The Japanese punk of Persona 5 is its most defining trait

Punk

/pəNGk/

Noun

  1. A loud, fast-moving, and aggressive form of rock music, popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s
  2. A worthless person (often used as a general term of abuse).

Adjective

  1. In poor or bad condition.
  2. Relating to punk rock and its associated subculture.

The main characters in Atlus’ latest JRPG, Persona 5, are all no-good punks. You can tell from the way people in power — their teachers, the cops, the rich — all treat them. The people at the top of society reject the agency of the teens and use that inflated status, power or wealth to abuse, molest and exploit the younger characters.

It’s not until the teens unlock the power of their Persona, the psychic manifestations of their true selves, that these punks end up headlining Japan’s most rebellious modern RPG. They’re not just fighting back against individual people, but a system that’s trying to keep them in their place.

Taking out the corruption without harming the society

Persona 5 is the latest game in Atlus’ popular anime-inspired RPG and social-sim hybrid. Starring a team of high school students who tap into a supernatural power called Personas, the heroes learn to summon a demonic materialization of their psyches to sneak into the corrupt hearts of their targets and root out their true nature.

While Persona 5 has been in development for about six years, the game’s themes feel particularly resonant in 2017. The heroes of the game style themselves after legendary Phantom Thieves, a literary archetype codified by French author Maurice Leblanc’s famous gentleman thief character, Arsene Lupin.

Curiously enough, the Phantom Thief character is quite popular in Japanese anime and manga, as seen in long-running, popular franchises such as Detective Conan and Lupin III. The teenagers set out to steal the hearts of corrupt elites such as abusive teachers, mob bosses and leaders of high society. The goal of these modern-day Phantom Thieves appears to be toppling the powers-that-be.

While the Persona series has always been adept at locking into the disenfranchised teen spirit of its characters, there’s something about Persona 5’s cast of thieves fighting against the “one percent” that feels in-line with the current resistance climate, and punk culture as a whole. The team routinely bonds over their status as society’s outcasts. As Ryuji, a fellow Phantom Thief, so succinctly puts it: The phantom thieves exist to “get back at scumbags and society in general.”

The Japanese punk of Persona 5 is its most defining trait Atlus

This rebellious spirit is particularly strong compared to previous Persona games. Whereas previous games pondered more existential questions — Persona 4’s heightened focus on social networks, for example — Persona 5 asks questions about how to reform society when the adults in charge are content standing by, or worse, antagonizing the powerless for resisting their authority.

Every aspect of this game, from the side characters to the villains, reinforces this powerless vs. powerful narrative that runs through Persona 5. Various other characters throughout the game, such as a local political candidate who urges young people to fight for their rights to be treated fairly, or an investigative journalist trying to uncover corruption feel pointed towards the punk spirit of resistance.

The game’s main villains appear to relish their corruption, with one antagonist revealing that “only a few are entitled to change the world.”

The Japanese punk of Persona 5 is its most defining trait Dead Kennedys

These themes and stories are bolstered by the game’s visual design, which borrows aesthetics, iconography and colors associated with the punk genre. Many of the main characters disguise themselves in punk fashion staples such as skulls, metal spikes and stars. The game bleeds with the prominent use of negative space, and a red and black color scheme that is reminiscent of famous punk bands like the Misfits and Dead Kennedys. These groups were almost fashion movements as much as bands, with logos and T-shirts that were easily recognizable from a distance.

The way in which Persona 5 promotes an ideal where societal change can happen when those who are sidelined in society rise up against entrenched powers isn’t just refreshing. That approach feels like a revelation for a game series that often feels held back by its anime tropes.

A clash of cultures

There are some complications, however. Persona 5 features moments where the Japanese societal norms inject themselves into the game, undercutting the punk themes. There were multiple times when the divide between the east and the west in Persona 5’s punk sensibilities was brought into stark contrast, particularly in some of the game’s dialogue. These are punks that don’t want to see the world burn; they actively wonder if upending the social order is a goal worth attaining.

After taking down a teacher at their high school who used his authority and position to abuse athletes and sexually harass female students, the thieves wonder if going after the teacher down was even the right thing to do when all it has accomplished, outside of removing one individual who was hurting others, was disturb Tokyo society as a whole.

While the story ultimately pushes past these doubts to affirm the Phantom Thieves’ justice, I was curious if this kind of thinking was unique to Japanese culture, and whether someone like myself who grew up in both East Asia and the U.S. was getting my wires crossed.

I reached out to Professor Noriko Aso who teaches East Asian Studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz to help clarify these moments of doubt within the Phantom Thieves as they take down their corrupt elders.

"Righteousness (Yi in Chinese; Gi in Japanese) is a pretty important concept in Confucianism, and while on occasion there can be social adjustments, corruption is not one of them,” explained Aso. So just as respect and harmony is important to Confucianism, so is doing what is right. “Real life, of course, is another matter, but [corruption’s] not in accordance with Confucian principles[.]”

Growing up in South Korea, I know what it’s like to live in a culture that promotes the supremacy of one’s superior above the individual.

Taking down a teacher who abuses students seems like a virtual no-brainer. Two of the Phantom Thieves were even personal victims of the teacher. But this bit of dialogue was interesting, especially as it goes against the kind of outlaw justice romanticized in western story genres. The dialogue highlights the way Persona 5 approaches punk culture from its own cultural vantage point, weighing the positive act of ending abuse with the fear of the damage attacking those in power may do to society as a whole.

That’s a shift from the more American attitude that these people deserve what they get, which allows for a cleaner narrative that doesn’t often worry about the removal of even corrupt or abusive individuals.

Growing up in South Korea, I know what it’s like to live in a culture that promotes the supremacy of one’s superior above the individual. Although I was unsure how deep this kind of Confucianist thinking runs in Japanese society, it’s easy to see how their actions could disturb some of the norms these teens grew up with.

By taking down their abusive teacher, the Phantom Thieves opened up a whole floodgate of corruption and accountability in their city. When it’s later revealed that the whole school and several parents were complicit in covering up the teacher’s actions, the disruption caused by the revelation and the growing notoriety of the Phantom Thieves leads to a citywide scandal.

The same teachings that could potentially lead to the Phantom Thieves doubting themselves can also give birth to their anarchic approach to justice. In that way, Persona 5 exhibits a punk spirit unique to its Japanese and East Asian culture, differentiating itself while still paying homage to the heist, crime and Robin Hood stories popular in the west.

While plenty of other games capture the style and tone of modern Tokyo, none other captures such a zeal and punk attitude toward urban life than Persona 5.

Matthew Kim is a freelance entertainment and culture writer whose work on videogames, film, Asian pop-culture, and comics can be found in publications such as VICE, Inverse, and Paste Magazine. Feel free to contact him through Twitter @LawofTD

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