Seekers Of Dorkness, An Introduction To Xehanort – Part I: Who Is Ansem?

by Noah Sharma

There has been as much time between the release of Kingdom Hearts II and Kingdom Hearts III than there was between my birth and the release of Kingdom Hearts I. That kind of delay in a sequel could easily tank even a serious game franchise, but Kingdom Hearts, the game that wondered “why has nobody ever had Mickey Mouse team up with Cloud Strife?”, isn’t just any franchise. Beloved for its Disney nostalgia; anime AF style; and its crazy plot filled with twists, betrayals, and dramatic turns way too intense for Donald and Goofy, Kingdom Hearts has become a phenomena and, supposedly, that story, the Dark Seeker Saga, is finally coming to an end.
For the last sixteen years and change we nerds have been following the story of Sora as he tries to protect the worlds of Disney and Final Fantasy from a host of weirdly adorable incarnations of evil and black coated hotties that all seem to come back to one man, Xehanort.
But who is Xehanort? How does everything manage to tie back to him? What plan could he possibly have that needs eight and a half full games, a mobile game, and a feature length animated movie to explain it all? And what does it mean to “get Norted?” Is it hipster lingo? Is it drugs!? ARE YOUR KIDS GETTING NORTED!?
Well fear not. Whether you’re just curious, want to pick up KHIII for the gameplay, or simply lost the plot about four spin-offs ago, I’m going to do my best to sort out the many, many Xehanorts of Kingdom Hearts for you.

Now before we jump right to the baddies in question, a bit of context:
Kingdom Hearts imagines a multiverse where hearts are not merely a biological organ but the seat of our personalities and wills, tiny shards of metaphysical light that make us who we are and, to some degree, align us with the will of the universe. Though hearts are composed of still Light, powerful, and often negative, emotions can let Darkness in and cause a heart to be corrupted. Pretty basic Sith/Jedi stuff… Almost all of the Kingdom Hearts story we have seen so far takes place in the Realm of Light, existing separate and adjacently to the Realm of Darkness.
The first Kingdom Hearts – back when it was merely a delightful crossover absurdity rather than a thesis subject in ridiculous JRPG tropes in its own right – began with the Heartless. These beings of pure Darkness are native to the Realm of Darkness and were alien to the realms of Kingdom Hearts, Disney, and Square prior to the events of Kingdom Hearts I. Players were introduced to this concept largely by the in game writings of the philosopher king, Ansem, which laid out the more technical elements of the Heartless over the course of the first entry in the series.

A Demon Tower Heartless chases Hayner, Pence, and Ollete in footage from Kingdom Hearts III
The Heartless consume hearts, growing in number until a world or its people are no more.

Ansem’s homeworld was one of the first to fall to the Heartless, scattering most of the Final Fantasy characters encountered in the first game to other worlds, and he remains a faceless, benevolent figure for the majority of the game, presumed lost to the Darkness he unwittingly unleashed.
But Kingdom Hearts loves it’s dramatic reveals and shiny new villains and SURPRISE! it turns out that Ansem was the real bad guy all along, having become obsessed with his research into Darkness!
Kingdom Hearts II would take this even further and reveal that SURPRISE! that wasn’t even really Ansem. The real Ansem, differentiated as Ansem the Wise, was a kindly ruler with a legitimate interest in defending his people against Darkness of the Heart. The one who wrote Ansem’s Report was his apprentice, a young man by the (exceedingly anime) name of Xehanort.
Xehanort had been discovered by Ansem the Wise and his retinue shortly after the events of the prequel game, Kingdom Hearts Birth By Sleep. The boy was amnesiac and near death, but quickly demonstrated a brilliant mind that led Ansem to make him chief among his apprentices. The sage would even go so far as to suggest that Xehanort’s talents were “superhuman”.
Xehanort's Portrait from Ansem the Wise's office in Kingdom Hearts II. Artist unspecified but suspected to be Tetsuta Nomura.
That’s a fancy Xehanort…

