and there are at least a dozen coffee-cup rings lingering on the desk.” These details imply that the nurse works extremely hard, and also make his room seem lived in and real – again, like there’s stuff happening even when Hisao’s not there. On top of that, Hisao comments on the educational posters hanging on the room’s four walls, reminding him to eat properly, “three times a day and from all the food groups.” That detail, the overflowing bin and the coffee-ring stains, aren’t even in the background – yet, whenever I imagine the nurse’s office, there they are; creating its authenticity.

It would be negligent of me to say all this without also taking time to discuss some of the truly awful writing that crops up in act 1. There’s one scene in particular that I wouldn’t hesitate to call appallingly written, and it’s unfortunately the very first, when Hisao met with Iwanako out in the snow. A screenshot on the developer blog shows the script of that scene in what looks like its final form in March of 2008, suggesting it’s one of the oldest in the demo. And my god does it show. I didn’t notice when I was eighteen, but reading it again at twenty-six, it’s hard to believe that the team let such an appalling pile of shit get through.

Take the VN’s opening line, “A light breeze causes the naked branches overhead to rattle like wooden windchimes.” What the fuck is that? If the branches were like windchimes, they’d sound like windchimes. But they don’t. Perhaps what they should have written was that the branches rattle like a bunch of fucking sticks. Next, the developers have Hisao transparently clue the reader into what’s going on by having him announce, out loud, “Just how long am I expected to wait out here, anyway? I’m sure the note said 4:00 PM.” Would any real person ever say that? No, they wouldn’t. It’s especially egregious, because he could have just thought it instead.

Hisao next says that “The snowflakes silently falling from the white-painted sky are the only sign of time passing in this stagnant world.” Really. “Stagnant world.” Has anyone, ever, in any country, actually thought that, while watching snowflakes fall? It sounds unnatural as hell, and like a beginner writer trying too hard, which in fact, it probably was. Next, after Iwanako arrives, she asks Hisao what’s described as “A hesitating, barely audible question.” And I’mmm sorry, did they actually mean a HESITANT, barely audible question? Yes they did, but alas and alack.

In all seriousness, the writing in the first scene is awful, and it’s unfortunate that it’s people’s first impression of the VN, because there’s some honestly beautiful writing hiding much deeper inside. The first scene is salvaged only by its magnificent direction; which includes a wonderful snowfall animation, music that carries the mood, nifty visual and aural effects as Hisao’s heart begins to fail, and beautiful artwork that shows Hisao with Iwanako. The scene is also paced excellently and builds to its climax without lingering. But really. Stagnant world. What the actual fuck.

ACT 1 – DIRECTION

I’ve focused on the writing so far, because that’s the element with which I have the most experience. But I also want to talk about some of the other elements through which KS’s story is conveyed – principally, music, art, and direction. And as that last scene showed, these can do a lot to carry a scene even when the writing is weak. But they can also complement and enhance strong writing, which at KS’s best is what they do.

Music in General

I’ll start with the music, because I have the least to say about it. I can really only say that KS’s music is good. In particular, the pieces set the tone and pace of Yamaku wonderfully. The soundtrack almost exclusively features what sound like real, physical instruments – acoustic guitar, piano, flute, accordion, woodblock, cello, and so on. There’s no harsh-edged brass, and rarely anything distinctly electronic. These soft, natural sounds build perfectly on the soft, natural feel of the school.

The musical choices for each scene are also usually fitting – with one exception. It comes after Hisao’s first day at school, when he first meets the nurse and you’re greeted with his theme, “AEIOU.” There’s something ominous about the piece, and I’m not the only one who was immediately put on guard, expecting the nurse would turn out to be a bad guy. He’s actually anything but: Emi’s route reveals that he’s pretty cool, and AEIOU suddenly clicks, like it’s reflecting his chill personality, along with the tension that Hisao feels whenever he visits him, on account of his busted heart. Still, it’s an awkward first impression.

Art

Next, some points on art. To begin, there’s the elephant in the room – much of Katawa Shoujo’s art does not match stylistically and was clearly done by several people over several years. While the artists did their best to match their styles, they didn’t do a perfect job. It’s not even that much of the art looks bad, it’s just that it’s immersion-breaking to see Rin suddenly become five times prettier and stay that way for a few minutes.

The biggest offender with this is Emi. Prior to some overhauls made after the act 1 demo release, Emi’s sprites looked much younger – so much that she was often jokingly called a “loli,” the less than PC term for a child girl; and an uncomfortable reminder of the project’s 4chan origins. Put simply, ageing up Emi’s design would have helped 4 Leaf Studios avoid any accusations that they were promoting pederasty, and it’s not hard to see why they did that. Unfortunately, it had a massive negative side-effect: often, in non-sprite art, Emi still looks like she’s 12; presumably because the dev team didn’t have the resources to change the finished pieces. Again, it’s not the end of the world, but there’s always a disconnect when it happens, that’s far from ideal.

Art – Sprites

Speaking of sprites, there’s something I want to comment on, which is how the developers mostly avoided the “cliché” sprites that are mainstays of manga, anime, and visual novels. These include things like giant sweatdrops to indicate guilt, steam pouring from the ears to indicate rage, and so on. A handful did make the final cut, but they’re used sparingly. Why? Again, these sprites come at a cost. They make your story feel cartoony, and that automatically reduces the weight and impact of whatever occurs. Katawa Shoujo needs weight and impact when serious things go down. Like poor Lelouche, cliché sprites are small things, but they add up, and I think that 4 Leaf Studios were right to kill as many as they could.

Art – Backgrounds

There’s another elephant in the room when it comes to the art, and that’s the project’s backgrounds. Usually, VNs with high production values use custom backgrounds drawn from scratch. That was never tenable for KS, so 4 Leaf Studio fell back on a classic cheap option – filtered photographs. While Aura considered these a major weakness of the project, I’m not really as fussed. Once you start reading, you adjust very quickly, like you’re playing an old videogame. There’s an initial shock at how bad they look, which fades in about fifteen minutes as you adjust.

Actual Direction

So, we’ve got writing, music, and art. In visual novels, the one who ultimately ties these together is a programmer, or engineer; under the supervision of a director. For Katawa Shoujo, all these roles were played by Delta – who was very good. In Aura’s words, Delta was “the true force behind many of the things that make KS as great as it is.” Knowing the magic directors can do, I’ve no doubt that’s true, and you can see Delta’s touches everywhere.

Consider that awfully written first scene, with Iwanako out in the snow. There’s a neat animation of falling snow; which adds dynamism and draws you in. When Hisao starts to suffer his heart attack, there’s an ominous black and red pulse, and overriding heartbeat, which feel alarming, threatening, and do as much to draw your horrified attention as Hisao’s. Then, there’s a custom “fade to black” animation at the end, so Hisao passes out while a dark spiral swallows the screen. These effects feel so natural and intuitive that you barely realise they’re there, but each one had to be conceived of and created, and they do tons to bring the VN to life.

Consider the next scene too, when Hisao’s lying in hospital. There’s a continuous animation of falling leaves outside. It not only keeps the scene from showing a static background for ages, it also conveys the painfully slow passage of time that Hisao is feeling, along with a sense of decay, fading, and death as the brown leaves fall; fitting the mood. There’s more: when Hisao first reads the list of medications he’ll be taking for the rest of his life, the screen cuts to white, and is rapidly overwritten with dozens of medical terms in stark black ink, that build up and overlap one another until they’re an unreadable sea of black; as overwhelming and confusing as it must seem to Hisao.

There’s many more of these details – crowds, transitions, and so on. The VN wouldn’t be ruined if any one wasn’t there. But they all help to lift it to the next level.

Act 1 – CGs.

VNs are usually told with sprites and backgrounds, but art and direction can intersect, so that certain moments are conveyed with bespoke pieces of artwork called “CGs” or “Computer Graphics.” Because these take a lot of effort to make and can’t typically be used outside of one scene, they’re usually saved for special moments. Delta once wrote that he thought CGs were best used in two places: dramatic story moments, which could be enhanced with unique artwork, and moments where there was no choice but to use a CG; because sprites and backgrounds couldn’t otherwise convey the events.

Some CGs fulfil both criteria. The best example in act one is the classroom CG. When Hisao is first introduced to his class, the reader is drawn into his point of view through a CG which shows everyone in a panning shot. It is a big moment. It’s the first time you see what the disabled students of Yamaku look like. This couldn’t have been done without a CG, without creating an additional two dozen custom sprites; a wholly unrealistic proposal. In 2009, Delta wrote that this CG quickly became one of the biggest priorities after the first batch. It must have been difficult – drawing so many characters is a ton of work. But Delta thought the scene would be “very lame” without it, so it was done. And… it’s great. Seeing the disabled kids looking so… normal does so much to normalise disability without a single word being written. As well, outside of this scene, you almost never see Hisao’s classmates depicted. The CG creates an abiding illusion that they exist.

I got to experience just how much worse this scene could have been when I read the demo of a VN that KS inspired, “Missing Stars.” MS had a similar premise, but with mental disabilities as its focus. In its demo, the protagonist finds himself introduced to his own mentally disabled class. But the developers did what Delta never allowed: they took the easy way out, and had the CG show the protagonist. Much easier to make – but it’s hard to convey just how much worse it was. It was the dev team’s big moment to show the audience what mentally ill students look like. But afterwards, I was still in the dark, and for the rest of the demo, I felt like I was in a haze of not feeling like the student body really existed or knowing what to make of them. The KS classroom CG has flaws, to be sure – some of the characters look off, and the writing mentions drawers under the desks that are absent in the image; a rare editorial oversight. But overall, the moment worked. A lesser dev team might have considered settling for a less impactful CG. Not 4 Leaf Studios, and not Delta.

So the classroom CG fulfilled both of Delta’s criteria, and was excellent. What about a CG that failed both? There is one in the VN’s first act. It comes in a scene at the Shanghai, when Misha and Shizune are trying to get Hisao to join the student council. It’s just a shot of them. And… it sucks. The CG doesn’t show anything interesting; they’re just sitting, looking no different to their usual sprites. It was possible to show the moment with sprites, too; many scenes take place at the same table; one of them even happens in act 1. I think the CG might even make the scene worse; because it’s less interesting visually than Delta’s normally dynamic sprite movements. I suspect it was actually made when the team were still very inexperienced, and they eventually decided to slap it into the VN because why not. I can’t help but wonder if it wouldn’t have been better if they hadn’t.

Most CGs aren’t just shown to the reader: the director takes control of the camera and adds zooms, pans, and cuts; to draw the eye and bring them alive. Take the CG where Shizune and Lilly have their argument. The CG is taken over the top for comedy: its background is slashed with lightning, as are the sound effects. The camera cuts between the characters’ eyes like a Mexican standoff, accompanied by the sound of drawing knives. The music is comically over-serious, and the entire sequence ends with a thunderclap. A trite argument is transformed onto an epic parody, making for good comedy.

When it comes to “Big moments” that deserve a CG, it’s hard to ignore the first look at each heroine. Each gets a CG that highlights their personality and disability: Rin seems weird, Hanako nervous, Lilly peaceful, and Emi reckless. Only Shizune doesn’t get one. Her first appearance comes right after the classroom CG, in which she appears. But a proper introduction for Shizune would have been something like her in the student council room, looking imperious, stamping forms at a desk. That moment would have been an awkward detour, though. And it’s interesting: rather than a CG, Shizune is introduced with some of the best descriptive writing in the first act. Hisao notes: “She has short, yet carefully, neatly brushed hair, a pair of oval-shaped glasses balanced on the tip of a dainty nose, and dark blue eyes that seem to alternate every few seconds between analytical and slightly bored.” I’m honestly not sure that a CG could have added a thing: the description captures Shizune’s lack of classical femininity, her attention to detail, diligence, intelligence, beauty, and need for constant stimulation. It’s good stuff.

The last CGs I want to mention are the cut-ins used throughout the VN. They’re small images that show specific objects, like Hisao’s medicine bottle. They’re never essential – the VN would work without them – but they enhance the scenes where they show up. More than anything, though, I think these say something about Katawa Shoujo that I’ve been getting at for a while. While the VN would have worked without the cut-ins, it was better for their inclusion, and 4 Leaf Studios made sure they were included.

I’ve seen projects where the attitude was “It’s good enough.” And that was right. People enjoyed the results. Then – they moved on. In contrast, 4 Leaf Studios seemed to think that “Good enough,” was never good enough. If there was an easy road to something good, and a hard road to something great, they took the hard road, almost every time. When the choice was an easy or hard classroom CG, they made the hard one. When the choice was cut-in CGs or no cut-in CGs, they made them. All the sprites were redone multiple times. The music was redone at least once. 4 Leaf Studios threw out their entire complete script for act 1 more than once, because what they’d made could be better. They excised every reference, because although they wouldn’t hurt immersion much, they would hurt immersion. There were no jokes about giving Rin “A big hand,” because while they wouldn’t have cheapened the VN much, they would have cheapened it. And when it came time to add polish, no one said “Just release the damn thing.” They polished, and they polished, until it was done. And that’s why people loved Katawa Shoujo, why they still talk about it eight years on, and why I’ve written an analysis longer and more complex than my actual PhD thesis to talk about it. Why do people care about KS? Because the developers cared. And you can feel it when a developer doesn’t.

The Five Routes – overview

That’s it for act 1. By the end, you’ll either be dead, or close enough to a heroine to be on her route. These are the real meat of the VN, and they vary lots in tone, scope, and execution. Three of the routes – Emi’s Hanako’s, and Lilly’s – use a formula that’s classic for visual novels. They feature idealised heroines and tell formulaic love stories. By contrast, Rin’s and Shizune’s routes are experimental: they feature flawed heroines who’ll attract fewer people and eschew traditional romantic plots for something unique.

One of Katawa Shoujo’s great strengths is that the five routes are so different in tone and scope. There’s an old axiom in design – “If everyone likes your product, but no one loves it, it will fail.” True to that, almost nobody likes every KS route – but many people love one, and even if they loathe the others, they still rate the project highly.

Unfortunately, this presents me with a serious problem: I’d like to do justice to every KS route – to talk about them with the enthusiasm of those they moved deeply. But I can’t. I’ve only had strong experiences with two of them. All I can do is describe how I experienced them and explain why I felt the way I did. So, with that in mind, let’s dive into one of those two that I loved.

THE ROUTES! 

Emi

Emi’s route was the first one I read back in 2012, which had me fall in love with the VN, gave me “Katawa Dick,” and an overwhelming desire to take up running. Its author, The Hivemind, has a great heart, and fantastic sense of humour, which he poured into the route. Almost every fan of it mentions how fun and likeable they found Emi – and how could they not? She’s friendly and engages in genuinely witty back and forth banter with Hisao that lets them bond naturally and keeps a giant grin on your face for almost the entire route. It is hard to overstate how great that feels.

Following Act 1, Katawa Shoujo’s five routes each contain an Act 2, Act 3, and Act 4. Emi’s second act sees she and Hisao grow naturally from running buddies into a couple. It hardly wastes any time: straight away, it feels like something’s changed. The pair’s interactions aren’t as innocent as they used to be. When they go running, Hisao spots that Emi’s sweat has left her shirt translucent, revealing her black sports bra. Once they’re done, they discuss runner’s high, which Emi brazenly declares is “Better than sex, right?” She’s just trying to fluster him – or, is she?

Hisao can see that Emi’s hot, but if that’s all there was to her, I’d just be telling you that I had a good wank, and we’d be moving on. There is a notable difference, however, between hotness and beauty. A hot woman can ooze sex appeal and put you in mind of one-night stands. But a beautiful woman will speak to your deepest sense of admiration.

There are times when Hisao sees Emi as beautiful: when she runs. Her eyes come alive with a fierce joy; like there’s nothing in the world besides her and the track. Her mouth stretches into a tight grin, like she’s fighting a losing battle but doesn’t care. It’s inspiring. Hisao doesn’t dwell on it much, though – until he’s invited to Emi’s track meet. There, watching from up in the bleachers, he thinks that she’s a great runner. But then, Rin tells Hisao to watch for “Emi at her Emiest.” This time, he does – and sees her: bold, confident, daring, hella cool, and like some god damn goddess of athleticism as she flies over the line to take prize after prize. And when Hisao steps down to meet her afterwards, he’s struggling to not say what he really thinks – that Emi looks fierce, unconquerable, and absurdly beautiful.

The hotness/beauty dichotomy leaves one thing out: cuteness; that stuff related to juveniles that warms our hearts, so evolution can con us into looking after our kids. Of course, adults can be cute too, when they retain some childish traits. Emi does. Not just in her looks, but in her carefree, playful, and even slightly selfish attitude. Like when she has to choose a potential career and writes “Pirate.” Or when, at her post-track meet celebration, she steals Hisao’s cake, despite having her own, and tries to play innocent. Emi’s cuteness warms the heart, gets you to like her, and makes you want to “protect that smile,” as the old meme goes.

So Emi’s hot, Emi’s cute, and Emi’s beautiful. For some readers, that works its magic, and as Hisao falls for Emi, so do you. People don’t often fall for fictional characters; I’ve only had it happen twice. But as a storyteller, you have some real power when people do. Your reader is fully immersed, utterly invested, and when you make things go wrong, you can raise hell with their heart.

That’s exactly what The Hivemind does. Shortly after the track meet, Emi catches a cold. Hisao visits, and winds up holding her as she falls asleep. Then, she has a nightmare; suddenly crying, and jerking awake with a yell of “Dad!” By now, there’ve been enough hints dropped to conclude that Emi probably lost her legs in a car accident which also killed her dad. She’s not over that, and while she soon cheers up, the seeds have been laid for a problem.

Hisao has another problem all of his own: ever since the track meet, he’s been head-over heels for Emi. Unfortunately, she’s very close to “The track captain,” a guy she mentions often. It’s a great story beat. Running is Emi’s life and passion. How is the bookish Hisao meant to compete with “The Track Captain?” It’s a fair bet that most people reading KS will be physically unfit guys who can directly empathise with Hisao’s dilemma. His worries are believable, relatable, and make for a tense story beat as you will Hisao – and in him, yourself – to triumph over his rival.

To do that, Hisao first wants to work out if Emi really has a crush on the track captain. So, asks the nurse; a constantly grinning man with a penchant for weird jokes. He was Emi’s physical therapist back when she lost her legs, and they’re still close now that he works at Yamaku. In this route, he also warms up to Hisao, and becomes quite the bro. And while he’d never interfere in Emi’s personal life, he’s willing to give Hisao some helpful hints. So, when Hisao surreptitiously asks if Emi has a crush on the track captain, the nurse raises an eyebrow, like he’s seen through Hisao completely. Nevertheless, he says he’s confident Emi and the track captain will never, ever become a couple. It’s hard not to share in Hisao almost jumping for joy.

All that’s left is for Hisao to tell Emi he likes her. The perfect moment comes when he and Emi are up on the school roof. But then, out of the blue, Emi tells Hisao that he should hurry up and kiss her if he wants to do it before the bell rings. It’s so audacious, so roguish, so in-character, and so charmingly funny as to be perfect. Hisao even senses that the bold words are tinged with uncertainty, like Emi’s not actually sure he’ll say yes. It just makes her cuter, more sympathetic, and the whole situation so fulfilling as the two of them finally kiss and get together, releasing all of the act’s tension. A more perfect climax I cannot imagine.

Act three naturally starts with Hisao walking on air, and it’s hard not to get on board. For a first date, he and Emi head down to the park for a picnic. They’ve eaten together many times, but it feels fun and exciting given their new relationship. They kiss often, hug more, and it’s just so playful, warm, and believable. There’s a wonderful little bit where they’ve accidentally bought curry bread, and afterwards their kissing tastes like curry. It’s a ridiculous touch that manages to capture the stupid things that always seem to happen on real dates but make them more memorable.

While the relationship is great, though, there are signs of something that will increasingly be a problem: Emi’s unwillingness to open up to Hisao. The day after their date, she seems to injure her leg at the track, but refuses to let Hisao show concern. She skips out on visiting the nurse too – who’s concerned that Emi’s avoiding him. The nurse tells Hisao that if Emi’s injured, he’ll have to make her stop running, for her own good.

It takes Hisao a frankly insane amount of effort and some difficult conversations before he can finally convince Emi to go to the nurse. Once she does, Hisao receives a frantic call. He rushes to Emi’s room and finds that the nurse’s fears were correct. Emi has a leg injury and is now confined to a wheelchair. She puts on a cheerful face, but has clearly been crying, and it doesn’t take long for her façade to crack with a weak “Ah, shit,” before she starts crying again. You’ve never seen her like this. It’s sobering and confronting – but also satisfying that she immediately came to Hisao for support. He doesn’t hesitate to start cheering her up. He does such a good job, in fact, that he and Emi are soon engaged in a pillow fight. It moves to the bed, Emi manages to get out of the wheelchair and pins Hisao down – and things take their natural course; they find themselves rubbing against each other sexually and, before long, Hisao is reaching climax.

This is a perfect place to stop and discuss Katawa Shoujo’s elephant in the room – its sex scenes. These have long been a staple of the class of Japanese visual novels called “eroge,” or “erotic games.” The initiated therefore rarely bat an eye when visual novels get very pornographic. For the uninitiated though, these scenes of hentai, or “H-scenes,” can be highly off-putting. That’s especially true in the anglosphere, where explicit sex has long been a taboo in visual media, like film, and video games. This creates a weird situation. Visual novels lie in a weird borderland between video games and literature. And in literature, explicit sex hasn’t been a taboo since the kerfuffle over D.H. Lawrence’s 1928 novel “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” a book which dared to include sex scenes, and use obscene words like “fuck,” and its derivatives. The novel won howls of outrage at the time, and was banned in much of the West until the 60’s. These days, sex scenes in literature are almost passé. Haruki Murakami incudes one in almost every novel he writes, and he’s a bestseller who’s been suggested for the Nobel prize.

Aura, Rin’s writer, wrote on his blog that he felt mixed about the sexual material in KS. In his words: “This is a tricky thing because again, we almost did a really good job with this, but didn’t quite get there. What I dislike is that there’s enough of it and it’s just explicit enough that it creates a glass ceiling for KS’s audience and for many people tosses KS into the category of eroge. Also this is where many of the devs had divergent visions, so different parts of the novel handle it differently.”

I get that. When I first heard of KS in 2012 – my first VN – the idea of explicit sex scenes really put me off. It seemed so sleazy and gross that I almost didn’t download it, and when I finally did, I hid it deep in my computer hard-drive and was sure to leave the sex scenes turned off on my first read. The devs did make that an option, as a concession to people like me. And even though I took it, I still experienced the same powerful reaction to KS as everyone else. Can it then be said that the sex scenes should have been cut? I don’t think so. Like with Kenji, you can take the sex scenes out of KS without ruining it, but I don’t think it makes the VN better.

What I didn’t appreciate when I first downloaded KS was that the developers didn’t want sleazy sex scenes. In an unsigned blogpost from 2007 – right at the start of the project – one developer wrote: “Katawa Shoujo will be relatively light on porn, probably…maybe. We ended up with an approach that tries to avoid the two common mistakes that games of this genre usually fall victim to: Using the awful plot as a thinly-veiled excuse to shove masses of h-scenes into the viewer’s face, or slapping unrelated porn on top of an otherwise perfectly good game. The reason? The hentai in Katawa Shoujo is not going to be the critical original content, save maybe for some quirks related to the uniqueness of each of the heroines.” In other words, right from the start, 4 Leaf Studios wanted to avoid making KS pure pornography. They didn’t want to write a good story and then shove needless porn into it, either. They wanted the H scenes to reveal things about the characters. In other words, the point wasn’t to let you wank; it was to further enhance the story.

The second time I read KS, I decided to turn the sex scenes on. True to the team’s original goal, I found that they were concerned with revealing character. And true to Aura’s words, I found that their value changed wildly from route to route. While none are essential, I have no hesitation saying that Hanako’s route is much, much worse when you take out its only sex scene. By contrast, I think that Rin’s is mostly improved by taking out its more explicit moments. As for Lilly and Shizune, the H scenes do have value. By not having the camera fade to black when sex begins, you find yourself in a moment of intimate connection between the characters that bolsters your immersion, and attachment to the heroines. As for the sex scenes in Emi’s route: I’ll talk you through as they come up.

After this first one’s over, Hisao and Emi are just discussing going again, when Rin bursts into the room, and flatly declares “I need to use your window.” Ignoring Emi’s naked chest, and Hisao beneath her, Rin walks to the window to examine a particularly interesting cloud. Unfortunately, it’s changed into something else. Disappointed, Rin she sighs, shrugs, and leaves, kicking the door shut behind her as though two people about to screw are so uninteresting as to be unworthy of comment. I think it’s the funniest moment in the VN, and a real testament to the Hivemind’s skill: he could start the scene heartbreakingly with Emi in the wheelchair, backflip through an H scene, and land perfectly with one of the funniest moments in anything I know. It’s a joy to read.

Tied with Lilly, Emi has the most H scenes in the VN. Now seems like a good time to delve into why. The Hivemind has claimed that he did it to illustrate Emi’s character. She’s sporty, physical, a thrillseeker, and a tomboy, so it makes sense that she wants lots of sex; often in fun and inventive ways. Very inventive. In fact, there’s a certain infamous scene coming hot on the heels of the last one. Emi’s come down to the track one morning, in her wheelchair, to accompany Hisao on his run. She asks him to accompany her to the track shed to locate some racing gloves. It’s a lie – she actually wants to jump him there – but, when they arrive, they find some lube on the floor. Emi thinks it was left there by the track captain following an anal session – for indeed, she now reveals that the track captain was, all along, as gay as the ace of spades. Looking at the lube, though, certain thoughts arise in Emi’s head; concerning her, Hisao, and anal sex.

Many people consider what follows to be the funniest scene in KS, and while I don’t agree, I can’t deny that it’s fucking hilarious. The ridiculous premise, the total ineptitude of the pair as they try to work out what they’re meant to be doing, Emi’s comically appalled expression once it begins. No one could masturbate to it, it’s just a god-damn laugh-fest from start to finish, entirely at Hisao and Emi’s expense. On top of that, it’s exactly what the Hivemind wanted: a perfect display of Emi’s character, revealing her sexually adventurous side. And by the end, the pair are laughing about it, and seem to have grown much closer than ever before.

Before we get to the endgame, I should mention a bizarre and pointless subplot that runs through this part of the story. The school librarian, Yuuko, has ordered a bunch of cryptography books, and someone’s stolen them – someone all but outright said to be Hisao’s neighbour, Kenji. This goes nowhere. It has no bearing on the plot and no payoff. The Hivemind himself tweeted, on re-reading the route, that he had no idea what the heck he was thinking with it. Maybe it helps to control the pacing, and to make Yamaku feel more alive, but I really can’t do much to defend it. The whole thing seems to be a relic of an early period in development when Kenji and Yuuko were officially an ex-couple. But… yeah. Weird shit.

Anyway: back in the main plot, the problems that have been brewing are set to explode. By now, it’s impossible not to have grasped that Emi’s father died in the car crash that claimed her legs, and that she still has unresolved trauma because of it. But somehow, Hisao still doesn’t get it. His inability or unwillingness to put two and two together is often criticised for being unrealistic, and I can’t disagree. Anyway, Emi isn’t sleeping well, she looks awful, and seems miserable. Hisao naturally wants to help her. You probably do too; you’ll probably like Emi a lot by this stage. But when Hisao tries to help her… Emi starts to push him away. And the more he tries, the angrier she gets, and the harder she shoves. It hurts to be shut out. It’s painful to watch Emi suffer, but Hisao also feels rejected, like his relationship isn’t that deep, and like he and Emi are just “friends who happen to fuck.” Hisao hardly swears, so his doing so makes him feel especially bitter.

