Crime, Punishment and Persona 5

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I recently finished playing Persona 5. (Yes, it took me two years. Hey, it’s a long game.) It’s a game about a lot of things, but most of all it’s a game about prisons. The unnamed protagonist gains his power from a world in which he is kept as a prisoner, told to grow stronger to complete his “rehabilitation.” In the real world, he’s on probation after running afoul of an influential politician, with the threat of juvenile hall always hanging over his head. When he and his friend Ryuji first enter the fantastical Metaverse, they’re thrown in prison by their overbearing gym teacher.

The theme, then, is clear: for the young and the powerless, the world is a prison. This perspective even affects their own mind and self-perception. To combat this, the heroes take on the identities of thieves to help reform society. The game opens with the protagonist being arrested and roughed up by police, and much of its runtime is intercut with scenes of the protagonist being interrogated by a prosecutor. In Persona 5, the prison is the overarching metaphor around which all society is structured.

In this, it may find recognition among many players. In America, there is increasing suspicion of the criminal justice system and its overriding logic. Texts like Ava DuVernay’s film 13th and Michelle Alexander’s book The New Jim Crow depict the prison system as a re-entrenchment of slavery, directly targeting African-Americans. Prison reform and even abolition are common platforms on the left — the Democratic Socialists of America adopted abolition as an official policy at their last convention — but have also been taken up as causes by wealthy celebrities like Kim Kardashian.

I can’t speak to the political landscape of Japan as well, but its prison system can be even more draconian than the US. Japan’s courts have a conviction rate of 99.9 percent, with judges often deferring to the prosecutor. Nonviolent offenses like drug possession are punished harshly, both through the court system and social stigma. While the world of Persona 5 may have been too exaggerated to read as direct political commentary, it speaks to the repressiveness of Japanese society.

In opposition to the criminal justice system which treats its protagonist so harshly, Persona 5 offers a seemingly ideal way to deal with evildoers. The Phantom Thieves infiltrate the palaces created by distorted cognition and “steal the heart” of those who abuse their power. In doing so, they force the individual to confront what they’ve done and change their ways. In almost every case, this involves a public confession of guilt.

And yet this change of heart is never quite enough. After recanting their misdeeds, we don’t see the P5 villains dedicating themselves to making the world a better place, or helping out the heroes. Instead, they mostly go to jail and disappear from the narrative. Even with a magical device allowing for certainty that someone really has changed, punishment and social exile are still required.

In this, Persona 5 shows that no matter what its symbolic critique of the prison as an institution, that it still sees rehabilitation as not enough. Some kind of punishment is needed. This contradiction is influenced in some way by the Japanese cultural norms of shame and self-sacrifice, but it’s also not that far from the assumptions of anti-prison leftists.

The rise of prison abolition as a political program has occurred almost simultaneously with an increasingly punitive concept of wrongdoing on the left. Someone who has transgressed is to be exiled from public life, and anyone who employs or associates with them is taken to not care about what they did wrong. It is assumed that doing wrong reflects a wrongness of the soul, that all apologies are insincere, and that the only way to respond to evil is with stern punishment. In other words, the mainstream of the left rejects the prison while supporting the law-and-order concepts which justify its existence.

There are understandable reasons for this. We don’t live in a world where systems that provide restorative justice are available. Instead, we live in a world full of punitive systems that encourage wrongdoers to minimize and deny what they’ve done. It’s hard to discern someone’s sincerity when they say they’re sorry or that they’ve changed, and there’s a justifiable fear that letting abusers back into spaces after a few words of contrition will allow them to repeat their behavior. Nevertheless, I think there’s a contradiction that many on the left feel hard-pressed to confront head-on.

As a result, we conjure a kind of fantasy version of prison that contains only black people busted for possessing weed and maybe an activist or two. As writers like John Pfaff have pointed out, this is not the case. Certainly there are strong racial disparities in arrest rates and sentencing, but meaningfully reducing the US prison population would mean releasing tens of thousands of people who have done genuinely harmful, sometimes terrible, things. The question is not one of forgiveness, so much as one of what kind of lives we are willing to allow people we have not yet forgiven.

