The Politics of Persona 5, Part 5: The Means And The Ends Have Been Reversed

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PRZ: After the obligatory and completely superfluous Beach Episode, summer is over, and the Thieves return from their introspective adventure to face the greater problems that plague all of society: homework, exams and capitalism. Their next and most ambitious target will be the CEO of a popular fast food corporation, whose unethical business practices have drawn both the interest of the law and the ire of countless commenters on the Phantom Thieves’ website. Something feels off, though. Enthusiasm for the Thieves, and the demand that they take vengeance on this demonstrably horrid man, has reached a fever pitch, and even the kids themselves begin to feel uneasy with their newfound popularity.

ASH: On the back of our discussion of Akechi’s role as youthful avatar of reaction comes a chapter in which the threat to our heroes results from an insidious redirection of online discourse. The spectre of sinister organised manipulation of information overshadows pretty much every single day of political discourse in reality. Here, though, rather than taking on a bizarre “foreign nations hacking reality” tone, it stands as a metaphorical moment for the Phantom Thieves and their fanbase (and in turn their reliance on it). As the Phantom Thieves become a cultural backdrop, an understood and accepted part of social reality, and their goals become maintaining and growing their brand within society, they are easily undermined by the forces that truly direct it.

ASH: If the Phantom Thieves are merely an expression of a youth revolution representing just the concept of rebellion, then they can be commodified and, lacking a public face, controlled precisely through the mechanism of their popularity. In seeking to democratise their power by crowd sourcing their targets, and relying on a pre-established internet culture to judge their morality, they open the doors to manipulation, both direct and indirect. The direct line of atack will be taken by the capitalists and power mongers who have built entire lives on the subversion of democratic processes; the indirect will come from the theoretically neutral territory of internet forum ideology, and its ability to reshape itself simply because it forms the background for everybody’s understanding of the world. With no key goals beyond punishing people that the majority of online followers would like to see punished, the Phantom Thieves can and are pushed into serving as another mechanism of the cultural elites that, in the last chapter, already tried to wipe them out. How can one prevent the ideology of selfish adults from infiltrating their movement if their movement is considered to be an anonymous online mass? A collective that, just like any individual, has an imagination, shaped by the society built by those adults, even as it tries to to subvert it. How does a movement of vague online consensus figure out the lines between legitimate grievance and deliberate falsehood, let alone figure out the tactical implications of action at all? Even further, how can an organisation prevent itself from becoming anybody’s tool if its only public stance is the basic concept of “change”?

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ASH: Though in this instance the target follows the logic of the previous ones and is indeed a man deserving of the Thieves retribution, things aren’t so simple. Kunikazu Okumura is the head of an enormously popular fast food chain, an immensely successful and wealthy man who aspires to political leadership, and every bit the sleazy, self-serving capitalist you may imagine from that description. The mental landscape given life in his palace is literally a factory made up of robotic, identity-less workers, a cartoonish parody of work life in capitalism that is only made stronger by its lack of subtlety. Okumura’s palace isn’t meant as a clever display of the excesses and contradictions of the system – it is a place where the protagonists are confronted with the face of their society that isn’t even so hidden. As Okumura’s factory announces comically short 10 second lunch breaks, and robot workers are broken down into raw materials at the first sign of dysfunction, Okumura himself fusses around in a spacesuit, utterly disinterested in his morbid factory beyond its capacity to launch him from the confines of planet Earth and life amongst its people. In terms of the plot, this serves as a moment where reality is so stark for the protagonists that it assaults them head on with a absurd overwrought images and a kind of anarchic agitprop like aesthetic that conveys the sense of getting caught up in seeing things for what they are and being just so excited to strike against it. Subtle isn’t a word to be used here, but subtlety isn’t a necessary component of this plotline, if anything the comical evil of Okumura reflects the stories we hear every day online, which leave us constantly asking how the rich can possibly be so brazen about it.

PRZ: Okumura is also regarded as a guru of self-improvement and personal achievement, presumably having had one of those insufferable self-help booklets ghostwritten for him, and his Palace exposes the cynicism of this entire ideology. We overhear robots (a term which, as the game reminds us, is derived from the Czech word for “forced labour”), in a state of desperation and exhaustion, try to psych temselves up about how they must keep trying to be more like their boss, who got to where he is now with his own hard work. The surveillance is not only external, by means of bigger, better-paid management model robots, or the threat of being disposed of once you fail to be productive enough, but also ideological, and gets inside the workers’ heads.

