The Politics of Persona 5, Part 2: The World Is Filled With Both Beauty and Vice

<< Part 1: Find Yourself In the Debris

PRZ: When we left them, the Phantom Thieves had just won their first victory over the petty tyrant Kamoshida, and made him confess his crimes with no evidence of their involvement. The kids decide to celebrate in a fancy restaurant – probably their first encounter with the so-called elite of society.

PRZ: Absolutely everyone in that elite turns out to be a horrible person. You get to overhear conversations between socialites, TV execs and politicians expressing open contempt for society at large, and the main characters in particular, wondering loudly what their social inferiors are doing in such a place. Some bald asshole with a full security detail has his goons cut you off at the elevator, just because he’s more important than you. The message is clear: go away, you don’t belong here.

PRZ: With Kamoshida still fresh on their minds, the kids are quick to make the connection. All of these rich, sophisticated, well-bred people have the same air of superiority, the same condescension, and any one of them could be doing the same things as the PE teacher, except on a much larger scale than just one school. They, just like Kamoshida, think they’re above justice. But with the power of their Personas, the gang has the means to do something about it.

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PRZ: This scene is a sort of parallel to the individual and dramatic awakenings that the protagonist, Ryuji and Ann experienced before. It isn’t presented as such – if anything, it’s light-hearted and optimistic – but it’s a stark confrontation with the realities of power, class and wealth that give rise to Kamoshidas everywhere, and ends in the same way – with a firm resolution to rebel against cruelty and oppression. The initial, individual realization of being treated unjustly, naturally leads to an awakening of social consciousness, to recognizing something of yourself in others who are suffering under the same social pressures. This, in turn, is the source of the power to fight back.

ASH: In entering the fancy rich people restaurant, the team find themselves unwittingly entering into another warped palace of desires, this time without the use of their newfound reality hopping powers, their access being contingent on their theft of an artifact from a member of this alternate upper world presenting an appealing fae treasure-like angle What begins as an extravagant youthful plan to celebrate their success turns into an eye opening moment for the protagonists, the narrative and the player; just as it was discovered that Kamoshida could only operate via protection of his peers bought by his influence, now it is learned that this culture extends far beyond any one school or any one abuser. An important lesson is impressed upon our crew as they formally found their thieving group and vow to spread their justice beyond their own lives, to seek out others living in fear as they did and uplift them, and to take down any who would hide behind their inflated status to make others their playthings. A lesson about the limits of individual successes, the need for solidarity and a glimpse at the true face of a society that produces this abuse and pretends to have nothing to do with it.

ASH: However, more than that, what occurs in the restaurant is the first real moment that the game assures you it knows stories of taking down that one bad egg and returning society to normal cannot ever be the whole story, this scene is a promise from the narrative to the player that the scope will broaden and that where there are loose ends in a sociological reading the writers will be there to follow up.

ASH: A running theme in the overheard musings of the upper classes the gang find themselves confronted with is an exploitation of the story they just lived through. To these disconnected adults their lives are a juicy news story, a warning about who to avoid association with, an exciting drama, a ghastly tale to be used to inflate their own moral optics. Ultimately what is being said over and over is that these kids and their lives are hypotheticals to these people, they are property to be used so that others can advance themselves. The suffering of the young is institutionally accepted and encouraged in order to advance the influence and comfort of the old and established. Just as the students of Shujin were the property of Kamoshida, they are now the tools of a much larger world that only recognises they exist as a commodity, a PR event for their class and a chance to drum up a rhetoric about how their kind needs more powers to prevent this kind of thing.

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ASH: Which brings us neatly to the next palace, an enormous museum that stands as a monument to the ego of Madarame, a famous philanthropist artist known for tutoring young underprivileged students and for operating with great varied inspiration from a humble shack befitting his wise and worldly personality. Of course this is all a façade; as the mask is ripped off Madarame turns out to be the perfect example of those adults from the restaurant, an attitude and theming perfectly summed up in the portraits of his palace’s gallery. Where Kamoshida’s had representations of his students as identity scrubbed slaves or adoring airheads, Madarame’s has no “living” representations whatsoever; instead all of Madarame’s students (some of whom can be found around Tokyo, abandoned and homeless) hang in his gallery as portraits, works of art fashioned by Madarame existing only to stand lifeless as monuments to his greatness.

