The Politics of Persona 5, Part 1: Find Yourself in the Debris

Content warnings: suicide, sexual abuse

This post is the first installment in our collaborative series about Persona 5, co-written by Prz and Ashley. This formula for writing it was a bit of an experiment for both of us and we’re still working out the details, so please bear with us.

ASH: Persona 5 is a game I went into with very low expectations, as a long term and increasingly bitter fan of the series I purchased the newest installment with a lot of reluctance. The stylish aesthetic sensibilities and the costumed-thief -doing-crimes hook proved too seductive to resist and I could not be happier. That isn’t to say my wariness was unfounded (nor can I say Persona 5 didn’t somewhat vindicate the feeling), built as it was on troubled relationship with prior output from the development team.

PRZ: I impulse-bought it after months of telling myself I wasn’t going to. I was really scared it would betray me like 4 did.

ASH: Persona 4 was released at a time in my life where its themes were poised to hit me hardest. Struggling through life as a lonely queer teenager in a small town, falling ever further into the depths of despair and isolation as the world confronted me with the need to hide who I was for fear of social repercussions, the game felt like it was created specifically to speak to me. The characters’ struggles arising from forced confrontations with their own repressed selves, the nearly fatal consequences of their continued self-denial, the spectacle the villain makes of his victims as they are offered up on an arcane late-night tv show as entertainment for the rest of the world all resonated with me in an incredibly powerful way. Even more than that was the hope and joy carried by the team of main characters looking beyond the cruel jokes these victims are reduced to and reaching out to help them deal with the world around them, the building team of friends that knew what it was like to be trapped inside yourself and sought to rescue others from it. In a games industry with such a lack of sensitivity and relatable storytelling Persona 4 felt like a breath of fresh air, a sequel to another game that had surprised me with its style and focus, that was about people like me, felt almost too good to be true.

ASH: With time that feeling only grew, the more I thought about it and the more invested I became in its characters the harder and harder it became to shake the feeling something was wrong, and the more and more aware I became that I’d been massively undermining my own standards in order to maintain this feeling of finally having something that felt like home. Yosuke’s taunting teen boy homophobia shifted from feeling like a regrettable but realistic representation of a teenage boy and into something more insidious with the context of its LGBT characters’ personal storylines ending in accepting maybe they weren’t what they thought they were, that maybe the gay boy just had feminine hobbies and that didn’t make him gay, that the trans boy was just a girl who felt she had to transition to fit in in a world that belongs to men. The tone of these arguments isn’t unfamiliar to queer people who have faced opposition to their identities, needling questions about whether you really are what you say you are and how maybe you’re just not happy about something else are common place excuses to deny people self-determination. In this context the brutal and embarrassing outings the two queer members of the cast have to suffer through to find (relative) acceptance amongst their friends start to feel cruel, and worse still in the context of the wider plot  threads, they begin to reveal a deeply conservative ideology underlying the stylish youthful freedom aesthetic the game rests upon. Many characters’ “social link” storylines end with an acceptance that they were wrong to try to change, exemplified in my mind by Yukiko’s arc of deciding she doesn’t want to be forced to inherit and run her family’s traditional inn and instead struggling to get herself into a good university to get away and be her own person. Yukiko ends up realising that all along she really just wanted to do and be what was expected of her and begins studying to run the family inn instead. Much like what the cast end up telling us while chastising the villain in the end for failing to grow up and accept the nature of society and find his place in it, Yukiko’s storyline tells us that the supernatural threat generated by human beings’ reluctance to understand one another isn’t so much an indictment of an intolerant society as it is one of selfish individuals who try to be anything but what they are.

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PRZ: The way Naoto and Kanji’s storylines were resolved was just painful and nauseating to sit through. I was conflicted about it for the longest time as well, and I still remember a conversation I had online where I reluctantly agreed that there’s nothing disrespectful about this representation, that of course it’s okay for kids to decide they weren’t gay or trans after all. I had a horrible sinking feeling for the entire day afterwards, but didn’t feel confident or qualified enough to argue the point better. Today I would perhaps say that “it’s okay to decide not to be A Minority” is a useless message at best, and more likely just insidious. Persona 4’s ability to make me question my judgment on this is not to its credit, but it shows how successful it ended up being at pushing this message.

