CONTENT WARNING for discussions of queerphobia and sexual assault. SPOILERS for the entire Persona 4 game.
Editor’s Note: Due to the contradictory messaging of Naoto’s arc, the author has chosen to use they/them pronouns throughout.
No video game has ever hit me quite as hard as Persona 4 did.
To be fair, I don’t play a lot of video games. I love story-driven games, but my reflexes and response times are crap, I don’t have the patience to keep redoing boss fights, and my parents wouldn’t allow anything other than Gameboys in the house when I was growing up. I’d never even heard of the Persona series until my then-boyfriend (now fiance) suggested I play Persona 4 on his Playstation 2 shortly after I had moved to Seattle.
“You’ll like Chie,” he told me. “She’s a rude girl, like you.”
“Like” turned out to be an understatement. From Chie Satonaka’s very first moment on-screen, I related to everything. Like me, she had a hot temper and was prone to violence. Like me, she loved steak. Like me, she tended to be silly and speak without thinking. Like me, she positioned herself as a protector of her much quieter longtime best friend, Yukiko. And of course, I turned to my partner and teased him about his fondness for temperamental women.
But relating to Persona 4’s characters isn’t always fun. The story delves into each character’s psyche, exploring not just their insecurities but the ugliness they, like everyone, hides within them. The game does this by forcing them to face their Shadow selves. Chie’s shadow, clad in a yellow hood and perched atop a pile of girls, revealed the pride she took in being Yukiko’s protector and how she selfishly enjoyed being stronger than her friend.
I felt exposed. Seen. Every single unacceptable thought and feeling Shadow Chie expressed was something I’ve thought or felt. People and their relationships are complicated, and ugliness can enter our hearts unbidden, despite our best efforts. I didn’t like that part of me, but it’s not something I can just banish through sheer force of will. No amount of standing and yelling, “You’re not me!” will make that cease to exist.
Persona 4 understands that. The Shadows attack in the face of denial, manifesting as intrusive thoughts that become more and more powerful the more you try to push them away. The only way to defeat them is to accept that they’re a part of you, but not the only part of you. Pride and selfishness may be part of me, but it doesn’t negate the genuine love I feel for my friends.
From that moment, Persona 4 became one of my favorite games. After all, who doesn’t love a game that puts all the worst parts of you on display for the world to see?
As Chie’s arc progressed, I never stopped finding something to connect to. She takes pride in her drive to protect, but struggles to reconcile that with her desire to be more feminine. Not long before starting the game, I had bought my first dress in years and eyeliner for the first time ever. It was astounding how much of my exact personality and situation I saw in Chie.
There’s an interiority to Persona 4, an introspectiveness that remains unmatched by any other game I’ve played. It comes together with Persona 3 and 5 to form something of a trilogy—loosely connected games offering a different perspective on the troubled world we’ve inherited. But where Persona 3 builds a melancholy narrative around a savior figure and Persona 5 advocates for rebelling against broken systems, Persona 4 focuses on finding peace through self-acceptance and understanding friends.
One by one, the player-characters face down their Shadows, each one designed to reflect their internal battle to reconcile their own desires with their assigned roles. Yosuke Hanamura is bitter about moving from Tokyo to a small town; Yukiko Amagi resents being trapped in Inaba as the successor to a historic inn; Kanji Tatsumi’s struggle to reconcile his love of textiles and his image of masculinity causes him to question his sexuality; popular idol singer Rise Kujikawa feels exposed and sexualized; and detective Naoto Shirogane feels like being AFAB (assigned female at birth) is a professional liability.
Defeated Shadows turn into Personae for the characters to wield in battle. None of them can face their Shadows alone; they can only successfully convert their Shadows into Personae with the help of their friends. When Naoto, the final party member to join, tells their shadow, “You’re not me!” the others try to stop them. But Kanji just says, “It’s okay… Let the kid spill the whole thing. If not, Naoto is just going to keep hurting… We’ll just do our job and kick the Shadow’s ass.”
