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What's in a Song?

Kingdom Hearts Themes Explored

Game Themes Are Meaningful

Here in the star-spangled States, our businesspeople really like the word "synergy." I don't know why we need another word that means "cooperation," but either way, synergistic efforts between our video game companies and record labels have resulted in some pretty interesting uses of pre-existing music, though even without these partnerships game companies themselves have also come up with some truly epic original compositions. Rarely, however, do American produced games include music which, while written specifically for the game to which they belong, goes on to be sold by the artist, rather than simply included on the soundtrack.

This isn't the case in Japan. Sure, there are games solely featuring licensed music and games whose original soundtracks are so stunning as to not require licensing additional songs. Still, Japanese game companies have been negotiating deals with popular artists to have music written expressly for use in their games, but which still get radio play as singles, for some time, and Square Enix in particular has a long history of doing so.

It's somewhat common knowledge amongst fans that anime openings and endings are usually written specifically for the show in which they're to be included, but I don't think video game fans recognize that this is the case for some Japanese games as well. After all, if a big name artist shows up in an American game, chances are far more likely that the song was licensed, rather than written in collaboration with the development staff. As a result, we don't think of games' music as being as intrinsically interconnected with the content of those games in the same way we might for movie themes, for instance. In reality, I think there's room in video game fandom to analyze theme song lyrics when pondering developers' intentions.

That said, the English and Japanese lyrics to Kingdom Hearts' theme songs have some big discrepancies in meaning, so let's explore that.


Before going any further, I want to state that I am not a professional translator, nor am I fluent in Japanese. My opinions outlined below are just that — opinions. Moreover, those opinions are based on an understanding of the text which is limited by my Japanese ability. I by no means am asserting that my views are correct or that they adequately reflect the intentions of the developers. Rather, I am interpreting my understanding of these lyrics in conjunction with what I assume are the developers' intentions. Just because I'm using words like "analysis" doesn't mean I fancy myself an expert on the subject matter. If you want to quote this lengthy diatribe in a discussion of the game and its subject matter, please credit me and leave a link back to this page. If you disagree with everything I have written here or want to discuss my reasons for coming to various conclusions, please feel free to contact me on the Twitter. Just don't do so with the intention of yelling at me for not seeing things your way. (Whispering is fine. Speaking at normal volume is also good.)

Also, if you don't want to be spoiled on any of the integer series Kingdom Hearts games, don't read this article. The same can be said for minor plot details in Final Fantasies VII - X.

A Simple and Clean Light

Of the three games' theme songs, this first one is the most consistent across Japanese and English versions. If we look at the three songs as chapters in one overarching story, the first is written as a conversation between a pair of lovers, one who wants a show of commitment before society, and the other who simply wants to live one day at a time, appreciating their relationship for what it is in the moment. In the English version it is incredibly clear to the listener that this song is a dialogue, with the singer acknowledging the words and attitudes of a second party within the text of the lyrics. The Japanese version is less of a direct conversation, but it still acknowledges the anxieties and desires of both parties without necessarily using a dialogue to express these points.

In "Simple and Clean," the singer's partner "[smiles] at [her] and [says] / Don't get me wrong, I love you / But does that mean I have to meet your father?" to which she replies "I don't think life is quite that simple." However, instead of explicitly marking these lines as part of a dialogue, "Hikari" only gives hints that they are such using framing. Throughout the song, the speaker's lover is referred to as a "light," and just before their dialogue, the couplet "Quietly standing in the exit / Light shoots through the darkness" frames the following line as coming from the place of a "light" which "stands" in a doorway of some sort. The line that follows is "Nowadays, things like promises just cause us to worry, don't they?" The response, framed as the singer "want[ing] to give voice to [her] wish," is "I'll be sure to also introduce you to my family / I'm sure it'll go well," thereby implying that she wants her partner to commit to her within the framework of society by meeting her parents. These lines, in the Japanese and English, both show the attitudes of our two characters in respect to how their relationship should progress.

