How Persona 5 Royal Rescued My Heart in Lockdown

[COMMENTARY] Australian journalist Andrew Nardi reflects on playing the JRPG hit Persona 5 during lockdown from the ongoing global pandemic…

Artwork by Shigenori Soejima (Atlus).

Andrew Nardi is a freelance journalist from Melbourne, Australia. In 2016, he presented his dissertation, titled ‘Game Over, Gamers: Contesting the Gamer Identity through the Gamergate Controversy’, at the Australia & New Zealand Communication Association Conference. Since then, he has worked as the editor of BMA Magazine and is currently studying game design and production at the Australian Institute of Entertainment.

In a year of unyielding anxiety and concern for our futures, 2020 was nothing short of frightful. But it was also the year that we received Persona 5 Royal, a game that occupied many of my months in isolation. As the city of Melbourne endured an economic downturn and hard lockdown for over three months, I became segregated from my friends, made redundant at work, and started to feel disconnected from the world at large. P5R became something of a comfort for me in my evenings as I explored Tokyo and got to know my super-powered high school friends. To my surprise however, P5R also helped me reclaim pieces of my identity I thought I’d lost to depression.

Let’s back up. When Persona 5 launched in Japan in 2016, it showed players a window into actual issues that grip Japanese society. The role-playing game and social sim hybrid quickly chalked up a reputation as one of the most stylish, finely tuned and well-written JRPGs ever. But its significance in Japan was much more profound than the overseas response it would receive later.

Persona 5 follows a young, unnamed male protagonist moving into a café loft in Tokyo after a legal dispute in which a sexual predator falsely pins their offence on him when he tries to prevent a case of street harassment. Attending the only school that will accept a student on probation, the protagonist’s reputation is instantly soured by his criminal record – his guardian scrutinises his every action, his homeroom teacher complains at the thought of coordinating him, and unfounded rumours spread rampant among his peers. The plot takes a turn for the supernatural when he and Ryuji Sakamoto – another outcast student – accidentally enter a metaphysical castle born from the distorted desires of the school’s Olympic medal-holding P.E. teacher, who has been physically and sexually abusing students behind closed doors.

The concept and direction of Persona 5 took shape following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster, and the events that followed. Before these disasters, Atlus’ P-Studio had planned P5 to be a globe-trotting, backpacking adventure. In their wake, and particularly after observing how the country united in a crisis, the team decided to shift focus back onto Japan to underline the nation’s issues that had worsened or gone too long unaddressed.

Artwork by Shigenori Soejima (Atlus).

From the cyberbullying in its schools, the culture of overworking in its workplaces, to the dishonesty in its politics, and the mistreatment and disregard for its criminals – no topic is too sensitive for developer Atlus to call in its cast of crime fighting high schoolers, the self-proclaimed “Phantom Thieves of Hearts”. So, it’s appropriate that especially in the face of its Japanese audience, Atlus treats these matters with acuteness and empathy. Even in company with Persona 5’s eccentric flair and extravagant art style, it never tries to sensationalise delicate topics.

Persona 5’s brand of social commentary made an impact in its home country because it dared to cast its native audience in a disapproving light. Importantly, the game wrestled with Japan’s widespread apathy which allows for injustices committed by high profile citizens to go unaccounted for, and for some of its most vulnerable citizens to slip through the cracks. Continuing along this thread, P5 sets out to challenge Japan’s collectivist thinking, particularly the stigma of raising one’s voice against the crowd.

In a translated statement from the official Persona website, P5 director Katsura Hashino envisions a harmony of individuality and collectivism. “Individuality isn’t purely good or bad; rather it’s something that has the power to change how people think and act when they’re touched by it.” This speaks to the question at the centre of P5, concerning how a young adult is expected to thrive in a collectivist society where any sense of individuality is under constant threat of suppression. Hashino continues, “we might live in a world that’s less than accommodating to a lot of us and hard to live in. But so long as people don’t give up on reaching out to one another, the individuality that shines both at the [personal] level and from groups as a whole can help us break through that feeling of oppression, and feel free.”

