Kingdom Hearts Is Light – The Under-the-Radar Humanist Tale (Part Two: People)

(This piece has been split into three parts for readability due to its length. Click here for Part One.)

The Good Bit

Well, let’s see. Some feller named Ansem, who wasn’t really Ansem, turned into a Heartless. Didn’t a Nobody get created when that happened too?
– Goofy

Well, I promised to talk about Kingdom Hearts‘s place in all this, and after all that preamble it’s time for me to put my money where my mouth is – or, I guess, my content where my title and introduction… is. Are. You get what I mean.

The first part of this line of thought comes from an eternally tricky question that’s sometimes joked about from within and without the KH fandom:

Just What is Kingdom Hearts Anyway?

So… it seems your hearts have led you to obliteration. Perhaps it doesn’t pay to be too loyal to one’s heart. I will have to be sure and remember that.
– Xemnas

Within the KH series, there exists something called ‘Kingdom Hearts’. Throughout the franchise it’s a huge, even paramount part of the plot, and yet very few people seem to be able to work out what it is. I’m talking partly about fans and plot theorists, of course, but I’m actually thinking mostly about characters within the KH universe here.

The first game in the series has a bit of a problem with backloading its plot: most of the game is spent doing Disney things in what appears to be a struggle against a Disney villain, but towards the end of the game there’s a shift towards an original character, Ansem, as the primary antagonist. (I’m not gonna go too in-depth on KH lore here – it’d just be too much – so I’m simplifying slightly. Some of you will know that even calling KH1‘s villain ‘Ansem’ is technically not quite right, but I hope you’ll bear with it.) Ansem’s goal has something to do with ‘Kingdom Hearts’: in this universe all worlds have hearts, and Kingdom Hearts is conceived of as the power of all those hearts. Creator and director Tetsuya Nomura describes it thus: ‘A Kingdom Hearts is considered to be an aggregation of the originally invisible “proofs of life” known as hearts.’ Note that he says Kingdom Hearts; the Kingdom Hearts Ansem seeks could be described as ‘the heart of all worlds’.

Ansem, to cut a long story short, is fairly well-convinced that accessing and unlocking Kingdom Hearts will fill him with the power of darkness (if you’ve played the game, I bet you just heard him yelling that). His plan involves allowing all the worlds to fall to darkness, to become shells and to lose their hearts, and then to… walk across their corpses to access Kingdom Hearts, the door to which he’ll bring forth and open by bringing together seven princesses with pure hearts. Sort of. It’s both simpler and more complicated than that, but let’s go with that for now. Anyway, the climax of the first game’s story involves Sora and friends confronting Ansem before the door to Kingdom Hearts; they defeat him, and he reaches out to the door and pleads for Kingdom Hearts to give him the great dark power he sought. To his surprise, the door begins to open, but instead of darkness a great light shines through and destroys him.

I know now, without a doubt: Kingdom Hearts… is light!
– Sora

So Ansem is mistaken about what the entity known as Kingdom Hearts, in fact, is. Moving on to Kingdom Hearts II, primary antagonist Xemnas also has a plan that involves Kingdom Hearts. Xemnas – this will become important – is the leader of a faction called Organisation XIII, which is made up of beings known as Nobodies. Nobodies, in the KH universe’s metaphysics, do not really exist: they are the body left behind when a person (or sentient mouse/ duck, I suppose) loses their heart to darkness, and so they are incomplete things that can’t be said to be real people.

His plan (again, I’m both simplifying and overcomplicating at once, and probably also just outright getting wrong, but I hope I can capture the themes), based on his knowledge that Kingdom Hearts can be considered a sort of aggregate of hearts, involves tricking Sora into ‘gathering’ hearts by using the Keyblade to battle mook-enemies the Heartless. Those released hearts form a sort of artificial incarnation of Kingdom Hearts, ‘the heart of all people’ (to distinguish it from ‘the heart of all worlds’ that Ansem was after).

