This ICHF was written by SkarmorySilver, who you can find at https://twitter.com/silver_skarmory. I may have made a few touch ups and notes here and there, but the bulk of this entry is their work!
Picture this: You’re on a stroll one night, minding your own business, when suddenly, you find an unforgivable crime about to take place directly in front of you. Like any reasonable person would, you rush in and stop the perpetrator from doing whatever despicable deed he was planning. The day is saved, the potential victim is free to return to their own life and you to yours, and that’s the end of that, right? Haha NOPE – turns out, the would-be perp has a ridiculously high social standing and more than enough political clout to retaliate without consequence, and promptly does just that by pinning the blame on you for the crime, as you do. With your reputation ruined, you have no choice but to skip town, only to find that by sheer bad luck, the same person who framed you has stopped by the new place you settled down in, and is protected by way too much legal red tape for you to do anything to him. What do you do?
Why, you throw all regard for the corrupt and incompetent legal system out the window, enter a world representative of all of humanity’s subconscious, and subdue the inner personalities of not only the person who framed you but a whole bunch of other rotten douchebags besides, of course!
The Persona franchise has actually been touched upon in the ICHF column before, but the most recent game in this series as of this writing, Persona 5, has a noticeably different feel compared to its predecessors. It’s also the installment that really gave said series a new lease on life, being the best-selling entry in not only Persona, but the entirety of the Shin Megami Tensei franchise which is its forbearer. Like more than a few other people, I was introduced to Persona thanks to a well-known publicity stunt in the 2018 Game Awards that announced to the world at large that the protagonist of Persona 5, codenamed Joker, was being added as a playable fighter to Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, a move which was, and still is, one of the best ways to get people interested in any video game franchise in general. In anticipation of Joker being a playable Smash fighter, I began watching a close friend stream the game, and just like that, I was hooked. I could talk about so many different aspects of the game as a whole, including its sophisticated yet relatable themes, its endearing ragtag cast of misfit heroes, and the foes they overcome for the sake of their own and others, but because these articles are supposed to focus on a single character, I felt the need to narrow the scope a little. So with that, let’s talk about Joker himself, and what makes him so distinctive as video game protagonists go.
The plot of Persona 5, which for much of its first two acts is told through a prison interrogation following the obvious tutorial stage which takes us through a scene that will of course be revisited much later in the game, is kicked off when Joker (who goes by the name of Ren Amamiya in the anime adaptation and Akira Kurusu in the comics, but can be named by the player in-game and will be referred to as “Joker” for clarity) encounters a grown man about to sexually abuse a helpless woman. After interfering before it can take an undoubtedly horrific turn, he finds himself thrown under the figurative bus by the man he stopped, who mounted a smear campaign against him and got him expelled from school. Joker is thus sent off to Tokyo to stay with a friend of his family and attend Shujin Academy during his year-long probation, and it is here where he meets the first “party member”, the rebellious Ryuji Sakamoto, and discovers that Suguru Kamoshida, the gym teacher at Shujin, has been proverbially shitting on nearly everyone else in the school, having little to no opposition due to being a former Olympic champion. When said gym teacher catches on and threatens hideous retribution on Joker and Ryuji, their escape leads them into the Metaverse, a supernatural alternate dimension embodying the inner thoughts of every human being, and are aided by a cat-like being called Morgana along with their newly summoned Personas, entities which represent their inner selves and carry supernatural powers. Things only worsen as another student, Ann Takamaki, is also dragged into the mix, and when a friend of hers’ attempts suicide to escape Kamoshida’s abuse, she joins the group in a bid to avenge her. Once they reform Kamoshida by stealing his “heart” (the most prized artifact within their personal “Palace” within the Metaverse representing their sinful behavior) and witness his public confession, the group become the founding members of the Phantom Thieves of Hearts, and end up getting involved in more adventures of escalating urgency and recruiting more and more members until, surprise surprise, they uncover a local governmental conspiracy and are forced to steal the “heart” of the very same person who framed Joker in the first place, the corrupt politician at the head of said conspiracy.
And on top of all of this, a mysterious figure has ALSO been messing around in the Metaverse in a way that’s been resulting in people inexplicably dropping dead in the real world…
The main story of the game converges with this particular background plot near the end of the second act, when a family member of one of the members of the main party, whom they had just succeeded in reforming, is targeted by the mystery killer and dies of heart failure on live television, with the Phantom Thieves as the only possible culprits from the perspective of the public. Not wanting to risk a repeat of the scapegoating that got him in trouble in the first place, Joker decides to take matters into his own hands once again, using a few seemingly innocuous but very important clues earlier in the story to piece together what’s been going on and outwit the conspirators who are now out for the Phantom Thieves’ blood. Without spoiling anything further, I can assure you that from there it all gets more insane and goes more downhill from there, but in a way that’s extremely intriguing and worth following until the very end – and beyond even that in the enhanced re-release, if you manage to complete a certain objective before a particular point in the main storyline.
