Friday, December 8, 2017

In Defense of Kingdom Hearts: A Series’ Maturity


Editor's Note: Upon replaying Kingdom Hearts 2, I realized the romance between Sora and Kairi is more prominent than I initially recalled. Minor sections of this post have been revised to reflect this.


I hate the unbridled scorn for Kingdom Hearts.

“I never even looked into this title because I assumed it was a kids [sic] game. I mean, it has cartoon characters, right?”1

“I just don't like the whole Disney idea. So, how corny is it?”2

“I always felt like it was more of a cash grab than anything else.”3

Comments like these run amok in the gaming community. Even fans harshly criticize the series!

“[T]he story has gotten so ridiculous…”4

“[Y]ou have a convoluted, conjecture happy [sic] plot,”5 which is “…needlessly disorienting…”6

“They kinda kept adding random details with so many side games that at this point, the story just really isn't all that good anymore.”7

I hate that people look down on Kingdom Hearts. I hate how it’s become trendy to poke fun at the series. But you know what I hate the most?

I hate that so many people are missing out on how special this series is.

I have a confession. I’m a huge Kingdom Hearts fan.

It seems like just admitting that takes courage these days.8 We Kingdom Hearts fans constantly brace for the inevitable:

“You actually like Kingdom Hearts? It’s just a stupid kids’ game!”

But it’s not. I truly think it’s a work of art.

Oh, but I can hear the comments now: “You seriously think something with that many plot holes, repetitive story lines, and incomprehensible dialogue is a work of art?”

Yes, I do. I won’t argue it’s perfect (and I plan on discussing its shortcomings another day). But the series really isn’t as bad as everyone thinks it is. The problem is that most of Kingdom Hearts’ critics haven’t truly experienced the series and all it has to offer.

Kingdom Hearts is woven with threads far deeper and more meaningful than most other games I’ve played. It’s made me laugh. It’s made me cry. It’s given me life lessons I treasure.

These games aren’t just for kids; they provide so much depth that I can’t stop talking about it.

Let me give you glimpse at the tapestry Tetsuya Nomura has woven.

Philosophical and Ethical Maturity

Philosophy is at the heart of Kingdom Hearts.

Kingdom Hearts asks hard questions—and lots of them. Sure, it sounds weird, but the same series with all those Disney characters also tackles questions such as “What is the nature of mankind?”9 and “What is the nature of good and evil?” In fact, that latter question is the focus of the entire Kindom Hearts franchise, as the series examines whether light can prevail over darkness or if light can even exist without darkness.10

Kingdom Hearts also addresses complex ethical questions like what constitutes a human being and how they should be treated: topics that are central to important discussions such as AI ethics11 and the abortion debate.

But Kingdom Hearts doesn’t just tackle mature concepts such as philosophy and ethics. It’s also a relationally mature series.

What do I mean by that? Well…

Relational Maturity

American culture has totally lost all sense of phileo (friendship) love—both what it is and how important it is. All we can focus on is eros (romantic) love. Romantic love is everywhere: romantic comedies, romantic films, romantic (and often downright erotic) content in games and literature and all over the internet. We take it for granted. We’re inundated with it.

But haven’t we seen the “boy meets girl” story enough? Wouldn’t it be refreshing to enjoy something different, something besides romantic love and all the drama that can go with it?

Enter Kingdom Hearts.

There is only one canonical romantic relationship in Kingdom Hearts, and it’s hardly a major focus of the series. The closest this series gets to a drama-riddled love-triangle is in the very first game, which is a mostly good-natured competition between two boys for their mutual friend’s affections. (A plot that has not returned to the series in the fifteen years since.)

I believe this lack of romance is intentional, allowing the series to do what it does best: highlight how important a friend’s love really is.

Kingdom Hearts is, at its core, a story about friendship. Almost every game focuses on a triad of friends and the trials they must overcome. Terrible circumstances and differences in opinions challenge these friendships or even tear them apart. Each character is left to sort through the rubble of choices and their dire consequences.

