Because Everybody Loves Puppets — Persona 4: Teaching All Night
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Persona, for a Jung-inspired series about the parts of you that you hide from even yourself, has itself pretty well figured out by now. It adheres to certain motifs and story beats, so that while it’s a very creative franchise, there are some recurring elements. Action is usually centred around a high school and its students. Then there’s the titular ‘persona’ power — manifesting your personality as a figure of myth/history/a demon based on a Buddhist monk’s slang word for genitalia that takes on that form — which you use to fight the darker parts of the unconscious given form, usually as ‘shadows’. Persona 3 — considered by many the point where the games really hit the worldwide market — shook things up with one major change.
You had to actually attend classes.
This changed up the formula quite a bit, from dungeon crawler to dungeon crawler crossed with…essentially a dating sim, where your relationship with fellow students and townspeople affects tangible aspects of your in-game performance. It also added structure, centering plot advancement around the progression of the school year.
New insight into how the teachers in these games actually approached education, something which had gone mostly unexplored, was now available. Teachers had, at most, played roles as minor allies or antagonists in the past; now even ones not blessed with the magic of character development played a part in ‘day-to-day’ life.
The way the job is portrayed is simple. A short cutscene plays, perhaps containing some sort of commentary on story events viewed from an outsider’s perspective, or a short extract from an actual lesson. This leads into, with varying degrees of stretching to reach the topic, a question that might or might not be related to the class actually being taught. It’s a fairly simple formula that lets you potentially increase your knowledge or social standing, and maybe also gives you a little factoid to carry around with you. But, left to that formula, you can see how it might get a little stale. For this reason, any teacher that didn’t receive enough attention for you to know them as their own character is given a ‘quirk' — a cultural fetish, an obsession with the occult, an inappropriate relationship with protractors, or, in the hands of this article’s unlikely hero…
A hand puppet.
Mister Hosoi is the Classical Literature teacher at Persona 4’s Yasogami High, a subject he teaches with what seems like the furthest thing from a classical method. While not all of this timid teacher’s questions are filtered through ‘Li’l Hosoi’, he often converses with this miniature effigy of himself to approach a question or as a sort of segue.
A great example occurs on the 14th of July, when Li’l Hosoi points out what looks like a mistake in the textbook. This leads into the story of how a famous writer (the Heian monk Kobo/Kuukai) made an error on the gates of what is now the city of Kyoto. This leads into an introduction and explanation of the phrase “even Kobo made mistakes in writing”, and also the origin of Li’l Hosoi — a creation of Mrs. Hosoi’s.
While the motivations of Mister Hosoi’s wife in making a tiny puppet husband remain one of Persona’s agonisingly as-yet-unexplored plot threads, this scene gives a good argument in favour of Li’l Hosoi’s presence in the classroom: the puppet can ‘point out’ things if the students don’t pick up on them, giving Hosoi the chance to expand on details and dole out information. This also serves to draw the player’s attention; while Li’l Hosoi is perhaps not the strangest thing Persona 4 throws at you, even in the more mundane setting of Inaba, he draws the eye. Hosoi’s conversational approach with both students and (technically) himself also makes him quite good at reminding players of what’s going on — in a game that takes about 72 hours for a bare bones playthrough, and is at points straight-up exhausting to play, that can be pretty useful.
But what inspired this method?
There are many different styles of teaching. Or, if we want to follow down a Jungian-inspired route, there are five, but the developers of that particular system believed most teachers embodied all or nearly all of those styles at any given point. Bringing in Li’l Hosoi, the puppeteer can actually take on several different roles at the same time —most notably those of expert and personal model. The expert demonstrates detailed knowledge of a subject, which Mister Hosoi does when he takes a break from the text to explain the story behind what seems like a minor spelling mistake, and how it links in to an old saying. The personal model, being Li’l Hosoi in this case, acts as a target for emulation — you (the student) should be looking closer at the text, asking questions about what you’re reading, expanding on details, just like the little puppet role model. In this way, the puppet acts as a “co-teacher”, though there are drawbacks; Mister Hosoi has to direct the protagonist to stop paying attention to the puppet during the Kobo lesson.
So we know that the puppet can certainly attract attention, a valuable commodity in any classroom. It can also bring attention to things you would have preferred your students to catch on their own, while eliminating the awkwardness of “So, anything unusual about this?” followed by an eternity of silence while your students wait for you to inevitably fold and explain what it is you wanted them to find. These are universal advantages.
Still, why use this method for teaching literature to adolescents? The students of Yasogami High range from 15 to 18. While teaching and puppetry have a long history with education, you could be forgiven for thinking of it as a method more suited to younger pupils. Like the protagonists of the series, we have a number of possible solutions in front of us.
For starters, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that Hosoi thinks of his students as being younger than they are, or that he suffers from being a misplaced Montessori teacher. This is perhaps the simplest explanation — Mister Hosoi is using a method more suited to younger children because it’s the only way he knows how to teach. Perhaps that’s how his teaching career started, or where he wanted it to go, or perhaps he thinks what works for one group works universally. Certainly, as a teacher myself, I’ve used methods or activities for older groups that were originally intended for young children.
