Games · Japanese Studies · LGBTQ+

Persona 4: Unqueering the Franchise Part 1

This essay was written in 2016 for a class on Asian Studies, in which I wanted to explore Western colonialism and its effects on modern media, and more specifically the gaming industry.

Warning for Persona 4 game spoilers, mostly for social links and dungeons.

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Lately, media has been a big topic of discussion. Most prominently perhaps, is representation within media. This essay will be discussing queer representation in the ever-popular Japanese Role Play Games, commonly abbreviated to JRPG. The purpose of this essay is not to prove whether any specific character is gay, nor if any specific pairing is confirmed, but to evaluate the themes and messages that popular games portray and evaluate whether or not these matter in the greater context.

Within the JRPG community a game within the Shin Megami Tensei franchise, Persona 4, has taken the main stage as a “perfect” representation for the LGBTQ+ community with character’s such as Hanamura Yosuke and Tatsumi Kanji who were supposedly both part of the community. As the game grew into a spin off, Persona 4: Dancing All Night, an alternate portable version, Persona 4: Golden, a manga series, two animated television series and one condensed movie version, the dialogue around the game grew as well. The game’s message of accepting your “true self” became a big hit to show progressiveness, especially for a game originally released in 2008. Now that eight years of dialogue debating the queerness of the game have passed since the 2008 release, it has become common within the community to say that it does not matter if the characters are gay or not. An interesting change from the original hype of Persona 4 being some sort of savior.

Thus, I decided to try out the original game for myself. I had been a fan of Persona 3, which held themes a tad darker with the duality of man and inevitability of death, so I got ahold of the game and sat down to watch some of the Persona 4: Animation and prepared myself for a good time.

Boy was I wrong.

The game started out relatively slice-of-life-y, as much as one can with an intense murder mystery on one’s hands. The characters were relatively enjoyable if not over the top in their silliness. Hanamura Yosuke is introduced when he crashes his bike and is hanging out of a trashcan, then two girl’s named Satonaka Chie and Amagi Yukiko who are classmates are introduced in the classroom setting. There’s murder, kidnapping, and jumping into TV’s to fight boss’ called Shadows before some new characters are added into the team line up, that they refer to as the Investigation Team, or IT for short. Soon it became apparent that the more members were added to the team, the more problems surfaced. I found the source of these problems rested on the shoulders of the two boys that were praised by the fans; Yosuke and Kanji.

Hanamura Yosuke (花村陽介 – はなむらようすけ) is the protagonist’s self-proclaimed partner (相棒 – あいぼう). He becomes the first to join the protag in the efforts to find the mysterious killer as well as the first to have to face his Shadow. A Shadow in the game is a manifestation of one’s “true self” that brings all the character’s hidden feelings to the surface in the form of a doppelgänger. This is where the term “persona” comes in. Persona, the title of the game series, is a reference to Carl Jung’s research in psychology and personality. Jung defines Persona as “the public face of the individual” and that the purpose of the mask is to “impress and conceal and to meet societal demands” (Fawkes). But according to Jung the Persona is not alone. It represents the “approved elements of the personality”, while the “twin” of Persona the Shadow represents all that is “feared and despised in the individual” (Fawkes). The Shadow in the game exemplifies this idea of the hidden fears, while the Persona in the game shows the power of the approved feelings through the manifestation of a magical being that a character can summon on demand to fight enemies. Yosuke’s Shadow is the manifestation of his phobia of being alone and his hero complex. Before the fight the Shadow states that Yosuke’s outward personality is just an act to “block out the pain of isolation” and the only reason he started the journey was to become “a big shot” and “maybe [he] could even be a hero”. As the protag, you then help Yosuke defeat and accept his Shadow to achieve the power of his Persona.

Overall, this was tastefully done. The game got off to a good start of showing a relatively realistic fear being overcome and addressed, but if you take into account this portion of Yosuke’s personality throughout the rest of the game the message behind Yosuke’s character becomes muddled and diluted, especially in the case with his interactions with Tatsumi Kanji.

