Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Kitana Retrospective - Part I: The Assassin

Once upon a time, I was a huge Mortal Kombat mark. I was there in the beginning, and I stuck with the series through the highs and lows for a long time.

One of the things that kept me coming back was the storyline and its characters. If anything can be said about MK, it has probably the most ambitious—if not always coherent or consistent—story of any fighting game, and I was one of the idiots that obsessed with its lore.

The thing one must understand about Mortal Kombat's story is—at least until recently—it was like a puzzle. Every character had their little bio at the beginning of the game, explaining who they are and why they're there, and their little ending when you beat the game, explaining what might have happened to them.
These were your puzzle pieces—disconnected and with no inherent structure—and you wouldn't know which endings came true and which ones didn't until the next game, if you found out at all.

As such, how good (or not good) the Mortal Kombat story was depended on how you put the puzzle together. One person can look at the story for what it is and see an incoherent mess. Someone else might put it together into a simple, straight-forward story that—although not ground-breaking or terribly original—might at least make sense. And finally there are those who really try to put the story together and find something worth a damn.

I was one of the guys that always tried to make sense of the story, read between the lines, and make it out to be something grand and epic...within reason. There are some who go too far with that and find connections and meanings based on nothing. I always tried to stay within the bounds of confirmed canon.

What I'd like to do here is focus a couple of posts on one character that would emerge as my personal favorite—who also happens to be one of the franchise's most beloved and iconic characters: Kitana.

Credit: joshwmc
Kitana is a character with a rich history within Mortal Kombat's lore and is one of the few characters in the franchise to undergo an actual arc throughout the story. She's also, unfortunately, been the victim of some horrendous character derailment that has, in the eyes of many fans, tarnished her.

So strap in as I ramble on at great length about a fictional video game character, beginning with her rise: what made her such a stand-out character and, for my money, one of Mortal Kombat's best creations—then going into her fall: how and where it all went wrong.

Before I begin, I think it might be fair to offer a quick cliff-notes version of Mortal Kombat's premise.

Mortal Kombat deals primarily with the efforts of bad guys from other dimensions—referred to as realms—to invade and conquer Earth. There is a formal way for one realm to conquer another set up by the Elder Gods: a martial arts tournament called Mortal Kombat. If one realm wins 10 tournaments in a row, they have free reign to take over the losing realm without interference of the gods.
Specific rules are sketchy, at best.

The most recurring enemy to threaten Earth is the realm of Outworld, which is ruled by the evil emperor, Shao Kahn. Throughout the ages he's conquered several realms through the Mortal Kombat tournament and merged them to Outworld, and Earth is his latest target. Throughout the series, if Earth can't be taken through the tournament, Kahn and other villains try to utilize some kind of loophole to get around the Elder Gods' rules.

Mortal Kombat began with the pivotal 10th tournament that would decide Earth's fate. Liu Kang—Earth's champion personally chosen by its Thunder God and protector, Raiden—defeats Outworld's champion, Goro, and Shao Kahn's right-hand man, Shang Tsung, saving Earth from being taken over.
(NOTE: I'm also describing essentially a 'final draft' summary; if I was to acknowledge and explain the numerous retcons and expansions that have been added to the story throughout the years, this post will go on forever and be hopelessly confusing)

The story picks up in Mortal Kombat II where Shao Kahn, enraged by his defeat, lures the surviving fighters from MK1 to compete in an Outworld tournament. This, however, doesn't actually count as an official "deciding the fate of the realm" MK tournament, and we later discover there's more going on than initially appears.

And it's here we meet our girl, Kitana.
We are introduced to Kitana as one of Shao Kahn's personal assassins and daughter. She, along with her twin sister, Mileena, enter the Outworld tournament to fight on their father's behalf. However, Kitana's loyalty comes under question when she is seen meeting with one of the Earth fighters in secret.

Kitana made a pretty impressive splash in her debut. For one thing, this was still during a time when female characters in fighting games were something of a novelty. And although Sonya Blade was the first female fighter in MK, I honestly don't recall anyone really caring about her or missing her when she was left out of MKII.

In fact—and I'll admit this is purely anecdotal—Kitana (and Mileena) was the first time I can remember, personally, it being "okay" to like & use a female character. Bear in mind, I'm talking about a bunch of eight year old boys who are still very much in the "boys rule, girls drool" phase of our lives. Nobody used Sonya. Nobody cared about her. But it was "okay" to like Kitana and Mileena. They were that bad-ass.

Being a pair of ninja probably played a big part, as—not unlike Scorpion & Sub-Zero—the ninja pretty much wound up being the break-out characters of Mortal Kombat...for better and worse.

Kitana stood out largely due to her unique choice of weapon: steel fans. I can remember thinking that was just so damn cool. And Kitana herself, in addition to being a beast in gameplay, just had a presence about her. Her Fatalities, her victory pose, the element of mystery to her character and not knowing whose side she was on. She was a total package.

But for me, what would ultimately make her a favorite, was her story. When you beat the game with Kitana, you got her ending which explained what her deal was.

