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Sorry, Sora} ?> I’ll admit it: I didn’t like Riku at first.
He chooses to follow the path of darkness so easily, without even a glance at the potential consequences. Perhaps I was most frustrated because I knew Riku didn’t need the darkness to become stronger. He already possessed the strength, the instinct, the looks, and the drive; he was physically tougher than Sora—Kingdom Hearts’ spiky-haired hero—and born with more natural talent than anyone else on Destiny Islands. We even learn that Riku was meant to be the Keyblade’s “chosen one” before Sora fell into the role.
Yet, Riku chooses the proverbial “dark side,” throwing away his best friend, parents, homeland… even his reputation. And for what? To save Kairi, to become stronger, to protect those things that matter to him; that’s his self-proclaimed motivation, at least.
But as I watched Riku desperately battle for even more other-worldly strength, turning his Keyblade against Sora time and again, and ultimately giving himself to the darkness, I realized that it’s not power that motivates him. It’s fear—something that no amount of natural talent or physical strength can overcome, because fears of inadequacy and loss can’t be physically combated. Like his fictional archetypes Anakin and Obito, Riku doesn’t see power as the motivator, but as the solution to his fear.
Unlike many of his heel-turned brethren, however, Riku escapes official villainizing with the realization that the power of a light-filled heart—something he once considered a “weak little thing”—can trump the power of darkness. It’s not until he’s physically possessed by Ansem—a wielder of darkness—that Riku comes to the conclusion that darkness can destroy his body, but it can’t destroy his heart so long as he loves others. Simply put: the power of love is the only thing that can cut through the darkness.
A few dashes of humility later, Riku decides to change sides, saving his friends and the worlds by sealing himself and the remnants of Ansem behind the fated Door to Darkness. But as soon as he steps onto the shadowy path of redemption, Riku finds himself more frequently stumbling into self-regret, anger, and extremism than he does acceptance, forgiveness, and healing. Fear is still his biggest motivator, but now it’s transformed from a fear of losing his friends into a fear of his own dark nature and how it will separate him from those same friends he once feared losing. That fear, coupled with his addiction to the darkness, keeps him from embracing the love of his friends that’s buried deep within his heart.
Is it better to be born in the light, or to find the light by fighting against our own inner darkness? Are we stronger because of that battle? Can we truly comprehend the light if we have never been exposed to the dark? It’s at this point in the story that Kingdom Hearts begins asking these hard questions, and it’s also at this point that Riku became my undisputed favourite character.
I was quick to judge Riku at the onset because I assumed he had chosen darkness—but the truth is that Riku had no choice, because darkness was a part of his humanity. Just as I had no choice in sin being a part of me, from the moment he’s born, Riku has darkness in his heart. It’s a part of him, and he has to struggle against this nature, unlike Sora who seems to have been born of pure light itself and finds no temptation in the darkness.
As I watched Riku recklessly fight off Ansem’s continuous temptations, allow fear to trick him into using his dark powers, and sacrifice his physical body in an effort to repay the debt to his friends, the parallels to my own sinful nature and the temptations I fall into became all the more real. Watching Ansem literally haunt Riku’s every step, appearing only during those times in which Riku was physically, mentally, and emotionally at his weakest, I began to conceptualize Ansem not as a general allusion to sin or struggle, but as a personal demon that must be battled daily.
That “demon” has taken many forms throughout my life, but its tactics have always been the same—to consume. As depression, it promises the world will never look the same, that happiness is an illusion, and that obsessing over doubt, fear, and grief is the only way to survive. As anxiety, it claims that I can never be sure enough to fully trust in anything, that I must always second-guess myself. As pride, it assures that I know best, am best, and do best; and that failure is never a possibility.
It’s through love that I’ve found healing power—love from God, from family, from friends, and from myself. And it’s that same sort of unconditional love—that love that says “no matter what”—that embodies the light in Kingdom Hearts. The light isn’t a cure-all. It doesn’t rid Riku of his personal demon, but it helps him acknowledge Ansem as such and grow stronger each time he does battle with it. His heart eventually becomes so powerful with light that Riku is able to ward Ansem off, simply by raising his Keyblade. Instead of fearing the darkness, Riku accepts it as a part of his human nature, and it’s that acknowledgement that allows him to overcome it—not by destroying his inner darkness, but by transforming it into light.
It’s Riku, not Sora, who eventually passes the Keyblade Master examination, not because he’s survived the more shadowed path, but because he’s endured the greater battle. In the end, his mistakes and his painful road to redemption give him a quiet strength that Sora cannot comprehend, having never gone through the same experiences.
Going against my inner darkness isn’t easy. It takes sacrifice—time, energy, humility—to overcome, but the effort is worth it. It’s true that allowing fears to consume me leads to a petty existence, but even more-so that conquering myself and my “demons” is the way I was meant to live.
Riku recognizes that higher calling, too, and even when he reeks of darkness to the point where he can’t see his hand in front of his eyes, he presses on because there are faces and places worth seeing, and a new life worth living.
While fans may dispute the “real” hero of the Kingdom Hearts storyline, I know which character I consider to be mine.