Persona 5’s plot is underscored by such feelings of estrangement, with students exhausted or exiled from their daily networks – home life, extracurricular groups, friendship circles, etc. – and uniting to reform society with their own sense of justice. In an interview with Game Informer, Hashino spoke of this sense of belonging in Japan, explaining that each of the game’s characters feel that they “no longer have a place where they belong in society”. This is the birth of the game’s Phantom Thieves: using a navigational phone app to cross into a psychological “metaverse”, they can enter the minds of wrongdoers (“Palaces”, as the game calls them) and steal their distorted hearts in order to trigger a change in their personalities.

Artwork by Shigenori Soejima (Atlus).

Exploring the minds of evildoers and rehabilitating their dangerous thoughts opens Persona 5 to all manner of discussions on corruption, morality and the psyche. How these scenarios unfold across the course of the game is a thrill to experience, and isn’t worth spoiling here. But while Persona 5 doesn’t shy away from conversations about mental health, especially surrounding the social issues aforementioned, some more focused commentary can be found in Persona 5 Royal.

Persona 5 Royal is an expansion of the original game that includes two new characters and an extra chapter before the curtain call. It also elevates the original plot by offering deeper insight into the tribulations shared by its cast. With the introduction of Dr. Takuto Maruki, a school counsellor, the Phantom Thieves gain a confidant with whom to share their anxieties. The result is that P5R manages to deliver some unapologetic and well-informed comments about mental health, with special attention given to the afflictions one suffers in the high school ecosystem.

“If our game can give people a little courage to keep going in their day to day lives, to face things head on and do something with themselves, then we’ll have done our jobs here.”

—Persona 5 director Katsura Hashino, Famitsu

The Japanese high school experience has always been the centrepiece of the Persona series. In Atlus’ original Sony PlayStation game Revelations: Persona (and before that, the Japan-only title Shin Megami Tensei If… for the Super Famicom), the high school setting was chosen as a point to which players could easily relate and approach the series’ themes. Talking to Kill Screen, Hashino commented, “For both good and bad reasons, the school life experience deeply affects many Japanese people in their daily lives. [Everyone has experienced needing] to compare themselves with others, and, at times, had to suppress their own identity, learning to take hints so they don’t stand out or [become] ostracised from the crowd.”

Without spoiling the events that unfold in Persona 5 Royal’s new chapter, its approach to mental health is at once gentle and intense; it completely grasps the importance of easing oneself into counselling, in creating a safe space where therapy can take place, but also the difficulties involved in confronting and overcoming one’s trauma. P5R, and particularly Dr. Maruki, teach us that it’s normal, even encouraged, to wish for a life without suffering – we should never apologise for that – but when we find ourselves in tough circumstances, we must try to look for strength and growth on the other side.

Artwork by Shigenori Soejima (Atlus).

It’s perhaps for these reasons that so many of us find comfort in Persona 5. It welcomes players into friendships that develop naturally over time, with peers who come to depend on the player’s guidance: a rebellious boy facing up to his anger, an honour student and the high expectations forced on her, a girl staying strong for her hospitalised friend, a recluse re-entering society after losing her mother. As fantastical as the Phantom Thieves are, their individual battle scars are born from real world problems; they represent the developmental roadblocks many teenagers face in their most crucial years. Like in all young adult fiction, it’s a privilege to be able to join these young men and women on their personal journeys while also reflecting on our own.

Labels such as “young adult” are perhaps too broad to define everything Persona 5 strives to achieve, however. Taken as a whole, the Persona series’ central motifs combine magical realism (or urban fantasy) and Jungian theories on human psychology. “The vibrant, everyday life becomes the Persona series’ persona, beckoning players to escape into a fun-filled experience of adolescence,” Hashino told Kill Screen. “But sooner or later, they’ll experience the dark shadow aspect of the game hiding beneath that persona, which they’ll feel a strange connection to.”

At several points across the game every member of the Phantom Thieves will awaken to their Persona (a cognitive being used to fight demons), instigating a reconstruction of that character’s identity. These transformative scenes are loosely informed by elements of Jungian psychology, with respect to how a person houses within their unconscious different façades for different situations, known as personas. As each teenager decides to reject the status quo and unlock their powerful Persona, a turning point is marked in that character’s arc from which they can continue to grow and conquer the challenges in their everyday lives. Witnessing this literal manifestation of a teenager’s identity formation is what makes the Persona series so engrossing. But it’s also why it comes as a disappointment that Persona 5 misses the mark in certain areas of representation.