Kitana is not Shao Kahn's daughter. She is actually the daughter of the King and Queen of a realm called Edenia, which was conquered by Kahn through the Mortal Kombat tournament 10,000 years ago (yes, Kitana is that old). He killed her father, Jerrod, and took her mother, Sindel, as his bride. Sindel would commit suicide out of grief soon after, leaving the infant Kitana to be raised as Shao Kahn's own daughter and assassin.

She spent most of her life loyally serving her "father," but would eventually seek out and discover the truth about her family and realm. She also learns Mileena is not her sister, but a grotesque clone originally intended to replace her (more on that later).

Upon learning the truth, Kitana vows to overthrow Kahn and restore Edenia. She feigns loyalty to him until she can find the right time to turn against him openly—which finally comes during Mortal Kombat II, where she aligns herself with the Earth warriors.

Looking Deeper
Now, purely at face value, it's pretty stock stuff. The assassin who's been lied to her whole life turning against her adoptive father to set things right. But it is a lot more than one usually got from a fighting game back then, and it's also more than most (though definitely not all) of the other characters in the franchise.

Where many of the other characters have pretty standard or broad motivations (saving the world because not saving the world would be bad / taking over the world because evil is fun), Kitana has a genuine, personal stake in the fighting. And frankly, I found her stake in the story far more interesting than most of the other heroes.

Going back to what I said earlier about MK's story being like a puzzle—with Kitana we have the broad strokes of a basic, though effective, story. But if you read between the lines a bit and put the pieces together, you have the potential for a compelling and rounded character with, not only motivation, but conflict, pathos, and development.

Just to start, she is raised since her infancy with Shao Kahn—psychotic, world-conquering, evil warlord—as her father. Further, she is raised to be a cold-blooded killer in his service.
Suffice to say, probably not the most warm or healthy environment to grow up in. And consider the full implications of the fact she is serving as a loyal assassin to the man who conquered her realm, murdered her father, and drove her mother to suicide. She is effectively helping him enslave her own people and other peoples he's subjugated throughout the centuries.

There really is no two ways about it: Kitana was an evil person. Within the land of Mortal Kombat, where there are defined forces of "good" and "evil," Kitana was "evil" for the vast majority of her 10,000 year life.

So, even though we've never gotten specific details on how she found the truth about her past, I would imagine it was bit of a rude awakening. Finding that everything she'd believed about herself and her family was a lie, that she was specifically molded to be "evil" by the man she believed was her father and used as a weapon against her people. That's a rather foul violation of her trust and emotions and had to be just a little traumatic.

The crucial aspect of Kitana—which I think defines her as a character—is that, in the face of these revelations, she chooses to turn against her step-father. That in itself is kind of a big deal because, even if it was all a lie, this is the only life Kitana knows. Shao Kahn, as twisted and sad it may be, is the only family she really has. And who knows...there may have been a part of Kitana that enjoyed being her step-father's personal assassin.
Also figure by turning against him, she's risking her life and soul by pretty much joining the losing side. By doing this, she's starting over from the bottom.

But what made Kitana change? First, and probably most obvious, is outrage and anger over being lied to and used her whole life. She could have lived a life of peace in Edenia with parents and people who genuinely loved her, but instead her realm is conquered, family killed, and people enslaved, while she was stolen and brought up by this madman who turns her into a killer.
And, of course, there's the truth about Mileena—whom we'll be getting to shortly.

But although the desire for justice/revenge seems obvious, I always believed there was something more to it than that. If all Kitana wanted was revenge, she would have just overthrown and killed Kahn, probably take control of Outworld for herself, and rule however she saw fit.
But she goes a step further and strives to not just overthrow Kahn, but restore Edenia to its former self. She herself changes, becomes a more heroic and selfless person, and strives to undo the damage caused by her step-father...which she herself assisted in as his assassin.

That, to me, denotes guilt. So I believe remorse is a part of Kitana's character, and in fact, I would argue, if there's an overall theme to her individual story, it's redemption.

So one really needn't look too deep to find the potential for complexity and development in Kitana's character. Reading between the lines and connecting dots, absolutely...but it's not a huge stretch.

One last thing I think makes her stand out as a strong protagonist and heroic character—whether you read between the lines or just accept her story at face value—is her agency.

When discussing women protagonists in fiction—especially genre fiction—the question of agency is often raised. It's one thing to have a female character who's tough, independent, and takes no shit from nobody, but a strong protagonist and hero-character is someone who has agency in their actions. Where their choices and development are truly their own.
You can have a female character who kicks ass and always has a clever quip—but if every decision she makes is only made because a nearby male character told her to do it first...or if she has little-to-no personal stake in the choices she makes and her life only revolves around some dude...

Well, what you have is either a weak protagonist or a straight-up supporting character.

I would argue that Kitana was a character with genuine agency. Part of that is likely a result of the nature of being a video game character—especially a fighting game. In a fighting game, the protagonist is whoever the player chooses. In theory, by selecting the character, the player is giving them agency.

