The Politics of Persona 5, Part 4: No Illusions Shall Deceive You Any Longer

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

ASH: There were many moments in Persona 5 where I felt anxious the game was about to just drop everything I liked about it and subvert its established ideas to retreat to some lazy formula or terrible wishy-washy political ideal (not in the least helped by the moments where the classic Persona team problems arise – weird gay stereotypes and forced teen archetype moments, though few stand out here). The Phantom Thieves at this point feel both to themselves and the player as though they are lacking in purpose. My fear for the progression of the story was that it was about to descend into unrelated dives into themed villains and that the storyline around the Thieves themselves would gradually shift on me into a parable about becoming just as bad as the palace rulers.

ASH: This feeling is no accident though, the Thieves are caught up in numerous pondering chats amongst themselves about their purpose as an organisation – is it enough to save individuals at such a slow rate? Are they really bringing any kind of justice instead of just creating brief gaps to be filled? Their internal conflict is summed up in the ever-present popularity polls from their fansite displayed on the game’s loading screens: the group wants to pursue justice but doesn’t know where to go looking to do so. The site itself is meant to provide a mechanism for people to hand them targets, but without publicity to make people believe in them, they wonder how much worth it has as a tool, and so discussions become about how to raise their public profile. Targets are needed that not only demonstrate their power on a wide social scale but also demonstrate the just-ness of their cause. Kaneshiro was investigated not only because he was a direct threat to their fellow students but because he represented a chance to raise their brand higher than urban legend.

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PRZ: The constant presence of the polls, along with some choice website comments (which, while generally rude and uninformed, aren’t even half as vicious as real-world ones), introduces the anonymous voice of “society” or “the people” as a sort of collective character responding to the events of the game. The general tone of the comments is skeptical, cynical, mocking, “along for the ride;” what I took away from them is that people who loudly and confidently speak for the general opinion don’t really have any idea what they’re talking about, especially considering the contrast with the more personal focus on those who have come into contact with the Thieves directly.

ASH: At this point in the story the shadowy official that’s bracketed chapters throughout the game shifts in focus from discussions of vague future plans, minor interest in the Phantom Thieves and their usage of the Metaverse. He speaks with a man he refers to as “future Prime Minister” (linking once again the larger world into the immediate conflict) about a means to dispose of the Thieves entirely. As their group begins to build their interests more and more towards social reform, ambitious men in high rise offices can no longer stand to allow them to exist. The phone app connectivity that has allowed organisation amongst these teenagers doesn’t belong to them and the more they obtain the fame they are after, the more the world above reorganises things to push them back down. If the Thieves are gaining a public profile as freedom fighters, then the solution is to pit them against others of their kind.

ASH: Filling in the now modern day folklore archetype of the scrappy heroic hacker group is Medjed. They declare war on the Phantom Thieves, echoing comments from the televised debates on the group made popular by the presence of the charismatic young detective Goro Akechi. The Thieves cannot be trusted with justice: in Akechi’s eyes they are too dangerous as faceless individuals, to Medjed they are faceless individuals too obsessed with their own fame to be trusted with a revolutionary goal. The powers that be have already realized that the longer people focus on “what is to be done” about a society built on exploitation, the more scrutiny they will inevitably come under; they know that a collective belief in an organisation that inherently opposes their interests is a danger to be stamped out, not least of all because in the Metaverse, common belief equates directly and literally to power.

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ASH: As two angles of the similar line of attack Akechi and Medjed both claim the Thieves as the real enemy that has to be stopped. The goal of this is not only to keep fighting amongst those on the losing side of the exploitation equation, but to give those less impacted a narrative for why things are better as they are, platitudes to lean on when things become awkward. In this way Medjed and the Phantom Thieves are seen as the aberrations to the normal order, the cause of all the chaos and unrest while the true wielders of power aren’t even an existing aspect of public life. Akechi in turn absorbs the youthful energy of the Phantom Thieves phenomenon and gives the public an actual face to valorise, one that speaks comforting repetitions of social norms, a branding exercise that exists to let the public know you can be a freethinker and an interesting individual by “refusing” to be tricked by groups with agendas, politics and allegedly simplistic ways of looking at things (and when the world is so figured out how could they be right? Right??). Akechi then represents the beginnings of a reaction, a movement to wrest social control back from those who are starting to overturn the normal order of things, a figurehead for those who think that the Phantom Thieves and their believers are causing too much of a fuss, taking, if you will, social justice too far. Like the school kids angry at Ryuji for striking back at Kamoshida, the goal is to destroy the Phantom Thieves by making their sympathisers identify with their oppressors instead.

