The reveal trailer for Persona 5: The Royal sparked much speculation that the re-release might include a playable female protagonist. This possibility has now largely been ruled out, and while the excitement for it was understandable, developers must truly reckon with the inconsistencies that permeate their games’ politics to do both women and queer characters justice.
In Japan, there is currently a movement, known as #KuToo, where women are pushing back against the expectation that they have to wear high heels to work. In a statement to Time, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare said “In order to make sure that men and women enjoy equal opportunities and treatment, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare strives to enforce the Equal Employment Opportunity Law and works to create a working environment where all people, including women, can work comfortably.” Basically, whether or not women have to wear heels in the workplace is left to the companies to determine, and it’s a common enough practice that a petition to end it, created by Yumi Ishikawa, now has over 17,000 signatures as of the time of writing.
Women being forced to wear clothing that makes them uncomfortable, sound familiar? Reading about this movement, I was immediately reminded of Persona 5’s Ann, and her iconic catsuit. Much like the women participating in #KuToo, Ann is forced to wear clothing that makes her deeply uncomfortable and is largely ignored when she vocalizes that discomfort. Just as Ishikawa has not yet heard back from any private businesses or the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, Ann’s complaints are shown on screen, but never addressed.
Ann’s case becomes even more troubling when you consider the intense sexual harassment she’s been dealing with at the hands of the school volleyball coach, Suguru Kamoshida. Despite all the trauma that results from Kamoshida’s behavior, the Persona devs still felt it was appropriate to put her in a revealing suit that even she takes issue with when it first appears on her. Which is strange given how aggressive the critique of Kamoshida is in the game.
Ann’s character, though actually complex and interesting, is ultimately wasted by the game continuously forcing her into the box of “hot, ditzy model” because of the way she embodies her femininity. Futaba, Makoto, and Haru all avoid this because the tropes they embody are meant to be taken more seriously. But Ann’s status as a hot, blonde model constantly pushes her into the role of thirst object, even when this is in direct opposition to the trauma she’s faced. No matter how much she manages to grow, the game always is always policing her, pushing her back into the sexy trope she fought so hard to escape from because of how she presents to the world. This isn’t the only time the Persona franchise has gone down questionable routes with gender.
In Persona 4, Kanji and Naoto both are originally presented as queer, before their arcs ultimately end in them realizing they’re actually straight and cisgendered respectively. Some have argued that this is actually an act of criticism against the strict gender norms found in Japanese society.
In an article on Giant Bomb, user mattbodega said “The key to understanding Kanji isn’t sexuality. It’s Gender.” They go on to talk about how Kanji’s interests in feminine-coded, and because of this the citizens of Inaba perceive him as being gay, whether or not he actually is.
In theory, you could apply this notion to Naoto’s character as well. According to her arc, the only reason she wanted to be a man was that she desperately wanted to be a detective, but because of the strict gender roles in Japanese society, she couldn’t as a woman.
We again see femininity being policed by Japanese society, and there is an argument for Persona 4’s critique of them. But considering Atlus’ past with queer and trans characters (*cough* Catherine *cough*), and extremely poor handling of future ones, I can’t comfortably give it to them. It was bad enough for this game to have two seemingly queer characters be taken away, but having the only queer characters in its sequel be portrayed as basically every harmful stereotype about queer men known to man inspires little to no faith in any critique P Studio may have been making about gender roles or queerness.
The inconsistencies of the series’ politics continue in other areas of Persona 5 as well. The whole game centers on taking out corrupt adults in positions of power, and ultimately focus on taking down a manipulative and cruel politician who wants to keep things the same forever. Yet the politics of these games consistently trend towards the politics of Japan’s own corrupt prime minister and his cronies.
Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, much like the in-game character Masayoshi Shido, has multiple scandals under his belt, one of which caused almost 50% of Japanese voters to feel he should be removed from office in order to take responsibility for it. The similarities don’t end there, however. Both men, real and fictional, embrace ultra-nationalistic policies, seemingly without a care for how it will impact their constituents, or anyone else for that matter.
Shido is the villain of Persona 5, the whole work meant to be a critique of this kind of politician and the apathy that allows men like him to gain and hold power. Considering that Abe is the longest running Prime Minister since World War II, this, on its face, seems like it would be a damning piece of cultural criticism. But it rings hollow as the game actively embraces tropes and beliefs about LGBTQ+ folks and women that members of Abe’s party have claimed publicly multiple times.
So long as the Persona series embraces trans/homophobia, and sexism/victim blaming, it will never be able to truly critique the systems it clearly wants to. These elements are just as much a part of that party and government system as the corruption and ultra-nationalism are. Much like in American politics, to try to separate these issues from the greater whole is to ultimately weaken and undermine your position.
Until P Studio can come to grips with these conflicting viewpoints, I just can’t see them doing a playable woman justice. We don’t need any more instances of oversexualizing young girls who’ve already been traumatized by sexual assault, or portrayals of gay men as aggressive predators on the prowl for high school-aged boys to take against their wills.
There’s often an argument that these beliefs are inherent to Japanese society, but that’s simply not the case. The LDP’s (Abe’s political party) hold over the country for so long is what has been shaping Japan this way, not some inherent queerphobia or sexism. Many schools are introducing unisex uniforms or flexible uniform codes in support of LGBTQ+ students, Tokyo Pride grows larger every year, and there’s an activist group suing the government to allow gay marriage in Japan (something that’s only illegal on a technicality interpreted in the constitution by the government). Japanese society is shifting, despite the conservatism of their government, and P Studio and Atlus need to do the same.
Luckily, there seems to be some hope in this arena. On March 30th, 2019, Job Rainbow, a Japanese organization that brings together LGBT+ and LGBT-friendly businesses for job fairs for queer folks, had one such fair. One of the several companies in attendance was Sega Japan. While this isn’t concrete evidence of change for Atlus or P Studio, it’s hopefully a start.