The Dark Turn to Light – Kingdom Hearts and Acceptance

By Tony Yao

Before "Kingdom Hearts III" makes its much-anticipated release in 2019, I reminisce about one of the series' most popular characters and how their struggle with darkness hit close to home in my personal life.

“What are you making me choose now?
“Between the road to light – and the road to darkness”
“Neither suits me. I’m taking the middle road.”
“Do you mean the twilight road to nightfall?”
“No. It’s the road to dawn.”

It’s Thanksgiving time here in the United States and for many of us, we’re grateful for many things – family, friends, and for most readers, the ability to enjoy the world of Japanese pop culture. The joy for all things otaku has done wonders for the lives of fans throughout the world. To that end, I wanted to share one thing I’m grateful for thanks to Japanese RPGs – the ability to accept my negative feelings and use them to move forward. Before Kingdom Hearts III is released worldwide in January 2019, I want to talk about one of the series’ central characters, Riku, and how his path going between two worlds is a path worth embracing, in a time when everything’s made to be black or white.

Warning! Huge spoilers regarding the Kingdom Hearts series incoming!

Riku in Kingdom Hearts 3
Riku in “Kingdom Hearts III”

Riku is the secondary protagonist of the Kingdom Hearts series. He grew up alongside two of the main characters, Sora and Kairi, on a world known as Destiny Islands. Together, the three thought about traveling to other worlds and planned how to visit them. One day, a huge portal opened up in Destiny Islands and Sora, Kairi, and Riku get sucked into darkness. Sora would wake up to meet new friends and become the chosen hero of the Keyblade, while Riku would be trapped in a corridor of darkness, only to be manipulated by Maleficient (of Sleeping Beauty fame).

He then went on to become an antagonist to Sora and let darkness overtake his heart. After losing a battle against Sora with his dark powers, Riku became possessed by an evil sage known as Ansem. Riku managed to break free of Ansem’s influence at the end of the first Kingdom Hearts game, but Ansem’s presence continued to reside in his heart. By Kingdom Hearts II, Riku decided to embrace darkness in order to help Sora fight a group of people in black coats known as Organization XIII. Post-KHII to KHIII, Riku has become strong enough to be a Keyblade master who can utilize both light and darkness.

Riku in the introduction of Kingdom Hearts 2
Riku in the introduction of Kingdom Hearts II

Riku had a desire to see what lied outside his home and it made him reckless, doing whatever it took to achieve it. He was the first to dive into the dark portal in Destiny Islands. Upon meeting Sora again in another world, Riku started to develop feelings of jealousy after he saw him hanging around Donald and Goofy. When you have feelings of doubt that you can’t control, you want to avoid them. But avoiding them makes them worse, and you may resort to coping mechanisms that aren’t good for you. Riku’s coping mechanism was darkness. He only managed to snap out of it after Ansem took advantage of his heart.

There was a part of me that wanted to be happy at all costs, as I have had major depression since the start of my college years. I hung around friends, hoping they could save me from life’s troubles, but they never did. I just went about my life with no worries. I did manage to do okay, but it sometimes felt like my heart was all over the place. I took comfort in my hobbies, but didn’t gain or grind for the experience that I really needed. At the same time, I hated and blamed myself whenever something bad happened that I couldn’t control.

How many of us have criticized ourselves after something goes wrong on our end? How many have retreated back to hobbies out of comfort, only to tell ourselves that, despite feeling good, we’re worthless? I know I have.

Riku vs. Ansem in Kingdom Hearts: re: Chain of Memories
Riku vs. Ansem, Kingdom Hearts: re: Chain of Memories

Getting back to Riku, his inner conflict with light and darkness picked up steam in Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories – Reverse Rebirth. It’s in this story where Riku started to come to terms with the darkness in his heart. He hated what he became and wanted to get rid of darkness at all costs. Ansem’s presence still lingered inside him, but after seeing what the power of darkness could do for him, Riku slowly began to accept its usefulness. He still becomes determined to not let darkness overwhelm him, and wears a black coat to protect him from it. Riku also puts on a blindfold, for the purpose of not seeing himself as Ansem.

