“And then there’s also Kairi, a.k.a. the girl. And that’s kind of it.” – SuperButterBuns
There is a scene at the beginning of the third act of Kingdom Hearts 1 where Sora talks to Kairi after rescuing her and freeing her heart. It is clear that Sora must return to Hollow Bastion to defeat Ansem and rescue Riku. Kairi says that she wants to join Sora on his adventure, but Sora’s gut response is to say that it is too dangerous. After Kairi points out that they got this far by sticking together. Sora retorts by explaining that no matter what happens they will always be together. They are part of each other’s hearts. “I can’t help?” Kairi asks.
“You’d kind of be in my way,” Sora responds. This response is perhaps the best way to define Kairi in Kingdom Hearts 1.
Sora is clearly not making the statement with malicious intent, but rather in an effort to protect Kairi who is his friend that he loves dearly. But it is worth pointing out just how much his words resonate with the issues I take with Kairi as a character. While other characters, mostly male, are afforded complex story-lines and adventures, Kairi is merely a background prop. She is nothing more than a commodity in Sora’s narrative. Once the narrative no longer has a use for her, she is virtually forgotten.
The truth is, Kairi as a character greatly frustrates me. For all of the somewhat interesting material given to her, it is overtaken by the fact that at the end of the day she is nothing more than the girl of the group. Her reason to exist is to motivate Sora, to reward Sora, and to further Sora’s story. Although she is given an interesting backstory, it is never explored in the slightest outside of small inclinations. Her screen time is limited due to being comatose for most of the game, a fact that could be easily forgiven if the developers hadn’t done so wrong by her.
What is the most frustrating is that this is nothing new or surprising. Kingdom Hearts 1 truly embraces its source material by making Kairi a Disney princess who is made entirely of light and left with nothing interesting to work with. While Riku gets to play the perfect foil to Sora, and Sora gets to go on adventures, Kairi doesn’t even get to have her backstory explored. She isn’t allowed to participate, isn’t allowed anything interesting to work with, and ultimately isn’t allowed to be a fully fledged character.
Kairi apologists will tell you that her role is substantial in Kingdom Hearts 1. After all, she is central to the plot. I’ve discussed why her relationship with Sora is so important. There is weight to their relationship and that should not be undermined. In addition, when Kairi is on screen she displays somewhat of an interesting character. She jokes and teases the boys, shares secrets with Sora, and came from another world. Yet this is short lived. For plot reasons, Kairi acts as a sleeping beauty for most of the game, and the interesting backstory that explores her coming from another world never happens. Despite the game’s clear focus on discovering different worlds, never once is Kairi’s original home brought up in context. It is only hinted toward.
Beyond Destiny Island, Kairi’s story is to be the goal that Sora is working toward. Even Riku is working toward said goal. She becomes a pawn in the boys competition between one another. Who can rescue Kairi first? Who cares about Kairi more? Who can share the paopu fruit with Kairi?
Kairi apologists will also explain that Kairi is the reason Sora returned to his body. Her belief in him brought him back to the light. This is all well and good, except all Kairi does is hug a Shadow Heartless. There is no build up, no grand sacrifice. In other words, though Kairi’s actions are deemed heroic, there is no weight to them. She is a princess of heart made of pure light. She is the pure female character. We expect her to do good. There is nothing remotely interesting about this. That is the problem.
Making Kairi a princess of heart is an interesting way to incorporate original characters with the Disney characters, yet the choice unfortunately harks back to the problem with Disney princesses in the first place. The Disney princesses receive a lot of scrutiny for not being empowering role models for young girls. While some of this critique is misguided and includes bad faith arguments, it isn’t difficult to see the harmful messages the Disney princess brand can enforce. Earlier films such as Sleeping Beauty and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs present women who need men to come and rescue them. Aurora and Snow White respectively hardly resemble active characters.
The Disney Renaissance introduced much more developed princess characters. Ariel collects things and desires adventure outside of the sea. Belle enjoys reading and thinking for herself. Jasmine actively does not want her life dictated by the law to marry a prince. Yet the continued critique is that all of these women’s stories revolve around men at the end of the day. Now I could go into more depth about why, when taking each film into context, this is a poor way to read these movies. But looking at them on a cultural level, especially when taking Disney’s marketing into consideration, it is easy to see that the princesses as a brand aren’t the best for young girls.
