Persona 5 is a Strikingly Mainstream Entry in a Countercultural Franchise
In the last several years, the Persona games have gone from a relatively small cult hit to a blockbuster franchise. Persona 5 Royal raised the bar for sales numbers in the west, but the trend actually started with Persona 4. Unfortunately, so did a similar trend–the defanging of the Persona franchise. Despite being themed around the idea of youthful rebellion, Persona 5 is far from the most rebellious or hard-hitting game in the series. In fact, it may be one of the games that say the least about their theme.
Although each game brings the larger Shin Megami Tensei franchise’s creepy tone, iconic demon designs, and Lovecraftian horror flair, the unique themes at the core of each title shine through. However, when it comes to Persona 5, the most memorable aspect of the game is the cast of characters. This isn’t a good thing.
Each title in the Persona series has its own focus. The original Persona took a hard look at the traumatizing results of medical experimentation on hospital patients, Persona 2: Innocent Sin and Eternal Punishment examined the concept of being unable to escape the mistakes of your youth, Persona 3 was an exploration of depression, and Persona 4 was dedicated to showing teenagers learning to accept themselves in all their flawed glory. While Persona 4 was the series’ breakout title, the previous games are the ones that hit the hardest with their intensely disturbing imagery and willingness to face down the ugliness of the world. This is especially prominent in Persona 2 and Persona 3.
Persona 3 approaches its themes of depression by having the cast be depressed and struggling to deal with trauma, uncertainty, and death, sure, but it also goes a step further. The Dark Hour is an uncanny world full of coffins and monstrous personifications of mankind’s despair. The characters must shoot themselves in the head with replica firearms to summon their personas. The final battle is a seemingly hopeless fight against the incarnation of humanity’s suicidal impulses. Everything about the game was designed to reflect, interrogate, and confront depression. Persona 2’s reflection of its themes isn’t quite as streamlined, but these two games more than make up for that in sheer intensity. In Persona 2, youths are literally haunted by the mistakes of their past, once-innocent children hold lethal grudges, and the world itself is literally unraveling around the protagonists. In Persona 2, scars–emotional and physical–can only heal if confronted head-on, and trying to escape responsibility for your mistakes could literally cause the end of your world.
The theme of rebellion is a common one in JRPGs. There are a lot of games that task players with taking on corrupt rulers, corporations, and even the gods themselves. Final Fantasy 7, one of the most famous examples, even has the heroes consist of eco-terrorists, discarded super soldiers, and the victims of corporate greed. However, the Persona series sets itself apart from other JRPGs by explicitly taking place in a world we can recognize as our own. This is most obvious in the first and second games, where the destruction of the world we know is a key plot point.
Persona 3 introduced a new structure to the series by splitting gameplay into daily life sections and dungeon-crawling sections. On one side, the characters would interact with each other, grow, and form bonds, while on the other side they would fight for their lives in a twisted reflection of the places they’d come to know. Later games have continued to build on this pattern, with Persona 4’s combat taking place in the fog-covered mental labyrinth of the Midnight Channel and Persona 5 taking the battle straight to the collective unconsciousness of the Metaverse. But unlike previous games, Persona 5’s incorporation of police brutality, corruption of authority, and crime make it seem as though the fight will continue outside the Metaverse. This is where problems begin to arise.
The Sins of Our Youth
The problem is that Persona 5 is trying to be both a story of justified rebellion and a coming of age story–meaning that while the game is free to criticize the system, it ultimately has to bring its rebellious teens back into the fold. Persona 4 got away with this because it focuses on the feeling of being alone and misunderstood rather than the feeling of being failed by the system. The troubled teens of Persona 4 are struggling with their own self-images. The troubled teens of Persona 5 are in very real danger of being arrested, permanently maimed, or even killed by powerful adults.
In Persona 5, the protagonist Joker is faced with one of the most terrifying threats imaginable: an unjust system. He tried to help someone, pissed off the wrong person, and suddenly he has a criminal record. That would be bad enough, but he lives in Japan, where a criminal record could ruin his whole future. The first lesson Joker learns in the game is that authority cannot be trusted. More than that, the very first scene in the game has him being beaten by the police and forced to sign a false confession for another crime he didn’t commit. Ryuji Sakamoto had his leg deliberately broken by a teacher, Ann Takamaki’s best friend tried to commit suicide after being sexually abused, Yusuke Kitagawa was exploited by his mentor, Makoto Nijima was blackmailed by murderous gangsters, and Haru Okumura was forced to realize her loving father had become a monster. Despite this, the game concludes with them deciding to change the world by playing by the rules, as law-abiding adults.
While Makoto’s goals to find a way to change the system from the inside were established early on, the rest of the characters following in her shoes feels a little tone-deaf. This gets worse when the game ends with Joker getting his criminal record scrubbed clean by going back to court with a better lawyer. Don’t worry, kids, the system will treat you right if you just work hard enough. There’s no need to organize yourselves against the people at the top.
This isn’t to say that Persona 5 never represents true rebellion. The game does show the Phantom Thieves and their Confidants supporting each other through hard times in their lives and Joker’s social link network coming together to protest his wrongful imprisonment. However, it still falls into the pit of spending more time talking about how you can’t achieve true social change through magical brainwashing than it does describing how to actually promote social change.
It’s not a crime for Persona 5 to ultimately come down on the side of moderation, but it is interesting that the same series that saw teenagers being literally crucified by trusted adults and forced to kill their principal in self-defense is now walking back its radical politics. Maybe this is the difference between a game taking on issues of mental health and a game taking on the corruption we all know is present in society. Or maybe the climate within Atlus has just changed since Persona 3 came out in 2006. Whatever the case, it can’t be denied that Persona 5 lacks the bite of its predecessors.