Today’s article contains game-long spoilers for Persona 5. It’s pretty much just focused on the villains, but, ya know, you’ve been warned.
Persona 5 has inadvertently caused me to ask a superficially simple question: What is the threshold for villainy?
Persona 5 is the story of the Phantom Thieves, a group of swanky teenagers that stylishly steal “hearts” from people with wicked desires. They start pretty small with a local gym teacher, but, by the end of the story, they’re using their powers to literally shift the balance of political power in their country. One way or another, despite a capricious general public, the Phantom Thieves and their leader, Stylin’ McSavvipants (aka Joker), are always on the side of good, and never use this power to, I don’t know, screw with some random shop keep’s inventory so they can actually afford new shirts every month. In short, while the SMT/Persona series generally enjoys a bit of moral ambiguity, there is never any question that the good guys are the good guys, even if they seem to doubt themselves in a few too many overly long dialogue scenes (and I guess this just reinforces that they’re good, right?). The Phantom Thieves are thieves, but you’re constantly reminded that they’re less protagonist criminals like Walter White, and much more like Robin Hood (who, incidentally, also makes an appearance).
So, naturally, this means the antagonists for our heroes are bad guys. The Phantom Thieves only steal the hearts of the corrupt, and, lucky for those of us that want an 80 hour game, here’s a whole host of justified targets. Let’s see here, aside from the previously mentioned gym teacher and politician, we’ve also got a plagiarist, a con artist, a corrupt businessman, and a (kinda sorta) crooked cop. She’s… uh… on the edge of both definitions there. Look, “single minded prosecutor” just doesn’t have the right ring to it. Regardless, the point here is that, even though a couple of these targets could conceivably be seen as sympathetic at various points, they’re indisputably villains for the purpose of their vignettes. Sae might come around eventually, but she’s undeniably as much of a threat to the Phantom Thieves as Piggy Kaneshiro when you’re exploring her cognitive palace.
Except… this is kind of where we run into problems.
All of the bosses come with a very prominent time limit and consequences for missing that all-important deadline. Kamoshida is going to have Joker and Ryuji (and, ugh, Mishima) expelled. Madarame and Sae are going to have the gang arrested. Kaneshiro is blackmailing everyone, and Shido and his hacktivist cronies are going to screw with Japan on a national level. In other words, if Joker decides to just blow all his time at the diner drinking fruity tea, he’s going to wind up in some kind of waking hell, one way or another. Even if you want to claim the Phantom Thieves are somehow morally gray (which, again, absolutely not the case), they always have a relentless reason to do the right thing. Cover thine butt, and save the world while you’re at it. To be absolutely clear, those limits are on the table, and reinforced by a big honking sign that is constantly on the screen (“9 days left until you make Mishima really sad”).
But, deadline aside, it seems like the characters genuinely want to help things. Ryuji and Joker agree before the expulsion is on the table that Kamoshida has to be stopped. Madarame is first named for abusing his pupils, and the Phantom Thieves immediately stick him on the burn board. Kaneshiro is a known criminal (even before everyone knows his name), and Shido is clearly a dishonest politician that would be bad for Japan. These are all real personality types of real people that can all be easily identified in reality. The Phantom Thieves want to stop criminals? Awesome! I want to stop criminals, too! We’re all on the same page.
But… Persona 5 can’t just leave well enough alone.
Let’s take Kamoshida, the first “target”, as an easy example. Kamoshida is introduced as a teacher that doesn’t seem to have Joker’s best interest at heart, and then his second appearance alludes to probable lewd times with teenage student (and party member) Ann. Shortly thereafter, it is confirmed by Ann that adult teacher Kamoshida is creeping on the teenage girl, and then he winds up sleeping with Ann’s friend, Shiho, in what he (or his shadow) seems to note as a “consolation prize”. So, if you didn’t feel like reading the rest of this paragraph, Kamoshida is established as committing statutory rape in the opening hours of Persona 5. Once more for the oldies in the back of the audience: Kamoshida is a teacher that is a rapist. That… should be enough.
