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So, last night, although I read an incomplete series translation (fine by me, only because I feel like the latter half of the third act of KH2 in-game is kind of...weak), I read through the KH2 manga. By read through, I of course mean plowed through over the course of one night, because that's how I roll. And for the most part, I liked it, but at the same time, I'm glad I own physical copies of just the first two volumes, as I felt they were the strongest overall. Then again, for the vast majority of this manga, I read it in chapters and not necessarily volumes--so, it's hard telling. When the writer adds embellishments to the canon plot that focus on further development of certain characters, it's quite strong. Other times, there are additions that seem just plain silly. Then, with other times, it feels like there are dramatic tonal shifts that affect the overall quality--I think one would see this most apparent in the Disney world panels, there's just such a clash of light-hearted and kind of fucked-up that was almost uncomfortable. Overall, though, I'd say the additions are for the better than for the worse...for the most part.

Before I go any further with this review, I feel like I should add some context. The first couple of volumes of the KH2 manga were probably two of the last things that TokyoPop ever published before they folded in 2009, leaving the series incomplete. Then, another publisher, YenPress picked it up for continuation. As of, like, two months ago, apparently, they just wrapped things up (at least English version)--see, KH2 is a complex game, so it only makes sense that it would take this long...kind of. Not surprising, the Japanese versions came out before the English ones did, so people online took the liberty and did some translating themselves. So, with that said, it is interesting to see how often curse words show up, which makes me wonder if that's on the end of the translators or the publishers.

Considering that in the online translated Chain of Memories only, Sora tells Marluxia he'll kick his ass, I'm going to have to go with the former on that one.

I'll get the negative out of the way: there are some weirder or darker moments involving Disney characters. I bring this up, because you can tell that between the initial drafting of the previous KH mangas--Chain of Memories and KH1--and the publishing of them, there was a lot of dialogue sanitation, I guess. I doubt Disney plays much of a role in the manga volumes getting published, but it's clear that these mangas are geared more toward 12 and up rather than the largely teenage and young adult fanbase Kingdom Hearts tends to have. KH2 manga kind of caters more toward the older audiences....while at the same time trying to maintain the younger audience. This is a detriment here.

I'll give some examples. In the KH2 game, Sora figures out that Mulan is a woman disguised as a man, because he overhears her talking to Mushu while in uniform. In the manga, he finds out because he catches her swimming....Yeaaah, why was that necessary?

Example number two: Pete is plotting with Hades in the Underworld, trying to figure out the best way to weaken Hercules to turn him into a Heartless. As with the game, Hades brings up Auron from the pit of the dead to do battle with Hercules. One of the first things that happens upon his revival is that, when Pete says something stupid, he gets at him so hard that his clothes go away and he's just left in his underwear. And he's just standing in his underwear for at least six more chapters after that. Kind of uncomfortable. I know it was meant to be funny, but it was just weird to me, especially since it never happened in-game. And it's one thing to see that in a cartoon, but usually in the next shot, the character gets their fucking clothes back at least. Awkward!

And example number three isn't really an example but just something I noticed throughout: the characters curse quite a bit. Now, that's not to say I inherently object to fictional characters cursing in stories--we do it ourselves, either out of habit or frustration/anger--so it would be stupid to expect them to sound angelically perfect all the time. That's not what a good character is, usually. But, back when I did the vast majority of my fic writing, I often operated under this rule--if it doesn't make sense for certain characters from a certain world to curse, don't have them curse. I didn't have a problem here with the more Final Fantasy-like characters cursing--especially Cid, naturally--but more so the Disney characters. Obviously, this probably has more to do with the sanitation of official publication/translation being absent, but it's still awkward. Like reading Maleficent say "shit". Kind of cool but more out-of-place once you think about it--she's too eloquent for that sort of talk, she'd think it was beneath her.

And every Disney character here (with the exceptions of the purer ones such as Mickey, Minnie, etc.) pretty much takes their turn at saying "damn" or "damn it".  Even Donald casually refers to Goofy and Sora as "dumbasses" at one point. At first, I thought it was pretty funny, but as I read, I was starting to get annoyed by how often this was happening. Japan and China really like to curse, apparently--rumor has it that cursing is a thing even in their kids' cartoons.

