When I was 22 years old, I was officially diagnosed with anxiety and depression—finally putting a name to something I never properly realized I had. Throughout my teen years I always thought my experiences were due to teen angst or a result of not knowing how to control my emotions, or even that I just wasn’t good at being a person.
There wasn’t a lot in the way of understanding or encouragement when it came to telling other people. Even now, revealing that I have some kind of mental health issue is met with “You should think positive thoughts,” which is a nice sentiment but just reveals a misunderstanding of how mental illness works and serves to dismiss the issue.
Similarly, in the media I’ve consumed since I was a child, optimism is shown as a cure to all ills. How many times have you watched a TV show or movie where a character’s problem is solved by a rousing speech or being told that everything is going to be fine? There’s hardly any acknowledgement of ongoing issues. So I was surprised when, earlier this year, I decided to replay the entire Kingdom Hearts series and realized that throughout each game, the characters recognize and accept their problems and actively work towards fixing them.
The Hero’s Story
For those who don’t know, the Kingdom Hearts series is a videogame series that features crossovers between the different worlds of Disney films as well as Square-Enix properties like Final Fantasy. It was an odd idea when it launched back in 2002, but the formula worked and it’s developed a massive following.
There are two scenes in the first Kingdom Hearts where the protagonist, Sora, laments losing his friends and worries that his companions Donald and Goofy—again, odd idea but it works—won’t accomplish their goals. These are relatively short scenes, but for me, having Sora worry about what will happen in the future was reassuring. Too often in videogames, manga, and anime, the protagonist is happy-go-lucky and optimistic to a fault. There’s nary a falter to their confidence—they’re absolutely determined no matter what. But Sora doesn’t know if he’ll succeed. But with the support of his friends, he’s able to keep going despite his doubts.
This attitude carries on through the entire series. In Birth by Sleep, the prequel that takes place ten years before Kingdom Hearts, all three protagonists are met with an uncertain fate as they are tasked with finding out who has put the various worlds of the game in danger. To the very end of the story they are met with adversity and betrayals, but they stick together—supporting one another through the worst. The unusual part of the story is that the heroes fail anyway, the villain triumphs. But we’re told that despite this loss, there’s still hope.
In A Fragmentary Passage, taking place during the end of Kingdom Hearts, a character named Aqua, is wandering the Realm of Darkness for an entire decade. As the name implies, it’s not a great place to be. During this period, Aqua has no clear goals and no concept of time. It’s the perfect metaphor for long-term mental illness. But even in uncertainty, Aqua finds her purpose and realizes she still has important work to do. Sora and every other protagonist of the series know they have to keep going, but they always carry the pain of their past. Rather than dwelling on them, though, they come to understand their feelings and grow as people.
It’s always been frustrating for me when the protagonist learns nothing from their journey and continues on with the story—as a 12-year-old, I was upset about Ash losing the Indigo League in Pokemon and continuing to be a terrible trainer afterwards. In contrast, at the end of Dream Drop Distance, the latest game in the timeline, Sora fails his important Keyblade Master exam. He knows where he messed up and he realizes what he has to do to fix it.
Heroes Helping Heroes
I have always and will always find characters who acknowledge their weaknesses to be far more interesting than those who exhibit blind confidence and faith in their own abilities. Izuku Midoriya of My Hero Academia begins the story as a kid who is trying his best to become a hero in a world where 80% of the global population has some kind of power—Midoriya is one of the unlucky few without one. He’s nervous and emotional but portrayed in a sympathetic way. He’s a huge nerd who loves the heroes who become professionals and idolizes All Might, the world’s number one hero.
After a chance encounter with All Might in which Midoriya recklessly attempts to save one of his classmates from a villain, All Might reveals that he can bestow his own power, One For All, to him. The man he looks up not only giving him a power which he’s wanted since he was a child, but also offering to train him is too much for Midoriya—he bawls his eyes out in a scene that anticipates how deftly the series will deal with intense emotions.
But All Might tells Midoriya that he can’t just give him this power—he has to work for it. And so, Midoriya spends all summer training so his body can handle the strain of accepting the powerful quirk. But even when he finally receives it, he can’t fully control his power. He often hurts himself when attempting to do anything involving his quirk, learning to use his self-destructive strength in more clever ways.
My Hero Academia also features a character named Shoto Todoroki, who is the result of his father’s deliberate breeding program to produce a hero to surpass All Might. His dad isn’t a great guy, and Todoroki has a strained relationship with him. In battle, he refuses to use his father’s fire powers as a small protest against him. Todoroki also hasn’t seen his abused mother in years. He shuts himself off from other characters and is often quiet and reserved.
In season two, Todoroki faces off against Midoriya in a tournament match. Midoriya expresses how disappointed he is that Todoroki refuses to use his full potential, vocally insisting that Todoroki can use his fire side without letting down his mother or becoming his father. And he does, unleashing his flames in a climactic finale that’s also notable because Midoriya, the main character of the series, loses. But even in defeat, he’s happy that he’s helped Todoroki.
Picking Each Other Up
I didn’t see a therapist for my anxiety and depression until 7 years after I was diagnosed. The dismissal of mental illness encourages sufferers to bury our problems deep down and put on a brave face, like the heroes of so many stories. But nothing will get better if we don’t stare our issues in the face.
If Sora didn’t acknowledge his worries, if Aqua didn’t acknowledge her fears, if Midoriya didn’t acknowledge his failings, and if Todoroki didn’t acknowledge his past, they would all be vastly different characters with none of the emotional weight that makes them so appealing.
In life, we’re often looking for a quick cure to whatever ails us—why wouldn’t we? Pain is by definition awful, and it’s natural to want to escape it. And yet mental illness is often rooted so deeply that it takes years to address. It can be invigorating, then, to engage with power fantasies where simple determination solves all of the protagonist’s problems.
But for me, it’s been more valuable to see stories where the protagonists really struggle, where individual willpower and bravery isn’t enough, where they don’t always win. These stories remind us that we’re not alone. They remind us that we’re human and fallible, but that by reaching out to others and working to face our problems rather than avoid them, we can pick ourselves up, dust off, and try again.