But Persona 5 can’t leave well enough alone. Kamoshida is a rapist, and his victim attempts suicide in response to the shame of the situation. Kamoshida is a rapist, and he also conspicuously physically abuses the male students on his volleyball team. Kamoshida is a rapist, and his “other self” literally tries to murder and imprison the main characters, including some kind of rape-ish altar thing with Ann (again). And, yes, Kamoshida is a rapist, and he introduces the active threat of “you’re going to be expelled”. Kamoshida is a rapist, but look at all these other reasons he’s a bad guy.
And that’s kind of a problem. What’s more, it’s a very contemporary problem.
I finished Persona 5 shortly after the culmination of the first 100 days of President Trump. There have been many hot takes on this presidency in progress, but the most egregious comment seems to have come from Donald Trump himself, who commented that, “I do miss my old life. This — I like to work, but this is actually more work.” And of course Donald Trump enjoyed his “old” life! He said it himself, he was rich and famous enough to just grab any pussy he could find! Or he could insult the handicapped in front of hundreds of people, and they’d cheer for him! And let’s not forget that time he yelled at a baby. Or claimed, in front of millions of television viewers, that not paying your taxes “makes you smart”. Or… oh God, I have to stop now. It’s… it’s too much for my gentle heart to remember everything that happened back in 20XX. Where was I? Oh yes, Donald Trump is somehow the president of the United States of America, and, while he didn’t get the popular vote, there are enough people in the US that are perfectly okay with Donny that he is our one and only president. No matter what happens in the rest of human history, Donald Trump became President of the United States.
And I feel like maybe that wouldn’t have happened if we, as a people, could recognize a bad guy.
Donald Trump is not a crook. I want to believe that he has ties to Russia, but, until we get some cold, hard, usable evidence of that, I silently sit and acknowledge that we’re likely stuck with this orange mess for a full four years. Similarly, the obvious profiting from the presidency that the Trump business is enjoying is flagrant and awful, but not technically against any laws (or at least any laws that wouldn’t also oust the majority of our government). In short, in an “innocent until proven guilty” society, Donald Trump is a perfectly upstanding business person turned politician. He may have had a few legal dust ups over the years, but they’re all behind NDAs and gag orders, so, basically, Donald Trump is a good person. He has done nothing wrong.
Except, morally, by any standard, Donald Trump has done many terrible things. To once again revisit the “grab ‘em by the pussy” comment, that’s rape. That’s a grown man who has enjoyed every advantage possible in his life advocating that if a woman isn’t giving you what you want, you go ahead and take it. That is, in short, plainly stating that 50% of the population owes you what you want for no reason other than you want it. That’s abhorrent. That is not “locker room talk”, that is plainly a bad thing. A person said a bad thing, and, given evidence of saying similar things for thirty years, one can be pretty confident in saying that person is a bad person. Or, at the very least, he says and thinks a thing that absolutely should not be encouraged by him or anyone else. We can all agree that women have a right to have sex with whom they want, and not just who nebulously wealthy people say they should have sex with, right? Female autonomy good, rape bad. We can all agree on this, right? So why the hell is Trump president?
And, ultimately, I feel it keeps coming back to a fear of labeling a spade a spade. While it’s generally the prerogative of jackasses to declare “safe spaces” and “tolerance” as nothing more than political tools for liberals trying to “score points”, you’ll hear nothing but “innocent until proven guilty” when your average republican says something outlandish like “women can biologically control contraception” or “I have no idea how insurance works” (paraphrasing). I’m sorry, do you need a safe space to say your completely wrong and hurtful statements? And, with the current shape of the government, it seems like we’re in for at least another two years of cranky old white men claiming they know everything, and, when they say something completely wrong, just laughing it off as a “gaffe” or “maybe you’re actually the one that’s wrong”. And not enough people see something wrong with that! Evidently a healthy portion of the population believes that you have to be a cackling super villain to be a truly bad person, as opposed to, ya know, just a senator that literally wants to steal healthcare from babies.