In the original Kingdom Hearts, the series protagonist Sora finds himself in a strange world, separated from his two best friends and hounded by the terrifying beasts that destroyed his home. His relentless search for his friends is rewarded when he reunites with one of his best friends, Riku.

Although Sora’s delighted to find Riku unharmed, Riku has been poisoned by Maleficent’s lies: Riku believes that Sora has been wasting his time with new friends and no longer cares about him or their mutual friend, Kairi. The rift widens when Riku discovers Kairi has fallen into a death-like slumber, while Sora hops from one world to the next with his “new friends.” Determined to prove his own devotion by rescuing Kairi at all costs, Riku pushes further and further away from Sora,12 forcing them to clash repeatedly. Riku slips into darkness, while Sora tries to follow the path of light, both of them desperate to wake Kairi. As the end of the game looms ever closer, their friendship seems lost for good.


And that’s just the first game. The rest of the series doesn’t let up on the feels, either.

Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep is even more tragic, following the tale of three young apprentices: Terra, Aqua, and Ventus, each of whom makes incredible sacrifices trying to protect the others.

This next section will contain spoilers.


You have been warned.


When their master is manipulated into attacking Ventus, Terra steps in to defend Ven. Their master refuses to stand down, and Terra is forced to kill the man he considers his own father. With guilt still haunting him, Terra hunts down the man responsible, Xehanort, to ensure the man can do no more harm to Terra’s loved ones. Although Terra falls to Xehanort’s schemes, he fights to protect his friends until the very end.

Knowing he is key to Xehanort’s plans, Ventus eagerly chooses to sacrifice himself rather than put Terra and Aqua in danger.

In the final battle against Xehanort, Aqua attempts to rescue her friends only to have Ventus and Terra stripped from her arms. In a final effort to save Terra, she finds herself banished to the shadowy Realm of Darkness, doomed to walk alone until she perishes or her memories fade completely.


The third friend trio feature in Kingdom Hearts: 358/2 Days. This game chronicles the friendship of Roxas, Axel, and Xion, three members of a mysterious group called Organization XIII. While Axel is secretly manipulating events to keep his younger—and more naive—friends alive, it’s not enough to save them.

Roxas and Xion find themselves entangled in the Organization’s nefarious plans to try to take over Xion’s mind and use her as a puppet for their own designs. Xion eventually chooses to sacrifice herself rather than succumb to that fate and hurt anyone in the future—at the cost of her very existence. All memory of her disappears, even from her friends’ minds. Adding insult to injury, later in the series, Roxas sacrifices himself under similar circumstances, leaving Axel—who had been so desperate to save them both—all alone.


These characters’ bonds are palpable. Their friendships are their treasures, their motivations, their core. These characters know they wouldn’t be who they are without their friends. And it’s these friendships that make them strong and that make the world a better place.

“It’s always about your friends, isn’t it?” one of the villains taunts Ventus during their clash.

Yes. It is. Because, as Ventus proclaims, “My friends are my power!”13

And that is the crux of Kingdom Hearts.

Even though the series’ protagonist, Sora, is relatively weak and completely ignorant of the overall plot—he knows virtually nothing about the deep lore of the Kingdom Hearts universe nor the antagonist’s grand and terrible schemes—his priorities are clear. His focus is always on his friends.

If they need help, Sora will be there for them.

If they’re in danger, Sora will do everything he can to save them.

Even when he’s at his lowest point, Sora understands that it’s no legendary keyblade that gives his life meaning; it’s the love he shares with his friends. “I don’t need a weapon. My friends are my power!” he says, echoing Ventus’s proclamation.14

Emotional Maturity

Kingdom Hearts is almost obsessed with expressing the value—and weight—of memory. Two entire games (four, if you count remakes) center on how vital memories are: how they make you who you are, how they’re our only real connection with our friends. Once our memories are gone… who are we? Did our friendships really mean anything at all?15

But Kingdom Hearts doesn’t just use memories as plot points. Kingdom Hearts discusses what we should do with those memories… even the most painful ones.

