Fraternal Fixation [pairing-centric essay]
Subject: Final Fantasy: Unlimited, Akai Kiri and Shiroi Kumo
Category: Analysis, some editorial/personal reflection
Summary: A discussion of the subtext hinting at my personal OTP in FF:U.
Warnings: The pairing analyzed is incestuous shonen-ai, so those who dislike that type of thing would do well to steer clear of it. There's also analysis of spoilerific content throughout the series, including the drama CD Before, After Spiral, and the content summarized in the After 2 dust jacket. Translations for second-season material can be found at ff_unlimited_.
Or, How a Pairing Becomes One and True
There's just something about Japanese exports and subtext, isn't there? Of course, a lot of it has to do with how the homophobic stigma is nowhere near as bad overseas as it is in America, but lots of anime, manga, and games tend to contain something of a rib-nudge that something happened or is happening between some of the characters that isn't exactly addressed in the spotlight. Case in point? Sword of Mana. They did censor a great deal of it to spare the minds of American kids who played the game, but the design of one dungeon in particular is enough to prove that the two main antagonists, Stroud Granz (better known as Dark Lord) and Julius Vandole, are hitting the sheets in their spare time. Then there are things like that wonderful manga of champions DNAngel, where writer and artist Sugisaki Yukiru-san intentionally plays up the shonen-ai undertones in the relationship between hero Daisuke and antihero Satoshi.
And then, of course, there' s manga like Negima!, which just decides to hell with subtext and trumpets KonoSetsu from every rooftop.
Part of how much relationships like these stay in the subtext depends on the target audience. Negima! is, after all, geared towards teenagers; DNAngel has some very young fangirls, so nothing too explicit can be added to it; a lot of the Seiken Densetsu series' more mature themes are presented very unobtrusively so that only older players will pick up on them. But the subtext is almost always there, for the fans to interpret as they will.
Final Fantasy: Unlimited most certainly has its moments--there's quite a bit of fan service where Lisa is involved, and some points in the story are very bloody--but because it is Final Fantasy, Squeenix and Gonzo took care to keep it generally kid-friendly. There's a lot between the lines for the fans, however, especially in the case of the more popular characters in the series.
Since Final Fantasy games are notorious for their love stories, it's at first a bit puzzling as to why the show's most eligible bachelor, Shiroi Kumo, remains one from the first episode to the end of the last drama CD. There are hundreds of reasons why, ranging from his age and distinct sexual innocence to the way he struggles to repress his emotions as much as he can so that Chaos can't feed off them, but Squeenix does leave a lot of room for personal interpretation as to who he may or may not have feelings for.
Based on stray comments here and there during the first drama CD, Before, and the novel directly following the anime, After, we know that Aura made a big impression on Kumo--he says she's a beautiful person, and clearly admires her willingness to sacrifice herself in the first big battle with Chaos. He doesn't offer us any more input than this, but people are clearly welcome to assume that he fell in love with her way back when.
And then there's Kumo's weird rivalry/friendship/partnership/love-hate relationship with Kaze. A large part of the fanbase gleefully ran away with the subtext on that one, considering Kumo's attitude towards Kaze--if not the reverse--plenty of grounds for yaoi. The two of them do ride off into the sunset together at the end of the publicized story, in a manner of speaking. There is very definitely a lot that could happen there, if Kaze and Kumo ever took the time to sort out their very tangled and confused relationship. That is, if Kaze ever decided to change his general disregard for (living, breathing, struggling-to-survive) life (as opposed to life converted to ammo for him), which clearly makes Kumo angry.
Putting Kaze and Aura aside, there's also a third set of subtext, one that's so driven into all of Kumo's subplots that you would suppose more people would pick up on it, or try to read pairing into it: That would be Kumo's relationship with his older brother, Akai Kiri.
Then again, we can surely assume that many of the same fans who so happily attacked the possibility of yaoi between Kumo and Kaze took one look at the implications having to do with Kumo and Kiri, screamed, "Incest! Icky!", and ran in the other direction.
To clear the air now, I will say that there is no uncertainty in my mind that in the canonical FF:U storyline, there was nothing overtly sexual about Kiri and Kumo's relationship--most certainly no sheets-hitting, however the two of them actually felt about each other. (That would be what fanon is for.) Kumo is far too pure and innocent a character as far as any and all sexual themes go for that to be the case. But there's a lot more going on between the two of them than a fairy-tale Cain-and-Abel parable.
In order to demonstrate this, we'll have to go as far back as FF:U allows us. Kumo may have been a bit of an introvert all his life, but he most certainly wasn't one by choice: because of his social status as "royalty" (or as close to it as Mystarian society allows), Kumo remained extremely isolated throughout his childhood. His life consisted of his parents, his teachers, Kiri, and Kiri's friends. But mostly Kiri. Allowing that parents are often busy with their own affairs, particularly when they are presumably in a position of great responsibility already, and that the didactic nature of private tutors often precludes real closeness, this means that the only person Kumo was ever really able to become close to in his young life was Kiri. Hence, Kiri served as best friend, confidant, role model, idol, and near-constant companion to Kumo.
