Part 95: Shizune, Misha, and MaskingUpdate 85: Shizune, Misha, and Masking
That was an Interesting route. You know, at first I was happy to see all the posting; just the first week in this route generated as many posts as the thread sees in a slower month, and always nice to see people so excited and engaged. Except that engagement came from anger and frustration over all the mediocre writing and terrible behavior that characterizes her route. Like, look. I will always defend the fact that equal treatment means judging a persons actions regardless of their disability outside of where it immediately affects their behavior, and that judgment can be as negative or positive as it can be for anybody else. It didnt escape me (as was pointed out) that whenever Shizunes Deafness came up, it was to contextualize how communication failures on a practical level might shape our perception of her behavior. Except some of her behavior proved unquestionably awful, which threw the thread into a tailspin several times. Honestly, Im glad to see this route go, and while I dont actually hate Shizune, Id rather not dwell on her any longer than necessary.
So Ill spend most of this post dwelling on Misha instead.
Update 2 posted:
As he calls out her name, the cute, bubbly looking girl with bright pink hair and gold eyes waves her hand at me. I take a seat next to the window.
HISAO: "Hey, I guess you're Hakamichi, right? It's nice to meet you."
What? I'm caught off guard by her laughter.
Misha is a cartoon character from the moment we meet her. In theory, her boisterousness isnt more outrageous than Shizunes manipulativeness, Rins otherworldliness, or Kenjis Kenjiness, especially in the much broader and less refined first act; shes just one oddball among many. But Hisao notes from the beginning just how aggressively loud she gets, how much her behavior stands out from those around her. Theres something inherently fake about Misha, though in all the noise it just registers as anime-standard unrealistic. Either way, she and Shizune are inseparable, moving almost as a unit through the start of the route proper. The route uses all the slice of life content to establish the dynamic of their relationship.
And then Shizune and Hisao start dating.
Update 73 posted:
Misha runs around us once in a wide circle before stopping next to Shizune. For the first time, she hasn't put her hands over my eyes, although now I see she has bags of her own to carry, so it's not like she could have even if she wanted to. Although I am positive she's tried before. Her meticulously styled curls are gone now, in favor of a much shorter, sportier look. Misha looks even happier than usual, probably because she knows she won't have to wake up at the crack of dawn every morning just to do her hair.
JIGORO: "What is that haircut? You look like an intern. Your old haircut merely made you look like you were wearing a pink judge wig. Judge to intern is a huge demotion."
SHIZUNE: [Hisao, is he saying something insulting? Tell him not to insult my friends!]"
HISAO: "Don't insult my friends."
JIGORO: "Which one of you is talking?"
HISAO: "Both of us. I agree with her."
MISHA: "Hehehe~! What do you think, Hicchan?"
SHIZUNE: [You should have kept it like it was.]"
MISHA: "Aw~... Hicchan, you look disappointed, you don't like it either?"
HISAO: "Well, yeah, I'll admit I kind of liked your old haircut more, but I think this one is nice too. It suits you."
MISHA: "Aw, thanks, Hicchan~!"
Almost immediately, she cuts off those gigantic drills, kind of a drastic decision since the game implies shes worn them since she got rejected by Shizune. The doldrums between the trip and Mishas visit to Hisaos room show them gradually drifting apart; Misha shows up less and less, whether she has an excuse or just doesnt show up.
Update 76 posted:
HISAO: "Well, one thing that's weird is that in my old school the elections would happen in about six months, since, you know, we're graduating in March. It's pretty weird to think about them so early."
SHIZUNE: [It's a little different here.]
MISHA: "Hicchan, I'll be discouraged if we don't have any replacements when I have to go~! Shicchan says. But~!, it isn't like the school will stop running without a Student Council. It will be harder for them to hand out forms, though~! Hahaha~."
Shizune isn't laughing, however. Misha's joke causes her to flinch, as if she were stung. Though Misha didn't mean for it to come out that way, her quip had a callous cruelty to it in the end.
