This post will contain spoilers for
The Kingdom Hearts series, including
Kingdom Hearts III
“This world is just too small,”1 mutters a young man as he stands on the sandy shore of his island home, staring off into the horizon.
Thus begins Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, and thus begins the arc of Kingdom Hearts’ main villain, Xehanort.
Kingdom Hearts is a story about boundaries, whether it’s relational barriers keeping people from understanding each other or physical barriers separating one world from another. It’s also a story about the characters who seek to bridge those gaps, to break those barriers. Look no further than Xehanort’s humble beginnings: he feels his world, Destiny Islands, is too small and decides to expand his horizons, breaking the barriers between worlds by crossing over into a new one. And Xehanort is hardly alone; two other characters exhibit this same desire: the protagonist Sora and his friend Riku. Just like Xehanort, the boys wish to leave their homeworld and venture to new lands.
But despite the desire these characters share, one stark contrast divides them: both Riku and Xehanort become villains (at least temporarily), falling to their darker impulses. However, Sora is only ever portrayed as a hero. Why is this? What makes the difference between Xehanort and Riku’s desires and that of Sora’s when, at least on the surface, they all seemed to want the same thing? Why did seeking to expand their horizons cause Xehanort and Riku to fall while Sora remained on the path of light?
Considering the Desire
Perhaps the answer to this lies in their motives: why each wishes to leave their home and explore other worlds.
Xehanort makes his reason abundantly clear: his homeworld is far too small for him.2 He requires broader horizons. He isn’t content to simply sit and wait out his life’s end; he wants more. Xehanort is a highly intelligent person, and he finds the islands intellectually stifling, too small for his great mind.
The proof of this lies in a line Xehanort delivers to Sora when they first encounter one another, when Xehanort has seen many worlds but before Sora has had a chance to venture forth on his own journey:
“You understand so little,” Xehanort comments to the naive Sora.
“Oh yeah? Well, you’ll see. I’m gonna get out and learn what’s out there!” Sora proclaims.
“A meaningless effort. One who knows nothing can understand nothing.”3
Xehanort believes that he began his journey with knowledge, otherwise he would have never been able to learn more—about the world, about history, and much more. And in some ways, Xehanort is correct: he grew up with far more information than Sora did.
Unlike Sora, Xehanort left his homeland sometime during his youth, eventually finding himself in an entirely different world. This enabled Xehanort to learn a great deal about ancient history and the part keyblades and keyblade wielders had in shaping it; quite unlike Sora, who even after years of adventuring remains largely ignorant of such things.4
This scene also shows that Xehanort and Sora are both curious souls seeking experiences beyond what their homeworld offers. However, what this scene does not detail is that Xehanort has taken his desire for knowledge too far; he worships it. And this worship of knowledge leads to another way Xehanort’s reasons for traveling are similar but different from Sora’s: Xehanort believes he possesses more knowledge than others and that therefore, his way of thinking—and he himself—is superior.
Xehanort believes that light and darkness should exist in equilibrium, that too much of either is bad for the worlds.5 And because he believes his way of thinking—and only his way of thinking—is correct, he feels it is his duty to force this “knowledge” on the world by correcting the world’s balance of light and darkness, which he learns he can do if he obtains the series’ namesake, a legendary artifact known as Kingdom Hearts.6
It’s interesting to note that, like Xehanort, Riku’s desire to expand his horizons is tainted by a sliver of pride as well, as displayed when he stares down the open maw of a portal that will take him to another world. Though Riku makes it clear he knows there will be consequences to his decision to travel, and one could make the argument he even sounds a bit hesitant to leave, he still decides to go through the portal, declaring into the abyss, “We can’t let fear stop us. I’m not afraid of the darkness!”7
This lack of fear may seem like courage, but in truth it contains a grain of pride. Riku believes he is superior to the forces of darkness, that he can control them. In a scene far later in the game, Riku has obtained the ability to literally control monstrous embodiments of darkness known as Heartless, and he proudly proclaims:
“The Heartless obey me now, Sora. Now I have nothing to fear.”
But Sora protests, “You’re stupid! Sooner or later, they’ll swallow your heart!”
“Not a chance. My heart’s too strong.”8
How ironic, then, that this lack of fear proves to be Riku’s downfall, as he later becomes a puppet to that very darkness. As the old adage says, “Pride goeth before a fall.”
But Riku’s desires weren’t always tainted by pride. Much like Xehanort and Sora, Riku’s desire to leave his island home is initially propelled by curiosity.
In one scene in the original Kingdom Hearts, Riku, Sora, and their mutual friend Kairi discuss their plan to travel to another world by raft.
“So… Kairi’s home is out there somewhere, right?” Sora asks, looking out across the ocean that disappears into the horizon.