So what part of Kumo's adoration and attachment did Kiri share back then? Let's take a look at the major scene in After Spiral Zero in which Kumo brings up to Kiri that he wants to start learning swordsmanship. Throughout their conversation, most of the driving force behind Kiri's dialogue is a typical elder sibling's dilemma. Kumo was undoubtedly a sweet child and the baby of his family, and on top of that, he's Unlimited. Obviously he's good at whatever he does, and he's so quiet and unassuming that he commands the affection of everyone he's close to. Not only is Kiri expected to be the responsible older sibling with Kumo as his dependent, but he's also got the typical stigma of the big brother that he has to be better at everything because of his age (as well as to compensate for those areas, if any, where Kumo outshines him). Swordsmanship is Kiri's thing, something he's very talented at, which he obviously loves, and he clearly likes having it all to himself. Understandably, it comes as a bit of a bad shock that Kumo is now intending to invade his hobby as well, out of that cute-but-annoying-as-hell desire to be just like his brother. Kiri's individuality, and his competence, are coming under attack here.
However, all this doesn't seem to occur to Kiri until Kumo points out that he only wants to learn to fight to catch up to him. Before then, Kiri's argument against Kumo's aspirations is that he doesn't want Kumo to get hurt. Something definitely has to be said for the fact that Kiri's first concern is Kumo's safety and the fact that he doesn't seem to notice his situation and go "Hey, wait..." until halfway through their conversation. Aww. ^_^
Something also has to be said for the way that it doesn't take much argument before Kiri gives in and immediately starts teaching Kumo the basics. From the art we're given in this segment of After Spiral, Kiri not only introduced Kumo to swordsmanship, but remained a primary teacher throughout their lives together, also serving as Kumo's tutor in the summoning arts. This just adds another layer of intimacy to their relationship.
Throughout the anime, it's very interesting that no matter what happens, Kumo is able to keep his uncaring mask in place through everything--even through being forced into committing (or pretending to commit) various atrocities by Chaos and losing hope in that Kaze would fight Chaos at his side--until Oscha brings Kiri back to life, brainwashes him (or worse), and forces him to fight Kumo. No matter what he had to do, he did it without protest until the bad guys threw the very worst of Kiri into his face, and that was all it took to break him. Kumo kind of loses it after this; he becomes a lot more blatant in his efforts at resistance against Chaos, and it only takes a few episodes after his and Kiri's awful fight for him to abandon Chaos completely.
In After, since Kumo joins the party and we see a lot more from his perspective, we get to learn a lot more about his psychology, and although we learn just how pure and selfless he is in his motives in fighting Chaos--not only is he fighting to save all other prospective victims, but he's fighting to perserve the human heart itself--we also learn that his other major motivation is that Chaos took Kiri away. Not that Chaos destroyed his world, but that Chaos is directly or indirectly responsible for Kiri's death and the desecration of his soul and memory after his death.
Kiri and Kumo fixate on each other to a degree that, let's face it, is just plain incestuous. Every time the audience is treated to one of Kumo's monologues, flashbacks, or story arcs in After, Kiri always has something to do with it. Even so long after Kiri's death and, perhaps more importantly, even after the events of episode 18 of the anime, Kumo still wonders what Kiri would think of his actions and if he's able to fill Kiri's role while fighting Chaos--never mind that technically, Kumo's powers have far surpassed Kiri's. Perhaps one of the most poignant and heartbreaking examples of this is the scene directly following Kumo's flashback sequence in After Spiral Zero, where he thinks about Kiri's warnings that learning to fight would only bring him pain and just how much of this Kiri might have foreseen, and then wonders to himself if he's gotten any closer to having any part of his wish to be Kiri's equal fulfilled.
As usual, it's rather more difficult to see just how much Kiri reciprocates Kumo's obsession with him, especially since in the first of the only two glimpses we get of him in adulthood, we have to decipher for ourselves how much of what he tells us is true and how much is just the worst bile Oscha can come up with. Still, it becomes clear through episode 18 that Kumo was Kiri's major motivation, as well--or at least the desire to prove himself strong enough to protect Kumo.
Rather, what speaks for Kiri's emotions is the conclusion to his and Kumo's story, where Kiri reaches across death to bequeath his powers and his soul itself to Kumo in order to save him in battle and restore him to his former self. That one act of love and faith is really all it takes to understand Kiri's side of the story. There's a selflessness about what he does there along with the fact that he came through at the eleventh hour and rescued Kumo when there was no hope left that makes it really the ultimate expression of love, something that transcends both familial bonds and sexual gravitation.
Combine that with the fact that this gives Kumo the ability to call both their sword dragons and that he always calls on Kiri directly to do so in affectionate summon incantations, and there you have it.
Is Kumo in love with Kiri? Absolutely. Does Kiri feel the same way? Obviously. Their relationship does not have to be physical for that to be true, nor does it have to be consciously acknowledged by the audience that there's a definitive incestuous undertone to their story for that love to be perceived and understood.
It's the transcendence of their relationship, even through all the efforts of Chaos to destroy what they had and break Kumo forever, that makes their feelings for each other have such a powerful impact on people. The purity of their love is, in the end, what makes them stand out as a pairing from all the many other couples, actual or implied, throughout FF:U. Their complete obsession with each other is what helped them invade my consciousness, whether I wanted them there or not, and the mess of fixation and love and heartbreak and the eventual, inevitable fact that what is meant to be will always, always, always make it through is what makes the entire fandom so special, something that I always come back to in the end.
Long live the subtext.