The Politics of Persona 5, Part 6: Rivers in the Desert

<< Part 5: The Means and the Ends Have Been Reversed

PRZ: The jig is up, the game is afoot and the die is cast. The Phantom Thieves have been a thorn in the ruling class’s side for far too long, and have become impossible to ignore. Okumura’s death, orchestrated to happen during a live TV broadcast, serves as the catalyst to turn public opinion against the Thieves, while at the same time removing an ally who’s grown too big for his boots. All that’s left is to deliver the final blow to the criminal miscreants, with the full majesty of the legal system.

PRZ: (Also, the chronology is going to be all over the place in this one, because the entire stretch from this part to the end of the game is thematically one coherent whole, and it’s impossible to discuss its message without jumping ahead somewhat.)

PRZ: As the online comments and popularity ratings turn against the gang, the law enforcement net also tightens. Makoto’s sister, Sae Niijima, has been leading the Phantom Thieves case for months now, and she’s convinced it’s connected to many deaths similar to Okumura’s – inexplicable “mental shutdowns” induced through the Metaverse. The Thieves are the prime suspects, and Sae is desperate to apprehend them; not just for the sake of justice, but also for the career advancement and success she’s relentlessly pursuing. We can see how her determination mirrors the Thieves’ earlier pursuit of fame and recognition – and not coincidentally, just like the Thieves, this is the precise mechanism through which the interests at the top of society manipulate her to their own ends.

ASH: Though in this chapter the Phantom Thieves go up against the full force of the legal system, I’m more interested in the character details laid out by the introduction of Akechi as a playable character team-mate. This isn’t because I feel the Palace, or the metaphors it relies on, aren’t fantastic but rather, I find myself with little to say about them in comparison. The court house is rendered a casino in Sae’s cognition and her success is known to herself as the capacity to literally rig the game. It’s unsubtle and extremely in your face and I think that is its strength, but – from my perspective at least – that also means it demands little inspection. Sae fits into the established motif of the powerful scapegoating women, as the conspiracy try to set her up as another Phantom Thieves murder victim to tie up all their loose ends.

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PRZ: Sae isn’t wrong about the Thieves being connected to the other deaths, either, although she has only a vague inkling of how the Metaverse and Futaba’s mother figure into it. A single powerful man has seized the results of the research into the cognitive world and is using it to commit untraceable crimes, and in this chapter, this man finally gets a name: Representative Masayoshi Shido, member of the Diet and the “future prime minister” his co-conspirators have alluded to. Of course, a ruthless and cunning politician concerned with his public image as the only honest man in Japan would not dirty his own hands with something so crude as murder, untraceable or no. For that he relies on the aid of Goro Akechi, the charmingly awkward boy detective from television, a rags-to-riches prodigy and, as it turns out, a Persona user.

ASH: I’ve defined Akechi as the manifestation of reaction but, as the game will go on to demonstrate, he is in reality only one small component. I’d consider his fight to be more of a pivotal moment for the game’s ideas than the fight against Shido – his co-conspirator and (gasp) father. Shido as a figure is the culmination of everything going on in the world of Persona 5 –  he is a powerful and insatiable man, he manipulates those beneath him and does harm both for his own progress and simply just because it brings him pleasure. He is the representation of every evil adult man who believes the world is his playground in the game so far, the ultimate example of a Palace Ruler. He is even literally the man from the beginning of the main character’s story, the man he was arrested for attempting to stand up to. He has been taken all the way from personal scale crimes (but still deeply harmful) all the way up to nefarious political conspiracy, and along the way, his role has been filled in by others leading the player and the protagonists along the chain that binds them all. “Representation” is an appropriate word here, because Shido’s goal is to become the most powerful force in Japanese politics, a goal which the Phantom Thieves’ popularity has always been a part of.

PRZ: Shido is a singularly evil man but, as the game has shown us multiple times, not “singular” in the sense of “unique.” Kamoshida, Madarame, Kaneshiro, Okumura – all of them represent the same drive to trample on those weaker than them, to use and abuse them, to treat them as commodities, regardless of whether their position of power is petty and relatively insignificant, or capable of influencing the entire country. Toranosuke Yoshida’s confidant story has likewise shown us that Shido isn’t just a single bad apple at the top: shady deals, corruption, disregard for the very principles they profess to uphold are the rule rather than the exception in how the political elites operate. The game leaves no doubt that the societal systems that have elevated these men reward precisely the kind of cruelty, selfishness and deceit that Shido has mastered.

