[Spoilers for Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2, Chain of Memories, 358/2 Days and Birth by Sleep follow.]
When I was big into fanfiction, I was never much for crossovers. Some crossovers were good, sure, giving real thought into how two different canons would merge, meld, or meet and how the characters of those worlds would interact.
Too often, though, crossovers ended up being an excuse for the author to put all their favorite characters in the same room to do nothing but chat (or possibly, defeat one of the canon’s Big Bads.) Because they rarely did more than talk, it was even harder to get a sense for the actual character or give them any sort of function in the story.
Kingdom Hearts intrigued me from the start—I do like Disney princesses and angsty Final Fantasy boys, and combining those two seemed ripe with opportunity. And I liked playing Kingdom Hearts 1 and Chain of Memories. I even enjoyed some of the later games in that overly dramatic “it’s so bad it’s good” way.
But at the same time, the series frustrates me. Square Enix, storytellers who have brought us compelling tales in the Final Fantasy series, as well as other games (Bravely Default! The World Ends With You!), should have been able to take this ambitious concept and really do something surprising with it. But it falls flat in the same way those old crossovers fell flat. Already hemmed in by the difficulty of crossovers, Square Enix fails to capitalize on what character development opportunities there are, leaving most of the cast feeling bare. And nowhere is that more apparent than in the way the series treats its female characters.
I’ll Be In Your Heart, And Nowhere Else
Let’s be real about Kingdom Hearts 1: none of the Disney characters outside Donald and Goofy matter. Not even Mickey, unless you’re really into deus ex mouse. The Disney worlds are no more than pit stops and fancy backdrops for the main characters on their quest, and usually contain pale imitations of their movie plots (to varying degrees of success). For a franchise that leans into its princess stories, most of the stories chosen are the male-centric ones, pairing the male center trio with male side characters for the purpose of advancing their male movie plots. When Square Enix was mining the Disney franchises for worlds, why were Peter Pan, Hercules, and Tarzan some of the first picks?
I found the Nightmare Before Christmas plot particularly frustrating: Sally repeatedly tries to warn the male characters that they don’t want to actually do that thing, then watches as that thing blows up in their face, only being told she was right after it’s all cleaned up. The cutscene where Dr. Finkelstein, amidst the latest iteration of things falling apart, yells about Sally being a “stupid girl” highlights the plot’s contempt for her and its obliviousness to its own male characters’ failings. Sally is expected to be the voice of reason to characters that won’t listen to her. And sadly, she is the start of a pattern of women who are expected to speak, yet not be heard.
When the famous Disney princesses finally appear, they are the “Princesses of Heart,” where their power is being a plot device battery. Most of them have next to no screen time—instead, they’re damseled until one of the big climaxes of the story, after which they continue to do jack-all besides stand around and wait for Sora to help.
Kairi, as one of these Princesses of Heart, receives pretty much the same treatment. The opening of the game, and indeed most of the series, would have you believe she’s important—but her function is identical to the other princesses. Her purpose in the game is to be gone, then wait and look sad until her hero Sora comes home. Because of that, it’s hard to empathize with Sora’s insistence that she’s important to him, because she’s never important to us. Telling versus showing is a great narrative device for when you want to get across facts, but it doesn’t work for intricate characterization.
In Kingdom Hearts 2, Kairi—being an actual person and not an echo inside Sora’s heart—has a lot more screen time, so you’d think this would get better. However, her entire plot arc is centered on Sora and wanting to meet him; we get little sense of what she’s actually like outside of that. What is she studying in school, how well is she doing? What’s her relationship with Selphie like? What does she want, aside from Sora? Even her relationships with Sora and Riku fall flat because, again, we don’t know enough about Kairi to understand why they care about her. It often feels like Sora and Riku are projecting feelings at her instead of to her, and vice versa.
And when the game finally teases us with giving Kairi some proactiveness—giving her a Keyblade of her own—it’s just as quickly yanked away. When the dark child of the trio, Riku, shows up, he immediately steps in as a party member with his own Keyblade, and Kairi is once again returned to her position of waiting damsel. Kingdom Hearts would have us believe that Sora and Riku both see Kairi as a love interest, but the games’ failure to depict a compelling woman or weave a compelling relationship suggests a relationship more like two older brothers fighting over who gets to protect their younger sister. Kairi is never an object of romance, only a person they must protect.
