Persona 5 Versus Authority

by Gabriella Ekens,

If you'd been following Persona 5 at all before release, you might have heard the developers throwing around a certain word: “picaresque.” Since this is a literary term, I was surprised to see it used in the context of a video game, which usually stick to more grandiose concepts for their references. (Looking at you, Xenosaga Episode II: Jenseits von Gut und Böse.) The picaresque is basically the opposite of philosophical grandiosity, as a genre that turns its attention to the rogues, scoundrels, and general underdogs of society. Its focus is on the little guys, and how they survive in a world run by cruel, unjust authorities. It's a worldly genre, one that's explicitly aimed at social critique. From the first interviews I read, this signaled a new ambition from the Persona series to take a hard look at society as a whole. Persona 4, with its thesis statement of “reach out for the truth,” cast its eye on individuals and their personal neuroses. This sequel is both a reversal and an extension of that theme, examining how these issues are produced by society, and how it's society that needs to change for the sake of the downtrodden.

In other words, Persona 5 is political. While Persona 4 had you hunting down a socially outcast serial killer, Persona 5's villains are teachers and businessmen, police and politicians. They're folks who appear to be paragons of society and servants of the public good. But all too often, Persona 5 argues, they maintain their power through unscrupulous methods and are only out for themselves. Who hasn't felt that about an authority figure? Hell, who hasn't felt that about an authority figure today? These feelings are what fuel the Phantom Thieves of Hearts, as well as Persona 5 as a whole, to challenge injustice from those in power. This is an evolution from Persona 4's theme of “reach out for the truth,” where the solution to things like “facing discrimination as a woman in the workplace” or “getting bullied because you don't conform to rigid gender norms” is a matter of being true to yourself, regardless of how much discrimination you'll face. Well, that doesn't always cut it, as anyone who has faced external hardship knows very well. Sometimes, it's other people who need to change before things can get better – and sometimes, those people are even in the business of dictating the public morality.

This is in line with the spirit of picaresque, which frames the authorities – the typical dispensers of justice – as unjust compared to the justice dispensed by criminals. While its influences date back to antiquity, the picaresque as a genre emerged in 16th century Spain with the publication of the novel Lazarillo de Tormes. A satire of religious authorities from the POV of a cunning urchin, it was revolutionary for its depiction of the lower classes, who'd previously been excluded from most of literature. It gave the genre its name (from the Spanish word for rogue, “picaro”) and became massively popular, despite being banned by the Inquisition. It turns out that the people were hungry for this sort of thing, and I can see why. The dominant literary form until then, chivalric romance, made members of the upper class out to be virtuous superhumans. It was all stuff like the Arthurian legends, where the king is a Christ-figure, clergymen are all saints, and there's a well-bred virgin waiting for rescue in every tower. It's hard to relate to this when everyone knows that the king is an idiot and the priest is stealing from the collection plate – but most people weren't in a position to do anything about it.

As a sympathetic criminal, the picaresque hero pulls back the curtain on social status. They reveal that authority isn't associated with any inherent virtue – no matter what those authorities would like you to think. While its formal origins are rooted in a specific place and time, the picaresque spirit extends throughout history in the form of the “trickster” archetype: a character who upturns convention to reveal the artificiality of society's values. These characters often become folk heroes, so they're easy enough to name. There's Robin Hood, who stole from the rich to give to the poor. There's Eris, the Greek goddess of discord, who started a war with the gift of an apple. And there's also Loki, the two-faced trickster of the Norse pantheon who sometimes aids the gods, sometimes opposes them, and sometimes gets impregnated by a horse. These are only the most obvious, but you can find hundreds of examples from throughout history and culture. In this way, the picaresque isn't just a genre, but a model of behavior. Its heroes are the people who often show up as villains in more conventional stories, but their undeniable appeal wins them the audience's sympathy instead, revealing whose side the common man is actually on. The gods may be righteous and all, but there are other valid ways of life that their example may not show us. Sometimes you want something a little criminal to shake the foundations of what's considered possible by the status quo.

Bringing this back to Persona 5, the game's personas all belong to this subversive pantheon. As summonable representations of a person's psyche, Personas are the staple that give this series its name, but this is the first game not to assign characters mythological figures up front. Instead, these heroes are represented by famous antiheroes, and they only attain mythological counterparts as their resolve grows. For example, your initial persona, Arséne, is named after a gentleman thief from French literature. (This thief, Arséne Lupin, is the ancestor of Lupin III, another big inspiration for this game.) Ann, the team's femme fatale, receives Carmen, the untameable gypsy girl from the famous opera. And Ryuji, a slacker and apparent thug, gets Captain Kidd, a privateer who was betrayed and hanged as a pirate by the people who initially backed him. This rogues gallery grows as you acquire teammates, and its breadth reveals the influence of picaresque legacies on the game's story.

Our main character even fits into the template established by Lazarillo. As a juvenile delinquent, he's of low social status, and the world refuses to cut him a break – the first few hours are just people yelling at you for daring to have a criminal record. The only folks who'll give you a fair shot are your fellow outcasts, Ann and Ryuji, who are themselves victimized by their abusive teacher. Your first task as Phantom Thieves is to take this guy down, thus saving your classmates from his school-sanctioned torture and humiliation, which where of course sanctioned by a prestige-hungry administration. This kind of situation is tragically common, so it's both cathartic and inspiring to watch these kids risk everything for the sake of what's right.

While these themes are universal in that all societies function under authority and, by extension, the abuse of authority, it's worth mentioning the specific Japanese focus of Persona 5's message. Compared to Western societies, Japan is especially hierarchical, to the point where differences in social status are built into the language. So while this theme may seem basic to Americans who grow up with stories about each person lifting themselves up by their own bootstraps, Persona 5 is making a more radical statement in Japan, where respect for authority is a much bigger deal. In spite of this difference, the game's message is hardly meaningless over here – all cultures have their tricksters, after all. While this game may be specifically referencing Japanese cultural issues, the youthful drive to question existing power structures is also universally human.

When asked why he pursued these themes, series director Katsuhiro Hashino answered: “Nowadays, I think, “I have to do it myself to make a better tomorrow from here” is a hard conviction to have.” Persona 5 is a game about youthful exuberance, rebellion, and trying to make a better world. As someone who grew up alongside Persona, this game feels like the culmination of the series' intentions from the beginning. Hashino clarifies this later in the interview: “Everyone feels some form of frustration after playing, thinking of tomorrow like “Oh, that was fun, but the same old reality awaits me after playing the game” instead of “maybe I'll live differently from now on.” There are things that people keep in mind that will incite change that games can encourage.” The Persona series is meant to make you reflect on your behavior outside of play, and in pursuing the picaresque – a genre rooted in subversive action against authority – the franchise has come to the brink of something real, beyond the vague apocalyptic ennui of Persona 3 or the apocalyptic individualism of Persona 4. It may be just the game we need right now.


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