“Could be,” Riku says coolly. “We’ll never know by staying here…”9
It’s notable that Riku isn’t completely certain. They are fairly confident Kairi came from another world, but Riku knows that they’ll never be sure unless they see other with their own eyes.
Later in that same scene, Kairi pipes in: “So, suppose you get to another world. What would you do there?”
Riku is unprepared for this question. “Well, I… I haven’t really thought about it.”10 The “what” had never been his focus. It was the why that has caused Riku to yearn for other worlds.
“It’s just… I’ve always wondered why we’re here on this island,” Riku says. “If there are any other worlds out there, why did we end up on this one? And suppose there are other worlds… Then ours is just a little piece of something much greater. So we could have just as easily ended up somewhere else, right?”
“I don’t know,” Sora replies.
“Exactly,” Riku says. “That’s why we need to go out there and find out.”11
Riku wants to know why they’ve begun on Destiny Islands. He’s seeking purpose and meaning in his life. He needs to explore other worlds because he doesn’t know the answers to those questions.
This is key, but there are a few more elements to Riku’s desire to see other worlds.
“Just sitting here won’t change a thing,” Riku points out. “It’s the same old stuff. So let’s go.”12
Riku is bored of Destiny Islands, bored of the status quo, “the same old stuff.” Destiny Islands no longer holds any wonder or adventure for him; he needs to know why he ended up in this rut and what other opportunities await him in the outside world. He knows he will never shake the “same old, same old” until he ventures to another world. We can hear Riku’s desperation to break this status quo in his proclamation to Sora as he stares into the portal to leave their world:
“Once we step through, we might not be able to come back. We may never see our parents again. There’s no turning back. But this may be our only chance.”
And this is where Riku shouts, “We can’t let fear stop us. I’m not afraid of the darkness!”13
Riku refuses to allow fear or the threat of doing something terrible get in the way of him learning more about the outside worlds. And though this level of commitment is admirable, it is not necessarily commendable, as players of Kingdom Hearts know all too well, as it begins Riku down his descent into darkness.
Xehanort wishes to gain more knowledge by broadening his horizons. Riku wants to escape the status quo by seeking other places, other opportunities, and forging his own path. But why does Sora want to leave Destiny Islands and see other worlds?
Sora’s desire to leave the islands is somewhat less clear than the other two. He possesses the desire to increase his knowledge like Xehanort (“I’m going to go out and learn what’s out there!”). One could argue he also feels, like Riku, that Destiny Islands has become boring, as evidenced in a small scene he shares with Kairi.
Unlike the boys, Kairi was not born on Destiny Islands, arriving there one mysterious night during a mystic meteor shower. As aforementioned, Kairi and the boys are fairly certain she came from another world, though Kairi doesn’t remember anything about it.14
“Ya ever wanna go back?” Sora asks her.
“Hm… Well, I’m happy here.”
“Really…”15 Sora’s response is almost a question, and he clearly sounds unenthusiastic and, potentially, unconvinced. Perhaps he, like Riku, felt as though he could never be fully happy here on Destiny Islands and finds it hard to believe anyone else could had they seen other worlds.
One thing is certain: ever since meeting Kairi, Sora has wanted to see more of her world—and any others out there.
This is the beacon that guides us to Sora’s true reason for wishing to leave Destiny Islands. Sora’s desire to leave is filled with bright-eyed, childlike wonder. He wants to see Kairi’s world. He wants to know what these other places are like. It’s a simple curiosity, a desire to see and experience new things and meet new people. This is made apparent in the frequent delight Sora experiences with each new world he visits. He thrills at seeing new things, not so much for the intellectual stimulation like Xehanort nor to see other courses his life could have taken like Riku, but for the sheer enjoyment of seeing things he’s never seen before.
While Xehanort, Riku, and Sora all desire to leave the islands because there’s more beyond their home they feel they simply must see, Xehanort and Riku differ from Sora in that they wish to see other islands primarily out of a desire to grow themselves: arguably, out of ambition. Contrast this with Sora. Though he wishes to improve himself (see how offended and defensive he becomes when Xehanort proclaims he “understands so little”), Sora primarily wishes to see other worlds out of curiosity and exploration. To learn more, see more, and meet more people.
Both Xehanort and Riku are willing to make great sacrifices for the sake of their journey, and little wonder why: they’re journeying out of a desire to improve themselves. Theirs is, inherently, a self-focused desire… and self-focus always teeters on the edge of healthy self-improvement and destructive selfishness.
Does this mean Kingdom Hearts presents ambition—and self-improvement—as inherently evil? No, not necessarily. Kingdom Hearts never condemns the desire to improve oneself. Sora proclaims he’s going to “get out and learn what’s out there,” so he has this desire to grow as well, even if it isn’t his primary desire for travel. No, Kingdom Hearts doesn’t have a problem with ambition in and of itself. What Kingdom Hearts sees as truly evil is when someone no longer cares if their ambition harms others.