When she does show up, occasionally, the mask slips. Shes very, very good at keeping her emotions hidden, but as the pressure mounts, she starts making mistakes most notably offhandedly insulting the Student Council, Shizunes baby. She spent the whole game supporting her in absolutely everything, then casually implies all their efforts might be worthless.
Update 76 posted:
HISAO: "You sound like you're some kind of dessert expert."
MISHA: "Not just dessert~! I want to eat all kinds of delicious things~. Someday, I'll have enough money to buy a two kilogram Matsusaka beef steak~!"
HISAO: "That's like over a hundred thousand yen... I guess this kind of decadent food is kind of your hobby then, huh?"
A hobby isn't something that should take months to learn about someone. I've been very rude, in retrospect. Also, that is one pricey hobby.
The mask slips around Hisao, too. He gradually realizes just how little he knows about Misha; shes hollowed out her personality so thoroughly to fit Shizunes that shes never shown Hisao, who she considers a friend, anything she does for fun or on her own. The most he gets is her affection for parfaits, and the moment we actually see how she one, it becomes clear she kind of doesnt know what shes doing.
Update 81 posted:
HISAO: "No, this is a recent thing. Really. I just hate it when people give up easily now."
MISHA: "Haha~. Now, huh~...?"
HISAO: t makes me mad when people give up. I used to think that giving up was kind of like running away, since that's how people always describe it, but now that I think about it, it's usually more like throwing something away. When you run away from something, you can think of it as still being there. So, I was in the hospital, and I didn't just want to run away from my problems, I wanted to never think about them again."
Misha eats a spoonful of her gray ice cream goo. Did she only just remember it was there now, or could it be she likes it that way?
The whole point of a parfait is that it comes in layers, but when we finally get a good look at her eating one, she just watches it melt and indifferently scoops up the remains. This, too, might be just another baffle, something quirky she came up with for people to focus on without letting them in any deeper. That and it symbolizes how, though shes a sweet all the way down, she has layers you couldnt see from the surface. Misha, despite going along with the stuff Shizune did in Act 1, is a kind and supportive person who wouldnt hurt a fly. She genuinely considers Hisao a friend even as she steals her crush, as the route tries to emphasize. Shes also a mass of depression compounded by the stress of years of suppressing her personality and putting up a front.
Update 78 posted:
MISHA: "Please comfort me, Hicchan. Just for today."
Eventually, the stress and isolation break her. She goes from occasionally erratic behavior to outright coming on to Hisao. Its hard to say why, exactly, but as inexplicable and dramatically out of character as it is, it feels about right to me; Ive been in that position before, pushed to and past the breaking point, and Ive made similarly baffling decisions that I couldnt explain after the fact. I can also identify with just how dangerous the resulting self-loathing is.
Update 79 posted:
Without really thinking about it, I grab her hand. My reflexes are terrible, and I manage to only grasp onto a few of her fingers, but it's unimportant.
Katawa Shoujo OST - Caged Heart
HISAO: "Sorry. It's just that you said something pretty weird just now."
MISHA: "Hahaha~. Yeah~, I guess that's right, Hicchan."
In the final version, Misha either pulled herself together or watches her friends drift away. In the beta, she committed suicide no matter what decisions you made. In the Bad Ending there, the trauma drove Shizune and Hisao part; in the Good Ending, they bonded over it, eventually naming their first child after her. I cant say I object to them cutting that out of the finished product. This already cuts a bit too close to home; if they kept that element in, I probably would have put down the game after seeing it and not picked it up again. At least in Hanakos beta route the game implies she and Emi hooked up, stabilizing her, though I guess the rest of the suffering in that route kind of cancels out any bonus points.
Anyway, as I said, the route only has one decision in the final version. If you make the worst possible choice at the end of Act 3, the next scene drives home how it drove a wedge between the three characters. In Act 4, first you go through the same scenes with maybe a couple extra lines of tweaked dialogue, but instead of Misha gradually coming back, she and Shizune grow more and more aloof. Shizune retreats into her own head, gradually shutting out Hisao despite his best efforts, until she comes to his door one morning and asks him to take a walk with her.