The idea of light "standing in the exit," sounds kind of clunky in English, but there's a bit more of a meaning in Japanese. The verb "deru" (出る) means both "to leave" and "to enter or appear," and it contains the same kanji that appears in the noun "deguchi" (出口), or "exit." In fact, exiting from a building — thereby entering a larger world — gives off the feeling of "going out of a dark place and into a light place" in Japanese. (This is the same reason the New Year's greeting in Japanese is literally "congratulations on opening," (明けましておめでとう) as entering into a new year is seen as walking out of darkness and into light.) In this context, "standing in the exit" sounds like, "We could go out into the light, but you're standing there and keeping us from moving forward." Since the singer refers to her partner as "light," as well, this doesn't sound super accusing, but it still makes a value judgement that what she wants is proper.

"Hikari" also establishes the precedent of talking about "unmei" (運命), or "fate/destiny." The singer, "alone, by [herself] … forget[s] fate and come[s] to life," and later "enter[s] the noisy street / And take[s] up the mask(s) of fate." The framing of wearing a mask to please something called "fate" while in public, while privately "forgetting" or ignoring it, poses the idea that fate may in fact be a force to be fought against. Perhaps there is something about "fate" which would make the relationship between the two characters difficult to maintain. This supposition is supported by the lyrics of the third theme song, where after stating that the singer "[doesn't] really care about things like 'fate,' but just this once … [has] to acknowledge its existence" right before asking her lover, "Am I really the one you want? Am I good enough? / I don't want to get your hopes up." Something about "fate" makes the singer think that she isn't the correct partner for her lover.

Either way, after the line indicating that the couple is wearing "the mask(s) of fate," we immediately find the lines "Let's stop reading into things so much, since it's pointless / Let's just eat delicious food / The future is still so far ahead / Even I can't understand what will happen." These lines could either belong to the singer's lover, who isn't interested in thinking too deeply about the future, or they could belong to the singer herself, who wants to at least have fun if she's not going to get the societal display of affection she desires. In "Simple and Clean," these lines are once again explicitly dialogue, and they're said by the singer's partner: "That's when you came to me and said / Wish I could prove I love you / But does that mean I have to walk on water? / When we are older you'll understand / It's enough when I say so / And maybe some things are that simple."

The largest departure in meaning between the two versions of the first theme song comes in the way the singer frames her ambivalence about the future of the relationship. In "Simple and Clean," she explicitly states that she isn't being clingy: "When you walk away / You don't hear me say / Please, oh baby, don't go." This is exactly the opposite impression of the one she gives in "Hikari," where she begs her lover to pay attention to her: "Turn off the television and look only at me." Still, in both versions, there is a sense that while the future is uncertain, the beauty of the present is enough to satisfy the singer. In "Hikari," the final chorus expresses this idea: "No matter how well things are going, I still struggle to have faith / Even at those times, you're always by my side / The light known as 'you' always finds me in the middle of the night." Meanwhile, nearly the entire chorus of "Simple and Clean" is used to express this sentiment: "Hold me / Whatever lies beyond this morning is a little later on / Regardless of warnings, the future doesn't scare me at all / Nothing's like before." Directly comparing these two, although the sentiment is the same, the framing is contradictory. "No matter how well things are going, I still struggle to have faith" are words that wouldn't make sense to for someone who isn't at all worried about the future. In all areas where the versions differ, the singer of "Simple and Clean" seems much more confident than the singer of "Hikari."

Sanctuary Found Within Passion

If the English and Japanese versions of the first theme song are very similar in meaning, the exact opposite can be said of the two versions of the second theme song. Both versions share the English phrase "I need more affection than you know," sung backwards so as to be unintelligible. Apart from this similarity, the lyrics are entirely divergent in meaning. In "Passion," the singer reflects on the end of her relationship with her lover, whimsically remembering the form she hoped their relationship would take. On the other hand, what few lyrics are contained in "Sanctuary" allude to the singer finding solace on "a new land" within herself and her lover, "where fears and lies melt away."

