How Persona 5 Diagnoses our Deeply Sick Society Within its Story

Over the course of 2021, I played and beat Persona 5‘s gargantuan storymode. It took me over 110 hours, and that was without grinding for level ups to get through a challenge, as the fights for the most part were fairly easy, even on hard mode. No, a lot of that time spent playing the game was actually just watching cutscenes for said story mode. There was so much ground to cover because the game possessed soaring ambitions atypical of JRPGs. A lot of the time the story fell short on those ambitions, but in some of key ways, Persona 5 is a game with the most trenchant political critique on society since Metal Gear Solid 2. This really comes down to the story’s villains, which consist of specific corrupt individuals with institutional power, rotted institutions themselves, and ultimately, your every day person. It’s that last step that really takes really takes Persona 5‘s critique to the next level, but we should start from the beginning.

The game opens up with an every day injustice that sees a young innocent life destroyed in the service of a powerful man who won’t even remember the name of the kid he ruined. You play as this protagonist, who tries to protect a woman from her abusive, politician boss making advances on her without her consent, only for the entire truth of the incident to get turned on its head and your character ending up imprisoned and abused by police officers on trumped up charges. All for the crime of invonveniencing a powerful man in the midst of committing a sexual assault. You’re sent away to a new highschool with a criminal record, seen by everyone in this alien community as a dangerous felon and a scumbag. Nobody there knows you or the circumstances of your arrest, they just hate you because they were essentially told to hate you by the legal system and the people in power that rigged it. This is all makes for a great set up, though the game does fumble it a little bit by not making your character’s criminal status a bigger part of his relationship to the characters he meets in and out of school. For the most part your life in Tokyo, even in the phase of the game where there’s a powerful politician literally out to kill you and your friends (your character’s disguise during this period is to have his hoody up), is mostly similar to other Persona games’ experience with your main character in their respective towns.

The first arc concerns you making friends with the other school outcasts, Ryuji, a former track star who is being abused by the school’s former Olympic medalist volleyball player turned coach, Suguru Kamoshida, and Ann, who is being sexually harrassed by that same coach. By siding with them in their struggle against this coach, your character is once again in the crosshairs of another powerful adult. It’s implied (and confirmed in a cut flashback) that coach Kamoshida’s past sexual indiscretions forced him out of his Olympic career and made him end up taking a position at a highschool. Because the women he assaulted were forced into silence, the actual reasons of his exit from his Olympic career were kept secret, so Kamoshida was allowed to strut around in a normal highschool as a big fish in a small pond. He of course immediately abused his position, degrading and humiliated the boys he taught, while sexually harassing or assaulting any girl that caught his eye. He could do this with impunity because his word meant more than any student’s due to the prestige he afforded the school as a former olympian coaching their rinky dink sports teams. And now, you’re in his sights because your two new friends happen to be some of his victims and you wanted to defend them. You’re right back to where you began, in the way of a powerful man who will surely destroy you, but this time fate intervenes in the way it does in all Persona titles: You get a large floating demon aparation to show up, granting you a bevy of useful powers. This is framed in this game as your rebellious spirit manifesting itself as a powerful demonic entity, ready to defy the corrupt society that has all but imprisoned you, and the cutscene of you achieving this gift (along with the scenes of your friends/party members eventually getting it) is a true highlight of this game’s narrative. There’s nothing more liberating than being able to gain the power to upend a world that is intent on keeping you down, it’s wish fulfillment in its purest, most joyous form.

With this new power, you and your friends travel into the soul/mind of the sex-pest coach, who literally sees himself as a King within the walls of his school building, and work to take him down. In the world of this game, by defeating the inner “Shadow” self of person within their mind, you can compel a change of heart and force them to confess to their crimes. So by playing through the RPG dungeon that is their mind (called their “Palace” ingame), and defeating their Shadow self, which is a grotesque manifestation of their ego, you shatter their delusional narcissism and force them to confront their deeds. If there’s a flaw in this novel approach to dungeons, it’s that there’s a missed opportunity in not going deeper into the psyches of the narcissists who’s minds you invade. It’s all very surface level “Isn’t this guy awful?” stuff, when it could have been a lot more nuanced. After completing the Kamoshida mind dungeon and defeating his Shadow, he publicly confesses to all his crimes, and suddenly your charater and his friends are no longer in danger. Justice is served, and that’s just the beginning.

