I have a lot of thoughts about Ryuki! It's a very complex show that brings up a lot of concepts, and I love thinking about it and analysing what it means.
Kamen Rider Ryuki is a masterpiece of storytelling that occupies way too much space in my brain, so why not subject you all to those thoughts too? Specifically I'd like to talk about one of my favourite aspects of Ryuki's structure; the fundamental moral question at the heart of its conflict.
Kamen Rider Ryuki pulls no punches in its portrayal of selfish, cruel human beings. With very few exceptions, the people fighting in the rider battle do it for their own benefit, be it directly or implicitly. So when Shinji picks up the Ryuki card deck and inadvertently enters the battle, he immediately brings up the obvious question: is this fight worth it? To his rivals this is a ridiculous question. Shiro Kanzaki has promised them their dream will come true if they win, so no matter what, they must win. To most of the thirteen riders, their dream is well worth killing twelve other people for.
In The Wrath of Khan (1982), Spock says, “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” I find this the perfect antithesis of Kamen Rider Ryuki and its myriad awful characters. Shiro Kanzaki's perverse rider battle is the opposite of Spock's calculated logic, Without participants willing to slaughter each other, he wouldn't be able to find the strongest soul amongst them and reap it to save Yui, after all. So he picked people all desperate for something, or too inhuman to reject senseless murder. Akiyama Ren, waiting for his comatose girlfriend, Eri, to awaken. Kitaoka Shuichi, slowly dying of an incurable disease. Mitsuru Sano, just wishing to be happy. By exploiting their vulnerability, he easily strings them into what Shinji sensibly points out is a horrific, inhuman battle.
Perhaps by setting up the rider battle this way, writers Yasuko Kobayashi and Toshiki Inoue wanted us to question what lengths we would go to for our own benefit. Given the opportunity to fulfill your wildest dreams, would I kill for it? Would you? Even Shinji struggles with this question, gripped with indecision when faced with the inevitability of fighting - and perhaps killing - his friends to save Yui's life.
In the end, Shinji chooses the needs of the many. He cannot bring himself to kill so many people for Yui, and is himself killed when he protects a young girl from a mirror monster. In his final moments, he urges Ren to continue living, no matter what. His death is a total rejection of Shiro's game.
There's a sense of ambiguity to Kamen Rider Ryuki's ending that I really enjoy. The last Kamen Rider left alive, Ren confronts Odin, defeating Shiro and winning the rider battle. His soul is not used to save Yui. Shiro, realising the futility of his attempts to save her, accepts her death, and Ren collapses as Eri's eyes slowly open. Whether this was his wish coming true, or just another fleeting moment of consciousness, is left to interpretation.
Kamen Rider Ryuki closes by showing a new world where the rider battle has never taken place. The characters we have watched struggle and bleed are reborn anew, with no memory of the torment they've endured. Ren and Shinji meet in the street, but don't recognise each other. I can't help but feel this ending is bittersweet despite the happy ending. By never going through the rider battle and growing close to one another, the moral growth of each character is effectively wiped clean, as if it never even happened. Shinji ends the series just as he began. If he were asked whether he could kill others for someone he loves, what would he say?
My favourite thing about Ryuki is that it never definitively answers this conundrum of the many over the few. Shinji may have decided for himself, but it precipitated his and Yui's deaths. And in the ending's world where the chance to fulfill their wish is never granted, the characters are bound to their original fate. Eri will die in her coma. Kitaoka will succumb to his illness. Shinji will show up to work at Ore Journal each day, having no memory of the leather-clad man he once bumped into in the street.