On Shitty Adults: Demagoguery, decline, and generational exploitation through the lens of Persona 5

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So I've been thinking an awful lot about the government lately. And, um, the intricacies of Japanese role-playing game design.

Y'know, like you do.

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I recently completed Persona 5, the newest entry in Atlus's stylish and storied JRPG franchise about mystery-solving teens. It took me something like 120 hours, spread out over 15 months, for me to make it through the entire story. And while I'd be happy to go into the game's merits within the RPG space in a separate post (short version: it's really good), I found myself far more interested in the themes and narrative motifs that Persona 5 tackles than its systems design.

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About midway through the game, I also picked up a book that a friend of mine had recommended to me as a source of vital context in understanding our divided politics in the 2010s. It's called The Unwinding, written by New Yorker contributor George Packer. 

After spending months of my life poring over both the game and the book, I was struck by how they shared a common core: an essential, in-depth exploration of the social and economic change that laid the framework for our economically and politically divided modern era. They even share the same fundamental storytelling convention of introducing a series of strong characters, representative of different walks of life, and following their stories as the world changes around them.

While I really doubt that the Persona team was inspired by The Unwinding when planning or developing the game, I couldn't shake the feeling that these are two seminal, essential stories of modern life. And they take place in two of the world's countries that, after decades of economic dominance, are undergoing substantial political upheaval and widening generational divides. One is a work of painstaking reporting and research, and the other is a work of fiction, but they both tap into some fundamental truths that are essential to contextualizing the world we live in.

Let's take a look at what they have to say.

Background

Although Persona 5 didn't make it to North America and beyond until mid-2017, it was originally released in Japan in September 2016 — right between the Brexit vote and Trump's victory in the United States. For a game about corrupt baby boomers systemically exploiting and condemning younger generations, it really couldn't have arrived at a better time.

These games also take a long time to make, and development on Persona 5 began nearly a decade before its release. It's likely that the story and themes solidified long after the game engine and key mechanical decisions were set in stone, but regardless, this game landed at the right time.

Persona 5 paints a believable conspiracy between a Japanese intelligence agency director and Masayoshi Shido, the game's primary antagonist and a rising demagogue in Japan's National Diet. They also share a common theme with each of the game's secondary antagonists, who are the "bosses" of the game: they all seek power through exploitation of younger generations and the working class.

If you haven't played a Persona game, here's some background on the series: Each game features a different cast and setting, though recent entries all take place in modern-day Japan. Each game places you in the role of a high-school student and plays out day-by-day over roughly a year in their protagonist's life. This produces an intricate combination of roleplaying both as a teenager navigating the daily social challenges of coming of age and more traditional (in a video game-y sense) dungeon-crawling adventure that punctuates the game's main story beats.

In Persona 5, the dungeons, called "palaces," are manifestations of the minds of corrupt adults. These palaces are inspired, and each evokes the flaws of its host, from an overzealous gym teacher's prison filled with instruments of torture to a business magnate's factory that's literally fueled by the bodies of his employees. The player and their team combat the monstrous manifestations in these palaces by learning to control Personas, which play fast and loose with Jungian archetypes and are kinda like Pokémon by way of Dungeons and Dragons's iconic Monster Manual. By taking the player into fantastical realms within the twisted minds of exploitative adults, Persona 5 paints a series of evocative portraits of how power, influence, and greed all lead to corruption.

 Ryuji paints in broad strokes.

Ryuji paints in broad strokes.

The investigation team

From the game's opening moments, Shido is shown to be ruthless, greedy, and reprehensible figure. The protagonist unwittingly stumbles upon him intoxicated in a back alley, attempting to assault a woman. The player intervenes, but when the police arrive, Shido wields his influence to claim that the player was the perpetrator. Wrongfully accused, you're sent to serve your juvenile probation in Tokyo, and the game's events follow from there.

Because Shido bought the silence of the woman he was attacking, you're unable to argue your innocence. Thus, placed under foster care and presumed by the older generation to be a delinquent, you're perceived by society at large as a criminal. Students at your new school, Shujin Academy, are either nervous or impressed when they hear about your background, and it takes time before you build enough trust with your peers to make any friends. 

As the game plays out, you meet other students who also have the ability to traverse palaces and wield Personas. Out of mutual necessity and a desire to do good, you form the Phantom Thieves, a group that gains infamy for changing the hearts of corrupt palace-owners and pushing them to confess their crimes to the public.

