Ryu’s past is shrouded in mystery. He was orphaned as a child, and nothing has been stated by Capcom officially about Ryu’s parents. We know that Gouken raised him like a son, and Ryu looks up to Gouken as a father figure. There have been non-canon works, primarily the animated movie Street Fighter: Generations and the live action Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist, that seem to go off of the idea that a woman named Sayaka is the mother of Ryu, and that Akuma could possibly be his father.
It’s an interesting theory, and one Capcom could certainly explore in the future. However, based on canon in-game evidence, there is something far greater at work here that Street Fighter is greatly leaning towards, something that delves into the supernatural and an urban legend come to life.
In Street Fighter II, it was revealed that Ryu’s stage was Suzaku Castle, and as the years went on, Ryu was shown to not only train there, but live there as well. It is his home, one he grew up in with Gouken as his mentor and father figure. After Akuma had seemingly killed Gouken, Ryu buried his mentor at Suzaku Castle as well, tending to his grave due to the immense respect he held for him. Gouken was resurrected in Street Fighter IV, revealed to merely be unconscious for a long period of time.
It seemed like a questionable way to bring Ryu’s mentor into the game, as it was established for years that Gouken had died. However, looking deeper into the symbolism of Suzaku Castle, we can see that this was actually a great way to bring him back without putting in too much of a lore-breaking retcon.
Suzaku is one of the Four Symbols, which I talk more about in my previous theory, “The Goddess of Street Fighter.” https://manestreet.home.blog/2019/06/11/the-goddess-of-street-fighter/ What makes Suzaku special is that, being the Vermillion Bird, it has been represented in stories around the world under different names. The most famous story, perhaps, is the story of the phoenix, a bird that died on a pyre and was resurrected from its flames. Keeping this story in mind, we can assume that Suzaku Castle is a symbol of resurrection.
Gouken’s return in Street Fighter IV encapsulates the ethereal properties of Suzaku Castle. However, it isn’t his revival that truly parlays Suzaku Castle’s mystical ambience – it’s Ryu’s.
“Wait,” you say. “Ryu hasn’t died in game. Now if you mean he had a spiritual awakening, I could see that.” Actually, no. I genuinely mean that Ryu has already died once. It was never shown in-game, and is the main reason why Ryu has no memories of his past.
He does not recall his parents because he never had parents to begin with – Ryu is a revenant.
While Capcom has always been about designing stages and characters that were meant to appeal to a mass audience, they have also borrowed ideas from real life locations. Suzaku Castle is no exception. Its design is identical to Matsue Castle in Japan. Matthew Walden of GameSpot showed this off in an article written earlier this year. https://www.gamespot.com/gallery/15-incredible-street-fighter-stages-you-can-visit-/2900-93/
What makes this eerie, however, is that there is a long-standing legend around Matsue Castle regarding its construction.
Hitobashira is a human sacrifice “buried alive under or near large-scale buildings like dams, bridges, and castles, as a prayer to the gods so that the building is not destroyed by natural disasters such as floods or by enemy attacks.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hitobashira
Matsue Castle was said to have a human sacrifice buried under the castle’s foundations. Known as The Maiden of Matsue, not much is known about her, except that she was fond of dancing. A law was passed soon after her sacrifice forbidding any girl to dance on the streets of Matsue, as it was said that any girl that did so would enrage the spirit of the Maiden, causing the castle to shake from the power of her rage.
While the girl was no doubt an innocent sacrifice, perhaps the most interesting thing about her is that she became a ghost at all. In Buddhist belief, life and death is a never-ending cycle of reincarnation, and becoming a ghost meant that you were reincarnated as a preta. Preta are ghosts who have an insatiable hunger for something. In Japan, a preta is known as “gaki”, or hungry ghost. The term “gaki” is also known as a term relating to spoiled children, which could be a clue as to why the Maiden of Matsue was likely reincarnated as a ghost – she could have been a brat when she was alive. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Preta
Is there proof that Capcom adapted the Maiden of Matsue legend into Street Fighter as well? It depends on what you look at. Officially, Capcom has never outright stated the significance of Suzaku Castle in the game outside of the fact Ryu and Gouken lived there. That being said, they must have known about the legend when they put the Matsue Castle expy into the game considering it’s been around for some time – they just had no room lorewise to expand on it.