Throughout the game, your character meets more kids in trouble, more adults abusing their power and getting away with it, and more reasons to use your powers to bring about justice. Eventually the public catches on to what is happening, and our heroes brand themselves as “the Phantom Thieves”, thieves who steal the hearts of evil doers and force them to confess to their crimes. These evil doers are forever robbed of their evil impulses and become shells of their former selves after the process… which kind of smacks of mind control doesn’t it? While the game doesn’t shy away from this conversation about the ethics of what the main characters are doing, it definitively comes down on the side of “It’s fine to mind control evil doers” and mostly takes our heroes to task for their obsession with public opinion. In other words, it’s OK to mind control evil doers, as long as you’re doing it for the right reasons. Honestly, a bold stance in my view, and not typical of stories like this where the heroes are often equated with the villains for taking these extraordinary measures.

Our heroes (and their pet demon cat that hates being called a cat) defeating yet another corrupt adult.

The downfall of the Phantom Thieves comes when a dangerous psychopath masquerading as a genius detective frames our heroes for the murder of one of their targets, killing him just as his change of heart was supposed to take place. This detective, Goro Akechi, has the same powers as our heroes. He’s also able to infiltrate the souls of people, except he uses this power to just murder them from the inside, but more often, mind control them into committing crimes and then “solving” those crimes with his “genius” detective work. Operating on behalf of an unknown employer, Akechi frames the Phantom Thieves for murder and uses his position as a famous detective to destroy their reputations and make them wanted fugitives. This is the price of their hubris, as before, your character was targeting figures in retaliation for things they were planning to do to your friends, whereas this latest target was picked via an online poll made available to fans of the Phantom Thieves. Anticipating your next target, and setting a brutal trap and destroying your reputation, Akechi’s star is ascendant as he becomes known as the man who was right about the vile Phantom Thieves from the beginning. His obsession with fame and power serves as a grotesque mirror of what your characters have become, and it’s only after realizing this that they set a trap of their own.

In the game’s most exciting arc (and the time of the flashforward the game begins on), you and your friends fool Akechi, fake your death, and finally expose who’s behind much of the dysfunction that serves as the root of the game’s story: The politician who ruined your character’s life at the star of the game, Masayoshi Shido. Shido’s a relic from the past, a Great Man wannabe who longs to bring Japan back to its imperialist glory days and be a Great Power once again, but can’t due to the trappings of a modern democratic state that was specifically designed to disperse power. His fortunes changed when his bastard son Goro Akechi (a bastard in both the literal and figurative sense, with an agenda of his own), came into his life with the power to influence the minds of or kill just about anyone that Shido desired. With the vast sums of money and political capital afforded to him through Akechi’s machinations, Shido started manipulating the public in a grand conspiracy to become Japan’s next Prime Minister, and eventually its undisputed ruler and dictator. Your characters have been bumping against this conspiracy throughout the game, and with neither Shido or your character knowing it, you were destined to clash in a big way.

Akechi and Shido plotting in one of the most expository cutscenes in video game history.

I love the central story of the game because it’s a fantasy story about jumping into people’s souls and fighting literal inner demons, but it’s also a story about power. It’s about how to use it, who should have it, and the kind of people who do have it. This game begins with an injustice visited upon your main character after he tries to stop a man with power from sexually assaulting his female employee. Shido gets to sexually harass his employees, and anyone who tries to stop it or say anything about it gets destroyed. This game understands that real power isn’t about something as crude as hitting or slapping a person, it’s about the ability to define reality for everyone else after the fact. It’s about having the power to destroy a person for even talking about what really happened to them.

