How Persona 5 Royal Rescued My Heart in Lockdown

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.

May the 4th, Revenge of the 5th, and so on be with you…

Happy Star Wars Day, even though it will over by the time you read this…

Yet, the many of us don’t stop really enjoying and appreciating those Star Wars.

Star Wars is with us forever. What a silly thing this science fiction franchise does for us! So many among love the characters, get deep into its expansive lore, praise, or groan emotionally at creative turns through the years across all mediums. And how remarkable and surprising was that Star Wars: Clone Wars finale? 10 out of 10 lightsabers up for me!

What is it about Star Wars appeals to so many beyond its initial groundbreaking movies from decades ago? There’s a huge plethora of cool creatures, spaceships, robots, action with laser swords and laser pistols. There’s weird space politics, mystical religions, various cultures, and lifestyles that keep growing with the many more movies, games, serials, books, whatever else.

My three favorite Star Wars movie are The New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi…the original trilogy!

My three favorite Star Wars comic series is the Star Wars Tales (Dark Horse anthology), Darth Vader (the first Marvel series run), and Tag and Bink are Dead.

My three Star Wars video games is Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, Knights of the Old Republic, and the Super Nintendo trilogy (I group all three games as a singular experience!).

My Three favorite Star Wars books are the Heir to the Empire Trilogy by Timothy Zahn. That’s all I recall enjoying in the 90s and haven’t read any more since. But, I hear there’s a lot of great ones centered around the new sequels lately.

I can go on with other favorite Star Wars, but another time because the time is too late now.

I believe it’s the binding and bonds between established characters. There are ongoing themes about friendships, family, rivalries, comradery, and the sense that we are all connected no matter how far apart in planets we are. You can be a farmer, a robot, a princess, a bounty hunter, a soldier, a wizard, a princess, a knight. Somehow, there’s a possible connection in the universe for anyone to partake. Then go on an adventure, discover something about yourself or others, check out an environment opposite of your familiar zones, get the rush of an exciting and very high stakes battle. From all, gain something new for surviving the experience. Star Wars is just a fascinating thing that happens through its pop culture that will never end as long as humanity enjoys the escapism that science fiction brings us together.

May the Force be with you, always!

The Star Wars playing cards in the picture are from the Theory11 company. Great quality and I recommend giving them a purchase at theory11.com.

Earth Day A.D. Visions, toward post-pandemic weirdness

Happy Earth Day!

Today marks another Earth Day this April 22nd. We look to the future while respecting the past, modify our present. The challenge renewed, complicated with the current pandemic changing the atmosphere in many ways. Animals are roaming while, the humans have quieted down, the air is clearing up thanks to the vast reduction of pollutants.

What does this day especially mean? It’s hard to tell in our busy life to pin it all down among the many challenges we share upon this grand ball of life. I think of our science fiction for what comes next—lots of post-nuclear disasters, many dystopian nightmares, and the occasional reach of destiny beyond.

Anything is possible. But, often comes the focus of human prevalence, with a fascination held for the adaptation, though it can be very fantastically far-out.Mostly in agreement, is that the Earth will always change its face to fit the conditions of what we do. I present this fascinating map, produced by the extraordinary hand of Jack Kirby (with the inks and letters by D. Bruce Berry), from the comic book Kamandi: The Last Boy on Earth (#32) initially released in 1975.

Behold, the troubles of tomorrow.: The “Mad-Hole,” a mysterious giant Vortex, a fragmented South America, and the map vastly changed. Hopefully, our new animal rulers will have this all sorted out. Could this be Earth’s future?

It’s funny how the Earth changes, yet still does its best to survive the needs of our living creatures. There are many examples of this throughout the most fantastic of Earth-based science fiction and fantasy.