Fans refer to this character as Terra-Xehanort for reasons that will become clear before long.
Though, like many things in the series, the discovery that Xehanort was behind Ansem’s Report has the smell of an after-the-fact retcon about it and therefore has many small inconsistencies, the general goal laid out holds true. Xehanort, seeing Ansem the Wise’s dedication to understanding how Darkness affects a heart, led the rest of the sage’s apprentices in unethical experiments to discover what Darkness was and how to create and control the heart. These experiments not only allowed the Heartless into the Realm of Light, but produced an ever multiplying new variety of them, born first from a machine in Ansem’s castle and then from the hearts of those swallowed by those Heartless.
Through his research he determined that hearts are essentially part of the ‘lifecycle’ of Darkness and decided Darkness was effectively the proper state of existence. Xehanort also discovered that even worlds (here referring to a concept about half-way between planet and universe) have hearts and became obsessed with discovering the heart of all worlds, the titular Kingdom Hearts.
Hearts can be locked away or unlocked by the magical weapons known as Keyblades, which have the power to deal damage to even beings of pure Darkness and reunite hearts with Kingdom Hearts once they have collapsed. Once Mickey Mouse, king of Disney Town, discovered that Xehanort’s research had weakened the barriers between worlds and visited with Ansem the Wise, Xehanort added the Keyblade to his list of obsessions, though he did not yet realize why…
As a scientist, Xehanort’s end goal was a sort of Grand Unified Theory of Hearts, proving that Kingdom Hearts was a literal and metaphorical Door to Darkness, indicating that Light, hearts, and everything exists for the purpose of returning to Darkness. However, legend suggested that Kingdom Hearts was sealed away, only able to be unlocked by a special Keyblade crafted from seven hearts free from Darkness. Believing himself too frail to complete such a quest (for unknown reasons that have grown increasingly questionable as the series has revealed more and more about the general bad-assery of the pre-KHI era), Xehanort decided to cast off his body and investigate these mysteries as a disembodied heart.
About this time it is suggested that Xehanort may have regained his memories and might even be, briefly, better characterized as a different entity, but it’s all exceedingly unclear and we have more than enough Xehanorts already…
Regardless, we know that Xehanort used a Keyblade to untether his own heart from its body and that, without the protection of a body and under the influence of his own corrupted goals, Xehanort became a Heartless.
Though he had already been using the name for a time, it is at this point that fans cease to use the names Xehanort and Terra-Xehanort. The Heartless he produced would go on to be referred to by the name he gave himself in his starring turn, Ansem, the Seeker of Darkness. He’s gonna mention Darkness, alot
Concept art of Ansem in Kingdom Hearts I by series creator Tetsuya Nomura.
He may have destroyed countless worlds and tortured people until they gave into their darkest emotions, but, you gotta admit, not everyone could pull off that neckline…

In Kingdom Hearts I it is not clearly established that Ansem is, in fact, a Heartless. Though he becomes an untethered spirit, in need of bodies to possess, when he does return to a form that suits him it is an apparently human one. He does possess the Heartless Emblem on his chest, but it seems to be part of his (impressively low-necked) attire. Ansem’s initial appearance said little about exactly what he was outside of his Reports and generally relied on what felt right and cool rather than caring about communicating the exact details to players. For better or worse, this has changed as Square Enix has expanded Kingdom Hearts into a larger mythology.
Though it would appear once at an earlier point in the timeline, for the first eight years of the franchise, Ansem was synonymous with the mysterious entity called the Guardian. Despite visual similarity to the game’s first boss, the Darkside, the Guardian has never been stated to be a Heartless. Instead it is a mysterious beast that obeys Ansem and seemingly connects to his feet like a shadow. Plus it looks pretty rad. In all of his games, Ansem uses the Guardian as his primary fighting style, commanding it while observing, armed crossed. Despite being the most visually fit of the Kingdom Hearts villains he gives the impression of an authoritative summoner rather than the hands-on combat of his peers.
Some fans speculated for years that the Guardian might actually be the real Heartless and the ‘Ansem’ body is merely a facade that it adopts. However, both the verbal relationship between the two and a lone appearance by the Guardian at an earlier point in the timeline seem to discredit this. Interestingly, the Guardian has only appeared in situations where Xehanort has first possessed someone.
Ansem and his Guardian commanding the Heartless and looking good doing it.