Since the English version is so much shorter in terms of non-repeated phrases, I'll summarize it in its entirety before talking about its Japanese counterpart. "Sanctuary" opens with its chorus, describing a metaphorical place born of the singer and her lover's hearts: "In you and I, there's a new land / Angels in flight / My sanctuary … / Where fears and lies melt away." So far, so pleasant. The following lines allude to the singer's feeling of incompleteness: "Music will tie / … what's left of me now." Combined with the bridge (exclusive to the English version), which contains more backwards lyrics ("So many ups and downs," and "I need true emotions") and the phrase "My heart's a battleground," this paints a picture of the singer's internal struggles and emotional insecurity. However, it seems that she takes inspiration from her lover and learns to accept her fragmented existence within the lyrics of the song's two very short verses: "I watch you fast asleep / All I fear means nothing / … / You show me how to see / That nothing is whole and nothing is broken."

Comparatively, the singer of "Passion" is desperately wishing for a future continuation to a past which has decisively ended. Instead of repeating the same lines, the chorus changes each time it is sung. The first and final choruses recall memories of a time spent in blissful ignorance, both opening with the lines "If I recall correctly, the distant / Far off future was shining all around us" While the first chorus speaks to the emotions of the singer and her lover at that time ("We were a little frightened [of the future]"), the final chorus admits their culpability in not facing reality ("We were always asleep"). These choruses bookend the two short verses, which when read together describe the dilemma facing the singer: "The window is dyed the color of nostalgia / … / I open [it] up to the place / Where the person I can never meet again resides." Those lines further bookend the middle chorus, which speaks of the singer's desire to spend her future with her lover, even if she knows it's no longer possible: "If I look straight ahead, can I see you again? / The future continues all around us / … / I want to watch eons pass by."

The largest departure between the versions lies in the fact that "Passion" has a section at the end which is wholly different in both melody and lyrical content. Whereas both "Sanctuary" and "Passion" largely speak metaphorically, the ending of "Passion" discusses an event in clear and practical language, as if the singer is writing a diary entry. She heard that an old flame of hers is going to become a parent soon, and becomes nostalgic for the kind of life she wishes she was living with her lover. Specifically, she wonders if she made the wrong choices in life, and whether or not a New Year's card came with a photo, presumably so she can compare it to the present version of the people depicted. This segment highlights the fact that "Passion" is largely a song about mourning a failed relationship, while "Sanctuary" is mostly positive in tone, focusing on the strength the singer has found within herself and her partner.

Don't Think Twice About Our Oath

Whether or not the singer and her lover broke up in the second theme song, by the third they have reunited and vow to remain together forever, even if their vow is one made privately, away from the rest of society. While not as similar to one another as the English and Japanese versions of the first theme, "Chikai" and "Don't Think Twice" resemble one another in far more respects than the two versions of the second theme. Both are ultimately celebratory songs of a love that's winning out in the end, but while "Chikai" spends approximately two lines worrying about the true feelings of the singer's partner, "Don't think Twice" makes these reservations a major focus of the chorus.

"Chikai" opens with the lines that I mentioned in the description of "Hikari," where "fate" is made out to be a powerful force within society that makes the singer question whether or not she is suited to be with her partner. Rather than call "fate" out as the culprit directly, "Don't Think Twice" instead regularly refers to other people within the "kingdom of thieves" where the singer has been living as responsible for her uncertainty up until this point. The singer specifically states that these people "say things they don't really mean," and later says that since she doesn't understand "what everyone else believes," she also should refrain from saying "things [she doesn't] really mean." The singer similarly claims in "Chikai" that she "can't go back to being a liar." All of these lines seem to tie back to the idea of taking off the "mask of fate" mentioned in "Hikari" as something necessary to wear around other people. Now that the two have decided, as is stated in "Chikai" that they "don't need pretty flowers or witnesses," perhaps the idea of society's expectations that her lover should meet her parents or that she should have the same kind of life as is detailed in her friends' New Year's cards has fallen away along with that "mask." The rejection of "fate" was necessary for the two to have their "perfect weather for an eternal oath" granted to them in "Chikai," where, as "Don't Think Twice" details, "Everything is just right."