Looking at it that way, we can see the logic — puppets are good for young children, especially in the kind of situation Hosoi is in. Shy children are often more comfortable talking to or through puppets, to the point where they are a recognised resource for things such as foreign language classes and play therapy. After all, it’s not the teacher talking, it’s the puppet, right?
As for the surrounding situation— Yasogami High’s school year starts with a student disappearing, and their dead body ends up hanging from a telephone pole. This comes after the murder of a celebrity stirring up the almost quintessential quiet country town. It’s then followed by (spoilers for this almost ten year old game) the disappearances of several students, who thankfully don’t show up dead, but do show up on a mysterious midnight television show that airs their most shameful thoughts to anyone watching. Then a widely disliked — but not hated to anywhere near a murderous degree — teacher shows up dead. The supposed identity of the murderer(s) or suspects is always that of a local figure who is either implicitly trusted or totally innocuous — both, when you actually discover who it is. Near the end of the year, the town is covered in fog which is rumoured to be poisonous, and which sends everyone spiralling into either paranoia (a surge of gas maks and conspiracy theories) or a distinctly creepy and apathetic brand of acceptance — even our dear Mister Hosoi succumbs to a fit of this attitude.
So perhaps this is Mister Hosoi’s way of lending a little levity to an otherwise rather dire, dour year. Of taking a friendlier, more accessible (from his perspective) approach with a group of young people who would already be under enough stress with the pressures of an ordinary school year, let alone one marred by serial murders, disappearances and supernatural psycho-sadistic voyeurism. We could even extend this to the idea of ‘play therapy’ mentioned earlier, in which a puppet can make for a vital tool. And after all, neither Hosoi seems afraid to approach the more delicate subjects that might be on student’s minds; as we can see above, even if it’s clearly affecting his thought process a bit, Hosoi isn’t afraid to talk about the mysterious and panic-inducing fog that plagues the town. He even takes a stab at seeing a silver lining, as anxiety-ridden as this ‘bright side’ (no eye contact, hurrah!) is.
What’s more, Hosoi will even talk about the murders. He admits to the fear felt by him and other staff, but encourages students to keep going on with their lives, even if the way he goes about it is a bit hamfisted. This puts the Messrs Hosoi in a somewhat more heroic light.
There is a slight issue with the above interpretation though. Perhaps there are practical concerns, such as class size, but generally speaking the ‘children’ would also be given a puppet. Why use only one, and why exclusively by the teacher? This leads us to a less flattering, but still sympathetic, interpretation that we might infer from the in-game book series Mister Hosoi’s students associate him with.
Timid Teacher, or Mister Coward in the original Japanese release, is a book series that serves two functions in Persona 4. The first, and most relevant to gameplay, is that it increases your “Understanding” stat, the protagonist’s ability to empathise with and break through to others. This then enables further pursuit of certain relationships/side-stories throughout the game. More relevant to this piece is its function in the script, in that it also forms a minor running gag around Mister Hosoi — his students always ask him whether he’s picked up the newest edition, drawing an obvious parallel between their teacher and the ‘timid’ teacher of the books. This in-game fictional (metafictional?) teacher is often bullied by his coworkers and students, who take advantage of his meek disposition, yet he continues to persevere in his chosen profession, eventually (more spoilers) bidding a bittersweet farewell to the students who have come to love him.
That this book is closely associated with Mister Hosoi could perhaps give us some insight into his character, and might provide a possible reason for the existence of his smaller counterpart. The concept of the puppet as a sort of ‘intermediary’ object has been brought up — the idea that children are more comfortable talking ‘to’ or being talked to by a puppet, rather than a teacher. But, as befits the spirit of the series, we can flip that idea around. People are also more comfortable talking through a puppet. Children in particular can learn and engage well through the medium of a hand puppet, as it makes them more comfortable with the idea of making a mistake, or better able to express something they find difficult. Again, this idea of “it’s not me, it’s the puppet” aids in communication. Perhaps the series should consider including a hand puppet activity to raise the “Expression” stat in future installments.
If we look at it from that angle, perhaps it’s not his students, but himself that Hosoi views as a child, or at the very least as being out of his depth in the same vein as ‘Mister Coward’. Hosoi does present attitudes that could be seen as childish or nervous — for one thing, he uses the “-chan” suffix quite a bit. This honorific is usually used between or to address small children, and Hosoi uses this both with his students, who are all in their mid-to-late teens, and even himself through the medium of Li’l Hosoi. The use of suffixes in the English dub of Persona games (or indeed in many translated media) demonstrates particular nuances of a relationship or social interaction that a translator doesn’t feel will come across if the suffix is simply left out. So while this particular instance might be left in for comedy — or simply ‘just because’ — it does tell the audience something significant about the character using it.
In his own way, Mister Hosoi embodies some of the central themes of the Persona series — he hides behind a facade to deal with his day-to-day life, exemplifying the eponymous concept. It is also possible to view his characteristics in any number of different ways; like the prevalent Tarot motif in the series, you can view his eccentricities as positive qualities or as the result of inner turmoil — the ‘upright’ and ‘reversed’ positions of major arcana that we see played out in many different ways across a long running franchise.
Perhaps, quietly tucked away in his unvoiced and seemingly incidental cutscenes, Mister Hosoi has secretly represented the themes of the series in…miniature.