I’ve only played the first 13 hours of Persona 5, and this article contains light spoilers of the story so far.
The Persona series has functioned in its past three installments as a deep dive into the nature of living in Japan as a teenager – specifically going to high school.
If you’ve ever watched any anime in your life, you know that this is well worn territory.
What sets Persona apart is its insistence on exploring the mundane. Sure, you fight crime in the Metaverse (Persona 5’s version of Inception, but rather than infiltrating dreams, the darkest parts of a person’s id) but most of your time is spent going to your after school club, talking to your friends, and your part time job. Do you feed your plant before bed, or study for your upcoming exam? Or maybe you want to work out for a while? Or go to the bathhouse?
The entire structure is built around the balancing act of using free time wisely. Each moment is valuable, as the game attaches grow-able metrics to all of these activities, regardless of how seemingly important one might be over the other. Your character becomes more kind when they water their plant, more combat-ready when they work out. The result is a very real feeling play space – the more mundane the activities, the more embedded in the experience you become.
This mirrors the wider culture of being a teenager in Japan. Japanese teenagers are expected to fulfill a number of after school activities – their school lives don’t end when the bell rings and class is dismissed. So it’s fitting that Persona functions in part as an extracurricular activity simulator. Similarly fitting is Persona 5’s way of looking at justice and shame. As a Japanese teenager, expectations are high for you. So much so that Japan currently ranks number 17 of most suicides per country, per year. Among first world countries, number two.
While I don’t want to dwell on that morbid statistic, BBC has an interesting piece looking at the cause of that rampant suicide here. Japan has historically been, and still is, an honorbound society. As such, shame, and specifically bringing shame to your family or peers, is the pinnacle of Japanese existential dread. A fitting example is that in the Japanese educational system, posting students’ test scores in a public area is standard practice. In part to shine the light on the best in class, but also to shame underachievers.
In Persona 5’s opening chapters, our team of young Phantom Thieves are tasked with taking down the lecherous Coach Kamoshida. Aside from physically abusing the male students of the volleyball team, the former gold medalist sexually assaults the young women of his class. We never see him do so (for obvious reasons that I am thankful for) but the implication is thinly veiled.
Sexual assault, especially of minors, is one of Japan’s greatest social issues.
Accidentally stepping on to a women-only train car is a mistake you only make once, as I learned the hard way, and testament to how endemic the issue really is. It was hammered home for me further when I lived in Japan — I purchased an iPhone and discovered that I couldn’t turn off the camera shutter sound when taking a picture. When it dawned on me why I couldn’t turn off that telltale click, specifically on my Japanese iPhone, it made me feel ill. I’ll let you use your imagination as to why.
That Persona 5 tackles issues like this is admirable to say the least, but what I find even more fascinating is how Persona 5 approaches righting those wrongs, and in this instance, bringing Coach Kamoshida to justice. In a Western title, you would probably just beat him up or turn him over to the police. In Persona 5, your characters dive into the most twisted parts of his heart – something that the game refers to as a palace – and steal his treasure, the source of his dark thoughts. Through a convoluted and very anime explanation, it causes him to have a “change of heart.” That is, to realize how horrible his actions are. To face his own depravity and bear the burden of his guilt. This ultimately leads Kamoshida to confess to his sins in public forum, the shame too much, almost resorting to seppuku, ritual suicide.
This speaks volumes about the Japanese understanding of justice. The greatest punishment that can be met out to Kamoshida is to feel the shame that any moral human should. Kamoshida is even denied his own suicide so that he may live the rest of his life as an outcast, shunned. Pretty fucking brutal.
And sort of beautiful. The Persona series has always performed extremely well in Japan, meaning that there are a lot of eyeballs on this game. And as such, it allows Japanese teens the power fantasy that, I’m assuming, many need. Maybe they can’t stop their female friend or crush from being groped on the train by a sleezy salaryman, but they can stop their friends from being sexually assaulted in a video game. While that doesn’t solve any real world problems, I’m hoping that it provides an outlet for kids that feel underrepresented and oppressed by the mores of the society in which they live.
In a similar fashion, Persona 5, as an “extracurricular activity simulator” allows the player to lead an idyllic and optimized life. One only full of growth – in Persona 5 your plant doesn’t die, it only becomes more healthy. You never become weak from not working out every night, you just maintain a status quo and grow when you decide to, your strength never decays. Persona 5 is the typical video game power fantasy, but in the opposite vector of something like Call of Duty. You get to feel better about your own time management in life.
I don’t mean this to sound hard on Japanese culture at large – lord knows we have our own issues in the States – or to presume I know how their issues might be fixed. And by the same token, would love nothing more than Western developers to tackle the different issues that Western teenagers face. As Persona has also performed well in the west, I’d be fascinated to see an alternate reality in which Persona is developed by Bethesda and deals with gun control, drug abuse, and teen pregnancy.