Unknown to Hisao, Emi has reasons for keeping him at arms-length. When her father died, someone she loved with all her heart was ripped away, forever. It hurt so much that she never wants to feel the pain again. In her own mind, if she can keep everyone – including Hisao – at arms-length, she never will be.

Emi has another reason for keeping Hisao away: her entire sense of self-worth is built on being strong and independent. She didn’t let herself become a sad cripple after the car accident; she pushed herself to become “the fastest girl on no legs.” Pride in your abilities can be a potent source of self-esteem; until your abilities are called into question, and your self-esteem comes crashing down. So every time Hisao moves to help Emi, all she hears is “You’re too weak to handle this,” and that pisses her off something fierce. In Emi’s head, letting Hisao help her would mean admitting that she’s weak, and she will never do that. So the harder Hisao tries to help, the harder she pushes him away – until they’re in actual danger of breaking up.

Hisao’s too dense to get this, but he can be set on the right track. When Hisao is struggling with Emi, his teacher, Mutou can ask him a question: if you can’t observe something directly, how do you observe it? The answer: you don’t. You look at the things the object affects and use that knowledge to understand it. When Hisao applies the lesson to Emi, he realises that his best chance of understanding the girl is to ask those closest to her for advice. In that vein, he can get advice from the nurse, and Emi’s mum. And it’s funny: Hisao is doing the thing he’s asked Emi herself to do: humble himself, accept that he needs help, and that he isn’t lessened by admitting it. If he can’t set his pride aside, and tries to do it alone, then he will fail, and he and Emi will break up.

It’s around this time that Emi invites him to come over for dinner at her mum’s place. Hisao’s confused; feeling like she’s pulling him closer right after she’s pushed him away. He’s nervous too – but needn’t be. Mrs. Ibarazaki is a wonderful hostess, who makes Hisao feel welcome. Emi looks great in a cute green dress, too, and the conversation is largely light-hearted. Hisao has a wonderful time. But when Emi leaves the room, her mum can start explaining how the poor girl lost her legs. When Emi comes back and overhears, she’s furious about the betrayal of her privacy. Depending on your choices, Hisao can either leave politely, or be practically thrown out of the house by Emi.

Either way, Hisao still needs one last piece of advice before he can make up. If he left the house on his terms, then he decides to go and dig up a letter from his old crush, Iwanako, which arrived one day, and he threw away half-read in anger. Now, he finishes it – and realises that long ago, he locked everyone out when he was sent to the hospital, and seemed to give up on being happy. Iwanako regretted not telling him how she felt. Hisao is sad and guilty – but he takes the story to heart. The parallels between himself now, and Iwanako, are blatant. He might have ruined one relationship – but he can use the lessons to rescue another. It’s Iwanako’s final gift to Hisao, and brings a surge of warm feelings towards the girl you knew far too briefly.

Whatever happens, Hisao and Emi spend the week after the dinner pretending that it didn’t happen – until Hisao has to address it. The scene can either take place down at the track, or up on the school roof, and… I’m torn on which is better. The track has a lot of significance for the pair, given their training, and the variant has a nice moment where Hisao catches Emi, thanks to all their training – in other words, he can help her, because she helped him. Nonetheless, the roof feels like the more appropriate place for me. I’m probably nostalgic because it’s the first version I got, but it’s also where Emi asked Hisao out, and a scene with a big epiphany, which always feel like they should happen close to the sky.

Hisao finally gets a chance for a one-on-one with Emi. What follows is a masterclass in how to handle conflict in a relationship. Given how these conversations usually go, and how precarious their relationship has become, there’s a sense that the discussion could spell the end of everything. Hisao knows that, but still speaks up. Not for his own sake, but because it’s killing him to watch Emi suffer, and he’s prepared to put his entire relationship on the line on the off-chance he can get through and finally help her. He loves her that much.

What Hisao does would be impressive for any adult. For a boy of eighteen, it is magnificent. He forces himself to remain the bigger person; calm and even-tempered, as Emi becomes completely unfair. He starts by acknowledging and apologising unreservedly for his part in what’s gone wrong, without excuse or qualification. He then states his problem clearly: it’s killing him to see Emi in so much pain. When she suggests that they just break up, Hisao swats it aside; correctly perceiving that neither one of them wants it. Hisao instead offers his own solution: he reiterates that he cares about Emi and accepts that even if she doesn’t want to tell him what’s going on, he will continue to stand by her.

It is a noble and reasonable compromise. Emi must realise that, because she reflexively becomes unreasonable, accusing Hisao of looking down on her, and of knowing nothing about her. They’re unfair accusations that are meant to start an argument so she can push him away. Hisao doesn’t take the bait. He warmly acknowledges that he can’t fathom what Emi has been through, but that to come through as the person she is suggests that she’s incredibly strong, more so even than she thinks. Hisao also says that he doesn’t want to rescue her – he wants to help her, even though he knows she can do it on her own. Emi starts tearing up, and Hisao tells her he loves her. He’s then wrapped in a fierce hug. Emi starts sobbing into his chest and apologises for everything: she’s scared of losing Hisao and loves him but can’t face losing someone again. He holds her quietly; shushing her until she settles down. Eventually, they agree to meet the following day – Emi wants to be able to tell him everything without screwing it up. He says he’ll be waiting.

Emi is caught in the depths of self-loathing, and misery. She is being needlessly cruel. Nonetheless, Hisao turns the other cheek. He reaches out to her and, with all the warmth he has, helps her up, with no expectation of reward, and for no reason except that he loves her, and wishes she could be happy. Elevation; kama muta; call the thing whate’er you will; the emotion here is almighty, as after two, long, thousand years, Hisao unknowingly re-enacts the path of that ancient, saintly Samaritan, and passes his lesson on to one more generation of men, to do with as they will.

The next day, Emi finally takes Hisao “to meet her dad.” Not even he’s surprised when he’s bought to a graveyard. Emi works up to telling him about her father’s death. It’s not the emotional high of the route for me; the roof was that – but it does give it closure. As Hisao says “We’ll go on living until we stop. And when we stop living we’ll be able to know that at least we’ve had time together, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.” It’s the same lesson he passed on to Rin with her fireworks, and as he embraces Emi, there’s a sense that everything’s out in the open now; that she’s willing to let him support her, and they can both move on.

That night, Emi invites Hisao back to her dorm, and asks him to stay with her. They have sex one more time. It feels gentle and warm, now, like it’s an expression of love and not lust. Hisao wakes up beside Emi the next day and thinks that he’s stupidly lucky. They might not be together for ever – as he told Emi, anything could happen, at any time. But they can keep on living, for as long as they can. And when Emi turns to him – looking beautiful, with her hair down free – she smiles at Hisao without a care in the world, and asks, “What are we going to do today?”

Emi – Conclusions

It’s a wonderful final line. Back then, the thing that enchanted me about Yamaku was how, every day, Hisao could take an opportunity to do something new, and it always led to fun, or excitement. When I compared that to my own life, I realised that I sat in my room, playing games, and browsing the web everyday. I wanted a life that made me feel like Yamaku had. So, every day, I made a point of doing one new thing. I got a library membership. I grabbed a coffee with my dad. I even stopped by the old folks’ home to visit my grandmother, for what turned out to be the last time.

Beyond all this was a motivation to drag myself out of the pit of self-loathing I’d been in far too long. I had legs. I had a working heart. I wasn’t pathetic, and I wasn’t helpless. I could run. If Hisao could improve, then so could I. And while I wouldn’t have a cute girl to do it with me, I could imagine one cheering me on, and I could imagine myself becoming the kind of guy who’d deserve a girl like that. Of course, it turns out that learning to love yourself is hard; much harder than working up to a ten k. But that’s a start. And it can be done.

When I re-read Emi’s route for this analysis, I felt that motivation to go out and live, all over again. One afternoon, leaving work, the weather was nice, so I went down to the local river. I lay down on the bank and stared at the scene – a sky; wide, and bright, and blue, and rowers, peacefully flowing back and forth. Instead of going home and watching TV or browsing the web… I had a memorable afternoon, and know I made the most of it. That’s always been what Emi’s route’s meant to me. And you know… Katawa Shoujo’s website lists a somewhat ironic quote for each girl, related to their disability. Emi’s is “Can you stand up for yourself?” But I’ve always thought that it should have been: “What are we going to do today?”

Hanako

Superficially, Emi’s almost the exact opposite of our next heroine: Hanako, the girl with the burns. Where Emi was short, girlish, sunny, extroverted, tomboyish, rude, and brash, Hanako is tall, womanly, dark, introverted, feminine, polite, and hesitant. It’s interesting, because the plots of their routes are almost identical. Both acquired their “disabilities” in accidents when they were young. Emi lost her father; Hanako lost both her parents. Both carry trauma because of it, which tends to resurface around the same time each year and forms the conflict of their routes. Both hate being “protected” by Hisao, and their routes require him to offer support without being overbearing. Thus, those who are more attracted to Hanako can enjoy much the same story, but with a tone and character they much prefer.

Hanako often polls as the most popular heroine in the VN, and it isn’t hard to see why. Her sprite art’s pretty, while her burns mean that she’s not considered very attractive in-universe. For the reader, that makes Hanako a beautiful girl with low self-esteem. She’s non-threatening and available, traits that are always attractive to men, but especially to introverts, who I suspect form the majority of the VN’s audience.

Compared to spending time with Emi, time spent with Hanako isn’t fun. It feels deep. You’re filling an important role in the girl’s life; boosting her confidence and letting her have a friendship she normally struggles to make. For some, that’s more rewarding than time spent with Emi. I’m not one of them, though. Before I get stuck in, I want to be clear: I’m more attracted to Emi than Hanako on virtually every level, and I’ve never been overly moved by this route. If you feel that what’s to come doesn’t do it justice – that’s probably why.

Of course, I don’t think it’s my bias against Hanako that makes me consider her second act the worst in the entire VN. Hisao goes shopping with Hanako. He hangs out with Hanako in the tearoom. On a conceptual level, the scenes are not very interesting. But there’s a bigger problem: Hanako hardly ever talks, so she and Hisao hardly deepen their relationship in this act. Worse, Hanako’s hardly even in it. Of nine scenes, she appears in just five, and one of them can be skipped. By contrast, Emi’s second act had thirteen scenes, of which Emi appeared in twelve. There’s nothing wrong with having fewer heroine scenes; but it irrefutably gives you less time to have your reader bond with them, and this act hardly advances its central relationship at all, except in its final scene.

On a structural level, the scenes of this act also fail to form a narrative. Compare it to Emi’s act two. It told a tight, self-contained story, where Hisao fell for Emi, stressed over the track captain, then finally got with the girl. It built things up, so that when they resolved, it felt elating. By contrast, Hanako’s second act has just one emotional scene – again, its last – and the scenes before it don’t add to the payoff.

Let’s talk about that last scene now. Lilly has privately told Hanako about Hisao’s condition. Hanako doesn’t feel it’s fair – so, out of the blue, she tells you how she got her burns: in a fire, when her parents died. It’s meant to be emotional, but it’s never worked for me. Hanako’s story literally takes two sentences to tell. She doesn’t go into her pain, and because you didn’t know her parents, their deaths aren’t very affecting. It’s like hearing about Hisao’s depression – sad, given its nature, but too distant to really move you. Unfortunately, it’s meant to be the act’s climax, and Hisao’s response – the last words – really say it all: “Well then, we’d better head back to class then, eh?” It just comes and goes without impact. The meandering doesn’t end here, either. It continues until the fourth scene of Hanako’s third act, which is where the route finally finds its feet.

Gradually, Hanako’s grown more comfortable around Hisao, and with people in general. There’s a sense that with just a bit more time, she could exit her shell completely. Then, that illusion is brutally shattered. One day, Hanako comes to join Hisao, Misha, and Shizune on a group project. For her, it’s a first – and, a bad idea. Hisao has thought that Misha and Hanako are total opposites and bringing them together now proves a disaster. Misha is a good person; loud, bouncy, and fun. But that just overwhelms poor Hanako. Worse, Misha and Shizune start teasing Hisao. It’s meant to be fun, but it forces him to reveal that he’s been birthday shopping for Hanako. That’s bad: her birthday is implied to be the anniversary of her parents’ deaths and bringing it up revives her trauma. Here, with everything else, it shuts her down completely. Hisao is so desperate to smooth things over that it takes him thirty full minutes to realise that Hanako is locked up in the middle of a full-on mental breakdown. It’s awful, and even more mortifying to see the progress she’s made be erased. It becomes painful as more and more students start staring; the last thing Hanako needs. There’s anger too; at Shizune and Misha for thoughtlessly causing it, even though they didn’t mean to. It’s engrossing, and one of the best scenes of the route; immediately kickstarting the sputtering plot and catalysing its central conflict.

Hanako is only rescued by the timely intervention of Mutou. The usually ineffectual teacher reveals some hidden talents. He effortlessly distracts the class, calms Hanako down, then has Hisao and Shizune ferry her to the infirmary. There, the nurse bluntly tells you that Hanako’s problems are for himself and her therapist alone. Hisao feels like a helpless child who’s run into an adult problem; one he can’t understand or affect. He heads back to his room, falls onto his bed, and stares blankly up at the ceiling. Just a day ago, he felt like he understood Hanako. Now, he’s forced to admit that he knows next to nothing about her – not her past, not her likes and hobbies, nothing. He’s furious at himself for knowing so little about a friend. The emotions are strong, relatable, believable, and manage to retroactively justify some of the crappiness of act 2 by making Hisao’s lack of connection to Hanako a legitimate plot point.

Later that day, Hisao and Lilly go to Hanako’s room to check on her. It’s the first time Hisao has been there, and he’s struck by its spartan impersonality. Hanako hasn’t personalised her room at all; suggesting she either doesn’t have the money or hates herself so much that she doesn’t feel she deserves it. The girl is lying on her bed in the dark and has clearly been crying. The mood is awful. Everyone knows what the problem is, just as they all know they’re powerless to fix it. No one knows that better than Hanako. She’s shown in a CG, and it’s incredible how much is conveyed through just her expressions. There’s a sense that she’s miserable, and angry at herself for letting the situation get to her, accompanied by self-loathing for being the way she is.

Hanako isn’t the only one feeling awful. Back in the corridor, Hisao finds Lilly looking pale and drawn. Her appearance, normally flawless, has slipped; a sure sign that things are bad. They’re about to get worse. Lilly must travel to Scotland soon, to visit a sick relation. The timing couldn’t be worse. Hanako’s source of comfort is about to be ripped from her at her most vulnerable time, leaving just a teenage boy to help her through.

Everything that happens from here represents a complete shift in Hanako’s route. It’s no longer an aimless meander, Hisao must now ensure that she doesn’t break down completely. The route finally has stakes, conflict, and a real, intractable problem. It should have come sooner, but once it does, the scenes feel gripping, believable, and do a great job of leaving you out of your depth. Hanako’s problems can’t be solved with a trite platitude. The reader has no idea how to help her get better, or even whether that’s possible.

There’s another issue: Hisao has fallen for Hanako. He believes that asking her out could hurt her, though, and wants to protect her. So, he buries his feelings. Dissecting the validity of that choice forms a big part of the route. On the surface, Hisao’s decision is a noble one: he’s set aside his own feelings for the sake of someone he cares about. But there’s a darker side to it, too. Hisao’s actions say something about Hanako that is honestly kind of belittling: that she’s weak and can’t deal with something as key to life as romance. Hisao doesn’t see it that way and would be disgusted if someone framed his choice in those terms – but they wouldn’t be wrong if they did.

Sometimes, people need protection, and there is honour and nobility in being their guardian. But when they don’t, forcing it on them is belittling, insulting and profoundly fucking annoying. When a man does that to a woman, it’s derisively called “White-knighting.” The term is given a nod in Hanako’s route; her last act 1 scene is called “Nc5xb3,” an algebraic chess notation for a knight’s move.

So, is Hisao a noble guardian, or a white knight? At first, it seems like the former. Hanako is fragile and needs people to tread on eggshells. But even Hisao thinks that presents a Catch-22: If Hanako isn’t protected, she’ll fall apart. But if she never leaves her comfort zone, she’ll never get any better. What she needs is a delicate balance of support and tough love, full of tact and compassion. It’s a tall-order; and a miracle that Hisao has any chance to succeed.

At first, his decision seems correct. On Hanako’s birthday, the kids get drunk, and he escorts her back to her room. He really just wants to hug and embrace her, and you sense she’s crushing pretty hard on him. But Hisao forces himself to go. I think it’s the right call. Getting physical with a drunk Hanako could fuck her up once she’s sober. Outside of this though, he’s making a huge mistake: underestimating how quickly Hanako can grow past her issues. Just a week later, when he says that he’ll always be there to protect her; Hanako just seems upset. Increasingly, she doesn’t want protection; she wants to be his girlfriend; but can’t believe he’ll ever see her like that. That’s making her hate herself more than ever. Hisao wants to protect her – but by doing that, he’s actually begun to hurt her.

It’s Lilly who spells this out. Once she’s in Scotland, she calls Hisao to check on him, then flat-out tells him that treating Hanako like a daughter, or someone in need of special care, will only hurt her. It’s a warning to you, and if you don’t heed it, then Hanako is going to hate you.

How things end is up to you. If you disagree with Lilly’s advice, or don’t treat Hanako like an adult, then you’ll get the bad or neutral end.

You get the bad end if you do literally everything wrong. Hanako locks herself in her room and refuses to leave or speak with you. When she does unlock the door, Hisao just barges in. He has the best of intentions: he’s worried about her and wants her to come for a walk. But she tenses up when she realises he isn’t there because he likes her. She tells him to leave. And when he ignores that, she fucking loses it. The moment is shown in an intense CG. It’s one of the only times in the VN that Hanako looks directly at you; her fury overriding her shyness. The sun blares red behind her, and her rage seems to spill into the room like flames. Hisao is honestly frightened as she screams:

“I know I need help! I know I’m broken! I don’t need you to tell me that! It’s written on your face, it’s written on Lilly’s face, it’s written on everybody’s faces! I see a therapist every week, Lilly dotes on me as if I were her child, and now… even you! Nothing’s changed, nothing at all! I hate Lilly, and I… I hate you more than anyone…!”

It doesn’t seem like she means it; she looks miserable once she’s done; like a bonfire that’s exhausted itself; leaving nothing behind. Hisao does leave though, and the writers use some tricks to make it feel final. Hanako’s door shuts with a “final thud,” and the Hanako that Hisao knew “Disappears behind it.” The last line is “But one thing is not questioned; that shutting that door brought a close to more than that single visit.” It feels like there’s no coming back, even though there really should be.

The neutral end is arguably worse. If Hisao disagrees with Lilly, but can treat Hanako like an adult, then he takes her some food, and she lets him in. They share the meal. It tastes “Okay;” much like the ending feels. Hisao says it’s nice; like they’ve gone back to the time when they became friends and shared their lunch breaks. Hanako smiles – but it feels… off. She says “Everything’s… the same as before, isn’t it?” It is. Hisao’s still protecting her. He’ll go on protecting her, too, while they never, ever get closer.

All of this is meant to deconstruct a VN archetype: heroines so pathetic that they need you to rescue them from their emotional pain. It’s an escapist fantasy; one where treating a girl nicely is enough to earn her unconditional love. It appeals to men who struggle to get girls, and want easy, painless romance. But while escapism’s fine in small doses, it doesn’t teach you to overcome your real problems, and can even teach you the wrong lesson, like “be a white knight to get girls.” Hanako’s route deconstructs that and shows why it’s a bad idea – which is great; it’s teaching you to be a better person, which will make life better for you and those around you. And while it’s not the deepest or most useful lesson (there is much, much better dating advice out there), it’s a good point, targeted to an audience who might need it, in a striking and engaging way.

But while people claim this is the lesson of Hanako’s route, I think it’s an unimportant side-show beside the real lesson – once again; that of watching Hisao and Hanako learn to make themselves vulnerable and support each other as they open up about their pasts. They get in the habit of treating these conversations like they’re transactions; an “I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours” sort of thing. The first time it occurs, the scene is even called “Equivalent Exchange.” That was back at the end of act 2, when Hanako told Hisao about the fire that killed her parents. In exchange, he told her that his heart attack was caused by someone asking him out.

The second conversation comes when they go to play pool. The flow of the game mirrors their conversation. It’s Hanako’s break, so she also “breaks” the conversation by asking the first question: does Hisao like pool? He does; he used to play at night when his parents were out at work. Hanako sinks another ball, then says she used to live in an orphanage. When Hisao asks what it was like, she asks for information on Iwanako. Hisao’s received a letter from his old crush, which Hanako has seen. She’s probably worried; like Hisao was about the track captain. But all Hisao can say is that Iwanako is someone he used to like. It’s a dodge, they both know it, and it’s reflected in the game: Hisao’s next shot is skewed and misses its mark. Hanako stabilises things by sinking another ball. She says that the orphanage was nice, but that she eventually realised she wouldn’t be adopted like the other kids. Hisao replies that he’ll always be there to protect her – and sinks the black ball; killing the game and conversation dead. The interplay between them is subtle, and a very neat clue.

The third exchange is the biggest, and Hisao starts it unwittingly. If he accepts Lilly’s advice, then he goes to Hanako’s room one day and says he’s got something to show her. He unbuttons his shirt and reveals the gigantic scar on his chest; memento of his surgery those many months ago. It’s captured in a CG, with Hanako placing her scarred hand over his scar, with a tender expression and far-off look. Is she imagining his trauma, or recalling her own painful history? We’re never told.

This carries an enormous symbolic weight that I think most readers feel. Hisao showing his bare chest would be intimate at the best of times, but what he’s doing here goes above and beyond. He’s deliberately revealed an ugly physical flaw; again, making himself vulnerable, and deepening the trust between them. More than that, he’s established a parallel; and tells Hanako that she’s not the only one who’s scarred. For both of them, their scars are eternal symbols, etched into their flesh, of the worst things that ever happened to them; moments that ripped away their lives and futures. The depth of the connection and understanding is unparalleled in the rest of KS. When Hanako asks why he’s done this, Hisao says that he wanted to prove to himself that he could accept his past and move on, and that he wanted to show that to her as well. While he doesn’t think any more of this, the words seem to resonate with Hanako. Because while he never meant for this to be an exchange, she soon decides to make it one.

After class on a day soon after, Hisao asks Hanako what her life was like before coming to Yamaku. She offers him another exchange of pasts, to which he agrees. They leave the library and go for a walk. For the first time, Hanako seems Hisao’s true equal – she answers his questions without hesitation, and he speaks clearly about his past. It’s only once they stop walking that Hisao realises he’s been following Hanako – and they’ve stopped outside her room.

Once they’re inside, Hanako completes their sharing of pasts. She slowly slips off her ribbon, blouse, and bra, and when the last one falls to the floor, the last of her defences is gone. Hanako stands with her burned and scarred body in full view of Hisao; all of herself, of her past, on full display. “This is all of me,” she says, and it is: not just her body, but the damage that’s been done to her and has come to define her life. She is as vulnerable as she can possibly be. Her scars are terrible; dark, red, and raw; with patterns reminiscent of the flames that must have licked her all over. Beyond the physical, they’re confronting for the sheer force of what they represent; the time that Hanako’s mother burned alive, screaming on top of her, desperately and pitifully hoping that her daughter might live.

Hanako genuinely believes that she is a hideous, broken person, and that all she will ever receive, and maybe deserve from others is a few crumbs of their pity. Having been in her exact position, I can feel an enormous sympathy. To carry a flaw you feel invalidates your right to receive love from others is a hell of a thing. I lived with that burden for years until, one day, I opened up about it, to an almost complete stranger. Had she responded with disgust or mockery it probably would have broken me in a way from which I’d have never recovered. She didn’t. She told me that it didn’t make me any less of a person, and that there was really nothing wrong with me. It seems silly in hindsight, but in the moment, when you’ve shown your ugliest, most vulnerable part to another person, given them the absolute power to destroy you, believed they wouldn’t even be wrong to do it… and they don’t; they hand it back to you gently, and tell you that everything’s fine… that is a hell of a thing.

So, here stands Hanako, naked down to her soul, fully believing that Hisao must see that she’s an ugly and broken and worthless person but hoping against hope that he won’t. And in that instant, when he has the power to break her forever, Hisao states what he genuinely, and fully believes: that Hanako is a beautiful person, and that her body could never change that. From drowning in darkness, she is pulled up and out by the grace of someone who could see a beauty inside her that she could never see in herself.

The moment is wonderful. It is beautiful. It captures in diamond what humanity can be at its absolute best. So of course, Hisao has to go and spoil it by deciding that right now is the perfect time to bury his dick into Hanako. Cut the boy some slack; he’s eighteen and has done a bang-up job ‘til now. But holy shit, you sometimes have to wonder what the fuck he is thinking.

What follows is the most painful and awkward sex scene in KS, and possibly anything, ever. By design, it is awful to read. Neither character knows what they’re doing, or really wants to be doing it; both mistakenly think it’s what the other one wants. Hanako’s entire body flinches when Hisao pulls down his zipper. She can only nod for him to start, without looking at him and, I quote, “reluctantly” sits between his legs. His first move elicits a “squeal of surprise,” so Hisao says “Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you,” – an echo of the first thing he said to her back when he was making his disastrous first impression. Still, they see it through, and afterwards, Hanako at least smiles happily.

Back in Emi’s route, I said that the sex scenes are mostly icing on the cake, and things still work without them. That’s not true of this scene. Hanako’s route is profoundly weaker when it’s not allowed to play out. It says so much; about their continued difficulties with communication, and how they’re both so focused on pleasing each other that they screw everything up for both of them, when everything would work out if they just stopped worrying and were honest with each other. It also clearly shows that Hanako’s become a stronger person. And, it sets up the final conflict of the route. In short, in terms of literary merit, I think that this has to be the best sex scene in Katawa Shoujo.

There’s one more thing: Hisao stops to put on a condom. It’s one of the only times he does, and I once read an excellent fan-theory, arguing that the condom represents the barriers still up between Hisao and Hanako. It’s an awesome idea, except that Cpl_Crud, Hanako’s original path writer, said that Hisao actually puts on a condom because… that’s just what we do in Australia. OH WELL.

Hanako is smiling when she goes to sleep, but she isn’t the next morning. She and Hisao share an almost silent breakfast. Later, when Hisao goes to her desk after class, Hanako freaks out and runs away. Hisao manages to use his phone to arrange a meeting – and when he sees her, they finally clear everything up.

You’ll probably feel a flood of sympathy when Hanako reveals what’s been happening inside her –that she thought she was useless, hated herself; wanted to be more; but believed she never could be. And then, when Hisao reveals that all that was wrong… it’s such a revelation to her. With a flash, she realises that the dark world she’s been living in only ever existed in her head. The illusion shatters, and the strength of that forces her to her knees, weeping. It’s perfect that it happens outside in a beautiful place; as though Hanako leaving her dark room is akin to leaving her oppressive past behind. The CG artist did a wonderful job; the look on her face is so guilty and horrified at what a mess she’s made of things. And when Hisao hugs her, and finally admits that he loves her… there’s pure relief on her face, and you’ll get another powerful kick of kama muta.

There’s some happy smalltalk. Then, Hanako looks at Hisao straight on – and, with the burned half of her face turned towards all passers-by, and hardly a care in the world, asks Hisao to accept her first gift to him, and kisses him full on the lips. She’s transcended herself and left the past behind.

That’s pretty much it for this route. Again, I prefer Emi’s; because it doesn’t have a dreadful act 2, because I find Hive’s jokey style more enjoyable, and because I’m more attracted to Emi than Hanako. On a conceptual level though, Hanako’s route is far more powerful; the second most powerful in KS, I reckon, behind only Rin’s. Hanako’s problems have much more weight to them than Emi’s. Let me put it like this: if Emi’s issues don’t bother her that much in everyday life, and she’ll get over them with time – as the nurse explicitly says she will – then there’s less power in seeing them resolved. By contrast, Hanako’s problems run deep, and affect every facet of her life. When Hisao helps her move on, it feels much more powerful. Her thematic parallels with Hisao also deepen their relationship and strengthen the route’s back end.

