The Politics of Persona 5, Part 3: You Have Finally Found Your Own Justice

<< Part 2: The World Is Filled With Both Beauty and Vice

ASH: As you can likely tell from the time period between this post and part 2 [editor’s note: you can’t anymore, haha], this hasn’t been the easiest entry to get around to starting. Mostly owing to this being probably my least favourite chapter of the game, but in fairness to it, it’s only the combination of this year being amazing release after amazing release that properly drew me away.

ASH: This chapter is by no means bad, it’s simply a bit of a middle of the series episode. The game feels like it’s fallen into a predictable rhythm, the stakes feel less substantial compared with previous chapters despite technically being raised. The villain lacks a real personal connection to the story of the protagonists and, where previous ones were directly about exploitative adults and their relationships with the kids they have power over, this one diverts into something of a simplistic crime story. This is also however what it succeeds at, in transitioning the scope of the investigation from teacher and mentor to minor crime boss the plot is beginning a process of branching out into grander systems of exploitation.

PRZ: With the public humiliation of Madarame, the Phantom Thieves have managed to capture everyone’s attention – though not necessarily their positive opinion. Up to this point, the quest tracker had been prompting you to “prove your existence to society” – a familiar and bitterly funny injunction for anyone with any experience of social marginalization and erasure. When the news breaks and the reactions, online comments and editorials start pouring in, it gets replaced with a new objective: “prove your justice to society.” As we’ve seen, society – especially high society – isn’t very sympathetic to a gang of supernatural teenage criminals.

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PRZ: With that in mind, and thanks to a series of unexpected events, the kids find their next target in the middle-level crime boss Kaneshiro, by all accounts a cunning mastermind whose operation, involving drugs and forcing students into sex work, has so far managed to completely evade the police. While their main motivation is being personally threatened by the mobster (with photos of them next to bottles of alcohol, oh no!), the Thieves are well aware that bringing him down would be a fantastic publicity move – after all, who doesn’t love stories about masked heroes standing up for justice where the law has failed?

PRZ: The newest addition to the team is Makoto Niijima, who has been introduced a while back as a sort of minor antagonist: she’s the student council president, a strict, no-nonsense girl with excellent grades and complete faith in the system, and when we first met her, she’d just been tasked by the principal with keeping a close eye on our troublemaking protagonists. She’s also the younger sister of Sae Niijima, the equally no-nonsense public prosecutor assigned to the Phantom Thieves’ case, who we know primarily from the flash-forward interrogation scenes of the main character. The dramatic and interpersonal stakes are slowly rising.

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PRZ: I can’t lie, I love Makoto and relate to her very hard. I was never a prim and proper kid, but I had good grades, more or less did what was socially expected of me and, all along, had a horrible feeling about the nice, respectable, middle class future trying to land itself on me. It sounds ridiculous now – oh no, financial security, the horror! – and it was, but looking back I know that it was also a sense that this can’t possibly be everything there is to know about the world, or about myself, and really how can I be expected to have an idea of how my life should be spent with woefully incomplete information? And, more importantly, why should I trust anyone to decide what’s best for me?

PRZ: Pushed by her successful and driven sister, by the school principal, by the weight of everyone’s expectations, wracked with guilt over not doing anything to stop Kamoshida’s abuse, and just really internally messed up in general, Makoto reaches a breaking point. Her “investigation” into the Shadow Thieves, initially ordered by the principal to protect what’s left of the school’s reputation, turns into a reckless attempt to prove herself to them, and to prove her own justice to herself. It goes poorly, of course, but at the point of crisis, Makoto awakens to her power in the form of a sick as hell motorbike Persona, a Mad Max punk outfit and the newfound ability to yell back at loathsome authority figures. It’s a wonderful moment.

PRZ: The scenes between Sae and Makoto are very well written as well; they obviously care for one another, but there is a constant undercurrent of tension and a fully articulated awareness that to Make It in the male-dominated professional world, they have to work twice as hard. Sae is visibly overworked; she snaps at her younger sister, essentially calling her ungrateful and a burden. It gets smoothed over almost immediately, but it’s still a very real and raw depiction of the strain these systems of inequality place on human relationships, good intentions or no.

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ASH: The chapter has does hit its stride eventually, the imagery of the giant floating bank hovering over Tokyo sucking up money from walking ATM people, the boss fight against the giant robot piggy bank and Makoto’s angry tirade about parasitic rich leeches directed at the villain all stand out as moments that had me as excited as earlier parts. They lay the groundwork for connecting the abuse of Kamoshida and Madarame to the economic exploitation of vaster swathes of people. The plot line here is merely a look into a relatively high school drama idea of crime, but by making that the new target, it bridges the gap between individual action and organised subjugation.

PRZ: Makoto pretty much has to carry the personal aspect of this episode all by herself, because Kaneshiro himself isn’t very compelling, and has no real preexisting relationship to any of the kids. The figure of the crime boss is still important, however, in what it represents as a sort of mirror image of the Phantom Thieves. His image of himself in the cognitive world is that of a ruthless and efficient banker, and it highlights how organized crime intertwines with the “legal” economy, functioning as a pure and unrestrained expression of capitalist individualism, competition and reducing people to their value as commodities; in fact, at the highest level, when you’re the CEO of Enron swindling people out of their life’s savings, is it even really crime anymore?

PRZ: The Thieves, in contrast, are the “bad” criminals – abused and exploited kids banding together to fight back. A bank is a fundamental and necessary institution in the logic of property; a thief is a violator of that logic.

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ASH: Further helping to plant the seeds of a wider world in the story is one of the “confidants” available from fairly early on. Toranosuke or “No Good Tora” is an unpopular and essentially failed politician, a man who has been wholly rejected by society in a very public way, but who nonetheless continues to run for office on a platform of his beliefs. It isn’t hard to detect the ways Toranosuke’s story is meant to reflect our protagonist’s own, a diligent and sincere man working in politics for what he believed was a common good, set up to take the fall in his party fellows’ expenses scandal. Lacking the scheming edge to prevent or even see it coming, Toranosuke becomes an unwitting victim of the predators at the top of society and turns his goals towards pushing a political platform that works against the exploitation of people, with a particular focus on uplifting youths.

ASH: His friendship with the protagonist is one based initially on learning from him the skill of convincing public speaking, an asset to be used in the gameplay demon negotiation system, but it blossoms into helping Toranosuke find the courage to not wilt in the face of regular public jeers and to really believe in himself just like many of the other confidants. His small plotline serves to bring some attention into the story on the existence of a higher world of power, of organised crime that functions completely in the guise of respectability throughout the basic governing systems of society, in this way it sets up the plot’s transition up the chains of power and links ever more ideas of struggle to that of the Phantom Thieves (who Toranosuke openly praises). Through his confidant plotline the world of the politician goes from a kind of background set dressing thing that helps establish a unique character to a world that has been touched by your influence,  that you have walked in, however briefly, and that access will remain relevant throughout the rest of the story.

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PRZ: No-Good Tora was probably the first confidant side story I completed, and it’s one of my favourites, because of how well it fits in with the themes of the game – building interpersonal relationships and helping people be the best they can be on the one hand, and the injustice of institutional power on the other. The next episode – which we’re both very excited about – takes a much sharper turn into the personal side of things.

It’s all because of our society! Weak people can’t lead a happy life, no matter what they do!

Part 4: No Illusions Shall Deceive You Any Longer >>