Persona 5 is, tellingly, a good deal darker than the previous games, which in the first place were already willing to dip into some pretty dark material. But this is the game where we get to see humanity at its worst, and in fact the entire concept of mental “palaces” exists because some people really are that despicable and incomprehensibly cruel. Hell, the antagonist whose Metaverse counterpart serves as the game’s first boss is a pedophilic rapist who, as mentioned, abuses his trainees with impunity and, notably, inflicted a career-ending injury on Ryuji and got him ostracized by the school track team just because he tried to stand up to him. On top of this is a lot of disturbing imagery, even more so than in the previous games, with bosses whose appearance and behavior are extremely creepy and perfectly reflective of the crimes their real-world correspondents committed. On the flipside, the initial awakening of the Personas involving a mask literally being fused to the face of each new party member which forces them to rip their own skin off as the contract with them is formed, which is ominously – and no doubt intentionally – similar to a stereotypical deal with the devil. Overall, this game took a lot of elements that were already present in previous games which had the potential to go in directions befitting a piece of horror fiction, and made them do so. The M rating is there for a damn good reason.
And yet, in spite of all the nightmarish imagery and all the awful things that various people do throughout the story to try and maintain their hold on their ill-gotten gains both physical and metaphorical, and in spite of being branded as a rebel and a criminal, every action Joker performs and every choice he makes is purely for the sake of others. Almost all of his dialogue options, as snarky as some of them can be, are spoken with the intent of empathizing with those he interacts with, whether or not they are working with or against him. Of equal importance is that a significant percentage of the social links he establishes throughout the game are with someone who was victimized by a higher power in some way or another. Among the ones outside of the party members are a doctor who was blamed and evicted from the institution she originally worked in for a disastrous medical trial she advised against going through with, one of his teachers at Shujin who is forced to moonlight as a call-in housekeeper in order to pay off a massive debt she was unfairly saddled with, a journalist who was reassigned after a whistleblowing report of hers was censored, and even a politician with genuinely humanitarian interests (a rarity especially in fiction!) who’s trying to regain support in the aftermath of an embezzlement scandal that scapegoated him but which he otherwise had nothing to do with. The fact that Joker puts his all into righting the wrongs committed against all kinds of people regardless of background or history is both a testament to his strength of character and a sobering reminder of how corruption and human selfishness is capable of penetrating all levels of society and can’t give two shits about who they affect. There is not a jurisprudence in the world that can keep him from doing what is moral, ethical, and goddamn necessary in several prominent instances. What’s more, almost every adversary the Phantom Thieves force a confession out of is a person of power, and in all cases they got it by screwing over the people who eventually become Joker’s Confidants at the minimum. If you take this into account, it makes perfect sense that Arsene, Joker’s Persona, is named and themed after one of the most famous gentleman thieves in literature. We normally regard laws, regulations, and rules as what keeps us and others safe and sound, but in many cases they have been made specifically to give certain powerful people the freedom to retain their power, almost always at someone else’s expense. If the public is incapable of actively going against these unjust laws and doing the right thing, then the best candidate for doing that is someone who has already been wronged and essentially has nothing to lose and a score to settle. Like Arsene Lupin before him, Joker is, essentially, a modern Robin Hood.
It’s also worth noting that Joker’s very appearance is a contrast against the previous protagonists of the Persona series, and that of his Persona even more so. The previous games had main casts that were wholly on the side of good and looked the part as well, with occupations and themes of a more heroic slant. Joker and his friends, on the other hand, get Personas themed after famous rebels, outlaws, and shady but ultimately well-intentioned characters across history and fiction. Joker in particular is dark-haired, deep-voiced, and wouldn’t need to put much effort into coming off as almost sinister, and as a Phantom Thief he rocks a razor-sharp, all-black outfit that wouldn’t look out of place in a cloak-and-dagger espionage movie. Arsene, meanwhile, is almost demonic in appearance, with an evil-looking red and black color scheme and wings of dark hellfire. The contrast between the aesthetic of these two and the sheer purity of Joker’s soul is like that of night and day… and is a pitch-perfect inversion of how the antagonists he faces almost all present themselves as heroic, popular, and charismatic figures, but are dark and hideously twisted on the inside with Palaces to match. Tradition in fiction would dictate that a character with Joker’s appearance, his label as a rebel, or both would be typecast as a brooding, jaded anti-hero at best and a cold and calculating villain at worst, but with so many people around him being evil at heart despite being adored by the public, someone has to be the good guy. And deep down, I think anyone can relate to his inherent desire to do the right thing, especially in the wake of all the bullshit that’s been piled on the world at large over the past two years. Indeed, Joker more than lives up to a heroic role in such a corrupt and unscrupulous world by showing nothing but benevolence to the innocents who were victimized and seeking to appeal to the better nature of even those out for his blood. It’s telling that one of the most popular ships in the fandom of this game involves Joker and a tragic antagonist who, like nearly all the rest, is initially presented as a charismatic celebrity, but who still eventually comes around and works to make amends because they grew close to him. The irony here is as perfect as it is thick.
You owe it to yourself to at least watch a Let’s Play or stream of Persona 5 when you get the chance – if not for the depth of its storyline and how it goes delightfully and utterly bonkers starting from around two-thirds of the way through, then at the very least so you can enjoy the sight of an unconventional protagonist exposing and rectifying the wrongdoings of a shitload of powerful but secretly reprehensible people. It’s a unique experience that repeatedly swings from cathartic to nerve-wracking and back at the drop of a hat, and the player character’s constant choice to act selflessly even in the face of a legal system actively working against the people it’s supposed to be upholding is a mindset I think a lot of people could benefit from. So here’s to Joker, and to the rebellious spirit in all of us.