Across its hundreds of hours of dialogue, Persona 5 is notably lacking any gay romance options or LGBTQ stories. Additional to that, there is an intentionally comedic scene in which the game’s only outwardly gay characters – two unnamed, older men residing in Shinjuku – prey on Ryuji, a teenager, and take him away despite his lack of consent and his calling out to the protagonist for help. For Persona 5 Royal the English localisation team altered this scene, first by naming the two men, and secondly by removing any sexual undertones so that Ryuji is being led away (albeit still against his will) to try on drag.

Artwork by Shigenori Soejima (Atlus).

Persona 5’s decision to make a predatory joke out of its only visibly gay characters will disappoint many who have come to appreciate almost everything else about the game. The resolve to rewrite this scene while maintaining the depiction of a minor being forced into a situation that he feels is unsafe, doesn’t do enough to make amends. For a game that claims to stand up for society’s most oppressed, this scene still feels like a bit of a slap in the face.

Unfortunately, this is only one example of Persona 5 holding on to the dehumanising tropes we’ve come to expect from manga and anime. There are numerous scenes that objectify Ann Takamaki (another teenager), including one in which the player has no choice but to ask her to remove her clothes for a figure drawing session, despite her adamant lack of consent. While that never goes ahead, it’s still an uncomfortable sequence in which a young girl is pressured into exposing herself. The inclusion of these scenes, despite the fact that they take place directly after a separate storyline in which a teacher’s sexual abuse crimes are brought to justice, comes across as selectively tone deaf.

It’s a fair assessment that Atlus makes a much better representation out of Lala Escargot, the crossdressing proprietor of the Crossroads Bar in Shinjuku. Lala welcomes the protagonist into her bar, invites him to try crossdressing without pressuring him, offers him part-time work and even shows concern for his safety when walking alone at night. As a standalone character, Lala possesses her own unique humanity, sass and warmth, and while it’s a shame she isn’t granted her own Confidant quest line as other minor characters are, her honest portrayal in Persona 5 is a step in the right direction.

For a game inspired by some of Japan’s worst disasters in history, it’s no wonder Persona 5 makes a supportive companion during a global pandemic.

Speaking to Japanese magazine Famitsu about the authorial intent behind Persona 5, Hashino explained, “[you’ve] got these high school punks who are trying to bite back at a world that’s trying to pin them down. If our game can give people a little courage to keep going in their day to day lives, to face things head on and do something with themselves, then we’ll have done our jobs here.”

Persona 5 has taught me more than I expected a video game ever could. Its emphasis on time management and life balance showed me the importance of setting aside time for exercise as well as my hobbies. Seeing Ryuji open up about his quarrels on the track team reminded me to pay more attention to my friendships with men. Watching Futaba overcome her agoraphobia helped me to sympathise with my housemate. Even simply directing the protagonist to borrow library books has taught me the healthy habit of always carrying a book around. And if it weren’t for Persona 5 egging me to pen this article, I wouldn’t have tried to reignite my passion for writing. That’s why any player is likely to pick up a life lesson from Persona 5 – the game encourages self-improvement at almost every turn.

Artwork by Shigenori Soejima (Atlus).

For a game inspired by some of Japan’s worst disasters in history, it’s no wonder Persona 5 makes a supportive companion during a global pandemic. This is a game that sympathises with the feeling of being removed from society. It only takes a quick glance at the Persona 5 subreddit to witness the immense emotional weight this game carries, as plenty have spelled out how their life changed for the better as a consequence of playing P5. While that may not be true for everyone, there’s no denying that P5 and P5R, though at their core developed with a Japanese audience in mind, weave coming-of-age stories that resonate powerfully across our generation.

If you’re currently living in lockdown and craving an escape, do what I and so many others have done and pick up Persona 5 Royal. It’s a temporary stay in a foreign country, full of life-affirming experiences and new friends you won’t soon forget.

Thank you for reading my piece on Persona 5 Royal. I hope it encouraged you to take a look at this very special game. If you would like to check out more of my work on games, you can follow my blog at bigxp.net and my Twitch stream at twitch.tv/Hoffy. If this piece resonated with you, you could donate to Give2Asia to help support the COVID-19 response in Japan.

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