Each and every person that joins your team is a highschooler that was trampled by the powerful, but were blessed enough to gain the means to rebel against them. Even Akechi, the bastard son of a powerful politician that abandoned his mother, was cast aside and had to build himself up in a world that would have swallowed him if he didn’t gain the powers he did. His goal is ostensibly to ruin his father the moment he becomes Prime Minister as part of a revenge scheme, but the truth is clearly that he’s desperate for his acknowledgement. Akechi has life or death power over anyone who’s mind he infiltrates, but Shido is the one that wields the real power in their relationship regardless. The game’s master stroke though isn’t the Shido of it all, it’s the game’s understanding of where his power really comes from.

When our heroes infiltrate Shido’s mind (his Palace manifests itself as a boat floating above a sinking world), they find some extra passengers aboard. His elite cadre tags along within him in his voyage to power. The public has his back, and the Phantom Thieves’ popularity is at an all time low. Your character is presumed dead, and your friends and family are either under surveillance or literally detained. Against all odds, your heroes manage to defeat Shido and his son Akechi, force Shido to confess to the public about his crimes, and expose his conspiracy to the world. The result though, is a tepid response from the public, who more or less try very hard to gloss over the truth that was revealed to them, and largely find a way to hold onto Shido’s comforting lies about the person he was despite Shido himself saying that’s not the case. This is where the game takes its themes to the next level.

Shido is a rising star in Japan’s political scene that most people dismissed in his early career.

Kamoshida, Shido, Akechi, and the many other villains you fight are only able to do what they do because of a society that refuses to hold them accountable. Kamoshida was a menace for years, tormenting his students at his leisure and being allowed to do it because the people in charge love the prestige of having a fromer Olympian as a coach for their school. Shido’s ugly, nationalistic promises to “restore” Japan to its glory days held purchase with the public because a lot of the public believes in what he’s saying. In both Kamoshida’s and Shido’s cases, they aren’t totally deceiving anyone about who they are at their core, it’s just that the people who can stop them would honestly prefer not to. They lie about the specifics about their crimes, but those lies only work because the people prefer the lie to the truth, not because they’re especially clever lies. This is a repeated theme with many of the other villains in the game, they’re these evidently awful people that both institutions of power and the masses tolerate or even protect, because the alternative, actual doing anything to confront injustice, is something people can’t be bothered with. Most stories of this nature take powerful corrupt institutions to task because it comforts the audience to be able to point at a bad guy that’s so apart from themselves, but not a lot of stories also take the masses to task for allowing this corruption to fester. Propoganda only works because the lies it tells are the lies people want to believe.

So the ultimate enemy in Persona 5 isn’t Shido, it’s the will of the people that wanted him in power. In a franchise staple, a meddling demon (that sees itself as a God) emerges, Yaldabaoth, formed from mankind’s indolence and apathy about their own fates. It turns out, that the origin to your powers was this God’s test for humanity. Yaldabaoth puts your desire to reform the world against Akechi’s desire to destroy it, but despite “winning”, Yaldabaoth decides that he wants to go ahead with his plan to control all of humanity anyways because deep down it’s what they really want in his view. Only a deeply myopic society would even allow things to get this far with Kamoshida, with Shido, with the countless other injustices people see everyday, so in a sense Yaldabaoth’s plan is understandable in its own twisted way. Why should these people decide their own futures, when they’re so intent on propping up tyrants to do it for them? Even the Phantom Thieves, your character’s “heroic” group of mind controlling vigilantes are a sign that people would rather leave their problems to be solved by magical teenagers rather than themselves. The villain’s big evil plan in this game is to satisfy humanity’s desire for an overlord by becoming it himself, finally breaking a pattern of a fickle group of people who look for different figures to worship or condemn based on public trends. When you look at the world we have today, it’s hard to shake the disturbing notion that his plan is really to just give people what they want. In a game dealing with the seven deadly sins, it’s not wrath or pride that proves to be the most destructive, but sloth.

The final Palace takes the form of a prison that humanity has chosen to put themselves in.

