About a week ago, Gabriella Ekens over at ANN wrote an article discussing why the Persona franchise is such an important one, and why it deserves the accolades it receives with a fifth game on the way. I agree with her regard for the franchise: the Persona series is a special one for many people, even though we all may differ in which game resonated with us the most. Indeed, it is testament to the emotional engagement the games have that, even though which of the games is superior in pure gameplay is rarely questioned, that is a mere sidenote when it comes to the debates over which game is the best one.

The Persona series, especially 3 and 4, are games which people have emotional reactions to. Even on this site you can search for and find multiple stories about how playing through them has helped someone feel better about their lives in some way. I myself feel drawn to Persona 4. 3 is a good game, but I’ve personally never been overly uncomfortable with the themes it centralises, whereas the underlying meanings and concepts of the fourth game resonate with me to a much greater degree. Whether you consider the game to be about knowing and accepting yourself, being unafraid of letting others see you for who you are, loneliness, the tendency for people and society as a whole to prefer wilful ignorance over the effort it takes to gain understanding, or something else, Persona 4 concerns itself with how we all deal with ourselves and each other. How bias, ignorance, prejudice, or appearance can obfuscate connecting with others, or even yourself. Due to that, it’s disheartening to see someone with a pulpit to speak from misunderstand some 4’s core aspects quite so badly.

As Gabriella says, Persona 4 is primarily character-driven: each of the dungeons of the game presents as a twisted reflection of the deeper issues of one of the cast, though not every character receives one. The core conceit of the game is that, in another world (which possibly represents humanity’s collective subconscious), a person’s suppressed thoughts, desires and drives manifest and confront them. Literally the parts of a person they reject from their concept of themselves demand to be acknowledged, and if the person refuses, their ‘shadow’ attacks them.

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For some characters - Chie, Yukiko, Yosuke - their issues are reasonably straightforward. Succinctly, Yosuke rejects his dissatisfaction and disconnection with his life, Yukiko rejects her desire to choose her own future and her lack of courage to try, and Chie rejects her resentment regarding Yukiko’s more stereotypically attractive femininity and the malicious satisfaction she feels at Yukiko relying on her. It is important to note that having these feelings is not criticised by the game, but pretending they don’t exist is shown to be as destructive as indulging them.

Gabriella’s framing of Chie’s and Yukiko’s issues as gendered is not inaccurate. Chie’s Tomboy to Yukiko’s Girly Girl leads both of them to envy the aspects of each other they feel they lack, and their rejection of the fact they feel that envy only leads it to become more caustic.

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However, it is with two of the other characters I believe Gabriella particularly falls into the trap of seeing what she wants to see, framing the presented issues with her own choice of sociopolitical pop-topics.

“The second dungeon concerns Kanji Tatsumi, a delinquent freshman who dresses in a punk style. It turns out that he’s questioning his sexuality and fears that, as a man who loves men, he’ll have to act like an okama - the predominant image of gay men on Japanese television… It doesn’t help that his interests, which include crafts and cute things, are stereotypically feminine. The game is sympathetic toward Kanji, and has him learn that his sexuality doesn’t have to impose anything on his identity or behavior. Although its commentary is somewhat outdated by now (the game ultimately refuses to directly say that Kanji is attracted to men, even after ten hours of wandering through his tortured psyche imagined as a gay bathhouse), it still marked Persona 4 as landmark entry for queer representation in games as of 2008.”

To start with, her take on Kanji Tatsumi is a very common one: that he’s repressing homosexuality. His dungeon is a ‘male-only’ bathhouse, his shadow is overly camp… It’s an obvious conclusion. However, I would offer that it is incorrect, and an example of looking too shallowly, of judging by appearance.

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As I previously said, the dungeons are twisted representations of their originators deeper personalities. Kanji’s is so heavy on the homosexual ‘atmosphere’ because, as with all the dungeons, it is an exaggerated pastiche of his resentment. The above screenshot is one Gabriella actually uses herself, and is the clearest indication of what is really going on. Kanji is not questioning his sexuality, he is questioning his masculinity, with his sexual orientation being just one aspect of that.

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He likes stereotypically feminine hobbies whilst having the physical appearance of a thug, he’s shown to be straightforward and often innocent which leaves him open to psychological abuse from those around him.

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His shadow clearly states that he hates and fears girls because of these issues, whereas men are simpler, easier to deal with. The dissonance between his appearance and personality leads to malicious accusations of homosexuality being flung at him, and as such it’s likely he would fear being gay, or being seen to be.

Gabriella, as with so many others who wished for a homosexual portrayal in games at a time when they were, well, shall we say “uncommon,” sees what she wants and runs with it, and in so doing misses the deeper context of the character. And, indeed, also misses the blatantly obvious.

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When accepting his shadow, Kanji says that his concern isn’t about “guys or chicks” but rather about not being accepted by others.

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His actions through the rest of the game also back up this statement. On occasion he does express casual appreciation for some girls (though without the… ‘intent’ displayed by Yosuke), but by far his primary interest is for another party member, Naoto Shirogane. Who, notably, has ‘her’ own gender issues. Initially presenting as a boy, her actual sex is then revealed in her own dungeon, and as something which has always been an impediment to the ideal she would wish for herself.

Prior to this, Kanji had been showing obvious (and adorably tsundere) interest in Naoto as a male, and after the reveal nothing changes, except for Kanji wanting to see Naoto be more overtly feminine. Almost certainly to help him deal with his lingering fears regarding homosexuality, to help him confirm that he likes her as a girl (or possibly even despite it). Considering Kanji bisexual is far more accurate than classing him as “One of the rare homosexuals in videogames, even if the game is too afraid to go all the way” but really, his actions portray someone for whom gender simply doesn’t matter. It’s the person who is important, and pansexuality would fit well with the overarching theme of the game being about seeing people for who they are, not what they are.

