Persona 5: Philosophy and Sexual Assault – Depth in Games and the Problems of Sexuality

Persona 5 is every bit the amazing, once in a generation video game that everyone says it is, and if you have any interest in playing it or any JRPG ever, you should give it a try.

10 a completely enthralling and engaging experience nearly from its beginning to the end of its 100+ hour playtime, with excellent characters, stunning graphics and style, and engaging, diverse gameplay elements that all seamlessly work together to make pure excellence

….

Right, so there’s the review out of the way, now I want to delve into the game just a bit more here.

One of the things that got me really into the game from the beginning was how it engaged in philosophy. Persona 5 involves a group of teenagers who discover they have the ability to enter into someone’s mind-scape, particularly if they have a distorted view of themselves and/or the world around them. They can then change that person’s desires and goals, therefore forcing them to change their ways.

Early on, the characters debate the ethics of this. They are forcing change onto individuals instead of guiding them. They wonder if they have the right to do what they’re doing, particularly as they’re making the judgements about those that change based on their own viewpoints and experience. The first few encounters are people who take advantage of others, particularly minors, and deserve to be punished, but is what the Phantom Thieves (what the main characters call themselves) truly just and right?

The issue is that as you go along, more and more of the people whose palaces you enter are just unrepentantly evil. There is a slight exception in a particular case involving a character close to one of the main characters, where they debate about doing this and worry about changing their personality, but after and around that, they’re mostly just going for obviously evil people, sometimes cartoonishly so. This really comes into effects with this culminating villain who is pretty easy to call even from the beginnings of the game (he has purposefully ruined the main protagonist’s life).

The nuance the game had shown earlier mostly vanishes here. It pops up again when you engage with the new “Royal” content that’s added, where the characters enter the mindscape of someone who actually believes they’re doing the right thing, and there’s actually good evidence to support that. It becomes an issue of choosing a particular false reality or living in the current, harsher one, and it’s a good moral dilemma that actually somewhat mimics a longstanding philosophical conundrum called “The Experience Machine,” which postulates the idea that we could be living in a false reality created for us by another, and if we were, is it better to live that reality or to enter a harsher one? The Matrix is a good pop culture version of this.

See, this is part of why I say that Persona 5 is such a good game. It layers philosophy that’s actually got weight and adult issues onto its plot, mixing it with some of the standard JRPG goodness and some style.

Unfortunately, there is one area where I have to call the game to task:

Ann Takamaki is the girl on the right of the picture, dressed in a fairly bright and stylish outfit. She’s one of the earliest characters that you’re introduced to, and she gets a fair bit of character development.

What’s particularly important is how she’s introduced. Ann goes to the same high school as the main character (also pictured above), and the brash Ryuji, who is the first non-cat character to join your party. She’s known for being a bit distant, partially because she’s half-American which helped give her good looks in the form of gorgeous blonde hair and bright blue eyes.

It’s also known that the gym teacher, Kamoshida, has eyes for Ann. He’s shown getting uncomfortably close to her, often asserting his physical presence over her. The rumors around school state that Ann is willingly sleeping with the teacher, since it would help her get ahead and, well, she looks like the kind of girl who would do precisely that.

The rumors are wrong: Ann is a virgin, and Kamoshida is forcing his affections on her. This is sexual assault. There’s no other word for it, and the game doesn’t really attempt to sugar coat it all that much. They do make sure to make it clear that Ann has not been raped; she admits to being a virgin at one point during the story. They also make it clear that Ann is incredibly uncomfortable with the situation, doing it only because Kamoshida is physically abusing her best friend Shido, and the only way that Shido can remain on the volleyball team (where she shines and can achieve something) is for Ann to continue to be near Kamoshida.

This is an incredibly difficult topic to handle. Sexual assault is never a comfortable subject, and all too often fiction uses it to add depth to characters, particularly females, without thinking it through. In the early hours of the game, Persona 5 handles it pretty well. We see Ann’s discomfort, and it’s made clear that Kamoshida’s actions are intolerable. He’s cast as a pervert and a truly evil human being for this, deserving of even the harsh punishment they give him (though there is that debate).

Even better, Ann is given the opportunity to join your party. She weaponizes her own mind and her abilities, striking out against her abuser in a truly spectacular fashion.