Before I move on, there’s one more point I want to make. Back when KS released, parallels were often drawn between Hanako and the heroine of another visual novel: Aeka, from Yume Miru Kusuri, or in English, “A Drug That Makes You Dream.” Like Hanako, Aeka’s a shy girl. Like Hanako, Aeka’s been bullied. But there’s a key difference, and it highlights that most important quality of KS. Unlike Hanako, Aeka’s bullying is ongoing, and at the start of YMK, she’s the target of mental and physical abuse from other students. No authority figure is prepared to step in, and unless you help her, she’ll eventually throw herself from the school roof in an unsuccessful attempt at suicide. Unlike Hanako, Aeka wants and needs a protector. She’s going through hell, put on her by an external source, and isn’t strong enough to overcome it. In the end, you solve Aeka’s problems in a brutal showdown. Following an attempted rape, the YMK protagonist takes her principle tormentor hostage with a knife and threatens murder unless the other abusers leave. Once they do, he starts strangling the captive to death – until he realises he can simply blackmail them instead.

Comparing Aeka’s and Hanako’s routes, a clear difference emerges. In YMK, people are cruel, and authority figures are corrupt and uncaring. In KS, people are kind, and authority figures are – largely – supportive and reasonable. In YMK, strength and violence are required to overcome problems. In KS, you need acceptance and patience. YMK inspires feelings of rage and contempt for humanity. Katawa Shoujo makes you admire it. In YMK, you feel angry, and alone. KS makes you feel grateful and connected. YMK makes you want to be cold; KS makes you want to be warm. Hanako’s story is beautiful. Aeka’s is hideous. Yamaku Academy is a world in which I would want to live; a vision of how good life could be if we found it in ourselves to be nice to each other. The world of YMK is a dystopian hellscape, and one in which I would hope to never find myself. In short, Katawa Shoujo is set up to evoke elevation, while YMK is not. That’s the critical difference. Let’s keep it in mind as we move on to our third heroine.

Lilly[T4] 

If anyone has ever been nice to anyone, it’s our third heroine, Lilly Satou. Alongside Hanako, Lilly often ranks as the most popular girl in the VN. It isn’t hard to see why. When the KS demo dropped in 2009, Shizune’s writer, Anonymous22, claimed that Lilly was more or less the ideal woman of her writer, Suriko. Indeed, Lilly is often criticised for being unrealistically perfect. She’s rich, kind, humble, selfless, loyal, and stunningly beautiful. She’s in perfect shape and has flawless skin. Her blindness is less a flaw than a perk, since it means that your sub-par appearance won’t matter. Neither does her blindness present her with much of an obstacle; Lilly navigates the world just fine. Even her “flaws” – occasional childishness, a tendency to overdo things, being “too kind to burden others with her problems” and, unexpectedly, a high sex drive – aren’t so much flaws as things that make her more endearing and attractive. Amazingly, despite all this, there are not fifteen million men lining up to date her. Yeah, it’s hard to argue that Lilly is not unrealistic and idealised.

To call this a flaw, though, is missing the point. It’s like criticising Jesus for being overly perfect. That he’s “perfect” is the entire point of the story. So it goes with Lilly. Unlike Emi, the appeal isn’t her sense of humour; nor does seeing her feel deep, like it did with Hanako. Dating Lilly feels warm; the reverse of dating Hanako. This time, you feel ugly and unworthy, with an amazing partner that loves and accepts you, despite your flaws. Lilly’s route is therefore the kind of cliché fairy tale romance that you’d normally see in a Disney film, full of beautiful sunsets, and sappy romance. If you can buy into it, then you’ll find the experience utterly stunning. If not, then you’re in for a shallow, cliché route, lacking in themes and character, that doesn’t push boundaries or do anything much original.

I’ve had both experiences. When I first read the route in 2012, I loved it. After Emi’s, it was my favourite in the VN. Re-reading it eight years on, though, I found myself joining its critics. Lilly’s perfection is a double-edged sword. Spending time with her can be wonderful. At the same time, her lack of flaws means the route doesn’t develop a lasting conflict until seven scenes before it ends. That’s not necessarily a problem; low-key scenes can be fun and engaging. But the best tool for them is usually humour, and Lilly’s route doesn’t have much. The only card it can play is its perfect woman with her perfect romance. My first time through, that was enough to keep me engaged. Eight years on, it wasn’t, and I found much of the route to be dull.

Suriko, Lilly’s writer, also had a challenge with the route’s structure: Lilly’s closeness to Hanako. Some events from Hanako’s route logically had to happen in Lilly’s as well. Lilly had to go birthday shopping for Hanako, she had to celebrate Hanako’s birthday, and she had to leave for Scotland when Hanako locks herself in her room. It would be inexplicable if these things didn’t occur. Suriko could have glossed over them – but didn’t; instead he delved into and lingered on each one. It’s therefore one and a half acts before we reach the point in time that Hanako’s route wrapped up. That means it’s one and a half acts before Lilly’s route can start crafting its own, unique identity.

Some Hanako scenes fit the route well. Take going birthday shopping for Hanako. The scene works much better in this route, where it plays out like a date (so much that Lilly sheepishly notes it at the end). You get ice-cream, share small-talk, and bond over tea and coffee. It’s not amazing, but it brings you closer to Lilly in a natural way. Hisao also buys her a music box as a gift, which pays off much later.

Hanako’s birthday is… less good. The highlight is a CG that shows Lilly hugging Hanako. It was in her route too, but this time, the focus is on Lilly at her “Lilly-est:” kind, warm, and deeply compassionate. It’s moving how much she cares for Hanako. Unfortunately, it’s followed by one if the weakest CGs in the VN. Hisao tucks Lilly into bed, and we see her sleeping face. “Sleeping character” CGs work best when they’re showing you a character in a new light; like making an angry person seem sweet and peaceful. Unfortunately, Lilly ALWAYS looks sweet and peaceful, and because she’s blind, her eyes are shut half the time anyway. In fact, Lilly might be the worst character in all of fiction to give a sleeping CG. It adds nothing to her and feels like kind of a waste.

The last sequence dictated by Hanako’s route comes when Lilly departs for Scotland. It’s a brave move to have the heroine vanish for four scenes, but I don’t think it paid off. Hanako locks herself in her room, much like she did back in her own route. But this time it just resolves itself without affecting the story much. Hisao makes some phone calls to Lilly, and while they create some yearning to have her back, that’s pretty weak compared to what Emi’s route was doing at the same point in its story. Then – Lilly’s back. Hooray. It just all feels unnecessary.

Anyway: it’s here, halfway through, that Lilly’s route finally ramps up. Upon her return, she invites Hisao and Hanako to come visit her Summer house in the north. They accept, and the trio head there by train. When they arrive, they find that the north is gorgeous. It’s like Yamaku; beautiful, private, and cut off from the bustle of the outside world. It’s calm, and peaceful – until, while out on a walk, Hisao has a heart flutter, and collapses.

Eight years after reading the route, much of it was gone from my mind, but the next scene was seared into my memory. The girls take Hisao back to the Summer house, where he recovers by taking a nap. Then he awakes. The afternoon sky is glowing red, and after spotting someone through the window, Hisao wanders out to a wheat field. Warm, golden light spills from the sun, and the wheat twists gently in the breeze. Lilly stands alone in its midst. Now, she tells Hisao how horrified she’d be to lose him. He starts to apologise. She tells him not to. Then, she practically hurls herself into his arms, and cries out again and again that she loves him.

It’s the most maudlin of melodrama, and so cliché as to be unbelievable – but it works. It is the archetypal love confession, and Lilly fits it perfectly. I don’t think it would have worked if Emi, Shizune, Rin, or Hanako had been there in her place. Suriko’s writing style is weak and adds little, but that’s fine. The music evokes the mood perfectly, and the artman, that CG. I think it’s the most beautiful in KS, and why the scene is so memorable. The glorious, radiant sunset says everything about how they feel; the surrounding mountains divide them from the rest of the world, as if only they exist; like all lovers feel when they’re alone. When I asked my own girlfriend out, it wasn’t nearly as bright or beautiful as this. But it fucking felt like it, and the artwork captures the feeling perfectly. I don’t know who was responsible, but they knocked it out of the park.

This is all followed by one of the best conversations of the route. Hisao and Lilly head back to the Summer house, where Hisao apologises for his heart condition. Lilly knocks it back, with the words “You can’t help the way you were born, Hisao.” And “You are a beautiful person, Hisao. Please, don’t ever apologize for that.” Wonderful words to evoke kama muta.

Unfortunately, while this stuff is fantastic, what comes next decidedly isn’t. Lilly starts intimating that she wouldn’t mind if Hisao had sex with her. And… I just can’t believe it. Does any couple go from such an anguished declaration of love to sex five minutes later? Does this couple? Lilly, who’s always been so polite and old-fashioned, has secretly been hiding an unquenchable thirst for the dick? And Hisao doesn’t bat an eye? I could believe it eight years ago; I cannot believe it now. It feels ridiculous. The actual sex is fine; both characters are believably nervous. But holy hell.

The pair then make time to tell Hanako that they’re dating. She’s happy. Then – there’s another H scene. Hisao is in the bath, Lilly comes to share it, and they get playful. The scene feels believable in a way the first one didn’t; maybe because the big line has been crossed. It’s creative and brings them closer, so I’m not against it. But here’s the thing: we’ve now had two fucks in three scenes. Overall, Lilly is tied with Emi for “Most H scenes in the VN.” But while Emi’s love of sex was meant to reflect her character, Lilly’s… doesn’t feel like that. It feels like it reflects what Lilly is meant to be: an ideal woman. Which, to use the crass phrase, is something like “A lady in the parlour, and a whore in the bedroom.” That’s not usually how things work in real life, though, and the two sides of Lilly seem to conflict, rather than complement each other; weakening her character as a whole.

I should clarify where I’m coming from: I’ve never read an H scene to wank. If I want to wank, I’ll wank. I don’t want or need it thrust on me halfway through a story. If sex happens, I want it to tie into and complement the narrative; not detract from it. Luckily, Lilly’s final H scene later fits that bill. It takes place in Lilly’s room, back at Yamaku. She’s been trying to show Hisao what blindness is like by having him wear a blindfold, and it escalates to sex. It’s original, believable, and thematically appropriate. Even better, the sex is cut short by Hisao having another heart flutter. Afterwards, he feels that Lilly pities him; which happens several times in this route. It pisses him off, and after two routes of watching him learn to back off with the pity, it’s nice to see it turned around so he can see how belittling it feels.

Anyway: the day after Hisao and Lilly fuck in the bath, they travel back to Yamaku with Hanako. Hisao’s the happiest he’s ever been and wants his present life to continue forever. He knows it can’t though; they’ll be graduating at the end of the year. Worse… he can’t shake a sense of unease that his happiness won’t even last that long. It’s a good final scene for Lilly’s third act, which is why it’s inexplicable that it’s actually the first scene of her fourth. Anyway.

Hisao’s fears are realised in act 4. Now that he’s dating Lilly, Hanako seeks more independence. It’s heart-warming watching her make more friends, but also bittersweet, like watching a grown-up child leave the family home.

Great things are still happening to Hisao, though. The best is an archetypal “Perfect date,” when Lilly invites him to a fancy restaurant. She’s done up to the nines in a cheongsam; a Chinese dress whose name Hisao inexplicably knows. Like that scene back in the wheat field, the writing style here is plain; but the artists and musicians went to town. A smooth jazz track, “Red velvet,” plays in the background, which feels diegetic and sets the ambience perfectly. There’s a fantastic CG too. It’s one I’d normally counsel against; with Lilly just sitting there. She’s looking her absolute best though, with the art quality raised to match. Lilly’s hair cascades down her back and slips off her shoulders. Her expression is deeper, while the dress shows her beautiful pale arms. There’s a blush in her cheeks that isn’t normally there, and her fingers curl elegantly against her cheek. She looks stunning, and the CG makes her ordinary sprites seem positively crude by comparison.

Hisao can’t shake his dread, though, and there are growing signs that all’s not well. While out on a stroll one day, he and Lilly run into Kenji, Hisao’s crazed neighbour. He acts almost normally for once. But while leaving, Kenji accidentally trips Lilly – who lets out a frustrated “Dammit!” as she falls. It should be mild, but with Lilly’s perfect politeness, it feels like she’s screamed a dozen racial slurs at the top of her lungs. Hisao’s worried – he still is the next day, when he stares down at his reflection in a cup of black tea. It’s a great CG which looks excellent, makes his emotions unambiguous, and draws you into his perspective.

Hisao’s sense of foreboding proves prophetic. One day, he gets a call from Lilly’s sister, Akira. She’s a few years older than Lilly; a lawyer, and while Hisao has met her, Akira’s never just called him out of the blue. Stranger still, she asks him to come and meet her at the park, in town. Hisao heads down there – and there’s another great CG. He sits down on a park bench, and you find yourself beside another beautiful blonde in another golden sunset. Except this one feels less triumphant, and more like a reminder that something beautiful will soon be ending. And indeed, Akira tells Hisao what Lilly has been keeping secret: in about a week, both sisters will be departing Japan to go and live with their family in Scotland, forever.

It’s a monstrous betrayal from Lilly – she never told Hisao, and it’s not clear that she was even going to. When Hisao confronts her, he has every right to be furious – but his anger soon evaporates, leaving only sadness. What can he do? So it is that Lilly and Akira depart for Scotland a few days later. It’s like Akira said to Hisao: “Life isn’t a fairytale.”

There’s a reading of KS which argues that the choices of each route are meant to impart a lesson to you. In Emi’s, that was learning to humble yourself, ask for support, and provide that support to others. In Hanako’s, it was “don’t overprotect your partner.” In Lilly’s route, the lesson is “Be honest.” Three times, you have a choice to be open and honest, or to hide your thoughts and feelings. Inversely, Lilly isn’t open and honest with you. She’s too kind to burden Hisao with her problems – which, in the end, just hurts him more, because it doesn’t let him try and solve things. It’s only if Hisao was honest with Lilly that he realises that, on the night she leaves for Scotland. He also thinks that he was never really there for Lilly – and he’s so mad at himself that he feels he has to apologise.

KS is normally slow-paced, grounded, and roughly realistic, but what happens next is pure Hollywood. Hisao hurls good sense to the curb, calls a cab, and sets off in a mad pursuit of Lilly before she can leave the country. He manages to reach the airport running, lungs burning, and amazingly, spots Lilly and Akira through the crowd from behind… before his heart gives out; once more, right when he needs it the most. Hisao collapses, and everything, even Lilly’s receding form, slowly fades to black.

He wakes up in another hospital – and after everything he’s been through, it’s miserable to see him back where he started. Again, his heart has failed. Again, it’s cost him the girl he likes. His disability will always limit him. But this time, he isn’t angry or bitter. He’s just… sad. Hisao thinks about how everyone stared at him; how he had a scar; how he had to take seventeen pills a day; how anything could have killed him at any time – and all of that was all okay, because Lilly was there. And now she’s not.

Hisao falls asleep, then reawakens, still in the hospital, with its foreign sounds. But there’s a familiar one, too: a tiny music box – the one that Hisao gave to Lilly. It’s impossible, but it’s somehow, there, on his nightstand. It dawns – and slowly, Lilly Satou steps through the door, takes one tentative step, then runs to Hisao, before falling on him in an emotional mess. All the feelings she didn’t show when departing Yamaku pour out now. If anyone cries in Lilly’s route, it happens here.

Hisao apologises for not being there for her. He asks her to stay with him, in Japan. She agrees. The credits roll – except, for once, we aren’t done. In a surprise twist, Lilly’s route has an epilogue. Hisao, Lilly, and Akira sit up on a grassy embankment, overlooking the town near Yamaku. They chat for a while – Akira’s arranged to take her boyfriend along to Scotland. She was planning to leave him behind but seems inspired by Hisao’s example. Then: Hisao and Lilly set off to Yamaku, hand in hand. The sky and distant water are a pristine blue, the green grass is speckled with flowers, and they have not a care in the world as they walk away, the scene lacking nothing but “And they lived happily ever after” plastered over the screen.

Post-Lilly

That’s a wrap. The route’s a stereotypical, beautiful romance. Many people love it for that, and even more for Lilly herself. Unfortunately, it suffers more than the others when you don’t vibe with its romance. I’m less attracted to Hanako than Lilly, but I enjoyed her route more, because it featured a lasting conflict with high stakes. Failing to help Hanako meant she’d be miserable, broken, and alone; possibly forever. Losing Lilly hurts if you’ve fallen for her, but if not – then what? She’ll get over Hisao soon and won’t struggle to find a new guy. The stakes feel even lower because she hardly even seems to care that she’s leaving. She says nothing emotional and doesn’t cry when she goes. And I get it; concealing emotions is her character flaw. But it’s hard to care when she doesn’t seem to. All this means that when Lilly reunites with you, it’s not as powerful as it might have been. Again, compare it to Hanako. She hated herself, always had, and believed she’d never be loved. When she broke down crying, the weight of it was immense. By comparison, Lilly getting to keep her boyfriend feels trite.

I suspect that Suriko could feel the route’s lack of tension, because he often tried to insert some in ham-fisted ways. Take Hisao’s ominous feelings about the future. They’re a cheap and meaningless way to build tension; like a musical swell before a jump scare. Likewise, Hisao has several heart scares – 3; in fact. No other route needed to use them for drama, and I suspect it was only done here because there otherwise wasn’t any. The problem is that none of them contributes anything lasting to the themes or emotional payoff.

It’s frustrating because there is stuff that could have been leveraged for drama; especially Lilly’s relationship with her family. Akira claims that they basically abandoned Lilly in Japan because of her blindness. That’s a shocking thing to do, and I don’t buy for a second that Lilly doesn’t have, at the least, some messy feelings about it. Heck, look at her relationship with Shizune. It turns out that they’re actually cousins. And I mean, Lilly continues to honour her terrible parents. But Shizune rubs her up the wrong way, and she cuts the girl off? It’s either inconsistent, or there’s something going on that’s never addressed.

Outside of drama, the route feels thematically barren, and the themes it does have are not well expressed. I said that its central lesson is “Be open and honest.” But Emi’s route also had that lesson and conveyed it better. In Emi’s route, there was a cost to that honesty. It typically pissed Emi off, and pushed her closer to breaking up with you. It showed that being honest, even if it angers your partner in the short term, can be healthier in the long run. By contrast, there’s never a cost to honesty in Lilly’s route, which makes it a shallower version of the message.

Beyond this, Lilly’s route didn’t do much that was really original. KS challenged many romantic VN tropes – heroines became flawed and realistic, instead of wish fulfilment fantasies; increasing immersion. H scenes became thematically appropriate instead of wank fodder. Emi’s and Hanako’s routes deconstructed the fantasy of pathetic girls who need to be rescued. And Emi’s route dared to have a (gasp) non-virgin heroine. By contrast, Lilly’s route… doesn’t challenge many VN tropes or push any boundaries at all. And while that’s not necessarily bad, it does mean that I respect it less than the routes that sought out new horizons. The most cutting thing I can say is to go back to that scene where Akira said “Life isn’t a fairy tale.” It isn’t – but Lilly’s route sure is; finishing with Hisao and Lilly literally walking hand in hand off into the bright sunlight, to live happily ever after.

I’ve been very harsh and want to be clear that Lilly’s route did many things right and had some beautiful moments. And while Lilly’s personality causes problems, it has benefits too, that her critics rarely acknowledge. Making the reader feel loved is something worthwhile. But I feel like the best way to sum up is “Lilly’s route is beautiful – but that’s all it is.” Returning after eight years, I didn’t discover anything new. There were no clever bits of writing I’d missed, no deeper insights to be gleaned. It was what it had always been – a pretty sunset; nice, and beautiful, but nothing more. And I can’t respect it like I respect the other routes – especially the remaining, experimental ones. But while you won’t find anything deep in Lilly’s route, the sad truth is, you probably won’t find it in the next one, either.

Shizune 

When polls are run on the routes’ popularity, they tend to come out the same: Hanako, Emi, and Lilly are close. A short way behind them is Rin. Then, lagging miles behind, is Shizune. Why, of all the routes, is hers almost universally panned? And does it even deserve to be? Aura, Rin’s writer, said that it’s his favourite route beside his own. And the Hivemind, Emi’s writer, said that while Shizune’s route is unpopular, those who don’t like it “are idiots.” So – is everyone missing something? And if so – what?

With Shizune, I think it’s best to start with her writer, Anonymous22. Aura once described him as “immensely combative and prone to obsessions,” and said “simply talking with him could often be a struggle.” A22 and the director, Delta, apparently couldn’t be left alone together. But perhaps the most telling remark came from Nicol Armafi, one of the project’s musicians. Reading KS for the first time, Nicol encountered Kenji and remarked “It’s A22. A22 wrote himself into the game.” I feel that says a lot.

I’m saying this because A22 has always been an enigma. Unlike the other writers, he vanished almost immediately after the project’s release. He’s never given a public interview or answered a single question in the “Ask” thread on the project’s forums. The only record of him is a handful of forum and blog posts. The most revealing come from 2014, when he randomly resurfaced, crashed a thread on the KS forums, and gave all the insight into his work that we’re ever likely to get. So, here’s A22 explaining what he wanted from Shizune’s route:

“When I decided to write for this game I thought that aside from having fun with it I was going to make my route more of a character study than focusing on a plot, because high school plots are dull and transient and it’s more interesting to me to focus on characters and how they think. I also wanted to make it so that large parts of the story would be implied, because much like in real life you would have to read into things, guess what people are hiding, and make assumptions instead of having all the “action” coincidentally happen in front of Hisao. So you would have to read it a couple times to get a full sense of the story because things would be more clearer with the foreknowledge learned from already having played through the game once. I even thought of having Shizune’s sign language […]s be filled with actual lines on subsequent playthroughs but I thought that would be gimmicky and I’m too lazy to do shit like that. Long story short, I decided I’d rather be unclear than cheap.”

This concisely reveals why nobody liked Shizune’s route: it’s a character study. What’s that? Dictionary dot com defines it as “A work of fiction in which the delineation of the central character’s personality is more important than the plot.” In other words, when writing a character study, you aren’t telling a story – you’re explaining to the reader “Why does this person act the way that they do?” Everything in the story exists to explain and develop the character – which means that evoking emotions from your audience, and telling them a cohesive story, are secondary concerns. No elevation. That is our problem.

I want to state up-front that if A22 was being honest, then Shizune’s route was a great success. She is unusual, and the route teases out her motivations and attitudes before offering nuanced takes on where they’ve come from, and what they mean. A22’s plan to have you assume things also came through. Characters lie, tell half-truths, and hide things, and it’s up to you to work out what’s really the case. Even something as big as “Can Shizune lip read?” is only suggested to be true and never answered for sure.

But here’s the thing: we read fiction to experience engaging stories that move us emotionally – the things this route made its secondary concerns. The enjoyment is meant to come from understanding Shizune’s character, but that was never going to move people like a story. Who likes character studies? Writers, and those whose jobs it is to analyse literature. As a writer, I admire the skill that went into crafting Shizune and this route. At the same time, I think that the story of the route is awful, and that Shizune is not interesting enough to make up for the crap you wade through to piece her together. And believe me, there is a ton of crap. I’ll refer back to A22’s words, “High school plots are dull and transient.” And while that’s fine, A22’s character study still has a plot, and it is the most dull and transient of the entire VN; centred on a conflict between two people that would be solved if one of them stopped being stupid long enough to let the other one clear up their misunderstanding. The problem carries no weight, and can’t be invested in.

There’s another problem. Even in 2009, A22 wrote that people wouldn’t like Shizune, but he still wanted to write her with flaws. Again, I admire that. A22 wanted to make a heroine that VNs don’t often see; one that’s combative and domineering. Unfortunately, it left him with another massive handicap: almost nobody was ever going to like or love Shizune. And that, combined with the way the route was written, means that its frosty reception should have been wholly predictable, even from its conception.

Anyway. It’s a character study, so let’s start with Shizune’s character. She is unusual. There are five things you must know to “get” her:

1 – Shizune has to win at everything and turns everything into a competition. And I mean everything – rescuing someone from depression, friendships, sex, everything.

2 – Shizune compartmentalises. After every victory or defeat in those competitions, Shizune wipes the slate clean. If she wins, she enjoys a flash of victory, if not, she learns a lesson. Then, on to the next thing. That’s because:

3 – Shizune has no ultimate goal for herself.

4 – Nonetheless, Shizune wants to leave lasting impressions on people. Anything you build will eventually crumble, but a positive impression can last a lifetime, and creating them is what makes Shizune happy. Lastly:

5 – Having responsibility makes Shizune feel alive, so she’ll always grab more and more of it.

What does all this mean? Let’s compare Shizune with Lilly. In this route, the reasons for their feud are made clear. Despite being cousins, their only similarity is their love of taking on responsibility to improve others’ lives. Beyond that, they could hardly be more different. Lilly has great reverence for tradition; Shizune doesn’t care about the past. Lilly enjoys peace; Shizune thrives in war. Lilly believes there are some things you are just born to be; Shizune would be furious if anyone accepted their fate without a fight.

They have their own takes on why they no longer talk. Ages ago, Lilly was Shizune’s closest friend in the student council. But Lilly joined to help people, while Shizune wanted to take on a ton of responsibility and surpass their predecessors. A side effect of that would be helping people; but not making it their primary goal was unacceptable to Lilly. Beyond that, much of what Shizune wanted to do felt like “meaningless busywork.” Lilly wasn’t wrong; Hisao thinks that the council is swamped under meaningless work at times, and even Misha quips that it would hardly matter if they were dissolved. But while the extra responsibility excited Shizune, it irritated Lilly, and led to many fights between them, until even Lilly’s patience wore out.

Of course, Shizune sees it differently. To her, the old council was a waste of time. She wanted it to be something more – and succeeded. Her council makes experiences that make thousands happy, like fireworks, and festivals. Shizune pulled Hisao out of depression with those. And she hated that while she stressed about them, she could never rely on Lilly to finish things on time.

Of course, Lilly couldn’t finish things on time because she was busy trying to help people – Hanako, among others. For Lilly, how could she see people in need and not help? Shizune saw it differently. The council was making thousands happy. Lilly holding that up for one or two people was selfish, and a betrayal of everyone who had to rely on her – especially Shizune. Of course, most people would say that Shizune was the one being selfish – she comes to believe that herself by the end of the route. Either way, Shizune’s attitude won her few friends. Hisao wonders if she was elected president, or everyone just hated working with her so much that they left, one by one, until finally, Lilly went too. It would explain why Shizune doesn’t have any friends, aside from Misha – and even that friendship is complicated.

So there you are. Shizune’s a complex girl, and we haven’t even got to her feelings on her disability, her inability to befriend others except through competition, or her relationship with Misha.

Act 2 – Learning to Read

But here’s the thing: if understanding Shizune’s character was the point of the route, then I’ve just given you about a third of all there is to know. And, to be frank, I cut the rest from my script because it was very boring. I’ve denied you the experience of piecing it together from small hints – but take it from me, that experience is awful. I’m not going to finish here, though. I’m going to get stuck into why almost nobody liked Shizune’s route. I’m going to switch gears, stop treating it like a character study, and start treating it like everyone else did – as a story. Because that’s where it falls apart.

Shizune’s route goes something like this. Back at the festival, Hisao fell for Shizune “just a bit.” Now, early in act 2, he decides to learn sign language. He wants to hide it from Shizune until he’s good enough. So – what happens when she finally does find out? Shizune must realise that he’s only learned it to speak to her. It’s a huge gesture on his part – Hisao says “It’s actually hard as hell. Like trying to pick up broken glass.” and “Sometimes, I felt like I was clawing my way up a mountain, with how my hands hurt.”