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ASH: Shido seizes on the radical appeal of the Thieves via Akechi’s youthful conservatism and, as they successfully undermine the public profile of the Thieves, he steps in to fill the void, promising a better class of politician that will act on the unfulfilled dreams the “fraudulent” revolutionaries drummed up, in a manner both realistic and befitting the image of a single powerful leader. As the game pulls into its last few chapters, Shido can be heard leading charismatic, noble-sounding and populist speeches in the streets, his influence reaching literally as far as hearing his ideology spoken inside the main character’s bedroom – a refuge recently undermined by the presence of Akechi himself. Shidomania begins to seize the nation. The Thieves chose not to align themselves with the powers that be, but the society around them is taken in by the promise that a powerful man can undo the excesses of powerful men and return things to “the way they should be”. The less openly spoken angle Shido represents to his supporters is a cleaning of the slate: the Phantom Thieves have confused social discourse, trust in institutions and figures has been greatly undermined and one can no longer feel confident that siding with authority truly makes them an authority. Shido allows them to fill in the void instead of abandoning the ideals they’ve been trained to believe in, the ideals of “rotten adults”. The Thieves took away the security of believing in the world around them, Shido and Akechi have both the acclaim of bringing them to justice and of simplifying the world for people once more, those who started to question their complicity in the acts of Kamoshida or any other Thieves target can find comfort in the belief they simply had the wrong figureheads in place. Shido represents the desperation to turn away from structural problems, to disbelieve in concepts of built up historical privilege, and more than that, he represents a desire to punish those who bring these confusing concepts to light. Shido is beloved not only for his ability to fill a void, but because he proves wrong the victims who make society out to be built for predators to begin with. The supporters of Shido are those who took the easier option, the ones who made the choice to believe the rules of society can sort out the problems and those who believe kicking against them is a childish affectation to be grown-up from. Shido represents the salvation of the beliefs that lead Persona 4 to end on the argument that to accept the truth is to accept the world for what it is.

PRZ: As the Thieves see themselves turn from media darlings to public menace, they are immediately approached by Akechi, offering what seems like the only way out from their greatest moment of crisis. He’s already cracked their case, he says, revealing his Persona user status and his extensive knowledge of their activities, but – knowing that they’re not responsible for the Metaverse murders, but that they’d be made to answer for them anyway, the legal apparatus not exactly being equipped to deal with supernatural phone apps and cognitive mindscapes – he’s willing to let them get away with everything they’ve done so far, as long as they assist him on one last heist: changing the heart of Sae Niijima, so that, free of her interference, he can bring the true culprit to answer for their crimes.

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PRZ: Sae’s Palace is located in the courthouse, but in the Metaverse, it appears as a casino. The metaphor is delightful: to the hapless gambler, winning and losing is a matter of chance, and fortune may smile at any moment, but the employees and the manager know very well that the house always wins. Every single game in the Palace is rigged, and Sae keeps changing the rules on the fly; playing fair is a doomed proposition. The only way to win is to cheat: to get behind the tellers’ counters and into the restricted areas, observe how the rules are bent and twisted, and twist them right back.

PRZ: Akechi asserts that Sae will do anything to obtain a conviction, and will not think twice about fabricating evidence or forcing a confession if it helps her close the case. Her heart has become distorted by the pursuit of her own glory, and she now rules her own Palace in the Metaverse. He cites numbers: over 90% of criminal cases brought before the courts in Japan result in a guilty verdict, because the system is more concerned with maintaining the appearance that evildoers are being punished, and with protecting the powerful, than with truth or justice. (This is a real-world statistic, by the way.)

PRZ: Akechi is able to lie so convincigly because so much of what he’s saying is true. Sae really has become obsessed with success; the courts really are unjust; the Phantom Thieves really are innocent. What he neglects to mention is that he is Shido’s Metaverse murderer, and, despite his overwhelming hatred for his father, has completely aligned himself with the representative’s reactionary agenda. He understands the extent to which society is rigged against the little people, the weird kids and the presumed criminals, and he intends to do everything in his power to make sure he is on the doling out end of the injustice, rather than the receiving one. To that end he is willing to go to any lengths, make any concessions and compromises he needs to, put on any kind of show, pretend to oppose public opinion and even befriend the criminals that he’s so vehemently denounced. This also means that his rebellion and quest for vengeance are doomed from the start, since they are based on the same principles that prop up men like Shido.

