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Like everyone here, I'm REALLY praying that Nomura revisits this idea of playable Kairi, and developing her relationships with Riku and Sora more... I know I'm probably in the minority here (and I get it: KHIII burnt people bad when it came to her), but I DO think Nomura's planning something with her. I don't think they would have made certain decisions in III (making her and Sora literally bound to each other now), and be including her in stuff more than ever before, if he wasn't. Granted, you could say they were doing that even before KHIII, and look how that turned out... but realistically, they kind of had to have Kairi be a bit bad in KHIII (like what KHI Sora, before being endgame KHI there, would have been. And I don't even think end-of-the-game-KHI-Sora could have handled the Keyblade War... And maybe having Kairi in some of Sora's KHI poses was to hint at her being like him there), but she can only get better now. And KHIII let her down so badly, that really the only way she can go is up.
So Sora's necklace was given to him by Riku, then?
I have a theory about why Nomura shafted Kairi the way he did.I'm certainly not gonna disparage anyone for having optimism, but that's what I thought before KH3. I thought, well no matter what they do it can't be worse than how Naruto handled Sakura throughout its long run. And then it was
Sure seems (again) like she has nowhere to go but up, but you gotta figure Nomura doesn't have the same plans as he did...*checks notes* 17 years ago. She has so much latent character potential to explore, increasingly more so with every game, but for god's sake she's not even in the secret ending or the DLC trailer.
I wonder if maybe Yuffie might’ve been intended to appear in one of the Disney worlds similar to Cloud originally. I could picture her in either Agrabah (as a thief) or perhaps Neverland. Neverland in KH1 always did feel abbreviated.
I have a theory about why Nomura shafted Kairi the way he did.
I think that Nomura noticed the fans were crying out for her to be more involved in the story, and he tried to go in that direction to please us, but at the end of the day, Nomura struggles to separate Kairi from this version he has of her in his head where she's just a damsel for Sora. I think perhaps Nomura originally did try to set Kairi up so she would have a deeper agency in KHIII, but as much as he wrote her in that mindset, when time came to actually have her do something, he buckled and retreated back to his fantasy of her being just a weak girl that needed to be saved. I can't get inside his head (who ever could?), so I can't be sure that was the mentality behind it, but honestly, I really can't fathom there being any other reason why they did what they did to her. It would have been the easiest thing in the world to just show her doing something of actual consequence besides passively using her princess powers to save Sora's heart. They could still even fix it in Re:MIND with just a few simple edits to a couple of endgame scenes to show her actually fighting back or even sacrificing herself to save Sora. He could have still had her die so that we could reach the same point at the ending. There was just so little in the way of having her do something that I can only imagine Nomura himself is resisting doing anything with her to protect his pristine image of her in his head.
I could be wrong on this--because again, who knows?--but I get the sense that Kairi was originally supposed to do more, as you're saying (and that's what all the buildup was for, why her in front of the mansion in the BbSFM secret ending exists, and maybe partly why assets for Radiant Garden existed in this game), but Nomura says in his foreword for Kingdom Hearts III that he rewrote the ending numerous times. And I think somewhere in there, Kairi's role changed and then it was too late to do damage control after they'd already built her up.
Why it changed, is anyone's guess. I suppose it could be because he sees her as a damsel, like you say... Or it could have been that he needed in his mind casualties in this War, a tragic romance, to be "shocking", or to try and be realistic (maybe he was even worrying Kairi would seem like a Mary-Sue if she was too good--if he has any concept of that kind of thing at all--but then dialed it back way too much the other way), or is now saving her character arc for the next saga: where a lot of people think she'll go through a guilty phase like Riku did after KHI, and it'll push her to finally develop (here's praying for that one). But it was something.
But it just kills me, because even if he didn't want Kairi to be the greatest thing in the world it didn't have to be this bad. I'm actually mostly okay with her fight scenes, because while people ignore some of her wins in this game (fighting alongside Lea against all those Heartless, destroying one Heartless in a cutscene, blocking Xion's attack and sending her flying, doing pretty good as a party member, etc.) she did have some. And it was probably a good balance of winnings and losses for a beginner. But if Nomura'd wanted to increase the wins a wee bit more, he could have even done that without going too crazy with it and it would have been fine. What really bothers me is the kidnapping and fridging. I'm never going to understand why Nomura just didn't have Kairi die in bringing Sora back: like, it cost her her life to do so or something. That would've gone over so much better, and would have made her end be a a heroic sacrifice (and more in line with Aerith and Luna, like he was probably trying to emulate) and made Sora doing the same for her all the more meaningful in the end. We didn't freaking need Sora to have man pain here. We really didn't. But here's hoping Re:Mind fixes some of these things. -sigh-
Edit: Back to the point about how I think things with Kairi might have gone differently, in one of the first endings Nomura wrote... Even though "Don't Think Twice" does have a melancholy tune to it, and Nomura is a troll... IDK. I still feels like that song is still way too happy for what we got with SoKai at the end? And it's made many theorize that originally we were supposed to get a happier ending with them.