ASH: Though Adachi is an irredeemable man murdering young women for kicks, with no relation to my own life, I couldn’t help but feel as he was lectured by the cast that the message was being directed out at me, the young queer woman playing the game. Adachi rants about society being a boring place that drains you and forces you into meaningless unfulfilling labour while giving nothing back and, for whatever else he does or says, it is hard to say that isn’t true. As I watched this wonderful cast of quirky queer teens I’d been on this long adventure with and grown to love effectively turn to the camera and tell me about the importance of growing up and fitting in, my heart began to sink. It was here it became clear that Adachi represented the failed version of our protagonists, someone who couldn’t come to terms with his internal demons and subsequently rationalise them back into a socially acceptable form, a representation of the kind of people that call for the apocalyptic mist that turns people into shadow selves and prevents social cohesion, the kind of person that tries to go to university instead of being groomed into running the family business, the kind of person who lets rumours about their sexuality affect their self-belief, the kind of person that I am. It felt to me as though I’d been tricked, it reminded me that much like Kanji and Naoto’s suffering on the Midnight Channel, my existence was just an interesting story beat to entertain an uncaring audience. I still loved these characters enough to play and enjoy the later released remake, but it was a test of endurance trying to separate the good from the bad. Every passing scene presented another step towards the inevitable turning point where my crew of outsiders was gonna align with the cops again and begin to deliver someone else’s message with their voices.

PRZ: It was the “growing up” part that got to me the most. You know how people say “it’s just a phase, you’ll grow out of it”? That was the exact same sentiment, just smug confident superiority. Being queer or gender-nonconforming in any way is conflated with immaturity not just in this one video game, and I don’t play games to listen to the same things I could hear if I phoned my extended family or went to church.

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ASH: As I started up Persona 5, feeling myself reluctantly losing myself to its enthusiasm and style once again, a funny thing happened: it begun to completely overshoot my expectations right from the get go. Here I was sitting down with gritted teeth, expecting an enjoyable experience once again undercut by creepily conservative values, and instead finding an opening in which it leans so hard into ALL COPS ARE BASTARDS it might as well have been my twitter timeline. I kept waiting and waiting for the moment the game would pull the rug out from under me and let me down again, but (with some smaller but glaring exceptions) it never came. Being reasonable it isn’t possible to say the game has shed its conservative culture entirely, as it stumbles at the same crucial point Persona 4 does. The major difference (and biggest flaw) is that instead of trying to deal with the painful and raw queer identity issues that 4 brings up, it simply relegates them to a few implications (and a couple of briefly-present, terrible stereotypes). It is sad that this ends up feeling like an improvement to me, and I don’t wish to undersell what a catastrophic failure the glaring presence of these issues is in this plot, but ultimately the result for the game itself is that it at least doesn’t undermine its genuinely wonderfully rebellious tone by turning into a preachy conservative parent about my identity suddenly. I bring this and the comparisons to Persona 4 up now because I want to make it clear I recognise and share those connections to those character’s stories along with the disappointment with the glaring lack of them in this one. Which is to say, while I’m going to talk about how much I loved this game over a lot of text, I also mostly had to insert the gay content via a combination of my imagination and the obvious queerbaiting, and it would be irresponsible of me to tell anybody that this game had entirely outgrown the development team’s previous issues. You can rest assured that all of the following text carries an unspoken “imagine how good this would be if it was gay though” appended to it.

PRZ: I guess I’m gonna get fancy here and say that, as queer readers or players consuming the output of a heteronormative culture, we’re to some degree always forced to read most things against their own intentions and purposes. We love these stories for the same reasons everyone else does, and we see ourselves reflected in them, even if the authors exclude us, either through thoughtless omission or deliberate erasure. It’s just such a disappointment to have to go through these extra mental steps with such an otherwise thoughtful and inspiring story. It would have taken so little effort to have it be gay too.