Xemnas isn’t the one with the crucial misunderstanding in KHII, though. In fact, Xemnas’s plan involves deliberate deception as to what the nature of Kingdom Hearts entails: he has another reason for wanting to summon it, but he tells the rest (except a select couple who are in on it) of Organisation XIII that the reason they’re working to create Kingdom Hearts is so that they can all be given hearts and become whole. That’s the main goal of Organisation XIII, as understood by its members: achieve Kingdom Hearts so that they can gain hearts and once again be real, existing people. That’s what they want, see. That’s kind of all they want. Nobodies have no hearts and no emotions, but they remember what it felt like to have hearts and want them back.

Weeeeeeell… more on that soon. That’ll be one of the most important points as we continue here.

Before we do, though, I imagine that there is a bunch of stuff I could say here, if I were so inclined, about how Kingdom Hearts is used by characters as a sort of object of worship, despite the fact that they don’t understand it, and how a real-life logical fallacy called the argument from ignorance might be applied. As simply as I can put it: ‘I don’t understand this, therefore [some ostensibly all-encompassing solution that doesn’t logically follow]’. Interestingly, Kingdom Hearts could be on both sides of the comma there: ‘I don’t understand hearts, therefore Kingdom Hearts is hearts and will give me hearts and such’, or ‘I don’t understand Kingdom Hearts, therefore it must be all-powerful’. I imagine that there is probably more to be said about that, but that veers too close to taking a side in an argument, which I’ve already said I don’t want to do here.

Another interesting thing about Kingdom Hearts is that it’s sometimes perceived in the KH universe as being the original source of all light, and of all goodness. There’s a meta-ethical position called ‘moral naturalism’ which posits that there are facts about morals, that ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are objective and made true by facts about the world which are independent of what humans think, believe, or experience. In KH‘s universe, quite possibly ‘good’ and ‘evil’ exist as independent, objective things rather than just concepts that people use to express moral opinions. So that’s kind of interesting. (Admittedly, there’s also a lot made of the fact that light isn’t always good and dark isn’t always bad, that in fact there must be a balance, and that blindness to that fact can cause zealotry which ultimately may do a lot of harm. I’m getting off track now, though.)

Why is this relevant to humanism? Well, you’ll notice that in both of the instances I’ve described, it’s an antagonist who’s trying to unlock/ access/ summon Kingdom Hearts, and do so for their own gain at peril to others. Sora’s mission is therefore to stop them, because preventing them from following through on their plan to bring forth this godlike power is rejecting the idea of that supernatural solution in favour of compassion, of protecting the interests of living beings. The ‘end of moral action’ is the welfare of humanity rather than whatever Kingdom Hearts might be, even if it seems to be something that transcends humans (and anthropomorphic talking beings – you know what, let’s just say that when I say ‘human’ or ‘person’ I’m including other sentient creatures in that definition).

That’s not exactly ground-breaking, though. Plenty of JRPGs involve an antagonistic force trying to wake, summon, bond with, or otherwise make use of a deific or demonic force, with the heroes acting for humanity’s interests in stopping them. It’s not definitively humanistic, I realise, but it’s useful context for some of the stuff we’ll get to in a moment, and still interesting even if it’s not exactly convincing just yet.

Even a Nobody is Somebody

He made me feel like I had a heart. It’s kind of funny… You make me feel the same…
– Axel

The Kingdom Hearts universe provides for several types of being to exist. It even establishes, as we saw above with the Nobodies, that there are beings which don’t exist! (An odd statement if ever there were one.) There are beings who are Nobodies, those who are data recreations of real people, and those who are replicas of real people. Each of these sorts of beings is believed – often they’re told – that they don’t truly exist, or shouldn’t exist, or that their existence isn’t as complete or as meaningful as someone ‘real’. And yet, each of them is capable of having a heart.

Oh, yeah – remember how I said Xemnas was being deceitful? He was trying to bring the Organisation to the goal of summoning Kingdom Hearts, telling them that if they did this then they could regain the hearts they desired – and that that would mean they existed again. Fact is, Nobodies can regrow hearts. They didn’t need Kingdom Hearts to give them hearts at all! Data beings and replicas, too – in fact, any being that can form bonds with others, and be remembered by them, will develop a heart.

