Kingdom Hearts is my favorite series of video games. It’s about a teenage boy named Sora who finds himself separated from his two best friends after his home gets destroyed by monsters known as the Heartless. Little does he know, the Heartless are under the control of Disney villains like Maleficent and Captain Hook. He ends up befriending Squall Leonhart and other Final Fantasy characters, who encourage him to team up with Donald Duck and Goofy on a quest to save the Disney universe.
Yes, I am absolutely serious, and yes, it works. Although, if you’re familiar with Square-Enix video games, you probably knew that already. The series started in 2002 and so far there are eight core games that make up the “Xehanort Saga” (not including the HD remakes). While I still love Kingdom Hearts, lately the storytelling hasn’t impressed me as much as it did in the first game. It has become increasingly convoluted, especially if you don’t play every single game in the series, and it killed the “Show, Don’t Tell” rule many, many times.
Fortunately, Shiro Amano improved just about every problem with the story for his manga adaptations.
Although I have to admit, I thought the first volume got off to a shaky start, particularly when the Heartless attack Destiny Islands and Sora first arrives in Traverse Town. The pages feel crowded with a lot of things happening at once. You can tell there are battles going on, but it’s not very clear where Sora is when he’s fighting gigantic Heartless. Everything’s dark and made up of close shots of the Keyblade and Sora and the Heartless. It’s hard to understand what’s happening if you haven’t played the game.
Also, if you’re not familiar with the style of manga, it can be an acquired taste. Everything’s exaggerated and in the case of Kingdom Hearts, it’s often a lot sillier than the source material. But if you think about it, Kingdom Hearts is already pretty weird. Shiro Amano just embraces the weirdness and makes it his own.
Once Amano adapted Chain of Memories, that’s when he began to shine and the manga became something special on its own. He took an early boss fight in the game between Sora and Axel and made it a lot funnier than it could have been. In the manga, Axel completely takes advantage of the facts that A) Sora, Donald, and Goofy lost their memories of their best fighting skills, and B) he can teleport everywhere and they can’t. It’s great and also an improvement over previous battle scenes in the manga. In the first two volumes, Sora would struggle against his enemy, finally figure out that enemy’s weakness, and then bring him/her down with one stroke. Every. Single. Time.
But to be fair, the details of a boss battle in a video game can’t get adapted directly from the source material. The cutscenes always remain the same, but the details of the fight will change depending on what the player decides to do. From Chain of Memories onward, Amano chose to go about it by keeping his version of these events consistent with the characters’ personalities while putting his own creative spin on them.
Meanwhile, the adaptations of Kingdom Hearts II and 358/2 Days aren’t just good; they improve the source material.
Amano does something that these games failed to do: take the struggles of the main characters and incorporate the minor characters into the action as well, so that we get to know them a little better. He adds extra scenes or changes the way they interact so that we care about those characters more. In 358/2 Days, the game mostly focuses on Roxas, Axel, Xion, and Saix, while the other members of Organization XIII don’t contribute much. The manga shows scenes like Roxas asking Demyx for advice about girls and confiding in Luxord about how he feels like he let Xion down. The latter scene ends with Luxord offering to play a game of cards with him to cheer him up.
It’s the same with Kingdom Hearts II, where the game mostly focused on the wacky Disney adventures of Sora, Donald, and Goofy, with the main plot advancing every so often. Shiro Amano devotes a whole chapter of the manga to Maleficent and Pete, shows Demyx worrying about Roxas a few times, and vastly improves a scene where Kairi got kidnapped by having Olette chase Axel down with a bat full of nails.
Here’s a Tumblr post that shows the game version, where she just kind of sits there and watches helplessly: http://kingdomxkey.tumblr.com/post/60090374870/remember-the-time-axel-came-to-kidnap-kairi-and
Here’s the manga version:
Even some of the bigger characters get some much needed development that they never received in the game. The best example would be Kairi. She’s supposed to be the best friend of Sora and Riku, the two primary heroes in this series. Yet she gets almost nothing to do in the games. She stays in a coma for most of the first Kingdom Hearts and gets kidnapped twice in Kingdom Hearts II when she tries to get out and have her own adventure. Once she gets sent to the dungeons of Organization XIII, she completely disappears from the story until Sora arrives to save her.