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ASH: If Persona 4 is a game about learning to accept and find a place in society, then Persona 5 makes it its mission from minute one to utterly overturn the whole thing. The game is framed as a long flashback sequence, following on from the arrest and brutal interrogation of the player character, as he recounts the events leading up to this moment. It transpires that he had been branded a criminal long before anything quite so bold as the apparent casino robbery of the opening sequence had occurred. It is immediately established, however, that society is very much in the wrong, this young man has been branded an irredeemable villain because he stood up to the wrong man. From the outset we’ve not only been shown the police as a violent oppressive force but also the justice system itself as being the tool of the rich. In attempting to do a similar thing to the protagonists of Persona 4, our new main character stood up to a violent and selfish man who uses  his power to prey on whoever he wants, unfortunately this man turns out to have the influence to intimidate the woman he is sexually harassing into testifying that you assaulted him out of nowhere. Society is no neutral or benevolent entity here, the rich are shown to be able to get away with whatever they want and the apparatus of power are shown to be tools of their protection. Through this we are moved as players and player characters from the small town and into the world of true power, the beating heart of Japan’s economy, Tokyo.

ASH: Sent via some probationary system to live with a man who keeps him at arm’s length at best, the protagonist’s early experience is one of constant judgement and pressure to keep his head down and fit in. His pseudo-foster-dad Sojiro keeps him living in the dusty storage area above the small cafe he owns, warning him repeatedly how much he’s sticking his neck out for “someone like him” and impressing upon him in no short terms how society sees him now, everyone is going to know him as the “problem child” and “criminal”, teachers will be waiting for him to slip up and students will be afraid of him. For his own part, Sojiro mostly seems concerned that the young offender may act out at any moment and have it reflect poorly on him. Already everyone knows our hero before he knows them, and before even setting foot in the school his entire social world has made him the receptacle for their socially understood values: he is someone who is trouble, who didn’t fit in. Nobody knows exactly what happened and nobody particularly cares when the fantasies are so much more enticing. In the appearance of this young offender at their prestigious school everyone from teacher to student to principal is offered to chance to maintain the quality of their own character by defining themselves in opposition to this suspicious Other.

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ASH: Sojiro isn’t wrong, the teachers and students take to it with glee, the teachers bemoaning how their names are being dragged down and gossiping with each other about being saddled with “a child like that”, the students openly amazed the player character can even answer questions in class, whispering just in earshot about their fear and revulsion at the criminal in their midst, everyone and everything weights down on the player saying “you don’t belong”. With a single minded focus on this great burden they’ve been given, the entire school is able to pretend it doesn’t see what is happening amongst them right before their eyes. The microcosm of society that exists within the walls of Shujin Academy is wound tight into a collective unspoken agreement that the crimes of those in power are to be ignored or even normalised, people who stand out get knocked down and it’s in everybody’s best interest to keep things as they are, even at great personal cost. Had the people of Shujin known of the true nature of the protagonist’s “crime,” it’s a wonder if they wouldn’t still have treated him the same way.

PRZ: Even in the relatively quiet residential backstreets of Yongen-Jaya (Sangen-Jaya in the real world), the game makes Tokyo feel very alive, and speech bubbles representing people talking or whispering around you are constantly popping up on the screen. It works like a Greek chorus, and initially gives the effect of being alone and slightly lost in the crowd. Once you get to school, the whispers are almost exclusively about you, and just uniformly nasty, reinforcing your sense of isolation and not belonging. Even the quest objective tracker constantly pesters you to “live an honest student life” and “obediently return home,” as if you might start punching random people in the street any second if not properly supervised. Frankly, if the game let me, I might have.