The moment could have been powerful. Shizune could have been grateful, and Hisao could have taken the opportunity to tell her how much her friendship meant to him – how she became his friend, when he had no one. How she inspired him. How she pulled him out of depression. It could have been beautiful. Instead – Hisao says nothing, and Shizune gives no indication that she cares. As a character study, that’s excellent; it captures Shizune’s weird personality. But as a story? It’s fucking hopeless. A powerful moment slips by with hardly a word.

That’s the problem: in Shizune’s route, the emphasis is always on “what does this say about her character?” and not “How will this make the reader feel?” The worst of this comes at the act’s climax. Hisao has decided that he’ll ask out Shizune at the Tanabata festival. He doesn’t worry about it beforehand, so there aren’t any stakes. He just meets Misha and Shizune on the night. They mess around for a while, before Misha says she’s going to turn in early. And so, Hisao and Shizune wind up looking over the schoolgrounds in the moonlight. Hisao asks if she’d like to be his girlfriend. And she says: “Okay.”

That’s it. I’m not trying to down-sell it, that’s how the moment lands. There’s no emotional weight, or impact. It’s a bit charming how low-key it is, and how flustered Shizune gets. But compared to Emi’s and Lilly’s confessions, Shizune’s is hopelessly underwhelming; so much that I can only imagine A22 wanted it to be that way. There was no stress in the build-up, so there’s almost no emotional payoff. Worse, because Shizune isn’t that likeable, you’re unlikely to care whether she agrees to date you or not. I mean, Lilly’s scene also lacked build-up, but at least it was beautiful. Unrealistic and dumb, but beautiful. By contrast… Shizune’s? You just get that “Okay,” with a bland moonlit CG. Is it realistic? Sure; it’s pretty much how things went down when I asked out my own girlfriend. But does that make it better? I still occasionally think about Lilly’s confession scene. I never think of Shizune’s.

Act 3 – Sleight of Hand

That’s it for act 2. Act 3 shifts gears and has Hisao and Misha accompany Shizune to her family home for a holiday. Lilly and Akira are also there, having stopped by before they head to Scotland. The first thing that happens is everyone agrees to head to a nearby lake for a fishing contest. It’s actually the most memorable part of the route; almost entirely thanks to a couple of bright CGs which showcase the drive there, and the fishing. From a writing perspective, though, it’s awful. None of this adds to the story, and even as a character study, it only reiterates that Shizune and Lilly have a bad relationship, and that Shizune is competitive; stuff that we already knew. The sequence feels like needless bloat, and aside from the CGs, there was little reason to include it. That might actually be why it exists. Aura once wrote that A22 and his principle artist, Moekki, had a “stormy relationship,” with the art sometimes “dictating” the writing. I can’t help but wonder if Moekki decided to make these CGs, and A22 was forced to find a way to make use of them.

Regardless, the Satous depart for Scotland the next day, and the rest of the trip is used for stuff that does enhance the character study – namely, answering “Why is Shizune the way that she is?” And to answer that, we’re introduced to Shizune’s family.

HIDEAKI

The first we meet is Shizune’s little brother, Hideaki. He also showed up in Lilly’s route, but he’s given more spotlight here. Hideaki’s only notable trait is that he seems like a deliberate inversion of Akira – where Lilly’s sister is an androgynous woman, Hideaki is an androgynous boy. Unfortunately, that’s the one interesting thing about him. Hideaki contributes so little to Shizune’s route that I can only think he’s another example of A22 having to follow the art. This time I have evidence. Back on the KS oekaki; a board used to share official and unofficial KS fan-art, a 2010 piece showed a tearful Hideaki holding up a sign which read “I’m not a cancer to the game,” accompanied by a guilty-seeming Delta in the comments, who said “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean it that way.”

Let me guess what happened: one of the artists – maybe Moekki – decided that Hideaki should exist, as a cute counterpart to Akira. Delta, aware that Hideaki served no purpose in KS, and that he’d devour time and energy that could be spent better elsewhere, called Hideaki a cancer to the game. If so, Delta would have been completely correct. Hideaki adds almost nothing to Shizune’s route, and there’d be almost nothing lost if you cut him entirely.

He does accomplish two tiny things I should mention: first, Hisao notes that Hideaki is competitive like Shizune, and wonders which of them influenced the other. That’s not so interesting it had to be said. A more important moment comes when Hideaki asks Hisao to teach him sign language. It’s a depressing indication of the fact that nobody in Shizune’s family has bothered to learn sign. But even that’s shown better elsewhere – by the last member of Shizune’s family.

Jigoro

The day after the fishing trip, Hisao wakes up to find a hulking man at the Hakamichi’s dinner table: Shizune’s father, Jigoro – and he is a fucking jackass. It doesn’t even take him three minutes to start insulting, belittling, and being thoroughly ungracious to everyone. Jigoro picks fights constantly, and like a sociopathic manchild, seems to exist solely to self-aggrandise and to diminish everyone else. He seems confused by the idea that he could ever be wrong, and Hisao soon thinks that he’d like to punch Jigoro in the face, were it not for the fact that the man might literally kill him afterwards.

Jigoro seems like he could inject some conflict into Shizune’s route. But there’s a problem – he’s funny as hell. Like A22’s other creation, Kenji, Jigoro is so absurdly out of touch with reality that it’s hard not to laugh at him. When Jigoro insults Hisao’s ridiculous sweater-vest, and Hisao says that he likes his sweater, Jigoro retorts “I’m sure you like huffing glue, too. That doesn’t make it right.” Later, he unironically describes Hisao as “An amoral, directionless, delinquent glue-huffer, with a complete lack of etiquette and absolutely no fashion sense.”

He feels like a cartoon, and out of place in the largely realistic world of KS. Kenji felt like that too, but he was always kept separate from the drama of the routes. Jigoro isn’t. You have to take him seriously, because he’s meant to shed light on Shizune. For that reason, I think he was a mistake. To his credit, he does clarify some aspects of Shizune. A few things that come out of his mouth sound almost exactly like her. Jigoro says that in his own student council days, they had so much work that they couldn’t afford to go on vacation. “It must be nice,” he says, “having so much free time.” It’s the exact kind of nasty remark that Shizune often throws at Lilly, and you have to wonder whether she got it from her dad.

There’s more. One day, when Misha and Shizune go out together, Jigoro talks to Hisao. Shizune’s competitiveness must have rubbed off on Hisao in this route, because he lets himself get drawn into a full-on argument. Hisao likens the experience to talking to a brick wall that also hates you. Incredibly though, he manages to prove Jigoro wrong on something trivial. As the man reels, Hisao launches an offensive and scores a critical hit. He points out that Jigoro hasn’t visited Shizune in ages. Turning Jigoro’s insult back on him, Hisao asks why, if he’s had time to so leisurely write his memoirs, he’s never bothered visiting his daughter. Hisao’s point is iron-clad, and exposes how shitty a father Jigoro is, infuriating him.

Jigoro then strikes back – he says that he doesn’t talk to Shizune because she would never talk to him, despite him hiring multiple tutors and interpreters to try and get her to become normal. As if being deaf was a choice. Jigoro is implying that the breakdown in his and Shizune’s relationship is his daughter’s fault, because she wouldn’t bother with him. It is conclusive proof that he is a narcissistic arsehole who hasn’t even bothered to understand the first thing about his daughter. He’s too self-absorbed to realise he’s dug his own grave in the argument – he is a shit dad. But then, he launches a counterattack. Jigoro asks when Hisao last spoke to his own parents. It’s also a critical hit; Hisao hasn’t spoken to them in ages, and he’s immediately exposed as a hypocrite. Jigoro uses that to dismiss him entirely, while Hisao attempts to salvage things by pointing out that his own situation is different – he can’t see his parents, while Jigoro is just a train ride away from Shizune. He doesn’t care though, and Hisao is left feeling furious and impotent, like a louse crawling on a whale; wholly insignificant.

Hisao’s words might have more effect than he thinks, though. Much later, Jigoro does pay a visit to Yamaku. He claims he’s come to tell Shizune about his new phone; a trip he’s going on, and that she can come too. But Hisao thinks that Jigoro could have easily told her that by email. It feels like Jigoro’s trying to save face by refusing to admit that he’s come to visit his daughter. It is a kind gesture – but old habits die hard, and when Hisao finds them, Jigoro is ranting and raving at his deaf daughter.  Shizune doesn’t seem unhappy with the relationship; I suppose she doesn’t have to hear him. Even so, I struggle to believe that she is happy with such a lousy dad. Even if he does care about her deep down, he’s still a titanic ass. And when Hisao wonders what Shizune must have been through to make her the way she is, I found it hard not to think of the angry and dismissive Jigoro, yelling and prodding at his increasingly cold and self-reliant daughter.

The First H Scene

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s return to Shizune’s house and look at her and Hisao’s relationship. How’s that going? Well, it… kind of isn’t. And here’s where everyone complains: from the moment Shizune agrees to be Hisao’s girlfriend, it never once feels like they’re dating. It’s as if the scene where they got together was a dream. They never hold hands. They don’t kiss, or touch, or get quality time together in the first five long scenes of Shizune’s third act. And the fact that none of this comes up in Hisao’s narration feels… unbelievable. There are signs that Shizune’s avoiding him so that Misha won’t feel awkward – but again, why not make it more explicit?

All this changes one day, when Hisao and Shizune get a moment to themselves. The girl ties Hisao to a chair and fucks him. That’s the only way to describe it; there’s no love, or connection. Hisao’s hands are bound, so he can’t sign, and may as well be gagged. Shizune just does what she wants with him. And from a character perspective, it works. Shizune sees everything as a competition, so of course, she has to “win” at sex by dominating Hisao. That’s a great example of her character manifesting in her actions. It’s also great from a story perspective; the scene shows how dysfunctional their relationship is, and how far they still have to go. You cannot have a relationship without communication, or where the needs of one person are not being met. And Hisao’s aren’t – he says later in the route that he wanted to be in control here. It’s subtle, but the scene implies Hisao and Shizune are on track to breaking up if the girl can’t change who she is. For these reasons, I think it’s one of the best H scenes in the VN. I’m also informed that it’s great to wank to, so, you know, there’s that, too.

As a last point here: I think you can tell a lot about a writer by the way they describe an orgasm. For instance, while I like Emi’s route, The Hivemind is not a great prose writer, and he settled on the dull “I succumb to the feeling of climax.” If you’ve never spent time trying to describe an orgasm, then it’s actually rather interesting. It’s almost impossible to do without using some variant of “I have an orgasm,” or “It feels really, really good.” Here, A22 does a decent job by invoking a metaphor: “A fleeting feeling of power and flight.” It’s not bad – the sense of weightlessness is quite nice, though “power” hardly rings true to my own experience. I actually got stuck at a train station at two in the morning once, after an especially long shift, and had half an hour to come up with my own metaphor. The best I could do was “One instant of nirvana, of blind fire, of furious and pure perfection.” I say this because it’ll be important later. Now, moving on:

Enter Shiina “Misha” Mikado

Not long after the H scene, Hisao, Misha, and Shizune travel back to Yamaku – where, halfway through act 3, the plot finally kicks off. Nothing captures the issues with this route more succinctly than the fact that once they’ve finished it, many readers claim it’s actually Misha’s route. A22 did not understand this. In 2014, he wrote “I always found things like “I like Shizune but not her route” and “It’s actually Misha’s route” to be funny because this entire route was written to reflect the character” – Shizune – “and everything in it exists for the character. Thus making these meaningless statements.” What A22 missed was that no one read Shizune’s route as a character study. They read it as a story – and despite his best efforts, the most engaging character in that story is Misha. Her conflict and desires drive the plot and form its emotional core. Hence: Misha’s route.

She’s been in the background ‘til now, but there’re increasing signs that she’s stressed. Hisao spots her looking strangely down one day. Another time, Misha and Shizune have their first disagreement in front of Hisao. It’s about something trivial – but then, some days later, he realises that they’ve fought over something more serious behind his back. There’s a big elephant in their relationship, and it can no longer be ignored.

One evening, Hisao leaves the student council, then realises that Misha has followed him back to his room. Something is off as they talk. Misha says it’s funny: the happier Shizune gets, the more depressed she feels. Then – she tries to seduce Hisao. It comes out of nowhere, and you’re given the only choice of the route: comfort Misha – sexually – or refuse. If you refuse, as you obviously should, then Hisao pushes her off him, and… it’s sad. Misha just sits there a while, before giving a hollow laugh and apologising. Hisao’s angry – at her, and himself, for letting it go so far. Still, Misha claims that she only ever wanted to ask him, and that she’s happier he said no.

Of course, you can also “comfort Misha,” in an H scene. Many people are annoyed by the choice. Misha’s clearly upset, so it’s natural to want to actually comfort her. It’s not obvious you’ll be doing it with your dick. And while the reader can pick up on the subtext, it’s more ambiguous than it needs to be. The scene itself is terribly off-putting. It’s not uncomfortable like Hanako’s was, it’s just sad. Misha can’t even look at Hisao and is stiff with nervousness. The sex is wholly mechanical, and physically painful for Misha. She asks you to finish quickly, in a voice permeated with sadness, which makes Hisao feel horribly guilty. You aren’t comforting her. You’re both betraying someone you love, for nothing. It’s another H scene without which I think the VN would have been weaker. It does little for Shizune’s character but is emotionally gripping.

Whether or not Hisao gives in, he decides he’ll take the night with him to the grave. He’s terrified of facing Misha again, but also worried she’ll be more depressed than ever – and, he wants to know what’s going on. He finds her alone the next day, up on the school roof, and it’s here that Misha’s façade of good cheer – for a facade is all it’s ever been – evaporates. She is openly depressed. Misha closes her eyes and, like a condemned criminal, confesses a deep and terrible secret. Long ago, she was sitting beside the person she loved, on a warm afternoon, while a glorious sunset filled the room. Misha had fantasised about the person for so long and wanted to sit beside them forever. So: she confessed. She told Shizune that she loved her. And she was rejected.

Misha’s wanted to be Shizune’s girlfriend more than anything. But day by day, her dream’s getting more impossible. She hasn’t always been bubbly and cheery. Misha was miserable when she arrived at Yamaku; it’s all but said that that she was bullied at her previous school. She’s a kind, wonderful person, who’s been hurt again and again, for no reason. Worse, she couldn’t move on after being rejected. Misha made herself into Shizune’s shadow; living only to make her happy. It worked – until you came along. Once Shizune’s happiness depended on Hisao, Misha was doomed. To make Shizune happy, she’d have to make herself miserable. And she has. A lot.

When Hisao began learning sign, Misha believed she’d soon be redundant to Shizune, and would have no more reason to live. It must have killed her. Still – she went along with it. During Tanabata, she turned in early, so Hisao could ask Shizune out. That must have killed her too. She got a haircut; to try and show she’d moved on. But she hadn’t. And now, as you and Shizune get happier, Misha’s getting more and more miserable. But despite everything, despite all she’s sacrificed, she doesn’t wish you hadn’t come to Yamaku. She just wants to die instead. Her grief is the emotional peak of the route; based on a problem that’s relatable, intractable, and which clearly affects her. Shizune has none of that. Hence – Misha’s route.

The Second Argument and resolution

Once Misha finishes, there’s a creak from behind you, and Shizune steps out onto the roof; anxious to reconnect. Hisao soon leaves so she can make up with Misha. Everything seems resolved – except they now have a bigger offscreen fight.

Again, we must reconstruct it from what we’re told. Basically, Misha offloads on Shizune. She accuses her of being selfish and confusing, and of pulling people in around her only to push them away. She yells that Hisao might as well replace her. The accusations cut Shizune to the bone because they’re true, and she knows it. By the end, Shizune feels like a shit friend, and a bad girlfriend. She captivated Hisao and Misha, pulled them in, then failed to nurture the relationships. Hisao can live with it, but Shizune feels guilty. She tries to apologise to Misha, but that just upsets her more. Shizune normally fights with everyone, over everything. If she won’t bother to fight with Misha, isn’t that proof she doesn’t care? Shizune actually respects Misha too much to fight with her – but they finish without clearing it up, and their relationship worse than ever.

I want to stress that this is never actually shown; you have to piece it together from hints. That was a big undertaking, done on my third or fourth readthrough of the route. Again, if A22 wanted you to have to do that, he succeeded. I just feel like what I’ve described is much less interesting than the actual scene would have been, and the process of piecing it together did not make up for that. In other words, while I think A22 met his ambitions, I think those ambitions were ill-conceived.

The argument forces Shizune into some critical introspection. She feels responsible for Misha’s woes and wants to put them right. Unfortunately, she treats this like a competition, because that’s all she knows how to do. By focusing on “fixing” Misha though, she isn’t stopping to consider Misha’s actual feelings. That leads her to try telling Misha to just stop being down. To no one’s surprise, that fails. It’s crazy – Shizune is great at cheering people up; she’s pulled Hisao and Misha out of depression before. Hisao thinks that the real problem is this: Misha only wants to be pulled out of depression by Shizune, but no longer feels she can accept Shizune’s help. How do you solve that one? Eventually, they figure it out: Shizune can cheer up Misha by using a proxy – Hisao. She’ll still be the one helping Misha, but it won’t feel like it.

So, Hisao grabs Misha the next day, and takes her on a tour of the school. He describes how crap he felt after his heart attack, how he let himself grow bitter, how that cost him his friends, and almost cost him his new life at Yamaku. The parallel to Misha is so obvious that even she picks up on it. Once he’s done, Misha asks Hisao why he’s trying to cheer her up. He offers several reasons – because she’s Shizune’s friend, because he liked how close they were, because he doesn’t want to see her give up, and because she’s his friend, too. None of these answers satisfies Misha. There’s a sense that what she really wants to hear is “Shizune asked me to do this.” But the bell rings before she does.

If Hisao didn’t sleep with Misha, then this sets her on course to cheering up. And again, it feels like a letdown. There’s no emotional climax where Misha gets over it; no big reconciliation with Shizune. And again; I get it. It’s realistic, and sentimentality was not A22’s goal. But from my perspective – and the perspectives of most of those who read the route – it’s another opportunity for something moving hurled straight in the trash.

Shizune’s developments

The route ends another way if you slept with Misha. Even after the pep talk, she never cheers up. Shizune becomes increasingly withdrawn and falls into the same self-loathing she once saw in Hisao and despised. She starts thinking that she put Misha through hell and screwed with her pointlessly for two years, before selfishly dragging Hisao into it and failing to fix a thing. The source of everyone’s problems was always her. She always competes with people – and if that’s how she builds relationships, then aren’t all of them trash? Her selfishness has ruined everything for everyone, so it’s best if she cuts herself off from everyone – including Hisao. At least, that’s what she eventually tells him. Shizune reaches this key decision without ever consulting her partner. It’s the same flaw she showed in her H scene, only now it’s grown to poison everything. Hisao can only walk away from his now ex-girlfriend, who he betrayed, for the last time. Did she find out about him and Misha? You’re never told, and true to A22’s aims, you’ll have to decide for yourself.

It’s the only time that Shizune is openly sad, looking like she’s about to cry. It’s shown in a CG, and what sells it is the stupid purple cat doll in her bag – the one you gave her back in act 1. It hasn’t been mentioned in ages, but she kept it all the same. It meant something to her. You meant something to her, even if she never showed it. And you betrayed her, causing her to hate herself and blame herself for everything, then take actions that will make her unhappy and alone, perhaps for years. Shizune just wanted to help people, and that was her reward. Well done, you piece of shit.

This scene was the only time I cared about Shizune, because it’s the only time that she clearly cares. She suffers from the same problem as Lilly – she rarely shows her vulnerabilities. That makes it hard to care about her problems; exacerbated by her not being particularly likeable. All this makes the ending much less moving than it could have been. Again, that wouldn’t have mattered to A22 – the scene illustrates Shizune’s character, so it’s fine, right? Well, not for us who wanted a story.

Unfortunately, the good ending suffers even worse. Once Misha is better, Shizune comes to appreciate that her approach to life has been flawed. She wants to be less competitive. The epiphany really lacks weight, though. We’ve hardly seen Shizune affected by her problems. Her epiphany will let her go on, hardly being affected by her problems. Again, it’s a fine illustration of her character, but poor emotionally. On the plus side, the development is conveyed to the audience through an H scene. This time, there’s no ropes, or domination. It doesn’t feel like a competition. Hisao and Shizune have sex, as equals. It’s like she says – changing yourself is hard, but it is possible. Like her first H scene, this one illustrates her character, and is engaging to read. It’s a shame the whole route wasn’t like that.

There’s more to Shizune’s development, but I honestly struggled to make it interesting. The best part is when she says she started to look down on Misha for not having a goal. Now that Misha’s cheered up; she’s suddenly become very serious about teaching sign language, though. That means that Misha has more of a goal than Shizune, who’s never had one. As is typical of her, Shizune frames this like a competition between herself and Misha – one that she has lost. It’s spurred Shizune into considering what she wants from life, and she’s decided to become a philanthropist. She has a direction now – meaning the only person who lacks one’s Hisao.

Hisao

Hisao’s been something of a non-entity in Shizune’s route, even for him. That’s a shame, because when he’s allowed to take centre stage in the last scene, you get one of the best of the route, and the whole VN. It’s the last day of school, and everyone is graduating. It feels wistful as Hisao looks at the new student council of 2008. He imagines what they’ll accomplish, but also looks back at everything he’s managed to do with it. Afterwards, he briefly talks to Misha, who’s planning to go overseas. She tells him he has to look after Shizune. It’s proof that Misha’s relinquished her role as Shizune’s shadow and is now passing Hisao the job of making her happy. She’s finally grown from a shadow of a person and moved on.

The pair run into Shizune out by the front gates. Misha goes to talk to her, while Hisao hangs back. He has a monologue instead, which I’ll just read out:

“I think I know what I want to do now, and when it hit me, I didn’t feel particularly fired up, or anxious. It is the opposite. I feel at peace for the first time in a long time, and I want to savor that feeling a little more. I think that I want to teach here. As soon as I thought this, a long, winding road appeared in my mind. An uncertain road, that leads back here. I wonder if I’ll be able to meet someone in the future like me. Someone filled with bitterness. I want to talk to that person, since I can’t talk to myself. I want to tell them that life is too short; something that couldn’t be told to me, only shown. I want to do it without pity. If I had been pitied, I’m sure that I’d have only died a little more. When I think about that first week, I still think about how well it went. So well that it could only be called the result of kindness. I feel like I want to show others the same kindness. And I also want to keep chasing Shizune.”

It’s beautiful stuff. And growing older, I can relate to Hisao. That sense of looking back at all the things you wish had been said to you, but no one was ever there to say. You want the next generation to have better.

The last thing that the Yamaku student council of 2007 do together is take a ridiculous photo. And like all high school graduations, there’s such a mix of emotions – triumph, excitement, a sense of limitless possibility – but sadness too, of so many beautiful things that have been and now will never be again. It’s easy to get lost in that sadness if you let yourself, to let it paralyse you, and stop you from moving ahead. Hisao doesn’t. He isn’t like that anymore. Neither is Misha. And neither is Shizune. A sad celebration wouldn’t suit her. Instead, she adopts a ridiculous pose, thrusting one arm into the air. Hisao and Misha copy her – and the last shot of the route is the three of them, together, in front of the school they’ve served: Misha, pumping her fist, with an excited, carefree grin there for real on her face. Shizune in the middle where she’s always been, looking confidently ahead to a future she’ll no doubt dominate. And Hisao with a quiet, determined smile on his face, as these thoughts go through his head:

NARRATOR: “I want a copy of this photo, too. I’ll likely die younger than the average person. My life could unexpectedly burn out at any time. I don’t have any time to waste, then. I want to live as much as possible. I also want to see other people smile from what I’ve made and done. Living vicariously through the happiness of others doesn’t seem so bad. Feeling joy through another person’s happiness doesn’t seem like such a bad thing. It’s the easiest way I can think of to draw out my own life, and give it distinction. Maybe this is the meaning that Shizune has found for herself, although it’s just my theory. People find themselves alone often in their lives, and without direction. However, people can take refuge in moments of happiness. They can dot a person’s life like stops on a train map. Or waypoints of memory on a long trail. These individual moments, on reflection, can give a person’s life fulfillment. Every friend, and festival, and joyful meeting, and joyful parting. I want to be able to ask Shizune one day if I’m right. I want to spend the time I have with her. Finally, I want to make Shizune smile for herself.”

It’s here that he tells her that he loves her – verbally; knowing she can’t hear. And as everyone acknowledges that they’ll have a reunion someday, the camera cuts up to a perfectly blue sky, full of promise for the future, as Hisao confidently declares that someday, the three of them will meet again in the same place. It’s a beautiful, and emotional finish; and one of the best scenes in the VN.

Post-route musings

For me, Shizune’s route is so frustrating because A22 was one of the most competent writers in 4 Leaf Studios – behind only Aura, in my opinion. Aura once wrote that A22 was like a “word sculptor, carefully shaping sentences until they are perfect to his liking.” I could feel it. There was an awful drop in sentence quality when I returned to Hanako’s and Lilly’s routes. Stiff and unnatural dialogue abounds in both, while it’s rare to non-existent in Shizune’s. A22 is also a serious contender for funniest writer in 4 Leaf, and I’m not sure whether I’d ultimately give it to him or the Hivemind. I still laugh out loud when I recall Misha’s casual shirt, which simply reads “Bush/Cheney 2004,” in English, a joke that’s so funny on so many levels.

There’s a specific type of humour that A22 excels at: the portrayal of complete buffoons who are ignorant of how ridiculous they are. Kenji and Jigoro are fine examples, but he also wrote one more, the protagonist of one of 4 Leaf Studios’ two minor visual novels, “The Answer.” It’s hilarious. Years on, I still burst out laughing when I think of some of the jokes, especially “She gives me the same look my mother gave me when I told her I wanted to be an air-conditioner repairman.” A22 is well-suited to be a comic writer, so it’s disappointing that he couldn’t really leverage that for Shizune’s route.

It’s also clear that A22 could have written a route like the other four if he’d wanted to. Misha’s story is no less emotional. The last scene also shows that A22 could write an extremely compelling Hisao – if he’d extended his struggles with life direction to earlier in the route, I think that Shizune’s might have wound up as a contender for my favourite route. I suspect that A22 would scorn anyone who used popularity as a measure of quality; I would too. But let me just quote A22, from “The Answer”:

“A large part of writing is about striking a balance between your personal ambitions as a writer, and the responsibilities you undertake when you choose to pursue becoming a storyteller. Cater too much to your audience and you’re pandering. Likewise, if you start thinking that you can disregard their opinions and chase only what you want out of writing

Then it’s just a wank.”

Shizune’s route was a wank. A22 pursued what he wanted, without regard for his audience. I think the actual story of the route was surprisingly okay. The issue is its emotionality. I’ve mentioned how Shizune’s stoicism makes it hard be moved by her problems. But the route also suffers from its blasé Hisao. In the other routes, events clearly made him sad, anxious or angry. That never happens here. Even after Shizune breaks up with him, Hisao never shows clear signs of regret, or anguish. He’s just… flat. You can claim he’s being written subtly, but it makes it hard to care.

The emotionality is also hurt by having so many big moments happen offscreen. I get it, it’s realistic, and you’re meant to piece together what happened. At the same time, it means we don’t get some of the most emotional moments of the story. You CANNOT say “there is cool shit happening offscreen,” and expect it to move your audience. You can argue these moments would be emotional if the reader considered them hard enough, but that’s just getting them to write the scenes for you. You might as well substitute the entire route with the sentence “something extremely amazing happened,” and let the audience go to town. No one would accept that, and I don’t accept this.