Ironically, one of the most emotionally mature moments in Kingdom Hearts occurs in one of the (arguably) most shallow games, Re:coded [sic]. In the final cutscene, a girl named Namine confronts Sora about some particularly painful memories that have been locked away in his subconscious. It's imperative that Sora explore these memories, she says, but doing so will be difficult… and possibly more than he can bear. Namine’s words reveal just how emotionally mature this series can be:

“At times, the pain can be wiped away, but there’s also pain that always stays with you. There’s only one way to deal with that: you face it head-on, and then you accept it. And if it happens that the hurt is too great for you to bear it alone, well, then you turn to a friend close to your heart.”16

Kingdom Hearts doesn't pretend to have all the answers, but it does have advice for how to move on from the most painful of memories: confront them, don't ignore them; and walk through the healing process with a friend.

But maybe none of that means anything.

After all… it’s just a kids’ game.

Or so they think.


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Notes and References:
  1. spazzz2k [sic], “Is this a kids’ game?” [sic], January 15, 2008, on GameFAQs.com, message board, accessed December 6, 2017.
  2. Akax, “So, how corny is it?” [sic], May 26, 2008, on IGN Boards, message board, accessed December 6, 2017.
  3. Gameclouds, “Why is the Kingdom Hearts series so incredibly popular and successful?” [sic, February 7, 2016, on Reddit.com, message board, accessed December 6, 2017.
  4. Wes- [sic], “KH3 Director: ‘Must have played all other games to appreciate story’” [sic], July 26, 2016, on IGN Boards, message board, accessed December 6, 2017.
  5. Traeyze, “Why is the Kingdom Hearts series so incredibly popular and successful?” [sic], February 8, 2016, on Reddit.com, message board, accessed December 6, 2017.
  6. Patrick Lee, “Unchained X might be free-to-play, but it’s Kingdom Hearts in every way” [sic], AV Club (blog), May 6, 2016 (12:00 a.m.), accessed December 6, 2017.
  7. splitmindsthinkalike [sic], “The ‘Convoluted’ Story of Kingdom Hearts,” June 23, 2015, Reddit.com, message board, accessed December 6, 2017.
  8. TheGamersJoint, “Kingdom Hearts Fans in a Nutshell!,” Video, directed/performed by TheGamersJoint, (2017; YouTube.com), Web.
  9. Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix, PlayStation 3, Square Enix, 2013. Video provided by Gamer’s Little Playground, “Kingdom Hearts Game Movie (All Cutscenes) HD 1.5 Remix 1080p,” Video, (2017, YouTube.com), Web.
  10. Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep, PlayStation Portable, Square Enix, 2010. Video provided by ATRILEY [sic], “Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep ‘The Movie,’” Video, (2012, YouTube.com), Web.
  11. Glenn Cohen, “AI Are People, Too — It's Time We Recognize Their Human Rights,” Video, directed/performed by Glenn Cohen (big think [sic]), Web.
  12. Kingdom Hearts, PlayStation 2, Square Enix, 2002. Video provided by ATRILEY [sic], “Kingdom Hearts:‘The Movie,’” Video, (2012, YouTube.com), Web.
  13. Kingdom Hearts: Birth By Sleep, PlayStation Portable, Square Enix, 2010. Video provided by ATRILEY [sic], “Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep ‘The Movie,’” Video, (2012, YouTube.com), Web.
  14. Kingdom Hearts, PlayStation 2, Square Enix, 2002. Video provided by ATRILEY [sic], “Kingdom Hearts: ‘The Movie,’” Video, (2012, YouTube.com), Web.
  15. Kingdom Hearts Re:coded [sic], Nintendo DS, Square Enix, 2010. Video provided by Kingdomdragon, “Kingdom Hearts Re: coded [sic] Sora VS Roxas,” Video, (2015, YouTube.com), Web.
  16. Kingdom Hearts Re:coded [sic], Nintendo DS, Square Enix, 2010. Video provided by ATRILEY, “Kingdom Hearts Re: Coded [sic] ‘The Movie’ +Secret Ending,” Video, (2014, YouTube.com), Web.
All photos and videos property of their respective owners and used under US "Fair Use" laws.

