[KH3 diary.3] Part 2: Consequence
or, why i hate what Kingdom Hearts SAYS
in part 1 of this final entry in this diary series, i wrote about Kingdom Hearts the game, the product, the media entity. in the intro of that piece, i wrote about how convoluted my feelings about the game were, now that i’d finished it. i split this entry into two parts because the ways i feel about Kingdom Hearts the product and Kingdom Hearts the story are very, very different. here’s why.
we are now in full spoiler territory. like, the whole thing. jsyk.
so what are we waiting for? let’s hop in this motherfuckin’ gummi ship and blast the hell off:
Part 2: Why I Hate What Kingdom Hearts Says
in the first entry of this diary series, i wrote about how Kingdom Hearts forces you to take it seriously. lots of people like to write off the story as silly nonsense. but let’s not. let’s break down what Kingdom Hearts the series, and specifically Kingdom Hearts III, have to say. because i hate it.
in the second entry of this diary series, i lauded Kingdom Hearts for not being didactic, not telling the audience what to think. i still hold that the games (and Kingdom Hearts III in particular) present a complex and varied array of ideas on How To Be Good. i said that, beyond “don’t be a dick,” the game is fairly open in this way.
prescriptivism is tricky in the simplest of media. should our stories depict the world as it is, reflecting reality; or should they visualize a world we wish to see, serving as a model for change? i am unequipped to answer this question.
that being said, i think that all pieces of media do both, to a certain extent. this is what we mean when we talk about a piece of art’s “politics”, right? if a movie tries to depict “reality,” then what ends up on the screen reveals what the filmmaker considers real. that tells you something about that person. if a movie has good guys and bad guys, even if it postures at moral relativism, or antiheroes, or whatever other shades of gray, it still wants you to agree with the good guys, and disagree with the bad guys. the things they say, the worldviews they promote, get wrapped up in all this. and it always comes down to the ending. because whether the artist thinks those good guys should win says something, too, about what they stand for, about whether it is feasible. the ending tells you everything.
if a movie tries to depict “reality,” then what ends up on the screen reveals what the filmmaker considers real. that tells you something about that person.
Kingdom Hearts III is an ending and not an ending. there will be more Kingdom Hearts games. but this piece of the story is finally over. so how does it end?
poorly. no. infuriatingly.
with the power of his friends (as part of a sequence that was genuinely emotionally affecting, with Donald and Goofy’s voices coming out of my PS4 controller, telling me not to lose hope), Sora beats back Xehanort. the old villain falls to the ground, and says that despite all the heroes’ efforts, they are still too late.
Sora asks Xehanort why he did it, and his response is deeply rooted in the vocabulary and rationalizations of ethnic cleansing. he says that people coveting light gave the darkness strength, by letting darkness into their hearts (and, canonically for the series, this is true). he wanted to bring about “a purge” to wipe the slate clean. before Sora interrupts, Xehanort describes his goal as “an empty World, pure and bright”.
so like, i think we can all agree: fuck Xehanort.
and Sora calls him out! “it wasn’t your decision to make,” he says, in the line that ends up being the best the scene has to offer. i say this very subjectively, because i agree with this sentiment. nobody should have that level of power. my favorite argument against the death penalty is that it’s not about whether someone deserves to die for their crimes, but rather whether or not we as a society should be allowed to condemn someone to death. i don’t think we have that right, i just don’t. so i really like this line. it wasn’t his decision to make.
unfortunately, Xehanort befuddles Sora with his response: “then whose was it?” a classic trap, to which Sora should respond, “nobody’s, numbnuts.”
but alas, here we take a turn. because in the following exchanges (and the rest of the scene after that), it all starts to fall apart. it starts with Sora promoting a sort of noblis oblige theory, implying that, while Xehanort might be right in saying that people need an absolute ruler to keep them from falling into darkness (which, yikes!), the ol’ Norty grandpa wasn’t worthy because a ruler needs to be wise and caring, and accept their limitations.
and then we truly go off the rails, because then the rest of the heroes show up, and Terra (whom Xehanort possessed for, y’know, like a decade) reveals that he has also been possessed all this time by Eraqus, Xehanort’s best friend, original master to the kids from Birth by Sleep. he tells Xehanort to give it up, and Xehanort does, literally — he takes the crazy χ-blade that he’s been trying to reforge for the whole series and hands it over to Sora. meanwhile, Eraqus asks his pupils, Ventus, Aqua, and Terra, to forgive him, and they hug it out.
and then, Xehanort stumbles. and Eraqus steadies him, and puts his arm around him. and the two old friends transform into their childlike selves before floating up and disappearing in a flash of golden light, rising up into Kingdom Hearts like souls ascending into heaven.
and i am livid.
i am livid because, despite all its twists and turns, despite its multitude of plots and timelines and retcons and everything else, there is one thing that is constant in the narrative of Kingdom Hearts: the old abuse the young.