It’s thanks to Ann that your group can handle Kamoshida. It’s interesting too, because Ann has been proud of her looks (she’s a model) and had been feeling self-conscious about them prior to this. But when she takes control over her own self, she changes into her Phantom Thief garb, which is noticeably sexualized. That’s uncomfortably common in video games, particularly JRPGs, but here it feels like Ann taking ownership of her own body and admitting that she’s attractive, but that her attraction is hers, not someone else’s. If she uses it, it’s because she wants to. Throughout much of the game, she’ll dress in cute outfits, and she often outright states that it’s because it’s something she wants to do, and it’s something she’s good at.

Shame the game horribly mismanages her after that first Palace.

When seeking their next target after Kamoshida, Main Character (I called him Ren, which is canonical to the anime), Ryuji, Ann, and their cat friend Morgana, start investigating the artist Madarame. It seems that Madarame takes in struggling artists and abuses them before stealing their artwork and claiming it as his own. It’s another type of abuse from an adult, and the Phantom Thieves won’t have it.

To investigate Madarame, they get close to his student, Yusuke. Yusuke is… odd, though he becomes one of my favorite characters through his development. His introduction, however, casts a very negative light on him. He’s struck by Ann’s beauty, and the game will over-rely on that for Ann for most of the rest of its plot. But in Yusuke’s position, it’s worse. See, Yusuke wants to paint Ann, which isn’t bad. But when he finds out the Phantom Thieves’ plot, he states that he needs to paint Ann in one particular way: nude.

Ann, who just got over a sexual assault is blackmailed into being painted nude.

The rest of the thieves are okay with this up until the nudity issue is mentioned. They’re openly okay with pushing a sexual assault victim to be uncomfortable bodily with someone they just met. This isn’t just bad game design, its abhorrent on a moral standpoint, particularly with how the other characters manage it.

Now, fortunately, Yusuke is made to realize that he was wrong to do this to Ann, and he ends up joining the Phantom Thieves and learns to become a better person. Unfortunately this is a really bad way to handle things.

They kind of mishandle Ann a bit for the rest of the game. It’s not bad enough to really damage the game overall, but it’s really disappointing in a game that presents this really adult look at philosophy and manages to do what at first appears to be a pretty good job presenting someone who’s dealing with sexual assault and how they may work through it. Too often the game falls into standard Japanese anime hijinks with Ann, and it sometimes feels particularly grating, considering what happened to and with Ann.

A lot of players have also complained about Morgana’s relationship with Ann, particularly since the cat has a noticeable crush on her. This crush is literally weaponized in a shared attack:

See, this doesn’t bother me as much as the rest. For one thing, Morgana’s crush comes off as fairly chaste. Yes, he does seem to lust for Ann’s beauty like literally everything with a penis in this game, but he doesn’t continually talk about being nestled in her cleavage or anything. He’s got some annoying schemes, but they often seem to be about being near Ann, or showing her he genuinely cares. It feels like real affection to me, but I may just be projecting.

The attack shown above makes it clear that Ann on some level either understands Morgana’s affections, or at least seems to be okay with it (later in the game Futaba, another character, outright yells in everyone’s comms: “Did Morgana just confess to Ann?,” so if Ann didn’t know by then, she should). This does come off as a bit trope-y, but it also feels relatively light compared to the nude painting scene and a few other slightly uncomfortable scenes with Ann.

Again, I think Ann is a good character. She shows growth throughout the game, and they round her out so it’s not just about her looks. She’s presented as fun loving, and that she has some skills: she speaks fluent English and is often asked to translate or use that ability. She plays around with acting and often goes out of her way to support the group and others within it. At one point she takes Futaba under her wing, really helping the traumatized girl (that’s a whole different thing) to develop and feel comfortable, always being aware of Futaba’s limits.

Most of the characters in this game are like that. They feel rounded, like actual teenagers who are learning and growing as people throughout the game. It’s part of what really makes Persona 5 so enjoyable, that and its consistent style and amazing gameplay. But for me, it’s what takes the game to the next level. It’s a game that’s willing to try some adult themes and ideas, and to tackle them in an adult manner. It doesn’t perfectly handle quite everything, but it still goes that extra mile to try. It introduces some heavy philosophical concepts, deals with traumatized individuals and their psychology, and it discusses the inherent mental connections humans share with one another, particularly in cities. It’s brilliantly done.

I just wish they’d done a better job with a few of their topics, and people need to be made aware of what’s going on here.

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