My obsession with tying all three songs together aside, both "Chikai" and "Don't Think Twice" clearly describe the singer as deepening her relationship with her partner and promising them a lifelong commitment. "Chikai" expressly uses a lot of wedding imagery, stating that the two will be joined in an "eternal oath" which, while absent of "pretty flowers" or "witnesses," will involve wearing "rings matched in color." "Don't Think Twice" does not use terms specific to a wedding, but makes it clear that the singer's partner has asked them to enter in a deeper relationship than the two previously had ("You must be kidding me, did you really think / I could say no"). Similarly, the first line of the chorus explicitly states that the singer "want[s] [her lover] for a lifetime" and states that "If [her partner] want[s] to take it to an even higher level / All [they've] gotta do is say the word."

The tension found within the lyrics of the other two songs' Japanese versions is largely absent in "Chikai." The only hints that the singer or her partner might harbor any reservations at all occur within the first two couplets; the rest of the song is entirely positive in tone. Strangely, considering that the English versions have been more optimistic than the Japanese until this point, "Don't Think Twice" is far more halting. The chorus makes it plain that the singer unconditionally wants to be with her lover, but asks that if they have any doubts — in other words, "if [they're] gonna think twice" — she "[doesn't] want to know."

The arrangement of the instrumental version of the song, which is used in the game's opening, also implies an incredible amount of instability where the English lyrics would start the phrase "I don't want to know, baby," jarring the listener with what sounds like a diminished chord, which lends a tense atmosphere to a song which is already in a minor key. When I first booted up the game and was greeted with the instrumental arrangement, the moment that chord played I seriously worried about the fate of our heroes! In "Chikai," the phrases where this strange diminished chord plays are "It's the perfect weather for an eternal oath" (on the word "eternal"), "Let's wear rings matched in color" (on the word "matched"), "[My words to you] aren't a promise, but an oath" (on the word "promise"), and "Let's wear rings colored with tomorrows" (on the word "tomorrows"). If you're not a total music analysis nerd, you might wonder why I'm being so particular as to list which word is being said every time that diminished chord strikes. The short version is that historically, composers have used diminished intervals to portend doom in music with a narrative focus. Every one of the words upon which this chord plays deals with either the relationship's longevity ("eternal," and "tomorrows") or its cohesion ("matched," and "promise"). Despite the couple's best efforts and the positivity of the song's lyrics, this chord and the choice of words where it occurs is very unsettling.

Whether the singer is crying because, as in "Don't Think Twice," she "never dreamed / It'd take this long" or because "those sudden bursts of distant memories" bring her to tears like in "Chikai," both songs end with the singer asking her lover to kiss her, and in "Chikai" she makes explicit that she intends to stay by her partner's side "listen[ing] to the sound of the sunrise," vowing to one another to "keep living."

Face My Expectations

If you've read this far, you might be scratching your head, wondering why I set this article up by describing how we can use the lyrics of games' theme songs to analyze the developers' intent when they penned their games' scenarios, only to spend over two thousand words doing virtually no game analysis. I've outlined my interpretations of the themes as a cohesive story, sure, but everything I've said so far relates to a love story, which Kingdom Hearts is most assuredly not. Sure, it opens with the protagonist wanting to give a girl a mystical fruit which will intwine their destinies for all eternity, and sure, his best friend spends the entire first game claiming that it is he, not the protagonist, who deserves to be by the girl's side. However, this plot point is all but missing from Kingdom Hearts II, and while they try to shoehorn some romantic moments into Kingdom Hearts III, they miss the emotional mark by a mile. Sora and Kairi's relationship is nodded to in a few FMV sequences but realistically is given no on-screen development worth mentioning. I wonder, though, if that was always planned to be the case.

Before Kingdom Hearts III's launch earlier this year, Utada Hikaru jokingly threatened to leak the full versions of "Chikai" and "Don't Think Twice" to the public, should delays on the game's release continue much longer. At the time of her joke, it's impossible to know how long she'd been waiting to release these songs. Certainly, we can't be sure of when she wrote them. Maybe they were written back when the game was meant to be an early PS3 release. Perhaps they were written even before that. It's possible that all three games' theme songs were at least partly finished way back when the series was first being conceptualized.

