“The ‘other you’ who exists within desires it thus”: The Question of Imprisonment and the Unconscious in Persona 5
Note: This is the first installment in what will hopefully be a weekly series of vaguely connected essays on Persona 5 as I make my way through it. This essay contains light spoilers for the first two hours of the game.
Beyond the question of Jungian psychoanalysis and Ingmar Bergman, one of the most pressing questions of Persona 5 is that of imprisonment. Early promotional material (quite inadvisably, in my view) evocatively depicted chains (presumably for the protagonist and playable characters) alongside ball-and-chains posing the question “You are a slave. Want emancipation?”
One might attribute this immediately concerning tone-deafness to issues of cultural context and translation. That attribution is supported by how the game, while still alluding to enslavement and “slaves” in an abstract fashion, shifts its primary motif from enslavement to imprisonment.
The Persona series always features a space “between dream and reality” known as the Velvet Room accessible only to the nameless protagonist. Persona 5’s iteration of the Velvet Room is a prison which, according to Igor, the Velvet Room proprietor, reflects the “the state of [the protagonist’s] heart.”
The Velvet Room as it features into the Persona series more generally is fascinating in itself. One can’t help but look at the plush blue scenery of every Velvet Room dating all the way back to 1996’s original Persona and not think of the titular fabric of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986) or from a more contemporary perspective, the dreamlike unreality of the blue lit Club Silencio in Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001).
Putting broader symbolisms aside, the anonymized protagonist (and thus, the player themselves) is never named as a “slave,” (as the early advertisement might indicate) but rather as a “prisoner,” or “inmate.” In the case of the protagonist, this is both literally true and symbolically relevant. The event that sets the plot into motion is the protagonist’s arrest and subsequent conviction on an assault charge where by all accounts he was saving a woman in distress. In addition, the story is told retrospectively by the protagonist to a prosecuting attorney, Sae Niijima, after the protagonist’s arrest on a litany of charges related to his “phantom thievery.”
For the “state of [his] heart” to be that of a prison, then, is apt. He has faced judicial sanctions and will, unbenounced to him at the time of his first entry into the Velvet Room, have to again. The protagonist’s unceremonious transfer from his hometown to Tokyo’s Shujin Academy (in this case I think of, rather than Lynch, Justin Lin’s The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift ), his lodging in a stranger’s curry restaurant, and his social isolation in school as a consequence of his criminal record all perpetuate his imprisonment.
In addition to being a prisoner, however, the protagonist is also cast as a “Trickster.” Igor says the purpose of the protagonist’s presence in the Velvet Room is to be “rehabilitated into a free man.” Igor continues to make references to the “miracle” of the protagonist’s “rehabilitation” throughout the early sections of the game. Igor also poses the question to the protagonist, “are you ready to fight against the world’s corruption?” Igor’s rehabilitation takes the form of the “phantom thievery” and resistance to the law rather than obedience to it. This resistance is aligned with the “Other” (in the Lacanian sense) and the Freudian unconscious, as becomes evident in the game’s first dungeon.
The game’s dungeons take the form of “Palaces” controlled by a “ruler.” As Morgana explains to the protagonist, “This place is another reality that the ruler’s heart projects. One could say it’s a world in which one’s distorted desires have materialized. In order to prevent such distortions, one must hold a powerful will of rebellion.” Here again, the distortions of a “ruler” run parallel to the “world’s corruption” that Igor cautions against, and the “will of rebellion” is necessary for the protagonist’s “rehabilitation” and, thus, his freedom. Important, too, is the way “distorted desires” materialize as the Palace that imprisons. As Freud says in the third heading of The Interpretation of Dreams (1913), “The Dream Is the Fulfilment of a Wish.”
What connects the fulfillment of the wish in Freud’s view and the distorted desires that materialize in the form of the Palace is precisely that which connects wish and desire. As Dylan Evans writes in An Introductory Dictionary of Lacanian Psychoanalysis (1996), “Lacan’s term, désir, is the term used in the French translations of Freud to translate Freud’s term Wunsch, which is translated as ‘wish’ by Strachey in the Standard Edition” (35). Thus, recognizing that desire in Lacan and the wish in Freud share the principle that they are always in the unconscious, and never consciously articulated, is crucial to understanding imprisonment in Persona 5.
When Ryuji Sakamoto unleashes his Persona for the first time, Captain Kidd, Kidd says to Ryuji, “You made me wait quite a while. You seek power, correct? Then let us form a pact … The ‘other you’ who exists within desires it thus” [emphasis added]. To be clear, both Palaces and Persona, like desire and wish, are of the unconscious. But Persona 5 distinguishes itself from its predecessors by positioning the unconscious as capable of both imprisonment and liberation. Kidd, the ‘other [Ryuji]’ that desires, is freed from imprisonment by Ryuji’s assertion of his “will of rebellion” in the face of the hostility of the villainous Suguru Kamoshida’s Shadow (which is, like Persona, a manifestation of the unconscious, though it is distinct from Persona by being fundamentally repressed). And yet, it is the unconscious that creates the Palace that imprisons Kamoshida’s phantasmatic “slaves” and perhaps Kamoshida himself.
Though the “slaves” have no real world presence, they correspond to real individuals and reflect Kamoshida’s perception of them. When the protagonist, Ryuji, and Morgana find the imagos of athletes on Kamoshida’s volleyball team being tortured in the Palace, the space of Kamoshida’s unconscious desire, the logic of Freud’s belief “The Dream Is the Fulfilment of a Wish” results in Morgana concluding, “this is horrible. It must mean he treats [his athletes] as slaves in the real world too.” Despite the fact that the “slaves” are not corporeal and the Palace is simply the manifestation of the unconscious, these forms have a significant presence that is sufficient to draw conclusions about how the “ruler” acts in the real world. Though a desire may be unarticulated, in Persona 5, if a desire produces a Palace, it must be the case that it is being acted upon in the real world.
Persona 5 is immediately impressive in the way it interrogates the familiar themes of the unconscious and desire (in the case of the recurrent features of the story like Persona, Shadows, and the Velvet Room) alongside the particular theme of imprisonment (in the case of the unique features and motifs of the story, such as the protagonist’s legal woes, social isolation, rebellion, thievery, and Palaces) to great effect. The apparent shift in the primary motif from one of “slavery” to one of “imprisonment” pays enormous dividends both in terms of political advisability and theoretical richness. The translation team at Atlus deserves a great deal of recognition for their fine work. Though Persona 5 suggests the unconscious provides both potential for liberation and imprisonment depending on the status of the subject, the opening hours of the game also make clear that the unconscious’s function is particular in its production of Palaces, Shadows, and Persona depending on precisely that same status. The schematization of the unconscious would make Lacan proud, as this repetitious scheme which constantly produces unique results within a formula mirrors the Lacanian dictum that “the unconscious is structured like a language.”