When I was a teenager, to celebrate the release of Kingdom Hearts II, my friends and I decided to do a Kingdom Hearts I cosplay group. Our thinking at the time was that everyone would be making costumes of the new designs, so we’d stand out a little. My friend who somehow managed to always smile while around her friends cosplayed Sora, my friend who was incredibly competent and very competitive cosplayed Riku, and I, the wallflower who was just really psyched to hang out with my best friends and be a part of the action, cosplayed Kairi.
At conventions, everyone would excitedly ask for pictures of my besties, and I’d mostly hold the camera. I didn’t mind at all, but my friends became increasingly concerned. “You need to get in here and hustle to have your photo taken, too! You’re a part of our group. We want you to feel included!” I was happy just to be there, but maybe I should have put a little more effort in to make myself an integral part of the experience.
I bring all this up because Kingdom Hearts III should have been Kairi’s chance to take some initiative. She’s finally getting trained up on her Keyblade. She has a whole little dialogue about how she “want[s] to get out there and do [her] part to help” so that she won’t be "waiting for [Sora] to come back from [his] adventures.” She and Axel have been hanging out in the hyperbolic time chamber forest with Merlin taking god knows how long training themselves up to become powerful Keyblade wielders.
And yet, my girl gets no action yet again.
Kairi, I know that you don’t have to be the center of attention to have a good time. Sometimes just being with your friends makes a journey worthwhile, even if you don’t do much more than be present in the moment. But when the fate of the worlds is at stake and you’ve been working hard to be useful in battle, sometimes you’ve got to take initiative! This was supposed to be your moment to shine! Seize your moment!
From a narrative perspective, Kairi could probably be completely written out of the entire story and it would survive just fine. Give all her baggage to Riku. Make him a Prince of Heart who is nonetheless seduced over to Darkness. In the first game, Sora looks for his missing friend only to find that he’s fighting on the other side! He’s planning to willingly sacrifice the light within him at Ansem’s command. Make Naminé the manifestation of Riku’s light rather than Kairi’s nobody, and we can cut down on how much work needs to happen (and how many characters get created) in the story when Sora unlocks his own heart.
Kairi effectively does nothing but exist as a prop to motivate Sora throughout the rest of the games. This narrative function could just as easily be given to Riku, who, in addition to having close ties to Sora, is an actual character who has agency and does things. Heck, the scenes in which Sora is reunited with Kairi and Riku in Kingdom Hearts 2 already position Sora’s emotional reaction to Riku as vastly more poignant than his feelings when meeting back up with Kairi. A generous interpretation of this would be that Sora had more to worry about with Riku, since the last time he saw him, he was heading off into a great black abyss, but even so it really makes Kairi’s connection to Sora feel far less-than.
It seems to me that Kairi’s entire existence can be summed up in the slang phrase “no homo.” There needed to be a girl for Sora to want to save. The whole game started because he wanted to share in a superstitious tradition with her in order to ensure they’d be together forever. Really, this role couldn’t fall to Riku (even if they were heavy-handedly declared to be “just friends”) back in 2002, when Japanese media still mostly saw gay people as comedic villains and American media didn’t see them at all.
If the games were made today, though, who knows? I’m not a shipper in general, (much less of young teenagers), but the “Soriku” fandom has been strong since the first game shipped, as proved by the photo requests given to my cosplay buddies. (Another reason why this Kairi cosplayer often bowed out of photos was that she got in the way of the fans’ desires to photograph their favorite pairing.)
Ultimately, I don’t actually want the solution to weak female characters to be “remove all girls from the story before starting the game design process.” It’d be much better if there were girls who did a similar amount of interesting stuff as the guys. I’ll acknowledge that the girls don’t have a monopoly on characters whose plots don’t go anywhere. Most of the Organization members are one-note affairs. Still, in a game with about a dozen Keyblade wielders, only three were female.
Throughout all of the games, only one female Keyblade master was ever playable. Meanwhile, the dude team of playable Keyblade wielders includes Sora, Riku, Roxas, and even Mickey for a hot second near the end of KH2. The 3:1 ratio of girls to boys isn’t necessarily an issue, but if you’re going to lean so hard in one direction on the gender spectrum, at least give those in the minority something to do. I want to remember my time playing Aqua as fondly as I remember my time playing Roxas or Riku. I want battles against Larxene to stand out and be memorable. (I’ve also cosplayed Larxene! How could I pass up antenna-hair Elena of the Turks?)
Outside of battle and apart from Kairi, the game gives us two Kingdom Hearts exclusive female non-player characters, not counting those from existing games and movies. There’s Naminé, who ties together a lot of loose plot threads, and Olette, who fulfills this game’s quota of “one female friend per three person friend group” alongside Heyner and Pence. Both act as mirrors of Kairi to a certain degree — one as her Nobody, who takes Kairi’s place in Sora’s memories for a brief period, and the other as the organized friend who keeps everyone on task in the beginning of the KH2, similar to Kairi’s role at the beginning of the first game.
(I actually really like Naminé. Even if she doesn’t contribute to the gameplay, she’s well-fleshed out and acts of her own accord to help Sora regain the memories she’s been forced to steal from him. She appears in several games throughout the series and probably has significantly more screen time than Kairi, all things considered. It’s a bit frustrating that one of the supposedly main characters is outshined so severely by her own Nobody!)
“Sora’s story” is supposedly over. Is Kairi’s? It would be nice to think that we might launch into a story of Kairi running off to find Sora, making her way through countless worlds inspired by Square Enix properties, alongside newly public domain’ed Micky Mouse in 2024. I suppose only time will tell. Considering we just got a Final Fantasy game with exactly zero heroines amongst its cast, I don’t feel too hopeful, though.