Kingdom Hearts and all related names and terms are the property of Square Enix Holdings Co., Ltd., which I am not affiliated with in any way, shape, or form.

From Him, To Him

11 comments:

  1. Nice article. Despite my qualms with Disney, I'm glad they creators of Kingdom Hearts go beyond the crossover appeal and put effort into the original characters. Sounds like this stuff explores concepts way beyond what Disney would be comfortable doing. The friendship thing is kind of cheesy, but I'm fine with it if it comes off as sincere. Nice defensible points.

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    1. It's certainly up for debate whether the friendship themes come off as cheesy: some say yes, some say no. I think ultimately it comes down to whether you're invested in the characters or not. Most people don't even give the series a chance in order to become invested. That's where a lot of my frustration comes from. If you've tried the series and you really don't like it, that's one thing. But it's not fair to make fun of something you haven't even tried yet!

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    2. Fair enough. I agree about people shouldn't bash something if they haven't tried it just like how I've seen Kimba get trashed by people who like that other movie who I can tell haven't watched that anime. If I am going to critique something, I want to experience it first. Now, I still have issues with so many mainstream companies, so I get leery about various media, but when I am in film reviewing mode, I have to experience something firsthand.

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    3. One of the big reasons why I've only reviewed more recent anime so far! :P I only like to publicly criticize something I've seen.

      That's one reason I'm actually glad an anime review I wrote up a few months back ended up getting deleted on accident. I had given up on the anime because of my distaste for it; still, it did feel unfair to review it when I didn't know for sure if my grievances would be addressed later in the series. Guess it's always good to know before you speak!

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    4. Fair enough. I won't review something unless I've seen the whole thing, too.

      That sounded like a blessing in disguise. I will not do incomplete reviews or do episode reviews because that takes way too much effort on the latter. Personally, I like to critique something as a whole to see if all the pieces come together especially if its a series.

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    5. It certainly was a blessing in disguise, but it's always frustrating to lose work you'd pored over! Haha. Oh well. I've learned from my mistakes since then.

      I didn't even realize episode reviews were a thing! That does seem a little unfair to review a show episode by episode, though I suppose I do that on my own time often enough. I personally prefer to look at the whole as well. I find most stories flow better when you look at it like that, rather than singling out certain episodes because they were "slow" or "boring." Often that "slower" episode is just what the series needed in the long run.

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    6. I hear you. I had to redo my White Haired Witch and Wrinkles reviews after they got damaged. The Wrinkles one was more frustrating because that one was so personal to me given the correlations to that film and what happened to my Grandfather during his last years on Earth.

      I've been seeing a ton of them especially with the brand new anime series going episode by episode. Sure, I take notes on some episodes, but they will all lead to the context of the full series review. Some episodes could be mediocre even from series I like, but the entirety of a series can easily outweigh the individual episodes though.

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    7. I'm so sorry that happened with your Wrinkles review, of all things. That's so hard.

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    8. Don't worry about it. I rewrote it and some people really liked the review. One subscriber of mine said it would be touch to watch, but she wants to give it a try to see Wrinkles. It's not a depressing movie, but there are some dark moments like how Emilio (the main character) suffers more from Alzheimer's and it's quite realistic.

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    9. Alzheimer's is such a painful experience for everyone involved. I haven't even suffered from it firsthand, but another dear friend of mine watched her grandparent suffer from it. It's so hard.

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    10. That's true. Granted, my grandfather died because of cancer, but his mind really suffered from dementia years before then. I did like how realistically portrayed mental issues instead of other movies like Ben X or another movie I have scheduled for this month.

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