A hypothetical Update 84 posted:
HISAO: [Is there something wrong?]"
SHIZUNE: [Why do you think there is something wrong?]"
HISAO: [Because you're obviously upset. I could just tell. It's what I wanted to talk to you about."
Shizune quickly cracks her knuckles while I sign to her.
SHIZUNE: [Apparently, I'm easier to read than I'd thought. I was trying hard to hide it. Can you tell what I'm thinking right now?]"
I don't respond, and Shizune heads towards the door, slowly enough that I can tell she wants me to follow her. Her hands are folded behind her back, which is arched against them as though she is about to bend over backwards at any second. Outside, I see Shizune is right. The school is completely deserted. Although it's not my first time seeing the school like this, it's kind of eerie. Shizune acts almost as though I'm not there, browsing a vending machine and taking a slow and winding path until we end up behind the main building. Finally, she leans against a wall and faces me, but it's like I've forgotten how to start a conversation.
SHIZUNE: [There is a saying. You don't know how much you've screwed up until you screw up.]"
HISAO: [Who says that?]"
SHIZUNE: [I guess it's me.]"
Reconsidering her train of thought, she waves her hands in frustration.
SHIZUNE: [Okay, I'll put it differently. When I was younger, we had to make posters for Earth Day in school. There was another girl in my class whom everyone considered the best artist. It wasn't because she could draw better than everyone else, it was how much she could fit into a single picture. I wanted to be better than her, so I made countless posters until I ended up with the best possible one. I had to be the best and have the greatest one. In the end, everyone liked my poster the most of all, even the teacher. A week later, it was meaningless. I threw it in the trash. I think I've told you something like this before.]"
SHIZUNE: [When I feel like I'm finished, I wish I could just wipe the slate clean. Whether I succeed or not. I put Misha through a lot, and even dragged you into it. And every point where I could have solved this silly situation, or prevented it from happening in the first place, keeps coming back to me. It's the worst feeling. Especially when I feel like I've done nothing right and everything wrong. Like recently. It's the worst kind of failure. I feel like a failure on every level. I wish I could wipe away everything I've done and just be alone, since all I've done is mess with Misha for two years. And jerk you around for a year for selfish reasons.]"
HISAO: [It's fine.]"
SHIZUNE: [No, it's not. You don't understand. I was just thinking about it; everything I do feels like I have to beat someone else. Everyone else, even. If that is how it is, then what are my relationships with people? They almost feel the same.]"
I can see where this is going.
SHIZUNE: [The point is that I've messed up so many people by being selfish, and now I want to be away from other people for a while.]"
HISAO: [Even me?]"
There's a pause.
Followed by an even longer pause, this time from me.
HISAO: [I see. That's the most selfish thing you could do. It's just you making another decision by yourself.]"
For a minute, it looks as though she's considering the best way to respond, but in the end, she simply nods. Which, I think, is the best way to respond anyway. It's very like her, to be roundabout even now, but ultimately without excuses. All my emotions simmer inside me. I see a kettle in front of me, water rolling inside it, so close that I can touch it and feel the heat radiating off of it. I'm glad for the distraction, because I know there's no recourse or bargaining possible.
SHIZUNE: [You told me that everything was fine, but it wasn't true, was it? I can't believe it ever again, then.]"
HISAO: "All right."
Not even bothering to sign it, I stand up. My hands are in my pockets, fingering my loose change. The morning air is cold against my face.
As I look back at her, she seems very lonely. I'm reminded of myself. I've made that expression before. Maybe it's on my face right now. It feels like the image of such a lonely girl will stick in my mind forever. Every moment where I could have prevented this, or solved the problem, comes back to me. It makes me smile in a way without amusement.