And the other really negative thing I have to mention here is that there is some padding with certain chapters, and the pacing can be off sometimes. I don't think we necessarily need four chapters of them being in Olympus, yet here they are. There's a chapter dedicated to Maleficent interacting with the treasure hunters (Rikku, Paine, and Yuna) and another one dedicated to her interacting with Pete--both probably could have been omitted. Those are the ones that just really stuck out in my mind, although I'm sure there are others. Another one I'm thinking of is when Sora interacts with Hayner, Pence, and Olette one last time before he goes through the portal to the World That Never Was. These panels definitely feel like they go on forever and are just very tedious.

Oh, and Vexen--or, rather, Vexen's clones--return here. Again, an attempt at comedy gone south. Basically, Vexen clones collectively are Kenny from South Park. And one of them kills Xaldin. Look, I get Xaldin wasn't really a good person and didn't have much of a character arc, but for fuck's sake, he definitely deserved a better end than this! He at least dies more epicly in the game, I'll give him that much credit there.

OK, so that's finally all the criticisms out of the way. For the most part, I liked that this series focuses more on the more relevant Disney worlds (as in those more relevant to the plot, mostly ones that have Org. XIII members running around) and featuring more "behind-the-scenes" scenes that the game writers didn't bother to think of or include but maybe ought to have, especially with Axel's characterization and I'd say Kairi's characterization to some extent. Everyone actually gets a bit of character development, and even Sora's is slightly better here than in the actual game...which is, kind of sad, as the manga is by no means considered canon.

And it's so nice to have a prologue that isn't so stuffed with padding compared with the original game! It just goes to show the game developers, really, that you could develop this interesting story and not take as long with it to start things off. I guess it doesn't help that the games have this tendency to overexplain everything. Roxas also felt more like a character to me here than he did in the game's prologue in which he didn't start feeling this way (at least initially, in my opinion) until basically the third act of the prologue--yes, the in-game prologue is that freaking long. Before then, he seemed pretty bland and was slated to being the "emo" one of his friend group, always angsting out over something and not just existential either. 

DiZ manages to be even more unlikable than he is in the games. How impressive. And I never noticed this before, but I can definitely draw some parallels between him and Dumbledore, right down to their enjoyment of sweet treats. But, like Dumbledore, DiZ/Ansem the Wise seems to have control issues due to a traumatic life event (sister's death for Dumbledore and basically causing his realm to fall apart for Ansem) and is intent on manipulating everyone around him to meet his own ends. They at least have him cry in regret for this later in the manga, and that's fine and all...BUT, you still referred to Roxas as "it" earlier and locked Namine away in a broom closet. Go fuck yourself.

I also liked that more attention seems to be drawn more to Xigbar and Saix, and I'm pretty sure this manga came out BEFORE the spin-off games. Even in KH2, it was fairly obvious that these guys were going to be more plot-relevant and complex characters later on in the overall games' story. Particularly Saix, who interacts with each of the main trio at some point and has this history with Axel that points to them being enmeshed in each other's lives still--probably one of the greatest yet most tragic rivalries in the series. In the manga, I noticed that whenever he gets into his "moon rages", that's when he basically lets go of all inhibitions and gets to the metaphorical "heart" of what he implicitly means when he's more reserved. I can't, unfortunately, explain things better than that, but suffice it to say...he's always been one of the more emotional Nobodies than what he lets on. Which makes his apparent fate in 3D that much sadder, as he's reduced to little more than a puppet...I don't know if he'll even operate of his own volition when we get to KH3, but that's another discussion for another day. And Xigbar is Xigbar--casual slacker in appearance and mannerisms but seems to know more than the hero and perhaps more than the rest of the Organization. He's still evil, though, but I feel like he at least deserves a solid, surprising ending to his arc once KH3 happens.

