Disclaimer: Spoilers for all of Persona 5
“We reject no one, so take nothing from us”- Meteor City Motto
Human beings are not the gods of ancient myth that can bend the laws of causality to their whim in order to perform miraculous feats, rather we seem to be acted upon by these gods along with the rest of the natural world. Karl Marx said as much when he wrote:
“Men make their own history, but not of their own free will; not under circumstances they themselves have chosen but under the given and inherited circumstances with which they are directly confronted.”
It is interesting then that we invent beings with such ability and say they are the cause of our lot in life. We say they created the sun, stars, and sky, and we ask them for help in our endeavors and forgiveness for our wrongs. In most religions, God or Gods seem to play a big part, and the poor and downtrodden seem to rely on them the most. What motivates them to do this? Why do people externalize the things they can’t change, from weather to socio-economic circumstance? Is it because it is one of the few ways they can psychologically cope with trying their hardest only to still fail and/or remain destitute?
I believe the answer lies in 2 concepts: Alienation and The Sublime. The Sublime is the positive side of the coin, the part of us and the world that inspires awe and reverence, leading us to anthropomorphization as a method for better grappling with and understanding the wonderfully inconceivable. We come to see the moon and the stars, nature and technology as like us in so many ways, metaphors becoming our guide to study and live by. Alienation is the dark side of the coin, and it’s what Persona 5 spends its time getting you to fight against.
The Charms of Persona 5
I could never describe in mere words how much I love this game. The symbolism, the themes, the references, the philosophy, the aesthetics, everything about it is not only done masterfully but speaks to the core of my very being. Never before has a game spoken to me on such a level. It is easily my favorite game.
That creates a bit of an issue in terms of writing about it, however. Not because of bias or anything like that, but because of procrastination. When I love something so much I often find I hold myself back because if what I write isn’t even close to as perfect as I feel what I’m writing about is, I put it off. As illogical as it is I hold myself to these impossible standards, which isn’t helped by the fact that I have some much to say it can become overwhelming. But Persona 5 is nothing if not inspirational and as a result, I found myself deciding to cover this topic the best way I knew how; Through each of the characters I’ve come to love so much individually!
But before we can get to that, we must first establish what I’m referring to when I say alienation, and how this relates to Persona 5 in a board thematic sense.
Alienation can best be described as a psychological state of unfulfillment and detachment. Marx described 4 types of alienation that arises under capitalism. Each of these types of alienation can be explored through specific characters in the game, though of course there is a lot of overlap. What’s important to understand in this context is that Persona 5 takes this sociological phenomenon and uses the lens of the personal in order to get the player invested in alleviating it, and shows the very real effects of you and others growing and gaining power as you do.
The first type, alienation from what we make, which occurs when people make things that don’t fully belong to them. Yusuke and fellow students experience this with Madarame, which is one of your first clues somethings up. Hifumi Togo is also an excellent case study in this.
The second type, alienation of the laborer from the act of laboring, occurs when laborers are coerced, forced, or otherwise not working on their own terms (Ryuji and his track team). It is when people work not because the work itself satisfies a need or desire but because they get wages or payment of some kind, a means to satisfying needs. It also occurs when laborers can’t decide how the work is applied.
The third type, alienation from each other, is when we only seek what will benefit us individually rather than what will benefit us mutually (Hence the phrase “workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains”). Best girl Makoto comes to mind here as when you’re first interacting with her she has become a lap-dog for the villains for her own selfish gain, to the detriment of all her fellow students. Chihaya and Togo also experience this to an extent, albeit for different reasons and as I said the first type is more applicable to Togo (all of these kinda apply to Chihaya tbh. Poor girl. Still worst girl).
And of course finally, there is alienation from the species essence, or what it means to be human. This doesn’t apply super specifically to 1 or 2 characters but rather the entire game (see the last palace; The prison of regression and the final message).
It’s also important to understand that while Marx applied these categories in economic sense mainly, and that is a major factor in P5, it’s not the exclusive application. As we will see many of the villains use our heroes for status as well (throwing a bit of Weber into the mix you could say).
Yusuke and Togo
I really wish we got to see these two interact give how similar their stories and arcs are. I also imagine this is why Atlus scrapped the idea to make Hifumi a Phantom Thief (or at least one of the many reasons). I’m surprised to see no one ships them (that I’ve seen). I mean I don’t but I’m notorious for “it needs to be basically canon for me to ship it” philosophy.
Getting back to the topic at hand the reason I bring them up together is that both of these beautiful souls have been subject to exploitation by their parental figures. This has left them alienated from the very talents that make them who they are, their passions. At that’s really a shame considering how excellent they both are.