ASH: Shujin Academy has a glaring point of comparison to their new criminal student already in Ryuji, another student and former track team star turned social outcast. It’s no surprise the two gravitate together quickly (albeit accidentally), as they are treated as almost identical figures by the student body, both violent offenders who selfishly rocked the boat. Ryuji’s own personal conflict is a perfect obfuscation of the true nature of the problems of Shujin, the story being that he assaulted Mr. Kamoshida, their star athlete turned teacher, on whose fame the school appears to coast, a story pointedly controlled , revelled in and spread by Kamoshida himself, a swaggering larger-than-life figure of authority. The truth is that Kamoshida has a long history of intimidating and physically abusing students, a history that it is impossible people at school would be unaware of, as we see bruised and cut students furtively hiding their scars in the first few days alone. Ryuji is the criminal, however, because he broke under the weight of the system: rather than shifting in himself to accommodate the abuse of his teacher, he “acted out” and punched him, earning himself not only the sting of social exclusion but physical retaliation in the form of a broken leg. Ryuji exists now as a figure of derision and an example of what happens when you “selfishly” try to change things. You get hurt, your track team gets collectively punished and learns to blame you for it, and while you may have been able to position yourself outside the system, it still controls your daily life.

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ASH: After an encounter with Kamoshida and Ryuji on the way to school, the protagonist and Ryuji find themselves, by way of an app that has installed itself on the protagonist’s phone, turning the corner to their school, only to find a gigantic castle standing where it should be. The castle is ruled by an openly malicious, shadowy version of Kamoshida, dressed up as a kind of perverted king and filled with representations of his “slaves”, students subject to endless tortures masquerading as “training” for a subjugated population that exists to suffer for his approval. Here the main thrust of the game’s supernatural elements is explained  by the emergence of both the protagonist’s hidden power and the entrance of a talking cartoonish cat that appears at home in this other world. The cat, Morgana, explains that the pair have stumbled into “The Metaverse”, another plane of reality layered atop our own, where people are represented by their Shadows, the personifications of their secret desires. The existence of the castle is described as a “Palace”, a special kind of occurrence that springs up when one’s darker side runs wild and warps their owner’s view of reality, in essence elevating their consciousness above the level of those around them and imposing their view of the world on the surrounding landscape. Kamoshida views himself as a king who can get whatever he wants from within the walls of his school, and so inside the Metaverse, that’s what he and his school have become.

PRZ: Shadows and Personas are concepts from C. G. Jung’s variant of Freudian psychoanalysis, and a constant of the series. The most basic idea of psychoanalysis is that most of what the human mind does is unconscious, and accessible to us only through dreams, slips of the tongue, things we do reflexively and so on. Psychoanalysis is sometimes called “depth psychology,” implying that there are hidden depths to our brains, extending far below what we’re aware of. Jung additionally suggests that there is a connection between myths – stories that, for some reason, seem to resonate with a great majority of people – and how the unconscious mind is built. Also, Morgana or Morgan le Fay is a powerful sorceress from Arthurian myth, and usually considered an enemy of King Arthur. The talking cat doesn’t really resemble her very much, but the suggestion is that he may help you take down this particular king as well.

ASH: By passing into this world, Ryuji and the protagonist are initially mistaken for the mental constructions representing students populating the castle and, seeing as they’re the problem students, they’re quickly thrown into a cell and threatened with imminent execution (reflecting the real world Kamoshida’s love of expulsion threats). It’s at this point the protagonist manifests his titular Persona power, explicitly defined as enveloping himself in the spirit of rebellion to resist the corroding influence of Kamoshida’s mental landscape, allowing him to escape the cell and traverse the Metaverse with a means of self-defense.

PRZ: For Jung, a persona is a sort of mask the individual presents to society, projecting certain traits that they want to be noticed, but also obscuring their inner life. I feel like the game sharply departs from its inspiration here, and is better for it; the act of summoning a Persona is depicted as tearing off a mask to reveal your inner self.