But head-canon and reading between the lines aside, accepting the text as it's presented to us, Kitana's choices and actions are her own. When one looks at her story, SHE sought out and discovered the truth of her past. SHE made the choice to turn against Shao Kahn and restore her home realm, despite the conflicts and consequences I've pointed out. SHE approached the Earth heroes and offered an alliance.
Taking the text as it's presented, we've no indication someone made Kitana learn her true heritage. There's nothing to indicate someone forced her to turn good. And it's plainly stated SHE went to the good guys—not the other way around.

That is important and went a long way towards establishing Kitana as a strong and competent hero. Now I'm not going to try to make some kind of case that she is/was some ground-breaking trail-blazer who should be remembered as a feminist icon.

All I'm saying is...she was a solid character and protagonist—who also just happened to be a woman. And as silly as it might sound, but looking back on myself at the goofy age of eight, that had a lot of impact on me and how I would regard female characters. Before I started reading comics, before there was Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Xena: Warrior was Kitana for me.

Sibling Rivalry
One thing that has come to define Kitana—and, no doubt, contributed to her popularity—is her rivalry with her "twin sister" Mileena. Although not as iconic as the more famous Scorpion/Sub-Zero feud, the story between Kitana & Mileena is, in my opinion, the best rivalry in Mortal Kombat.

The story goes: despite thousands of years of loyalty, Shao Kahn feared Kitana—should she ever discover the truth about Edenia—might turn against him. Because of this, he had Shang Tsung create a clone of her, mixing Tarkatan (essentially MK's orcs) DNA to make her more loyal and bloodthirsty. However, something goes wrong with the clone's creation and the lower half of her face deforms into a set of Tarkatan choppers.
Rather than dispose of the clone, they throw a mask on her, pass her off as Kitana's twin sister, and have her basically be Kitana's watch-dog to make sure she never turns against Kahn.

The clone, Mileena, lives as Kitana's twin, but Kahn always looked down on her and favored Kitana. Because of this, she develops an intense jealousy and eventually comes to believe if she could fight and defeat/kill Kitana in battle, their father would favor her.

During MKII, Mileena sees an opportunity to prove she's better than her "sister" as Kahn orders her to enter the Outworld tournament and keep an eye on Kitana. When it becomes clear Kitana is a traitor, she makes her move. Unfortunately for Mileena, Kitana is victorious and kills her clone in battle.

Mileena is notable among Mortal Kombat's characters as being one of the few villains to have a specific motivation derived from her backstory—as opposed to most villains that are evil and want to take over realms because...they're evil. She wants to be accepted by her "father" and prove her worth, and she has a clear, specific means of achieving that goal: fighting and killing her "sister."
She is also one of the only villains to have a somewhat sympathetic backstory—being created for a specific purpose, then cast aside and unwilling (or unable) to hate the man responsible for her fate.

Again, a lot of this is pretty stock stuff that's been done in numerous other stories. The evil twin, the jealous ugly sister, wanting daddy's approval...but it's done well and makes both Kitana and Mileena stand out as among Mortal Kombat's more fleshed out characters.

One thing that makes the feud noteworthy is the potential complexity on all sides. We have Kahn who favors Kitana, even though she can't be trusted and eventually turns on him. Mileena, who blames Kitana for her problems even though she should hate Kahn. And in the middle is Kitana going though her own shifting loyalties and internal changes.

Overall, it offers a pretty solid Shadow archetype dynamic. They are two sides of the same coin, and their conflict suits the struggle Kitana must go through as a character. As someone who had been evil and used by her step-father, Kitana is striving to turn against him and redeem herself. Mileena—created for loyalty and viciousness—is, for all intents and purposes, the evil in Kitana given physical form.
If you want to indulge symbolism, you could say Mileena—with her deformed face—is the ugliness in Kitana.

In addition to the obvious symbolism, the battle with Mileena is thematically crucial to her development and arc. Up until this point in the story, Kitana has only known loyalty to Shao Kahn—be it genuine or feigned. This is the moment where she turns against him openly and, thus, truly begins her journey towards becoming a hero.

So it's appropriate her first obstacle and test before beginning her path to redemption should be her demented clone who was specifically created for loyalty. Before reforming herself, Kitana must overcome the evil in her and sever her ties to Shao Kahn—as represented by Mileena. In killing her evil twin, she is no longer her step-father's personal assassin, she is now the rebel trying to restore her realm.

To Be Continued...
Well, I've already written quite a lot, and we've only just finished her debut game. Yes, Kitana is that awesome.

I'm going to wrap it up for now, but we still have a ways to go. When I return, we'll explore Kitana's transition to one of the main heroes and her development from former assassin and rebel to full-fledged Princess and leader.


  1. Hello! Did you see the recent news that MK reboot movie had found its director? Ed Boon confirmed it to be true. I've made a short 6-min video message for the movie team from us, Kitana fans. It's based on our Kitana Retrospective and has examples from MK story modes and various movies making it clear what Kitana is like (not a damsel in distress, but the Furiosa of MK) I'd like to add a slide show at the end showing us, die hard Kitana fans. Would you like to be a part of it? Will you be ok if I add your avatar and name?

    1. Our open letter is up. Thank you so much for inspiration and for signing it. I hope you like the video.

  2. Wonderful essay and I love Kitana. I actually was upset by MKX's treatment of Mileena, though. I'm a bigger fan of the evil twin in this case.