PRZ: Akechi’s TV appearances put on a smiling, youthful and charmingly awkward face on arguments about “the rule of law” and the proper way society should be ran, but as players, we’ve already witnessed his interactions with both of the Niijima sisters, in which, while outwardly polite and professional, he always manages to sneak in a vicious jab about their improper and unfeminine behaviour. The huge scope of the game makes these incidents seem isolated and easy to forget, especially if you’re not coming into it with an already established understanding of how men’s dominance in countless spheres of life is perpetuated and reinforced by microaggressions such as these. After all, he’s such a nice boy to everyone else, isn’t he?

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ASH: The impact of the social discourse around the Phantom Thieves can be felt in the protagonist’s daily life through the form of his adoptive guardian/probation warden Sojiro Sakura. Throughout the game so far he has represented adult control, a vaguely sinister figure with a secret personal life that, just by his presence in this narrative, makes him suspicious. Though his character softens through his confidant storyline, he never truly opens up, nor does he stop existing as a figure of surveillance and control, reminding the protagonist how the world sees him and passively parroting half-digested socially accepted ideas about how the world sees the Phantom Thieves. Everything about Sojiro’s existence as a surrogate parent to the protagonist, from his seemingly reactionary stances to his secret daughter he won’t allow anyone to see, suggests the presence of another slowly unfurling tale of an adult abusing their power over the youths they’re meant to look after.

ASH: As it turns out though, Sojiro wound up being easily one of my favourite characters in the game, alongside his adopted daughter Futaba. It’s a refreshing experience to have the formula broken to instead discover an adult character is actually a pretty good person who cares for others at his own expense. All the secrecy around Futaba and the coldness towards the protagonist were means of keeping the world away from Futaba rather than Futaba from the world. Sojiro took in the daughter of the woman he loved after her death, he feels a duty to protect her that – through the reality of Futaba’s extreme social anxiety, grief and depression – translates into keeping her safe in his house and given whatever she wants with no pressure to ever have to leave her room if she doesn’t want to. He doesn’t know how to approach or help her, but he knows how to keep her alive and give her space, fairly similar to his approach to taking in a “delinquent kid” that he keeps impressing upon that the world doesn’t care about.

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ASH: Futaba has her own conception of the arrangement, one that forms the Palace for this chapter of the game. Her room is a tomb she has been confined to, her body lives but she feels that she has long since died, in the Metaverse her bedroom door exists as an impenetrable barrier until the Thieves coax her into letting them in. To say Futaba was a relatable character to me would be an understatement, she is a character I sympathised with to such a degree I was inserting myself into scenes as though I was playing as her when making any decisions relating to her. Circumstances naturally differing Futaba’s daily existence is an exact mirror of my past self’s. At only a couple years of age older than Futaba I dropped out of school and almost all public life, I shut myself away in my room and lived for a long time almost exclusively on the internet. My parents enabled me to do so, because they had no idea how to help me and figured the space would allow me to grow beyond the depression and fear that had made up my school life. It’s hard to say they were wrong from where I am now, and for Sojiro’s part too, it was the only good he knew how to do for her.

ASH: Futaba’s extremely messy room, her struggle with mental illness, her extreme inability to cope with people along with her need to hide from them, even her conception of her room as a tomb all feel directly lifted from my life. The exact idea that I was meant to have died and I was just locked away with all my stuff piled up waiting for reality to catch up went through my head on a daily basis. Like me, Futaba’s growth into a social being with friends largely came about as the result of others finding their way into her world. For Futaba’s part, she invites them in, as she believes stealing her heart can cure her of her depression. Although she tries to back out when she realises it would involve the group having to enter her room (hiding in the closet when they eventually do, no less,) it is her initial reaching out that begins her process of recovery.

