Now here’s an interesting set of choices. In the KH1 manga, we saw an adaptation that largely copied the events of the original game with only the smallest injection of personality. I said I wasn’t much of a fan, because I couldn’t see any reason to pick it up over/alongside the original product unless you had a full-out genre preference. Now, in this second adaptation, we have personality so strong it arguably overwhelms the depiction of the original plot. There are definitely reasons to pick one version over or alongside the other, but are they reasons that favour the manga?
Here’s where the changes get unusual. Despite being an adaptation of one of the darkest games in the franchise, the CoM manga is a comedy product. Except when it’s not. I mean, a boy does die in the middle. And that seems like it should be our first point of discussion. Was it really a bright idea to surround all this death and misery with slapstick? It certainly can work – all it takes in the right kind of writing. But therein lies the problem: I don’t think the CoM manga has that kind of writing. Even more damning than that: I don’t find it very funny at all? In fact, as time has gone on, I’ve become more and more disinterested in the discussion of whether the CoM manga was tonally appropriate. These days I just look back at the whole experience, think of one or two of its worst jokes, and sigh.
There are some things that work well – so well in fact that I had high hopes going in to the first few chapters. Sora and Riku’s stories are intermixed, so you don’t have to wait until the first plot is over to get around to the second. I don’t think I’d have minded them doing that in the actual game (though some R/R scenes with spoilers, like the ones with the Riku Replica being mind wiped, would have to be moved), so I think it’s a pretty stellar decision and I’m surprised to learn that the CoM novelization doesn’t do the same thing! (I believe the Birth By Sleep novelization does mix the plots of the multiple playable characters, but the novels revert back to separate plots for KH3D).
Second, Riku’s story is kept relatively dark and straight to the original, which is… fine… but I feel they both needed some darkness, Sora’s Story for shock value and Riku’s for tone. Like I’ve said, a boy does die – slowly – half-way through the story, it would have been hard to make that a laugh riot.
Third: the first few chapters actually work! The adaptation only covers a single Disney world for Sora (good plan, given the repeats) before rocketing across the plot to deal with Castle Oblivion sections exclusively. The plot they covered was Agrabah, and features Sora and the gang confusing Jafar into thinking they’re genies. It’s an awful plan but funny in just how awful it is, and I’ll take it over the game’s train wreck of an Agrabah plot any day.
But then in steps the Organization.
It’s kind of hard to put into words. Chain of Memories the game leans so much of its plot on its mysteries, and on the puppet-master like traits of the Organization. Now imagine it was trying to do all that while the puppet-masters were all wet, floppy balloons. Literal, wet floppy balloons, being shaken around in front of the camera. These aren’t people, they’re cartoons. They’re 80s cartoons. The game took a plot about Sora’s fundamentalist belief in friendship-above-all and put it to the test in a situation that ends in murder, and the manga takes that plot and tries to squeeze it through the voice box of a Superfriends villain. They don’t act like human beings, and their value as cartoon characters is limited because the jokes aren’t funny to me. What’s really disappointing is that I know how well this could have worked because of later manga, where the jokes are funny, at least often enough to count. When they work, the manga versions works. But it almost never works for me in Chain of Memories.
Vexen is like a wailing squeeze toy, constantly contorted out of shape for comedy and whining every second he’s on the screen, as opposed to his fallen-from-grace-into-terror arc from the original. His entire personality is “mugging.” Larxene and Axel are… fine, actually, in fact they’re arguably underplayed from the original (and I say “underplayed” even though Larxene is outright reading Marquis de Sade earlier in the book – actual torture porn). And the lowest point of all: Marluxia. The joke with Marluxia is that he’s bishounen. He’s pretty. Laugh. Laugh harder, he is a man surrounded by flowers. He dies off-panel (a single panel) because he’s so busy being “hilariously” pretty that the manga gave up on making him a threat decided to give up on the actual plot entirely. Not only does it feel deflated, but if you haven’t picked up on my subtext, there are times where the manga doesn’t seem to be treating Marluxia as a serious villain just because he’s effete, and that just takes the whole thing from being not my taste to being outright distasteful. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe it’s all just me.
Riku’s Organization members are a little better-off. In fact, there are two Organization jokes I adore in this manga, and I’ll share them with you. The first is this casual shot of Axel and Larxene hanging out in the crystal ball room eating take-out noodles. Where on earth did those come from? It’s impacted the way I see dark dismal villain meetings in all media since, because I just picture them having lunch off-screen. That’s not just the mark of a good joke, that’s some good satire! The other is in Riku’s story and is along the same lines. I’ve already mentioned this joke, but here it is again. Remember when I was asking what the Org members were doing in the dark meeting room of doom standing around doing nothing? Well the manga depicts a chore clock on the wall, showing whose job it is to do mundane chores this week. It’s essentially the same joke but I laugh both times.
In the end, I think the thing that really sticks with me is the lingering damage. Treating the Organization members like Looney Tunes doesn’t just damage CoM, but it damages the manga series that follow (KH2 and Days). Those later series are written as though they’re supposed to be serious instead of failed comedies, but still depict the Org as bad comedy characters. For the sake of… internal consistency? Others seem to like this angle but it just doesn’t jive with me. And if the “comedy” manga can’t support these awful characters, the comedy characters buckle within second of contact with the serious manga runs. In a way, I still blame the CoM manga for damage to one of my favourite scenes in the excellent Days manga. That’s incredibly irresponsible of me as a critic, but I can’t help it. If I putting aside the neutrality for a pure personal look: this book is anathema to me.
And its weirdest addition is yet to come: an entirely new plot line that started in CoM and was stapled on to KH2 for no reason and has gone unmentioned for years. Indeed, the manga seems to have been trying to shove the goofy Org members into a corner (relying, instead, on an Org member who is supposed to be comic relief!) and it’s been to its benefit ever since.
But I still hate this first one.