In exchange for all that, what did A22 achieve by making Shizune’s route a character study, and having things happen offscreen? The answer: not much. It isn’t terribly interesting. Even re-reading it in detail for this analysis, connecting the dots, and trying to figure everything out as A22 wanted… I had a shit time and learned nothing useful. I think a lot of what he did was clever, but it’s clever like a Jackson Pollock painting – no matter how much thought and craft went into it, the end result is indistinguishable from a baby that ate an avocado and shat on a canvass.

Like a Jackson Pollock painting, I also think that those who’ll appreciate Shizune’s route the most are those invested in the craft. And I do. I admire his decision to work with an unlikeable heroine. I admire his decision to try something different. I admire him trying to take the action offscreen. The best comparison I can make is to Joyce’s novel Ulysses. I hated reading it, but it taught me a ton about writing. But while I admire Ulysses, I don’t love it like I do other stories. There’s a scene in this route where Shizune says that Hanako loves chess not because of its mechanics, but because of the memories she associates with it – the feelings. Most people are like that with stories, and it’s why I can’t love Shizune’s route.

I keep coming back to the novel “The Great Gatsby.” It, too, is a character study. The point of view character, Nick Carroway, is a vehicle by which the reader comes to unravel the story of the much more interesting Jay Gatsby. A big part of the novel is understanding why Gatsby does what he does. But the book is also a story, and it made sure that Nick was present for Gatsby’s biggest moments – reuniting with his old flame, the final argument with her husband, etc. You never feel short-changed. But you do with Shizune’s route, over, and over again.

Angry, Drunk, A22

When A22 resurfaced on the KS forums, he made some arguments against the points I’ve raised here. I’ll go ahead and read them verbatim:

“How can people seriously talk about “this medium” and writing for “this medium” and talking about the story, the characters, speculating about this and that, when what they actually want is “more touchy-feely stuff?” Do you realize how fraudulent that is? People say they want to be engaged, they want to think, they want something different. In reality, you’re intellectually lazy. You want your hand held, you want to be made to feel special, you want to be emotionally manipulated. This doesn’t mean that emotional value in writing is inherently cheap or bad. There’s nothing wrong with playing with a reader’s emotions and evoking feeling. But when nebulous “feels” become the entire benchmark, that’s just disgusting. If you are reading a static visual novel over and over again because you’re addicted to feeling something, that is rather hollow.”

In response to someone else, he added:

“But what is catharsis without intellectual engagement? Think of all the times I am sure you’ve read some comment like “I’m going to replay this for the sixth time to revisit the feels.” Really? The feels? You got nothing out of this experience but a bunch of nebulous “feels” that you keep going back to solely for the purpose of feeling something. And this always struck me as very strange and off.”

I agree – it strikes me as strange and off to revisit a work six times for “the feels.” Some people do seem stuck on KS, like it represented an emotional peak in their lives that they can’t surpass, so they refuse to move on. They’re something like Hisao when he first arrived at Yamaku; trapped in the past and unwilling to look to the future and take responsibility for their own happiness. I agree with A22: that particular attitude strikes me as strange, off, and contrary to the point of the VN.

But I disagree with almost everything else. Is re-treading an emotional experience a waste of time? Well, I compared Lilly’s route to a sunset, and said it was beautiful, but little more. But does that mean it’s worthless? Is it worthless to occasionally recall a beautiful sunset, and smile over the memory? I don’t think so.

Why do we make stories intellectually engaging? The only reasons are to give the reader a puzzle, or to convey an important truth. The former, like solving a murder mystery, or why Shizune acts like she does, isn’t terribly valuable. The latter point, though – forcing the reader to wrestle with something deep – is important.

Now let me make a very barbed point. I suspect in this video, I’ve undertaken the most thorough analysis of Shizune’s route that has ever been, and perhaps will ever be done. If anyone has ever been intellectually engaged with the route, it’s me. But for all that, what did I actually gain, aside from an understanding that character studies are fantastically dumb? Beyond that, what did Shizune’s route have to say? Don’t cheat on your girlfriend with her best friend? Don’t get stuck on a person who rejected you? Don’t try to force your deaf daughter to listen to you talk? Don’t treat everything in life as a series of competitions? Did anyone need a single one of these lessons? Perhaps the only lesson of merit in Shizune’s route is “Don’t drown in depression over the past.” But Emi’s and Hanako’s routes already covered that, and I enjoyed reading them, too. The truth is that when it comes to speaking about the human condition, Shizune’s route scarcely has more to say than Lilly’s. Lilly’s, for fuck’s sake.

Do I want my hand held? To some extent, yeah. Is that wrong? Would Dante’s Inferno be more enjoyable if someone handed it to you in the original Italian? If you can’t understand a work, you get nothing from it. And while there is some worth in making things ambiguous – the rewarding feeling of grasping a mystery – the sense of that I got from Shizune’s route never amounted to much.

Do I want to be emotionally manipulated? What does that even mean? Do I want the stories I read to get an emotional reaction out of me? Of course. What’s the alternative? A story that doesn’t make you laugh, or smile, or cry? There’s a word for that: a textbook. And textbooks are valuable things, but no one ever felt passion for them.

If I sound pissed off, it’s because I am. I agree with A22. I hate the shallow emotional dreck that infests visual novels, and the critics who drink it up because they lack the comprehension required to grasp how it could be better. I want stories that break new ground and try new things. I am therefore the target audience for Shizune’s route, and I barely like it at all. And you know what? There’s another route in KS that sought to break VN conventions. It featured a complicated heroine no one would want to date, which requires lengthy analysis to understand, and can only be grasped on repeat readthroughs. It’s Rin’s route, and it’s not just my favourite route in KS, or my favourite VN route of all time, it’s my favourite piece of media, full stop. I didn’t dislike Shizune’s route because I hate being engaged, or thinking, or because I’m intellectually lazy – I think that writing all this shows that I’m no foe to thinking. No, I didn’t like Shizune’s route because I love being engaged, and its writer didn’t understand why emotions are key to that. That’s all.

The Last Word – A22, 2009

The real tragedy of Shizune’s route is that a brilliant and driven writer devoted five years of his life to try and accomplish something new and exciting, and failed. I’ve always found that VN writers resemble their heroines far more than they’d like to admit, so I can’t help but picture A22 as someone like Shizune, who wanted to leave a lasting and positive impression on people, and instead touched next to no one. Worse, several less technically capable writers played it safe, pandered to what people wanted, and received thunderous applause. For A22, it must have been galling. Still… maybe he didn’t mind as much as I think. I’ll finish this route by quoting the man directly from a 2009 blog post, written after the act 1 demo release, back at a time when everything must have looked so promising:

A22: I’m a little disappointed people don’t like Shizune as much as I’d hoped they would, but I had a feeling she would end up being disliked. Aura joked that she was the antagonist of Act 1, something I found kind of disturbing. It’s weird to say that now, because I don’t really like my characters as much as I think the other writers do. But I try to make use of this and write them objectively with flaws.

Suriko and Crud have gotten some ribbing from the dev team because they love their characters a lot. Lilly is more or less Suriko’s ideal woman and Crud was putting all his favorite fetishes and quirks into Hanako. It seems to have paid off, because they’re doing well as far as popularity is concerned. Maybe that is the route I should have taken. It really is limiting to write a character who can’t speak, and one who is supposed to have a very forceful personality.

Looking at this as I write it, I realize I sound a little bitter, but I’m not. If I could, I don’t think I would do things differently. This is a visual novel, and I think that in this genre, it’s best if the girls are divisive. The beauty is that there is a girl for everyone. Frankly, I think it is bad if you like them all. That means that the characters are generic, and written to be as wholesome as possible. That is kind of boring. You should be able to make up your mind that you like a girl, or hate her, almost immediately. Either is good. At that point the game should cause your love of a character to grow, or your negative opinion of them to change.

There’s nothing wrong with a moeblob type character like Hanako, which I see is the most often used criticism against her. It’s fine if the relationship deepens, and she can become more.
And along that line, I’m fine with the fact that people do not like Shizune. I hope that when the full game is out, they will grow to like her.

Rin

And then… there was Rin.

I’ve read a chunk of literature. I’ve done Chaucer, and Shakespeare, and Milton. I’ve read novels – Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Joyce, and Mishima. I’ve done poetry; the romantics, Hopkins, Elliot, and Auden. I’m not trying to show off, and I’m hardly a master. What I want to convey is that I’ve consumed as much great writing as I can, and none of it has ever struck me as deeply as Rin’s route.

That’s not a universal experience. The route is infamously divisive and has a “love it or hate it” reputation. Again, I’ve had both experiences. I hated Rin’s route on my first read. I came in expecting the funny and whimsical Rin of act 1 but was instead blindsided by something dark and weird that went over my head and left me unsatisfied. I suspect that’s a common experience – Rin’s route is much less popular than Emi’s, Hanako’s, and Lilly’s, though it is better liked than Shizune’s.

It was only on reading Rin’s route for the second time that it clicked with me, and I found myself blown away. As I said, it seems like what A22 wanted to write. The plot isn’t dull, or transient. It’s about depression, loneliness, the nature of art, and what it means to be alive. It also features a VN “antiheroine;” who’s intended to be unattractive physically and mentally, instead of idealised. The route requires at least one re-read for you to grasp everything. Where it differs from Shizune’s route is that it has a great deal to say, has a cohesive and engaging story, and is emotionally evocative. It also shows a master’s grasp of symbolism and metaphor and can evoke mood better than any piece of media that I know. It isn’t as funny as Shizune’s route, and its H scenes aren’t as erotic, but those don’t even feel like weaknesses: loud humour and eroticism would have ruined the subtle tone that Rin’s route tries so hard to maintain.

Rin is not a person that most readers will fall in love with; I certainly never have. But her route plays the same card as Hanako’s and makes the weight of her conflict high. Like Hanako, Rin’s problems run deep, and affect almost every facet of her life. I said before that Rin was weird, but I didn’t say how weird. Consider that people on the autism spectrum tend to believe that Rin is autistic. Others have diagnosed her with alexithymia; the inability to identify or describe emotions. Whatever is up with her, Rin’s weirdness goes far beyond what is typical, and causes her enough grief that it likely qualifies as a mental disorder. She isn’t stupid, or crazy, but Rin struggles with being human in a way that most of us don’t.

Within the story, Rin faces two problems. The first is that change terrifies Rin. We all change, every day, as we learn new things and forget old ones. But Rin feels those changes acutely, and it is awful – to her, change feels like fading away from the world, and because of it, she has no idea who she is.

Rin’s second problem is that she’s isolated from almost everyone. Because of her condition, Rin has lots of weird and wonderful things happening in her head. But when she tries to talk about them, what comes out is a mess. People find Rin weird, and avoid her. Rin knows that and believes she doesn’t have any friends. She hates it. She feels wretchedly alone, misunderstood, and like she’ll be that way forever. What Rin wants more than anything is for someone to understand her, without her needing to explain herself. Unfortunately, that’s impossible, and a large part of the story details how she comes to terms with that.

Rin struggles to explain the amazing things inside her, so it’s fitting that I run into exactly the same problem when trying to discuss the route. There are times when language is a hopelessly inadequate tool. Do you remember those descriptions of orgasm, from back in Shizune’s route? I said that if you want to describe an orgasm, you have to use something like “It feels really, really good.” But that description is hollow. It doesn’t convey how an orgasm feels. That’s why A22 – and I – resorted to metaphors. I called an orgasm “An instant of nirvana, of blind fire, of furious and pure perfection.” It’s not an accurate description, but it gets closer to evoking the real feeling, which is something that cannot be put into words.

It’s a fundamental flaw of humanity that we cannot directly transmit our thoughts and feelings to each other. We have to rely on media, like words, or pictures. Usually, these are good enough – but not always. And when they aren’t, we must communicate in the abstract. Writers and artists fall back on symbolism and metaphors; like how in act 1, Rin wanted to find a colour that could represent the meaning of life. Now, I’ve used orgasm as an example of something that can’t be put into words, but let’s bring in another unsayable thing – the one that makes Rin’s route so good. It’s a feeling – not elevation; another one – which if I had to put into crude language, is something like “Experiencing reality deeply, and feeling that it is profound.”

Hisao tries to capture this feeling towards the end of the route. He says “You know, when I read a good book or look at a starry sky or whatever, sometimes I too feel something… profound, like a… shoot, I don’t know how to describe it. But the instant I try to put it into words I feel that I lose something, it doesn’t feel as real, as true as it did inside my head. It feels a bit phony. Damn, even what I just said felt phony.”

Yamaku’s art teacher, Nomiya, captures it better. Attempting to explain what it means to be an artist, Nomiya falls back on poetry; specifically, the opening lines of William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence”: “To see a world in a grain of sand, and a heaven in a wild flower, hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.”

To experience reality deeply and feel that it is profound. People who’ve experienced these moments often use poetry to try and explain them. The abstract beauty of the language conveys what plain spoken words cannot. That was how I was led to grasp them; long after I’d finished KS. For me, it was explained through the poetry of T.S. Elliot, specifically, “The Dry Salvages.” Elliot wrote: “But to apprehend the point of intersection of the timeless with time, is an occupation for the saint— no occupation either, but something given and taken, in a lifetime’s death in love, ardour and selflessness and self-surrender. For most of us, there is only the unattended moment, the moment in and out of time, the distraction fit, lost in a shaft of sunlight, the wild thyme unseen, or the winter lightning or the waterfall, or music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all, but you are the music while the music lasts.”

“Music heard so deeply, that it is not heard at all, but you are the music while the music lasts.” An experience so profound, and experienced so deeply, that the past and the future vanish; all the rest of the world vanishes; you vanish; and there is only the one, absolutely and perfectly attended moment, experienced as strongly as anything can be experienced, that makes you feel intensely alive. That sense of experiencing a grain of sand so powerfully that it seems a world, or a flower such that its beauty equals heaven. I admire Rin’s route, because more than any other piece of media that I know, it grants one the ability to open up to those moments that Blake and Elliot so fleetingly tried to explain.

Mood

This starts in the first scene of Rin’s second act. Hisao goes up to the school roof, and discovers Rin lying on her back – “experiencing,” as she puts it; for which she’s skipped class. Hisao thinks it’s stupid, but she challenges him, claiming that everyone is too busy to pay attention to what really matters. Curious, he finally decides to lie down and join her.

Far above, the summer clouds drift soundlessly across the dome of the sky. Neither of them has anything more to say, so silence envelopes the rooftop. The only measure of time passing is the slow pace of the clouds moving towards the town. Stray beams of golden sunlight leak through the gaps, blinding Hisao when they hit him in the eyes. A comprehensive sensation of calm spreads from his sight to his other senses. An airplane zooms by, leaving two thin contrails in its wake like a pair of chalk lines drawn from one end of the sky to the other.

You feel the weight of the sky. The sense of calm is palpable; and it’s easy to feel your concerns melting under the awe of the sight. But while Hisao thinks it’s nice, he doesn’t get what’s so great about it. It’s only once he’s back in class that he realises the sky is cut off by the window frame and cluttered by foliage. Rin’s point is made clear: you can’t stop and truly appreciate the sky, unless you deliberately take time out to do so. And when you do… the weight of it does feel more important than what most of us get up to each day.

Seeing things – really seeing them – is an essential skill for artists. Having joined the art club, Hisao practises in this route; first by drawing a bird, then by striving to see “Emi at her Emi-est” at the track meet, like he did back in her route. Again, it lets him see the “beautiful” part of Emi – those that strike you deeply and move you. With his newfound skills, Hisao also sees Rin at her “Rin-est.” On a lazy June afternoon, Rin retreats into painting with her usual focus. Hisao is there too; ostensibly sticking around to practice some watercolours. But he soon stops; transfixed by Rin – and sees her. All else vanishes; all unnecessary sounds quieten and disappear. Rin paints, her entire being fully concentrated on the brush between her slender toes and the painting coming to life one stroke at a time. She seems determined and relaxed, effortlessly moving the brush around, never hesitating. Colours meet and part, mix and cover each other on the canvas, bending to her quiet will. She seems to be gazing deeply into reality; reading it as symbols and knowing the secret meanings of them all.

I want to stress that on paper, these scenes don’t sound spectacular. A guy looks at the sky. He watches another draw. But it’s the way they’re written which makes the simple and everyday scenes arresting. You’ve seen grains of sand, and flowers, but seeing worlds and heavens within them is another thing entirely.

Act 2 – Disconnect

Rin’s second act is called “Disconnect.” Like Emi’s act two, Rin’s tells a self-contained story, and is my favourite act in the VN. It knows precisely where it’s going and builds up to two excellent climaxes. It tells two intertwining stories: a battle between Hisao and his depression, and Rin grappling with her need to change.

Let’s start with Hisao. In the other four routes, he found a place at Yamaku and his depression was soon gone. Not here. Hisao’s joined the art club, but it never feels like he belongs there. He isn’t passionate, and his joining felt like a desperate man grabbing at the only piece of driftwood left to him. He’s lost – and it shows. Early in the route, Rin tells Hisao that she’s never seen him smile. And sure enough, a few days later, depression swallows him up like a tidal wave and drags him deep underwater.

That word – “underwater” – is a motif throughout the act. I hadn’t been depressed when I read KS for the first time, but when I was much later, I came to appreciate what a good metaphor it is. To me, depression felt like being down somewhere, looking up at reality as a world separated from me by a translucent surface. I could reach out and touch it. But down below, in my world, everything was muted; the colours and sounds, and I felt slow, sluggish, and heavy. I felt like, if I let myself, I could sink deeper and deeper until I’d never be able to come back. It might not be everyone’s experience. But it was mine.

Hisao knows that he needs to beat depression. In one scene, Rin leads him deep into the forest behind the school. They sit under the shade of a large maple, far from the school’s distractions and noise. When grappling with a problem, you can block out reality and retreat inward to a black, featureless void. It’s evoked here by the tree’s shade in the forest’s core. With no distractions, Hisao’s senses are free to expand. The stillness of the forest falls on him and he can literally feel the passing time. So it is that he achieves a kind of enlightenment: to escape depression, he must find a way to change – the very thing that terrifies Rin.

Rin’s issues

While Hisao battles depression, Rin wrestles with her own problem. Nomiya, the art teacher, comes to her halfway through the act, and proudly announces that he might be able to arrange a professional exhibition of her work. It’s a fantastic opportunity – any passionate art student would be thrilled. Rin isn’t. She just seems troubled and says she’ll think about it.

A central question of the route is: why does Rin paint? She often does, so it’s natural to assume that she’s passionate. Natural, but wrong. Rin paints for three reasons. First, it lets her clear all the weird thoughts out of her head, so she doesn’t explode. Second, her paintings give her physical proof that past versions of herself existed. She can look at them, reconnect with who she used to be, and partly escape the terror of change. Finally, Rin desperately wants to be understood. But because she can’t express herself with words, she paints her inner world as a cry for help; hoping that someone might look at her art and say, “I understand how you feel.” They never do.

A central tenet of this route is that you can never know the mind of an artist by seeing their paintings. A curator explains this to Hisao using the story of Picasso’s blue period. Once, the great painter lost a great friend, and for many years afterward, produced nothing but blue paintings, in an effort to banish his grief. The curator explains that it’s impossible to understand this just by looking at Picasso’s pictures. Likewise, Rin’s attempts to communicate through painting are doomed.

None of this is on Rin’s mind when Nomiya proposes the exhibition, though: she’s scared. Rin’s always painted for herself. In her mind, that means the person she is isn’t capable of doing an exhibition for others. To do one, she’ll have to change, which terrifies her. She tries to explain this to Hisao, but he doesn’t understand at all. People often criticise the writing here; claiming that Hisao is unrealistically dense. But here’s the thing: I was eighteen when I read this for the first time, and I was with Hisao 100%. Rin’s fear of change seemed stupid, and she seemed passionate about painting. The exhibition was an awesome opportunity. Why would she hesitate?

(Wheel of choices)

What I didn’t get was that a person’s experience of life could be totally different to my own. Hisao doesn’t get that either – which is why, when Nomiya asks Rin to decide whether she’ll do the exhibition, it’s Hisao who shoves her into it. Regardless of whether or not you agree, you are forced, in the moment, to choose the words that Hisao uses to push Rin into what will be one of the worst experiences of her life.

Throughout the act, you’ve had three chances to shape Hisao’s perspective: was he amazed by Rin’s talent, or did he wish to be as good as her? Did seeing everyone try so hard at Yamaku feel refreshing, or did it remind Hisao that he was stuck? And when he did decide to change, did Hisao want to be more like Emi, or more like Rin? Six possible options, of which you must pick three. Likewise, there are six things you can say to push Rin into the exhibition, of which you’ll only ever be shown three, based on the choices you made. It’s a cool idea; Hisao’s mindset directly shapes his feelings on Rin’s situation. My only problem is that it’s so obtuse that almost no one picks up on what’s going on.

In my opinion, these six choices are the most complex puzzle in the VN. It’s like this: Of the six choices, two make Rin leave quickly, two make Nomiya intervene, and two make Hisao lose it at Rin. It’s not clear why each choice leads to each outcome, though, and I’ve never seen anyone explain why they do.

Let’s start with the ones that see Hisao get pissed at Rin – “You’d be a big hit,” and “You should aim higher.” What do these have in common? Not much. But take that first one, “You’d be a big hit.” It’s spoken one other time, by one other character in the route. When the exhibition finally starts, Emi cheerfully bounds up and tells Rin “I’m sure you’ll be a big hit!” Likewise, the other option – “You should aim higher” – is only available if Hisao decides that he wants to be more like Emi than Rin. Put simply, these two choices are Emi’s sentiments – and getting frustrated and exploding at Rin is exactly what Emi would do. Much later, that becomes clear – if Rin deliberately screws up the exhibition, Emi is furious, and says she wants to “kick Rin’s ass.”

These choices cause Hisao to get angry. His feelings about Rin’s decision start to merge with his own situation; images of Iwanako’s letter, the masked faces of his parents, his doctors, and all of the time he has wasted flash through his mind and pour into his feelings on Rin like a tide of molten iron. Something breaks in Hisao, and his impotence and depression crack under a vast weight of rage. You get the feeling he isn’t mad at Rin, he’s angry at his own circumstances, and he’s taking it out on the girl. But before he can finish, Rin simply leaves like she hasn’t heard a thing he’s said – just like Emi says that her own anger towards Rin never had any effect. None of this changes Rin; she does the exhibition whatever you say. But exploding like this changes Hisao. It’s only if you pick these options that he eventually quits the art club; happy he tried it but discovering that it wasn’t for him. His real skills are more academic, and he decides to focus on them instead. Even if he doesn’t realise it, becoming like Emi eventually sets him on the path to being more of his own person, and less a satellite of Rin.

Next, let’s look at the options where Nomiya intervenes. It only happens if you tell Rin she should do the exhibition “Because it would be exciting,” or because she’d be wasting her talents otherwise. If you pick these options, Nomiya steps in to gently chide Hisao. He claims that the exhibition is about Rin’s career. She wouldn’t be wasting her talents if she skipped it, as she still has plenty of time. It’s also not something she should simply do for excitement. Fine words, which subtly lay the groundwork for a later reveal: Nomiya is a monstrous hypocrite. When Rin does eventually agree to the exhibition, it’s Nomiya who says “This is so exciting, isn’t it?” Later, he also says to Hisao “Would I let that girl waste away her talent if she has a moment of doubt? Never!” His gentle chiding here is bullshit, and I think it’s meant to suggest that Nomiya didn’t set up the exhibition for Rin at all – he’s done it for his own excitement, and his own desires.

The last two choices are harder. One clearly belongs to Rin. If Hisao decided to be more like her, he can say “It isn’t like you to hesitate like this,” and “You told me that people should do things they can’t, just because they can. And now you’re being all wishy-washy yourself about something this important.” He uses Rin’s own words to argue that she can change, even if she believes she can’t.

It’s only the last choice that seems ambiguous. Hisao says “You won’t get a chance like this again,” and I’m really not sure why. You can only say it if you chose “I feel like I’m stuck,” earlier in the act. And while I’m not sure, I think it’s meant to come from Hisao. His full sentiment is “You’re not going to get a chance like this again. People don’t get many chances in life, and you shouldn’t waste any of them even if you have doubts.” What Hisao is saying sounds suspiciously similar to Rin’s phrase from the KS website – “Seize the day.” Those words are uttered twice in Rin’s route; once in a bad end, and once in the good one. In the bad end, Rin speaks them bitterly, to justify taking an opportunity she knows will make her miserable. In the good end, they’re spoken by Hisao, who’s arguing that it’s important to grasp opportunities that make you feel alive. That latter sentiment is at the heart of who he is, and a core philosophy that’s evoked by KS.

The rain

Whatever words you choose, Rin will leave soon after. She doesn’t speak to Hisao for a while, until they both join Emi in going to celebrate her track-meet victory, like back in her route. Again, it rains, so they all retreat to the Shanghai. This time, when they leave, Emi powerwalks away, leaving Hisao and Rin to walk back together, under Hisao’s umbrella.

The walk back through the rain is another one of those moments. The world has melted into a blur, and the sky has deepened from gray to dark blue, with hues of red that Hisao feels he could reach out and touch. Raindrops play a staccato melody on his umbrella, and when he inhales, he takes in the scent of rain, and feels the weather with all his senses. With Rin silent, he experiences the moment, like when he looked up at the sky. Rin finally gives voice to what they’re feeling: she likes the rain. It makes everything look soft, like the outlines have disappeared. It makes her feel connected, too; like the rain is hugging her. Even her voice sounds gentler, and softer. “What is it about the rain?” Hisao asks. “Everything,” Rin replies.

Back at the dorms, she turns to face Hisao. Her gaze moves past his left shoulder, into the shapeless rain, and her eyes suck the low ambient light into themselves, like a reverse mirror that lets nothing out. She opens her mouth – then closes it; for whatever she wants to say, words presumably cannot express. Instead, she takes one step towards the dorm building, and simply says “See you tomorrow.”

The rooftop

The following scene is my favourite in the VN. The weight of the rain has passed. One morning, Hisao decides to skip class and head up to the roof, like Rin once did. He’s been reminded of his condition by the nurse. Now, he stares out at the treetops and the gray silhouettes of downtown, painted by perfect weather – a silver blue sky he feels he could reach out and touch. Eventually, the door behind him opens. Feet kick through the gravel. And like Hisao once asked her, Rin asks him “What are you doing?” They share some small talk. Then, they stare out wordlessly into the abstract distance of the sky.

Hisao finally has an intense moment of vulnerability. He asks Rin: “Don’t you ever want to not be disabled?” She can’t relate, but Hisao feels better for having spoken. Possibly spurred on by his admission, Rin opens up, too, about how she wants to change, but finds it hard. They each look up at the sky again. Hisao remembers his past; the hospital, his parents, the doctors, Iwanako’s letter; everything that he wishes would stop completely, so there could be only himself, Rin, and the sky, in an eternal lunch break on the roof, perfect, unchanging, and forever.

Hisao eventually does continue. He’s not sure whether he likes or hates Yamaku. He feels that sadness permeates it. Rin agrees. While the people of Yamaku are amazing, some can’t take it. They hurt too much, and it gets bad. She hopes Hisao isn’t like that. The straightforward kindness is uncharacteristic and feels extremely warm. Hisao doesn’t think that he hurts too much. It’s just that to him, Yamaku doesn’t feel like it’s part of the real world. And when Rin presses him on that, Hisao backtracks, and says it is – it’s just that he, Rin, and the Yamaku students feel like its leftover pieces.

It’s a tragic sentiment. In the other routes, Yamaku felt like a private heaven, walled off from reality’s coldness and cruelty. This time, it feels more like a prison, where the undesirable and malformed have been sent to eke out their existences where they won’t bother those who are proper and whole. It’s bitter, miserable, and doubly so because once it’s been said, it’s impossible to pretend it wouldn’t be true, at least a little, in reality. But more than that, neither of Hisao’s interpretations of Yamaku is wrong. It can be a wonderful place, just like it can be prison. It’s only your perspective that changes it, and in this route his perspective is miserable. He feels broken, and unwanted.

