After seven years of spin-offs and rereleases, the next numbered title of the Persona series is upon us. And boy, does it look exciting. The (very deliberate) homages to Lupin III are quite appealing to yours truly, but let’s not downplay the allure of the shaken-up combat and socializing system or stylish animation courtesy of Production I.G., either. Perhaps most intriguing is a statement from the director, Katsura Hashino, during one of the earliest interviews for the game.
“[A lot of people today are] stuck between a rock and a hard place, emotionally speaking: on the one hand, they might not be keen on living by the same rules and values that defined previous generations, while still lacking the will to go out and actually break those barriers down themselves. That dark side of society is a central pillar to the game we want to make with Persona 5.”
Sounds great, right? The Persona series, and the franchise from which it was born, have more or less carved out a reputation as pushing against the traditional mindsets and chosen subject matter of the JRPG. Which is true, and the series remains a breath of fresh air in many regards. Nonetheless, reading about a game that purports to be about breaking free from old values leaves me with one eyebrow firmly raised for one reason: the director’s last outing, Persona 4, shot itself in the foot with nearly every “progressive” theme it attempted to tackle.
At least we’ll always have Troy Baker
The Case of Kanji Tatsumi
In the lead up to P4’s released, you couldn’t walk for tripping over articles about the game’s brave, unique decision to have an openly gay party member. And at first, the game seemed to live up to that hopeful premise. Kanji’s dungeon centers around his fear of being associated with the stereotypical image of queerness (incorporating both the “okama” stereotype with his shadow’s speech patterns and the “Hard Gay” muscle man in his Shadow’s lackeys), and while the resolution of his boss fight isn’t a direct affirmation of his sexuality, nor is it a rejection – whether he’s interested in men or women (or both! That’s a thing!), Kanji’s fears stem from being rejected for not conforming to social norms. And given that many queer teenagers take a long time after that “aha” moment to feel out where exactly their feelings falls, from months to well into adulthood, there’s a certain recognizable quality to that narrative decision. Even if it then became too often used as an excuse to write off the character’s struggles as a one-off “gay panic” situation by a concerningly large portion of the fanbase.
I’d be impressed if not for literally every handling of it after this
The trouble comes when Kanji becomes a regular party member. Were the subject of Kanji’s sexuality to become backgrounded, a subject for his personal subplot, that would be understandable to a degree – he’s clearly in a stage of still figuring things out, and to make those discussions the purview of his one-on-one friendship with the Protagonist rather than to the group as a whole would make a fair amount of character sense (it doesn’t do that, incidentally – while Kanji’s crafting hobbies feature prominently, his issues of attraction are only very, very briefly – and obliquely – mentioned in the very last scene of his social link).
So the only way we’re left with to read Kanji’s struggles among the main group is through Yosuke’s homophobic humor – scattered throughout, with by far the most prominent example being the school camping trip. And while there are the occasional dialogue options that allow the Protagonist to side with Kanji against Yosuke’s teasing, they ultimately feel like a moot point: the camping scene, for example, always proceeds the same way no matter whether the player makes the Protagonist side with Yosuke or Kanji, and choosing the Kanji supportive dialogue has exactly zero long term effect on Yosuke’s attitudes or behavior (at least Kanji mentions being able to change Rise’s mind in his MAX social link dialogue).
P4 Project Leader Yu Namba famously said that there is no “official answer” and that players should decide for themselves, emphasizing that the importance of Kanji’s story is that his cry to be accepted should be what’s applicable across the spectrum of gamers – while he might not mean to imply so, it certain carries the implication that that theme would be less understandable to a wide variety of gamers were Kanji overtly queer, following on the false notion that a consumer of media cannot identify with experiences different from their own lives.
It all feels, ultimately, like lip service: the desire to obliquely nod at the possibility of a non-straight character to rope a queer audience without spooking the heterosexual player base, to play out that emotional gutpunch of a cry for acceptance while still getting to have a supposedly sympathetic character (the Protagonist’s best friend!) spout off a host of the stereotypes Kanji wanted to get away from with no consequence (the status of this lip service further reveals its flimsiness in how much head-on homophobic humor made its way into P4’s anime adaptation, with not just Yosuke but Yu expressing veiled disgust and distrust toward Kanji). In effect, it pretends to give Kanji the agency to overcome his fear of becoming a two dimensional stereotype who exists primarily for ‘normal’ people to laugh at – a phenomenon pointed out by trangender politician and activist Aya Kamikawa, and tied to the Othering of queer individuals in Japanese society – and then plays directly into that mentality as soon as it no longer knows how to incorporate Kanji’s sexuality into the story in an honest or empathetic way.