Those bonds between hearts are hugely important to both the narrative of the Kingdom Hearts franchise and the metaphysics of its universe. Memories and emotional connections have genuinely powerful properties in the world of the games, and are what form the beginnings of a being’s heart: the things that make a person… well, a person, or ‘whole’. A huge amount of KH story, thematic weight, and character development is driven by the simple question of what it means, in fact, to be a whole person.

Or, if you like, a human.

The Most Unlikely Person

It was my choice…to go away now. Better that, than to do nothing…and let Xemnas have his way. I belong with Sora. And now, I am going back…to be with him.
– Xion

Perhaps the most metaphysically complex entity in all of Kingdom Hearts’ story to date is Xion. Xion’s story is told in 358/2 Days and often written off as unimportant or badly-told for some reason, but I really think she exemplifies KH‘s emphasis on the nature of personhood, and the moral decisions that can be derived from its implications.

So what is Xion? Well, she’s a ‘Replica’ – she’s not the only one, with the main other being a ‘Riku Replica’, but what a Replica really is is shrouded in mystery to some extent. We know that Vexen, a scientist member of Organisation XIII, is able to create Replicas of people who appear identical to the person they were based on and have much of the same power. Replicas can also be created (with the help of a ‘witch’ named Naminé, who did not give her assistance willingly) to have memories like the person they’re a copy of, and may even believe that they are the real person. Xion is even more unusual because she isn’t a Replica simply of a person: she’s a flawed Replica of Roxas, Sora’s Nobody, made using Sora’s temporarily-lost memories of Kairi (one of the people he spends much of KH1 trying to find and protect) as a basis.

I’ll try to explain that again just to make it a bit clearer: during the events of Chain of Memories, Sora travels through Castle Oblivion, a place where memories are lost as one progresses. He loses his memories of Kairi – the Organisation force Naminé to replace them in order to get him to do what they want, basically – and at the end of CoM goes into a long sleep while his memories are put back together. Those leaked memories, before they can be returned to him, are used to form Xion.

So even for a Kingdom Hearts character, Xion is unusual in the nature of her existence. She’s a very unlikely person, really. A Replica not even made as a recreation of a person, but as a recreation of a person’s memories of another person. She comes into the world with no heart, making her existence similar to that of a Nobody. In fact, according to Naminé, she came into the world as a completely blank slate with no heart and no face, and only once Sora’s memories entered her did she gain an identity (if one not of her own but contingent on someone else’s). Even throughout the rest of her life, her face could appear different to the people looking at her: Saix, a ruthless Organisation member who considered her nothing but a tool, saw her as hooded and faceless; Xemnas, the Organisation’s leader who thought of her as a replacement in his plans for Sora, saw Sora’s face on hers; Roxas, Sora’s Nobody, sees her mostly as resembling Kairi, since those were Sora’s strongest thoughts at Xion’s birth, but later sees her as Sora. The face Xion wears depends on the bonds, the connections, the memories in the heart of the person looking at her.

Xion begins her story with relatively little in the way of personality, too. She barely speaks, barely acts apart from to do precisely and only what the Organisation directs. She can hardly be called a person; she functions only as the tool, the puppet, that she was created to be. Throughout Days, though, she develops emotional connections to Roxas and Axel, becoming friends with them, and as the connections grow stronger her heart grows stronger – although she couldn’t know that, and neither could anyone else (including the audience) at the time. She goes from not being a person to being a person, and a person who deserves to live and to exist and to be their own person with their own identity.

In a happy ending for Xion, the resolution of her character arc might be that she decides that she is her own person and should fulfil that, not being controlled but being free to make her own choices and build her own connections. (And who knows, perhaps she’ll get that post-KH3.) Unfortunately, Days does not have a happy ending.

(This piece has been split into three parts for readability due to its length. Click here for Part Three.)

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