Warning: mild spoilers for most of the Kingdom Hearts series, including some for Kingdom Hearts III.
Couples fighting the odds to be together is a literary trope that will likely never die. Whether it’s Romeo and Juliet falling in love despite their families’ feud, Jumpman dodging barrels in a rickety skyscraper to rescue Pauline, or Chell enduring GLaDOS’s taunts and neurotoxins to get her hands on some sweet and totally-not-a-lie cake, people like to cheer for their favorites to finally overcome every obstacle and live happily ever after.
In games, this natural human instinct works as a motivator. The “damsel in distress” trope is old as the hills (and pretty sexist, let’s be honest), but it works. Sure, you’ll stop the apocalypse if you beat old mister Whatshisface, but you’ll also get to see your girlfriend/boyfriend/daughter/dog again, and that’s what people care about. The Kingdom Hearts series practically lives and breathes this “person needing rescue” narrative, and that should make it incredibly easy for the games to tug our emotional heartstrings. Whether it’s Riku, Xion, Roxas, Namine, Aqua, or Sora himself who needs help, we’re nearly always saving someone.
However, there’s one relationship that the game builds up at the center of its story above all others: the budding romance between Sora and Kairi. It hits all the notes of the two lovers being tragically separated, again and again, getting close enough to touch before being ripped apart again. When Sora’s facing down the legions of darkness to save Kairi, we should be just as passionate and motivated to beat the enemies as well.
And, unfortunately for the Kingdom Hearts series as a whole, this is the one relationship that falls completely flat.
Near the end of Kingdom Hearts III, when Kairi’s ripped away and left in danger once more, I didn’t find myself worried for her. I found myself sighing. It’s the big moment! The final battle! Sora (and I) should be gearing up to charge at the bad guys and win back his true love! Except… I didn’t care. It’s a big ending moment, but I felt nothing.
So, what went wrong? Why did this last mission to rescue Kairi lose all its emotional payoff, when other similar rescue missions in the series have felt more compelling? In short, it comes down to one word: interaction.
To prove my point, let’s look at Kairi compared to someone else who regularly needs a lot of rescuing in this series: Riku. In the first Kingdom Hearts, both Kairi and Riku vanish at the start, and Sora is looking for both of them. Riku steps through a portal into darkness, and asks Sora to come with him. Though Riku falls in with some bad company, he keeps checking in on Sora. He gets jealous when Sora meets new friends, Donald and Goofy. He and Sora have a few confrontations, and we see their rivalry come to a head. We see how they react to one another, and how they grow up and move past it. Eventually, their relationship is flipped, with Riku becoming the one who’s become more mature and needs to rescue Sora. We see them guard each other’s back, joke around, sacrifice themselves for one another, and even end the big battle in Kingdom Hearts II fighting side-by-side and content to die together. They take their Mastery exams together, and neither can rest while the other is in trouble.
Then, let’s compare that to Kairi. In Kingdom Hearts, her heart is residing with Sora’s, which is… okay, I guess they’re together. Technically. But they never get to talk, or meet each other, or do anything. Kairi hugs Sora at the end and then they’re torn apart, again. Then let’s look at Chain of Memories—an entire game about Sora (literally) forgetting Kairi exists, while Kairi herself is nowhere. In Kingdom Hearts II, she’s kidnapped again. 358/2 Days? Not present. Dream Drop Distance? Not present. Because she’s dangled like a prize to rescue from kidnapping, we don’t actually get to meet her. When she is rescued, she and Sora barely have enough time to stammer out their feelings for each other before each game ends. Kairi has all the character depth and development of wet cardboard.
To prove the point further, look at Sora’s communications with each of his friends in Kingdom Hearts III. When Riku calls him on the phone, Sora cheers; he scrambles to grab the phone; he gets disappointed when he gets calls that aren’t from Riku. They get worried about each other and follow each other into dangerous missions. Kairi, meanwhile, spends the whole game standing in a forest, somewhere in a completely different dimension, supposedly “training.” She decides to write Sora letters, but she never sends them. She never actually has any correspondence with Sora, just the idealized version of him she has in her head. Sora, for his part, doesn’t seem to spare her a single thought. Which characters have the better relationship here, really?
I’m not saying Sora should have gotten together with Riku in Kingdom Hearts III (okay, I’m kind of saying that, because I would have believed it much more, and that would be a great twist). But Sora has more interaction with almost every other person in the games than he does with Kairi. Heck, Sora shows more affection towards Rapunzel in the Tangled world alone—at least he chases down some birds for her and they get some combo attacks as they run around. Winnie the Pooh forgetting about Sora is more emotionally moving than Kairi forgetting him. I know more about how Sora relates to Jiminy Cricket, of all people, than how he does to Kairi.
So, when Kairi gets kidnapped yet again at the end of Kingdom Hearts III… I just don’t care. Yes, it’s frustrating to see the girl in the trio be the weak one yet again, the one who’s completely helpless to do anything for herself despite all her “training.” (It’s 2019, we can do justice to female characters better than this!) But the issue here isn’t just that Kairi has all the personality and strength of a limp noodle, but how that damsel in distress trope hurts the story and, from there, the entire climax of the series. If Kairi is always kidnapped or always missing, she, by definition, can’t interact with Sora. If she can’t interact with Sora, they have no relationship. If they have no relationship, we have nothing to root for. There’s no payoff. There’s just the frustration of having to save someone I don’t care about. And, at the end of a series of games a dozen long, “I don’t care” is the worst possible feeling to inspire.