“I am a shadow… The true self…”: Identity and social norms in Persona 4 Golden

By: Julia Tong September 2, 20220 Comments
Yukiko and Rise standing back to back

Content Warning: discussion of misogyny, queerphobia, transphobia, stalking, sexualization of minors

Spoilers for Persona 4 Golden

The central theme of Persona 4 Golden is facing one’s entire authentic self—the ugly, hidden parts of someone that they don’t want the world to see. These repressed thoughts manifest as a Shadow, a personification of a person’s deepest insecurities. Each playable character follows the same pattern: unwilling to engage with the unpleasant truth of who they are, they deny that the Shadow is part of them, causing the Shadow to morph into a boss. At the onset of each fight, each Shadow boss repeats the same line, a reminder of their truth to each character: “I am a shadow… The true self…”

By accepting their true selves, and thus overcoming what the game refers to as their “weakness,” each character is rewarded with their “heart’s true power”: a powerful Persona. As characters continue to resolve their internal conflicts in their subsequent Social Link (and an extra winter semester in Golden), the Persona ascends in power. They are, in short, rewarded for making choices that the game deems as enhancing the “truth” of who they are.

all out attack portrait wit Chie, Kanji, Yukiko, and the player character

But what exactly is the “true self” the game continually references? The entire concept of accepting and overcoming “weakness” is notably vague and unexplained. Furthermore, it’s critical to note that the thoughts created by the Shadows are often repressed because they are socially unacceptable, such as Tatsumi Kanji’s non-heterosexual sexuality or Shirogane Naoto’s gender identity.

Persona 4 Golden’s narrow definition of acceptable “authenticity” is evident in the game’s Social Links, which reward characters for making certain socially conservative choices. Much attention (and controversy) has already been paid to how Shirogane Naoto’s character arc (mis)depicts their gender identity to reinforce a binary essentialist view of gender; this article will touch on the topic only lightly, to leave that discussion to those most affected by it. However, a closer look at the game’s other Social Links—in particular, Tatsumi Kanji, Kujikawa Rise, and Amagi Yukiko—illustrates that the game’s concept of “accepting yourself” is rooted firmly in conservative social expectations and gender roles. 

Ultimately, the game universe makes clear that “facing yourself” is more concerned about fitting into society than personal growth. And though individual characters may seem to subvert normative expectations of gender and sexuality, the game ultimately reifies those roles, forcing all characters into societal norms that stand contrary to the glimpses of their more rebellious authentic selves.

Shadow princess Yukiko. "I don't care where we go! Anywhere's fine! As long as it's not here, I don't give a damn!"

A life (off)railed: Agency, Gender Roles and Amagi Yukiko

Yukiko’s Shadow self stems from the lack of agency she feels in her life due to the expectation that she will inherit her family’s inn. Her Shadow is dressed in a white dress—almost akin to a wedding dress—and accompanied by a “Prince Charming” whom Shadow Yukiko relies on. As a boss, the Shadow is a fiery red bird trapped in a cage, a potent symbol of Yukiko’s mental state: trapped, yet burning in a violent fight for freedom. Yukiko’s Shadow reflects her insecurity around her lack of independence, and her reliance on others to change her unfulfilling life for her.

In her Social Link, Yukiko continues to face her “weakness” by taking the initiative to study for a job license that will allow her to leave Inaba, though she constantly feels caught between her inheritance and potential self-chosen career. She resolves this dilemma by realizing that her desire for complete self-sufficiency was a(n over)reaction to her desire to assert her agency. Recognizing that her entire support system and social network is at the Amagi Inn, she decides to stay. Her journey is encapsulated in what she tells the player in the ninth link: “I just didn’t like the fact that it wasn’t up to me… I felt that my life was on rails. But no longer. I want to protect the family inn.”

Yukiko talking to the protagonist, saying she just didn't like that her life was on rails

Yukiko’s declaration makes it seem as if she has fully gained agency over her life, overcoming the pressure of gendered expectations that she devote her life to the Amagi Inn. However, Yukiko’s choices throughout the game remain limited: though she continues studying for her job licenses, she also doesn’t pursue alternatives such as talking more to her support system at home or pursuing other paths that are not limited to “staying in Inaba as manager” and “leaving everything behind.” Instead, she becomes trapped in a binary, with the implication that she would need to leave everything behind should she want to become independent or have a career. Paradoxically, she uses her newfound sense of agency to place herself back into the situation where she felt she lacked agency to begin with.

