Kingdom Hearts' True Magic Isn't Disney, It's Men Showing Vulnerability

The Square Enix mashup franchise hasn't lasted more than 15 years because you can visit the world of 'Frozen,' it's the surprising meditation on toxic masculinity.

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Mar 18 2019, 9:12pm

Image courtesy of Square Enix

At the end of the original Kingdom Hearts, the series’ main protagonist, Sora, suddenly loses his weapon, the all-powerful keyblade. In this moment, it appears everything they’ve been fighting for may soon be lost. As the villain mocks him, Sora stares back in quiet confidence: “I don’t need a weapon. My friends are my power.”

Ignoring how Sora pulls a wooden sword, also known as a weapon, from his pocket a few moments later, if any line summarizes the thematic pitch of Kingdom Hearts as a whole, it’s that. Kingdom Hearts is an unbelievably earnest—another word might be cheesy—series, in which a story about chasing down literal hearts is draped around characters metaphorically wearing hearts on their sleeves, as they spend countless hours telling one another how brave and powerful they are for having come this far, and that each of them deserves love.

More specifically, it’s a group of mostly men talking about those feelings—directly, clearly, and without shame at being forthright about one’s true emotions—to one another.

(Kingdom Hearts has a few women in its huge cast of fiction-clashing characters, but outside of fan-favorite Aqua, they are largely fridged, ignored, or relegated to supporting roles. Don’t get me started on how Kingdom Hearts treats Kairi, allegedly a “main” character. Ugh.)

In Kingdom Hearts III, I traveled to worlds of darkness, light, a planet (?) where the movie Hercules takes place, and more. All the while, no matter how dire the circumstances, no matter how far victory seemed, a group of people emotionally supported one another as if it were the most natural thing in the world. After beating it, I couldn’t help but shake a weird feeling: Hey, uh, is Kingdom Hearts a quiet (and perhaps accidental) mediation on toxic masculinity?

The idea of toxic masculinity, regressive social attitudes about how men should behave and express themselves, isn’t new. Its entry into the general lexicon is relatively recent, and was hardly in the larger social consciousness when Kingdom Hearts came out in 2002, to the point that it’s not wild to theorize it wasn’t exactly on creator Tetsuya Nomura’s mind.

“I don’t think it's quiet at all,” replied Natalie (Waypoint’s resident Kingdom Hearts loremaster) in our private Discord, after I raised the idea.

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She’s right, of course; subtlety is not one of Kingdom Hearts’ strengths, a game that’s always saying the quiet part loud, and no doubt, one of the central reasons Kingdom Hearts proves so polarizing. But it’s also easy to conflate Kingdom Hearts’ melodrama with the emotional honesty from the people at the center of it. The melodrama and vulnerability mingle with one another, and arguably, it’s the secret sauce of Kingdom Hearts, a series whose attraction is, on the surface, the chance to visit interactive Disney worlds, but in reality, what makes it click (and drives the fandom) is how it relentlessly fixates on how things would be better if people talked to one another.

Kingdom Hearts isn’t gotta-hear-both-sides. Rather, it argues we’d be better off telling people how much they mean to us; too often, those conversations go unsaid, or too late. Last year, I wrote an essay for Waypoint about how learned vulnerability transformed my view of games. I don’t get into this in the piece, but it understandably transformed personal relationships, as well, as I sought ways to be more openly expressive. To that end, while I had trouble connecting to the larger silliness of Kingdom Heart, I found myself drawn to, and regularly moved by, how Sora and others were so straightforward in conveying their hopes and fears. The love and appreciation driving so many relationships is often implicit, rather than explicit.

Kingdom Hearts, however, is all explicit, with men frequently sharing their feelings without disguise or prompting. Sometimes in the middle of battle. Other times, alone on a dock, as the sun slowly sets in the background, their troubles temporarily gone:

Riku: Well, there is one advantage to being me...Something you could never imitate.
Sora: What’s that?
Riku: Having you as a friend.

Friendship is a euphemism for love in Kingdom Hearts. In a lot of stories, this would be an “aww” moment at the end, emotional catharsis rewarding patience through hours of buildup, and if we’re honest, an exchange that would typically happen between a straight couple expressing their newfound love. In Kingdom Hearts, men speaking plainly to other men in platonic relationships isn’t an undercurrent but the very foundation on which the story’s built.

You do not, of course, have to go far to see what parts of the fandom has done with these circumstances—you barely have to search to find Riku X Sora ships.

Former games critic Alexa Ray Corriea wrote a whole damn book about Kingdom Hearts II a few years back, and delved into the relationship between Sora and Riku.

“There is no traditional romance in Kingdom Hearts,” wrote Corriea. “Rather, we get a picture of intimacy between two young men, two best friends. It’s exceedingly rare that any kind of media portrays non-romantic love between two boys so deeply—too often this kind of bond is dismissed as sexual or nothing at all—but Kingdom Hearts excels at painting that picture.”

Though Nomura hasn’t talked openly and specifically about this point—Square Enix, you should let Nomura come on Lore Reasons—his work appears to speak for itself. Many games with his creative influence, from Kingdom Hearts to Final Fantasy XV, put friendships between men at the center of their storytelling. It’s as interesting as it is frustrating; Nomura’s stories still feature women, but they’re rarely given center stage.

“For the story, simply put, 'connections,’” said Nomura in an interview after the original Kingdom Hearts had been released and was a surprise success. “I wanted to portray the idea that people are not physically connected. Well, I think that is already thoroughly incorporated in the story though. Even apart, things which are connected are still connected.”

You do a lot of jumping, fighting, and casting spells to save people in Kingdom Hearts, but you do an equal amount of talking to accomplish the same goals. Here, a fire spell is worth as much as “I care about you.” And that’s what Kingdom Hearts is likely to be remembered for.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you have a tip or a story idea, drop him an email: patrick.klepek@vice.com.

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