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PRZ: Futaba was incredibly relatable to me as well, despite my shut-in phase having started at a much later age. After a long series of traumatic experiences, closing off contact with the outside world and confining myself to my flat as much as possible felt like the only meaningful way in which I could assert any kind of boundaries or privacy; to a fair extent, it still does. Like her, I also wanted to disappear from the world; but like her, I also wanted to get better, and latched onto anything that might theoretically result in that in the long-term, while also being absolutely terrified of leaving the environment where I felt at least somewhat in control of my life.

ASH: What’s great about Futaba in this story is that she isn’t just a damsel in distress figure: like the others, her plotline revolves around helping her overcome her problems and see through the distortions forced on her by others. She may be socially incapable and prickly (her shadow self trying to lead the party through her palace while also triggering the environment to fight them off epitomising this as her defense mechanism), but she is by no means unaware of the world. Living online, she has built her own knowledge base and learned a mastery over her personal reality. These skills are ultimately what lead the party to her in the first place, as they need her to prevent the Medjed attack (Futaba turning out to be the original and real Medjed).

PRZ: Medjed, of course, is a riff on the popular culture idea of “Anonymous,” executed with a lot more awareness of the actual circumstances surrounding this online phenomenon than usual. Online imageboards and sites that gave rise to this more modern incarnation of hacker culture have always been many things at once – a social outlet for isolated, maladjusted or systematically excluded people, and an incarnation of an older, romantic dream about “cyberspace” as a sort of exterritorial libertarian utopia with no oversight or authority, but because of that, also a safe haven for abusers, groomers, bigots, far-right recruiters and all sorts of people who, while not in any real sense rejected by mainstream society, are at least considered impolite and unwelcome when they openly state their opinions elsewhere. Futaba, a self-taught, traumatized teenager, being the founder of Medjed, and Medjed having become something that’s not only against her ideals, but actively working to bring harm and destruction in the service of protecting existing structures of power (but still under the guise of rebellion against “normies”) feels very true to life.

PRZ: There is a point of connection between Futaba and the Moon confidant character, Mishima – a boy from the protagonist’s class, a victim of Kamoshida’s and the admin of the Phantom Thieves fansite. Futaba finds him relatively easy to talk to, because he too spends most of his time online; his confidant storyline, however, is very different. The Moon arcanum is usually associated with the idea of reflected light, mirrors, illusions, hidden truth and false beliefs. Through the website, Mishima creates a sort of outward-facing mask or reflection for the Thieves to communicate with the world, but in doing so, he comes to think of himself as their manager or PR man, gradually trying to turn them into some kind of brand or commodity that he has control over. He also tries to use them for his personal goals of petty revenge. Mishima’s shadow grows out of control and eventually ends up in Mementos, probably on its way to building a whole Palace of its own, and has to be confronted – though, significantly, not defeated in combat or forced into a change of heart.

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PRZ: Mishima is a victim not only of Kamoshida, but also peer bullying, but his story reflects a sort of illusion or, if we insist on putting it that way, false consciousness – an idea of making things right by becoming a bigger bully and abuser, becoming unassailable by assailing others first and with greater force. Many discussions about the online far right are obsessively focused on the idea that these “kids” are “the real victims,” an idea perfectly in accordance with the founding myths that these groups themselves perpetuate, one that would have us excuse their actions because they, too, have had a hard life. Persona 5 doesn’t even allow that as a possiblity, and, by juxtaposing him with Futaba, makes clear the difference between coping with trauma and perpetuating its cycle.

ASH: The shut-in hacker nerd girl could so easily have been a bait of a character that exists just as fan-service and plot device but Futaba is treated with a lot more thought. She’s treated gently by everyone where she needs to be, the focus is on helping her heal and slowly push her comfort zones outwards, rather than a forcible sudden reintegration with society. Her problems aren’t shown as flaws, they’re wounds to be healed. On the other side though, she’s never treated as anything other than a normal member of the group once she joins, nor is her lifestyle really said to be an issue outside of where it causes her discomfort – not where it causes others to look down on her. Indeed part of her and Sojiro’s confidant plotlines revolves around her abusive biological uncle trying to claim custody of her based on arguing the unnatural and societally unacceptable way she lives her life.