It is not enough to simply acknowledge that characters outside the well-marketed “normal” spectrum exist, if their existence is then used to undermine the legitimacy of who they are and to prop up cheap jokes or to reinforce the preferable nature of so-called “normality” [as a final bit of eyebrow raising, Kanji has ditched his hair dye and punk outfits in the Epilogue of P4: The Golden, on the one hand a discarding of his affectations of toughness but on the other hand an acquiescence toward “normalcy” in a society where queer culture is often necessarily defined by a visual rejection of the extremely restricted heteronormative cultural narrative (a phenomenon discussed in depth by Japanese queer theorist Noriaki Fushimi)]. But let’s build on that “use the Other to reinforce the norm” idea, shall we?
As we head into this section, a question:
Is this enough cultural context for you, TvTropes?
Naoto and Japan’s Trans Culture
There is no point in asking the question “Is Naoto Shirogane Trans?” It’s easy to answer in plainest terms from the base text, and that framing of the issue allows legitimate concerns about the game’s writing to be written off as poor interpretive ability. Ask the question “Why isn’t Naoto Shirogane Trans?” and a far more interesting discussion arises.
Naoto’s story is a meeting point of the “boy detective” trope and the ever-popular “character disguises their gender to accomplish X” storyline. It would be simple enough as a reveal, if Naoto’s reasons for presenting as male were strictly utilitarian; however, unlike many “revealed crossdresser” characters, Naoto’s main concerns aren’t in not being allowed to do her job at all, and she doesn’t happily revert back to a traditionally feminine means of dressing once the reveal is over with.
Instead, Naoto’s character is defined by how ill-fit she feels as an ascribed woman in society, given her traditionally masculine interests and choice of career, and fears that she will be shunted to the side and given a lesser degree of respect as a female detective. And she’s not just uncomfortable with her identity, but with her body itself: she refuses to wear revealing clothing during the school pageant, is painstakingly uncomfortable at the doctor’s office and the hot springs, and even in her formal wear (when she is not working or connected to her work) prefers ‘masculine’ and modest clothing. Given all of that, it isn’t hard to see why those who aren’t strictly cis (whether binary-trans or nonbinary) strongly identified with Naoto.
But unlike Kanji, whose resolution is coy on how he’ll define his future romantic relationships, the game unequivocally shuts down a reading of Naoto as trans with one line: “I am a woman.” Rather than tie Naoto’s major character revelation into the knowledge that her abilities supercede how society sees her, that she is a detective and a person first and a gender second, the dialogue hammers home that Naoto has ‘come to her senses’ that her ‘true’ self is the body she was born with (and in turn, how society defines that body).
And that would be concerning and disappointing enough, if the game didn’t also play around with explicit trans iconography with Naoto’s shadow. Every party member’s Shadow is presented as an extreme warping of the character’s core issue is: Yukiko doesn’t ‘really’ want to be a helpless princess, Rise doesn’t ‘really’ want to be an exotic dancer, Teddy isn’t ‘really’ hollow and emotionless, and so on. And up against those clear exaggerations the writers put something that many young people strive for, that they feel is their only option to reconcile how they feel and how they are perceived (a fact that was agonizingly illustrated in American media not long ago), and paint it explicitly as the wrong choice.
There are those who call it ‘disrespectful’ to Naoto’s character to continue interpreting her as Trans following her big speech, which is about as fallacious as it gets. Naoto has no independent will to her choices. Naoto is a puppet of coding whose modes of thought are entirely dictated by the people who wrote her. She has no feelings to be hurt. What’s disrespectful is to use the imagery of a struggle faced by an already marginalized group of young people for shock value, and then to vilify that imagery in the name of propping up the accepted societal image of physical sex and gender identity, particularly in a game that is a) explicitly exploring coming-of-age themes and b) about being brave enough to face and accept the things one hides from ‘acceptable’ society.