Furthermore, the fact that Yukiko ends up accepting a domestic and stereotypically feminine role as Inn Manager foregrounds the gender dynamics at play throughout her character arc. To begin with, Yukiko is constantly being judged by feminine expectations throughout the game. One of Persona 4 Golden’s running jokes, for instance, is how bad she is at cooking despite working at an inn. This trope is predicated on the gendered social norm that women are intrinsically domestic; a woman who can’t cook is mocked for her lack of femininity. 

In a supposedly comedic cutscene set at a summer camp, for instance, Chie and Yukiko cook a disastrously inedible dish that causes Yosuke to become enraged, complaining about how he had nothing to eat for dinner—despite the latter never even attempting to cook at all. Subsequent jokes about male characters’ fears of eating Yukiko’s food are rooted in this same stale premise. Aside from recurring jokes, Yukiko’s inability to cook has serious negative effects on her character arc: in her Social Link, cooking is portrayed as one of the major barriers to her goal to live on her own, implying that her ability to be domestic is a central limitation to her independence. 

Yukiko standing over a cooking pot that has scary purple mist coming out

The more sinister gender dynamics that Yukiko faces are especially evident in her role as interim manager of the Amagi Inn, where she, like Rise, is sexualized due to her gender and age. In a TV interview early in the game, Yukiko is portrayed by the media as the attractive “High School Manager” as she fields uncomfortable comments. Later, in her Social Link, she is confronted by a shady and unethical TV crew who want her to star in a segment titled “The Modest Manager’s Steamy Service!” This becomes an opportunity for Yukiko to assert herself—not for her own sake, but to protect the inn’s reputation once the TV producer trash-talks it. This is perhaps the closest the game comes to its other unexplored potential, which would have been to dig into the sexist assumption that because a Manager is pink-collar work, it is therefore easy or unimportant.

Ultimately, the game never digs deeply into the gendered implications of Yukiko’s story. Though Yukiko states that she made her decision to stay in Inaba out of her own will towards the end of her Social Link, it doesn’t seem like she was offered the full range of options she could have taken throughout the game’s narrative. Instead, she was forced to accept the most conservative choice—stay in Inaba, or lose everyone she loves, with no alternatives presented for her situation. In short, despite her desire to control her own life, Yukiko is never fully able to break out of the limited societal roles placed upon her. 

Shadow Rise on a stripper pole. "Not Risette, the fake celebrity! Look at the girl right in front of you!"

Rise vs. Risette: Sexualization and the Shadow

Rise’s Shadow self is hypersexualized. She wears a skimpy gold bikini, contrasting Rise’s plain white gown and bandana from her work in her family tofu shop, and promises Midnight Channel viewers that they will “see every last inch of me.” Appropriately, the dungeon is labeled the “Marukyu Striptease,” and is a dimly lit club with velvet curtains, neon pink hearts and lips on the walls, and sexualized audio cues. When Rise rejects her Shadow, it transforms into a giant rainbow pole dancer who attacks by rubbing, swinging on, or clutching the pole, its face obscured by a satellite-like cover. It is a direct representation of “Risette” as a sexualized body: faceless and objectified, conspicuously placed on public display.

Here the inconsistent definition of the “Shadow,” or repressed self, becomes evident. As Shadow Rise straddles the pole, she taunts Rise by claiming that the latter wants to be seen not as “Risette, the fake celebrity,” but as “the girl right in front of you.” This context implies that the striptease should be read as an expression of Rise’s desire to be seen as an individual. The stripping imagery ties into a rejection of the purity culture connected to Rise’s public persona as an idol, and potentially her desire to be a sexual being in her own right. Throughout the game, Rise is consistently made uncomfortable by stalkers and fans who sexualize her; but she flirts frequently with the protagonist, someone who knows the real her rather than her persona. In some ways, it is one of  the game’s more consistent metaphors. Where it fails, as with the other girls, is largely in the Social Link that follows. 

shadow rise posing on the stripper pole

Rise’s Social Link, which is framed around the emotional meaning that “Risette” had for Rise, also fails to address these issues. In an attempt to pressure her into returning to show business, Rise’s managers give her letters from a young female fan who Rise personally sympathizes with. Partially inspired by that and her journey with the Investigation Team, Rise chooses to return to the music industry, recognizing that she can use her life experiences to make the “Risette” persona more authentic to herself. She grows in heart because she realizes she is a multifaceted person, accepting “Risette” as one of many dimensions to herself.