One other curiosity about Ansem’s appearance is his skin tone. While many characters in Kingdom Hearts appear with variation in their appearance between games or in official artwork, Ansem is uniquely dark skinned in nearly every appearance. There is perhaps something to be said about the choice to make the villain one of the only dark skinned characters in a game, but it becomes particularly strange when you notice that every other incarnation of Xehanort, including Ansem’s own separated body and the Xehanort form that seems to share a continuous consciousness with him, all have a much lighter, sandy complexion.
Ansem the Wise theorized that Ansem’s ability to retain his sense of self as a Heartless might have to do with the nontraditional method by which he became one and the other oddities of Xehanort provide additional possibilities. Regardless the reason, Ansem is the version of Xehanort that most closely resembles Terra-Xehanort and it is through him that we know much of Ansem’s motivations, especially since there was no distinction between them when the first game came out. When Ansem was recast in Kingdom Hearts II, he shared the same voice as Xehanort, something no other version of the character could claim.
Though retcons, such as the introduction of amnesia or the implication that Xehanort may have regained his memories shortly before becoming a Heartless, have muddied the waters, Ansem seemed to play his role in the grand Xehanort plan diligently, but with a side passion for the research he was conducting before his fall. Later games refer to him pursuing other goals for the greater scheme, but, as these were almost certainly not part of the story at the time, his actual appearances always made proving the primacy of Darkness his overwhelming interest.
After eschewing the use of his body, Ansem orchestrated a Heartless invasion from the shadows, manipulating and plotting contingency plans for nine years. He took an interest in Sora, the protagonist of Kingdom Hearts, and his friend Riku, possibly based on now returned memories of their shared home, the slightly on the nose Destiny Islands. When Riku was denied the position of Keyblade bearer and the role of hero to his friend Kairi due to the Darkness in his heart, Ansem swooped in and convinced him to double down, giving him access to the immense Darkness that he could offer, for the unmentioned price of control over Riku’s body.
An Ansem possessed Riku attacks Sora at Hollow Bastion in Kingdom Hearts I
First the lo/no neck, now that hula skirt? This man is a master of fashion!

Using Riku, he completed the Keyblade of People’s Hearts and opened the way to Kingdom Hearts, only to be held back from victory by Riku’s heart long enough for Sora to rally and confront him. Amidst the destroyed remains of the Destiny Islands, Ansem and Sora fought, with Ansem finally having separated enough from Riku to obtain his own body.
With the help of his friends, Donald Duck and Goofy, Sora defeated Ansem and they tumbled further into the darkness that had overtaken much of the Realm of Light. There the weakened Ansem got his wish, opening the Door to Darkness to finally observe Kingdom Hearts. Unfortunately for him this is a Disney game, and existential nihilism doesn’t really fly. Though he was correct in deducing that Kingdom Hearts connected the Realms of Light and Darkness, Kingdom Hearts is revealed to be the light at the heart of everything that never goes out and his Darkness was extinguished in the flood of pure Light.