ASH: Madarame’s real world story is about intellectual property and his running scheme to steal the work of the young artists he takes in to keep up his profile. In this the game starts to get into the concept of property ownership. Madarame is able to use all the powers of society to ensure that he owns not only his students works but their very lives and futures, they are his to promote and discard at will. So invested is he in this ideological construction that it seems he truly believes he is being gracious in sharing his fame with those beneath him: in fact, he is so able to play his character he even convinces his victims of it. Kamoshida was a brute with a lot of social cover, but Madarame is an artist skilled in illusion to such a degree that, even before the true extent of his schemes can come to light, he possesses a palace so tightly locked down that it requires a real world home invasion to shift his conceptions.

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PRZ: Madarame’s fame, we are told, began with the Sayuri, a portrait of a serenely smiling young woman, done in a traditional Japanese style. The Sayuri is said to have an air of mystery about it, cynically stoked by Madarame himself; the lower half seems marred or overtaken by a swathe of colour. Regrettably, I don’t know enough about the history of Japanese art to speak confidently on what kind of references it might evoke – in a Western context, however, it’s difficult to ignore the association with the Mona Lisa.

PRZ: The history of the Sayuri is a blueprint for Madarame’s entire modus operandi. It’s not his creation in the first place – it was made by a woman he was in a relationship with, whose name he doesn’t even bother to mention or recall. Madarame knew she suffered from seizures, and during one of them, he refused to call for help, already plotting his rise to fame by using her work as his own. Legally, perhaps, one may quibble if that is murder or not; ethically, he is as responsible for her death as if he’d killed her with his own hands.

PRZ: It’s worth dwelling on this theme for a while. Throughout history, in the arts and literature as well as all other spheres of life, women’s work has been both devalued as less serious or valuable than men’s, and simultaneously appropriated and exploited by the very same men promoting this narrative. The precise nature of what exactly is undesirable in women’s art is always vague and subject to revision: too expressive or not expressive enough, too fanciful or too unimaginative, too coarse or too refined. Historical examples abound of authors writing under masculine pen names being praised by unwitting contemporaries for their manly virtues. More broadly, there is a gendered divide running through labour – whatever is seen as “women’s work” is not considered to be worthy of very high praise or compensation, if it is even acknowledged to be work at all. In this way Madarame’s plagiarism is placed in a much wider context of the silencing and dispossession of women by men, even their supposed “loved ones”. Persona 5 doesn’t make this point overtly, but it drops all the narrative clues an attentive reader needs to connect the dots.

PRZ: The lower half of the Sayuri is painted over, because the original was a self-portrait of the author, holding her newborn baby. Perhaps out of lingering guilt, Madarame adopted his victim’s orphaned son, Yusuke, but then simply treated him as he did all of his “pupils,” exploiting his work and abusing him, while relying on the boy’s sense of gratitude for being given a home and an education. Yusuke has no illusions about Madarame’s wise kindly hermit act, but is determined to defend the man on whom he is, after all, completely reliant for his livelihood – at least until he ends up dragged into the Metaverse and sees the twisted inner workings of his foster father’s psyche laid completely bare. “He means well” is no longer a convincing excuse when it’s plain to see that the only thing Madarame cares about is his wealth and fame.

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PRZ: One of the game’s more striking scenes is when Ann and Yusuke break into Madarame’s locked storeroom and discover his gigantic stockpile of mass-produced copies of the Sayuri, which he’d been quietly selling to wealthy customers. To his buyers, owning such a historical work is both a mark of upper-class prestige and a shrewd investment – the prices of “high” art are generally far more stable than bonds, hedge funds or any other mysterious financial wizardry, since they are very unlikely to face the same kinds of political and economic pressures; they are only in danger of depreciation if they can be proven to be fakes, or if some unprecedented and revolutionary shift occurs in the general idea of which art is seen as “high”. As an internationally respected artist, Madarame is able to leverage his reputation to ensure the latter doesn’t happen, and to embody everything that critics and snobs expect a great artist to be. The actual value of the copies, however, and the reason why the process of their production must be so well hidden, is the uncompensated, uncredited work of Madarame’s mistreated and manipulated “pupils”, any one of which could easily collapse the entire façade of lies and deprive him of his fraudulent wealth. That is why he chooses people like Yusuke, who he knows will feel indebted to him, and discards them when they are no longer useful.

PRZ: The way in which Persona 5 makes most of this explicit is, honestly, incredible. Madarame’s scam is a metaphor for the workings in capitalism in general – those who create value are used and forgotten, and those who exploit them thrive. Grim as that is, there is another side to it – the same tactics, values and beliefs that the Phantom Thieves used to bring down their petty high school tyrant will now allow them to defeat a much greater foe.