Tatsumi Kanji (巽完二 – たつみかんじ) is the sixth member of the IT and third boss for the protag and crew to fight against. His characterization is interesting to say the least. He is decked out in leather, piercings, scars, and dyed blond hair in the image of a rough and though ‘bad boy’, but this image he portrays is a cover up for a boy who loves ‘cutesy’ items and does arts ‘n crafts in his free time. As we see his character progress in the game it is discovered that Kanji’s entire ‘manly man’ look and attitude is a result of being called queer by peers and a statement made by his father before his death, “if you are a man, you have to become strong”. Yet, Kanji’s Shadow fight turns into a battle of society and sexuality, not gender roles. Kanji’s dungeon is a Japanese bathhouse. As the IT enters the bathhouse dungeon to fight and save Kanji from his Shadow, a game show like sign appears above the scantily clad Shadow reading out: “MEN ONLY!! Kanji Tatsumi in Rosy Steam Paradise”. The Shadow speaks in sexual innuendo’s, including the use of “penetration” several times, and it’s immediately established that the Investigation Team is uncomfortable with the situation that they are put in, Yosuke expresses that “this is so wrong in so many ways”. The game goes another step farther in making Kanji’s inner turmoil and questioning of his sexuality into a laughable game show with a laugh track playing in the background. When Kanji finally confronts his Shadow in a conversation before the fight, the Shadow expresses his hatred towards woman and his preference for men, which he felt more comfortable around. Ultimately, the fight climaxes to the formation of Kanji’s ultimate Shadow form: three buff men. One, the largest of the three, is surrounded in a wreath of red and pink roses while holding two large gold Mars symbols (♂) which signify the male sex. The other slightly smaller men pose like body builders and moan sexually when they attack or are attacked. In the Persona 4: Animation this scene has the protagonist and Yosuke immediately jumping to fight the Shadow before he even manifests into the ultimate version, then begin to refuse to help Kanji even though they knew that his Shadow would kill the boy if they did not fight it. The two smaller Shadow men have voices and portray the two stereotypes of gay males: overly feminine and predatory. They even go as far as to grab the male character’s butts in a sexual advance. The Shadow turns into a parody of homosexual men. The IT eventually defeats the Shadow and Kanji gains his Persona.

Immediately I was thrown off by this homophobia in a game that was praised for its message of accepting yourself, no matter who you are. From there on however, the tone stayed in the game and animation.

Yosuke and Kanji become an interesting sort of enemy within the team. Yosuke expresses that he feels afraid of Kanji raping him when they had to sleep in the same tent together, asking if it is “safe alone with [Kanji]”. Yosuke continues to make homophobic comments until Kanji reaches ultimate approval and acceptance by the team and himself by crushing on Shirogane Naoto. Naoto is introduced to the team as a boy, but then revealed to be a girl who dressed manly and referred to herself using boy-like pronouns (僕 – ぼく). Therefore, Kanji is normalized and deemed as safe by the game and his affections for Naoto are justified by making Naoto into a woman.

Yosuke’s homophobia was particularly hard to swallow in the context of his character development. As the game progresses he becomes closer to the protagonist in a way that became easily interpreted as a romantic relationship, something commonly called “queerbaiting”. Queerbaiting is when there is just enough “subtext” that the creators put in for the audience, who “lacks [queer] representation in mainstream media”, to “make their own meanings” or interpret a character or relationship a certain way (Hilton-Morrow, Battles).  This has become an increasingly popular trope to draw more fans in. A perfect example of this is Yosuke and the protagonist. Yosuke himself acknowledges this with in-game dialogue when inviting the protag out, saying “I better ask Daisuke too. I don’t want people to think we’re dating or anything”. In the animation, he is the one to pull the protag out of an enemy Shadow’s power, and then they refer to each other by their first names for the rest of the plot, something in Japan that is usually only used in the context of family and lovers, but occasionally close friends as well. It was revealed later in a Japanese extra audio disc that Yosuke had unused audio of him saying “I like you” (俺、お前が好きだ – おれ、おまえがすきだ) to the protag. This is a phrase very commonly used in Japan when asking another person out, but it also could very well be Yosuke expressing his affection for his best friend and “partner”. His actions and closeness with the protagonist of the series conflict with his treatment of Kanji and blatant homophobia. We do see however that as Yosuke’s Social Link with the protag gets stronger, he regrets his attitude towards Kanji and apologizes.

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Part 2

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References:

Fawkes, Johanna. “Performance and Persona: Goffman and Jung’s Approaches to Professional Identity Applied to Public Relations.” Public Relations Review, JAI, 22 Mar. 2014.

Hilton-Morrow, Wendy, and Kathleen Battles. Sexual identities and the media: an introduction. New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2015. Print.

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