i gestured at this in my second diary entry, but this is literally everywhere — the series practically drips with authority figures abusing youth. Eraqus is right to beg his pupils for forgiveness, because he failed them spectacularly. he let their other master deceive, manipulate and corrupt them, putting one in a coma, sending another to a place literally called the Realm of Darkness, and possessing the body of the third.
in the first Kingdom Hearts, the backbone of the plot rests on Maleficent emotionally manipulating Riku. look at how happy Sora is with his new friends, she whispers into his ear. he’s forgotten about you and your lost friend Kairi. why should he wield the keyblade, instead of you? to further her own goals, she isolates and abuses this 15-year-old. she makes him powerful. she makes him hers. and when Xehanort’s corrupted heart, Ansem, possesses Riku, he gives in completely as a result of this manipulation.
and let’s talk about Ansem. Ansem (Xehanort’s heartless) copied the name of Ansem the Wise, his former master. Ansem the Wise was a researcher into the Heartless and Nobodies, and his work is eventually leveraged by Organization XIII. throughout Kingdom Hearts III, Ansem the Wise is wracked by guilt. as is revealed in great and frankly surprising detail in the game’s secret report unlockables, he is right to feel guilty! turns out, he performed some seriously morally bankrupt experiments on children, including Namine and Roxas (Kairi and Sora’s Nobodies, respectively). two of the young men who end up joining Organization XIII (Axel and Saix) do so in the first place to try to save Namine, after she begs them to help her when they find her in Ansem the Wise’s fucking dungeon.
and while we’re here, let’s talk about Organization XIII. it’s a group of several powerful Nobodies, run by Xemnas (Xehanort’s Nobody). Xemnas has told them that if they can open Kingdom Hearts, the members of Organization XIII will be made whole again. Nobodies are inherently damaged — the result of trauma between the heart and body. for many of them, all they want is to be full people.
but of course, this is a lie. Xemnas wants to use them as vessels for Xehanort’s consciousness, wants to possess each and every one of them so that he can bring about his great big ethnic cleansing. and so he LIES. he takes these young people and lies to them until they die for him, in the hopes that their hurt may one day be healed. some of them get out. some of them get out and then go back. because that’s how abuse works. it’s fucking heartbreaking.
and THEN, to cap it all off, is the chess game imagery that Kingdom Hearts III employs. from the opening cutscene, all the way through the epilogue, every plot point is made analogous to a game of weird space chess played by young Eraqus and Xehanort. right when Sora and his friends seem lost? it looks like Xehanort has the king surrounded. when they prevail? it’s a brilliant ploy by Eraqus, eventually winning the game. in that final scene, when Eraqus’s spirit shows up, he tells Xehanort, “Checkmate.”
it is harder to be more on the nose with the imagery. all of the characters, everybody who has fought and struggled and died and been abused and manipulated and hurt, they were all literal fucking pawns in these two old men’s lifelong chess game. now that it’s over, they’re no longer adversaries. they’re friends again. no hard feelings. good game.
this is why, a billion paragraphs ago, i explained the notion of art always having a politics, because this message is so deeply fucking political. that there are no consequences for any of these characters — not Eraqus or Ansem the Wise, whom the game still codes as “good”, not even the villainous ones like Xemnas or Xehanort — sends a message. it says that people in positions of power are untouchable. some of them might feign at remorse. but there will be no consequence.
and i am haunted by this lack of consequence, and how i feel about it.
this conflict within me is the reason why i brought up the idea of the death penalty. because that is also based in our urge to punish, our desire to hurt those who have hurt us. i am very familiar with this urge. it defines a lot of who i am. when i get angry about the state of the world, that anger is violent; my rage becomes a desire to inflict pain on those who i believe deserve it. i work hard to interrogate that desire, to understand it, to work through it. i have made progress, but i still have very far to go.
and so, as i sit here, howling about this anime-ass video game that, by my estimation, condones (or at least ignores) the abuse of the vulnerable at the hands of the powerful, as i seethe with the fact that these fictional villains are not properly damned for their crimes, i have to pause.
if you remember, i said at the top that this would be an explanation of “why i hate what Kingdom Hearts says.” but that statement is as much a result of my hatred as it is of the series. i have to ask whether punishing these people is right, or whether it would just make me feel better. i have to wonder whether the game’s narrative is vaguely subversive, undermining what we expect from these hyperbolic conflicts between Light and Darkness, where there is always a winner and a loser.
i have to ask whether punishing these people is right, or whether it would just make me feel better.
now, i don’t think that’s the case. Kingdom Hearts would have to do a lot more legwork than it does, if it wanted to stick that particular landing. despite my pause, i do think there is a difference between punishment and consequence, and that we can certainly have good stories that involve the ramifications for one’s actions.
but nonetheless, i still hate it, and i still interrogate that hatred, and i still wonder anyway.
and it’s still Kingdom Hearts. so i’ll be back for the next one, whenever it comes along.