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ASH: Akechi isn’t someone taken in by Shido’s beliefs; instead he is someone who truly does see society for what it is. Akechi’s goal the entire time has been a combined effort to avenge his mother by killing his father at the very height of his ego, and to position himself as the abuser instead of the abused. In this way Akechi is a failed version of the protagonists: the nature of the world was revealed to him, and thus he gained a measure of power over it. Lacking in the social links the protagonist accrues and the search for other victims to uplift, Akechi stagnates. He sets himself on the path to selfish and powerful adulthood, he is radicalism and understandings of power turned towards the uplifting of the self instead of all. He is the depressed kid fascist that thinks he can play with powers far larger than him. It’s his belief that nobody can see through him, and that only he  understands how the world is, that lead to both his being tricked by the protagonists and killed by Shido’s own cognitive version of him – one that Shido sees as an unfailing tool of murder and little else. Akechi is a tragic figure from this angle, his actions aren’t swept away by these revelations, but rather he is shown to us as someone we could have become had we kept valuing our own fame over the goal of uplifting everyone in society who suffers. He is the successful version of Shido’s conspiracy’s attempt to turn Futaba into a weapon to destroy the Thieves. He is the true manifestation of power’s ability to take the suffering of its subjects and turn them into its pawns even while they believe they have moved outside of it. Goro Akechi is the misdirected rage that the  society of rotten adults depends upon in times of cultural crisis.

PRZ: Akechi is Shido’s abandoned son (just like Madarame with Yusuke, he refers to Goro’s mother only as “that woman”). This is vitally important both for their motivations, and for what it says in an ideological sense. Akechi’s entire plan is to get close to Shido, make himself indispensable, and then take revenge for the years of poverty and humiliation he’s suffered as an unwanted child. Shido, however, sees right through this plan; even if he’s not aware that Akechi is his biological son, he understands his position as a father figure, and the ways in which the boy detective tries to win his approval and admiration. Father-son relationships are an essential element for the perpetuation of patriarchy, and as a man at the top of patriarchal power structures, Shido knows how to exploit them for his own gain just like anything else. By turning affection, approval and recognition from supposed “loved ones” into a scarce resource, he is able to control Akechi, and – obviously – had always been planning to dispose of Goro before he becomes a credible threat. The rebellious or long-lost son who arrives to right his father’s wrongs, the castoff prince to the tyrant king, is a well-known figure in myth, legend and history; Shido has ensured that, even if Akechi somehow managed to succeed him, he would only continue to uphold the same oppression and cruelty that had elevated his father, and so the reign of male supremacy would continue to outlive them both.

PRZ: But even with all his charm and meticulously constructed plans – no doubt involving the eventual elimination of the troublesome Sae Niijima as well – Akechi still slips up, and doubly so. His first mistake was a slip of the tongue, many in-game months earlier, when he inadvertently let the Thieves know that he was a Persona user by responding to something Morgana said, when only people who have been in the Metaverse can understand the cat’s speech. During his supposed offer to help the Thieves, he says he’s only become aware of the cognitive world a month earlier, and pretends to be surprised when he hears the cat talk.

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PRZ: But his second slip-up, which the game doesn’t make so explicit, and which is more of a tell to the characters than to the player, is that his plan is simply too good. By coming to the Thieves in their most desperate hour, when everyone else seems to have turned against them, and offering them a neat solution to all their immediate worries – while also ensuring that they couldn’t possibly refuse, since he threatens to go straight to the police if they do – he thinks he’s covered all possible angles, and engineered the perfect trap. But if, as he claims, he were concerned only with truth and justice, why make that threat? Why wait for the perfect moment to pounce? Why work with the law, if he understands so well that the law serves only the powerful? Akechi is an excellent schemer and a consummate actor, but he overplays his hand when faced with a group of people who have, for almost a full year now, actively fought falsehood and oppression, seen the lies and manipulations of abusers, grown together as comrades and supported one another as friends. He puts on a good act, but ultimately, he can’t play the role, because he doesn’t actually know what it means to stand for justice.