I can point you to at least one 18 year old kid who took it pretty damn hard at the time, and I cannot imagine what it might have felt like for a Japanese teenager receiving the same message without even the distance of a different culture. [EDIT: I am aware that Naoto’s story is meant to slant in a feminist direction, given the very small percentage of women in Japan’s police force; that, however, does not excuse the co-opting of trans narrative elements specifically as a supposed horrific outcome, nor how Naoto is fetishized later as a woman–which quite undoes the feminist aspirations.]
So it is insensitively handled usage (if we are being kind) of trans identity. This tends to then be waved away with the argument that Japanese culture is different from Western culture, and that there isn’t the same conception of trans identtiy that there is in the West. While this is on the surface true (cultures on opposite ends of the world are different, you say?) it is also heavily disingenuous and giving ATLUS a pass it doesn’t deserve on the issue. It’s true that legal recognition and protection of trans individuals in Japan is a very recent thing – the first transitional surgery performed there was as recent as 1998 (and applicability for that surgery even now is classified as a ‘disorder’ for ease of medical documentation); the 2004 law allowing Japanese citizens to change their gender status on legal documents and family registers only applies to single, childless individuals who have submitted to being sterilized; and it was as recently as 2013 that a child born to a trans man and his wife via artificial insemination was ‘legitimately’ theirs – but the cultural change is more than present.
Putting aside for another the long shoujo tradition of characters who bend presentation while still expressing on some level heteronormative desire and traits (a la Oscar from Rose of Versailles), and a longstanding cultural image blurring male homosexuality and femme presentation (not unlike America in the 40s and 50s), sensitive portrayals of trans characters have increasingly found key places in Japanese pop culture: the well-regarded manga Wandering Son, which saw its characters grappling with the societal challenges of trans identity, ran for more than a decade; the long-running and well known Japanese drama Kinpachi-sensei featured a male transgender character back in 2001; Tiger & Bunny managed to respectfully portray a recurring character’s identity falling outside the gender binary altogether in its 2012 movie The Rising; even Nintendo, the most cautious and ‘family oriented’ of the modern videogame companies, vowed to be more thoughtful and inclusive in its future games in the wake of the Tomodachi Life debacle (you’re behind Nintendo, ATLUS, really?). It’s not a wealth of cultural narratives, but it’s certainly enough to demand that a group of videogame writers, in choosing to take on the subject, would have a number of well-written fictional narratives to turn to for inspiration even before the extremely necessary research that should precede the portrayal of a culture of point of view the writer is unfamiliar with – especially if that subgroup is portrayed rarely or often dismissed in the cultural narrative (for example, say, if they were facing a future of constant medical and legal battles in order to have their identity recognized). To fall into this trap in a place where teenagers should have had identifiable characters to look to is a plain disregard of the potency that stories wield.
See, it’s funny because she structured her entire life around avoiding this sort of situation, and now it’s happening!
Then again, Naoto is a character for whom the writers seem to have little regard: even taking her story as strictly that of a young woman chafing against institutionalized sexism and reading her discomfort with her body as a distaste for being objectified, subsequent rereleases and spinoffs had no problem cheerfully giving her character uncharacteristically revealing costumes or posing her for cheesecake shots (because if you make her look hideously uncomfortable, it’s not technically out of character and definitely not creepy). So perhaps I’m giving them too much credit.
Expunged love confession goes here
Yosuke’s Disappearing Romance
In the midst of all this appropriating of potential queerness only for it to be re-channeled into Total Normalcy After All, we have Yosuke. Like Banky in Chasing Amy, he is a veritable fount of homophobic discomfort while simultaneously harboring some pretty intense totally-platonic-no-really feelings for the Protagonist. The script for his Social Link in the finished game contains heavy homoerotic elements (indicating that you’re not interested in any of the girls will make Yosuke “feel happy,” and his final speech delineates the Protagonist as uniquely special from Yosuke’s family and friends), and retains an event flag (a special option dependent on previous dialogue choices) – something used uniquely as a branch to separate platonic/romantic routes with female party members and not part of any of the other male social links. That the event itself is a hug (highly uncommon outside intimate relationships, particularly between two male friends, and even among Western audiences the around-the-waist hug is a pretty forward action) puts the relationship further into pseudo-romance territory without ever crossing blithely in.
