In 2002, Disney and video game publisher Square Enix teamed up to create a fanfiction writer’s dream. Kingdom Hearts introduced Sora, a boy swept up in an adventure across different worlds occupied by characters from Disney animated films and Final Fantasy video games. The game was adapted into a manga by Shiro Amano, condensing the 30+ hour adventure down to a few hundred pages. Kingdom Hearts was the start of a successful franchise that consisted of seven games, two HD re-releases, and the upcoming release of Kingdom Hearts III.
Kingdom Hearts II operates on the important assumption that its audience is familiar with Kingdom Hearts and its true sequel, Chain of Memories. Chain of Memories pulled back the veil and exposed a larger, deeper, and arguably convoluted universe. What began as a straightforward quest to rescue friends evolved into an exploration of the self and identity through Nobodies, the graduated form of Sora’s original antagonists, the Heartless. Kingdom Hearts II opens with a lengthy prologue about Roxas, a teen who plays the summer days away with his friends. A great portion of the first volume is spent establishing how Roxas is unique to the world he lives in. His growing self-awareness triggers a series of events that reveals the mysterious truth of his existence and his connection to Sora. After coming to terms with himself and his circumstances, he offers himself in order to bring Sora out of a prolonged sleep. Reuniting with Donald Duck and Goofy, Sora continues his quest to find his friends and King Mickey while battling against the resurgence of the Heartless.
Shiro Amano’s adaptation of the video game is faithful to a fault. Jumping into the manga before reading Chain of Memories can result in confusion over the references made to characters and events that took place immediately after Kingdom Hearts. Why is the first third of the story told from the point of view of Roxas, a character with no noticeable ties to the heroes of the first game? What is Organization XIII? What are Nobodies? Who is Namine? Why is Sora asleep? What is his connection to Roxas? Answers to these questions begin in Chain of Memories, and while Kingdom Hearts II can be read without experiencing the side story, every bit of narrative material helps, given the growing complexity of the franchise. To the manga’s credit, it develops its story better than the game does: it reveals the involvement, motivations, and interactions between key members of Organization XIII through a series of segues and interludes, making the bigger picture slightly less muddled.
Story criticisms aside, Kingdom Hearts II is an enjoyable read largely because of its numerous Disney and Final Fantasy cameos. By the end of the second volume, Sora will have rubbed shoulders with Merlin, Yen Sid, Chip and Dale, Belle and Beast, the fairies Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, Aladdin and Iago, Hercules and Phil, and Mulan. Famous Disney villains are given their due as well: Maleficent returns to bring darkness to every world, aided by the likes of Pete, Jafar, and Hades. From the Final Fantasy camp, series favorites, including Yuffie, Cid, Auron, Aerith, Leon (a.k.a. Squall Lionheart), and Vivi, pop in from time to time and take part in Sora’s journey. While both franchises are represented well, it is clear that the adventure relies heavily on Disney characters to fill out the cast. Final Fantasy may be a popular video game franchise, but the fact is that Disney has a treasure trove of recognizable characters at its disposal. Anyone who spent their childhood with Disney’s catalog of animated feature films and shorts will recognize these famous faces.
Given the manga’s propensity to feature well-known animated characters, it is worth pointing out its artistic style. The Final Fantasy characters do not accurately resemble their digital counterparts; though the characters are recognizable, changes in age and clothing distinguish them from their original depictions. In Kingdom Hearts, they were made younger so they would be more relatable to Sora, and this carries through in the manga. Simultaneously, the artist’s creative flourishes in the Final Fantasy character designs contrast with the squeaky clean linework used to depict the Disney cast. Looking no different than they did fifteen (or fifty) years ago, there’s an air of legality about the Disney characters, as if the artist were mandated not to deviate from the original character sheets. The only exception can be found in a chapter in volume two, when Sora and his friends find themselves in a world based on the very first Mickey Mouse cartoon, “Steamboat Willie.” The characters are redrawn in the style of the 1928 cartoon: Sora looks like a Max Fleischer-style caricature, while Donald and Goofy take on their original character designs from the era in a spectacular homage to the cartoon that launched Walt Disney’s career. Elsewhere, the clashing artistic styles immediately differentiate between Eastern and Western art, illustrating that these characters come from different worlds in more ways than one.
This edition of Kingdom Hearts II is presented in an omnibus form, binding several individual trades into one hefty book. In terms of physical comfort, both volumes were almost too thick, even with my big hands. I appreciated the bigger books, but holding them for an extended period of time did become uncomfortable.
Kingdom Hearts II offers a thrilling tale of two colliding franchises. Narrative concerns aside, the pairing of Final Fantasy and Disney works better than expected, as characters comfortably fit their roles as adversaries and allies. Vivi and Yuffie may have nothing to do with Donald Duck or Mickey Mouse, but the core theme of Kingdom Hearts has always been the power of friendship, transcending any and all barriers.
Kingdom Hearts II, vol. 1
by Shiro Amano
Yen Press, 2013
Publisher Age Rating: Teen (13+)