ASH: Akechi is of course the traitor that’s been hinted at since the very start of the game, and I’ve heard complaints that the structure of this “twist” is contrived, obvious or pointless. I disagree with the last point at least, and I believe the contrivance is a worthwhile trade off for the things the game will go on to do with the disconnect between player and character. My contention is that while the game undoubtedly throws a bunch of red herrings at you (especially in this chapter,) it doesn’t actually really intend to build to a surprise. Akechi is established early on as an adversarial figure and his extremely over the top act at being a justice-seeking Persona user – extremely fancy hero outfits, toy weapons, a Robin Hood persona and a general goofball personality is so in your face and obviously an attempt to make you like him (which wholesale worked on me and had me yelling about him on twitter) that it also screams its leading intent out as loud as possible. Akechi is unconvincing because he himself works way too hard to suddenly become perfectly likeable, for the camera more than the party. However while I suspected him from the second he joined the party, the fact it felt so obvious also kept those doubts ticking away in my head – could it be a fuck up on someone else’s part? Would another member of the team’s understandable doubts win out?

PRZ: Could Makoto choose to side with her sister, whom she dearly loves, over the Thieves? Maybe Haru still resents the team for her father’s death? Did Ryuji go blabbing off in a public place again? Even having already caught Akechi’s pancake slip-up when first playing, and knowing he’s the most obvious suspect, I thought this chapter succeeded wonderfully at sowing distrust – not among the team, but in the player’s head. After all, the Thieves have each other to fall back on, and they’ve been in this together from the very start; they never doubt one another for a second. You, the player, on the other hand, are just one person, in front of the screen with the controller in your hands, and the mask Akechi puts on is meant entirely for you. Everything he does while in Sae’s Palace is a display of the sort of childish innocence you’d expect from someone who really believes that justice is only found in the due process of law. And the fact that he managed to make me doubt my other team members (although I was a prime target for it, being already an unhealthily distrustful person) attests to the quality of his manipulation, and to the susceptibility to it of anyone who’s isolated, even if just momentarily, in the experience of playing a game.

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ASH: Akechi’s performance showing more to the player than it does to the party reflects his underestimation of them, as they figure him out immediately and only the plot device of the main character’s drugged recounting prevents the player from being in on that fact. In keeping me in the dark the game successfully created a level of doubt in me but not in the characters. It was at this point in the story that I was most worried about the continued trajectory of the plot – visions of Akechi’s bargain flowing into a conclusion focused around how the party were in fact criminals who would have to reckon with the things they had done, that even if Akechi was playing them he was becoming a representative of the narrative that was going to pull the rug out on me. The reason I feel the “twist” works is because I don’t think it ever needed to convince anyone Akechi’s “betrayal” was a unthinkable, but instead, it needed to build a sense of distrust between player and narrative for the pay-offs to come.

ASH: In effect, during this whole chapter, Akechi attempts to steal the role of main character (or the team’s heart, if you will). Everything seems to be going his way, and the Phantom Thieves seem to have been forced into a plotline which echoes the “growing up” motifs of Persona 4 in a way that started to make me very uneasy. All of this doubt and acting serves to lead the player right up to the end of the interrogation the main character has been in all game. The party having been aware of Akechi’s nature the entirety of this chapter (as, after all, it was obvious, right?), they have a plan in place to trick him into thinking he’s won until the last moment – when he walks in to execute the main character he instead kills Sae’s cognitive copy without realising.

PRZ Crucially to the Thieves’ operation, the cognitive distortion has not progressed all the way yet. Kaneshiro saw people as walking cash dispensers, and Okumura as robots, but to Sae, the casino’s patrons are still human, and the world outside of it exists as it does in reality. The mechanics of how the kids intend to both fool Akechi and convince Sae of their innocence are fairly contrived, and as a literal description of what happens, it only kind of makes sense if you squint a bit, but the metaphorical dimension of it seems far more important. The Thieves are relying on the difference between Sae and Akechi’s perceptions; it works because, while the prosecutor can still tell a real human being from a caricature, the boy detective has blinded himself to the reality of everyone who isn’t him. For all his supposed analytical genius, the ideology of power at any cost that he has accepted has made him unable to distinguish between a person and an idea of a person.