During the Bad Ending, Hisao, Misha, and Shizune at no point actually sit down to discuss their issues and needs. They spend Act 4 practically ignoring each other until their relationships break for good. If you take the other route, as you saw, the three of them get their shit together and start talking to each other. Granted, its not quick and easy, and it actually takes Misha most of the act to claw her way up out of her depression, which tracks. Depression is a property of your brain chemistry, after all; even if things improve, it takes a while to stabilize yourself. But she does, and the Misha that comes out the other end is more honest, open, and capable of advocating for herself then shes been since we met her. She undergoes the most character development of the three, by far, and thats what makes her the most interesting character in the route. Honestly, while I still think Best Girl is someone else, Ive developed a soft spot for her during this LP. Possibly because she masks a lot.
Masking, for those unfamiliar, is a set of strategies a lot of autistic people develop to pass as neurotypical, but while that article explains what it looks like from the outside pretty well, let me tell you but it looks like from the inside. A lot of neurotypical interpersonal skills are unconscious, learned during ordinary childhood development. We miss out on most of those: they call it a developmental disability sometimes for a reason. Instead, many of us learn how to cobble together almost a surface personality, a mask, based on observations and hard lessons about what others expect from us in social situations. Ideally, it lets us anticipate and respond appropriately to social stimuli based on our reasoning and experience instead of our subconscious. Think of it like were constantly running a simulation of all the people around us, their wants, expectations, and past actions, and attempting to sketch out acceptable responses so we can deliver them in a timely matter with the same parts of our brain we use to carry on the conversation. And yeah, I guess there are lots of people who do that subconsciously, but thats the whole issue: we have to do it consciously, running all these calculations in the background while broadcasting I am an ordinary neurotypical through our actions and words AND contributing to the conversation. You can probably guess its way out of reach for lots of people, and even for those who can handle it on the regular its fucking exhausting.
Like, look, I LIKE talking with people, Im very proud of how Ive assembled my mask and the ways I use it to get my ideas across. I approach using my mask as an interesting challenge, and thats extremely rare among autistic people. So I think about it like its a tough test in a subject Im good at. 30 minutes of conversation? As long as I know what Im doing and I know whats on the test (what a person wants to talk about), its a serious investment but nothing I cant handle. Spread that out to an hour, and by the end Im pretty wiped, though not so much I cant go do something else. At two hours Im pretty much done for the day Im still highly invested, at four I cant keep my thoughts organized anymore, and at six I might as well be drawing unicorns on the scantron - and many social functions last even longer. And this is all under ideal conditions. Prevent me from studying (Im in a situation Im not familiar with), put me in an environment not conducive to test-taking (its loud, noisy, and full of distractions), and make it on an unfamiliar subject (I dont know any of these people), and you can halve or even quarter those times, and this is for someone who enjoys it. Whats that? You dont want to do this for eight hours or more? Tough luck, fucker, youll just have to keep up the façade as long as everyone around you expects you to or your relationships, job, and once in a while life may be at risk. Youll just have to tough it up and take the long-term psychological consequences.
The long-term psychological consequences posted:
- Stress and anxiety. In a 2019 study, researchers found that stress and anxiety were higher in people who routinely masked autistic traits, compared to those who used masking less often.
- Depression. In 2018, researchers interviewed 111 autistic adults, finding that those who reported masking their autistic traits had symptoms of depression and felt unaccepted by people in their social sphere.
- Exhaustion. Masking consumes huge amounts of energy. In a 2016 study, women who used masking to satisfy neurotypical standards said they felt exhausted by the constant effort.
- Delayed identification of autism. Some people are so successful with masking that their autism isnt identified until they are much older. That delay can lead to mental health issues because people dont get the support or understanding they need.
- Loss of identity. Some people who mask their identity, interests, and traits end up feeling that they no longer know who they really are. Some have said masking feels like self-betrayal; others have said masking makes them feel theyre deceiving other people.
- Risk of autistic burnout. When people push themselves to behave in ways that dont feel authentic, the result can be an overwhelming feeling of overload, sometimes called autistic burnout. Masking may require an extended period of quiet withdrawal and recovery.
