Riku’s story in Kingdom Hearts 1 bears similar attributes to Sora’s. He is the chosen wielder of the keyblade. He is searching for and trying to rescue Kairi. He experiences a loss of innocence and comes of age. Riku’s story is the hero’s journey with a twist. Though he is the chosen keyblade wielder, it is taken from him when he chooses darkness. The means in which he tries to protect Kairi are misguided by insecurity and childhood jealousy. And unlike Sora, Riku does not come out unscathed on the other side but trapped in the Realm of Darkness. Riku’s story presents something very unique in that regard. The original chosen one, the supposed hero, is rejected by the object intended for them.
Riku subsequently goes through an arc far more destructive and complex than Sora, choosing darkness as a means to an end and then attempting to find redemption in the light. While Sora plays the part of the hero, Riku plays the part of the villain. Yet to call Riku the villain of Kingdom Hearts 1 would be incorrect. He certainly plays the role of antagonist next to Sora’s protagonist. Whereas a villain is a central bad figure with opposing beliefs of the protagonist, an antagonist is merely an opposing force to the protagonist. An antagonist is not inherently bad, just as the protagonist is not inherently good. Riku does not act to destroy the worlds. His motivations are almost identical to Sora’s. Rather it is how he goes about his desires that makes him an opposition to his friend.
An example of this exists in the Harry Potter novels by J.K. Rowling. The hero, Harry Potter, is to Sora, as his school rival, Draco Malfoy, is to Riku. It is a bit of an abstract reading, as Draco and Harry are not childhood friends and therefore their conflict is not rooted in something more personal and meaningful. Their rivalry exists on a much grander scale, based on personal beliefs and classism / racism. As noted in a previous piece in regards to the hero’s journey, this is not something brand new but has existed in several different stories. However, looking at Riku through the lense of the Potter books may help us grasp a better idea of Riku’s character arc and why it is so compelling.
Riku is a Slytherin
It is not a secret that Rowling’s approach to Slytherin House in the Potter novels is a tad bit shallow much of the time. Slytherin is one of four school houses and is generally considered to be the bad house of the bunch. Surprise surprise, Draco Malfoy is sorted into this House. Harry Potter is sorted into Gryffindor House, a.k.a the heroes. Though most of the series takes a nuanced look at good and evil, the portrayal of Slytherin’s as evil, racist, and immoral figures is strangely black and white.
Now this piece is not in the business of picking apart the flaws of Harry Potter, even though that is something I feel equipped to do. However, looking at Harry Potter offers a unique lens to examine other stories. For example, the four Hogwarts Houses can be applied to characters that exist in other universes and stories. Think pieces all across the internet have broken down why each child in the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe represents a different House, or what House Downton Abbey characters belong. It is easy to frame personality types in this format and apply it to other stories. Naturally, it can be done with Kingdom Hearts characters.
Riku resembles many of the classic Slytherin traits just as Sora does Gryffindor. He is cunning, ambitious, shrewd, and shows a strong sense of leadership. Slytherin’s colors are green and silver. Riku bears silver hair and though his eyes are canonically blue, they sometimes appear green and the color green is a known symbol of envy but also growth, two very appropriate terms for Riku.
In addition, the animal associated with Slytherin is a snake. Riku is tempted by Maleficent, the metaphorical snake who persuades him to go further and further into darkness. The Slytherin common room resides in the castle dungeons below the lake and is associated with the element of water. “Water cleanses or drowns,” writes Sandra Miesel in her piece, Is There Hope for Slytherin House? “[It] may even do both at once: baptismal water combines both spiritual cleansing and drowning to bring forth a new creature…” 2 Although Riku’s name translates to “land” in Japanese, the game very much associates him with water. In the opening cinematic full of abstract plot imagery, Riku extends his hand to Sora as a wave of water rises behind him. The wave then crashes over him. This very much symbolizes RIku’s upcoming journey. He will drown only to be baptized, or redeemed.
Sora on the other hand is trusting, brave, playful, and chivalrice. These are classic Gryffindor traits. The rivalry between Gryffindor and Slytherin is very prominent in the Potter books, so it is no surprise that these two characters who resemble the respective Houses also have a bit of a rivalry of their own. “You’ve pushed me, as I’ve always pushed you,” Riku says to Sora just before taking the keyblade.