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PRZ: The suspicion Akechi tries to forment is crucial to the effectiveness of the climactic interrogation scene. All throughout the game, we have been periodically flashing forward to Sae questioning Joker, trying to get him to reveal his accomplices; he’s been drugged to extract a confession, and his disorientation is meant to mirror the player’s. We’re presented with a choice: do we cooperate with the law, hoping for a lightened sentence, or do we push past any misgivings Akechi may have planted, and protect our friends?

ASH: While absolutely contrived and mechanically messy, the nature of this scene lies in its position as a Good/Bad Ending branch. This is the part of the plot where the player’s intervention is required to keep it on track, and, without having all the information, the player is asked whether they will name their friends as accomplices. Choosing to believe co-operation with the system is ever a good choice to make, even when things seem this hopeless, leads an ending where the main character fails to remember and execute his friend’s plan – and subsequently his death at the hands of Shido’s assassin. Choosing however to not hand anything over to the cops, to act on what you’ve learned of adults in power across the game, also means choosing to trust your friends over them, and to ultimately recall the plan to entrap Akechi.

ASH: While I would agree the set up is a little bit of a mess, in practice it amounts to a binary choice where trusting and co-operating with the cops results in the destruction of your movement and your own death. Refusing to give in, even when the narrative seems to be convincing you you should, results in the smug dismantling of the state-informant infiltration and the triumphant scene of the Phantom Thieves announcing they are still alive on TV broadcast across the country. The point of trying to keep the player in the dark and muddle things with the introduction of a contrived plot isn’t to create some big shocking reveal moment; it is instead to test whether you trust the characters over the narrative. If you follow the ideals of the Thieves to the end, then their plan works out, if you don’t it doesn’t – the game asks if you are on their side, or if you’ve been swept up in a deceitful narrative. While this may come across as making excuses for a narrative mess, I think it well reflects the way Akechi has been interacting with the Phantom Thief fanbase in the reality of the plot. He has always used the nature of media and its framing of events to manipulate the perception of him and the Thieves, and here we are put in the position of being an outsider to the team, having to judge based on limited and deliberately false information.

PRZ: Drugged or not, confused or not, it’s unthinkable that the Thieves would abandon their principles under duress, even if it means staking everything on the remote chance that their most relentless pursuer still has some sense of justice left, even without her heart being changed. It’s a gamble – but an honest one. And it pays off.

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PRZ: All that’s left is to take down the mastermind behind Akechi, the man who has coasted to political power on a spotless reputation and over the corpses of both allies and enemies, the man coincidentally responsible for Joker’s original false conviction and probation, and for the death of Futaba’s mother. As much as Shido’s lavish boat-Palace (sailing happily on while all of Japan sinks into the sea) is a fitting culmination, it doesn’t end up being the end of the story, and is mostly interesting in itself because of its two boss fights – first Shido’s stormtrooper Akechi, and then Shido himself.

ASH: Akechi’s boss fight reveals he too possesses the power to change Persona at will, a mechanical explanation for his ability to appeal to people perfectly as he changes his public face effortlessly. It’s a direct mirror to the mechanic the player can use, where having Personas equipped allows them to relate to their friends during social link events better. It’s a simple metaphor, but it shows that Akechi possessed the means to understand others and think from their perspectives and simply chose to use it for manipulation instead. It also shows us the protagonist’s use of friends as a video game upgrade mechanic teeters on the edge of manipulation, which highlights what I think is an improvement in their representation since Persona 3 where a number of the social links felt like enabling people’s problems for the sake of weaponising catharsis.

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PRZ: Shido and the many stages of his boss fight, involving his “Beast of Human Sacrifice,” a grand golden lion made out of countless pleading human bodies, and then his hulking muscular final form reminiscent of Senator Armstrong from Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, are spectacular and satisfying, but also feel like a victory lap after the gruelling boss rush leading up to Akechi. Except victory doesn’t come so easily, and even taking down Shido isn’t enough to halt the course on which society has set itself.

Even the feeblest existence can gain tremendous power once the chains on its heart are broken.

Part 7: Take the World >>