- Increased risk of suicidal thoughts. In a recent study, prolonged masking was linked to lifetime suicidality. The study was relatively small (160 students) and involved primarily women (89.6 percent). However, it showed that masking led to feeling like a burden, which in turn led to more suicidal thoughts over the course of a lifetime.
Huh. That sounds awfully familiar, doesnt it? Lets go down the list:
- Stress and anxiety? Hinted at by her avoidance of stressors (Hisao and Shizune) and low grades, which she commits to raising near the Good Ending as her anxiety lets off.
- Depression? Oh yeah.
- Exhaustion? Maybe, maybe not. She sure does spend less and less energy working on things in the student council as the route goes on.
- Delayed identification of autism? Well, nobody knows what her disability is.
- Loss of identity? Big time. She leaned so hard into her persona she completely lost track of what she wanted as a person; shes only starting to draw boundaries and get back in touch with herself as someone who isnt Shizunes accomplice by the time the Good Ending wraps up.
- Risk of autistic burnout? Probably not. Autistic burnout is a very specific thing that stands apart from other kinds of burnout, characterized by exhaustion, heightened sensory difficulties, and a loss of skills and knowledge, sometimes permanently. That doesnt really show up here. It does sometimes cause erratic behavior, sometimes to the point of
- Increased risk of suicidal thoughts? We saw.
And I would go further explaining and justifying that, but I just dont have enough to go on. The signal-to-noise ratio in Shizunes route is very low. Its even lower in Hanakos route, but thats a vital part of the narrative; here, it feels like the writer tried to do the same thing to hide Mishas breakdown and stumbled. They just leaned hard into the slice of life, I guess thinking that itd endear us to the characters and get us invested so the eventual gut punch hits harder. But that just left the whole route feeling a little plain; compared to the rest of the games peaks and valleys, the relatively steady tone makes it feel flat and straightforward, not helped by just how little agency it allows the player. The core theme of Shizunes route, as has been hammered home over and over again, is the importance of communication. So its kind of a shame this route communicates so badly.
Sort of. See, the threads been really down on Shizunes route for many reasons, good and bad, but the fandom as a whole? Not so much. Sure, its widely regarded as the worst written route and Shizune sits at the bottom of most popularity polls, but her route has a dedicated following. To many people, the low stakes and less strident tone feel less flat and more grounded, compared to the world-shaking, life-changing events that characterize the other routes, at least. It can register as a ray of light amidst a lot of dark subject matter and it sticks out because of it. I used to like this route specifically because of how different and close its tone was, but coming face-to-face with its issues like this kind of spoiled the fun. And thats not a bad thing. Id rather know the issues with Shizunes behavior and not enjoy one part of one piece of media quite as much than ignorantly endorse its message; thats how so much disability activism goes wrong, after all. To be honest, in spite of everything, theres still a lot of ableism in the KS fanbase, though its more we havent generalized the lessons we learned than we dont understand the lessons at all. I have no idea how to fix that, and trying to is frankly beyond me. The least I can do is point it out and show people a better way.
(If youre looking for better treatment of Act 4, I recommend reading this work, or if youre looking for a good wrap up of Mishas character arc this one (plus its Shizune and Hisao-focused companion piece). But you didnt hear that from me .)
With that, I think its time we wrapped this bad boy up. Remember:
Actually, looking at the scene chart I just realized we're extremely overdue for another set of votes without the context you need to understand them!
You have no fewer than FOUR questions to answer this time. Pick 1 from each set:
- Do you like positivity or do you like even more positivity?
- Do you like motion or do you like stability?
- Do you like graveyard poetry or do you like Platonic solids?
- And finally, is art bullshit or is it not bullshit?
Remember to bold your votes. Vote ends in approx. 48 hours!
Depending on the level of discussion we get in the thread, on either Friday or Monday we transition from one of the lightest routes in the game to probably the darkest: Rins.