Q. Who is Ansem?
A. That’s a very simple question! Here’s a succinct, 1,200 or so word answer on “Ansem”, in chronological, Kingdom Hearts history order.
In the beginning, “Ansem” started out as Xehanort, a terribly named young man who became a keyblade master. Fun fact: Xehanort is from Destiny Islands, the same home planet/island as the KH protagonist, Sora, and I’m sure the series will never use this fact as a last minute plot “twist”. Anyway, Xehanort was granted time travel powers by his future self, in a lovely predestination paradox that seems to be the only crossover with Gargoyles that KH is going to commit to. More about Young Man Xehanort will be covered later, but suffice it to say he somehow fails (despite having time travel powers and seeming control over, basically, the universe), and grows up into…
Old Man Xehanort, as voiced by Leonard Nimoy. Since the entirely of Birth by Sleep is basically the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy (obviously foreshadowing Disney’s eventual acquisition of the Star Wars Universe) Old Man X is basically Emperor Palpatine. OMX spends the entire game as a “kindly old keyblade master” who is so dripping with evil he is literally followed by unimaginable monsters, though the heroes of the tale kind of don’t notice. Over the course of the game, the mysterious Mr. X first tried to pull Keyblade Apprentice Ventus (the original Sora) over to the darkside, but failed, and simply created a bizarro clone of Ventus named Vanitas (the first clone of Sora). Vanitas was a bust for some reason, so then Darth Xehanort moved on to tempting Keyblade Apprentice Terra over to the world of evil. This actually succeeded because Terra loved his friends so much he just had to kill Obi-Wan (as played by Mark Hamill).
Now this is where it gets complicated: Old Man Xehanort was using Terra the entire time so the old man could gain a young man’s body. Wait, phrasing, Xehanort wanted to literally possess the body of Terra, and did so. So Terra’s soul got suppressed, and Old Man Xehanort became Terra-Xehanort for a hot minute. This led to Keyblade Apprentice Aqua beating Terra-Xehanort so hard he literally could not remember who he was. Amnesiac-Terra-Xehanort is then discovered by Ansem the Wise, who immediately disproves his own name and hires Amnesiac-Terra-Xehanort as his assistant, thus transforming the villain into Lab Coat Xehanort.
Lab Coat Xehanort basically becomes the magical Dr. Mengele of the Square universe. In an act that can only occur in backstory and must never be seriously analyzed, Lab Coat Xehanort turns Ansem the Wise’s entire staff into a bunch of crazy monsters, tosses Ansem the Wise into the Realm of Darkness, steals Ansem’s name despite the fact that he is surrounded by people who knew the original Ansem, and then “unlocks the darkness in his own heart” or whatever and splits himself into two separate beings, Heartless Ansem and Nobody Xemnas. Then he went out for smokes for a decade.
By the era of Kingdom Hearts 1, Heartless Ansem, calling himself Ansem, orchestrates the entirety of Kingdom Hearts I, attempting to swallow the total KH universe into darkness, because that’s what you do when you’re the pure darkside of an already bad guy. Heartless Ansem clashes with the newest keyblade wielder, Sora, who has the sleeping soul of Ventus in there for whatever reason. Sora’s rival is another keyblade wielder, Riku, who once received the key-blessing of Terra. Riku is eventually totally possessed by Heartless Ansem, because Ansem-Xehanort can’t seem to get enough of this whole “possessing random teenagers” bit. At around that point, Sora is transformed into a Heartless by Heartless Ansem-Riku, but Sora recovers; however this random bit leads to the creation of Nobody Roxas, which will be important (sorta) later. Anyway, Sora beats Heartless Ansem senseless with his keyblade, Riku is freed of Ansem’s control, and Heartless Ansem is evaporated by the light that is Kingdom Hearts. Heartless Ansem is dead and gone forever.
Meanwhile, toward the end of KHI, Nobody Xemnas (the seventh “Ansem”) grabs Nobody Roxas (the fourth Sora) for his own nefarious purposes. Xemnas has this whole group of Ansem the Wise’s former trainees, called Organization XIII, and they’re all interested in turning the moon into a heart or something, because they’re Nobodies without emotions, and that makes them sad and angry. So Sora is led into Castle Oblivion, where he must fight another Sora clone, about half of Organization 13, and then have his memory erased, because amnesia is the grease that keeps the Kingdom Hearts wheels rolling. Riku is thrust into the basement of the castle, and finds that he now has the ability to transform into Heartless Ansem. So, to be clear, Riku is another Ansem. Riku also meets DiZ, which stands for… seriously? Okay… Darkness in Zero. DiZ is secretly Ansem the Wise, now cosplaying as Batman’s lesser (least) nemesis, Hush.
But while this is all happening, Xemnas has inducted Roxas into Organization 13. Roxas is, ya know, doing whatever, chilling, eating ice cream, hanging with his buddy Xion, that kind of thing, for about a year. Then all heck breaks loose when it turns out that Xion was secretly a failed clone of Roxas (so, Sora #5, #6 if you count that other clone). Because you can only photocopy a photocopy so many times, Xion kind of breaks down into nonexistence so hard no one even remembers she was ever alive, and Roxas has a giant freak-out that leads to Riku going full Dark Ansem just in time to make the opening of Kingdom Hearts 2 really confusing.
Roxas is now trapped in The Matrix by DiZ and Dark Ansem-Riku. Roxas realizes he’s The One after a very exciting essay on “what I did on my Summer vacation”, and then pretty much ceases to exist just in time for Sora to come back to be the hero. The remaining members of Organization XIII go stomping around the universe, generally stirring up trouble, and Sora beats them down in turn. Finally, Nobody Xemnas reveals himself as being behind everything, and it’s all another ploy to create Kingdom Hearts, or find Kingdom Hearts, or something or other. What’s important is that DiZ, aka Ansem the Wise, sacrifices himself to transform Dark Ansem-Riku back into
Shadow the Hedgehog Regular-Riku, and then Riku and Sora just straight up murder Nobody Xemnas, because he didn’t have a heart anyway, so it’s okay. This means that, finally, the last Ansem is dead, and the galaxy is at peace.
Except not so much. Death in the Kingdom Hearts universe is kind of confused: If someone is split into a heartless and a nobody, and then the heartless and nobody are killed, it becomes some kind of double negative thing, so the original “person” comes back to life. In Xehanort’s case the whole of the universe had a compile error or something, and it spat out another twelve or so Xehanorts. Seriously, Old Man Xehanort came back to life, and then used previously-never-mentioned time travel abilities to stock his all-new, all-better Organization 13 with at least four other versions of himself (“himself” now being a word that has absolutely no meaning). Two other Org XIII members are hangers on from the last Org, and the other six are mysteries because we’ve gotta have something to speculate on before the release of Kingdom Hearts 3. Xehanort (the young one, I think) tried to possess Sora and make him member #13, thus joining the great line of Too Many Soras with The Ansems All The Way Down, but he failed, as Xehanorts are want to do.
And now we’re all gearing up for the final KH chapter as the forces of light (Soras) battle the forces of darkness (Ansems) for the final fate of… wait… there are Disney characters in this franchise?