However, the Social Link’s focus ignores the problems of oversexualization that Rise had faced in the entertainment industry to begin with. Notably, Rise’s young female fan is unusual. The majority of fans in the game are men attracted by the Risette persona: a photographer stalks her at the Marukyu Tofu shop, fanboys accost her at school, and a man on the street corners her as she attempts to gather intelligence. Rise’s dungeon simply pushes her into another performance, and wastes an opportunity to acknowledge the fact that overt sexualization of idols is as much an existing trap as putting them on pedestals. By centering her Social Link on an innocuous (and exceptional) fan, the game avoids fully engaging with the atmosphere of harassment that alienated her from her career. 

These moments bring the gender dynamics of Rise’s situation sharply into focus. Ultimately, Rise is an underage female idol, her body and image exploited by the company she performs for. “Risette” was created because of market demand, crafted to fit a desirable image. Her male manager’s attempts to bring her back by hounding her against her wishes and giving her the fan letter is a reflection of her profitable value. The fact that it works also somewhat bleakly implies that Rise will face not just an industry at large but a grueling working environment completely unchanged from the one that drove her away; while her resolve is admirable, it’s difficult to take as optimistically as the game presents it.

Rise smiling. "I can be her strength, as well as many people's strengths."

Though the game brings up these critical aspects of Rise’s idol career, it never explores them. Instead, Rise’s hypersexualization is treated as a joke: in hot spring and swimsuit scenes, Yosuke and Teddie jostle to see Risette naked, even after they witness Rise’s intense discomfort in the Marukyu Striptease. This is an offshoot of the broader sexualization of the women in Persona 4, who are framed as romantic and sexual objects in a way that the men aren’t. They are the only characters who can be dated, and numerous cutscenes center around the male character’s desire to see them in compromising and revealing positions. Ultimately, the lurid nature of Rise’s arc reflects how the game’s evocation of her sexuality is used to gratify the audience rather than meaningfully develop her character. 

In short, Rise’s insecurities over how her body is perceived are simply never engaged with. Ultimately, it is a “weakness” (if it can even be called that) that Rise cannot overcome on her own, because it is a societal failing, not a personal one. It is a reflection of an environment where the sexualization of young women is rampant and exploited for profit, and normalized despite their concerns. Though Rise “faces herself,” she is unable to escape this system and how it treats her and her body.

Shadow Kanji and the title of his show, "Men only! Shadow Kanji in Rosy Steam Paradise!"

Tatsumi Kanji and the (Comic) Denial of LGBTQ+ Identities

Tatsumi Kanji’s Shadow deals explicitly with his sexuality. When first seen on the Midnight Channel, the Shadow appears entirely naked in a “steamy bathhouse” save for a fundoshi, and hosts a show titled “Men only!!! Kanji Tatsumi in Rosy Steam Paradise.”

In the boss battle itself, Shadow Kanji is wreathed in roses, with blush on his cheeks, wielding a male gender symbol in each hand. He’s guarded by two muscular men, named “Tough Guy” (a possible reference to 00s-era comedy character “Hard Gay,” who has been critiqued by Japanese LGBTQ+ viewers as a stereotype) and “Nice Guy,” who have complementing elemental resistances. When he’s defeated, he looks at the male protagonist, Yosuke, and Kanji, crooning “you three would make wonderful boyfriends,” making explicit the romantic overtones that theme the entire dungeon.

Many, many articles have been written on this arc and its issues over the years. There is some suggestion in the dungeon that the focus on Kanji’s attraction to men stems from his struggles with what it means to be “manly,” and his fear of rejection from anyone, regardless of gender. However, the visual symbolism—and, at times, explicit references—to his sexuality is too obvious to ignore. When touching on the subject of Kanji’s attraction to Naoto, the game leans into outdated, transphobic tropes about being able to instinctively sense a person’s “real” gender, which are common in stories with crossdressing elements; it then combines these with “gay panic” narratives that spin on the idea that the ultimate nightmare is realizing you might be gay.