Considering the Consequences
Sora is one of the most conscientious characters in all of Kingdom Hearts. He frequently sacrifices his good for the sake of others and is always concerned about their happiness or wellbeing. He would never do anything that would hurt people.
Xehanort, on the other hand, never considers how his journey may affect anyone else. In fact, in his later years, as he gets closer to expanding his horizons further than anyone ever has, he seems to take pleasure in harming others should they attempt to get in his way.
Riku’s case is only slightly different. Unlike the lone wolf Xehanort, Riku cares about how his journey will affect his inner circle of friends (Sora and Kairi). He wants them to accompany him on his journey, as evidenced in a scene where Sora and Riku meet up as monstrous beings of darkness called Heartless are threatening to take over their world.
“The door has opened, Sora!” Riku proclaims. “Now we can go to the outside world!”
“What are you talking about?” Sora retorts. “We’ve gotta find Kairi!”
“Kairi’s coming with us!”16
Riku doesn’t want to leave Kairi behind. It was Riku’s plan to build a raft and leave Destiny Islands, but he purposefully extended this invitation to his two closest friends. However, this same invitation is not extended to the other children from their hometown.
Riku never once asks what happened to his home after Destiny Islands is swallowed by the Heartless, unlike Sora (“What happened to my home? My island?” Sora demands in one scene).17 Instead, all Riku cares about is finding Kairi. It almost seems Riku could care less what happened to the rest of the island’s inhabitants, to those outside his inner circle of friends.
Riku’s tale displays the danger in this limited concern. Ultimately, his concern for only his inner circle of friends is inherently selfish. And this selfishness eventually degrades even his concern for his friends, as evidenced by the fact that later on, Riku has no qualms about betraying Sora in order to advance his own agenda.
Caring only for your inner circle is truly little better than only caring for yourself if it comes at the expense of others’ happiness. Kingdom Hearts makes this clear as it shows that the less Riku considers his friends and the more he pursues his own goals, the further he descends into darkness.
Betraying friends, harming others—these are the things Kingdom Hearts portrays as inherently evil… and the things it warns are the inevitable conclusion if one fails to consider how their desires may affect other people. Riku’s limited concern (only for his inner circle of friends) results in him losing sight of how valuable his close friends were to him in the first place. It leads to him literally losing control of himself, and it forces him down a year-long process of fighting his inner demons.
Xehanort inflicts pain and suffering on many others, even betraying his life-long friend and brother-in-arms, as well as outright killing innocents. Though some fans felt Xehanort did not receive appropriate punishment for his sins, the series never shied away from portraying just how terrible Xehanort’s choices truly were. This is nowhere more evident than in Sora’s final battle with Xehanort, which takes place in the very world where Xehanort lived and trained after he left Destiny Islands to begin his journey: a world called Scala ad Caelum.
This pristine city of polished white stone islands floating in a crystal sea is lovely to behold… but alarmingly empty when Sora arrives to fight Xehanort. There are no bustling people to populate its streets, though there clearly must have been at some point, given how vast the place is. It fills the city with a sense of eerie, painful loss. What happened here to reduce such a beautiful city to a ghost town?
And of course, as Xehanort wages his final battle against Sora, warping the very streets with his magical abilities, the beautiful city becomes twisted, distorted… and destroyed. In the end, Xehanort stands at the summit of the city… looking down at the wreckage he made, at the world he destroyed single-handedly. It’s a striking visual reminder of all the other worlds and all the other lives he had destroyed getting to this point. And it was Xehanort’s wanton grasping for his own desires with no concern for others that brought him here.
It’s a stark reminder of the warning Kingdom Hearts presents: beware when chasing after your desires and pursuing your aspirations… making sure they never come at the cost of others’ wellbeing.
Notes and References:
- Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, Directed by Tetsuya Nomura and Tai Yasue, Written by Masaru Oka and Daisuke Watanabe, September 7, 2010, Square Enix.
- Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix, Directed by Tetsuya Nomura, Written by Jun Akiyama, Daisuke Watanabe, and Kazushige Nojima, September 10, 2013, Square Enix.
- Kingdom Hearts III, Directed by Tetsuya Nomura and Tai Yasue, Written by Tetsuya Nomura and Masaru Oka, January 29, 2019, Square Enix.
- “Xehanort Reports,” Kingdom Hearts: Birth by Sleep, Directed by Tetsuya Nomura and Tai Yasue, Written by Masaru Oka and Daisuke Watanabe, September 7, 2010, Square Enix.
- Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5 Remix.
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Kingdom Hearts and all related names and terms are the property of Square Enix Holdings Co., Ltd. And I am not affiliated with them.