When marginalized outsiders come together, they can confront their powerful, privileged antagonists and change society for the better. At least, that's the point that Persona 5 is trying to make: These non-conformist high school outsiders—known as the Phantom Thieves—strike back against the shitty people in power, get justice against abusers, and change the world.
But just how representative of marginalized youth and teenage outcasts can Persona 5 really be, when the cast excludes queer characters altogether? It's an erasure that's difficult to reconcile with the game's ostensibly empowering contemporary message.
Persona 5 takes place in a slick, sleek, semi-imagined Tokyo of the year "20XX," where the protagonist has come to live out his probation after being charged for assault. Once he's thrust into a new life as a juvenile delinquent, every adult around him, from his new guardian to school officials, remind him of his charges. The constant mistreatment and reminders of the crime he didn't commit places him on the fringes of his new city.
After teaming up with Ryuji, the other school delinquent, the two characters are quickly cast as the rebellious outsiders at Shujin Academy. Coach Kamoshida quickly takes the opportunity to frame them as such, once the two make it clear they won't pad his ego like everyone else. The main character has his status as a criminal leaked out to the student body, while Ryuji's reputation as the dead-end punk is constantly used to define him. It's one of Persona 5's major themes: There's no escaping these reputational prisons.
In an early interview, Persona 5's director, Katsura Hashino stated that, "Each of the characters, including the protagonist, has the mindset that...they no longer have a place where they belong in society."
When the protagonist, Ryuji, and Ann—the girl that everyone feels free to pick-on—form the Phantom Thieves to combat Kamoshida, their Personae represent their willingness to take control of their ostracization in order to fight back against the people who have made the students' lives hell.
But as the game goes on, that outsider perspective becomes less of a core theme and increasingly becomes window dressing. While these characters may feel rejected, their outsider status doesn't always hold up under examination. Honor student Makoto Niijima and corporate heiress Haru Okumura may feel out of place in the world around them, but when it comes to being an outsider, their fundamentally privileged and secure positions don't give them the first idea of what it means to really be isolated and out of place.
The Phantom Thieves are framed as outcasts, but in an idealized way. They're marginalized the way the kids in The Breakfast Club are marginalized: They may all be on their respective fringes, but they also all have places they belong. The Phantom Thieves become heroes the world over when they take down harmful hackers and business CEOs, and even when the public turns against them, they have heroic comebacks that push them into the limelight again. They act the part of the outsiders, but the world loves them, people look up to them, and their outsider identities never really harm them past the beginning of the game.
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Queer youth are seldom as lucky as the Phantom Thieves—in many cases they don't have safe spaces to return to at the end of the day, let alone unconditional love and acceptance. The Phantom Thieves all have safety to fall back on in their daily lives when they aren't changing the world—places to go, family to return home to, or complete acceptance from their loved ones. These are things that not all queer people, especially queer youth, know the comfort of.
This isn't me asking for queer characters who are hurt throughout the story, but for meaningful queer representation is a game with a modern setting and themes. After all, real-world Japan is currently struggling with acceptance for queer youth. Just this spring, Japan's Education Ministry revised their Basic Policy for the Prevention of Bullying to stipulate that "schools should prevent bullying of students based on their sexual orientation or gender identity." While this policy represents progress in Japan, it also shows how the country is still catching-up to the problems confronting queer students. Yet this is one aspect of life in modern Japan that Persona 5 doesn't want to capture.
How different its themes of acceptance might have come across if it had included queer students among its plucky band. If it included scenes of the Phantom Thieves discussing their sexualities, burgeoning feelings, and personal growth. In most cases, aside from the protagonist scenes with to his confidantes, many characters don't frequently open up to each other and dig into their pasts. Their troubles, in many cases, don't extend much past their respective dungeons, at which point they've largely been safely dispensed-with.
Then there is Persona 5's almost fanatically-heteronormative worldview. The protagonist has a choice of nine romance options: four party members and five other characters he meets across Tokyo over his year living there. All those romance options are heterosexual. He has the option to date his teacher, but not his best friend, Ryuji, who has been there for him since his first day of classes—just because he's a guy.
Late into Ryuji's social link, he even tells him, "I guess bein' free is like… It's like how I feel when I'm talkin' to you, man," as a way of expressing his closeness with the protagonist. But no matter how close the game may push them together, the two remain Just Friends. This heterosexual outlook pervades a game—and series—that prides itself on genuine, loving, caring relationships between young people. When we see these romances, we see romances that are idealized, just like how the characters in the game are. What does Atlus present as the only ideal for their supposed outsiders? Straight relationships.
They're marginalized the way the kids in The Breakfast Club are marginalized.
Even worse, like previous games in the series, Persona 5 has no problem dipping its toes into queerphobia if the game thinks it can get a cheap joke in. During the game's first visit to Shinjuku, two older gay men quickly make advances on Ryuji and talk about who should be with him. When the Phantom Thieves go to the beach, Ryuji is hit on by the same men and chased away, as if a laugh track is to be played after.
At this point it's very clear that the outsiders that Persona 5 props up as heroes are all idealized rebels and nothing more. Queer people are on the outside too, but are represented as predatory and hypersexual at every point they appear. Queer folk in this fictionalized Tokyo are forced to the fringes—the only places society has deemed appropriate—unlike the Phantom Thieves who stay there to steal treasures.
In a time where queer visibility is perhaps greater than ever, Atlus's erasure of positive queerness flies in the face of its purported ideals, representing outsiders as heroes who can facilitate greater societal change. Instead, Persona 5's message falls back into familiar territory, opting to once again to tell a story of misfit friends teaming up to save the world from a great evil—without asking players to confront any that might live closer to home or heart.
We can look at this representation, and at Atlus's track record of queer and transphobia in past Persona series games, and see why they chose not to include queer characters in the group, or even as characters to be helped. Persona's care for the marginalized never quite feels sincere.
This series loves a good underdog story: Against all odds, those heroes can triumph. But when it comes down to it, it doesn't like give much thought to what causes some people to feel like underdogs and misfits.
By making the Phantom Thieves only superficially marginalized, Atlus refused to engage in what so many teenagers struggle through. This was supposed to be a game about those who don't belong in society. In a Famitsu article back in 2015, Hashino talked about the fact that, "there are a lot of people out there who feel like they aren't moving forward, that they have no future, and carry a lot of weight on their shoulders every day… If our game can give people a little courage to keep going in their day to day lives, to face things head on and do something with themselves, then we'll have done our jobs here."
Part of what gives people courage to keep going is having their struggles and experiences reflected in the stories they see. To see heroes whose journeys resemble their own, told from a point of view of understanding, acceptance, and respect.
I like Persona 5. Hashino and Atlus made a great game. But they did not do their jobs here.