My favorite works of science fiction on a vastly changed Earth are future sets. There are memorable movies in mind, including A.I., the original Planet of the Apes, Mad Max. There are T.V. shows I can’t forget, including Neon Genesis Evangelion, Doctor Who, The Walking Dead. Some favorite books I never forget on my shelf: The Time Machine, I Am Legend, The Road. I played many video games of an Earth changed by dire global situations (Resident Evil, Fallout, The Last of Us). And there are countless comic books read of an Earth changed by human conflict and drastic status changes in civilization, including Kamandi #32.

Many of the above carry a bleak view upon humanity’s present course, yet remain pushes for individuals to carry on. For those needs to happen, there is always a constant call to pull from the Earth’s resources, whether its food, medicine, raw materials, natural shelter, other natural remedies to gather. Such things that save are naturally grown and provided to share among each other. We struggle on, but should always keep in mind the planet that provides. This day and all forward, we should at least appreciate it. Then, take care and maintain its overall system.

We do that, and our Earth will be ready to take care of us, or the zombies, or our ape masters. At least it will be there someone else to appreciate.

My fantastic comic book relationship with Stan Lee

Stan Lee, a brilliant creative genius whose heart and soul put into comic writing, editing, publishing ignited a new generation of comic books, inspiring beyond with no limits. His Marvel Comics brand became an essential modern myth to our culture, expanding beyond the printed page into every other medium possible. Though he passed away recently at age 95 after living a full and awesome life, his inspirations shall continue to awaken our inner superheroes.

Yet, there is something more to his work, in the ongoing limited series run that is my life. That is my connection to Stan the Man through the pages with his spirited philosophy on awakening the incredible, the uncanny, the fantastic to my yearning for some amazing fantasy. Such would inspire me to better create, adventure, embrace my geekish side, leading me to maintain my love for comic books for the decades ahead. And with all that, build a sense of duty toward helping many in need, especially when great power and privilege comes my way.

My first true exposure to Stan Lee’s Marvel Comics brand came at a turbulent time for me during age 9. I was in the middle of a difficult transition, moving to the big city of San Francisco from the suburban/rural life of Fresno, California. In that, I would also be reunited with my mother after separation for most of my early childhood, and with a new stepdad I would hardly know at the time. I had already begun to miss my old friends and felt a bit overwhelmed by my new loud, confusing big city life.

Still feeling on page 1 of this new adventure, I would eventually visit my first comic book store, where my life would forever change. It was a small little store in the North Beach (aka Little Italy) area on Grant Street near the Coit Tower landmark. I think the store name was “Best Comics” or something like that (not the nearby more famous, Comix and Comix, which I would discover later and spend many after school hours in). Within, I walked into the next giant splash page of my life, rich in detail and dramatics. Rows of comics books around me, with boxes of more below. Some stacks were stray, and come loose on counters.

There and everywhere inside, were some familiar friends from TV and toys. All with much more vivid color and detail, speaking in word balloons, in combat poses, expressing action. I saw the Amazing Spider-man, as known from my beat-up stuffed plush doll. I would see the X-Men, recognized from some comics in a waiting room at the last eye doctor visit. I saw the Iron Man, Thing, Captain America recognized..and more from a Marvel Super Heroes card game played often in the library of my early grade recess hours. So many familiar faces in colorful outfits; waiting for me to get to know them; take an adventure with any back home.

But, I had a little money to pick something. After some browsing, I gravitated to a spinning rack of paperback digest-sized comics. Such was not common for the comic book-sized format, but I wanted something with more pages, and easy to carry around. And eventually, I saw this small paperback book… Stan Lee presents The Incredible Hulk (#2).

Hulk

It was a 159-pages of full color, 1979 reprint stories of the older Tales to Astonish (mid-1960s, #85-99) stories of the continuous adventures of Bruce Banner, a scientist who would become the Hulk under very stressful circumstances. I knew the green goliath from TV live-action series, starring Lou Ferrigno. But here, he was different and greener with stories far beyond anything the TV show would offer, with more expression, more action, more Hulk! I would buy this with some pocket change, and then witness the pain and the power, the man-brute at his best!