Throughout most of the game, the Phantom Thieves are divided on the ethics of their actions. Why do they have the power to change hearts? Does anyone have the right to change someone else's heart for them? What if they ask for it? Do the ends, even if they're as crucial as saving lives, justify the means? 

It wasn't until I'd reached the end of the game that I realized every member of the Phantom Thieves — and indeed, every other teenager you befriend in the game — is the victim of a negligent, exploitative, or outright violent adult.

The Trouble with Shitty Adults

The first friend the protagonist makes at Shujin Academy is Ryuji Sakamoto, a former track star and semi-delinquent youth. He's the one who coins the phrase "shitty adults," which made me laugh out loud the first time I read it. But as time went on, and as Ryuji re-used the phrase, it dawned on me that, well, maybe that is the best way to describe their dilemma.

Every one of the Phantom Thieves has a story about a shitty adult who took advantage of them in some way. To name a few:

  • The player character was framed for a crime he didn't commit and sentenced to probationary foster care in an unfamiliar city.
  • Ryuji Sakamoto was kicked off the track team after standing up to coach Kamoshida's antagonism — he goaded Ryuji into taking a swing at him, and falsely claiming self-defense, Kamoshida got away with breaking Ryuji's leg, temporarily ending his star running career.
  • Ann Takamaki's best friend, Shiho, is driven to a suicide attempt by Kamoshida, and Kamoshida threatens that he'll abuse Shiho further if Ann doesn't sleep with him. Ann is treated as a pariah by her classmates, who don't see how Kamoshida is exploiting her into this position.
  • Painting prodigy Yusuke Kitagawa is taken in by Madarame, a master painter whom his mother had worked with. He later learns that the Sayuri, a masterpiece Madarame took credit for, was actually painted by his mother, whom Madarame allowed to die in order to take credit for it. Madarame was grooming Yusuke to steal credit for his art as well. (Incidentally, Yusuke later meets another patron who wants to help him grow, but he quickly learns that the patron simply sees him as a means to making more money and encourages him to abandon his passions — which Yusuke, in a sign of growth, outright refuses.)
  • And while she's not a member of the Phantom Thieves, Hifumi Togo is a shogi master attempting to follow in the footsteps of — and to care for — her ailing father. But her mother seeks to exploit her daughter's image as a shogi master, rigging games so she'll win and pushing her to pivot into a career as a model and public figure. The realization that her winning streak was a sham and that her mother sees her as a commodity and a ticket to wealth is devastating to her.

It's worth noting that Persona 5 is a stark departure in tone from 2008's Persona 4. That game tells the story of a quaint, largely positive experience of living in a small town in rural Japan. While that town deals with its own challenges from macroeconomic change, such as the opening of the first Junes superstore and its threat to local businesses' viability, it still manages to maintain an upbeat and cheerful tone through strong group dynamics, the jobs and activities you pass your time with, and the fact that your interpersonal connections in the game are labeled "social links" and not "confidants."

As you learn more about your confidants, a very deliberate truth of Persona 5 comes to light: older generations have sold out and taken advantage of the younger ones, condemning them to psychological scars, poor job prospects, and a lack of representation. It's a statement that struck me as eerily prescient and strongly evocative of our current epoch.

But What About The Unwinding?

Right, yeah.

Well, it's a great book! And I hope you consider checking it out. The stories it tells, both of the everyday Americans whose narratives are covered in-depth and the public figures it profiles to help establish a sense of time and place, are excellent. Combined, it all paints a picture of a society that has been driven apart by a political system designed to increase the wealth gap and to wrest control of industry from workers. It suggests a brighter future is still possible, but we've got to recognize how we got here — how the unwinding happened — in order to find a new, better path forward.

As a complement to Persona 5, it helped me connect the dots between the stories and themes that game presents within urban Japan and to consider how such similar stories have played out in the real lives of people who live in the United States. It reminded me that, through both fact and fiction, essential truths can be brought to light.

Looking Forward

So where do we go from here?

Well, the Phantom Thieves figured it out. They decided to follow through with changing the hearts of corrupt and exploitative adults, and in doing so they exposed their crimes while exonerating themselves. Their power faded, and they resumed living their lives, armed with the knowledge that they're capable of standing up for themselves and those they care about.

Persona 5 ends on a highly optimistic note. It celebrates the potential of today's youth and advocates for their capability as inheritors of modern society. It shows that demagogues can be toppled, criminals can be tried and found guilty, and corrupt institutions can be purged.

All that's required is that people stand up and unite against them.