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And there’s a bittersweet irony to the fact that, when he feels secure enough to not care about how he appears to others, Kanji shows he doesn’t have so much to worry about; not caring about appearing ‘manly’ is pretty manly.

There is much more that could be said. Nevermind a blog article, fully analysing these characters could be subject matter for a thesis I’m sure. However, returning to Gabriella’s article, the section I have the biggest problem with is this one:

“For example, Rise Kujikawa, a pop star and high school freshman, is afraid of being pushed into unwanted sexual situations. Her dungeon – which is made to look like a strip club – features gyrating enemies, scored with lusty sighs. This represents what she fears will happen to her in the entertainment industry, based on what the media tells her she should be, reflected in how the dungeon literally exists behind a TV screen. Her story plays on issues surrounding the sexualization of young teenage girls in the idol industry, and also represents her reaching an age when she first realizes that other people will sexualize her.”

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I believe this to be a gross misrepresentation of Rise. There is practically nothing in that statement which fits beyond the basic facts, and not all of those.

Her dungeon is indeed a strip club, she is indeed in her first year of high school, and… actually, that’s it.

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Rise is an idol, which has particular connotations beyond “pop star” or anything western ideas of celebrity really encompass. An idol is never herself, anytime she is being seen she is being her idol self. An idol’s personality is a commodity, everything they do is controlled and managed. They aren’t allowed boyfriends, because it would break the fantasy for the fans who imagine they could be that boyfriend.

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They aren’t allowed to express preferences they’ve picked for themselves, they aren’t allowed opinions which haven’t been chosen for them, they certainly aren’t allowed to be sexual beings. Being an idol is being on stage whenever there is someone else’s eyes on you. The closest analogy might be to ask how “real” WWE personalities are when they’re in the ring.

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Rise has been in that life ever since she was put forward for an audition by a relative without her knowledge, it was never something she specifically wanted. But when the opportunity came along, she saw a potential of changing herself from an introverted, bullied girl to someone who would have friends. But as successful as she was, that fundamental desire was never fulfilled. And she buried it deeper and deeper.

Rise’s rejection is the rejection of that role. The rejection of the idea that all anyone knows of her is what has been given to her, that there is anything of “Rise” in “Risette.” She comes to Inaba to get away from that lifestyle as she has despaired of the act, of countless people looking at her and seeing someone else. Indeed, the player is introduced to “Risette” before we ever meet Rise, and likely forms certain assumptions about her which Yosuke enthusiastically mirrors.

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Rise’s dungeon, and her shadow, are about being seen for who she really is. That it takes the form of a strip club has little to do with being sexualised by others; on the one hand it’s a metaphor about being seen as blatantly as possible, your real, “naked” personality, and on the other hand it’s a rejection of Rise’s idol self. As previously stated, idols cannot be sexual beings. Any suggestion of such is enough to destroy a career. Yet Rise herself is a sexual being, as any person is, though the game does show she is perhaps moreso than most. Rise’s shadow could not be more in opposition to “Risette.” It is Rise sexualising herself, it has nothing to do with a fear of being sexualised by others.

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Indeed, being sexualised by others is part of being an idol, and one Rise is fully aware of. Yet the sexualisation of Rise you actually see in the game is what she offers; flirting with the main character, being annoyed Kanji wasn’t appreciating her in a swimsuit… at the culmination of her social link, one conversation option leads to her saying she’ll provide swimsuit images of herself to the main character when he says he has no “goods” to hide.

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Rise’s development arc is possibly the most profound of all the Persona 4 characters. All of the main party (bar the main character) face and accept aspects of themselves they were rejecting, feelings they didn’t want to acknowledge they felt. But Rise is unique in that she accepts far more than that, she accepts that the very idea of a concept of “self” cannot be a unilateral thing.

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At first, she is happy at having discarded “Risette” and feels like she is able to be herself for the first time in years, free to engage the world as her own person. But as time passes and the world moves on from her, she begins to feel increasingly dissatisfied; upset when people praise her replacement, and angry when they malign “Risette.”

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Her confusion over the contradiction - thinking she has what she wanted for herself yet feeling like she has less than she did before, and taking personally the insulting of a person she professed wasn’t real and wasn’t her - puts her through a significant amount of angst, but eventually leads her to a realisation not just about herself but about people in general. Her acceptance that “Risette” is just as valid as “Rise” makes her unique in the realisation that each of the different “roles” she has used in search of her “real self” is valid, and a part of that “real self.”

All are aspects of the same person, born from the experiences they encountered and sourced from the encompassing nature of who Rise is. Whilst “Risette” is indeed a construct, influenced by others, so is every personality that engages with the world, and Rise is the one who fundamentally decides who ”Risette” is. This realisation provides Rise with ownership of the different ways her “real self” can manifest, in that you need to understand a thing before you can actively apply it to newly-encountered situations and your own personality is no different.

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It’s perhaps notable that Rise repeats the words of her shadow in her social link’s final scene. More than any other member of the cast over the course of the game, Rise actualises as a person. It’s a beautiful, inspiring thing to see, and having it be misrepresented in the service of trending sociopolitical issues loses the deeper and more enduring message that her arc presents, and one of the core messages of the entire game. Know yourself, understand yourself, accept yourself, and you will be in charge of who you are. And only then will you be able to truly give yourself to others, and accept them in return.

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Many thanks to the Let’s Play community for providing the means for me to get all the above screenshots, sparing me having to play the entire game to do so. The observant may also note that a couple of them are taken from P4Golden.