Inside, the Hulk would prove himself as the strongest, against the US military, super-villains, aliens, the High Evolutionary, the Abomination, the Silver Surfer. Each chapter seemingly more excited than the last. Between the action, we got interesting internal struggles, especially within the Hulk and his other self, Bruce Banner. Both would conflict against each other as much as the outside world. This drama is as exciting as the action itself was all written by Stan Lee himself, a name I would never forget.

Stan Lee, through passionate exposition and character building, would give me a message that would stick far beyond the printed pages. Inside, we have trapped within, some incredible greatness waiting to be released through some incredible circumstances. The greatness can be so outstanding and wonderful, that we struggle to recognize it when it’s upon our weaker selves. But in reaching that, we don’t want to look back, until the power becomes a troublesome burden. Then, yearns a return to innocence and normalcy until we need that power for greater responsibility.

That’s what I got out of this Hulk anyway. The difference in the Hulk from other super-types is that his heroism is more on a subconscious level. The Hulk would often find himself protecting the weak while crushing those stupid enough to try to exploit him. He is selfless, never looking to harm others. He would prefer to be left alone, and in that when there is no reason to fight, there is peace for the Hulk and Bruce Banner.

All that, presented by Stan Lee. A name I would first notice more in my next few rereadings of that awesome paperback.

His name would return again and again, in many more Marvel Comics I mostly gathered from cheap quarter bins, flea market finds, more bookstores. The later eighties and early nineties, I spent many hours growing up in the comic stores after school. There, always peeking into the comics of Marvel, and eventually other companies (DC, Gladstone, Mirage, Archie being my top favs).

But often coming back to Marvel, there would be new favorite stories from Stan Lee’s design stemming his creative work, and groundwork messages. The X-Men, heroes living a parallel of the fear and prejudice in today’s world. Spider-Man, a hero whose personal issues would be set aside to defend New York City. Daredevil, a hero for justice whose blindness is both his greatest curse and strength. The Fantastic Four, a family whose cosmic radiated superpowers would lead them into deeper explorations of the unknown. And, many more would follow.

Among them, my personal favorite, the Silver Surfer, after finding reprints of the earlier stories written by Stan Lee (#1-18, 1968-1970). This above all is Stan’s most philosophical, poetic storytelling of all. Every page full of Stan Lee’s presentation, dialogue, exposition of the lonely cosmic traveler in a constant struggle to understand the worlds around him, is awesome.

Over the years, the spirit of Stan Lee would carry on through countless cherished comic stories. Then beyond the cartoons and TV shows. Sometimes, Stan Lee would do some introductions or narration; bringing his passion for storytelling along. Eventually, would come to the movies, which he would have some hand in producing. And, there would be the cameos…always welcome to his fans.

And his presence would be felt at many conventions, often in person. I would attend a few of his panels, looking back to his past of promoting some collaboration on projects. I would even meet him, once by pure luck, while resting nearby his booth in the early 2000s at the San Diego Comic Con. He signed a Spider-Man collected stories paperback I happened to have in hand, and then we shook hands. “Excelsior!,” Stan Lee said with a blessing. That cherished memory, I would look back upon as the greatest echo of my comic book relationship with Stan, since seeing his name for the first time many years ago.

I still feel his work throughout my life, and sometimes it helps keeps the best parts of me going. I sometimes need the attitude of the Hulk on a bad day, the curiosity of the Silver Surfer in my travels, the energy of Spider-Man in keeping up with responsibilities, the leadership of Professor X for group organizing, the patriotic duty of Captain America when I join a protest. Stan Lee’s work continues to inspire me through the foundations of the fictional heroes he shared.

And much like the Marvel Comics that continue on through the comic stores and extended media, there never really is an end to it all. We carry on through reboots, cliffhangers, spinoffs. Though sometimes, we may not get some things right in interpretation. And sometimes, there is are rediscovering of his lesser-known creations through better presentations, like the recent Black Panther and Ant-Man movies. meanwhile, the presence of Stan Lee will carry on, reminding many of us of his original groundwork laid down for readers to grow from.

Thanks again Stan the Man, and Excelsior!