Katawa Shoujo: Hanako’s Path

I’ve have just finished Hanako’s path, and once again I’m struggling to process the wave of emotions that I’m feeling. Disorganised thoughts to follow, as well as the usual spoilers,

To my amazement, I only teared up once or twice throughout her story. It surprises me because Hanako seems like exactly the sort of person that I would fall head-over-heels, gather-up-in-my-arms-and-ride-off-into-the-sunset in love with, and I thought I’d be bawling my eyes out. I kept expecting her to open up, sweep back her hair and smile from her heart because she found someone who accepted her unconditionally. But the game took a different approach to unfolding their relationship.

I got the good ending first, and the path seems so clear to me in hindsight. I must admit, I’m finally starting to see Lilly’s mothering, protective nature as disrespectful – she doesn’t see other people as equals, but rather as part of the flock that she’s taken under her wing. Trying to surround Hanako in cotton wool might have made her feel less uncomfortable, but it didn’t help her grow any stronger either. By constantly making the choices to shelter her, Hisao and Lilly ended up seeing Hanako as someone fragile and (as she put it) “useless”. While they loved her, they disserviced her by underestimating her resilience. When I replayed her path to get the neutral/bad endings, I realised that those small choices were not overtly about protecting her, or even trying to force her out of her comfort zone; they were about treating her as a person, worthy of love and respect, who had the strength and resources to deal with her own problems in her own way. Because Hisao respected her as a person, she was able to tentatively voice the dreams and desires she kept so closely guarded. I now see Hanako as an incredibly strong person, constantly battling the judgements of the people around her (the “That’s just how she is” attitude) in order to feel like her life was worth living.

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I’m glad, too, that the trauma around her birthday was explained. Hanako always felt that she just caused trouble for others, making them uncomfortable with her scars or making them go out of their way to care for her. She hated that about herself, and deep down she believed it would be better if she didn’t exist. The falsity of a birthday celebration, that one single day where people treated her like she was special, felt like a cruel juxtaposition to the other 364 days of the year.

And despite knowing how much stuff she was working on, I’m impressed that Hisao didn’t try and be a therapist for her; he recognised that she already had someone fulfilling that role in her life. Instead he wanted to be a guardian, or a friend, or a more-than friend. This theme of friendship (and defining its roles and boundaries), like in Rin’s story, was explored beautifully. Truly, it was only until the very last few lines of dialogue that Hisao was brave enough to realise that he didn’t just want to be friends with Hanako, and he was fighting for something more. His tip-toeing around her only served to frustrate her and drive wedges between them, and it was only when he opened himself to her in all his fear and vulnerability that the two of them could finally see eye-to-eye.

And it surprised me that one of the significant barriers to connecting with her was one that Hisao had constructed himself. He so wanted to make her feel comfortable that he always held her at arm’s length for fear of (literally) scaring her off. This distance served to drive her away, and every time they came close it undermined their relationship. It was a tragic story of two people wanting to be open with each other, but fearing that they wouldn’t be wholly accepted and repelling one another (like magnets caught in each other’s orbits). Each time they did get closer to each other, one of them would hurriedly withdraw. Hisao stopped Hanako in the library when she tried to tell him about life in the orphanage, and he stopped her again when she opened up at the jazz club. She started skipping class and avoiding him, wanting to be close but hating how he felt she was so useless he had to protect her. The majority of their problems were due to a heartwrenching case of miscommunication (which, if unresolved, lead to the neutral or bad ending).

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And despite all the time they spent together, they hardly knew each other at all. Certainly Hanako started spending more time with Hisao and became more comfortable in his company, but she remained almost entirely enigmatic, her thoughts and worldview completely unfathomable to him. Those tiny slivers of her true identity (her unexpected love of singing, her fondness for experimentation in the kitchen, her love of games of all kind and her genuine dislike of other people) were hard-won glimpses of who she really was. It seemed like Hisao had to earn each and every one of her smiles, those cracks in the armour that let the light in. I recall at one point just wanting to grab her by the shoulders and shake her, saying “Open up already! Face the world and grow into the person you want to be!” But, as Bruce Lee would say, Hanako wasn’t in the world to live up to my expectations (nor was I in the world to live up to hers). At any rate, it was satisfying in the end when they both admitted how little they knew about each other, but they enjoyed each other’s company enough to give their relationship a chance.

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One of the things I really loved most about their relationship was the silences between them. A lot of people are scared of silence, but it was nice to see a version of Hisao that was comfortable in it. Well, for the most part anyway. I can foresee a future in which Hanako and he spend many meals together in companionable quietude, and yet are wholly open with each other. It was a bit sad that this sedentariness didn’t leave him in the best physical shape, and it made it hard for them to be intimate. I hope that this version of Hisao goes into the future and decides that becoming healthier is one of his goals.