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ASH: Prison cells are a major motif in Persona 5. The Velvet Room (a running staple of the series, existing as a complicated sort of character management screen and also representation of the protagonist’s internal landscape), appears as a panopticon, with its host at the centre and its guest (the player) incarcerated in a cell and told to seek rehabilitation. Though things don’t seem quite normal with the Velvet Room, its standard metaphor is maintained: you have landed yourself in a mental prison, and only through the power of coming to understand and support others, and having them support you in turn, can you truly overcome your predicament. While your goal is stated to be rehabilitation, Igor and the attendants of the Velvet Room impress upon you the need to rise above the background noise of society; that your earlier rebellion against the drunken rich sex pest was the beginning of something you must follow through. Indeed, as your Persona manifests itself in Kamoshida’s jail cell, it asks you if you are willing to follow through the logic of your actions, demanding: “are you just going to sit there and watch!? Was your previous action a mistake then!?” as Ryuji is about to fall victim to Kamoshida’s shadow guards. In refusing to believe you were in the wrong to stand up for that woman, you gain the power to protect another outcast and free both of you from the cell society has prepared for you. In refusing to submit to the mantle you’ve been saddled with, and refusing to give up your sense of justice in the face of overwhelming opposition, you gain the manifest power of rebellion, through which you are able to strike back at the abuser-king of Shujin Academy.

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PRZ: Your first Persona (as the protagonist and thus a very special boy, you get more than one) is the gentleman thief Arsene Lupin. Ryuji’s is Captain Kidd, and Morgana’s is Zorro. The theme is clear: admirable, romantic and noble outlaws who care little for society’s laws and conventions, especially where they concern rich people’s property. The game isn’t joking about the “spirit of rebellion” part; these characters represent not just an edgy rebel-without-a-cause costume, but actively standing up for justice in defiance of the law and the powerful. (How accurate this is with respect to the historical William Kidd, as opposed to his folklore legend, is not something I’m qualified to answer.)

ASH: From the first, Persona 5 sees society as a place where the strong victimise the weak, where the abuser makes out the abused to be the criminals, where the powerful form their “palaces” of influence and, by their prestige, get away with things everyone knows they are up to. Far from an entity that needs to be understood and worked with, society is a horrific construction of abuse. It is notable to me, as a person that managed her own dropping out of society by finding support and sympathy through online communities such as Twitter, that the way the protagonists enter into the investigation of their teacher’s crimes is through another world accessed through their phones. They organise their missions into the depths of their oppressor’s consciousnesses through IM services, they conduct their investigations via phone apps, and ultimately what it all amounts to is a not-so-subtle metaphor for the kind of teenagers who are looked down upon in real life society. Our team of thieves are young people who have a wealth of information available to them at all times, who are able to document and share with each other their suffering at the hands of society, teenagers who theoretically are able to anonymously act against their oppressors and expose them for what they are, even if only to one another. Through their communication with one another, and their access to this information resource, the team of Persona 5 are able to raise each other’s consciousness; to help each other see the world for what it is, and to spread that power of rebellion outward, not only to each other but to society at large. The “Phantom Thieves,” as they come to be known, are kids who come face-to-face with the stark true nature of their surroundings and refuse to back down from it, initially in protection of themselves, and later in protection of a generalised concept of “the weak”. They are heroic precisely because they do not fit into society. They are people who the real world would denounce as liars and accuse of sinister ulterior motives, and the game reflects that as well (there are no doubt hundreds of posts denouncing the team as SJWs online already).

PRZ: The reason I bring Jung up at all is because I’ve always felt that there’s something about his theories that was probably partially responsible for Persona 4’s failings. He describes life as a journey of “individuation”, of becoming an individual, with very clearly marked stages and checkpoints that you’re supposed to go through in order to develop “properly” and become a happy, productive, middle class member of society. But Persona 5 asks some very basic questions: What if this society rejects you anyway? Will it even allow you to do so, or is it just set up to silence and undermine you no matter what? Is it even good or desirable to integrate into something so cruel? And aren’t there better kinds of people, better role models for who you could become?

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ASH: The final component to the logic of the Metaverse is the knowledge that Palaces are formed from core “treasures” around which the desires began to grow. These exist to justify the sneaking thieves aesthetic the gameplay wishes to convey (and for its own part, the new level design and gameplay systems do a lot of work to instill the feeling of sneaking around a threatening space in a pseudo-stealth game) and narratively provide a means by which the heroes can impact their targets. Destroying one’s shadow self results in the effective death by brain shutdown of their real world counterpart, but the theft of the “Treasure” core of a Palace instead robs that person of their warped worldview and desires. During this process the team accidentally brings another student, Ann Takamaki, into the Metaverse while they investigate her ties to Kamoshida and the appearance of her covering for him.

