Kingdom Hearts has gone from a one-off game about what would happen if Disney crossed over with Final Fantasy to a sweeping saga involving generations of characters in their battle of Light against Darkness. We have followed characters who were tempted by evil, sacrificed everything, redeemed themselves, left part of themselves behind and resisted falling into despair in even the darkest of times. As each game has been added we have learned more about characters we’ve lost, gained, transformed and watched their struggle. And when Kingdom Hearts III ends and many of these characters’ chapters have closed, we have seen all that struggle pay off in some form or another in their growth.
All, except ironically enough, Kairi.
Kairi is probably one of the most important characters in the story. Not only is she one of Sora’s dearest friends and the object of his affection, she is also a Princess of Heart, and eventually becomes a Keyblade Wielder. Her problem is that she is more of a plot point than a character. Despite her importance to Sora and Riku, and her place in the universe as such, she has served more as a plot device, spending the majority of the time kidnapped, comatose, or some combination of both. She rarely appears on screen, has very few lines and most of her most important decisions and changes happen in seconds or off-screen. Now let me say that I absolutely love Kairi, but she is easily the weakest character in the entire franchise. In Kingdom Hearts III it seemed for a moment we would finally get to see Kairi shine, especially with all the lines she gets in this game about no longer standing on the sidelines and protecting Sora instead of him always protecting her. So what happens at the end? She stands on the sidelines and has to have Sora protect her.
It’s not that Kingdom Hearts doesn’t have amazing female characters. While the franchise is largely a sausage fest, the female characters that do appear are varied, interesting and at times kick some serious ass. Villain Larxene is snide, calculating and deliciously diabolical. Xion is a tragic figure who knowing her fate goes down swinging. Aqua is a proud, maternal warrior who in spite of her compassion and nurturing nature is never afraid to give everything in a fight. Even Namine, who doesn’t fight at all and spends most of the time being a pawn between various factions uses incredibly calculating and clever ways to act in spite of mostly being kept in captivity. Kairi on the other hand, we don’t get much of an impression from. When we first see her in Kingdom Hearts as a child, she has an impish sense of humor, and obviously loves her friends, but we never get to see more than that. It seems like the creators have more of Kairi in mind, but don’t quite know what to do with her. And the more games that are released, the more glaringly obvious that appears.
The good news is that narratively, at the end of Kingdom Hearts III they’ve given themselves plenty of opportunity to give Kairi more of a spotlight.
First off, Kairi needs to be a playable character. In spite of her having a Keyblade since Kingdom Hearts II, she has never been playable. She doesn’t appear in RE:Coded at all, only shows up in Dream Drop Distance in the secret ending, and isn’t even an AI combatant in III. In Kingdom Hearts III she spent most of the time training, though largely off-screen. But we are eventually shown she can fight, even if not as well as Riku and Sora. Making Kairi playable will not only give us more time with her, we’ll finally be able to see firsthand what she’s capable of. And there’s no reason why she can’t be playable. Even though Sora is and always will be the main character, many of the spin-off games have had alternate playable characters and it hasn’t negatively affected the narrative at all.
Director Tetsuya Nomura has already stated that there will be at least one spin-off game between Kingdom Hearts III and IV. Having a Birth by Sleep style game that splits the narrative between Kairi, Riku and Sora, or a Dream Drop Distance game with just Kairi and Riku would put the focus back on the original trinity, and give Kairi a change to show more of her personality and more of her growth. Similarly, for the tutorial part of Kingdom Hearts IV, rather than have Sora lose his powers, again, the game could have a Kingdom Hearts II style tutorial where Kairi is used for the basic combat training in the same vein as Roxas. It’s something fans have been clamoring for years, and these opportunities would be the best time to let us use Kairi in combat.
Secondly, the narrative must avoid any circumstance where Kairi is either kidnapped, knocked out or in any form incapacitated. Doing so would essentially turn Kairi into the Kingdom Hearts version of Princess Peach, and that wouldn’t serve the narrative, even in jest. While Kairi isn’t the only Kingdom Hearts character that has spent a good deal of time being in someone else’s castle, since Sora seems to have been incapacitated almost as often in Chain of Memories, Kingdom Hearts II and Dream Drop Distance, at some point Sora is brought back into action and the story goes back to his perspective. Kairi hasn’t. Unless they intend a situation where Kairi rescues herself, it’s really better if they avoid any more storylines where Kairi is out of commission due to the machinations of the villain or plot.
Kairi has a tremendous amount of potential as a character with her newfound powers with the Keyblade, her ties to Radiant Garden, her station as a Princess of Heart and the fact that her grandmother has knowledge of the time of fairytales (in Kingdom Hearts I, the story of the fall of the world to darkness and its salvation through the light in the hearts of children.) These facts all give a million different possibilities to use Kairi more in the Kingdom Hearts universe instead of yet another motivation to have Sora save the worlds. Sora’s story is in limbo as a result of the end of Kingdom Hearts III. Riku’s had his story arc. He went from a brat kid who let himself be manipulated by the bad guys, to a story of redemption as he makes up for his past sins to the first Keyblade Master to be declared in over a decade. It’s time to give Kairi a chance to show her potential and depth as a character and bring her up to the quality of the rest of the cast.