Yes, thank you for alerting us to the cultural norms Yosuke
But there is the tricky fact of what that event flag and romantic dialogue might be left over from. Audio files still present on the disc seem to heavily imply that Yosuke was indeed a romance option for the Protagonist, and that this option was cut quite late in the game – late enough that there is English audio of the cut lines as well as the original Japanese. Prominently featured among those lines is the phrase “I like you (suki da).” And while naysayers have argued that the term ‘suki’ is ambiguous, the game’s own precedent involves the phrase ‘suki desu’ being used among the Protagonist’s female romance options…and if the tambour of Yuri Lowenthal’s performance is anything to go by, he was definitely coached on the lines in a romantic context. This is a dramatic case of a missed opportunity, a chance to contextualize Yosuke’s tearing into Kanji as unaddressed self-loathing rather than simple scot-free awfulness (I don’t make that Chasing Amy comparison lightly, you know). And while there is a unique set of questions to be grappled with in a game that would write off or subtly excuse ‘real’ queer issues while allowing a m/m romance divorced almost entirely from those issues, at least it would be some kind of definitive queer content. What we’re left with now is a series of half measures too afraid to fully commit to any kind of true Other – at least, once that gets to stay that way. Ironic, in a game all about facing truths no one wishes to discuss.
Scandalous. Shocking. So on.
ATLUS and Difference, Then and Now
It’s somewhat baffling that all of this has come from a series that, back in the early 00s, had an installment that was believed to be beyond American gamers’ reach forever partly because of the potential for a m/m romance (the other reason was the main party fighting the resurrected ghost of Hitler). Tatsuya and Jun’s bond was a key part of Jun’s character, and the romance option was as no-fuss as it was in line with what had been presented within the narrative.
And while an unnamed ATLUS team member (whose rank and involvement with the project is a total unknown, so let us take an entire tablespoon of salt) referred to the romance option as an attempt to attract fujoshi gamers nobody seems to have bothered telling the game’s main writer this, because he not only supported the romance but pointed to it as the most plausible canon option. One writer is not an entire company mindset, of course, but one is still left to wonder how the take-no-prisoners cult company of the 90s became the studio producing the toothless half measures of P4’s ventures into underrepresented identities and the ultimately gender essentialist Catherine (whose meanspirited jokes at Erika’s expense leave the highest of bitter tastes).
But the question you are no doubt asking is ‘why should they care how their games are perceived?’ Putting aside our previous discussion of how P4 fell down in delivering a narrative for potential gamers in its home country, and beside the fact that when developing for a global market (as ATLUS now unquestionably is, with Persona a full-fledged franchise with weighty recognition outside the older games’ cult statuses) one is no longer developing solely for the tastes of one’s home country but the potential of that global audience, director Hashino himself has voiced a desire to create stories outside that expected norm.
“As an ATLUS game, we try to make games that stand out amongst the crowd, but put in another light, individuality of that sort isn’t always a blessing per se. It can mean diverging from what’s normal, break from the rules, project the image of trouble, especially when applied to people…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 individual level and from groups as a whole can help us break through that feeling of oppression and walk free. This is a game we really want to walk the walk.
- Katsura Hashino, Director of Persona 4 and Persona 5
That’s a beautiful sentiment, and I truly hope the upcoming P5 can live up to it. But saying all that means being held to a standard of representing those oppressed groups in a respectful way: it means more than trying on ‘outsider’ hats only to fall back on normalizing them and presenting ‘difference’ as a cute quirk within the limits of societal expectations of gender, sexuality, and self. If it wants to set itself up as a rebel, then it really had be prepared to walk the walk in grappling with tough issues and unpleasant truths, rather than putting on an affectation of edginess for the sake of more sales. And if it can pull off that quality of writing, matched to the series trademark polished gameplay and addictively frustrating difficulty, I think we might have a true modern classic on our hands. They just have to put the work in first.
ADDENDUM, 2017: It did not fix it.