When Hisao’s finally done confessing his sadness, Rin does for him what he’s done many times for others. She tells him what he needs to hear – that even though she’s not happy with who she is either, that doesn’t mean she regrets being herself. Hisao needs to be the same. Then, she hugs him, without arms. He recognises the gesture by its warmth, and it is the most comforting thing he has felt in a long, long time. And when Rin releases him, and he apologises for being such a mess, she tells him that it’s okay – it’s the best part of him. Then the bell rings. Rin heads to class. And in Hisao’s words:

“After Rin leaves I finally let tears roll down my cheeks and cry for my condition for the first and only time in my life. Then I cast away that hollow person lying on the hospital bed, forever.”

It’s another example of a character transcending despair through the support and love of another, and the elevation is just as powerful when Hisao’s on the receiving end. That line, too – “First and only time in my life” – feels like a much older Hisao, looking back and commenting on the importance of this moment. It solidifies this as a titanic moment of transformation for Hisao; one where he’s finally able to change, leave the past behind him, and accept what he’s become. More, it’s Rin who catalyses it; Rin who shows unexpected patience, kindness, and warmth. In spite of her oddities, she is a truly fantastic person. I think that her second act could have ended here; the moment is suitably huge. Still, there’s a couple of things to come, the ultimate conclusion is no worse, and there’s a reason to put the act break where it is.

Codeine

Unfortunately, that thoroughly wonderful scene is followed by one so tone-deaf that it almost ruins it. A few days earlier, Emi caught a bad cold. She’s since passed it to Rin. When Hisao finds out, he goes to visit her – and she answers the door high out of her mind. She’s taken a ton of codeine tablets. Her shirt is open, her bra is gone, and her underpants are on full display.

I hate this scene. Hisao has just undergone the emotional climax of the VN, in one of its most sincere moments. He and Rin came closer than ever before, and closer than they will be until the end of the VN. But rather than leverage that for something powerful, the reader is tumbled into this awful comedy scene. It isn’t funny, and even if it was, it would still feel out of place. Hisao tries to tell Rin that he’s going to get better, and that he’s sorry for telling her to do the exhibition. Big, big things. Except that Rin’s so fucking high that when she shrugs like she doesn’t mind you aren’t sure if that represents her real feelings. I mean, it’s… okay? I guess? It’s just that it would have worked equally well if Rin wasn’t high, and probably better.

This scene seems to exist because of a moment near the end. Basically, Rin stumbles towards Hisao and kisses him. To say it lacks impact would be an understatement. It’s surprising, and mildly amusing, but again, that’s not much to take from a first kiss. And like, I get why it’s here. In the next scene, Rin says she’s started to think that doing things might be better than saying them; implying that this kiss demonstrates her real feelings for Hisao. Still… did it have to be like this? The same event could have played out if she wasn’t high, and again, I’m convinced that it would have been more impactful.

All in all, this scene feels like the goofy shit that was promised for Rin’s route back in act 1, but that ship has long since sailed. Hisao’s been legitimately depressed, and this stuff is just a tire iron of tonal dissonance to the face of all that’s happened. I say that this scene is the Jar Jar Binks of Rin’s route; comedy that falls flat and drags down everything around it. Rin’s second act is phenomenal, and for me, it’s disappointing that it drops the ball and comes out with something this stupid one scene before it ends.

End of act 2

The last scene of Rin’s second act is a return to form. It’s the next day, and Rin approaches Hisao after class. She claims to have forgotten what happened when she was high. But there’s somewhere she’s promised to take Hisao, and she offers to do so now. He accompanies her; up through the forest behind the school, to emerge on a treeless hilltop. Grass sways in undulating waves, and small yellow dandelions dot the hill. Hisao crouches down to look at one. He brushes his fingers against its delicate yellow petals and feels their softness. It’s a small but beautiful moment, one that feels like when he and Rin studied the sky – taking time out to appreciate the beauty of the natural world. And while the point isn’t made in-text, you can’t help but note that Hisao’s basically seeing a heaven in a wild flower. It makes him feel nostalgic – and I get it. Stopping to marvel at the sky, or at flowers, is something I used to do when I was a kid. By the time we’re adults, though, it just feels… unnecessary. We forget to see the magic of the world around us like we once did.

Hisao turns around, and finds Rin looking at him strangely. He asks what’s on her mind. Then – she explodes, with a stream of consciousness filled with all the thoughts and feelings she’s been keeping inside; about how she struggles to say what she wants to, about how people don’t like talking to her; about how she’s been trying to avoid saying strange things to Hisao, but it’s just making her think more and stranger things. It’s one of the only times Rin clearly expresses herself, but it comes out in such a rapid and overwhelming jumble, like “You just look so sad all the time and become upset so easily and it makes me confused and I really don’t remember much about yesterday except that you came to my room and that’s why it might be because of me so if it’s because of me I think that I know why, it’s because people don’t really like talking to me and you might be the same and that would be sad” and so on. Hisao has to cut her off. Rin apologises, and with uncharacteristic timidity, asks whether it was weird. Hisao says it was, but that he doesn’t mind. Next, he tells her about the kiss. Rin seems surprised and apologises; before admitting that she’s very bad with people. She seems pitiable here, as she reveals that she’s never had any friends. Now though, Hisao affirms that he is her friend, something that makes her seem grateful. Hisao’s glad too, like he’s closed some of the gap between them.

Rin tells Hisao that she’s, just now, decided to do the exhibition. She’s felt for a long time like she’s going to change; even if she doesn’t want to. And now, she’s no longer afraid. And when Hisao hears that: his depression finally breaks. He floats upward; toward the surface of his own life. The pressure of being underwater weakens, the weightlessness becomes stronger, until he smashes through the surface, lifting his head up into full sunlight to inhale deeply, and breathe in fresh air for the first time in a long, long while. Then, he opens his eyes, and sees Rin’s peaceful, determined face.

It is stunning writing; powerful character development conveyed through a beautiful and evocative metaphor. It feels like a natural counterweight to the rooftop scene; Rin didn’t care that Hisao was a mess, and now he doesn’t care that she’s weird. They accept and support each other, even at their lowest, and become all the stronger in the process. Rin gave Hisao the strength to accept himself, he gave her the courage to change, and in seeing her do so, his conviction to change himself crystallised into reality; and with his metamorphosis done, he rose on new-grown wings to fly up and join Rin, in sunlight, on top of the world.

As Hisao and Rin walk back down the hill, with the light of sunset on their backs, Hisao knows that Rin can do the exhibition, even if she can’t; just like he can keep his head above water. He keeps watching the back of the red-haired girl descending a few steps ahead of him and thinks to himself that if it’s only this much… then the distance between them is definitely within his reach.

So ends Rin’s second act. More than any other part of KS – even act one – this is decidedly Hisao’s story, and it is full, complete and in my opinion, more compelling than the stories of the other heroines, even with only a single act. Every scene packs in so much, says so much, that even now I’m in complete awe of it. If Rin’s route ended here, then I would still consider it a complete and incredible story. But it doesn’t – there’s more. And while Hisao has beaten depression, he’s about to face something as bad, out in uncharted waters by the edge of the world. For despite his optimism, those few feet of distance between himself and Rin will very soon seem like an ocean.

DISTANCE

Rin’s third act is titled “Distance,” and that’s what it’s about: the physical, mental, and emotional distances remaining between Hisao and Rin. The act opens with a winking reference to it – Hisao is snapped out of daydreaming in class by Mutou, who asks “What’s the distance between… never mind, different question.” After class, Rin goes to tell Nomiya that she’s decided to do the exhibition. The old man is ecstatic; and immediately bundles Hisao, Rin, and some of her paintings into a car, then drives them to a gallery in the nearby city. There, Hisao and Rin are introduced to the owner, Sae Saionji. She likes Rin’s paintings, but thinks she’ll need more and better ones to do an exhibition. It’s agreed that Rin will take some time off school to paint them, and that she can work in a disused atelier above the gallery.

The next scene is the last Hisao will see Rin at Yamaku for a while. He finds her in an empty classroom, sleeping, and it’s worth comparing the CG to the similar one from Lilly’s route. Unlike Lilly, Rin looks decidedly different while asleep – more peaceful, and more fragile, which makes you feel affection. Eventually, Rin wakes up, and the pair leave, speaking of unimportant things. The last thing Rin says is, simply, “I am going to change.” Hisao replies “That’s what people must do, sometimes.” And – according to him – “even those words drown in the all-encompassing silence, disappearing as if they were never said.” His pointless answer is really all he CAN say – none of us can escape change. And that final, somewhat ominous line, seems a reference to Rin’s fear of change. All past versions of ourselves do disappear, vanishing into an absolute silence where they’re forgotten, as if they never were at all.

Some days later, Hisao goes to visit Rin at the atelier. She’s there in paint-spattered overalls, before an easel. He must have expected her to be a little bit happy that he’s come all the way to see her. Instead, she hardly seems to care, and when he speaks, Rin suddenly and sharply asks him to be silent. It’s a shitty way to treat anyone, let alone a guy with whom you have a budding romance. As Hisao studies Rin’s back, he realises that it pisses him off. The uncharacteristically strong feeling is an eruption of frustrations that have been building for some time: Rin so rarely seems to be looking at Hisao, literally or figuratively, while he is always watching her back, literally and figuratively.

When Rin finally does let him speak, Hisao decides to close the last bit of distance between them. So, he undertakes the awkward task of explaining that he likes Rin. And the very instant Rin realises what’s going on, she answers: “No.” She doesn’t offer any explanation, except “I can’t talk about that kind of thing now.” The directness, unambiguousness, and impoliteness of the rejection are shocking. It stings the reader if you’re self-inserting; you can only imagine how bad it must feel for poor Hisao. There is no way for him to retain his dignity.

What makes this moment so effective is how thoroughly it subverts expectations. A VN heroine is never supposed to turn you down – or, if she does, it must be implied that she wanted to say yes but couldn’t. VNs are typically aimed at guys who, frankly, don’t get a lot of girls. They’re usually designed as nice fantasies to stroke the ego. Aura flips that on its head. Rin is her own person, with her own desires, and doesn’t exist for your whims – like a real girl. This moment is unpleasant to read, but I love that it respects you enough to not just give you what you want. It challenges you, as real life will challenge you, and if you’re prepared to accept the challenge, then there’s a chance it can teach you something that may actually help you.

While neither character realises it, this exchange also exposes the problem in their relationship: they don’t understand each other at all. Their ways of thinking are perfectly alien to each other, and each one sucks at guessing what the other wants. The biggest issue is that Rin’s mental impairments make her a shit communicator, while Hisao doesn’t realise that Rin even has mental impairments; he’s still under the illusion that she’s just weird. He therefore expects Rin to act like a normal person and becomes understandably pissed off when she doesn’t.

In Rin’s own head, it’s clear why she’s turned Hisao down: she’s decided to do the exhibition. She needs to give it her full attention, and until it’s done, she can’t be distracted by romance. But understandably, Hisao gets precisely none of that. He thinks he’s just been sharply and cruelly rejected for no reason. There are hints that Rin is upset – Hisao thinks “her shoulders slump melancholically.” But he doesn’t get why. And as he walks away, burning with shame, Rin asks him – without turning around – whether he will come again. She wants him there. It’s comforting to have him near. But to Hisao, it must feel like a presumptuous slap to the face. She’s treated him terribly and is now asking him to keep doing what she wants. He says yes, though. He cares about her a lot.

Peace without words

The rest of the route is coloured by the same essential tragedy. Hisao and Rin have a deep affection for one another, but they suck at communicating, and in trying to get closer, they hurt each other, again and again. Sometimes they stop and let themselves just be for a while, like Rin once wanted – and when they do, everything’s great. But they can never let themselves stay like that.

There are now four scenes where Hisao visits Rin at the atelier. In this section especially, I run into that problem of trying to put into words what words explicitly cannot convey. I want you to feel how deep and powerful these scenes are; but you’ve heard buzzwords like those a million times before, and I know they’ll hit you like specks of rain and evaporate within an hour. Still – here goes.

In the first, Hisao comes by the atelier the day after his rejection. Until now, his relationship with Rin has felt like a deep, calm lake; with many thoughts and feelings swirling under the surface. Now, that lake is churning, and Hisao’s thoughts are threatening to break out on all sides. When they sit together in silence, it feels truly awkward for the first time. Hisao wants to get closer to Rin but can’t – and that’s hammered home as he leaves. He looks at Rin’s painting, and says it looks great. But Rin says that it’s bad luck to comment on unfinished paintings. Hisao’s kind words bounce off without leaving a mark and hit him back in the face.

He keeps on visiting Rin, though. Mostly, he just watches her, or reads, while that whirlpool of unspoken emotions continues swirling around them. Until one day, Hisao realises that Rin isn’t eating properly. He goes and buys her some oranges; a fruit she likes but cannot peel, on account of having no arms. When Rin takes a break, Hisao winds up feeding her the peeled orange slices. The writing is phenomenal as he starts cutting: “The strong scent of cut orange rind immediately fills the air as thousands of tiny droplets of oil burst from the skin.” You feel it. What follows is lovingly intimate: Rin’s lower lip brushes Hisao’s fingertip; you watch the movements of her jaw, the juice on her lip, the way her throat moves when she swallows. Hisao shows his care for Rin, gently and wordlessly, and Rin shows that she’s comfortable doing something so surprisingly intimate with him. It’s an ingenious way to craft physical intimacy and is evocative without drawing attention to itself.

The next scene is another contender for my favourite in the VN. On another night, Rin has gotten hold of some cigarettes. Up in the atelier, she tells Hisao she’ll have to destroy herself to finish the exhibition. Concerned, Hisao asks whether she’s being literal or metaphorical. Rin shrugs; they’re one and the same to her. With a sigh, Hisao gives in, lights Rin a cigarette, and they settle back on the floor.

Hisao passes the cigarette back and forth between them, ferrying quiet destruction from Rin’s lips to his own. The chaos of Rin’s new world surrounds them; paints and paintings; forgotten now and unimportant. All is quiet. It feels like the outside world’s no longer there, as though the entire universe was just the small room, Hisao, and Rin. Their concerns are gone, and it’s as if the moment could last forever if they let it – and they want to let it; Hisao lights a second cigarette, and another, prolonging it for as long as he can. For once, they can just be beside each other, and it’s perfect. They really are seizing the day; teenagers smoking their first cigarettes. They’ll never be the same naïve children again. It’s sad that they’re disappearing as if they never were – but also satisfying to watch the cycle of human growth play out.

While this is often cited as a favourite scene, I’ve never seen anyone explain why. The answer is that it does an incredible job of creating mood – peace, wistfulness, connection, disconnection, innocence, loss, and more. It’s amazing, and the precise alchemy required for that evocation could not have been easy; the, art, music, and direction are all in overdrive. Unusually for Aura, the writing style here isn’t exceptional; but conceptually, he loaded the bases for other developers to hit a home run. The scene is an oasis of languid calm in Hisao and Rin’s turbid relationship. Their desire to connect, and the loss of their innocence, are both captured perfectly by the track “Lullaby of Open Eyes;” which evokes sadness, innocence, wistfulness, longing, calm, and fragility. It’s one of the best tracks in the VN and fits this scene like it fits few others.

More than anything, what makes the mood here was an ingenious directorial choice: the CG is animated, so it constantly spins. The slow, unchanging, circular motion creates feelings of peace, gentleness, and timelessness, all of which feed into the mood. It also creates a subtle disconnect between Hisao and Rin. When Hisao’s face is the right way up, Rin’s isn’t, and vice versa. It makes it feel like they’re not together at all; mirroring their dynamic. At the same time, their actual positions are still symmetrical, which makes it feel like there is a parallel between them – they’re disconnected, but they don’t have to be.

Anyway. It’s late by the time they finish. Hisao still doesn’t leave, though. Rin looks so worn out that Hisao thinks she should escape out of her own head and into the real world. He offers to show her a special place, like she did once. Rin accepts. Hisao doesn’t actually have a specific place in mind. What he wants to show her is simply the feeling of a city, at night.

Hisao’s actually mistaken here. Cities at night are terrible places to escape your own head. They’re like a forest’s core; dark and devoid of people; where you can retreat in to that black, featureless void where thoughts and memories rise unbidden. All distractions are erased – traffic, voices, everything, so you can sense everything normally swallowed by the daytime’s chaos. On this gentle summer night, Hisao finds the smell of flowers and hot asphalt; scenes of neon and ghostly streetlights; air that’s easier to breathe somehow, like the air pressure’s noticeably lighter than usual. His senses are sharpened to the degree you need to see a world in a grain of sand – and he leads Rin, at random, through this enchanted parallel of the waking world, where they can walk as long as it takes with their real lives on pause. For Rin, the beauty of the night revitalises her stagnant mind; while for both of them, it’s a chance to reconnect and just be with each other, in a way that words aren’t needed.

Once it’s done, Rin seems a bit better – but then, she tells Hisao he can’t come and see her for a while. He’s upset – again, just when he felt he and Rin were getting closer, she’s pushed him away. Again, in her own mind, what she’s doing is obvious: she has to focus on the exhibition, and as much as she likes Hisao, he’s a colossal distraction. But she doesn’t explain this. She couldn’t, even if she realised she had to. And so, Hisao leaves; once again frustrated and hurt.

Sae’s partner                                                                                                                                                                             

He follows Rin’s directive for a few days, before he cracks and goes to see her. But on reaching the gallery, Hisao is instead drawn inside by Sae and Nomiya. They cheerfully describe the exhibition’s progress – until something hits Hisao, and he voices one of two questions: either “Why are Sae and Nomiya being so supportive of Rin?” or “Why did Nomiya decide to not become an artist?” Either one elicits the same story, but your choice determines whether it’s Sae or Nomiya who tells it. Both describe a man they once knew; a brilliant artist, who died too young. But only Sae reveals that he was her husband, while only Nomiya reveals that he killed himself. He was too intense; and too consumed by his art.

Hisao is horrified, and likely, so are you. The implication is that Rin’s self-destruction has set her on the path to suicide. Most people take it at face value, but it’s not actually clear: Sae believes that Rin lacks the potential of her husband, and even Aura remarked once that he didn’t think Rin was the type to kill herself. Still, there’s a clear point being made: even if Rin makes great art; even if that’s all she does – becoming a career artist might still be really bad for her.

Delirium

If Hisao had any doubts remaining, they’re erased once he gets upstairs. Through the darkness of the early evening, he spies Rin grinding herself into the filthy floor, in a futile attempt at sexual pleasure. It’s all she can do without arms. Hisao has trespassed terribly into something he was never meant to see – when Rin looks up and spots him. She doesn’t scream, or flinch. It’s worse. She weakly says “I told you to stay away.” It’s pitiful. Hisao thinks, “She looks more broken than I imagined a human person being capable of, and the hospital and school have given me some real perspective on that.” He isn’t kidding; I once spent ages trying to brainstorm a more pathetic situation for one of my characters and couldn’t.

Rin begins another rambling stream of consciousness. The first one felt amusing and quirky. This one feels like the terrifying murmurs of a person on the brink of insanity. After destroying herself for art, Rin looks like she’s been through a third world torture camp. It’s honestly horrifying.

So – Hisao does what Rin did for him in his time of need. He hugs her; to do what he can to shield her from the cold and sadness. Her heart beats against him like a scared little bird, and her tiny body shivers with fever, fear, and despair. Hisao just holds her tighter; snuggling his nose against her soft earlobe, and her hair, which smells good and tickles him. The language evokes her fragility, misery, and his affection, and it’s wonderful.

Rin then asks for a favour, which Hisao accepts. Gently, he brings her to climax, using his fingers. What follows is a flatly written H scene. It needed to be here; the moment is broken if you skip it – but it’s an uncharacteristically weak piece of writing from Aura. It doesn’t build the mood of the scene, or add anything thematic, or emotional, to build its characters or your feelings towards them.

Let me give you an example: “I enter her, moving my fingers up and down, in and out, touching her from everywhere, first slowly, then faster. I listen to the subtle signs Rin’s body gives, hoping that she can guide me as I can’t see what I am doing. Her breathing gets heavier by the moment, spurred on by my exploring fingers. Rin’s hips start moving in the same rhythm as me, guiding me deeper.”

It’s purely physical, written mechanically, and avoids delving into emotions. It continues:

“I can feel her heat, burning through her shirt against my chest. I move faster and she moves faster, our primitive instincts blinding all reason as her fever becomes sweat drenching her shirt and her skin, her passion becomes my own, growing inside of me. All these feelings unravel into their basic components, her softness, her wetness, her hotness, her sadness are the only things that I think, the only things I can think.”

Hotness, softness, wetness. Again, physical things, not described in a way that evokes emotions. The only thing of note here is Rin’s orgasm (I said, self-consciously realising I’m spending a disproportionate amount of time on orgasms). I’ll just read it out:

“I push Rin over the edge. Her entire body contracts around my fingers in a blinding, deafening, paralyzing spasm. Her voice is incredible. I never thought it could be so violent, so absolute, for a girl. Later I would come to think that this finally was the moment when Rin fully let herself go, and in one single instant destroyed and rebuilt herself, just like she had wanted. Whether it’s the truth or not, I couldn’t say. But that’s how I felt.”

The moment is given enormous power through the writing, which I like. What I’m less convinced of is that this is really a moment of great transformation. What was destroyed? Rin’s “marital purity” as she suggests afterward? Maybe. Because she has no arms, some people have argued that this might be her first orgasm. But even a quick google search turns up multiple anecdotes from girls who confirm they can masturbate without arms. So who knows. All up, I just don’t feel like Rin is so transformed here that Hisao’s words are justified – though, as he says, it’s only how he felt.

Next day

After that, the pair sleep. When Hisao wakes up the next day, things are different. Rin is panicked and anxious. What happened was a big thing, and they need to sort it out. Unfortunately, their communication hits its nadir. Rin wants to understand what it meant to Hisao, but he can’t help her. Then, he tries to have her explain her feelings for him – but she can’t. She can’t explain why she can’t, either. Hisao still doesn’t realise that Rin is neuroatypical, and his frustrations rise to boiling point. He hates that Rin always has to be so confusing.

The reader is then given not just the best choice in the VN, but far and away the best choice I’ve ever seen in any VN. Hisao can respond to Rin’s difficulties in one of two ways – “Then explain” or “I need to understand.” On a superficial level, they are identical. But if Hisao chooses “I need to understand,” then he is taking on responsibility for solving their communication breakdown. If he says, “Then explain,” then he’s thrusting that burden onto Rin; an idiotic decision when she’s made it abundantly clear that explaining herself isn’t something she can actually do.

Of course, “Then explain” was the choice I went straight for when I first read the VN. Like Hisao, I’d failed to grasp that Rin wasn’t just weird, but had serious mental limitations that were different from my own. All I could see was a person who’d yanked me around; kissed me, refused to date me, asked me to stick around, pulled me closer, pushed me away, pulled me in again, then pushed me back. So many mixed messages. And she was always coming out with non-sequiturs and stupid things at the dumbest times. She had to be screwing with me on purpose.

So, when Hisao demanded that Rin explain, I was right behind him. When Rin struggled, and eventually stammered out that she needed to paint, and Hisao’s vision flicked to blood-red, I was right with him. Fuck. This. Bitch. Sure, I probably wouldn’t have yelled, but nothing he went on to say was wrong, was it? I mean, it was like he was saying; with Rin it was art first, everything else second, or thousandth. I didn’t feel a trace of hypocrisy when he said “Ever paused to consider things from a perspective other than yours?” And from there, he just kept going – “You never explain yourself! How am I supposed to understand anything if you never say anything? Why don’t you ever talk? Say something!”

Hisao’s always thought of Rin as unflappable. She does struggle to express her emotions. She can’t laugh unless she makes herself. Crying often feels wrong to her – but not always. This time, the guy she likes, who’s been her only source of comfort as she breaks herself at his urging has furiously and spitefully exploded at her, in a way she couldn’t see coming, for reasons she cannot understand. Her whole body shakes from holding back tears. And she tells Hisao, in a tiny voice, to go away. He does – all the way back to Yamaku, where he falls on his bed. He looks at his medicines, and thinks of how short his life will be, how much more time other people have, and of all the time he’s wasted on Rin. Much earlier in the route, Hisao started wearing a wristwatch; relishing the notion of time after it blurred together back in the hospital. Now, he takes it off, and the route ends. Having spoiled everything, his few remaining days will be nothing but blank featureless time until the moment he finally dies.

Hisao was wrong. I was wrong. Not for feeling that Rin was yanking him around; that was unavoidable; but wrong to lose it at Rin without trying to get her perspective. Whatever justification he might have, the reality is that both are left hurt, and full of regrets. As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned how stupid getting angry really is. I can’t recall a single time in my life when I gave in to anger and didn’t come to regret it. When you feel someone has wronged you, taking on the burden of staying cool while you straighten it out feels monstrously unfair. But it’s usually the best policy.

Unfortunately, while the decision leading up to this bad end was excellent, I can’t help but feel like the ending itself is lacklustre. I said back in act 1 that endings where a character lies down on their bed can really lack closure. There’s a sense that Hisao could still fix things with Rin, and that limits the scene’s power. I suspect that very little effort was actually put into this, and my evidence is that the entire thing, almost word for word, also takes place a little bit further on towards Rin’s good end. I suspect that Aura came up with the choice, liked it, but needed a bad end to follow it up. Rather than write one, he just saved time by lifting it from the later material. I still think the choice was good enough to justify that, but I wish the ending was a bit better.

Good path to Exhibition

Hisao could have avoided all this by saying that he needed to understand Rin – or, he could have taken a third option. Rather than “Then explain,” or “I need to understand,” he could have said “It doesn’t matter.” That choice is only available if you made certain decisions earlier in the route. Back at Yamaku, Emi spoke to Hisao about Rin. Back then, two things stood out – one, “She’s the type who would forget her own head if it wasn’t attached to her shoulders. That’s why I just can’t leave her alone.” Two: “I think it’s okay even if you don’t understand her.” Back in Emi’s route, Hisao had to learn to take other people’s advice. In line with that, Emi tells him here exactly how to deal with Rin.

Depending on whether you’re still in the art club, you’ll next get one of two scenes. Each contains a choice. In one, your options are “I can’t leave her alone either,” and “I want to be with her more.” In the other, they’re “I want to support her” and “I want to understand her.” In each, repeating Emi’s sentiment – that Hisao can’t leave Rin alone either, or that he wants to support her – unlocks the third choice later on. Emi’s words show that Rin’s well-being is Hisao’s highest priority, even beyond his own desires. So when he struggles to understand Rin… he can remember that, and say that “It doesn’t matter” whether he understands her or not – he just wants to know.

“I need to understand,” or “It doesn’t matter.” Either way, Hisao realises that he wants to understand Rin so he can be there for her. Doing her best, Rin manages to ask Hisao to let her do the exhibition the way that she wants. Hisao is furious; frustrated beyond anything he thought possible. He still doesn’t get what’s up with Rin. But he does understand that the exhibition is important to her, even if it isn’t healthy for her on so many levels. He tells Rin that and says he won’t have anything more to do with it, as he can’t accept the way she’s treating him. Rin says “That’s fine.” It’s some of their best communication – Hisao’s kept his anger in check, Rin’s managed to convey what she needs from him, and Hisao’s accepted it, and also conveyed his own feelings. The only problem is that Rin fails to tell Hisao why she needs to do the exhibition. So while they’re okay for now, they’re gonna hit problems soon, as we launch into Act 4: Dream.