ASH: The interpersonal conflict found in the suffering of Yusuke at the hands of his guardian, teacher and exploiter Madarame is deployed not only as metaphor but as a narrative bridge taking us from the world of the takes-what-they-want abuser into an example of systematised abuse rooted in noble aesthetics and valued precisely because it can create market value. The illusory nature of it is key to the image and, as will be shown by later parts, crucial to the progression into deeper and deeper entrenchments of power sustained by ownership. Madarame is empowered by his ability to own not only the Sayuri, the production of its copies and its extended mythology (as much a commodity as the painting itself) but he is even able to snuff out the means of creating anything to rival it, in effect the entire art world has been expropriated by Madarame solely through smoke and mirrors standing atop sacrifices and labour of countless others. That the labour of women is devalued and the pain of social exclusion and the consequences of society’s ills tend to fall upon innocent and deliberately victimised women is made repeatedly clear in Persona 5 (though sadly, like some other positive statements, it has a tendency to undermine itself with some tone deaf scenes such as the extended plot about how Ann is going to have to strip for Yusuke right off the back of her conflict with a sexual abuser), time and again women are shown to be the foremost victims of the men who create these palaces for themselves in society’s subconscious.

ASH: The nature of the plane on which the palaces sprout is made clear by the group’s excursions into Mementos, a grand structure shaped like an endless series of underground railway lines beating and pulsing as though pumping blood, trailing ever downward. This place is described as being the collective unconscious of Tokyo and it is utilised by the Phantom Thieves to solve smaller heart-changing related problems before they can blossom into palaces of their own. Most of these side quests carry with them some theme of overinflated egos and misuses of power, small fiefdoms created by overpowering bosses, schoolyard bullies and the like, learned about through the Phantom Thieves’ “Phan-Site” set up by one of the students saved from Kamoshida and inspired to seek out others who could benefit from their intervention, by way of a help request forum.

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ASH: The Phan-Site also powers the Thieves’ explorations into Mementos – or, more specifically, their public profile does. As Morgana explains it, their access to the collective unconscious of the public is contingent on the public’s belief that the Phantom Thieves can achieve things like this (much as Morgana’s ability to transform into a van is based on popular culture depictions of cats doing so), thus the more of the public truly believe the Phantom Thieves exist and can steal the innermost desires of people, the more access to the wider public conscious they can attain. The importance of this is that fame empowers them, and by building a public brand for themselves, they accrue ever more influence in society, passing from feverish rumour to accepted facet of public life.

ASH: The nature of this power and the responsible use of it will be a constant debate for the team and serves as a mirror to much of the main plot later on. However, for the moment, what is more relevant is the contrast between the relative anonymity and impersonal power gains of the Phan-Site and the more immediate, stable and direct gains of the Social Links system. In the free time of the main character, he is able to strike up relationships and spend time with a wide cast of people. This system mechanically exists to improve personas he is able to create and to grant a variety of combat and management abilities to ease the gameplay further; as a system, it can be gamed for maximum reward by equipping personas of the same type as the person being spoken to. Narratively speaking, these mechanics translate to a process of learning from engaging in the struggles of another: your time with the speech-giving politician grants you skill in negotiation, but also helps you come to understand his ideals; time spent with party members will grant them more confidence in battle, better team work and eventually newly established personas entirely. The symbolic relationship is simple but important: your understanding of a character is improved by being able to mentally envisage the kind of persona that relates to them, and in turn it becomes easier to envisage those kinds of personas as you learn more from these friends and allies.

ASH: This has been a fairly dry rendition of the stories at work here, many of which are the most touching and important of the game, each a microcosm of the game’s themes of social exclusion, struggling to do the right thing and/or carry on after tragedy and, most importantly, the importance of chosen family and struggling through life together with those who understand and accept you as you do them. The contrast between these kinds of relationships (defined as they are by mutual trust, communication and learning) and the relationship struck up with the public at large (defined by invasion, battle and uncertainty) will become a key component of the plot; indeed, the story of the Phan-Site creator Mishima’s Social Link revolves around it. At the beginning of the game the protagonist was instructed to ally with those who “share his aesthetics” and, by interpreting this as a call to press on, not sink into the contrite ex-con role society has laid out for him and affirming that his previous decisions were correct, he is able to find them. These small acts of confident defiance inspire more in others; seeing what they were able to do for one another, the small but growing party of The Phantom Thieves define their main goal as a desire to grant the confidence they have found in each other to everyone suffering under powers that seem set in stone.

How foolishly you averted your eyes from the truth… a deplorable imitation indeed… best you part with that aspect of yourself!

Part 3: You Have Finally Found Your Own Justice >>

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