Persona 5 and the Failure to Follow A Theme
A.K.A: A Detailed Explanation of How Not to Write A Story

i wrote this in early 2020 for a critical theory class in college. my teacher said it was the best in the class, but i don't think most of the other students understood it lol. i reference mainly hauser's theory of rhetorical opportunities here (other than p5, of course).

Persona 5 is a widely known and critically acclaimed Japanese video game, praised for its devoted commitment to style and aesthetic as well as its interesting concept, story, and characters. However, the leftist circles I tend to frequent have many complaints about the game—a prominent one of which centers around its contradictory and ultimately problematic stance on the sexualization of women, particularly in the case of school-aged girls and older men. This type of discourse is very much alive in Japan as well, wherein otaku, or nerd, culture has led to a rise of media content featuring young schoolgirls created as fan-service for the predominantly male, predominantly celibate audience. In this essay I will apply the rhetorical situation model of criticism in order to yield a clear explanation of how and why the game fell victim to its context, forsaking the opportunities it created when shaping the narrative in favor of stereotypes supported by the group of people and an image it started out trying to condemn. I begin by explaining the loose plot of Persona 5 and then focusing in on the specific arc I want to analyze, which reflects the pitfalls and promises of the overarching storyline. Then, I will explain briefly the method I am planning to use and how I am going to apply it to this text. Finally, I will conduct an analysis of the text, looking particularly at how audience and business interests clouded and constrained the excellent plot opportunity Persona 5 had to follow through with its own stated theme. I will then conclude with a brief summary of my statements and final musings on why I think Persona 5 failed to live up to its own expectations.

Persona 5, the fifth installment of the Persona series and a part of the larger Shin Megami Tensei universe, is a video game wherein you play as a student (whom I will call Akira Kurusu, though the player is able to input their own name) who is forced to move to Tokyo from the countryside following an unfair run-in with the law. Once there, his “persona” is awakened; that is, he becomes able to wield magical powers in the land of palaces and the Metaverse, which are mental landscapes that house the evil side of individuals (for palaces) and the larger negativity of society (for the Metaverse). Using his newfound power, Akira is able to help seven others awaken their personas, and the group becomes known as the “Phantom Thieves.” Their aim is to clean up society and change the hearts of the people who have wronged them and others; these people are usually adults, a fact which lends itself to the overarching theme of corruption by society’s leaders that is rather obvious in the game.

While this theme certainly warrants analysis, for the purposes of this essay I am going to focus on one of the sub-themes which, though related to the grand theme, is more individualized to specific characters. One of the first arcs of the game features Akira and his new friend Ryuji Sakamoto attempting to conquer one of their schoolteachers’ palaces, a man by the name of Kamoshida Suguru, who is a coach for the school’s track teams. He has a history of physically and mentally abusing his players and sexually harassing female students, a fact which is brought to light upon meeting a new character, Ann Takamaki, and her friend Shiho Suzui, who is on the track team. Shiho had endured Kamoshida’s inappropriate comments and sexual harassment silently for a while and eventually tried to commit suicide because of it. This action alerts Ann to the wrongdoings of Kamoshida, and she then joins forces with Ryuji and Akira with the goal of trying to change his behavior and make him confess to his crimes via defeating his palace.

We as players quickly find that Shiho is not the only victim of Kamoshida’s lust for student girls when, upon confronting Kamoshida’s mental double in the palace, he is revealed to have created a double of Ann herself. This Ann, whom I will call shadow-Ann, is clad in a pink leopard-print bikini and wears cat ears and pigtails; she is also very submissive, supportive, and attracted to Kamoshida (Figure 1).

Figure 1.

Since shadow-Ann is quite literally Kamoshida’s mental image of the real Ann, it is safe to say that this is either how Kamoshida sees his student Ann or how he wants her to be. Ann, upon seeing this, becomes enraged and thus awakens her persona, enabling her to help Akira and Ryuji defeat Kamoshida.

Every awakening of a persona comes with a costume change. Ann, once her persona has awakened, is revealed to be dressed in a skin-tight leather cat suit, complete with a tail and red cat mask; her hair is also done up in pig tails, and her assigned weapon is a whip (Figure 2).