The problem with the princesses as a brand is much the same issue they have in Kingdom Hearts 1. The princesses in this game are relegated to being the seven princesses of heart, beings with only pure light inside of their hearts. With no darkness in sight, this essentially sets the princesses up as that of a higher power. Their pure light can be used to shield the world from darkness. How that works is never explained. You just have to accept that this is how things work.
Here is where the problem exists. Storytelling 101 will tell you that creating an interesting character involves creating a character who doesn’t have it all together. If a character has all of their cards stacked up nicely, there is no story to tell. When a character is given something to overcome, you are on the path to a compelling narrative. Since the princesses, and therefore Kairi, are made of pure light, there is no darkness to balance that out. Not only is Kairi inherently uninteresting and unexplored, but she has no room to be anything but a wholesome girl. She is relegated to looking pretty and doing as little as possible. While Riku struggles to overcome his darkness and Sora shows a good balance of light and dark, Kairi simply is pure light and there is not much to work with there.
It is also worth mentioning that the only interesting female characters in this game are villains, or rather, those who are allowed the audacity to choose darkness versus given no choice at all. There are other female characters who are somewhat interesting (i.e. Yuffie, Aerith, Ariel) but they are not given enough screen time to really give their character time to do something. To be an interesting female character you either have to not show it off and be a background or side character, or you have to be a villain.
The unfortunate result of all of this is that at the end of the day, this is a display of wasted potential. All of these female characters offer something far more interesting than being passive or simply good. While Sora and Riku are allowed to mess up and feel like real characters, Kairi and other women are not afforded this luxury. Kairi feels empty. She is given no space to explore her character which is a shame because there is a lot of great material being set up on Destiny Island.
When thinking about solutions to Kairi’s character, there are a few I’ve come up with that range from extreme to simple, small changes. On the extreme end of things, make Kairi the keybearer and Sora the damsel. Kairi bearing the key and exploring other worlds would be a great tool to unveil her past and give her more of a connection to the penultimate level, Hollow Bastion. This would also flip tropes and create a more interesting character. Sora is great, but if you want more than generic hero, this would be a welcomed change.
But perhaps you want something not so extreme. Fair enough. Let Kairi be awake during the game. Sure the rules of the universe seem to say that without a heart, a person can’t feel or experience memory. But rules can be changed, and if we are being honest, they aren’t well defined anyway. By allowing Kairi to be awake, she can have her own side story just like Riku. Once again, this side story could tell us more about where she came from and weave it into the narrative. She could still be captured, but at least this would allow her to fight back and do something.
I know there are those out there who say no, the story is fine as it is. These changes take things too far. Let’s work with that then. If Kairi must remain comatose throughout the game, then let Sora play more of a role in learning about where she comes from. Throughout the game, Sora has hints of Kairi’s past, seeing certain images that spark a recollection. But nothing happens beyond that. Sora should discover where Kairi comes from, and it should play a larger role in the overall story. When Kairi is awake, let this information be crucial to defeating Ansem besides an out of nowhere proclamation about a place never mentioned prior. Set Kairi up as an optional party member like the Disney characters in various worlds. Give her a weapon in the early game. Go on a mission with her. Allow her to do something.
As a teenager first playing this game, I disliked Kairi very much. I did not have the language to explain why I felt this way, only that I knew she seemed uninteresting and she didn’t really matter that much. She is a macguffin. Replace her with anyone and the same story will play out. But I have come to realize that my frustration with Kairi is not her character but rather the developer’s inability to do something interesting with her character. The pieces are there but nothing comes of it.
What is even more aggravating is that this is not something new. Women have a history of being objects to further male story-lines. Whether they are rewards or side-kicks, many boil down to simple plot devices without any real thought put into who they are as people. They exist to play a role and when that role is filled, they sit quietly in the background.
This explains my biggest issue with Kairi. While Riku and Sora have definitive character traits and arcs, Kairi is just the girl. Look, they say, there is a girl character to balance the boys but instead becomes the object of heteronormative competition and plot contrivances. Kingdom Hearts 1 is a fantastic game. My opinion on this won’t change anytime soon. The fact is that when our female characters are denied complexity and are boiled down to objects, it feels as if that is all women can ever be. Kairi should not just be the token girl. She has the potential to be so much more.
- Square Enix. Kingdom Hearts Final Mix. Square Enix. PS2/PS3/PS4/XBox One/Windows/Nintendo Switch. 2002.