Riku vs Roxas, Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days
Riku vs. Roxas from Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days

In Kingdom Hearts 358/2 Days, Riku confronts Roxas, the Nobody of Sora and a disgruntled member of Organization XIII. After wanting to see Sora and getting tired of what the Organization wanted him to do, Roxas leaves the group. He immediately runs into Riku, who was trying to get Sora and Roxas to merge together to become whole after the events of Chain of Memories. Roxas initially beats Riku, who says,

“All right. You’ve left me with no other choice. I have to release the power in my heart – the dark power that I’ve been holding back. Even… if it changes me forever.”

Riku then turns into Ansem and overwhelms Roxas before saying,

“I have accepted it.”

I revisited these particular scenes recently as I prepared for Anime NYC. There was a painful moment in my life where I lost a really good friend from the fandom a couple of years ago. We were inseparable, but circumstances led us to get into heated conversations and our friendship ended. Like Riku, I struggled to control my emotions and my own darkness. I realized that I was so open about my mental illness to the point that it overwhelmed an important person of my life. There was a scene in 358/2 Days where Riku meets Xion, a female Keyblade user and new member of Organization XIII. Xion tells the black-cloaked Riku that he’s a fake since he’s just playing around in darkness, unlike the Organization. Riku agrees, since he can’t take a meaningful step forward in darkness at the time.

After losing an amazing friend, I finally began to accept the fact that I had major depression and needed to trust others more for help. I began to look into psychology books about the dark side of positivity. Optimism is great, but unbridled optimism isn’t the best solution for cheering someone up if they have suffered a huge loss in their life. Positivity can’t always get someone out of poverty, substance abuse, financial debt, divorce or any other serious situation that impacts one’s living. I can’t force myself, or others, to be happy.

Like Riku, I needed to take that large step into darkness and confront all the faults and negative feelings I had – the feelings and faults that I just didn’t want to see. I needed to take a hard look at my Ansem without judgement.

Riku quote to Ansem in Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance
Riku shouts at Ansem in Kingdom Hearts: Dream Drop Distance.

Since the incident, I’ve begun to like myself a lot more and practice more self-care. I’ve cut out habits that were stressing me out, like heavy social media time. I also have been listening to many sad and touching stories of people dealing with hardship. Hearing them made me realize how I’m not alone in the world, with regards to bad experiences. Those stories have also gotten me to realize that we have to try and help one another, despite whatever differences we have. In Kingdom Hearts II, Riku hid his Ansem face from Sora and didn’t care if he was ignored, as all that mattered to him was Sora winning. By traveling in-between light and darkness, darkness was used as a way for light to help save the world.

One of my goals now is to do what Riku did – use the darkness (AKA the bad experiences) from my own life to create light for others, especially those who have trouble dealing with their own inner turmoil. I also aim to use Japanese pop culture to do so.

That’s why I’m grateful this holiday season for allowing myself to feel all kinds of emotions. I encourage you all to do the same. Emotions, like sadness and anger, aren’t something to be ignored. They often lead to positive growth. Think about the pain that shonen protagonists go through in order to become the over-the-top heroes they are. It’s not just the physical training that makes them strong; it’s also the resilience to bounce back and learn from traumatic experiences that makes them tough to beat. Riku and those heroes are proof that fighting emotional pain is often fruitless. By welcoming emotional pain, looking it straight in the eye, and being compassionate towards what you’re feeling, you can be better equipped to deal with whatever comes your way.

I’m not going to lie and say that it’s easy. It took Riku quite some time to better understand his condition. It’ll take time on our end too. But to anyone who feels like they can’t amount to anything in life, look at how your dark side can help you. There’s no light without darkness, and no creation without destruction.

Riku and Mickey in Kingdom Hearts 3
Riku and Mickey in the Realm of Darkness, Kingdom Hearts III

I’ll end this with something a friend once told me. They said one thing that should be on everyone’s bucket list is to walk around a city around 3AM-4AM. It’s uncomfortable as you’re alone and everything’s quiet, but there’s something peaceful about that in-between place, where day and night connect with no one to witness it. I realized what that friend said reminded me of Riku’s words about heading towards dawn.

Out of that tense night comes a calming interlude into a new day, and something brighter on the other side. It becomes a key to unlock a part of light in your heart.

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Tony Yao

A NYC-born Chinese-American who wonders why everyone loves his country's cartoons. Believes that he was a Japanese girl in a past life because he prefers husbandos over waifus. You can read his ramblings about psychological aspects in manga at http://www.mangatherapy.com.

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