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Figure 2: Ann Takamaki's official costume.

She is clearly embarrassed and uncomfortable by the outfit, but eventually gets used to it (Figure 3).

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Figure 3: Ann Takamaki embarrassed by her costume. Game screenshot.

Simply by this description of the events we can begin to see the problems of this arc, and I contend that analyzing the rhetorical situation of the game is a suitable method for understanding what these problems are and, more importantly, why they came to exist. This method was pioneered by Lloyd Bitzer; however, I am going to be drawing chiefly upon Gerard Hauser’s explanation in this essay. The primary tenants of the method are the identification of the exigencies (defined as “imperfections marked by urgency”) that produced the text, the audience the text was made for, and the opportunities and constraints of the text in relation to its intended message. All of these combined can inform whether or not the text has made a fitting response to the situation, particularly with regard to its own goals. The first arc of Persona 5 is suited to this method because the primary reason it has such a conflicting message is, in my view, due to outside factors and its attempt to respond to every aspect of the situation without being willing to disappoint or leave out any one facet. Analyzing its context unveils these decisions and the reason for its eventual failure in fully developing its own stated theme.

First, we will turn to the exigency that served as the catalyst for Atlus’s decision to incorporate a condemnation of predatory behavior by schoolteachers into their game. In Japan, the sexualization of minors—specifically high school girls—is extremely prevalent, most notably in the otaku, or nerd, community. The term otaku stems from the Japanese word for “my own home,” which fits this group of people well as, in the stereotypical view, they tend to stay inside their homes browsing the internet, playing games, and watching anime instead of participating fully in society. A large part of the otaku group consists of older men who have dealt with failures in their romantic lives and thus turn to media as a source of fulfillment.

In related news, schoolgirls in Japan are still required to wear something akin to the sailor uniform to school—an outfit which has a notoriously short skirt. Though this phenomenon has slowly begun to change as of late, the skin-showing uniform combined with a growing population of sexually deprived and lonely men created a popular market for the “sexy schoolgirl” archetype that is familiar in America as well. It is my belief that Atlus, as a production company specializing in the types of media notorious for utilizing the sexy schoolgirl character, knew of these conditions and endeavored to make a statement about it in their game. This exigency led in part to the Kamoshida arc of Persona 5.

There is a lurking problem here, though, which I’ve hinted at just above. Atlus was and remains a curator and producer of the same type of media that had created and nurtured the sexy schoolgirl character; it stands to reason, then, that the audience that consumed that media was also the audience that would be consuming Atlus’s media. Clearly, this is something of a Catch 22, and only one of the many constraints Atlus faced when trying to undertake the task of challenging the male gaze. That group of people were not the only audience, of course; Atlus had casual gamers in mind too, as well as the international market, judging by their English advertisements and relatively intuitive playing structure. But, in the West as well as in Japan, the people who play Atlus’s style of game (anime style fighting) tend to have similar characteristics, many of which also fall into the otaku category. So, at the same time that Atlus was attempting to develop a theme of fighting against the schoolgirl fetishization by older men, they had to cater to the exact demographic that enjoyed schoolgirl fetishization by older men.

Another constraint was the game’s merchandise marketability, which would benefit from at least one of the female characters being sexualized. Atlus had to account for the fact that they expected to sell merchandise based on Persona 5 at some point. Both Japanese and American otaku culture feature a variety of merchandise staples, but for my purposes the figurines and dakimakura are most important. The figurine market is fairly overwhelmed with figures of girls/women with large breasts, skimpy clothes, and suggestive poses, as are dakimakura, which are literally giant body pillows with anime characters printed on them. It is an industry charged with sexuality that caters almost exclusively to otaku, specifically otaku men. I believe that Atlus, based on their behavior during the development and advertisement of their previous games (which had these types of merchandise), planned on entering this market as soon as they were able and, more importantly, were aware of what type of figure would get them sales. A 16-year-old in a sexy red cat suit (complete with a cleavage cut-out) would undoubtedly be an instant hit among the type of fans I’ve mentioned above.