And, yeah, if I’m being honest, if you’re still reading this article, I’m preaching to the choir. But that’s the important thing here, you might be on the side of the good guys, you might be a benevolent Phantom Thief, but not enough people are standing up and saying, “no, that’s bad and needs to stop”. And how many people is enough? Well, I’m going to call it a win when this thing actually stops. I’m not naïve enough to believe we’re headed for some marvelous utopia where all are equal and a single mother doesn’t have to work three jobs to support her “all my children should be alive” habit; no, I’m just asking for a world where maybe we don’t have a damn game show host representing our country. I’d be happy with a zero tolerance policy for presidential cabinet members with KKK affiliations. Hell, show me one damn senator that would be happy to have the healthcare coverage of the average citizen (which is, by the by, approximately zero healthcare coverage). We are living under the yolk of “bad guys” every day, and they might not be driving anyone to suicide or actually physically abusing teenagers, but they are doing repugnant things with absolutely no oversight, and I don’t see a Phantom Thief making any changes to their hearts.
Readers, I implore you: be better. Stand up to bad guys, even if their sins seem small, because, give them enough latitude, and we’ll all be doomed. And no magical persona is going to save this world.
FGC #288 Persona 5
- System: Playstation 3 and Playstation 4. Glad to see someone decided that humoring the ol’ PS3 crowd was a worthwhile endeavor.
- Number of players: There’s only one Joker in this deck.
- Other bad moves: Madarame isn’t just a plagiarist, he killed a dude’s mother. Okumura isn’t just a slave driver, he’s killing people and prostituting his daughter for political gain. Shido isn’t just a conniving politician, he’s also responsible for every bad thing that has ever happened to the main character. By comparison, the final boss’s usual plan of conquering the world seems practically tame.
- Odd one out: The only (main) boss in P5 that doesn’t fit the “bad guy” pattern is Futaba’s deceased mother, or, to be more accurate, Futaba’s perception of her deceased mother. I would love to see more of this in the Persona series, as the bosses of P4 were far too exaggerated for my taste, and the bosses of P3… didn’t have anything to do with anything. It seems like conquering past traumas through JRPG battles would be enough to fill a boss roster… but maybe while avoiding stuff like Kanji’s panic at the gay disco.
- Maybe actually talk about the game for a second: I really liked the change to gameplay that wasn’t really a change. Wait, let me try that again. Basically, the whole “ambush, hit weakness” thing has always been a Persona trait, but it’s turned up to eleven for P5, so your sneaking and enemy knowledge is basically make or break now. This is great, because it keeps the same style you (I) loved from previous Persona games, but makes it feel more like “thievery” and disabling oblivious guards rather than the old style of conquering a dungeon. Other than that, it’s a Persona game, so you already know whether you’re going to like it if you’ve played P3/P4.
- Crimes against Goggles: What is happening here?
This will not be forgiven!
- Just play the gig man: It’s worth noting that I could have also written a much less political article extolling the virtues of this soundtrack. I could listen to this thing all day, though The Whims of Fate aka The Casino Theme is somehow my favorite track. I really have no idea how the vocals on that never get old despite playing for a healthy portion of a very long dungeon.
- Favorite Persona: Mona’s Zorro is the kind of ridiculousness I’d like to see more of with the “mascot” characters. Zorro is imposing and goofy in all the right ways.
- Favorite S-Link: I always fall for women on the student council. Always. I don’t know what this says about me.
- Did you know? Hifumi Togo the shogi player was originally designed as a playable character, but got demoted to S-Link somewhere along the way. Maybe that’s why she seems so totally disconnected from everything…
- Would I play again: It’s golden.
What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Altered Beast for the Sega Genesis! Wise from your Gwave! Please look forward to it!