To repeat what I mentioned earlier, Sora is a better character here than in the game, simply because he empathizes with the Nobodies somewhat, especially with Demyx and Axel. His interactions with them make him question if all the Organization XIII is pure evil or if all Nobodies in general are inherently bad when it's clear that they lack hearts and not by choice either. This is the Sora I had expected but didn't get in the game--he was kind of a douche, to be honest. Look, there's a reason why in half of my KH parodies I used to write, he was portrayed as someone who wanted to mindlessly kill Nobodies first and ask questions later. But, eh, not relevant here.

Axel's whole arc is, not surprisingly, THE BEST part of this manga for me. If Sora and his ongoing search for Riku and Kairi isn't considered the most emotional center of this whole thing (and let's be real, it is), Axel's arc plays just as much of a factor. As it is, it's definitely a close second to Sora's quest for his friends. Axel is essentially living proof that Roxas' non-existence matters, as much as DiZ keeps saying otherwise, even after Roxas is fused with Sora. And that Sora, as the gatekeeper between light and dark, has left his mark on the "darker" side as well. Axel is a completely changed person by near the end of KH2 compared to how he was in Chain of Memories. What's great about the manga is that the process Axel goes through in becoming a better person is more detailed than in the game. In the game, I almost feel like we don't get enough of the transition--we still see it but only in subtle ways, and he doesn't have a ton of scenes besides. Which I get, because at the end of the day, this is still a video game we're talking about here, not a book.

What I really, really liked is here, the reader pretty much gets what Axel and Kairi's dynamic is while he still has her captive. And it's pretty much what I always speculated it would be, if written out and explored more: Kairi initially wants to fight Axel and interrogate him for answers that he won't initially give concerning why he's even bothered to kidnap her in the first place...and once he does give her answers, she's more understanding and sympathetic toward him. And as they get to know each other a little bit and develop a somewhat uneasy truce/alliance, Axel changes his mind about wanting to use her as bait for Sora to get Roxas back. Because I think he understands that Sora means a lot to Kairi, almost as much if not more so than Roxas means to Axel. He develops a strong sense of empathy, in other words, just by interacting with her. I think he already had that with Roxas, but with Kairi and then Sora, it becomes more and more apparent that the light is having its impact on him. 

His whole arc, really, is emotional as FUCK! Because, whoosh, Saix sweeps in to kidnap Kairi himself and take her back to The World That Never Was to also use her as bait for Sora. Interestingly, both Axel's and Saix's goals are essentially the same, but obviously Axel's is more emotionally driven and Saix's is more of a chessmaster's motive--it only makes sense to capture the queen and hope the upstart chess opponent, so to speak, makes his move to counter it. And I don't like chess, but I digress. But, what I find even more emotional, is that Axel, out of regret and guilt for what he's put Kairi through, actually INFILTRATES ORG. HQ to try to break her out! Then, another emotional high point, Saix comes around and fights Axel in a moon rage. Knowing now what's been established with them having been such great friends once, nothing is more damning and almost Shakespearean tragic than when Saix manages to successfully impale Axel with his claymore.

Here's me at this point:

I mean, damn! This Disney/Square-Enix property probably wouldn't have the guts to portray something so violently tragic in the games, although I see KH3 being a game-changer as far as that's concerned. Yet, Axel is still not dead, but it is heavily implied that the wound he sustains is a mortal one...and at the hands of his ex-best friend. That right there gives me less and less hope for a full-on redemption arc for Saix/Isa, because even in-game, we see Axel has already been weakened before he fights the Dusks with Sora.

And his last thoughts of Roxas are written so beautifully and so precisely, even his dying moment is longer than it is in the game, when he speaks to Sora about him. Basically, just when I thought I was desensitized to this whole scene, considering I've played KH2 at least six or seven times at this point, Amano made it just new enough that it brought all the emotion of it back. So, yeah, I cried like a fucking baby again.

So, for the most part, this manga does an excellent job in not only making some of the game's story concepts easier to understand but also adding more depth to the characters. Even Demyx gets more screentime! In spite of the filler, I think the good in the series more than makes up for it. Especially with Axel's arc, just very, very strong work right there. 


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July 2017


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