The support and acceptance of their friends is instrumental to each character learning to accept themselves. It’s a message the resonates with misfits searching for a found family. Because of this, many fans look back on the game and its clumsy treatment of its central themes with bitterness instead of affection.
Persona 4 shines most when examining how gender roles can be harmful to men: Yosuke learns not to feel entitled to “specialness,” and Kanji no longer performs toxic masculinity. Even the game’s villain is a literal would-be rapist who’s angry that women don’t pay sufficient attention to him. However, the game stumbles in its female characters’ arcs, and in its handling of queer themes.
While Chie’s awkward forays into femininity may have connected with me at the time, it’s hardly a feminist message. Fiction, after all, is rife with tough girls who, after a time, decide that maybe they want to give makeup and dresses a try. Truly gender-nonconforming heroines are far, far rarer. The dominant message then becomes, “It’s okay to be tough… but not too tough, and only as long as you can still perform traditional femininity!”
Maintaining the status quo becomes a recurring theme in the female characters’ arcs. Yukiko, after making plans to move away, decides to stay and inherit the Amagi Inn.
Similarly, Rise feels stressed and depressed by the pressures of idol culture, which force her to maintain an artificial personality. While she’s taking a break, she finds her fans have started to turn on her, comparing her unfavorably to the younger idol Kagamin. However, instead of recognizing the toxicity of forcing women to compete with each other and conform to a certain image, Rise decides to go back to being an idol after receiving a single letter from a random fan she’d inspired.
The way the game treats Naoto is probably the most controversial part of Persona 4 among fans. Their arc is ostensibly about gender roles—they worry that no one will take a female detective seriously and so publicly present as male. More deftly handled, it could have examined how women are unable to access certain professions no matter how competent or qualified they are.
However, Naoto’s arc co-opts trans imagery: they wear a male school uniform and, presumably, a binder to hide their breasts. Their Shadow expresses the desire to surgically alter their body to be more masculine. They describe how, as a child, their ideal image of themself was as a man.
It’s no wonder that transmasculine players (AniFem’s own Vrai Kaiser included) became so attached to them. And it’s why it’s such a betrayal that, at the end of their arc, Naoto stands up and says to the protagonist: “I am a woman.”
This bleeds over into Kanji’s arc as well. Kanji starts the game questioning his sexuality because of his attraction to Naoto. Reaffirming Naoto’s femininity turns this into a stock “gay panic” plotline, a staple of shoujo and shounen rom-coms.
None of this matters to Yosuke, who both bullies Kanji throughout the game for possibly being gay and objectifies the girls in the party. When I first played the game, I got the sense that Yosuke himself was deep, deep in the closet and overcompensating.
There’s evidence to support this, too: when a fan data-mined the game disc, years after release, they found unused voice clips that sound a whole lot like they came from a romantic social link route; there’s a scene where the protagonist holds Yosuke by the riverbank, only unlockable by making certain choices; and a prequel manga where he finds himself drawn to another boy shortly before moving to Inaba.
Yosuke being canonically gay or bisexual would have changed him from a homophobic bully to a scared, insecure teenager grappling with his sexuality in a small, conservative town. Some people, myself included, still choose to read him that way. (Not that there wouldn’t be issues with that narrative, too—the homophobic bully revealed as a self-hating gay man is a harmful trope of its own.)
However, because of the cuts, that subtext will never be text. His homophobia remains yet another queerphobic note in a game with themes that, by all rights, should be allowed to resonate with a queer audience.
There is still so much I love about Persona 4. It has an excellent ensemble cast with great chemistry, evocative imagery layered with symbolism, and an engaging story. Chie will always, always be my girl. But as a story written largely by straight men, its blind spots undermine its themes and can be outright hurtful to its marginalized fanbase.
It’s hard to know what the future holds for Persona. Based on interviews, it appears longtime series director Katsura Hashino played a major role in the gender essentialism that has plagued Persona 3, 4, and 5.
He has announced that he’ll be moving on from the franchise, but no replacement has been named. We can only hope it will be someone who understands the potential that the concept behind Persona holds for marginalized groups and makes the franchise as inclusive as it truly deserves to be.