That might sound like a stretch, but it might also explain why the songs, expressly written for these games, don't have a lot to do with the content of their respective stories. After all, compared to the profound sense of loss in "Passion," the lyrics of "Sanctuary" do actually fit the story of Kingdom Hearts II if you look at it the right way. Roxas and the other Nobodies are literally fragments of people who no longer exist. They are born without hearts, and with no memories of the people they were before becoming Nobodies. Roxas finds solace in the fact that he can become a part of Sora, especially after learning from Naminé that he won't disappear in doing so. In fact, "nothing is whole, and nothing is broken." If the lyrics for "Passion" were completed when Kingdom Hearts II was still in planning stages, it stands to reason that its lyrics might reflect an earlier, unused version of the game's plot. If, on the other hand, "Sanctuary" was finished later, after the game was more fully fleshed out, it makes sense for its lyrics to more accurately reflect the scenario of the finished game.

I find this especially likely due to the way the theme for Kingdom Hearts III was handled. Although "Chikai"/"Don't Think Twice" was announced as the theme song, players won't hear it until they reach the game's ending credits. Whereas the other two theme songs play early in their respective games, Kingdom Hearts III instead has a second theme for its opening cinematic: "Face My Fears." Although the deeply romantic lyrics and worrying chord structure of "Chikai" and "Don't Think Twice" have little to do with the plot of Kingdom Hearts III, the lyrics of "Face My Fears" are far more relevant: "Hey, how wide / … should I smile / Instead of showing what I really want to communicate now? / … / I want to stand / On a road that's not marked on my map / … / When we're born / None of us are cowards / I want to move forward like it's my first time walking / … / I'm not far / From the ocean that's not marked on my map / … / I want to hurry up and meet / The version of myself that I still don't know yet."

For Sora, who's come so far with the help of so many, to face a situation where he has to depend on only his own strength is something that extinguishes his courage for a moment. After working so hard for such a long time to meet back up with his friends, only to have to go on a solo journey from which he may never return, leaving them behind once more has got to be difficult. Still, he faces that journey to yet unseen destinations, smiling into the unknown. After all, "Space, this is what [he] choose[s]," right? Even if the "taste" is "bittersweet," Although fans may have to wait years to find out the resolution of the choices made in Kingdom Hearts III, Sora's friends probably won't — it "Won't be long … / [he's] almost here." For us at home, however, it's time once again to "Watch [us] cry all [our] tears."

Historical Precedent, Romantic Fallout

In the games industry generally, and for Square Enix in particular, it isn't unusual for games' plots to change wildly in development. Final Fantasy VII was originally supposed to be a New York City based detective story, for instance. Plot points from the early development drafts of FFVII went on to see the light of day in Chrono Trigger and Parasite Eve. Final Fantasy XV was originally meant to be part of the Final Fantasy XIII universe. Every time a new Square Enix game is created, elements from previous games are incorporated and details scrapped from older titles work their way into new ones.

One of the plot points that comes up frequently in Square Enix games leading up to Kingdom Hearts' release is romance. Cloud had a whole slew of eligible young women (and one man!) to woo on carnival rides. Squall and Rinoa found love despite their personalities seemingly clashing in every possible way. Zidane and Dagger got fake(?) married as early as Disc 1. Tidus broke Yuna's heart by not being real.

Actually, all those games have something in common besides a focus on romance. Tetsuya Nomura worked on all of them in some capacity, with story input going back even further — at least as long ago as FFVI. In the years directly preceding Kingdom Hearts' development, Square Enix commonly changed plot points as development proceeded, and was resolutely dedicated to the idea of including romance as a main story element. It makes total sense that a director who came up in the company during this time would use the same methodology when directing his own game series. In fact, considering that Kingdom Hearts was almost certainly not meant to be a series whose plot is scattered across myriad installments of non-numbered side games, it's inevitable that its original scenario would need to grow and change over the years. In that respect, we haven't really learned anything new here.

Still, if we're to believe that romance was supposed to feature more heavily in this series, it at least gives Kairi an excuse for doing almost nothing over the course of all these games. She was supposed to be important, but when the direction changed she got left behind. At least in the land of the lyrics, we can pretend that she found a beautiful romantic partnership, only for it to be threatened by some looming evil represented by diminished chords booming in the distance.