Why, then, did they choose Ann, when her character arc began with her defeating the older man who sexualized her? It is my opinion that her being half-American and blonde played a part in this decision. Americans—or, really, most Westerners—tend to be characterized in Japanese media as sexually promiscuous, likely due to the assumption that they come from cultures of sex-dripping excess as opposed to the (supposedly) more dormant, secluded sexuality of Japan. Thus, the resident Westerner with long blonde hair and pigtails likely would have been a rather obvious choice when the creators were deciding which female character’s costume should be overtly sexual.

Figure 4: the main Persona 5 cast.

It is worth noting here that Ann’s costume is, in fact, an outlier among the costumes of the Persona 5 girls; the three others have clothes that are bulky or have multiple layers (Figure 4). They look good, but none are as overt as Ann’s in their catering to the male gaze; Persona 5 easily could have kept the norm of non-sexualized students that it imposed on other characters, but it failed to take advantage of the opportunity.

Along with this, I believe Persona 5 had ample other opportunities to promote a successful and developed message against schoolgirl sexualization. First of all, and most prominently, the literal overarching plot and message of the game lends itself effortlessly to the completion of the anti-sexualization message that began in the first arc. As I talked briefly about before, Persona 5 revolves around a group of teenagers standing up against adults who have wronged them and literally forcing those adults to see and confront those wrongs; it is a game that advocates direct action, influence, and individuality over keeping the peace and status quo. Following Ann’s powerful awakening against her fetishization by a male teacher with her immediately being fetishized for the audiences’ sake goes directly against those themes; it shows the company submitting to the wants of the audience and softens Kamoshida’s sexual harassment by literally engaging in it on a meta-scale (Figure 5).

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Figure 5: Ann Takamaki during her awakening scene. Game screenshot.

It didn’t have to be that way, though; it narratively does not make sense with the rest of the story, which focuses on the empowerment of the oppressed, because it submits the character of Ann to sexualization by players of the game, locking her right back into the role the narrative seemed to be trying to get her out of. This was a great opportunity, but Persona 5 did not take advantage of it to the full extent that it should and could have.

The final area where the developers of Persona 5 showed blatant disregard for their own setup when executing Ann’s story arc rests with the character of Kamoshida himself. From the beginning, he’s shown to be an objectively awful person, using his authority as a teacher to bully and tyrannize over his students whilst simultaneously covering it up with charisma and lies. The narrative is not subtle in communicating this, either.

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Figure 6: Ryuji commenting on the nature of Kamoshida's palace. Game screenshot.

In Kamoshida’s palace, for example, students are literally depicted as slaves to be torture, and he becomes a direct antagonist to the player character by overtly threatening to have him expelled from the school (Figures 6, 7, and 8).

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Figure 7: Kamoshida's imagination of his students. Game screenshot.

All of this heavy-handed characterization combines to form a succinct, obvious, and clear denouncement of the type of person Kamoshida is—which by nature includes being the type of person to sexualize a schoolgirl.

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Figure 8: Kamoshida threatening to expel Akira and his friends. Game screenshot.

So, if the established antagonist of the arc—who has consistently shown to be abhorrent and who the narrative spares no thoughts of forgiveness for—is also the character who first begins treating Ann as a sex object, what follows should be a steadfast refusal by the company to portray themselves in any way related to that negative character. As it is, they chose instead to give Ann a sexy catgirl outfit, poses, and fighting, thereby treating her the exact same way their despicable first antagonist did. All they had to do to remedy this contradiction of values was abstain from overtly objectifying Ann, but they ignored the opportunity given by the way they treated Kamoshida to do so.

Due to these factors, then, it is my conclusion that Persona 5, as a game, failed to produce a fitting response to the exigence of fetishized schoolgirls in Japan; they began to develop a theme against it, but switched halfway through to play a part in advancing the sexualized image they had just denounced before. The character of Ann Takamaki could have been used to demonstrate their commitment to the theme of empowerment of oppressed peoples and condemnation of those who are the oppressors, but they instead used her as a five-minute plot-device-turned-sex-object for merchandise sales and otaku support. Their message is confusing, contradictory, and ultimately failed to follow through with their stated themes and goals. Persona 5 sold out to their situation, and the narrative suffered for it.