In the manga, Kairi still gets kidnapped, but she doesn’t go quietly. She bites Axel on the arm, punches Demyx and a random Dusk in their faces, wriggles through the bars of her cell and almost escapes from the Organization, and successfully dodges attacks from Saix when he tries to use her as bait against Sora. She doesn’t have a weapon, but she doesn’t let that hold her back. Even better, Kairi gets to fully interact with characters besides Sora in a way that she never got to do in the game. It’s wonderful. It makes me wish that Square-Enix would put Shiro Amano in charge of writing Kairi’s character arc in the actual games. This guy knows what he’s doing.
As I said, Kairi disappears for most of the game, so when she gets a Keyblade at the end, it feels more like a consolation prize than a triumphant conclusion to her story. But in the manga, she’s often seen trying to get out on her own and defend herself properly. So, of course it ends with Kairi receiving her own magical weapon.
Then we have Kairi’s original kidnapper, Axel. When I first played Kingdom Hearts II, I didn’t care about this character at all. He’d show up randomly to mess with the heroes and then it’s explained in a couple of scenes that he’s got a pretty sad backstory. Long, very complicated story short: he and his best friend, Roxas, were part of the evil Organization that’s antagonizing Sora and the Disney characters. Roxas decided to quit, which didn’t sit well with the rest of the group, so they told Axel to either assassinate Roxas or he’d be labelled a traitor too and they’d both get killed. Axel couldn’t bring himself to do it, but he ended up losing Roxas anyway.
The problem here is that Roxas left before the plot of KH2 starts, so we hear about it indirectly. Even though Roxas is the playable character for the tutorial, we only get to see one flashback where he leaves the Organization, arguably the lowest point in the friendship between these two. The game states that they used to be friends and just sort of expects us to go along with it and cry for them. This marked the beginning of the series’ tendency to state that characters are best friends without following through and really showing that friendship. Luckily, the remake added a cutscene where they spent some time chilling and actually being friends before saying goodbye to each other for the final time.
The manga shows the actual friendship through flashbacks: fighting Heartless together, goofing off, having serious discussions, etc:
We see a lot more of Axel than the handful of scenes that appeared in the game, so his character arc works a lot better in the adaptation. In the game, we hear second-hand that he kidnapped Kairi in a badly misguided attempt to bring Roxas back, that she got away and then got kidnapped again by another member of the Organization, and that Axel regretted what he’d done. The manga gives this whole subplot a lot more attention through the course of several chapters. He and Kairi have actual conversations with each other and he even tries to rescue her from the Organization later on.
Unfortunately, not every Disney world that appears in the game appears in the manga. I don’t mind, because when Amano does include a world, he does his best to make it relevant to either the plot or the characters’ development. For example, when Xion goes missing, there’s a cute montage where Roxas and Axel get some help looking for her from characters like the Genie and Hercules. Belle gets to beat up Heartless with a mop. Maleficent has an actual showdown with Saix instead of getting brought down in two seconds by some of the Organization’s grunts. Xion gets to adopt Pluto:
Amano even goes the extra mile to include Disney characters who didn’t appear in the games, such as the Caterpillar in Wonderland and Chi-Fu from Mulan. They’re not important, but it’s fun to see them, if only to watch Sora try to bring feminism to Ancient China:
Apparently Shiro Amano has decided to end things with Kingdom Hearts 2 and will not adapt Birth by Sleep or Dream Drop Distance. I can only hope he changes his mind. Often, I find myself looking forward to the final English translation of the manga more than I’m looking forward to Kingdom Hearts 3!
Whether you’re a casual fan or a diehard fan of the series, definitely check out the manga. It needs as much love and support as it can get. If you’re not a fan of the series but you’re interested in checking it out, or you just like a good manga, I recommend giving it a try. You don’t need to play the games to understand it, although you’ll probably have a better appreciation for it if you’re familiar with them.