In fact, a remnant of Ansem’s Darkness survived in Riku’s Heart, still connected to him after Ansem used him to build a new body for himself. (Note: it is never explained how Ansem did this, what role Riku’s body played in the process, or why Riku still had a body afterwards. Forget it, Jake. It’s Kingdom Hearts.) In the often overlooked action card-battler Kingdom Hearts Chain of Memories, Riku escaped from the Realm of Darkness where Ansem left him, and struggled through a parallel story to Sora’s as he attempted to come to terms with the moral compromises he made during Kingdom Hearts I.
Ansem appeared numerous times to try to bait Riku back into accepting the Darkness. In the original Game Boy Advance version of the game Riku defeated the Nobody Lexaeus (we’ll explain those shortly), only for the stalwart giant to attempt a suicide ploy to protect his allies. The resulting explosion of Darkness pulled Riku back into the Dark, where Ansem waited, but something was off. Ansem’s words implied that he had not spoken to Riku since Kingdom Hearts I. Riku escaped with King Mickey’s help and continued on.
In the PS2 remake of the game included with the enhanced Final Mix edition of Kingdom Hearts II, known as Re:Chain of Memories, this scene was one of two that was drastically changed. Here Riku lets his guard down and is soundly beaten by Lexaeus. However, the Nobody realizes he is in over his head when Ansem awakens and takes control of Riku’s body to murder Lexaeus effortlessly. Riku’s fall and return from within his own Darkness plays out the same from there, but while it raises some logical questions, it immediately establishes both the severity of Riku’s plight and that Ansem has no intention of being lost to Power Creep.
Ansem murders Lexaeus in Kingdom Hearts Re:Chain of Memories
Awww, he did that sweet anime slice and everything!

Eventually Riku learns to stop cutting things out of his life – first his boring Light-filled life and then the Darkness he traded it for – and begins to utilize both Light and Darkness in a way never before attempted. This however seems to empower Ansem, who takes partial control of Riku’s body to prove his point but doesn’t yet appear.
When an Ansem shows up in the flesh again, talking as if picking up from his appearances pre-Lexaeus, Riku has his full attention back and realizes that this isn’t the real deal. SURPRISE! It’s the mysterious new Kingdom Hearts II character DiZ in disguise! (DiZguise? No, stop it!) The real Ansem was the one in Riku’s heart who only began to regain his power when Riku stopped resisting and allowed Darkness back into his heart to feed him (except in Re:Chain of Memories because that scene of him killing Lexaeus was super cool).
One year later Kingdom Hearts II would reveal that DiZ (the strange golden-eyed manipulator who SURPRISE! wasn’t Ansem) was merely an alias adopted by (SURPRISE!) Ansem the Wise after he was betrayed by Xehanort (the guy who SURPRISE! was Ansem in the first game but was later revealed to SURPRISE! not be Ansem the Wise at all). I love this series, but it is exhausting sometimes.
Given the choice between locking Ansem away at the cost of his memories and having to face down the man who almost single-handedly destroyed the multiverse alone, Riku decided to face Darkness head on because he’s the biggest badass in this series but is still a 15 year old whose snappy one-liners are about how his enemies smell.
Riku defeats Ansem and, though the Heartless Big Bad gives a perfunctory promise that he’ll return, he never truly does. Instead Riku goes on to own his Darkness and his Light, ever vigilant, some might say paranoid, of Ansem’s return. The original villain would get a last laugh as Riku’s willingness to utilize his darkness eventually caused him to lose his body and take on Ansem’s form, but it was the reverse of last time, with Riku in total control and just kind of mopey that he couldn’t face his friends looking like that.
Riku allows Kairi to see what he's become in Kingdom Hearts II
‘Hey, so I know I spent two full length video games aching to be with you, but I look weird so I’ve been actively avoiding you…’

Ansem’s darkness would be completely purged from Riku by a second exposure to Kingdom Hearts and the Seeker of Darkness died an ignominious death offscreen, not appearing at all in any of the KHII era games, besides his Riku-piloted doppelganger.
But that’s not enough for Kingdom Hearts and original villains have a habit of returning for the final act of a trilogy. 2015’s Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance revealed that SURPRISE! without a body, Ansem discovered that he could time travel and set in motion the plot of that game, which saw him gathered up from an unspecified moment in the past and recruited into the True Organization, where he serves as co-dragon with his Nobody Xemnas, who is the next Xehanort we’ll be talking about…
Concept art of Xemnas in Kingdom Hearts II by series creator Tetsuya Nomura.

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