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ASH: The problem with Okumura as a target, then, doesn’t come down to him being wrongfully accused of being an abusive adult. The problem is he is too good and natural of a target. The Thieves cannot possibly overlook him, and knowing this, their enemies are able to arrange for his assassination and subsequent framing of the Thieves, who already sent out their calling card that practically admits guilt. They play up the Phantom Thieves as heroes, leaning on their idealistic but naïve natures, to make sure everyone knows Okumura should go down, and to ensure it is all anybody is talking about. Before the Thieves even go after Okumura, it is commonly understood that he is next. Subsequent to the assassination plan, they then have all the groundwork they need to portray them as faceless assassins accountable to nobody, violent radicals who would control society as they see fit and, essentially, Social Justice Gone Too Far. The dual approach of encouraging “radical” expression, so long as it fits into capitalism, while painting in these exact terms everyone who breaks out of the bounds it places on that expression, is familiar to anyone following western electoral politics in the last few years. For the wealthy, connected and powerful that make up the “future prime minister’s” base of allies, no tactic is too underhanded. After all, these are the people that run the systems of exploitation that allow Madarames and Okumuras to exist at all. Even the idea of pushing individuals into seditious plotting, just to be able to topple them later as evidence of the need for their power to exist, isn’t all that out there, it isn’t difficult to go looking in newspaper archives for stories of law enforcement entrapment of this nature in the US.

PRZ:  I think more than any other time, this was the moment where I feared the story might be about to go in a very bad direction. Up until now, everything the Phantom Thieves did, and the overall arc of their struggle against injustice, abuse and social exclusion, was presented in a thoroughly positive light. When Okumura entered the picture, though, I became concerned that this would be the pretext for the game to turn the accusation back around on the Thieves: that they have lost their moral high ground, that their methods make them no better than what they oppose, that there is no jusice without the due process of law. I’m happy to say I was wrong, although the exact reasons why will have to wait until the next installment.

ASH: Okumura has a personal side to his villainy too, one that once again provides the party with a new member. Haru Okumura is his daughter, and his image of her differs little from the robot bodies he projects onto everyone else around him. She is to be married off as a means of attaining political connections, her role no different to any other asset he has to throw around as he pleases. Haru’s appointed husband is similarly an unsubtly evil man, the epitome of every young up-and-coming rich kid stereotype. He wears an ostentatious suit everywhere to project power, he believes himself to be one of the few qualified to “change the world,” and he treats Haru as even more of a possession than her father does. Where Haru’s father is a force of indifference and manipulation in her life, her husband-to-be is a violently possessive one. Haru is reduced on one side to a tradable commodity, and on the other, a symbol of power. The power her fiance feels in possessing her, though, isn’t simply the business connection and the services that provides his family, he takes glee in wielding the business deal riding on their pairing as a threat. It seems his only interest in the marriage at all is in gaining someone to have complete and total control over. In short, he is the kind of man who would feel society owes him a woman if he weren’t able to simply forcefully seize one.

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PRZ: Haru’s story is something very much out of an 19th century tragedy about the excesses of the aristocracy, but doesn’t seem implausible at all in today’s world, highlighting how little has changed in social relations at the highest echelons of power and privilege. True to theme, her outfit in the Metaverse is reminiscent of one of Dumas’ musketeers, a dashing masked heroine from around the time of the French Revolution. I have to say I was a bit conflicted about her joining the team at first; she is, after all, fabulously wealthy, and even in her golden cage, has access to resources that the rest of the Thieves couldn’t possibly dream of. Still, the way she is treated by the men in her life is completely abhorrent, and the only people who end up coming to her aid are not the rich and powerful, but a band of high school miscreants, misfits and outcasts. To the Phantom Thieves, injustice is injustice.

ASH: Haru’s subjugation by both her father and fiance reflect the subservient position this culture would love to keep all women in, but more than that, it demonstrates a desire for control for its own sake. Haru is every bit the demure rich girl of any power obsessed man’s dreams. She has been raised to be a business asset, and what her marriage truly means to her fiance is the symbolic domination of women in general. In controlling Haru, her fiance wishes to extend his mental conception of womanhood out onto reality; after all, if a woman with as many resources to her name as this can be owned, then why not all. As a reflection to Okumura’s myopic dreams of power, Haru’s fiance stands as a demonstration of the true anxieties of those who already have it: that their control may slip, that people may think for a second the world doesn’t belong to them, and that the classes of people they abuse might start making friends outside their circles. In other words, that people’s imaginations might transcend the boundaries of the reality they currently exist in.

ASH: The part Haru plays in this tale is relatively simple. Finding the power to overcome the demands on her social being and the pressure to objectify herself, she is able to attain the power of Persona and press on to try to change her father’s heart. Ultimately though, a man as deep in as Okumura isn’t allowed to suddenly start shining spotlights on the culture he belongs to, and is killed immediately after this is achieved. Though saddened, it is only in being freed from the influence of her father that Haru is able to flourish as a person that exists for herself and pursues interests for their own sake. She is still beset by the machinations of business men long after; her personal plot line revolves around learning to stand up to them in a world hostile to a quiet young woman like herself. She is still and extraordinarily rich woman and inheritor of a business empire, but as much as that can undermine the sympathy of her later trials, it does allow her to stand as a representation of a class traitor.

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PRZ: I’m a bit more cynical about how Haru’s story might play out after the events of the game, but I’d like to believe that her time with the Thieves, and the unconditional solidarity they offer her, might make her not just seamlessly integrate into the class of exploiters and abusers at the top of society.

