Though Kingdom Hearts one of my favorite franchises ever, I have always been bothered by the representations of race in the game. This has always been questionable territory for the game, and can be tricky to argue for or against because the races of the characters are generally intentionally ambiguous. This is due to the fact that the main trio travel across worlds and visit nondescript original locations (alongside the more familiar Disney worlds) and their home is an equally nondescript island paradise in the middle of nowhere. Though it seems to be a common opinion that Sora, Riku, and Kairi are of Japanese descent due to the production company being Japanese, there is no concrete answer to this question, Regardless, it is obvious that the majority of the characters in the game are depicted as light skinned.
In Kingdom Hearts 2, however, it becomes more apparent that there is a specific usage of dark-skinned characters to depict evil, or the ability to be corrupted and ultimately become evil. Though the main argument for this aesthetic choice is that they represent humanoid embodiments of darkness—a key concept in the game—the implications of this choice are still inherently problematic in suggesting that people with dark skin are also more likely to be devoid of compassion, sanity, or complex emotions. One example that stands out to me from the beginning of the game is the early representation of DiZ, a mysterious character who appears for the first time as a manipulative bad-guy. Since I’ve played through the whole game before, I know that he is actually on the side of the heroes, but what interests me about this reveal is the way his character is portrayed when he is assumed to be evil, and how he is portrayed when he discloses his true persona.
As you can see from above, DiZ is originally shown as a character who is mostly concealed, but the little visible skin is notably dark. However, when he takes off his disguise and becomes “Ansem the Wise”, this persona is dropped, perhaps indirectly (and very problematically) suggesting that a black character can be neither wise nor good.
Another prickly example is the appearance shift of the character Riku. As the anti-hero protagonist, Riku has perhaps the most complex character arc across the course of the games, but the most drastic shift of his characterization is in Kingdom Hearts 2, where he gives up his physical form to the darkness in order to become stronger and save his friends. This is what happens:
There are hints dropped every so often in the beginning of the game, but the big reveal of his new form is not until much later, and the power of friendship manages to revert him to his original appearance (and give him not one, but TWO vests). However, it is safe to say that this shift is questionable at best. In the first game, it was already clear that he was the most susceptible to negative emotions, so the change in his appearance seems unnecessary and doesn’t do much but reinforce the idea that dark-skinned bodies are inherently villainous, and light-skinned ones are in some way more pure or more worthy of redemption.
Though these are thoughts I’ve had for quite some time, Anna Everett’s Power of Play article reinforced my thoughts, particularly when she said: “these games draw heavily from racist discourses already circulating in popular and mainstream culture and arguably intensify these messages and lessons of racial difference through the power and allure of interactive gameplay” (142). Though she was technically talking about a different kind of game entirely (the urban street game vs. a JRPG), I think the statement is still very much applicable to Kingdom Hearts. It is not an uncommon trope for dark bodies to be demonized in media, and seems particularly potent in a game aimed at younger audiences. Though the game is pretty dated, it’s unfortunately very unlikely that this is a problem that will be fixed in the long awaited Kingdom Hearts 3.
Anna Everett and S. Craig Watkins, “The Power of Play: The Portrayal and Performance of Race in Video Games” from The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Media and Learning (2007), pp. 141–164