ASH: What she and Sojiro represent in a societal sense to the story and to the increasingly rudderless Phantom Thieves is a chance to step back and evaluate. Sojiro is played as a subversion of the format that shows us that adults don’t have to be the selfish monsters we’ve seen so far, an important part in impressing that the abusive are that way by choice. He is also an example of care that doesn’t heal, by simply working on the symptoms and never communicating enough to work on their roots Sojiro keeps Futaba in a measure of comfort but doesn’t help her improve from there. It is a reflection of the Thieves’ crisis in their mission, in helping Futaba they learn to help a victim heal instead of removing another single instance of society’s fractal problems. Though it’s only a diversion from the main thrust I feel an important thing Futaba’s chapter tells us is that elevating victims is not only morally important but a valuable strategic goal – granting new allies and perspectives on problems, helping to spread that help outward further and further with each addition.

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PRZ: It seemed very important to me how the Futaba episode shows the Thieves, for the first time, using their supernatural powers not to bring down the powerful, but to uplift the powerless. They enter her Palace with her consent, but the process of locating and healing the source of her pain is as much of a gruelling struggle as anything that came before – and of course, locating the original trauma is by no means the end of it. In the subsequent months, Futaba still suffers from social anxiety; one of the scenes of her confidant story shows her having a panic attack in public after being overcome with newfound confidence and pushing herself too hard. The game shows that taking care of the vulnerable, even on a seemingly small scale, and even suffering setbacks and false starts, is no less valuable or necessary than taking the fight to their oppressors.

ASH: Another distinguishing feature of Sojiro (that he shares with other adult confidants) compared with other major adult figures in the plot is that he has been victimised by the system too. Sojiro can’t approach Futaba because of his guilt over her mother’s death. Futaba can’t move beyond her grief because of her own guilt, and it turns out these two problems stem from the same people. Futaba’s mother was assassinated due to her part in researching the Metaverse being an inconvenience to the people mobilising to use it for their own power. Sojiro thinks all he can do is keep her alive by keeping the world away from her, but through the use of the Metaverse itself, the conspiracy that killed her mother convinces Futaba that her mother killed herself because of her, tormenting her with voices and even false memories of her mother hating her. Futaba’s obsession with death then stems not in totality from her own conceptions but from beliefs forced upon her by powerful people that find convenience in her isolation, self-hatred and ideally her death.

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ASH: Just as the Phantom Thieves stand as a potential threat to the powers that be, a stand in for any social reform from below, Futaba stands as a testament to how much the establishment is threatened by the continued existence of those who don’t fit its archetypes, those who have stories of genuine harm and grievance. Both have to be made invisible where possible and have their stories stolen where not, just as the ascendant right wing here in the UK have made the collective sanctioning and shaming of the disabled a priority of their rise to power, the movers and shakers of Persona 5 need Futaba cut off from the world so she can’t tell it what their true face is. The link between Futaba’s personal storyline and an ascendant far right politics growing on the back of it doesn’t feel like either a stretch or an accident in a storyline delving further and further into the world of the political party both through the increasing presence of “future prime minister” Shido in the plot and the deepening pressure on the prosecutors on uncovering the socially revolutionary Phantom Thieves. Futaba’s life online too reflects the ideological battleground being drawn via the Phantom Thieves fansite, a measure of the public’s belief in and support of the Thieves — a mechanism that will in future be leaned on by their enemies to further promote reaction against their ideals. The Thieves can organise online in a world seemingly untouched by the controlling hand of the selfish adults in their lives, but ultimately they’re in Futaba’s head, they’re spreading self-destructive ideas amongst those who could organise against them, and they’re leading by manipulation of belief instead of direct force. What Persona 5 will teach us in the future is that any revolution can be subverted by convincing its participants their ideals align with society’s ones all without them ever realising they’ve been declawed.

ASH: For Futaba’s entry into the plot though, we’ve been introduced to at least one adult who has been in even the smallest amount of defiance to the people behind the scenes. We’ve been shown and will see grow a caring relationship of trust and progression that fills in a gap where the nuclear family unit has vanished. Not only that but we have been shown it in a story where the family unit is represented by abusive intrusions from biological parents and the protagonist’s own completely absent seemingly uncaring ones. Futaba’s chapter of Persona 5 backs off from the world for a more introspective story that reflects more the methods of the Persona 4 crew, but in taking the time to work on themselves and the people around them they act no less revolutionary than they have previously.

They trampled all over your young heart! Get mad! Don’t forgive those rotten adults!

Part 5: The Means and the Ends Have Been Reversed >>