Light and Dark
Riku’s story is ultimately one of redemption. Though he choses darkness as a means to fulfill his goals throughout the game, he is never fully dark. His intentions are the same as Sora’s. He wants to rescue Kairi. He wants to explore other worlds. This also bears a resemblance to Ansem himself. But it is how Riku goes about these goals that leads him to so much struggle. His intentions are good, his actions are rooted in darkness.
When Sora finds Riku on Hook’s ship in Neverland, there is a moment when the shot only frames one half of Riku’s face. This is a cinematography technique used frequently in film, usually framing an entire face but one half is in shadow. By framing only half of the character’s face in the shot, or showing part of it in shadow, it tells the audience that this character has duel motivations. The character may be torn about something and this is reflected on the screen, or the director wants to tell the audience that this character is not what they seem without really saying it. A great example of this appears in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. When Darth Vader is taunting Luke as they battle, Luke’s face is half in shadow, demonstrating his conflicted nature between doing good or giving in to his anger.
The great philosopher Augustine saw good and evil (in Kingdom Hearts case, light and darkness) as a duality. “Many of us tend to think of evil as a separate and competitive force to good. Augustine argues that evil is parasitic on good and not separate from good at all. Instead, evil is a corruption or rejection of the good. Just as a shadow grows larger as we move away from the light source, so the evil grows as we move away from what is good.” 3 Riku is not inherently bad. It is only his bad choices that compel him to further poor actions.
Riku’s motivation to rescue Kairi is clouded by his insecurities to be the best in competition with Sora. Only when he reaches his lowest point can he embrace the light. This type of transformative storytelling is similar to the hero’s journey, also referred to as literary alchemy. Literary alchemy is in reference to the physical practice of alchemy, turning lead into gold. A person begins as lead and can be transformed into something greater. It is the “transformation of the soul or how characters grow,” says Erin N. Sweeney. 4
Riku’s story juxtaposed with the story told by Kairi’s grandmother actually reveals a mirror between the two. Just as people lived with the light, so did Sora, Riku, and Kairi. Then Riku let darkness into his heart due to jealousy and insecurity. By doing this, he becomes separated from his friends. Now he, along with Sora and Kairi, must work to sustain their innocence and the light. They need to do this to rebuild the world, just as in the story.
In the end, Riku chooses to help shut the door to Kingdom Hearts. For the first time in the entire game, his actions are not motivated by self-involved feelings. Instead he sacrifices his own well being to save the people he loves. Much like Sora when he frees Kairi’s heart by stabbing himself with the keyblade, he has the maturity to know how to make difficult decisions. He chooses to act for the light.
While Riku’s story is not conventional like Sora’s, he goes through a similar arc. Both seek adventure, both seek to rescue Kairi, both come of age and lose their innocence, and both learn the importance of self sacrifice. However, Riku’s story is far more interesting. Sora has struggles, but his flaws are usually what aid him. Riku’s flaws encompass him and he has to fight a real battle within in order to overcome himself. This will continue to be explored as the series continues. Riku’s story isn’t about choosing good no matter what. It is a story about fighting against his inner darkness, and returning to the light.
- Square Enix. Kingdom Hearts Final Mix. Square Enix. PS2/PS3/PS4/XBox One/Windows/Nintendo Switch. 2002.
- Miesel, Sandra. 2011. “Is There Hope for Slytherin House? Can the Serpent Change Its Skin?” In Harry Potter for Nerds: Essays for Fans, Academics, and Lit Geeks, 1–16. Unlocking Press.
- n.d. Great Philosophers: Augustine On Evil Commentary. Accessed June 30, 2019. https://oregonstate.edu/instruct/phl201/modules/Philosophers/Augustine/augustine_evil02.html.
- Sweeney (Caltheous), Erin N. 2011. “Cracking the Planetary Code: Harry Potter, Alchemy, and the Seven Book Series as a Whole.” In Harry Potter for Nerds: Essays for Fans, Academics, and Lit Geeks, 171–97. Unlocking Press.