This article contains spoilers for Persona 5.
If you’ve been attempting to grapple with the politics of games like Call of Duty and The Division 2, which its developers insist aren’t being political, then you’ve been looking in the wrong place. Sometimes it takes some distance or an outside perspective to really hold up a mirror to our reality. In which case, I suggest we look to Japan.
Final Fantasy 7’s environmentalist themes are ever more relevant as we face an impending climate crisis while the once baffling batshittery of Metal Gear Solid 2 brings clarity to our age of fake news and social media.
But if there’s one game that speaks to our political zeitgeist more than any other, it’s Persona 5.
Sure, an anime JRPG where a bunch of high schoolers dress up as thieves to steal treasure from another dimension doesn’t seem a likely arena for political discourse. If anything, it’s easier to get distracted by Persona 5’s style and overlook its substance.
Persona 5 is also a thoroughly Japanese game with Japanese concerns - even the school pop quizzes assume a lot of knowledge in Japanese history or concepts. According to an interview with game director and producer Katsura Hashino in 4Gamer (translated by Persona Central), it had been the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake that led to a more inward-looking perspective for the game.
Nonetheless, by the time the game arrived on Western shores in 2017, you hardly needed any understanding of Japanese current affairs to relate to any of them. In fact, I find it impossible to avoid thinking how it alludes to a lot of what we’ve been experiencing in the West.
For example, gym teacher Kamoshida’s physical abuse of volleyball students is based on the widespread practice of corporal punishment in Japanese school sports clubs uncovered after a high school student’s constant beatings from his basketball coach led him to suicide in 2012. But that’s only half of the story as his palace also reveals his lecherous behaviour towards the female students, including Ann and her best friend Shiho. When Kamoshida’s finally exposed for his crimes, it’s the latter that resonates the most, especially by the end of 2017 as the #MeToo movement came to the fore in the wake of the silence lifted over decades of rape and sexual harassment committed by Harvey Weinstein.
A later plot involving a CEO of a fast food chain exploiting its young workforce may have been directly inspired by Japanese ‘black companies’. But really, in our age of zero-hours contracts or increasing focus on crunch culture, it’s all too relatable in the rest of the world.
Politics in Persona 5 becomes more explicit towards the story’s latter half when it turns out one of the big bads is corrupt senator Shido. The presence of the National Diet building should be indicative that this is about the Japanese political system. Still, there are chilling parallels closer to home.
Obviously, Shido isn’t based on Trump (he’s competent for starters). Nonetheless, there’s an inverse similarity, so whereas Trump was an outsider who infiltrated the Republican party, Shido splits from the incumbent party who splits to seize power all for himself.
Using the powers of the Metaverse to cause chaos in Tokyo and eliminate his opponents, he’s able to make the political establishment look weak and paint himself as the nation’s saviour, much like Trump’s arrogant declaration back in 2016’s Republican Convention that he alone can fix Washington and the nation’s problems.
Shido’s attempts to seize power through a snap election also creepily echoes the UK’s Brexit saga. I’m not saying that Atlus are fortune tellers, but just weeks after Persona 5’s Western release in April 2017, the UK got its own snap election, with Theresa May’s “strong and stable leadership” looking like a foregone conclusion to steer the UK into its Brexit iceberg.
It also brings to mind Boris Johnson’s comment that Britain can make a “titanic success” out of Brexit. What sounds like a gaffe of a metaphor suddenly takes on a different meaning when you discover Shido’s palace is a cruise ship sailing through the sunken wreckage of Tokyo.
“Even though this country will sink, he alone will survive,” Haru says when your party sees the palace for the first time. It couldn’t be a more apt description of the rich few looking to reap the profits of a Brexit that future generations will pay the price for.
What stings the most is that, despite all the trouble you go through to defeat Shido, culminating in his confession on live TV, by this point the Metaverse’s distortion becomes too great that the public simply won’t believe it and continue supporting the guy. It’s an uncomfortable reality we also face when despite all of Trump’s wrongdoings or the lies about Brexit that has come to light over time, the masses just let it happen anyway.
In 2017, these similarities struck a chord, but it hits even harder in 2020 following Trump acquittal and Johnson’s landslide victory that sets us further down a dark path that feels impossible to come back from.
Leaving aside Trump and Brexit, the consistent thread of Persona 5’s plot encapsulates our polarised generational divide between Gen Z and Boomers, or as Ryuji refers to very early on as “shitty adults”.
Young people are the most likely to suffer the effects of exploitation, debt, the climate crisis, and gun crime in the US, yet their parents’ and grandparents’ generations dismiss them as snowflakes, intent on selling off their children’s futures at the ballot box. The youngest of course aren’t even old enough to have their voice counted (in Japan, it was only in 2016 that the minimum voting age was lowered to 20 from 18).
These kind of injustices are felt by each of the main characters in Persona 5, whether it’s the protagonist being charged by Shido for a crime he didn’t commit, Ryuji getting kicked off the track team for standing up to Kamoshida, or Haru being treated as a bargaining chip to be married off by her career-climbing father.
That doesn’t just make the Phantom Thieves the most relatable heroes for downtrodden Gen Z-ers but this is how they awaken to their persona. The process of awakenings in Persona 5 is hugely cathartic as each character finds the courage to rebel against their oppressor and take revenge. These moments resonate so powerfully because it’s fuelled by a fiery righteous anger, culminating in the characters violently ripping a mask from their face.
For some, anger isn’t always an appropriate response, a powder keg that sparks into violence, and can be just as easily dismissed, as with the ‘angry black woman’ trope. But to quote from a Marie Claire column on the #MeToo movement, “Being angry isn’t just OK - it’s absolutely essential.” That statement is just as applicable for other movements calling for urgent action where our futures are at stake, be it gun control or the climate crisis.
More and more young people are becoming politicised and taking to the streets in protest calling for radical change. We can see it in the primarily student-led protests in Hong Kong or in Greta Thunberg, the face of the global climate strikes, inspiring millions more children to be mad as hell and not take it anymore.
But just as like the Phantom Thieves, the protesting youth are also dismissed and treated with contempt by the establishment. They’re either a nuisance, ridiculed for being too naive and radical in their idealism to understand the world, or just outright criminalised.
However, we can see the Phantom Thieves are acting justly and fortunately some adults do sympathise, including a formerly disgraced politician Toranosuke Yoshida who can be found giving soapbox speeches in Shibuya. He may be washed up and his chance of being elected looks slim but he speaks with honesty and charisma - you could say he’s a bit like Bernie Sanders. While Shido barely hides his contempt for young people, Yoshida not only speaks on behalf of their concerns but also understanding he needs the power of the youth to affect change in the country.
In sympathising with the young generation, he also publicly lends his support to the Phantom Thieves that the rest of respectable society treats as criminals. Because despite their methods, he understands that they are ultimately on the side of justice.
“The reason they’re causing such a stir is because they are addressing the world’s problems,” he says in an impassioned speech late in the story. “Why do the Phantom Thieves continue to change hearts? I believe they do it for the world and its people.”
As Persona 5 Royal arrives later this month, it’s another chance to relive life in Tokyo as Phantom Thieves, hanging out with old friends for extra new adventures. But what will resonate most are the same underlying themes that capture all the fears and anxieties that young generations have been facing these past few years, and whether life will change.