[Discourse] Persona 5 and the abandoned misfits

For many years and through countless delays, Persona 5 was my most anticipated game of the year. Persona 4 was an amazing starting point for the Persona series’ examining of real-life issues, and Persona 5’s concept of being a slave to society and needing to break free resonated with me on many levels.

The game is all about taking down corrupt adults, looking critically at people you think you can trust, and how all this hidden evil can hurt young people. A group of misfit kids ending oppressive systems is very punk rock and really fun. I wanted to love it and in many ways I do—it may still be my game of the year. The game asks players to critically engage with the world around them, and I took the game at its word. However, Persona 5 is a prison of its own creation that fails to live up to its themes.

Persona 5 presents itself as a game about misfits and about exposing the unseen evils underlying Tokyo. Yet these misfits adhere to the same norms and assumptions as the oppressive adults the game claims to challenge. The game assumes you’re a straight cis male. Joker, the player character, is a paper-thin self-insert character that’s supposed to be the player, but he in no way represents me or much of the audience. The player can’t romance other men or select another gender.

By excluding the option to choose, Persona 5 demands players accept the cis straight male protagonist, despite being able to name their character. It’s a game about rejection from society and trying to fix it. However, the biggest social rejects in Japan are not straight cis men, but queer people, trans people, and other marginalized folks who face issues because they don’t fit the social norms just by being themselves. For these people it isn’t as simple as hair dye, getting arrested once, and so on; it is a core aspect of their very being.

A street corner with store fronts and posters in the background. In the middle, a blonde young man in casual clothes is facing two effeminate men in brightly colored clothing. A close-up of the blonde boy is at the bottom of the screen. Text indicates that "Ryuji" is speaking. He says "You just gonna leave me here like this?! C'mon, your best friend's in trouble here!"

When the game assumes the player and all the characters are straight, it misses the potential to tell the stories of real youth being affected by homophobia in Japan. In fact, the game makes fun of gay men and has them more or less commit implied sexual assault on Ryuji, one of the party members in the game. Its trans representation isn’t much better with Lala Escargot, a peripheral trans woman character, who receives nasty comments from Mishima after he meets her.

When we look at what’s happening in the Japanese LGBT+ community, this isn’t just a cultural difference, but a serious issue that they missed out on the chance to explore more. Homophobia and transphobia are well documented in Japan, despite recent progress.

The characters could have attended Pride, which is held yearly in Tokyo. Japanese queer folks often hold protests. This wouldn’t be out of place considering the Sun confidant route is about politics. Any character you could romance could have been queer; you don’t need to be able to date every girl in every game. Hell, Sae already isn’t dateable, so if she were a queer woman, nothing else would have to be changed. I mean, seriously—you can date your teacher, an adult woman in a position of power over you, but it’s too weird for you to date a boy?

I could go on and on about places where LGBT+ representation could be included and ways to do it, but that would be a whole other article. Many fans of the series are queer, trans, or both, and these real people should not be excluded.

A screenshot of a video game. Three teenagers (2 boys and a girl) in casual clothes stand in a studio while another young man in a beret leans forward over what appears to be an easel. A close-up of the boy in the beret slashes across the middle of the screen. Text across the bottom denotes that "Yusuke" is talking. It reads: "I will put my heart and soul into creating the best nude painting ever!"

While the game struggles with LGBT+ representation, the way it treats women is even more shocking. The game starts out making a strong point about sexism in schools and its dire consequences for youth. The Phantom Thieves face Kamoshida, a vile man allowed to abuse students because he brings the school money and prestige because he won an Olympic gold medal in volleyball. The party members talk about how disgusting what he’s doing is, and since the game wants us to like the party, we obviously care what they think of people.

However, not long after defeating him, other party members convince Ann Takamaki, one of his victims, to strip in order to get information about another target. Ryuji constantly pervs on girls who clearly do not want his advances. He isn’t alone in the game either: Morgana obsesses over Ann, despite her never indicating she’s interested, and we’re introduced to Yusuke when (as mentioned previously) he tries to force Ann to strip. While he didn’t have ill intent, it’s still harassment.

The game leers at teen girls’ bodies during the animated cutscenes for the audience’s pleasure, such as looking down the girls’ shirts while driving through the desert. Sae, who became a prosecutor at a young age, talks to her younger sister Makoto about how hard it is for a woman to crawl up the career ladder, which is also demonstrated through her interactions with her director. Sadly, the game undercuts itself by also offering swimsuit DLC. It’s enough to give me whiplash, going from characters I adore to being encouraged to download sexist fanservice of them.

A game menu with multiple options. The highlighted open is "Persona 5 Swimsuit Set." There is a small image of four young people - two boys and two girls - wearing swimsuits.

All these sexism issues really boil down to the game assuming the player is a heterosexual male and prioritizing that audience. The game assuming you’re a straight male forces the player to watch their character think about random perverted curiosities that could further disconnect the protagonist from the player. I love dating cute girls in the game, but there’s still a disconnect because they decided that my demographic is not worth marketing to. And it becomes that extra bit worse when we consider the serious real-world harassment girls are facing in Japan and across the globe.

Female main characters aren’t without precedent in the Shin Megami Tensei or Persona series. Persona 2: Eternal Punishment and Persona 3 Portable both include female avatars and dealt with sexism less than Persona 5. While Persona 4’s discussion of queer themes was flawed, for many fans it was a springboard to discovering their queer identity or realizing they were trans. There was something there that could be scaled up, but was ignored.

That is the real shame, since these marginalized fans contributed to making Persona a hit franchise. Personally, I got into the whole Shin Megami Tensei series thanks to queer friends recommending Persona 4 and have played many other games in the franchise because of that. It feels to me like they decided that straight men must be pandered to with fan service, while other audiences are an afterthought.

A young woman wearing a skintight red catsuit and mask and holding a whip leans forward suggestively, showing off both her cleavage and butt. On-screen text reads "Ann" and points to her.

I love Persona and Shin Megami Tensei. I really like Persona 5, but it doesn’t change the fact that Persona 5 is its own biggest enemy. It struggles to support its themes, properly explore them, or expand on their promise. While it does many interesting things for its female characters, it still circles back to pandering to social norms that hurt women. It starts as early as not holding Yusuke accountable for attempting to force Ann to strip to the normalization of men perving on their female friends. It insults its queer fans when it could have empowered them.

We should ask for more from our games, because they can provide. Persona 5 asks us to be critical of the world around us and we should be. Hopefully, if we talk about it now, when Persona 6 or Persona 5 Portable rolls around, we can make it so more people can enjoy the game. Hopefully the next game can steal even more hearts than previous ones.


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