Shadow Kanji, wreathed in roses. "I am a shadow...the true self."

The game takes these moments and weaponizes them as recurring jokes about Kanji’s sexuality. Like Yukiko’s failure to conform to gender roles and Rise’s sexualization, Kanji’s sexual orientation is reduced to a running gag, as characters such as Yosuke snidely hint at his attraction to other men—male-presenting Naoto in particular—as a joke at Kanji’s expense. In short, Kanji’s attraction to men is generally known but never spoken of except in jokes; the comedic tone implies that his sexuality is furtive, undesirable, and unspeakable. Here, parallels can be drawn to the treatment of Shirogane Naoto, another character strongly implied to be LGBTQ+, whose male presentation despite being AFAB is similarly turned into comedic relief material. 

On one level: how can finding the true self be possible when one’s closest friends—who supposedly understand the importance of finding said “true self”—mock you? The clear implication is that some versions of the “self”—here, Kanji’s non-straight self—are not worth validating with societal acceptance or a powered-up Persona.

post-dungeon Kanji. "It aint a matter of guys or chicks...I'm just scared shitless of being rejected."

On a deeper level, however, the game refuses to legitimize those identities even during the intimate moments of personal growth and self-recognition that frequently occurs during Social Links. Despite joking about Kanji’s attraction to men, his Social Link completely elides his sexuality by focusing on the clash of his stereotypically female hobbies and his hypermasculine socialization. To be entirely clear: Kanji’s subversion of gender roles, in his portrayal of himself as a stereotypically tough man in order to hide his shame around his “feminine” crafting hobbies, is a clever commentary on the hollowness of gender roles. However, the game does not use that critique to complement Kanji’s ongoing exploration of his sexuality. Instead, it evokes old stereotypes by associating homosexuality with stereotypically feminine hobbies and mannerisms, erasing the possibility of non-heterosexual identification.

In short, the game gives Kanji no space to explore his attraction to men. Similarly, Naoto is never given the freedom to further question their own gender due to the game universe’s strong cisnormativity. Neither are allowed to explore these non-normative identities as a true possibility; they are only false flags during their dungeons that are replaced with more firmly cis and heterosexual gender exploration during their Social Links—Kanji can enjoy feminine hobbies, but only after denying he is queer, while Naoto can display anger at societal sexism, but only if they are confirmed as a cis woman. Both characters are only rewarded with their upgraded Personas when they adopt socially palatable identities. Thus, the LGBTQ+ identity of characters is denied twice—once within the game’s universe and logic, and again on a meta-level, as those denials prevent many real-life players from perceiving and accepting both characters as LGBTQ+.

Promo image of the Persona 4 cast in action poses

A Heart’s True Power: The (In)Authentic, (Un)True Self

At many points, Persona 4 Golden appears to subvert social expectations through the colorful outsider characters it presents: Kanji’s love of sewing and crafting; Yukiko’s determination to start her own life by herself; Rise’s pop-star past; Chie’s tomboyishness; Naoto’s gender identity. The massive popularity and appeal of Persona 4 Golden undoubtedly stems from these captivatingly unconventional personalities, especially for fans who may identify with many of the problems that the game’s characters struggle with. 

Despite these subversions, however, the game ultimately reifies social limitations. More often than not, the “True Self” in Persona 4 Golden is the socially accepted self: a self that fits within the game’s conservative small-town scope, which imposes patriarchal, heteronormative, and cisnormative expectations on all. For numerous characters in the game, this limits the possibilities of who they can be. This especially impacts characters from marginalized groups, who are denied the opportunity to explore and develop themselves in ways that do not conform.

Further, in rewarding a fixed nature of the self, Persona 4 Golden ignores the numerous different ways people can face themselves and grow. After all, personalities are fluid; finding one’s authentic, “true” self can require experimentation, mistakes, discovery, and time. Strengthening one’s heart is not a linear process, with a clear beginning and end that is rewarded by power and Personas. Ultimately, a less restrictive take on the “true self” would allow characters to thrive and confront their “weaknesses” in a more complete way, allowing them to fully embrace their authentic identities.

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