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Once again, Hisao had no clear vision for what he wanted to do after graduation. Happily, unlike in Rin’s story, even though he wasn’t clear about what he wanted to do with his future, he knew that he wanted to do something. And so in order to develop himself as a person and deal with his restlessness (of wanting to take control of his life), he hit the books as a way of preparing himself for whatever the future might bring. He made a conscious effort to not let the past hold him back, and to follow Mutou’s advice of claiming the education and opportunity that Yamaku afforded him.

Katawa Shoujo is a game that makes me laugh, cry, smile wryly, pound my fist in fervent agreement, yell at the monitor in distress and inspires me to be a better person. I’m kind of unsettled now that it’s over, having finally achieved 100% completion. I guess I’m left wanting more, to relive those experiences when they aren’t a little familiar already. I’m quite sure that I’ll go back and replay it (particularly Lilly’s path – I want to see their relationship unfold again now that I have a much better understanding of her personality!), but now that the experience is over it leaves a void that is hard to fill. KS has been such a wonderful influence on me, and I’m sad that none of it will be quite as fresh ever again.

I think the reason this game makes me so happy is because it reminds me what’s important in life: Hisao takes such great pleasure in the company of his loved ones, and enjoying a quiet moment at the tea house, the quality of the light, the breeze through the trees… Those are the subtle moments built into the game, where he sighs with pleasure and smiles from his heart, that remind me I can do all of those things too, almost all the time on any given day. It inspires me to enjoy my life more, and I can say with utter certainty that it has changed me for the better. Katawa Shoujo may well be my favourite “game” of all time, and if you haven’t started playing it by this point, I urge you to download it for free and see for yourself what a wonderful experience it is.

http://www.katawa-shoujo.com/

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Black belt

Last night, I finally earned that belt which I have dreamed of. When I was a teenager just starting out in Taekwondo, I thought getting to black belt was the end game, the ultimate goal, the proof of mastery of the art (and the accompanying invincibility and inherent awesomeness). And in just over a year I got it, largely due to monthly gradings and a “if you give us money we’ll give you a new belt” attitude. (My club, despite hosting the most state champions in WA, was a bit of a McDojo/black belt factory.)

Things with the Academy of Traditional Fighting Arts are a little different. The gradings are irregular, maybe two or three a year. And they say from the start, it’s a long-term journey. In the same way that one doesn’t pick up a guitar and play Hendrix after a week, it takes hours and hours of grooving movement and internalising concepts before a person has the requisite skill and knowledge to transcend it. This means that the students stay on their grade for months, or even years depending on how frequently they train. The resulting difference in skill between belt colours is obvious, with good reason; each and every student trains until they have learned what their grade was designed to teach them. This makes for a robust system of competent martial artists, where everyone’s current skill level is clearly visible by the colour of their belt.

When I was first introduced to the system of Wu-Wei Dao, I was blown away by how much I didn’t know and how skilful the students and teachers were. I didn’t care in the slightest about rankings or belt colours, I just knew that these guys knew their stuff, and I wanted to have more of that in my life. (And it was admittedly refreshing to find a school where I was not one of the top students, which I had grown accustomed to and caused me to become a little arrogant.)

Last night I achieved that dream which I so treasured as a young man. And I must admit, it gives me a thrill of pleasure to see such a symbol around my waist. But it does not change me. Ever since that first lesson of Taekwondo, I have said to myself that I will act like a black belt whether I wear one or not. I have trained hard, I have worked to cultivate a good attitude, and I have helped my fellow students as much as possible. I have strived to be a good martial artist and human being, to be “an officer and a gentleman” as Kancho would say, and to set a good example for the other students. Being yudansha is more about the colour of the cloth around your waist: it’s an attitude. Jesse Enkamp said it well: “If you’re a black belt, you should brush your teeth like a black belt, tie your shoes like a black belt and wipe your a** like a black belt.”

Wearing kuro obi is, as I said, both thrilling and kinda scary. My brother tells me those two emotions produce an identical autonomic response, it’s just the mind that chooses whether to be excited or fearful. My physical condition, while decent, is not extraordinary, and I still have a lot of work to do on my attitude (I’d like to complain less, be kinder, and to be more grateful, for instance). The other yudansha have set high standards for the school, and I will work hard not only to meet them but promote them, because it becomes me. To put it another way, now that I’ve finally managed to do 50 push-ups, I will not allow myself to do any less from now on. It’s all up-hill from here, but you know? I’m enjoying the journey up the mountain, and I don’t particularly mind that it doesn’t have a summit.

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