This failure means that the romance that seems most likely in Kingdom Hearts 2 is between Sora and Riku: two men that, having clashed over their ideals and misunderstandings before, have now gone to hell together to fight off the darkness. Sora and Riku are given so much time to establish themselves both as individuals and together; they’re given desires, moments of levity, goals over seemingly-impassible obstacles, and a friendship that has to be torn apart before it’s mended. Is it any surprise that shippers have passed over a weak female “lead” to pair up the two well-developed boys instead?
The most important woman to Kingdom Hearts 1 and 2 is arguably not even Kairi, but Maleficent, a major villain in 1 who is the only one to reappear as something other than a quick boss in 2. The plot doesn’t do well by her, though: while her cunning and cleverness hold up during the first game, in the second it falls apart into a cheap “well, I want it so I’m going to take it” shtick. Kingdom Hearts 1 Maleficent is patient, manipulative, and cruel; her sequel version spends most of her time yelling at her henchman and laughing like a Saturday morning cartoon. And even that banal-yet-evil display gets further watered down as Maleficent starts making noble sacrifices for Sora and friends because the enemy of her enemy is her friend, despite the fact Maleficent is clever enough to shuffle the game board without doing something so obviously not-evil. If they were going to drag her this far afield of her original characterization, they may as well have brought in a new villain who is that cartoony and left her for dead.
Nobodies in Name, Nobodies in Narrative
Let’s face it, Chain of Memories’ baseline premise—revisiting all the worlds, themselves watered-down movies, in Sora’s memories—was pretty much doomed from the start. The real meat of their story, and of the quasi-sequel 358/2 Days, is in the dealings of Organization XIII and its members. Most of those members, including the only woman, Larxene, are nothing more than cannon fodder meant to be beaten and discarded without further ado. Like the Disney characters, they don’t matter, but this time we don’t have movies to give us any attachment to them in the first place.
Of them, we only get a good look at three—Roxas, Sora’s Nobody; Axel, his best friend, and Namine, Kairi’s Nobody. In Chain of Memories, the storyline actually does a pretty good job with Namine, revealing desire (she wants to be free), insecurity (she considers herself a witch), and having to make tough choices (letting Sora, and later Roxas, go against the Organization’s wishes). Namine is an example of what Kairi’s character could have been like if she’d been given the same narrative care and shows that Square Enix is capable of giving personality and agency to more than just their male characters. If Square had put as much thought into the other female characters as they had her, I’d be singing their praises.
But Namine is not just a woman: she’s also a Nobody. Kingdom Hearts 2 fails Namine in the same place it fails most of the other Nobodies, and even a male character, Roxas—treating them not as characters, but as plot devices, discarded as soon as the plot wants a boss or a feel-bad moment or just wants to thin the cast. Ultimately, both Namine and Roxas assimilate with their originals in a weak “I feel like I must go back to where we belong” moment that runs counter to the rest of both their storylines striving for freedom and realness. The world of Kingdom Hearts is a place where the light and truth and true love always win. And yet the Nobodies couldn’t become “real” and exist on their own, vanishing for the sake of the plot, rather than getting the happy ending afforded to other major characters. It’s nothing more than a sacrifice meant to yank the player’s emotions—drama for drama’s sake—and is deeply hypocritical to the power-of-friendship, love-conquers-all approach of Kingdom Hearts and Disney. I actually love the Nobody plotlines: the idea of lost children struggling to establish themselves as real and emotional. But making them into tragedy porn ruins their impact.