ASH: Women’s particular position of suffering in the culture being unmasked by the Thieves is established as a running theme throughout the game – many of the protagonists embody it, confidants struggle in male dominated industries or being forced into demeaning feminised labour. A character of particular value to this analysis is the confidant Chihaya, a fortune teller with an indispensable gameplay role that lets you just pay for improvements in social stats and bonds. The weirdness of that as a metaphor aside, Chihaya represents something very similar to Haru, only from the perspective of a very poor woman instead. Chihaya is a fortune teller inducted into a cult that preys on vulnerable people, her role is to be the beautiful saintly face of an exploitative business that literally trades on her image to curry belief in the garbage they sell. Chihaya is as much an asset as Haru, and similarly kept under control by the concept of duty. Haru is paralysed by the notion that her agency threatens the very institution of her family; Chihaya is held in her role by reminders that she owes the cult for pulling her off the streets.

PRZ: The reason Chihaya ended up in Tokyo in the first place is that, due to her fortune-telling, she ended up demonized in her little village and had to flee – essentially, although the word isn’t used, she was branded a witch. Her entire narrative arc is about the ways in which she, and by extension women in general, are restricted from having influence, knowledge or power by means of age-old superstitions and “common sense” beliefs, and then ensnared in countless webs of exploitation. When we meet Chihaya, she is obsessed with the concept of destiny and inevitability, because she is held in a relation of perpetual dependence by the cult, and made to believe she deserves it because of some evil within her; the confidant storyline focuses on proving to her that seemingly “inevitable” outcomes are the result of people’s choices, and that it is possible to choose differently.

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PRZ: As long as we’re talking about the exploitation of women, this part is probably as good a time as any to bring up one of the more, uh, concerning confidant storylines: Temperance. Its main character is Sadayo Kawakami, homeroom teacher for the protagonist’s class by day, and fetish maid cleaning service worker by night. Kawakami blames herself for a student’s tragic accident, and that student’s relatives are cynically using her guilt to extort money from her – so she works herself to exhaustion, eventually landing in the hospital. There’s constantly the implied threat that she might need to take up “real” sex work to meet their escalating demands, when even the relatively softcore job she does is already understood to be a constant threat to her respectability and reputation as a teacher.

PRZ: This isn’t, in itself, a bad story (the somewhat unexamined idea of what it means to be a “respectable” woman notwithstanding), and it seems to be treated with a fair amount of thoughtfulness. For instance, it seems deliberate and very observant that Kawakami’s second job is one where she is expected to convincingly perform not just the menial labour of housework, but also exaggerated, cheerfully submissive femininity, and that the whole ordeal has her so exhausted that she seems unable to think about anything changing for the better. If the ease with which she falls into the 1950s housewife routine was the only reason I felt uncomfortable with this side story, I’d say it was successful: we should be uncomfortable at this stark depiction of the oppression of women, and how seamlessly it integrates itself into “the market”.

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PRZ: But that’s not all there is to it. The game seems to get very confused about what it’s trying to say; it can’t decide if the main character, and presumably the player, is just giving Kawakami money to help her out, or actually taking the kink roleplay thing at face value; makes getting a massage from her a game mechanic that lets you use your time more efficiently; and makes her one of the people the main character can date. The serious examination of what constitutes women’s work just doesn’t mesh with the blatant pandering at all, and “teacher dates student” very much feels like something that the game should have steered clear from, considering its uncompromisingly critical depiction of that very same power dynamic in the case of Kamoshida. It’s disconcerting, and despite not being just horny fanservice, ends up leaving a very bad taste.

ASH: In both Haru and Chihaya’s case, women are made objects, and any agency they display is said to be ingratitude, every interaction with the people they rely on carries with it the implicit threat “where would you be without me?” Chihaya’s story portrays the mechanisms of sainthood as itself being the commodification of women: she is required to be a beautiful and mystical image for a power structure to prop itself up on, her suffering and her personal agency are both inconvenient for this purpose and need to be suppressed. An idol is ultimately an object and an object cannot speak for itself.

ASH: Rounding their stories back round into the increasing escalation of Persona’s themes is the final position both Haru and Chihaya fulfill, one that Sae also does. Haru is the scion of a business empire built on exploitation; Chihaya is the means through which a cult exploits the desperate, and Sae is the star prosecutor and strong woman that functions as the means through which this society’s laws are enforced. Where the powers that be hide behind their machinations, they use these women as symbols that not only are things good for everyone in their world, but that really, the ones who deserve the blame are these women. They may all be kept there by force (Sae to a lesser extent,) but all the world sees is their power, and to this world, that alone is an aberration. In placing these women where they are, the culture the Thieves rail against is able to shield itself from feminist critique and class critique all at once: don’t they empower women? Isn’t opposition to exploitation conducted by women just so much outdated sexism? They are all there to be traded on and to fall if necessary. Chihaya exploits countless desperate people under threats to her own well being, and when she ultimately brings the system crashing down, it is to her that people flock with blame, not the unseen men who placed her there.

Everything’s gains and losses for you, isn’t it?

Part 6: Rivers in the Desert >>