Kingdom Hearts, as a saga, lends itself to a lot of ridicule: the Disney presence adds a sometimes heavy-handed element of slapstick in the action, the mentions of “light” “darkness!” “keyblade!” “friends!” and “ice cream” are so recurring that they’re fodder for drinking games, and George Lucas-style retcons abound. However, it’s a work that’s undoubtedly deserving of praise: despite having a 10+ ESRB rating, Kingdom Hearts approaches complex philosophical questions such as the difference between essence and existence. What is seldom praised though, is the way Kingdom Hearts frames the concept of darkness, shifting it from the embodiment and essence of negativity promoted by the Disney villains to a force that is a necessary counterpart to light.
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Striving for Balance
“Great minds are plagued by a single great question,” Yen Sid tells keyblade wielders Sora and Riku ahead of their Mark of Mastery exam in Dream Drop Distance. “What is the essence of the human heart that weakens us or empowers us?”
It’s a question that has neither good nor bad implications, and it’s the core motivation that drives Master Xehanort, the primary villain of the series. In fact, Xehanort believes that the ideal condition of the world is a perfect balance. In order to attain this state, he plans to unleash an apocalypse that will return the world to a blank slate.
“My brother pupil Eraqus thinks only in absolutes,” Xehanort writes in Report VIII, one of the secret documents you can collect in KH Birth By Sleep. “He has persuaded himself that light is the only way, but forgets that light cannot exist without shadow. I believe a balance of light and darkness is what sustains our World, but too much of the darkness has been stamped out, disrupting that balance. Someone must tear down this tyranny of light and reorganize the World around the darkness which then creeps back in.”
Xehanort reiterates this concept in his dying moments in KH III, saying, in the English version, that he wanted the world to be “pure and bright” again, bright being a mistranslation of the Japanese word for “blank.” His ideas are not evil per se, but the single-minded way he carried them out, by cruelly experimenting on hearts and bodies and by trying to forge a man-made apocalypse, is why, ultimately, he’s cast as a villain — albeit one with a tragic angle.
By contrast, Riku does succeed in the pursuit of balance. When we meet him in the first Kingdom Hearts, he is rejected by the keyblade for using darkness, and eventually succumbs to it to protect his friends. He experiences emotions such as sadness, jealousy, bitterness and anger. He is angry at Sora for abandoning him in favor of Donald and Goofy, and he desperately wants to protect Kairi. After being fully possessed by darkness and hitting his personal rock bottom, he undergoes a purgatory-like experience in the basement of Castle Oblivion, where he eventually learns to control his own darkness and make peace with it.
Later, when he is finally outside the castle, he encounters a crossroad with four paths. “I’m taking the middle road,” Riku declares, “… the road to dawn.” This statement does not mean he completely forsakes darkness. He resorts to it when he has to knock out Roxas in order to re-complete Sora’s memories in 258/2 Days, and acknowledges his burden with honesty. While Xehanort is attracted to darkness for the sake of knowledge and, as a consequence, his megalomaniac plans, for Riku, it’s a necessary part of his journey.
Strong Rays of Sun Create Dark Shadows
There’s more to light than meets the eye. Kingdom Hearts goes to great lengths to show that the starkest defenders of light are, at heart, deplorable individuals. Let’s take Master Eraqus, Master Xehanort’s old friend and the teacher of keyblade wielders Terra, Aqua and Ventus in Birth By Sleep. He advocates for “a still heart even in “the most trying of circumstances,” and for “keeping the darkness within [one self] in check,” completely refuting its power. While he acknowledges that, save for a few chosen individuals, darkness lurks in every heart, he teaches that “Darkness is our foe. Would that we could be rid of it. You must destroy it. Push the darkness down — give it no quarter in your heart.”
Xehanort looks down on this simplistic view, arguing that Eraqus is so afraid of darkness, that he has succumbed to light. “It shines so bright, he forgets that light begets darkness.” The “old geezer” Xehanort is not wrong: his friend handles his attachment to light in a way that is reminiscent of the way judge Frollo wants to preserve the moral purity of Paris in Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
One of Eraqus’ pupils, Ventus, is a pure-hearted and naive boy who, prior to being taken in by Eraqus, had been cruelly experimented upon by Xehanort. By splitting his heart into pure light and pure darkness, Xehanort wanted to forge the mythical Chi Blade, a harbinger of his much coveted apocalypse. Ventus only remembers about his past late in the game, when the events lead him to clash with his darkness, a snarky and joker-like masked boy named Vanitas, which would fulfil Xehanort’s intent. When he confronts master Eraqus about it, the latter resolves to kill him.
All Eraqus’ self-righteous actions and over-protectiveness from darkness cause, however, is his own death, and the subsequent demise of all three of his pupils. The brooding and buff Terra becomes a vessel to Xehanort’s heart, Ventus becomes catatonic, and the textbook JRPG paladin-like heroine Aqua remains imprisoned in the realm of darkness after trying to do some damage control on her friends’ fates.
Living in a Twilight World
The Kingdom Hearts saga is hardly the only one dealing with the light-versus-dark vs. light-and-dark debate in Japanese pop culture and literature.
Hayao Miyazaki’s work often interrogates this issue, most notably the manga Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. If you’re only familiar with the 1984 anime, the manga is much different. Rather than position Nausicaa as a Messiah-like figure able to restore her tainted planet to some sort of harmony, the manga has Nausicaa discover that there is a much more delicate balance at stake.
When Nausicaa reaches the Crypt of Shuwa, a place that preserved the knowledge that was lost after the apocalypse-like event known as “Seven Days of Fire,” she comes face to face with the “Master of the Crypt,” an ancient being tasked with purifying the earth in order to restore it to the way it was before the Seven Days. She condemns him for wanting to play Deus ex Machina with the surviving human race for the sake of a new dawn. He insists that life is light. “No!” she replies, “Life is the light that shines in the darkness […] All things are born from darkness and all things return to darkness.” Nausicaa has no doubt that the master’s vision was created out of idealism and a sense of purpose in an age of despair, but castigates his relentless pursuit of purity, asking, “Why didn’t those men and women realize that both purity and corruption are the very stuff of life?”
While Miyazaki’s worldview can be attributed to his disenchantment regarding the shortcomings of the idealism of communism, this type of debate, albeit in a less refined form, also appears in Clamp’s X/1999. The series sees two factions colluding — the Dragons of Heaven and the Dragons of the Earth. The former group, who at first seem like “the good guys,” want to preserve humanity and civilization, thus draining the planet. The latter wants the planet and nature to thrive, and to achieve that, human civilization needs to be wiped out. The series has been on hiatus since 2005, but it becomes apparent that neither faction truly is right or wrong.
Even a more clear-cut and child-friendly series such as Sailor Moon ends up promoting a similar message. “Where there is light, there is also darkness. They call to each other,” is the leitmotif of the later arcs, and, in the final confrontation which takes place at the “Galaxy Cauldron,” the place of origin of all stars, Sailor Moon sacrifices herself to the cauldron in order to restore the universe. She is given the choice between being reborn in her “original star form” or continuing to live, even though it might mean that chaos will be reborn again. She chooses the latter option, “no matter how tough it gets.”
And, just as Sailor Moon says, “I just want to live life with those people,” regardless of the resurgence of evil and just as Nausicaa reflects that we must live in a twilight world, the Kingdom Hearts Lore also promotes a message of acceptance of darkness, both in the world(s) and within ourselves.
“What is it that I failed to learn?” asks a dejected Terra in Birth By Sleep after failing his Mark of Mastery exam because his darkness unfurled. “You’re fine as you are,” Master Xehanort tells him.