Before we dive into this week’s particular depth of our beloved nerdery, I’d like to point you toward my now-regularly updated website. If you want to know more about what I do (aside from standing atop my beloved soapbox here) stop by there, check out some comics for free and keep up with the ol’ blog. Incidentally, my last update was about you Vicers and how much I’m digging it here at Anime Vice.
Alright, enough shameless self-promotion. Let’s get to the good stuff, shall we?
If my first article was about rediscovering my love of anime, and my second was about where that love originated from, it’s only fair that we visit that bleak, dark time when anime was blacklisted in my pop culture rolodex...
Though I was avoiding anime and manga, my embargo of Eastern entertainment was far from complete. Video games did, and still do, factor prominently into my recreational pursuits, and I didn’t lump Japanese games into my self-imposed ban of imported activities. So when my girlfriend at the time found a game at Best Buy that just happened to guest-star Jack Skellington (a favorite of hers) I pulled out my wallet without thinking much about it.
Little did I know that a single purchase would not only mark the start of a new obsession, but begin to reopen my heart to the wide world of anime....
Disney. FINAL FANTASY. Keyblades. Heartless. Gummi Ships. Awesome action-adventure gameplay. MICKEY MOUSE BEING A BAD ASS. What. The. HELL am I playing?! To this day I’m still not entirely sure. That’s largely because the story turned out to be so damned incoherent that it seemed like a “Choose Your Own Adventure” written by three or four friends while stoned, watching the Disney Channel, and doing speed runs through whatever FINAL FANTASY games they could get their hands on.
The plot was rife with a fly-by-the-seat-of-your pants attitude that betrayed then-first time director Tetsuya Nomura’s lack of comfort in the director’s chair. Even if his character designs were top notch and full of all the unnecessary zippers you could shake a keyblade at, the story was a hot, crazy, mess.
Anybody who hangs out with me knows how lazy, incomplete, and/or bad storytelling drives me insane. Not in a “roll my eyes and laugh” sort of way, but more of an “I can taste bile and have to murder someone” feeling. I’m incapable of not pointing it out. A few months ago I spent two-hours in a movie theater frothing at the mouth over PROMETHEUS and its awful storytelling. My wife, who is much more forgiving than I, hesitates over what movies to choose for us because of this. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve ruined movies that she once liked before watching them with me.
By all rights, KINGDOM HEARTS, and its sequels, should have led me to put the disc into the microwave just to watch it bubble. It should have solidified my disdain for Japanese entertainment for all time. But it didn’t.
Quite the opposite, actually. I sang about it to anybody who would listen.
What KINGDOM HEARTS possesses is the rare quality of storytelling that writers in any medium always chase after. It’s impossible to qualify precisely, and few creative folks are able to capture it every time (or even some of the time), but when they do, it tends to excuse most any other shortcomings. It’s a special connection to the person reading/watching/playing along. KINGDOM HEARTS has this most sought-after trait in spades....
It has genuine heart. I guess it was aptly named.
So when I dove into that bizarre mess of a story I didn’t care one bit about the lack of sense - -something that would only increase exponentially as the series continued. I, like so many others, found myself blissfully locked in for countless hours, searching for dalmatians, mastering keyblade skills, and leveling up so I could face down Sephiroth at the Coliseum. I hung on every ridiculous cut scene, bought the soundtrack, clung to every rumor about the next game in the series.
And as I became more and more obsessed, I started to wonder why.
Like FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST would do a year or two later (albeit with a much more sensible story), KINGDOM HEARTS hooked me into a world full of heart. It was an adventure with such earnest heroes and over-the-top villains that the quotient of ridiculousness shot past the point of acceptability and boomeranged back toward the zone of the extraordinary.
A big part of this was the effective use of Disney characters and worlds, with all their pre-existing endearments. However, the real kudos goes to Square Enix, who have always excelled at this sort of thing. The combination proved too strong for my critical powers, overwhelmed my curmudgeon circuits, and put a big, dumb smile on my face. I don’t care if the story doesn’t stand up under close scrutiny, or that I don't always understand all the stuff with "heartless" and "nobodies" and whatever else Tetsuya Nomura and company made up after another night of binge drinking. It just made me happy. (Maybe Nomura wasn’t so uncomfortable in that director’s chair after all).
Hence my first nerdy tattoo, acquired shortly after I beat the first game all those years ago. When I got it, it was a reminder of the sense of wonder KINGDOM HEARTS conveyed so expertly. Nowadays, as I work in writing my own stories, it’s a hint to not always take myself so seriously, so long as my story has heart.
If FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST tipped the balance for me and shoved me back into the world of anime, KINGDOM HEARTS set the scales up in the first place. It helped me to start accepting things for emotional impact first and everything else second. And despite the introduction of more unlikely and unpredictable twists than LOST (another favorite of mine), the series is still something I look forward to playing with each new installment. They’re fun, engrossing, ridiculous, and absolutely lovely. I’ve put 99+ hours into many of them and every minute has been a joy.
Ah, KINGDOM HEARTS, you bastion of insanity. How I love you.
What about you guys? Played ‘em? Love ‘em? Hate ‘em? Let’s keep it going in the comments.
Next week: Everything Old Is New Again or The Art of the Remake (Part 1).
Nick Tapalansky is an author of comics and other things, some of them nominated for awards and stuff. Read some comics for free at http://www.NickTapalansky.com/blog and find him on Twitter as @NickTapalansky.