PRZ: Ann and her best friend, Shiho, are two of the girls caught up in Kamoshida’s manipulative schemes. The way their story is introduced is gut-wrenching: they both know exactly what’s going on, and both try to protect the other from the teacher’s predation, but never talk about it openly. Kamoshida threatens to kick Shiho off the volleyball team, and presumably ruin her academic prospects, in order to pressure Ann into sex. Ann strings him along for as long as possible – which the other students, ever eager to think the worst of a lone teenage girl and the best of a man in power, assume to be some mixture of haughtiness and immoral promiscuity – but eventually refuses. Kamoshida, incensed, tries to force himself on Shiho, which leads her to attempt suicide. Even Shiho jumping off the school’s roof, in full view of the students and faculty, is not enough to spur anyone into action. The teachers are still only concerned with reputation, saving face and preserving order; Ryuji and the main character confront Kamoshida, who merely gloats and threatens to expel them.

ASH: As the true depths of Kamoshida’s nature are revealed with Ann coming face-to-face with his mental representation of herself, a sexualised toy that loves him unconditionally, Ann awakens to her persona from her sheer rage at the exploitation she has suffered and the knowledge that even though she had been appeasing him to keep him from harming her friend, he’d sexually abused her anyway. The whole experience leading up and through Kamoshida’s palace is a raw and brutal one; it depicts rampant verbal, physical and sexual abuse by a teacher, and I feared the team’s reluctance to kill him was leading to a Batman-like situation where revenge was going to be depicted as “just as bad”. But the theft of his Treasure is handled in a manner that entirely avoids this issue: by having his desires stolen and his warped mental landscape destroyed, Kamoshida is forced to see himself from the outside, left with the knowledge of what he has done and no more capacity to justify it to himself. As the calling card the Phantom Thieves sent to him warns, they make him confess his crimes with his own mouth from the sheer weight of guilt that bears down upon him. Ann’s insistence that the only reason she didn’t kill his shadow was so that he’d have to live with and suffer for what he’d done sold the set up pretty well.

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PRZ: It was difficult to keep being skeptical about the game’s message after that point. The gameplay and story metaphor of theft is very deliberately chosen – it links righting wrongs and punishing abusers with an attack on property. Metaphorical property manifested by their unconscious minds, but still. It suggests, but doesn’t outright say, a great many things about the concept of “value” that people like Kamoshida have, about how they treat people like property, and their actual property as a core of their identity.

ASH: After the oppressive and horrible month of experiences we are put through as players, the sequence setting up the calling card structure – which the rest of the game will follow – is a wonderful relief. In order to have his treasure take on a manifest form in the Metaverse, the team have to make the real Kamoshida mentally conceive of it as something that can be stolen, that his core is known to other people and under threat. The solution they come to is making a calling card addressed to him, promising to steal his heart and making it very clear they are neither afraid of him nor in the dark about what kind of man he is. His desperate posturing anger, the subsequent boss run with its triumphant music, the fight with Kamoshida’s warped demonic form, chugging a mixture of blood and girls’ body parts from a trophy cup, and his ultimate downfall, are immensely satisfying. They set the tone for the rest of the game: taking down self-appointed tyrants who think themselves untouchable.

PRZ: In the Metaverse, Kamoshida’s treasure appears as the crown upon his head, the symbol of his royal authority and divine right to rule. When taken outside to the real world, the source of his distorted desires turns out to be his old Olympic medal. It is no surprise the palace grew from this particular object, when he himself makes it perfectly clear while taunting the protagonists that the other teachers all know what he gets up to; they just don’t want to say anything because he’s the face of the school, or they’d rather cling to his prestige than stand against him. The reflection to the protagonist’s experience with the justice system is obvious, and it is a powerful set of building blocks for the game to lay as its foundations, as the questions of “if the adults knew why didn’t they do anything?” come to the fore. Kamoshida’s legacy is something that haunts the school and the protagonists long after he is removed from the stage.

 Since your name has been disgraced already, why not hoist the flag and wreak havoc…?

Part 2: The World is Filled With Both Beauty and Vice >>