My thoughts on Persona 5 + some jokes
“Is Yosuke gay?”
I wondered as the catchy J-pop tune played over the lo-fi speakers of the Junes food court. The song provided moments of cheerfulness in the midst of the Scooby Doo murder mystery/Videodrome-but-with-teenage-messiness plot of Persona 4. The two teen boys of the Scooby Doo squadron at this point were The Protagonist (I’d named him Bobby Bangs) and Yuri ‘Yosuke’ Lowenthal. There was a chemistry between the two that I picked up on but couldn’t tell what to make of it. At the time, I had not yet come out as bisexual, so I lacked the experience (and courage!) to think about men as romantic subjects. I didn’t know what that question meant to me yet.
Ultimately, Persona 4 never gave me a clear answer. I couldn’t romance him, and in Kanji’s storyline Yosuke lashes out against him in homophobic hesitation and fear at several occasions. Persona 4: The Golden’s ending with Yosuke gave it a different spin: the game ends with Bobby Bangs hugging him as the sun sets beyond the riverbank. Maybe that was an indirect confession, but that’s all I had to go on.
“Is Yosuke gay?”, I think, is a pointless question. Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely want(ed) him to be. But say the game gave me an answer, either with a ‘Yes’ or a ‘No’. Would it have been able to do accuracy, reality, and justice to Yosuke as a gay man? The question of “is” seeks confirmation/denial, in this case for an active presence of the stories of queer people, but it isn’t an answer that seeks out substance. Representation does not stop at ‘presence’!
Instead, I’ve started asking: “How accurately does Yosuke represent gay men as an identity and as an experience?” From this question, subtext can be explored; it becomes malleable, suitable, breaks through binarist thinking. It’s a more ambitious analysis that attunes itself to context, nuance, and most importantly, authorial intent. My answer to that question is: Not very well. It’s not wrong to think he’s gay. But his messy, often disappointing traits and actions come from a writer that concluded they should happen. If we were to contextualise his homophobia as proof of queerness, we’re in for a lot more discourse than this idiot is worth.
As Aevee Bee writes, no character is representative, as this assumes identity to be monolithical and uniformable. Instead, characters actively represent — and this can be flawed. The written text beyond their code should be always be scrutinised, and they, the writer, held accountable to what and how they sought to ‘represent’.
Persona 5 announced back in January that there is no gay romance option for its protagonist. Among the heterosexual relationships the glassed boy may enter into, one with a much-older woman is an existing option. The game does not claim gay people do not exist: it, at the barest possible least, features a gay bar. What it does make clear is that you will not be playing as a queer person. The game makes an assumption about its own canon sexualities. That isn’t to say all main characters should be omnisexual lovers all the time, I think straight people can exist in fiction, but consider: Persona 5’s main theme is shattering the chains of ‘slavery’ (systemic oppression, social confinement, and institutional chokeholds). Heteronormativity, evidently, is not one of these chains!
That sucks big time. I want game developers and gamers to realise that the decision of inclusion does not erase the option of choice. You can still play a character as straight even with same-sex romance options, folks.
A couple of months ago, I wrote an article. A single day before the release of the greatest boyband roadtrip simulator in video game history Final Fantasy XV, I wrote about my domestic fantasies of the four main boys. Though mostly a teehee-article rife with jokes, it was still about queerness. Fun jokes that exist inside subversion, and simply through their non-address of straightness. Now that’s discourse, baby!
I’m going to do the exact same here, but with the Persona 5 cast. I’ve made some joke tweets about the protagonist, based on my perception that I think he is gay. My ownership over his abstraction as a fictive character becomes reified in a sexuality alternate to his prescribed ‘canon’ one. Because I can just do that. That’s what AU is and is for. That’s what queer fandom is about. No one can stop queer people from seeing themselves in everything and that energy sustains my bisexual ass.
And like I said in my FFXV article: if I, as a queer dude, can believe they’re queer, I’mma find out more. Anyway. Here’s where the article gets funny, promise. Time for jokes.
I mean. The protagonist looks like a jerk who excuses himself with continental philosophy to stop the moral imperative to become a better person. He’s a jackass tutor tonguing the leg of his glasses while talking to the cute boy he knows has a crush on him about Foucault’s ideas of critique and poststructuralism, then brings up the guy’s rigorous, in-depth thoughts about fisting and the direct transference of power. Hot Topic Jacques Cousteau-looking ass doesn’t even give a reach-around with his one free hand as he’s fucking his one of seven boyfriends in the campus library, the other hand holding between thumb and pinky Sein und Zeit. What the hell. I hate him.
Ryuji Sakamoto, is pretty alright. But only when you just look at his upper half. He’s got shameless brown eyes that say “I drink bubble tea, what about it?” His yellow shirt with the psycho-pop bubblegum design tells me he’s Omocat-adjacent, and that he will be thrown out of an Applebees if he hasn’t already. He plays awful bass in a garage rock band that holds biweekly jam sessions in his step-dad’s shed. They’re called the Screams of Rebellion or Xinhai 1911 and they sound like one Iggy Pop song. I heavily disagree with his swinging belts/rolled up pant legs. He looks like a wildling idiot, like if Tarzan hosted an MTV show about pranks and was a twinky bottom.
Ann Takamaki is a mystery of signifiers, an inchoate collaboration of elements that, at first glance, have no underlying correlation. She wears a sporty varsity jersey underneath her school uniform blazer. Does she love to learn and also to sports? Inconceivable!!! While seemingly paradoxical, I believe it has a simpler explanation: the hoodie vest is her girlfriend’s, who is a quarterback and whom she loves. They make out under the rafters and then smoke tacky flavoured cigarettes together. She smokes strawberry shortcake, because the colour of the sticks match her red leggings. Why this girl dresses like an extra in a 2003 R&B music video about lesbian crewbattles is beyond me, but it rules and I respect her. She got her hood up and always has an arm around her gf.
There is a type of boy that exists, who always looks at you from askance, a miniscule, intentional tilt to his head so he always looks at you from the corners of his eyes. Yusuke Kitagawa is that boy, a lithe seductor and interlocutor who has mastered the (body) language of fuckiness. He takes you out to a club in papa’s Mercedes Benz, the license plate reads “SW33T B0Y”. Inside, he orders for you a mixologist’s brew involving lemonade and bat bones, and for himself a triple-layered drink with fruit juice, vodka, and a cherry, which the bartender acknowledges as ‘the usual’. He leans next to your ear to say something, harmless enough, but that’s when he strikes: the slow strides in which he moves, basically a tectonic plate that wants to be subducted by you. He ties a knot in the cherry with his tongue.
Makoto Nijima and Futaba Sakura are, like, both ends of the lesbian spectrum, and that’s really all there is to say isn’t there
To reflect on the importance of authorial intent, what is mine even in writing this article? I think we, meaning queer people with a mind for subtext and fandom, should consider greatly how to deal with the interstices between an author’s politics and desires of our own. In Desire in Narrative, Teresa de Lauretis says there is a morphology possible to narrative, one that transcribes from text to body, negotations of capture that may take place once fiction has been released into the wild. The stories, at least partially, become our own. They settle in our minds, after all. Linking this to Aevee Bee’s ideas on representation: the marginalised know what good representation of the marginalised is.
So that’s what I did (or think I did?) in having sketched these tableaus of characters. Offer alternatives — or expansions — to a narrative I’m disappointed by. I’ll still play Persona 5 some day, absolutely, I can deal with fiction that displays a homophobic lack and not a homophobic wrath. Make the game cater to your tastes and experience, dear reader, however you think to be adequate. The canon can be put on blast (because cannon).