Hisao broods on the Rin situation for almost a week. Then, she shows up outside his door one day; unannounced; done preparing the exhibition. Hisao’s frustrations resurface; amplified by Rin’s lack of reaction on seeing him. He invites her inside though, where, after some abortive attempts at conversation, Rin tries to kiss him. But the words she spoke the morning after he bought her to climax flash through his mind: “It was a bad idea. Maybe you should forget about it, and I will too.” Instinctively, he blocks Rin’s kiss by raising his hand up like a wall. He still feels used and jerked around.

Rin feels differently. She’s finally done with the nightmare of painting and wants to resume the relationship she’s put on hold since act 2. She’s been waiting for this – and Hisao’s just walled her off. She does her best to communicate, saying “Please. I need you.” She’s destroyed herself for the exhibition, at his urging. She’s put herself through so much pain. And now, for comfort, she’s come back to him; the one person she can rely on for support – and he starts to yell at her. He accuses her of playing mind games; of ignoring him. It’s almost a perfect repeat of the bad end, with Hisao ripping into the immensely vulnerable Rin. Again, to her, it must feel like a horrid and painful betrayal. Again, she shakes from holding back tears, and bites her lip so hard it almost bleeds. She goes; rejected more harshly than Hisao ever was.

There’s one key difference this time: Hisao wonders whether pushing Rin to do the exhibition was why she began to ignore him. And when he realises that, he understands that he’s acted terribly.

Gallery

Hisao has one chance to fix things: the exhibition. He arrives feeling distinctly out of place. Weaving between high status, well-dressed adults, Hisao can finally see Rin’s paintings. We’re shown four. One depicts a dead-eyed, screaming, androgynous face. The next is a weird amalgamation of a male and a female figure, the latter screaming, and surrounded by hands, and eyes. The third is a barely human face, looking horrified and horrible, and screaming as it kisses a skull. The last simply shows two figures separated by an enormous distance.

It’s impossible not to look at these paintings and try to read into Rin. The usual interpretation is this: The screaming figure is how Rin feels; barely human, and always looking back at others. The hands and fingers are the night Hisao bought her to climax using the hands she lacks. The kissing figures represent herself; confused and silently screaming, and Hisao, a skull; dying and gloomy. The last picture is Hisao and Rin themselves; with the vast distance between them that Hisao has always felt – and, maybe, Rin has too. These seem like the reasonable interpretations of the paintings, but that’s missing a crucial point. Without Rin explaining her nameless works, we can never know for sure what they mean. Maybe Rin did want to show herself kissing Hisao – or, maybe she just wanted to paint some weird shit. Maybe it shows her kissing a vanished past version of herself. We. Can’t. Know. We want to believe the paintings are about Hisao, because that’s what we know, but Rin has a life outside him. Ultimately, the point is this: it’s impossible to understand Rin just by looking at her paintings.

The trouble is, that’s exactly what she was hoping someone would do. But when Rin enters the gallery, the patrons start to bombard her with questions – “Would you mind telling us something about your art? “I assume you use your feet?” “Will you be pursuing a career as an artist after school?” “So where do you get your ideas?” Rin struggles to answer. Rin stutters. Rin stalls. Rin stops. All her desperate efforts to explain herself without talking; all the pain of breaking herself harder than even Hisao thought possible… was for nothing. In this instant, Rin realises that no matter what she does, she will never be free of people demanding that she explain herself; the one thing she cannot do. She breaks now, and falls, wordless, to the floor.

The crowd are horrified – but in an instant, Hisao rushes in, scoops her up, and leads her outside. In the night air, away from the gallery’s hubbub, the two stand silent for a time. Hisao still cares about Rin. Rin still cares for Hisao. But they don’t get each other, and their efforts to close the gap have bought them nothing but pain. Still, they try again. And when Rin doesn’t want to go back inside, Hisao finally asks what it is that she wants. Rin tells him: “That someone wouldn’t have to ask questions from me.” You can answer in one of two ways: “But aren’t you happy people are interested in your paintings?” or “But if you found someone like that, then what?”

Neutral end:

Let’s start with the “Neutral end.” Hisao asks Rin “But aren’t you happy people are interested in your paintings?” The question shows, conclusively, that Hisao hasn’t grasped the first thing about Rin. Like Nomiya, he still thinks she’s an “artist;” one who paints to pierce reality’s veil and capture something beyond. She isn’t. It’s nice when Rin’s works can do that, but it’s not why she paints. Rin wants to be understood – and she wasn’t. Still, Hisao leads her back inside, to the barren praise of her audience.

It’s not until the summer holidays that they catch up again. With the rain pouring down, Hisao heads to the gallery to find Rin. She arrives soon enough, stepping in to greet Sae with the words “I think I’m ready to-‘’ then stops. She’s seen Hisao. Rin whips round, says she’s going for a walk, and steps out into the rain. Hisao runs after her with an umbrella. If Rin wanted to escape, she could, but she slows down so Hisao can catch her, and ask why she keeps running away. Rin says that she doesn’t want to talk to him; it hurts whenever she does. So, Hisao says they don’t have to; they can just keep walking – so they do; letting themselves be for the last time.

As always, Hisao can’t help himself. He has to start talking. And as always, they fail to connect, and it goes nowhere. Most people’s footsteps synchronise when they walk, but Rin’s and Hisao’s never do, just like they never have. Hisao looks up at his umbrella canopy and thinks that its monochrome bleakness is a poor substitute for the sky; like the miserable Rin is a poor substitute for her usual self. Then – Rin stops. Looking uncharacteristically miserable, she answers Hisao’s last question. What she wanted was for someone – anyone – to say at the exhibition: “I understand how you feel.” Because otherwise she’s going to go on feeling like she’s alone, forever, and she doesn’t know if she can bear it. She then sheds some light on how horrible it is to be her, and I’ll just go ahead and read it out:

RIN “I don’t know why the right words never come out. I don’t know why I can laugh only when I make myself. I don’t know why everything stays only inside me, even when it feels like I’m going to burst. But who… who would ever want to feel like that?”

RIN: “I don’t. I don’t want to feel like that.”

Rin is thoroughly miserable. But as sad as she is, there’s nothing she, or you can do to fix her problems. Instead, Hisao deals her an enormous cruelty. With the best of intentions, he tells her that no one will ever experience life in exactly the way that Rin does. In that sense, she will always be alone – and hence, she will always be miserable. As Rin’s eyes widen in shock, she drops her head, and shakily asks why Hisao ever made her feel differently. He’s betrayed her hopes utterly, and in this moment, Rin internalises the idea that she will be alone, forever. When Rin entered the gallery, she’d made up her mind about something. Seeing Hisao broke her resolve. Now it returns. Rin says she’s been offered a scholarship to a proper art school and has just decided to take it. She doesn’t want to be an artist. She says, “I just paint because it makes me feel like I can really feel something.” But if she’s going to be alone forever, what does it matter? The exhibition broke her; there’s every chance this choice will put her on the path to suicide, but still, she insists. Her sad, pale face is the CG’s vanishing point, so that the lines of the clouds and rooftops draw your eyes in. Hisao is horrified – he knows this is wrong but can’t find the words to stop her. All he can manage are feeble protestations, until Rin asks him to stop; before the sadness breaks her. She hugs him; for the last time, in her own way. She wants him to hate her, so that leaving will be easier. He can’t, though, so Rin just puts on a brave face that neither one of them believes, asks him to forget her, and walks away without looking back.

Good:

It didn’t have to be this way. That evening of the exhibition, in front of the gallery, Hisao could have challenged Rin’s need to be understood, and asked her “Then what?” Would she expect some kind of star-crossed lovers, happily ever after thing? The sarcasm points to a truth – things wouldn’t be perfect if someone understood Rin. But as she says: at least she wouldn’t have to be alone.

I think it’s here that Rin intuits what Hisao missed in the neutral end. He said we’re all alone because we can never fully understand each other. That’s true – but it’s a bloody stringent definition of “alone.” Far more stringent that Rin needs, anyway. After all, Hisao made her feel like she wasn’t alone. Even if Rin doesn’t fully get it yet, I think she realises that there was a time when she didn’t feel alone, and that wasn’t when she was painting. Rin tried to change. The change made her miserable. So, she makes up her mind: she walks away, leaving the exhibition behind. Hisao is incredulous. He calls out, “Where are you going?” “School,” she answers. Why? She says – “Because I want to be me.” Rin never knew who she was, or how she should change. Finally, she decides that she is herself, and it’s okay to be that person.

It sure isn’t fine with Nomiya, though. Back in the gallery, the art teacher is furious about Rin’s departure. Luckily, Sae intervenes long enough for Emi to grab Hisao, and head with him back to school. In the wake of the exhibition, though, the art teacher’s fury must be resolved. A few days later, he comes and plucks Hisao from class to press him on Rin’s whereabouts. Hisao doesn’t know, so Nomiya storms off. Hisao then actually considers the question for five seconds, pushes open the door of a nearby room and says hello to Rin. Unfortunately, it’s a flat reunion that lacks the mood-evoking details of Rin’s best scenes. She clarifies why she did the exhibition; to be understood, so she wouldn’t be lonely. Once again, Hisao explains why that’s impossible. Rin says it’s a sad thought. But this time, when Hisao asks if it makes her sad, Rin just shakes her head – and looks, properly, at Hisao. She understands: even if he doesn’t understand her, she isn’t alone any more.

Nomiya, Science, and Art

Unfortunately, she still has to apologise to Nomiya.

I’ve avoided discussing the art teacher, but let’s get into him. Your impressions of the man change greatly over the route. At first, he seems nice, if a bit over the top sometimes – Hisao says almost those exact words to Yuuko, soon after Rin starts at the gallery. But Yuuko says that Nomiya scares her a little. It turns out she’s a great judge of character. As the route continues, Nomiya seems like more and more of an arsehole. At first, it’s subtle. When he introduces the kids to Sae, the curator offers everyone drinks. Nomiya instantly says “Oh, no thank you, we’re fine,” without checking whether it’s true. In a later conversation, Nomiya tells Hisao that he has no idea whether Rin wants to be a career artist, and that all he can do is show her the door. But Hisao thinks that Nomiya’s pushing her through that door extremely hard. When Rin’s mental health deteriorates, Hisao relays it to Nomiya. This time, the man sweeps his concerns aside, and angrily asks if Hisao’s been bothering Rin; showing no care for the girl at all.

It’s when Rin walks away from the exhibition that his ugliest side comes out. Nomiya calls Rin’s act “A catastrophe,” before rounding on Hisao and angrily asking why he didn’t stop her. He then threatens Hisao. It’s appalling. Rin collapsed in front of him minutes ago, and he doesn’t even think to ask if she’s okay. He doesn’t care – from day 1, the exhibition was all about him.

Hisao’s final discussion with Nomiya comes when the man asks after Rin’s whereabouts. It’s here that his hypocrisy becomes apparent. Hisao challenges Nomiya’s disappointment in Rin, pointing out that it was Nomiya who pushed her into the exhibition. Nomiya retorts that Rin’s goal is his own goal, as that’s a mentor’s job. He’s right; but it’s supposed to mean that a mentor makes their student’s goals their own, not that the mentor dumps their own goals onto the student.

Nomiya’s shittiness is most apparent when you compare him to Mutou, Hisao’s teacher. Mutou loves science, and in Emi’s route, thinks Hisao should be a scientist, and join the science club. But in other routes, when Hisao decides he wants to be a teacher instead, Mutou doesn’t pressure him. If Hisao does join the science club, then he and Mutou have discussions that are actually discussions – unlike Nomiya, whose art club “discussions” just see him lecturing everyone.

Mutou and Nomiya also have different attitudes towards Yamaku. Mutou takes the school seriously. In act 1, he impresses on Hisao the need to respect his own limits, given the effort that everyone’s put into the school. In Hanako’s route, Mutou takes Hisao aside to tell him that Yamaku isn’t a place to corral the disabled until they graduate as welfare burdens. The school wants them to be productive members of society. By contrast, Nomiya hardly seems to care. He tells Hisao “You’re a new student and we should be promoting integration into the student body and such. I can’t remember all the buzzwords they spew at faculty and Yamaku Foundation meetings.” He also trips up on disabilities. Back in act 1, Nomiya said “try our hands at” around Rin, before awkwardly adding “or feet.”  By contrast, Mutou never trips up on disabilities, and even counsels Hisao on how to treat his disabled classmates.

You have to wonder about Nomiya’s motivations, too. He claims he became a teacher because he’s fond of kids and art. But he also has a nice car – one that Hisao wouldn’t expect a teacher to drive. His jacket is also very expensive. Hisao wonders what kind of salaries they earn at Yamaku, and I have to wonder whether Nomiya isn’t in it, at least a little, for the money. By contrast, look at Mutou. In Lilly’s route, when Hisao asks why he became a teacher, Mutou explains that he’s retained a childlike sense of wonder about the world. He wants to share even just a small part of that with people. If he can – even to just one person – then he can be happy as a teacher. Comparing his response to Nomiya’s, it’s impossible not to admire Mutou’s more.

There’s also a stark contrast in how they react to their students’ distress. Like I said, when Rin collapses at her exhibition, Nomiya has no idea what to do and doesn’t even ask how she is. By contrast, when Hanako had her panic attack, Mutou showed instant compassion, distracted the class, had Hisao and Shizune take her to the nurse, then checked in to make sure Hanako was okay.

It should come as absolutely no surprise that Mutou and Nomiya hate each other. The two meet just once, in Rin’s route. They lock gazes, frown, and the temperature drops twenty degrees as they engage in a polite verbal knife fight. It isn’t hard to imagine why Mutou finds Nomiya odious. Aside from how the man treats the students, Nomiya openly disparaging of science; Mutou’s passion. Worse, in Rin’s route, Nomiya has stolen Hisao; Mutou’s prized student.

Despite the teachers’ parallels, none are ever actually drawn in-script. I wondered about that, until I heard a rumour that early drafts of Rin’s route had Mutou try and recruit Hisao into the science club, only to discover he’d joined up with Nomiya. Why cut it? Well, I imagine that bringing in Mutou would have removed focus from Rin and cut into her story. Given that’s the point of the route, it might have been counterproductive to Aura’s primary aims. Still; it’s a shame.

Given all this, you might wonder whether Nomiya actually knows anything about art at all. Sae says “Art schools are full of all sorts of posers and pretentious schmucks.” There’s a hint Nomiya might be one of them. Rin, who has massive raw potential, loves the rain, because it makes her feel connected. By contrast, Nomiya prefers clear weather – and for earthier reasons; he doesn’t want to get his expensive jacket wet. His exchange suggests his temperament is all wrong for art. Still, Nomiya can effortlessly correct Hisao’s drawings; showing that he’s not wholly incompetent. Sae, who’s more qualified than anyone to judge an artist’s potential, also claims that Nomiya was good enough to make it as a career artist. He might not have an artist’s temperament, but he does have the skills. Sae’s friendship with Nomiya also suggests that the man is not irredeemable. When Sae gets upset after discussing her husband’s suicide, she presses Nomiya to join her for drinks. I can’t imagine her doing that if he didn’t have a few redeeming qualities.

While we’re on the topic, let’s talk about Sae. She doesn’t appear much, and it always feels like there’s much more to her than we get to see. Aura said that he wished he could have delved into her character and story more. I imagine that, as with Mutou, that would have distracted from the rest of the route, so I’m not sad it got left out. That said, Sae’s backstory does sound fascinating. When I considered some ideas for KS sequels as an exercise for this video, I realised that the only one that I would actually want to read would be a prequel focused on Sae.

Returning to Mutou and Nomiya: their feud over art and science is paralleled with Rin and Hisao, who broadly represent the concepts. This is acknowledged: the intro panel for Rin’s third act, Distance, shows Hisao in the position of Auguste Rodin’s statue, The Thinker; often used to represent philosophers, while Rin is posing as the statue of the Venus de Milo, which famously doesn’t have any arms, and is a suitable stand-in for art. These were fitting choices: Hisao reads books and has an interest in science. Rin paints. In this route, they each represent an archetype: Hisao is logic, reason, clarity, and words, while Rin is feeling, intuition, sense, and art. They represent opposite poles on the intellectual scale, so it was always certain that they’d struggle to reconcile their worldviews. That was shown as far back as act 1, when Rin asked Hisao what clouds were. She gave her own, artist’s answer; that clouds were the sky’s thoughts, while Hisao answered like a scientist, and said that clouds are evaporated water.

In the same way that Rin struggles to find the words, Hisao also struggles to draw. When he sketches Rin early in the route, he notes: “I try to add texture to Rin’s hair, to somehow grasp the way the golden afternoon sun lights her bright red tousle aflame and transfer it to my paper in shades of black and gray. Somehow, this pen and the bottle of ink seem like such lousy, inadequate tools for the task.” His thoughts wonderfully mirror Rin’s sense that words are inadequate tools for capturing her own experience of the world.

I’ve drifted very far from my original point. Returning to Nomiya, I think that the man’s true nature is suggested by the title of the last scene in which he speaks to Hisao; “Desperate Glory.” I presume it’s a reference to Wilfred Owen’s poem, “Dulce et Decorum Est,” which describes the horrors of the first world war. I won’t read all it out, except perhaps this: 

“If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.”

Latin, which translated roughly means “It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.” The poem refers to those who spoke to young men of the glories of war, while millions were getting themselves processed, blind and screaming, into chunks of meat on the Western Front. I think that Aura might have been drawing a parallel to Nomiya here, and how he extols the glories of art to Rin, while ignoring how wretchedly miserable it’s actually making her.

If you needed final proof of Nomiya’s bastardry, it comes in the very next scene. Rin goes to apologise to Nomiya for abandoning her exhibition. Hisao stands outside the room and can hear what they say. Rin starts by trying to explain herself. But Nomiya doesn’t listen to a word. Instead, he berates her; growing angry. He accuses Rin of wasting his time, Sae’s time, and the time of all those who came to the exhibition. Nevermind that Sae and the patrons hardly seemed to care about Rin’s departure, oh no: she’s offended Nomiya, and he cannot fucking have that.

Like Hisao before him, Nomiya goes straight to accusations, without seeking Rin’s perspective. And again, when Rin desperately tries to explain herself – the thing she cannot do – Nomiya grows madder and madder, until he’s built himself into a frenzy. Then, when he speaks of resolve, Rin says “I am not a resolved person.” And… that’s it. Nomiya says “Then tell me, why… why… WHY DID WE GO THROUGH ALL THIS TROUBLE IF IT AMOUNTS TO A MOSQUITO’S SHIT?” It feels awful; the cruelty, the unprofessionalism; the way he speaks in all caps and swears, things that have impact because they’re only done here in this route. The moment is also painful because it forces Hisao to hold up a mirror and realise that his own treatment of Rin has hardly been any better.

In the aftermath, Nomiya says “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have gotten so excited.” It’s typical language from shit people – when their unacceptable anger comes out, they’ll put it down to “excitement” or “passion” overwhelming them – after all, you can’t fault them for being excited or passionate, can you? It lets them move on without taking responsibility. Like Nomiya does here – he remarks “It seems that I was expecting too much. You are not an artist after all.” Then, he sweeps out of the room, and out of Katawa Shoujo.

In Nomiya’s defence, Rin never corrected his beliefs about her wanting to be a career artist – but of course, he never asked her about it, either. The critical point is this: If the exhibition was really for Rin, then why the fuck does it matter that she left? The answer is that it wasn’t for Rin. It was always for Nomiya.

Another thing to consider: when Nomiya yells at Rin, he outlines the life of an artist. In his words: “When you lie on the floor of your minuscule room, your rent three weeks late, your mind blank for the fourth week straight, then you will wish that you had listened to old Nomiya a bit more. When you keep measuring how the shadow of your chair becomes longer over the spring because that’s all your lethargy allows, maybe that’s when you will start caring about your career!” All fair enough. But you know, Nomiya turned away from being an artist. He drives a nice car. He wears expensive jackets. He doesn’t have to suffer as an artist – he just gets to revel in the glory of Rin’s accomplishments, like the old, rich men, who sent the young off to die, “Gloriously,” on the front, in 1914. He really is a cunt.

Before we leave him behind, I think we also need to ask whether leaving the exhibition was really right for Rin. Certainly, becoming an artist was unhealthy for her, and was making her miserable. But what exactly is Rin going to do when she leaves Yamaku? Without arms, one imagines she’ll struggle to find employment, and her confounding mental issues aren’t going to help. In many ways, “artist” was a perfect career choice for Rin. Could she not have eventually found a healthier way to paint, and done it properly? Maybe. Perhaps she still can, even after leaving the exhibition. Who knows.

Friends, titles, and names

Before we proceed to the endgame, there’s one more thing I should bring up. Rin often says that names change the way you perceive things. It’s why she never gives her work titles. As she says: “If I paint a cloud and call it an octopus, people will think about it differently than if I paint a cloud and call it the end of the world.” It’s an interesting point. If Aura hadn’t titled that scene “Desperate Glory,” then I never would have read you that poem, would I? Names change perceptions. Like how 4 Leaf Studios decided to call Rin’s neutral end “truend” in the project’s code. Some romantic VNs contain what is explicitly called a “true end” – the canonical ending – and a “Good end,” which is a kind of non-canon, star-crossed lovers, happily ever after thing. So, why call Rin’s “Truend”? Did Aura believe that Rin’s saddest end was her canonical one? Was it a private joke by the developers, that fans were never meant to see? Or a deliberate ploy to mess with those who went digging into the VN’s code? Whatever the answer, the name forces us to view the ending in a way we wouldn’t have if it was simply called “Ending 2.”

These ideas are played with elsewhere. Early in the route, when Nomiya gives his lecture on art, one of the students asks whether a cardboard box filled with water can be called art. Nomiya claims: “Art defines itself. It simply cannot be contained to a definition from the outside, since the boundaries of art expand and contract from forces within. Every day, someone somewhere comes up with something completely outrageous that challenges any and all preconceptions.” He’s about right. Words shift and meld their definitions as we attempt to catalogue and divide up reality to help us understand it.

These matters were given especially heavy thought by Ludwig Wittgenstein; a contender for the twentieth century’s greatest philosopher. There’s an interesting connection between him and Rin. On April 11, 2012, an anonymous troll went to Wittgenstein’s Wikipedia article, and changed a Rin-relevant quote – “It’s impossible for me to say one word about all that music has meant to me in my life. How, then, can I hope to be understood?” to Rin’s act 1 quote “I won’t say “See you tomorrow” because that would be like predicting the future, and I’m pretty sure I can’t do that.”. As of August 2020, Rin’s quote has stood on Wittgenstein page for over eight years. The misattribution has proliferated to other blogs and quote collections. It actually sent me on a wild goose chase that took me hours to solve while writing this script, so thank you very much, whoever was responsible. On the other hand, I do find it funny that a Rin Tezuka quote has been masquerading as the words of a famous philosopher for almost a decade, on a page accessed by hundreds of thousands of people, and no one has said a thing.

Anyway, I’m off topic again. Let’s get back to titles and words. One given particular attention in Rin’s route is the word “Friends.” This starts at the end of act 2, when Rin tells Hisao that she doesn’t have any (it’s implied that she sees Emi as a sister). Hisao becomes Rin’s first friend – but it becomes clear they have different ideas of what that means. At the end of act 2, Rin says “I have always been able to tell everything to pencils and paints and paper. They are my best friends. It is harder with people. I have to use words.” Later on, she adds “When I was little, I didn’t really have friends. Maybe it’s the same now. The only things I liked were pens and paints. They were the only things that understood me.” These lines suggest that, to Rin, a friend is someone to whom you don’t have to explain yourself.

It’s a weird definition. Hisao has his own idea of friendship. At the end of act 2, he states that friends need to forgive one another or be there for each other. He reiterates that later, when he thinks that you should “Put up with everything and anything, to be there for your friend.” It’s no surprise that he and Rin have trouble when they have different ideas of what friendship entails. There’s evidence that Rin’s idea is even weirder. Back in Emi’s route, the runner said “Rin thinks that the change of a label from “friend” to “girlfriend” seems arbitrary most of the time. Like there’s no difference between the two.”

That actually makes sense. For Rin, things are what they are; like her mural was just a mural. You only confuse them when you start messing with names. She and Hisao are a boy and a girl who are close and falling in love. Rin knows that. She doesn’t need to give that a title. Hisao does, though. He uses words and data to understand the world. He isn’t comfortable in the realm of subjective vagueries. For Hisao, there is a hard line between “friend” and “boyfriend,” and each role has its own unique expectations. That’s why he was uncomfortable with bringing Rin to climax. By contrast, Hisao is what he is to Rin; she felt comfortable letting him do that and felt no need to formalise it with a title.

The rest of post-Nomiya’s exit

Anyway. Back in the present, once Nomiya’s gone, Hisao finds Rin distraught and crying. She thinks Hisao is angry with her. She tells him that she thought he was her friend – and that Nomiya was, too. It’s honestly a weird thing to say, given she said she doesn’t have any friends as recently as the end of act 2. Has Nomiya done much since then to change Rin’s mind? I don’t think so. It’s such a weird line that I think it was honestly a mistake on the author’s part, though who knows.

What follows is an emotional scene. Essentially, Hisao decides that he’s failed as Rin’s friend – after all, he couldn’t and can’t put up with everything and anything to be there for her. So, he tells Rin that he’s sorry, but he might not be able to be her friend anymore. We’ll never quite know what the rejection means to Rin, only that it hurts her deeply. In her words:

RIN: “Why? Why does all this happen? People are doing things I don’t ask for and don’t want and everyone keeps getting angry at me, I have no idea what is going on any more and can’t stop feeling like I want to run away from everything…”

RIN: “I have no idea what’s wrong with me!

Rin said much the same thing in her true end. That was terrible because of how bitter and resigned she was. Here, it’s like a pained cry for help; help Hisao knows he can’t give her.

It’s the technical writing in this scene that’s sublime. Stylistically, I believe it’s the best written scene in KS. Rin’s eyes are “Dark green desperation” when she cries out. It’s a beautiful metaphor, that uses alliteration and assonance to create an evocative image. Most poets struggle to write lines that good. I’ve talked about bad writing in KS, I’ve talked about good writing; this is great writing, on par with the best. There’s other examples; when Hisao explains why he can’t be friends with Rin, his words strike her like “physical blows,” which masterfully conveys a sense of her recoiling from each. Eventually, it all becomes too much, and Rin falls against Hisao, where she lets her tears “burn through his shirt.” The hot, tightness of tears has such weight to it, you feel it: a young woman’s hopes getting shredded one at a time. You’re reminded of how small and fragile Rin is, and it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for her as she holds her face against Hisao’s chest and pleads with him to just let her be for a while.

Hisao now realises what Rin has been after all this time. When she stops crying, he explains that no one canever understand her the way that she wants – and that’s true for everyone. Aghast, Rin asks “But isn’t that terrible?” Hisao says that it is, in a way. Rin seems sad – no surprise; in her neutral end, this was enough to break her completely. Here though… Rin just tells Hisao in a small voice that while it can’t be helped, Hisao wishing that it could be makes it all better somehow. While she can’t put it into words, I think she realises that having someone she can cry on when she’s sad – even if he doesn’t understand her – means she’ll never be alone.

Much earlier in the route, Rin wondered what the word was for a collection of butterflies – like a herd, or school, or heap. Hisao thought it might be “flock.” Rin now tells him that she’s looked it up – and it’s “swarm.” She keeps using “flock,” though, and when Hisao asks why, Rin says that she likes it more. He tells her to keep using it. Without saying anything, he shows that he can accept Rin’s weirdness – that he can accept her being herself and be there for her. Despite what he thought, Hisao can be a great friend for Rin. But – can he ever be more?

Without Breathing, without a sound

It rains again, the first day of the Summer holidays. This time, Hisao is in his room, when a knock comes from the door. It’s Rin – who’s soaking wet. Hisao pulls her inside, then hunts for a towel and dry clothes. He asks Rin if a uniform’s fine. She says, “everything is fine.” For once, it might be. Like the time Hisao fed Rin orange wedges, he shows great care for her; gently stripping off her wet shirt. He looks at the fragile girl, staring up at him with her sad green eyes. The window is misty and rain-streaked. The world outside is gone, and there is just Hisao and Rin.

