As I probably made obvious in the title of this post, I am absolutely gaga for Atlus’s fifth entry into the Megami Tensei spin-off Persona series. Persona 4: Golden was undeniably a masterpiece, and I have been looking forward to P5 ever since it was confirmed to be coming to PS4 in addition to PS3. In fact, I faithfully awaited the launch through a series of multiple delays. Also, gotta say it was a bit mean to JRPG fans that they were going to launch on Valentine’s day.
Now that I’ve had it downloaded and loved for a reasonable amount of time I wanted to share some thoughts regarding thematics and overall structure of the game. While it should be noted that I am not quite through my first play through (what can I say, finals) I feel I am currently facing a confusing set of emotions that should be articulated at this moment.
I plan to write more once I am done with the game, and my feelings and impressions will likely change as a result. But really I must say that while this is undoubtedly one of the best video games I have ever played, mechanically, stylistically, and by story it still has some parts that make me feel a bit uncomfortable.
Let us be fair, there are a lot of issues with social representation throughout almost all media, and in video games particularly. By these admittedly low standards, the Persona series has always been a few steps ahead of the curve where social progress is concerned. I’d look at the open-minded view they take in exploring the dungeon themed around the undefined sexuality and sexual preferences of Persona 4‘s Kanji.
Persona 5 has some similarity deep themes in the very first dungeon of Kamoshida’s castle where his abuse of his students is displayed. Given that the physical and sexual abuse is with two members of your party, Yosuke and Ann respectively, this isn’t some issue presented in the abstract, but an actual act of defiance where the victims are pursuing justice. Maybe a lesser game wouldn’t nudge me towards criticism of minutia, but Persona 5 is downright hypocritical.
This first criticism I feel I am wading into dangerous territory, but I promise I have logic if you see the argument to the end. I am very bothered by the games continued hyper-sexualization of its young female subjects, and Ann in particular.
I understand that many feel the sexualization of people considered underage in America and other Western nations. I understand that the age of consent is lower in Japan. I really don’t want to be an imperialist who tries to impose my standards onto others, but this is a piece of media that was made for myself and my market and I feel my criticism is valid. That said, P5 seems to at least somewhat agree that this is a way of depicting young women that is wrong.
There is nothing wrong with having an attractive character of either gender, that is kind of at the heart of any visual storytelling. I’m not going to write anything about Black Widow’s appearance being sexual because that is kind of the point and power of the character. She uses her sexuality as an a person fully capable of making her own informed decisions to manipulate the more basic parts of humans and the male gender in particular.
The problem is that the of the game seems to agree that the way the girls are depicted and treated is fundamentally wrong. The first quest is centered around stopping the “pervy” teacher who is pressuring underage girls into sexual activity. In the final boss fight, King Kamoshida drinks from a cup of lust where he literally consumes the mostly-nude bodies of young girls.
With this evidence, I think it is undeniable that the game considers Kamoshida’s view of high school girls as wrong as I would. Whether that is right or imperialistic is a discourse for another day. Now, accepting this condition, it stands to reason that Kamoshida’s distorted worldview includes a sexualized Ann in a bikini.
By cultural standards, especially those in the West, a young woman in a bikini is downright tame; however, it is hammered home that coach Kamoshida is doing something wrong by viewing Ann as a sex object. So, what does the game do? Repeatedly and heavily treat Ann as a sex object.
There is a pattern of making moments where the male characters of the Persona franchise awkwardly encounter their female counterparts in bathing suits. Personally, I find these moments at least charming, if a bit awkward. P5 is no exception to this trend. While these swimming scenes are low hanging fruits for examples, there are repeated instances where Ann is sexualized….. because.
Though I would say Ryuji is the worst explicit offender, there are multiple instances where they just stare at her or else make strange remarks. This would be fine in isolation, but it just keeps happening and I keep feeling weird. Take for instance the drive to Futaba’s pyramid. Obviously things are hot in the desert and they are trying to keep as cool as possible, but every guy in the back seat can’t help but stare down Ann’s shirt. Not subtly, they make a point of showing both Ann not being upset by this and the men not seeming to care.
Let’s give credit where credit is due. Ann is an attractive young blond who is a part-time model as the result of her rich parents being fashion designers. It would have been easy to treat Ann as just an object of attraction. Persona 5 does not do that.
Ann is a romance option, and while her specific story missions do involve some work to become a better and/or more successful model, that is far from the point. She is doing it for herself so she can feel accomplishment through work and ultimately finds greater self value by side-lining modeling again. I can say all of that because she was the romance option I pursued.
Persona 5 does an exceptional job of making well rounded female characters. They are intelligent, complex, and a great sign of progress in an unfortunately misogynistic medium. While I applaud Atlus’s two steps forward, we must also acknowledge there one step back.