We can’t say much in regards to specifics in terms of Hifume’s skills since we never actually see how she plays and only have her credentials to go off of. Yusuke, along with the other students of Madarame however, is a completely different story. For pixellated renderings, I must say I’ve never been more impressed by paintings than the ones I’ve seen in P5 (what can I say not much of an art guy). This makes it all the more heart-wrenching when we see Yusuke’s reaction to his art put up on display under Madarame’s name. He’s utter disgusted. Having such a violent reaction to his own art really puts into focus just how messed up doing this to people is. And it’s only when Yusuke rebellions against this and unlocks his Persona that he can finally to pride in his work again, which makes me so happy to see. We may get annoyed by his arrogance from time to time but that nothing compared to seeing how he was under Madarame. I just hope all those other artists get their due as well.
Hifumi is second best girl in the whole game hands down and what happened to her is comparable if not worse than what happened with Yusuke given that it was much more personal. While Yusuke was adopted and part of a larger crime ring, Hifumi was exploited by her own mother mostly for status! Like Yusuke, her art means a lot to her personally due to the connection it gives her to a parental figure, and also like Yusuke that vital emotional connection and talent is used against her in service of the same emotions and thoughts that are holding society back; those things that regress society. It leads them both to question the value of their art and become estranged from it for a short time. While the both thankfully come around, and even decide to use their skills for the betterment of society rather than its regression (a micro iteration of the macro message of the last dungeon), I can’t help but be reminded of a quote from the late Theodor Adorno:
“Does art now have a right to exist; is intellectual regression not inherent in the concept of committed literature because of the regression of society?”
Makoto & The Students
Speaking of fitting quotes, I believe the phrase “To speak the language of the law is not enough, you must speak the language of justice” sums up Makoto’s arc quite elegantly. Before she meets the phantom thieves she had no concrete goals in her life except for appeasing her sister. While noble for wanting to pay back her sister for raising her she went after her goal at the exclusion of everyone else.Anyone who tapped into this desire was able to manipulate her easier than the very controls we were using to move the MC, and as a result, she had become student council president with no understanding whatsoever of her fellow student body. Instead of being a representative she was a watchdog, a manager of the products that were her peers. It’s not that she lacks a conscience clearly, but the financial and emotional of her father’s death, as well as outside forces, place her in a position that incentives seeing her fellow students as either obstacles or tools instead of other human beings. After connecting with the Phantom Thieves, however, and identifying with their justice, she is able to properly forge an identity for herself once again. Learning and choosing to live a life she is proud of helping others is just one of the many reasons Makoto’s my favorite character from the game.
Ryuji and Da Bois
And last but not least we gotta talk about best boi Ryuji Sakamoto. He’s loud, he’s obnoxious, and he’ll spill the beans at the drop of a hat but that’s all why we love him! Ryuji’s an interesting case while he does feel that sweet sweet alienation from his running hobby, it’s mostly his whole team that feels this. Besides alienation from each other (told you there was a ton of overlap), they all lose their love for doing track for its own sake. Under Kamoshida’s rule everyone is doing track and volleyball for what they can get out of it; Guaranteed success (or at least the promise of it). When there’s no safety net everyone fears failure to a crippling degree. By taking the devil’s bargain with KingMusclehead they thought they could alleviate that, and all it would take is some pain and a loss of passion. Needless to say, this didn’t end well. The first palace works so well because it’s the perfect model for what’s happening on a larger scale, which brings us nicely to…
The True Spirit of Christmas
Only in Japanese media can you shoot god in the head on Christmas. I love this game (if I haven’t said it enough)! The ending of Persona 5 makes me cry everytime no joke, and that’s because it unironically perfectly captures the true spirit of the holiday. Family and togetherness yes are a big part but as the scene shows it’s more than that. Security, prosperity, opportunity, freedom, fairness, all the people’s hopes and desires meet up and clash in 2 distinct godly entities and sin becomes their tools of choice. And in the end, all the sins together pierce embodiment of the literal establishment leaving a group of friends to reshape the world. What I’m getting at is that fundamentally Christmas is an act of rebellion in itself, an irreplaceable part of the cycle of deconstruction and reconstruction that must go on in any healthy society. A reflection and reaffirmation of emotion and hope in a world that has become accustomed to reducing lives to economic worth. They say loving yourself is the greatest act of rebellion in this age but I don’t think it stops there. Christmas is not about an I-It(Subject-Object) relationship as it’s made out to be, but an I-Thou(subject-subject). Loving each other and embracing in a world that says to never to pay attention to anything past economic worth, truly connecting on the deepest levels and ending our alienation is how life will change.
Well, that’s gonna be it for this year. I survived another college semester, got closer and gained some new friends, found my purpose in life and managed to form a real identity for myself. Not to mention I got a new favorite game as well as book this year! To say this year has been the best I ever had wouldn’t be exaggeration but I’m going out of my way to make sure 2018 is even better! At 20 years old my journeys just beginning so for all who have been with me before or since from the very bottom of my heart I thank you. Happy Holidays and ToGODshi bless us, everyone!