As he towels her down, Rin presses a cheek to his hand. She kisses his fingers. Then, she leans back and spreads her legs invitingly. Hisao decides to give her oral. Unfortunately, Rin’s second H scene is even worse than her first. It does nothing for the characters, nothing for the mood, and isn’t erotic at all. Lines like “I move closer and taste the different kind of wetness” and “To hear Rin trying not to make a sound when I suck on her is… unreal” and “She becomes more and more moist, and I drink from her” are cringe-inducing, and unforgivable in the midst of what is otherwise a beautiful scene. I cannot fathom why the best writer on the team so consistently fell down in a heap whenever sex got involved.

Once they’re done, Hisao removes the rest of her clothes. He remarks that what they’ve done is “Not what friends should be doing.” Rin asks whether he’ll stop being her friend. He pauses. Then, he reverses what he said before, and says that he won’t. Rin, however, says that it might be alright, even if he did. There’s a sense that, at last, they’re on the same page. It’s bolstered by a wonderful CG – Hisao and Rin are close, naked, and facing each other. Hisao once thought that Rin never seemed to be looking at him, and that he was always watching her back. No longer. She’s staring deep into his eyes, while he stares back into hers. Beyond the gray, rain-stained window, it’s as if the world has blurred to non-existence; like it and all its problems are separate from this small world of Hisao and Rin. It might be cold outside, but their bodies look warm, and Rin’s blush and blood-red hair give an impression of heat and of fire. All ceases save for them being what the two of them are, and they are the moment while the moment lasts.

Hisao spoils it by starting to think; about his scar, about time, about chances and choices and whether their relationship can ever work out. Rin stops him and tells him not to worry. To let go; of the past and the future, and to now, with her, just be. And he does, they slide into each other – and Rin stops, and asks whether this is what Hisao meant by not being alone; having someone you can come to when you’re soaked in rain. It is. They resume. The second part of the H scene is better; putting the focus on connection, thematics, and intimacy rather than mechanical sex. Until, at last, Hisao’s whole world erupts in a great flash of bright white blindness; whose wonders, like all of this, can never truly be put into words.

Proof of Existence

Getting back to names and how they shade things, the last scene of Rin’s good end is called “Proof of existence,” a term that Nomiya once gave to art. Rin used it too; to say her paintings were the proof that past versions of herself existed. But in this final scene, there’s not a scrap of art to be found. Instead, it opens with a sequence that’s unique in KS; a conceptual monologue, set to a black background. It’s the only time in KS that the track “passing time” plays outside of time-skips. The monologue sees Hisao musing on the nature of time. He thinks: “For us who can’t foresee the future and who forget the past too easily, present is really the only proof of our existence. Even though existence will go on even if you forget about it for a while, it’s good to seize the day at least every once in a while. That way… you can confirm that you are, in fact… alive.” It’s the same philosophy he outlined long ago, back on the night of the school festival. When Rin saw only sadness in the ephemerality of fireworks, Hisao saw them as a reminder that you are alive now; that that is the proof of your existence, and that sometimes, you need to remind yourself to be alive as hard as you can. In other words: to seize the day.

Back in reality, the rain has passed. Hisao and Rin walk through the sunlight back to the hill they visited, ages ago. It’s changed. The yellow dandelions have transformed into white puffs on the air, floating like beautiful enchanted lights. Rin stands among them, and there can be no better metaphor for the fact that after all of this, Rin herself has changed. She, and the dandelions – was the change for the better? Who can say. But there’s no denying that the result is beautiful.

Here, finally, Rin asks Hisao whether he loves her. He does – he’s admitted so to himself before – but now, he can only bring himself to say “Maybe.” Rin sighs, and Hisao admits that his answer was pretty bad. Still, Rin admits that she doesn’t know either – she doesn’t know much about love. But – reaching deep inside, Rin proceeds to do the impossible; the thing she can’t, because she can: She finds the words. Here, and now, she tells Hisao that she loves him.

The boy is stunned. Rin can’t find any better words to describe what she’s feeling. But then… she starts to cry. She’s a little scared of Hisao. Sometimes, when she’s with him, she wants to run away so badly, but can’t move. It’s like her legs turn into lemon panna cotta pudding and her heart feels like it’s going to explode and… she can’t finish the thought. The “lemon panna cotta” is a cute touch. Still, Rin tells Hisao that he makes her feel like she should be someone other than herself, whenever he’s being nice. It’s scary. Rin wants to do something about it – but she doesn’t know whether this Rin can. In other words: she might have to change. And she doesn’t seem to mind.

Hisao’s glad to hear this – but Rin’s words make him sad, too. Her spirit, her passion, and her strength are things he never wants to see change. Slowly, though, the pain in his heart dies out – and settles into the same rhythm as Rin’s. Their asynchronous footsteps, their breathing, their heartbeats – all their different wavelengths that could never be joined – now are. They still don’t understand each other completely – but no one ever does, and that’s fine.

So, at the end of it all, like at the start of it all, Rin says that they should watch the clouds. And Hisao replies “Sure, let’s watch the clouds. It’s good to do something you really want to do, every now and then.” He’s taken to heart the lesson that Rin gave him long ago, back when they lay on the school roof and experienced a more innocent sky. Once again, Hisao looks up at the deep vastness above him, that spreads to fill his entire field of vision and beyond.

Rin reaffirms what she said outside the gallery – that it’s okay to be her after all. I’ve said that the CG of Lilly’s confession was the most beautiful in the VN. It is, more than this one. But when you layer it with the weight of the words, this is Katawa Shoujo’s most beautiful moment.

In the wake of the rain, the sky has deepened from cerulean to deep blue, with hues of amethyst and golden-red. The clouds above circle Rin’s head like a halo, again with her face at the vanishing point to draw in the eye. White dandelions flutter away on the breeze, alongside strands of stray grass. Rin smiles up at the sky and, as the wind catches her hair and clothes, spreads her short arms into an embrace that is so tiny, but as wide as she can ever do, and seems to hug the sky; the sky that represents herself, all the people that have ever been, and the world itself. “Hisao?” she asks, looking over her shoulder with a strange happiness in her voice and eyes. “What it is?” He asks. And Rin replies “What’s the word for when it feels inside your heart that everything in the world is all right?”

How many of us are ever so lucky to arrive in a place where we need such a word. But, despite everything – depression, loneliness and self-loathing and being loathed, isolation, being broken, and knowing the dark for what it is, Rin rises up to a brighter conclusion than any other heroine in the VN, and any person that I’ve known. In the end, everything comes together. All the misery, bleakness, and sadness vanish at once up into the sky; leaving just warmth, and joy below. No matter how dark things get, no matter how much you might hate yourself, You Do Not Have To Be Alone, and it is never too late to love yourself. Eight years on, reading this for maybe the fourth time, it still got me to tear up a bit, and I’m not ashamed to admit it.

Post-Rin

The unbelievable thing is that Rin’s route, the most beautiful artwork I know, is hidden down the arse end of a little known work in a little-known genre that was spawned on 4Chan, written by a Finn for whom English was a second language, and edited principally by an Italian. Despite this, in my years as a visual novelist, I met not one writer who could even come close to touching it. Symbols and metaphors are woven so thickly and intricately that even on reading these scenes for the fifth time, I was still picking up on things I’d never noticed. Alone of Katawa Shoujo’s five routes, I’ve found there is always more to discover when I return to Rin’s, and that it retains the same power to move me it did the first time I grasped it.

Gaiman and Delirium and Murakami

Before concluding, I want to talk about a claim of Nomiya’s: “You can’t ask someone where their ideas come from.” The position is never countered in Rin’s route – but is it true? Well – no. 4 Leaf Studios created a chart that details the influences of each KS developer. For Aura, one of those was Neil Gaiman, and his influence on the finished product is clear, particularly the parallels between Rin and Gaiman’s character, “Delirium.” In Gaiman’s comic, “The Sandman,” Delirium is one of seven beings known as The Endless, each of whom represents a facet of reality, and has a name starting with “D” – Destruction, Destiny, Dream, and so on.

Delirium appears as an artsy girl with unkempt red hair, who sees strange things that others don’t. She shares a verbal tic with Rin – An exact Delirium quote is “What’s the name of the word for the precise moment when you realize that you’ve actually forgotten how it felt to make love to somebody you really liked a long time ago?” She uses that “What’s the name of the word for” thing several times, like Rin. In addition to the last line of her route, Rin also asks “What’s the word for smoke that looks like that?” and “What’s that word… you know, the one about things and stuff.” And “What’s the word for those? Oh, never mind. I remembered. It’s butterflies.”

If I’m right, then the inspiration Aura took from the Sandman might stretch a little further. Akin to the Endless, each act of Rin’s route has a name beginning with “D;” Disconnect, Distance, and Dream. The scene in which Hisao first fingered Rin is even titled “Delirium.” It might be a coincidence – me, reading a painting wrongly. But it’s interesting, hey?

Another influence of Aura’s was the now-famous Japanese author Haruki Murakami. I’ve read a few of his books, and while his work hasn’t influenced Rin’s route as blatantly as Gaiman’s, I can’t help but notice a similarity between his style and Aura’s – a focus on crafting moments of quiet mood. To explain what I mean, here’s a wonderful passage from Murakami’s novel, “Norwegian Wood:”

“I closed my eyes and steeped myself in that long-ago darkness. I heard the wind with unusual clarity. A light breeze swept past me, leaving strangely brilliant trails in the dark. I opened my eyes to find the darkness of the summer night a few degrees deeper than it had been. I twisted open the lid of the jar and took out the firefly, setting it on the two-inch lip of the water tank. It seemed not to grasp its new surroundings. It hobbled around the edge of a steel bolt, catching its legs on curling scabs of paint. It moved to the right until it found its way blocked, then circled back to the left. Finally, with some effort, it mounted the head of the bolt and crouched there for a while, unmoving, as if it had taken its last breath.

Still leaning against the handrail, I studied the firefly. Neither I nor it made a move for a very long time. The wind continued sweeping past the two of us while the numberless leaves of the zelkova trees rustled in the darkness.

I waited for ever.”

Aki/rin2

It’s the same sense of deep experience that I can’t put into words – much like, after all of this, I still can’t put Rin’s route into words. I can describe it. I can break it down. But if it doesn’t strike you like it struck me, then there’s nothing more I can do. As Wittgenstein wrote, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent,” and I suppose that’s where I’m at. Still, before I go… I hope that you’ll allow me to make one last attempt, by indulging my inner Nomiya and reading you one last poem:

You feel the turning of the Earth
as seasons murmur in their sleep,
the life of all the leaves of grass
and time: so wide and so, so deep –

Autumn water, orange lamplight
and umbrellas and the changing
rain: you knew – but when you tried to
speak: men just thought you were insane.

Conclusions and Epilogue

That’s about it from me. If you’ve managed to sit through everything – wow – and, thanks.

Back at the start, I said I wanted to illuminate why KS had such a striking impact on people. But while I’ve dug through a hundred minutiae, I haven’t answered that fully. So, before I wrap up, I think it’s time I do. And while this is just conjecture, I don’t think I’m far from the truth.

I know of one psychological construct that describes what KS does to people. It’s called “Inspiration.” And while you’re familiar with the word, I want you to consider both its meanings. The first is when someone’s work “inspires” yours, like Gaiman and Murakmi inspired Aura. That’s fine – but the second meaning is much more interesting. That’s when someone or something fills you with such a sense of awe that you’re motivated to recreate it in either yourself or the world. The kid who’s inspired by Muhammad Ali to become a boxer; Martin Luther King, who was inspired by a vision of a better world to make it reality; and me, who was inspired by Emi’s route to be a runner. I should add that this kind of inspiration is often accompanied by an overwhelmingly powerful drive to realise the vision you’ve been granted. Evolutionarily, that makes sense – if you encounter an amazing vision of how your world can be better, then of course you’d want to develop an overwhelming drive to make it reality as fast as possible. This is the phenomenon that I believe underlies the response to Katawa Shoujo.

That leaves us with another question: why was KS so inspirational? Let’s consider that emotion that precedes inspiration: awe. In their seminal 2003 paper on that emotion, psychologists Keltner and Haidt noted that awe is what we typically feel when faced with something “vast.” The vastness can be anything physically large, like the sky, but also the incredible “size” of a person’s skill, or the magnitude of their generosity. Keltner and Haidt claimed that when an experience of awe is novel, it can have an especially profound effect. If it exceeds the limits of your conception, it can force your mental structure to reorganise itself. Such moments can be disorienting or frightening, but they can also, in Keltner’s and Haidt’s words: “involve feelings of enlightenment and even rebirth, when mental structures expand to accommodate truths never before known.” I posit that the overwhelmingly vast feelings that people experienced on reading Katawa Shoujo – particularly elevation – triggered in them this exact kind of awakening.

People often praise KS for making them cry, but the moments that cause that – Emi breaking down on the rooftop, Hanako breaking down at the end, Lilly breaking down in the hospital, and Rin transcending everything up on the hill – aren’t sad. They’re moments where one character is in an absolute abyss of misery, or self-loathing. They expect rejection or judgment. Instead, Hisao reaches down, to offer them love, and lift them back up.

Let’s now roll all this into one hypothesis: with Katawa Shoujo, the magnitude of elevation went above and beyond anything its readers had ever experienced. The vastness of that triggered an awe response, as conceived by Haidt. As part of that, the awe triggered an epiphany, leading readers to experience inspiration; with an intense desire to remake the wonderful aspects of KS in the real world – its kindness, its warmth, its love, and its drive to make the most of being alive. As for why the elevation response was so strong – well, I’ve just spent an entire video explaining that.

The last point I need to address is Katawa Dick; the inability of KS readers to masturbate after finishing it.

I’ve been unable to find reference to any equivalent phenomenon in the psych literature, so again, I’ll have to speculate. In Haidt’s book, “The Happiness Hypothesis,” he wrote that the moral codes of many cultures are “very concerned about food, sex, menstruation, and the handling of corpses.” He went on to argue that our emotion of disgust is strongly tied up with our morality. You are likely to condemn things that disgust you as morally wrong. Given this, it’s no wonder that sex and masturbation often wind up in creeds of morality. If that’s true, then it’s no surprise that when we’re caught up in the throes of emotions related to religion – transcendence, awe, elevation, and such – that we feel a desire to transcend our “disgusting impulses,” and achieve a kind of moral purity.

So, here’s my katawa dick hypothesis: with KS, 4 Leaf Studios unintentionally tapped into the latent neural pathways that undergird our religious impulses and pushed them into overdrive. The physical and moral beauty of Hisao and Yamaku awaken us to better possibilities in what I suspect is indistinguishable from a religious awakening. In my case, so overwhelming was the experience that I just forwent masturbation for an entire month. Religion that raw, and that hot, cannot last long, and eventually fades – but while it lasts, it’s a powerful thing, that leaves deep scorch marks well after the feeling has passed.

CONCLUSIONS

Everything I’ve discussed in this conclusion was captured beautifully in an oft-shared quote about KS, whose origins I’ve been unable to ascertain, but which I’ll now read out:

“So it’s actually not about seducing and nailing disabled girls. The girls happen to have disabilities, but the more you get to know them, the more you come to realise that they are girls just like any other. They are humans with hopes and dreams, and messy, fucked up insecurities about being alive and happy. They are not strange people – they are regular ordinary human beings who feel the way they feel not because they are disabled, but because they are ordinary. They are the universal allegory for humanity; the archetypal human; the mess you become when you feel sad and alone and unworthy. They are the girl next door, the prom queen, the bookworm, the tomboy, and all the baggage that comes with that – nothing more or less.

They resonate with you because you recognise your flaws and needs and desires and triumphs and victories, and those of the loved ones you know and care about. You want to make them happy, because you want them to be happy, because you know them and are them, and in some way you believe everyone you love deserves to be happy.

You are not alone, and you are not strange. You are you, and everyone has damage. Be the better person.”

…You feel that? Well then: go – and do the same.

Writing

I think that many KS readers feel conflicted, because they want to express the following sentiment: “Katawa Shoujo moved me more than anything else has, and I want to call it incredible, even though I don’t believe its technical execution was great.” Unfavourable comparisons are then typically drawn to writers with names like Shakespeare, Joyce, and Milton. That’s fair. By most metrics, Katawa Shoujo is not incredibly written. Even Aura’s best, backed up by Silentcook, doesn’t contain sentences half as beautiful as Shakespeare, or Milton. Neither are A22’s character even a quarter as good as those of Joyce. And, frankly, the plots of the KS routes are rarely as intricate as those of even an average Harry Potter book.

When people say that something’s well-written, they’re usually talking about its technical execution – it’s use of language, and the verisimilitude of its characters. On these metrics, I have to agree: Katawa Shoujo is decent at best. But let’s return to the Parable of the Good Samaritan. By almost any metric, it is not well-written. Its prose is bland – yes, even in the King James. Its characters are two-dimensional. Its plot is basic. Yet in spite of that, we are still telling it two thousand years after it was written, because the Samaritan’s example still has the power to inspire; to strike us in such a way that we’re moved to become better people.

What I think that people intuit, but struggle to put into words, is that while the technical craft of KS is not magnificent, the ideas at its core are, and the effect it has on people, emotionally, and inspirationally, is beyond anything triggered by Shakespeare, Milton, or Joyce; and they’re no slouches in that department. Seasoned literary critics may sneer, but really – if we aren’t writing to move people, to introduce them to awe, to show them love and inspire them to go out and become better men – then why the fuck are we writing at all?

The End

The poet W.H. Auden once remarked that no works are unjustly remembered, but that many are unjustly forgotten. Katawa Shoujo will someday be one of them. But even eight years after its release, people are making KS fan-art, writing occasional fan fiction, and reminiscing over experiences nearly a decade old; sometimes rekindled by the excited scribblings of people who have discovered it for the very first time and, like me, need to get everything out. Nevertheless, someday, the halls of Yamaku will fall silent for the last time. The lights will go out. The students and teachers will be gone, leaving just empty classrooms and hallways to gather dust. And even these words will drown in the all-encompassing silence and disappear as if they were never said. I don’t know how long it will take – not long, in the grand scheme of things – but it feels wrong to me. Like this beautiful, wonderful story, flawed as it is, never got the recognition I feel it deserves; Rin’s route especially.

Katawa Shoujo will be forgotten; I accept that. But I want to push it back just a little. And I want anyone, five decades from now, who stumbles across it for the first time, to be able to find themselves here, and listen to someone who can say “I understand what you’re feeling.”

The truth is though, I didn’t write this for that person, or for you. I wrote it because, like so many others, I needed to say what KS meant to me, and it has taken me eight years to find the sixty thousand words. I wanted to do that because, for all this time, there’ve been some people that I’ve wanted to thank, and I’ve wanted it to mean something when I do. And when Raide, one member of Four Leaf Studios recently died, I forever lost the chance to do that for him. So – I’ll do it now.

Let me tell you one final story. Back in the January of 2017, circumstances placed me in Tokyo at the same time that 4 Leaf Studios were presenting at Comiket. From the moment I realised, there was never a question of whether I’d go; it was just a matter of figuring out how I’d traverse a city whose language I didn’t know, make three train changes, then somehow navigate the vast halls of the Tokyo Big Sight convention centre.

Undaunted, I woke up early that Winter morning. I caught the first train. I caught the second train. I made it all the way to the autonomous Yurikamome line, where young Japanese were chatting excitedly around me as the train rose up a hundred metres over the pure blue waters of Tokyo bay. I remember wind whipping through my hair, though I think I must have imagined that.

I made it to a crowd of what felt like thirty thousand people, lined up outside like an army. Overwhelmed, I joined them in marching round the outskirts and up towards the main convention centre, which looks like a temple transplanted from the year twenty-one hundred and one. I knew no one. I could read no signs. I had no idea where I was. It didn’t matter; I was there, even if my own legs felt a little bit like lemon panacotta.

I walked through the halls, and the table mazes. I rounded a final corner and… there it was. The table. Hardly believing it, I walked up and introduced myself to Cameron “Cpl_Crud” ‘O Neill, Hanako’s original path writer. It sounds ridiculous, but I felt like I was meeting someone half out of legend. I managed to stammer a few words without embarrassing myself too badly, and then…  thanked him. A thanks five years overdue. I bought some KS artbooks, too, which are still some of the most treasured things I own.

But there was something I didn’t have a chance to say that day, which has taken a further three years. So – here goes. To everyone who helped bring to life the little miracle that was Katawa Shoujo… to RAITA and PyTom; to Yujovi, Doomfest, and Mike Inel; to Pimmy, Gebyy, Moekki, Raemz, and Raide; to Sebastian, and Blue123; to Kagami, to Losstarot… to the Hivemind, to A22, Crud (again), and Suriko… to anyone I’ve left out… And to Climatic, and Kamifish, and Silentcook…

And to Delta… and, of course… to Aura…

Thank you. For everything.


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13 thoughts on “The Emotion Whose Name You Do Not Know: A Katawa Shoujo Retrospecive

  1. Thanks for writing this. I remember KS coming out ages ago but only read through the script a few days ago. I think KS would have been incredibly impactful if I read it as a teen, but as an adult only Rin’s route really resonates with me for much of the reasons you described. The biggest draw of the route to me is that the characters’ difficulties in that route are one of the few in the story that won’t dissipate with maturity.

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  2. I decided to reread Katawa Shoujo about a week ago; I’ve been struggling with finding someone who actually felt the same like me while reading it, and although I don’t share a few things you wrote (specially what you said about Shizune’s route), I can certainly say that you put in words exactly what I felt a long time ago when I finished my last route and, after the credits, I heard the track “Wiosna” for the last time.
    It took me way too much time to actually read the entire essay since I was reading also the VN at the same time and English is not my main language, but it was a truly valuable experience! I might not be as cultured as you are (If it weren’t for you, I would never have found Rin’s quote in Ludwig’s Wikipedia article! hahaha), but it’s amazing to see how even almost ten years after its release, Katawa Shoujo is still here, bringing together people from all around the world to share these kind of feelings.
    Thank you very much.

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  3. One last thing. While reading I had the feeling that this was meant to be a script. Do you have any plans of making a video of this? It’d be really good imo, YT lacks Katawa content besides Rtil old animations and occasional interviews haha

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  4. It has taken me about 3 weeks of reading on and off to finish, but I’m glad I stuck through. Have been re reading KS for its 10-year celebration and found this essay after watching a YouTube video that used it as a sort of reference for Kama muta and i couldn’t agree more. I still don’t know how to correctly describe what i was, and really am still feeling without saying, “look I’m not sure myself, I just know it was a beautiful experience.”

    Is KS Perfect? No, and you have put out in great detail because it isn’t. But just because it’s not perfect doesn’t mean it’s not amazing.

    For me personally, ScissorLips who wrote the Suzu Suzuki Fanfiction on the forums wrote something better than the original routes (although it’s more of a normal novel so comparing VNs and books is a bit hard.). With its 633 pages and in my opinion, just fantastic pacing, writing, story and really i FELT like i was not reading a book, but apart of the journey, a part of the story. For a Fanfiction, i think it’s just amazing the talent Katawa Shoujo has brought forward in some people.

    KS Will forever be dear to me, it changed me back when i was most vunerable, it helped me realise things CAN change, but only if you actually want to do something about it. Change almost never happens without some kind of effort, and starting, can be hard. But just like Running with Emi, the second day is the hardest. Wanting to get away from the council? Asking Suzu’s help to join the Lit club can be hard, but its the start of your change.

    Not only has reading this essay helped me come to terms with my feelings for KS, but it’s also helped me notice things about myself, things i missed in KS and things i’ve missed in life.

    I guess, he only thing i can say is thank you, and i hope the improved, future me will also thank you.

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  5. I first played KS shortly after it was released. I distinctly remember how the entire package(story/music/cg etc) spoke to me on a level that I had previously not experienced with media. I also remember Rin’s route being mostly forgettable, outside of the constant frustration setting in from Rin’s inability to communicate. Hisao seemed to be making things as clear as possible, and she continued to jerk him around. I got the bad end, looked up what to do, unlocked all the CG and moved on. I found Rin more interesting than Hanako, but outside of that her route was not an enjoyable experience.

    A little over 10 years later after some random youtube recommendations, I’ve found myself playing through the VN again. This time in reverse order, starting with my “least” favorite(Hanako) and moving towards what I remember being my favorite(Lilly). I just finished Rin on my 2nd go around…and its been a completely different experience. I’m having a hard time putting into words the…Euphoria? of finally understanding Rin. It’s frustrating that I wasn’t able to put it together the first time. The puzzle pieces finally make sense.

    Some dedicated googling about Rin has lead me here. Your analysis of Rin and her route has really been helpful with my understanding and focusing on what Rin is as a character, and how her route not only shapes that but also shapes my understanding of the rest of KS. I’ve only read your sections that I have completed thus far, and will continue to do so once I finish the other routes.

    I just wanted to say thank you for writing this. I really appreciate the time and effort you put into dissecting exactly “what” makes Rin’s route so extraordinary. I look forward to reading the rest as I continue.

    All the best!

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    1. Hey, thanks very much for taking the time to write this, too, you’re very kind! I’m glad you found the piece useful, and that I wasn’t the only one who had that experience of Rin’s route

      In lieu of having anywhere better to write this stuff, I might also add a few addendums here:

      1) I overlooked the extremely obvious motif of butterflies in Rin’s route. Caterpillars and butterflies are an almost archetypal symbol of change, and it’s funny that Rin’s favourite creature is one that can only come about through drastic metamorphosis. She’s also like a caterpillar, in that she cocoons herself in the atelier to undergo her own maturation. Perhaps the final scene might also have worked better with butterflies in lieu of dandelions. I suspect it would have been prettier, though likely harder to animate, and perhaps a bit too on the nose.

      2) The thing that horrifies Rin – that tragic sense of everything fading – is known by the Japanese as “Mono no Aware.” I wrote more about it here:
      https://auricorange.wordpress.com/2022/11/21/the-vanished-and-the-void-an-analysis-of-panzer-dragoon-saga/
      It’s what’s evoked by the line “And even those words drown in the all-encompassing silence, disappearing into the stagnant air as if they were never said.” Everything changes, and everything fades, forever.

      3) When Rin says she wants to destroy herself and considers the metaphorical and literal interpretations of that to be one and the same, it’s because they ARE. If every “version” of yourself ceases to be when you change, then it stands to reason that you are destroying yourself when you force yourself to change. Rin does so throughout Act 3; exposing herself to radically new experiences, to destroy the person she is, and change into someone new in her place.

      That bittersweet feeling in the smoking scene is also partly Mono no Aware – Hisao and Rin are literally destroying the children they are and undergoing a partial metamorphosis into adulthood. There is both sadness at what is slipping away forever, and a warmth at the natural and irresistible cycle of life proceeding as it must.

      4) I totally failed to apprehend why running is so powerful in Emi’s route, and still don’t have a full grasp of it. Beyond the kama muta, I think it’s something to do with the act of self-improvement being tied to the pursuit of your purpose in life, and that pursuit being something almost religious in nature. Still not sure, though.

      5) I wish I’d tied Shizune to Beethoven, given the insane fact we all accept – that arguably the greatest composer of all time was deaf. Also glossed over is the fact that Ludwig wrote a suicide note planning to kill himself when he realised what was happening. Also overlooked: Beethoven was, by all accounts, a titanic jackass. How do you weigh his aggravating nature against all that he accomplished in life? Can obvious parallels be made to Shizune? And Anonymous22? Do great accomplishments redeem difficult people? Are some people who do great things necessarily difficult? Who knows.

      Anyway, sorry for the digression, thanks again, good luck with your readthrough, and I hope you like the rest of the retrospective.

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