In the end, it’s the Phantom Thieves restoring the public’s faith in their own ability to choose, to face their own futures, that win against this false God. It isn’t the power of friendship, but it’s this even more miraculous turn of events, society getting its act together, that gives our heroes the power to save the day. The game climaxes with your character forming up a giant satan-like demon to shoot a huge bullet through the head of a wannabe God. As the ruin it was about to visit on the Earth disappates, the happy ending our heroes achieve is a society that is a little more interested in solving its own problems. Honestly, that last bit is the most unrealistic part of this conclusion, but a game story needs some kind of happy resolution, and this one was well earned.

Since I played Persona 5: Royal, there’s actually one last arc of the story left, as the game was re-released with extra content a few years back. This arc puts you up against the liberal answer to Shido’s fascist takeover attempt, and really puts the Phantom Thieve’s philosophy of choice to the test. Your school’s therapist, Takuto Maruki, gains the godlike power to reshape reality so that literally nothing bad can happen to anybody, and only good things exist. People who died too soon, dreams that were crushed by circumstance, and even minor inconveniences, are all reversed by Maruki’s project. Lazy curmodgens are turned into pleasant busy bodies, struggling brilliant artists are turned into successful functionaries in a less risky career path. Maruki’s paradise’s only real fault is that the people didn’t get to choose it, for themselves, but Maruki plausibly argues, who wouldn’t choose this?

Seems like Akechi has a different perspective that your character shares, forming the basis of an uneasy alliance.

The Phantom Thieves, after some convincing from your character, decide for humanity that the ugly real world is better than a fake paradise, and what’s so bold about this storytelling choice is that there’s no “catch” to Maruki’s world that is hidden. Everyone really is happier, even if the world feels a bit less colourful than it did before. Wheelchair bound people can walk again, cancer isn’t a thing, fatal traffic accidents don’t happen, and the dead are brought back, it’s exactly as promised. In the end though, reinforcing the themes from the main story, what Maruki is doing is similar to the actions to a false God, even if he’s way nicer about it. This game contends that deciding the fate of the entire world alone is something nobody should be able to do, not for any specific drawbacks, but because of the philosophical principle of it. Unlike the last villain, Maruki’s defeat is tragic (the tragedy being enhanced by a stellar voice performance of an actor we tragically lost this month), and his dreams of a better world a torn asunder by you the player in a brutal doubling down of the ideas presented earlier. There should be more to existence than the avoidance of pain the game argues, even if the alternative is objectively worse. There isn’t a moment where Maruki is shown to be duplicitous or powerhungry, or that his plan isn’t going to work, your character (along with a somewhat reformed Akechi in a terrific final arc for the character), are against the plan for what it is on its face, not what it could be. Even if you have quibbles about how the main characters are also deciding for the world by rejecting this paradise on their behalf, you gotta admire the conviction in this writing.

There has been a lot of discussion about how this game was prescient in some way, that it nailed things like the rise of Trump through Shido, or how social media is making society more self-indulgent and apathetic. This game depicts a society that is willing to cede their will to others, and we see that reflected in the real world with people willing to outsource their opinions to reactionary youtubers or their freedoms to obvious conartist demigogues (a title that applies to a lot more than just Trump). The thing is though, this is the same as it ever was. Today’s Trump, was yesterday’s Reagan, today’s Amber Heard was yesterday’s Britney Spears (and Monica Lewinsky before that). Persona 5 will always feel relevant because its story deals with something fundamental to the human condition: Power. It’s about who has it, how it’s wielded, and most importantly, how it’s freely given to others. Corrupt powerful institutions are taken to task in this story, but so are the people who make it possible, you and I, the ones with the real power who let those who exploit us get away with it, or worse, abet them as they do it. In the world of Persona 5, the miracle of instantaneous global communication that social media afforded us reveals nothing but a fickle, vapid public that goes from worshipping figures like the Phantom Thieves, to condemning them, to literally forgetting who they are. Every day, this cynical reading feels truer and truer, but one should also remember the positive message of the game’s story, how it touts the power of choice; the idea that the transformative power of a collective body connected through technology and emotion, can overcome any problem if the people within it choose to rise to the occasion together. Many years ago, I wrote a short piece about my excitement for the game based on its aesthetic alone, it’s good to know that all these years later, the game was more than just a pretty face.

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