If we assume that this is the case, and we assume that Capcom adapted the legend into Street Fighter’s lore behind the scenes, then we can fully understand Ryu’s mysterious past: Ryu is the Maiden of Matsue brought back to life.
There is a festival that takes place every year in Japan – The Obon, or Bon. It is meant to honor the spirit of a person’s ancestors. The origin story states that Maudgalyayana, a disciple of Buddha, discovered his mother had become a gaki. Asking Buddha’s advice on how to free her, Buddha suggested making offerings to the monks who had returned from their summer retreat on the fifteenth day of the seventh lunar month. By doing so, his mother was freed from her suffering. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bon_Festival
The Bon Festival is a variant of the Chinese-originated Ghost Festival, also known as the Hungry Ghost Festival, and uses a ritual called segaki to make offerings to gaki, much like Maudgalyayana did for his mother, in order to feed the ghosts and end their suffering so they may re-enter the cycle of life and death. In fact, the word “segaki” (施餓鬼) literally means “feeding the hungry ghosts”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghost_Festival
There are three times the Bon Festival is celebrated in Japan, and in the region of Kanto, it’s celebrated on July 15. Interestingly, this is very close to Ryu’s canon birthdate of July 21 (he was originally born in 1964, but the floating timeline makes birth years irrelevant). Now, you may already know about the fact that Matsue lies in the Kansai region, and they would celebrate the Bon Festival in August. This can be chalked up to a possible unfamiliarity of the Kansai region and its customs. Since Capcom is based in Tokyo in the Kanto region, it’s likely that’s what the developers were familiar with and rolled with it.
So, there’s some evidence that a ritual was performed at Suzaku Castle around July 15, which could explain why Ryu was found one day with no memories of his parents – the Maiden of Matsue was reincarnated back into a human a few days after the Bon Festival, returning as an amnesiac young boy. This, of course, leads to the biggest question of all: why was the very female Maiden of Matsue reincarnated as a male?
The answer: to fulfill her true destiny as the representation of the World.
On Wikipedia, the interpretation of the tarot card The World is as follows:
“The World represents an ending to a cycle of life, a pause in life before the next big cycle beginning with the fool. The figure is male and female, above and below, suspended between the heavens and the earth. It is completeness. It is also said to represent cosmic consciousness; the potential of perfect union with the One Power of the universe.”
The World represents an ending to a cycle of life, represented by the Maiden of Matsue leaving the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts and re-entering the realm of humans. The World is both male and female, in Ryu’s case being represented by a female soul in a male body. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_World_(Tarot_card)
I discussed before how the Satsui no Hado was symbolic as a struggle with homosexuality. If this is the case, then the conflict of the female soul with the male body is what caused the Satsui no Hado to rise up within him. The release of Kage was the release of the evil masculine side of his soul, explaining Kage’s apparent misogyny.
With the defeat of his evil half, Ryu was finally able to reach his perfect union. He became one with himself. This is symbolic of the Ouroboros, which is represented in some variants of The World – the snake eating its own tail is a symbol of completeness, being one with oneself. Moreso, The World is represented by four symbols – an eagle, a human, a lion, and an ox. Ryu has four symbols he represents himself by:
The characters 風林火山 create the word “Furinkazan,” literally meaning “Wind, Forest, Fire, Mountain”. The word is derived from a passage out of Sun Tzu’s The Art of War; the word’s meaning is for one to be “as swift as wind, as gentle as forest, as fierce as fire, as unshakable as mountain.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fūrinkazan
The four symbols of The World match up with the Furinkazan. Looking again at the tarot card, going from right to left and down, we see where everything lines up:
As swift as wind – The Eagle
As gentle as forest – The Human
As fierce as fire – The Lion
As unshakable as mountain – The Ox.
Originally, The World interpreted the Eagle as a water element and the Human as an air element, but by making Ryu the figure on The World, it makes more sense for the Eagle, which flies in the air, as a symbol of the wind and the Human, which tends the forest, as the symbol of the forest. Both the Lion and the Ox retain their original elements.
Finally, we have one last thing to address: the Maiden of Matsue’s dancing versus Ryu’s fighting. Both require flawless physical ability, dexterity, and stamina. The best practicioners of each art invest the best years of their lives to being great at it. If Ryu’s neverending quest to be a better fighter is any indication, it’s likely the Maiden’s pursuit of dancing was just as intense. The only difference? Dancing is seen as a feminine art, and fighting is seen as a masculine art.
They’re the yin and yang of movement.