Second Date – Ikezawa Hanako, a Trans* Narrative

(Trigger Warning for trans* transition experiences)

Katawa Shoujo doesn’t make anything easy. Every positive has a caveat, each charming thoughtful moment its headdesk. Last time, I talked about how Hanako’s path exemplified the sexual exotification of disability in the game, mostly through giving the player a main character without a superficially notable disability. Upon a first glance, there seemed to be little application for this analysis outside of criticizing pandering to men’s interests in visual novels, however, my personal connection to Hanako provided me with something else. I saw her do something that triggered a muscle memory from my past: She covers her face.

This is emblematic for the teenage stage of life where you think everyone is always watching you. Appearances matter, especially how you dress, your hair, your face. Imagine having that double fold and outside of high school; that was me. Growing into a transgender identity isn’t a quick and magical process many people imagine, rather, it’s a very long and awkward transition. A transition with the destination constantly changing. One of the most painful experiences is claiming an identity that others don’t see or believe. Without the aid of fashion tips and makeup, people in my day-to-day life wouldn’t see me as a woman, and I lived that for a long time. One of the things I did was cover my face. I liked scarves, straightened my hair and grew out long bangs, tried to make a posture where I hid my jaw line with my hand seem natural. I felt awkward, and looking at Hanako, I now know everyone else knew I was awkward, despite my efforts.

Then there was the social anxiety, some that stays with me today. Whenever someone approached me and looked at my face, all I could think of was how they were staring at my trans-ness. It made me feel ugly. I felt ugly when people stumbled to identify me, I felt ugly whenever a guy would forcibly call me “dude” and make sure there was a yard between us. Hanako was the Id I battled with, wanting someone like Lily who didn’t notice what was transgender about me, who was sensitive to when I need to leave social gatherings, that I needed extra steps to feel comfortable. Society does two things to people like Hanako: shames and sexualizes them. Hanako’s path is a story of someone who survives both, however, she can only overcome the shame inside the bounds of Katawa Shoujo. It’s the same with being transgender, as one can ignore, hide, or embrace what distinguishes them from a cisgender identity, but it others will allow it to rule their interactions. People will interact with trans* people in accordance to essentialized notions of sexual orientation and relegate trans* bodies to sexual fetishism. Which, in turn, exotifies being transgender in the manner Katawa Shoujo does to disability.

I both criticize and empathize with Hanako’s decision to share her disability in a sexualized setting and ‘giving into’ sex with Hisao to gauge his interest. In my experience, when being transgender is the elephant in the relationship, sex is typically the answer. To parallel Hisao and Hanako’s relationship, an inexperienced cisgender partner will seek to answer questions about the transgender person’s body and their sexual chemistry with an identity they haven’t slept with before. Sex can often happen quickly, and will usually determine whether the cisgender partner will continue the relationship. Hanako needed to know what Hisao was there for, and sex was more about Hisao figuring out his feelings rather than their mutual satisfaction. The unfortunate truth is Hanako and transgender people know they are often viewed only through what makes them exotic, and once it becomes familiar, interest fades. What is lamentable is how oblivious Hisao is to this, and how players can excise their empathy for his situation without being aware of their contribution to the systemic oppression of those exotified.

The developers probably didn’t plan Hanako to be an exploration of the exotic or trans* issues. I also don’t claim to represent every single person with a trans* identity. It also isn’t a suggestion that players or anyone participating in visual novel culture are rapists or otherwise condemnable people. Katawa Shoujo, however, normalizes the exotic and makes it palatable to more hegemonic identities; it’s easier to explore feelings surrounding dating someone with a disability or transgender identity when they are a video game character bent to satisfy the player. It only serves hegemonic gamer identity, but future iterations of games aiming to explore the diverse range of relationships possible would benefit from looking at the ground Katawa Shoujo covered.

Ikezawa Hanako, the Otaku Exotic

You’re a male student who has the pick of five high school girls with disabilities to date and sleep with. Yes, Katawa Shoujo has a sensationalist premise promising for something to go horribly wrong. The main character, Nakai Hisao, transfers to a private school that accommodates students with disabilities and health issues that require the need of an around the clock medical staff. As he wrestles with his disability and how that involves his identity, attractive girls with their own problems whom he can romance complicate things further. One of the story paths Hisao can take is to involve himself with Ikezawa Hanako, a burn victim with scars covering half her body, and crippling social anxiety as a result. There is a case for Hanako being the standard romance, or the one made in mind of the audience that would play this game, despite having the most unconventional look of all the romances.

With its sexual connotation, the scars exotify Hanako. Without them, she would be a very typical Japanese schoolgirl who is extremely shy, tries to cook, hides in the library… Would anything be interesting about Hanako if it wasn’t for her accident? The mental side of her disability is actually emphasized traits of what we think of woman nerds: dislikes social interaction except with those who earn her affection, hypersensitive to her preferences of where they can go, and enjoying anything that makes them a relative shut-in. All wrapped in traditional Japanese beauty and given scarring to make her unique. Many of the other girls have personality quirks that involve their disability but don’t rely on it to make them unique. Hanako, on the other hand, enables the typical men’s fantasy traits; by rousing Hisao’s white knight tendencies and being an extreme stereotype of a geek or nerd, she is the most palatable choice for the typical consumer visual novels and dating sims. Having this social anxiety forces the player to invest their own protective tendencies, but in a way that won’t backlash at them. In a way, the player won’t feel their own social ineptitude or inability to read people to be a hindrance because Hanako is such an extreme case.

The conclusion of her storyline is pretty telling; you can only get the perfect run through if you respect her independence and allow her to start doing things on her own without Hisao hovering over her. Because this is a fantasy, her new stake in autonomy happens right at the end of the game, so the player doesn’t have to experience a complicated relationship. Instead, Hanako provided the chase and the emotions of caretaking and resolved her character arc without disrupting these feelings. So when players look back at their time with Hanako, they will remember holding a glass figurine rather than the first step to being a woman she makes at the end of the game. It is a strange convention of these high school dating sims to end the game when the relationship officially starts, which is typically after a sex scene. Because players will remember the dutiful, quiet Hanako that provided sex because she wanted to be close, and not the potentially threatening social and secure Hanako that happens after the story’s end.

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