Persona 5 cannot be said to be the creation of the left, Western or Japanese. It is, after all, a game which contains some completely extraneous homophobic jokes, and which sees no problem with your high-school protagonist dating adult women. But I think that in some ways it is trying to think through the same ideas as the anti-prison left — how to critique the prison while retaining a strong sense of right and wrong.

In this case, the tradition that Persona 5 comes from is one of Japanese pseudo-pacifist pop culture. After World War II, Japan was sworn to a pacifist constitution. This was an American imposition, but not an entirely unwelcome one to a population that had been almost destroyed by a decade of war. Japan still has a strong pacifist movement today, although the pendulum has begun to swing back towards militarism and nationalism.

The problem for writers of action-adventure narratives, like the manga that became popular in the postwar period and later informed Japanese video game development, was that pacifism doesn’t lend itself to cheap thrills. The models that these creators drew on — mostly American comics and animation, as well as imported sports like boxing and wrestling — resolved their tension through spectacular violence. It was difficult to re-construct these narratives to climax with a peaceful dialogue.

The result is a mountain of Japanese pop culture that is hyperviolent but nevertheless attempts to stress the horrors and pointlessness of violence. Perhaps the foremost example is the Gundam franchise, which has lasted for forty years on the formula of good-looking giant robot pilots blowing everything up in the name of peace. This tension is heightened in video games, where violent resolution is a fundamental game mechanic for so many genres.

Persona 5 is a game where violence is a near-constant (seriously, how many of those 95 hours were random encounters?), but it’s always fantastical violence, taking place with toy guns in the cognitive world. The game is uncomfortable with the ultimate outcomes of violence, but nevertheless the nature of the RPG genre requires foes to be vanquished through violent turn-based confrontation.

Hence, we have a virtual “shadow realm” to which inconvenient people can be banished — a bit like a prison, in other words. Persona 5, like prison abolitionists, recognizes that the violence of the prison falls mostly on the vulnerable and largely innocent, like the game’s protagonist, who was arrested for standing up to an abusive politician and revisits the prison every night in its dream. But it is still incapable of dramatizing a reparative alternative.

And then, in the game’s final dungeon, things go a little sideways. (Spoilers for the end of Persona 5 follow, obviously.)

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The final stage of Persona 5 is not one individual’s demented psyche, but that of society. In this subterranean world, we see the general public living happily behind bars. Their shadow selves say that the prison is perfect, as they don’t have to make decisions for themselves. Among them are villains from earlier in the game. These figures have lost their sinful desires, but they’ve been replaced by a meek apathy. Their takeaway from their punishment is not to be good, but rather not to make a fuss.

This chapter imagines the prison not as a weapon used to punish society’s vulnerable but rather a means of controlling the entire population. The prison is a driver of apathy, assuring citizens that society’s evils have already been dealt with. Even the best case scenario of the prison, reform and repentance, is not genuine moral discovery but rather just a bludgeoning into conformity.

If you’re able to get past the final, four-armed boss, you can see what happens when this sphere of apathy is destroyed. The people wake up, are aware of the evil around them, and refuse to let a corrupt leader take office. It’s a quasi-Marxian awakening of class consciousness, but it doesn’t last for long. The protagonist goes back to jail, needing to resolve the charges against him legally.

It is here, at the end of the game, that we begin to glimpse the problematic nature of punishment. In a sense, the Phantom Thieves are revealed to have played the roles of police officers: not reckoning with the true causes of violence and predation, but rather simply putting individual offenders in a numbing kind of stasis. Fortunately, this is a video game, so after a few floor puzzles and a lot of fights later you can just stab the root causes of social trauma in the face.

Perhaps we are meant to read the mass awakening and revolt at the end of the game as just the start of social change. Perhaps this world will go on to create a new society, free of the hierarchy that allowed the game’s villains to exploit those beneath them and cover up their misdeeds. Maybe the upcoming The Royal expansion or maxing out my social links in a new playthrough will give more clarity to all of this. But somehow I doubt it.

Instead, Persona 5 is a summation of our current social mood when it comes to crime and punishment: recognizing the problems our punitive approach has created, but having difficulty imagining an alternative.

A guy hiding underground shouting at the TV.

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