Nowhere is this more apparent than the Organization XIII’s “fourteenth” member, Xion. Being both a woman and a Nobody as well as a character that shows up in 358/2 Days but nowhere else, there was never an incentive to care about her. Xion is created as a puppet and never considered a “real” member by the organization. She is a mirror made to reflect Roxas/Sora, with his subconscious desires, his power, and eventually, even Sora’s face. Ultimately, instead of continuing her struggle to be a real person, she chooses the same path of assimilation, removing her character even from the memory of those who knew her, rendering her entire self as useless and invisible to the in-game world as it is to the narrative. If they really felt the need to insert a new female character because they wanted to give us the Sora/Riku/Kairi dynamic again, but didn’t want to be tied down with another female Nobody, it should be less transparent.
Second Verse, Worse than the First
Perhaps by the time I reached Birth by Sleep, I didn’t want to see the prototypes of Sora, Riku, and Kairi playing out their story all over again. But I should have been excited for it, as Birth by Sleep is the first time you can actually play as a female character—Aqua, Kairi’s expy, a character meant to echo her personality and place within the narrative. But Aqua’s storyline ends up being even more disappointing than Kairi’s was. After all, Kairi was never intended to be a protagonist.
The main premise of Birth by Sleep is that you play through the storyline from three different points of view, each arriving at the Disney worlds at different times. Aqua, always the last to arrive, becomes cleaner-upper and chaser after Terra and Ventus, who, if they didn’t actively fuck things up, have run off to the next world already. All of Aqua’s actions are reactions.
If that was all it did, that would be bad enough, but her interactions with Ventus (Sora’s expy, who is occasionally a dumbass) and Terra (Riku’s expy, who is consistently a dumbass and also old enough to know better) constantly paint her as the bad guy for, I dunno, trying to keep her stupid friends from getting killed and/or falling into the darkness. Terra and Ventus tell Aqua her compassion is annoying; her earned title is arrogance. And of course, they can’t actually listen to her, because otherwise how could they make the same mistakes Sora and Riku are also fated to make? Kairi was never around to stop Sora and Riku from being at odds with each other; Aqua is around, but is no more effective at stopping her friends’ mistakes. And despite being mistakes, the plot allows Terra and Ventus to pursue their own desires, but Aqua, subject to those desires and mistakes of the male characters, is never really allotted the space to make decisions (and perhaps mistakes) of her own. And at the end of Birth by Sleep, Aqua sacrifices herself to save Terra, making her character just a payment for Terra’s mistakes, yet another unoriginal example of female noble sacrifice to save a man.
Without ever knowing the name of Tetsuya Nomura, I could tell that Kingdom Hearts was written by men. It has all the classic tropes of a coming-of-age boy story. But tropes without introspection or thought can only carry a story so far without becoming cheesy and tired. It’s 2019, and we’ve long passed the point of saturation for stories rooted in sexism and unoriginal writing. A game series that’s produced more than half a dozen games can no longer rest on a clever crossover concept—it has to draw in people with a compelling plot, the root of which is compelling characterization. And frankly, the company that gave us Final Fantasy VI, a game revolving around two amazing female characters, should be able to do better. If the male writers of Square Enix want to rest on their laurels, then let’s hire some women writers to replace them, people who see women as actual people, not just the voice of reason or potential love interests. It would go a long way towards not only fixing their women characters but their narratives overall.
Can you imagine a Kingdom Hearts 3 where we get to add Elizabeth Swann, Pirate King (a vastly underutilized plot point in the movies), to our party? Or a game where Namine helps the other Nobodies make their own happy Disney ending? How about a game where Kairi has to make a tough choice and be the one to save the boys after their latest mistake? Or even a game where Sally gets some fucking justice and Jack and Dr. Finkelstein start listening before they screw up? Sadly, from the bits I’ve seen so far, I think they’ve yet to see the light.
Longtime writer, temporary office minion, and nerd of all trades, tiakall is a fan of lengthy subordinate clauses and the Oxford comma. She enjoys plants, cats, puns of varying quality, and making cannibal jokes before it was cool.
Thanks for writing this. Kingdom Hearts writing is so terrible that i often lack words to describe it, but i think you have nailed it with this one. Certainly, plenty more things are bad about the writing and story, but the lack of female characters really is a big deal. Especially when half the story revolves around “friendship” that is made completely unrelatable due to the sheer shallowness of characters.