Despite being a JRPG fiend, I only started playing the Persona games late last year. I played Persona 4 Golden at the behest of Kat Bailey for the sake of podcasting, and to the discouraged sighs of the woman I buy my cat food from (she wanted me to play vanilla Persona 4 instead of Persona 4 Golden).
So I’m a late-comer to Persona, but that doesn’t matter much. We’re talking about a series that had nearly a decade of downtime between its two most recent entries. When Persona 5 came out I said, “I’ll just finish it at my own chill pace. Negative perspiration.”
Then I “just tried it out” one day, named my prisoner character “Gowan Styx,” and crossed the finish line 120 hours later. Oops.
I’m kind of relieved to know I’m still capable of being utterly drawn in by a game, even though I make my living by gabbing about games non-stop. Goes to show I’m not jaded or cynical. Whew. As for why Persona 5 leg-dropped me in a way Persona 4 Golden didn’t manage (much as I enjoyed the game)? I don’t heckin’ know. Could be the winning combination of the usual Persona relationship building in addition to dungeons that are satisfying to explore, i.e. they’re not procedurally-generated Windows screensavers.
I think Persona 5’s titular Personas called out to me, too. If you’re not familiar with how the mechanic that named the series works, here’s a ten-cent summary: Every character in your party has a shadow-being that’s manifested from their personality. Spells and skills are executed with the help of this so-called Persona, which usually takes the form of a character from myth or literature.
Using a Persona is like harnessing the power of magicite or materia in the Final Fantasy games, but more visually interesting because Persona is wildly and unapologetically anime. The protagonist of Persona 5 is a “wildcard” and can therefore use any Persona, but his default shadow is a clown-shit crazy depiction of the gentleman thief character Arsene Lupin. Persona 5’s Lupin has tremendous raven wings and a top hat tall enough to whack God in the balls, but neither of those draw your attention like the fact his boots are pulled right up to his crotch. SOMEHOW. Oh, and they’re adorned with eight-inch blade heels.Yesss. Let me open my mouth. Feed me this. Feed me ALL of this. Make Maurice Leblanc stand up at his table setting in Heaven, gaze down at the mortal world and say, “What the fuck? What the fuck?”
The Personas in Persona 4 are largely based on Japanese folklore, and while I liked them, I can’t say I shared a sense of familiarity with many of them. Such is the hazard of being as white as a zombie’s taint, I guess.
But the thing about Persona is that it borrows myths, legends, and demons born of religions all around the world. I suppose the series is ripe for a frank discussion about cultural appropriation, but as the sole Jew allowed to give and take away approval in matters pertaining to my people (it’s, uh, on my birth certificate somewhere), I’m 6000% OK with Persona’s design for Lilith, the demon-woman who haunts many of our superstitions.
In fact, Persona 5’s pantheon of Personas are all based on western myths – barring Yusuke’s Goemon, who may still be familiar to English-speaking audiences weaned on second-hand anime and game references to Japan’s own gentleman thief. Said Personas aren’t simply myths, though: They double as characters from classic literature. The origin of Arsene Lupin was discussed earlier in this article (reminder: A dead Maurice Leblanc screaming in agony), but other Personas in the game include Zorro, Robin Hood, Captain Kidd, and Carmen. And yes, every single one of their designs is beamed straight down from Planet What The Fuck.
I suppose another reason Persona 5 resonates with me is because it caused me to actually sit back and wonder what my Persona would be. Who doesn’t love those shitty quizzes that give you a “totem animal,” or a daemon, or sorts you into a Hogwarts House (“Slytherin” my ass, eat a nose-bag of dicks Pottermore)? They’re dumb, they’re pointless, but they’re ultimately fun. Even if you’re so fragile that eating canned tuna gives you the farts, or sunlight makes your nose run, or walking down to get the mail leaves you winded, you can take small comfort in the internet quiz that assures you your soul is one with the mighty leopard.
So, what would I be like if I hung around with the cast of Persona 5? Well first, I’d probably be given a million side-eyes for being a near-40 chilling with a pack of schoolkids. But what rule-bending literary figure might spring out of my being after eating too much bullshit and experiencing an awakening?
I elect the Black Rabbit of Black Rabbit of Inlé from Watership Down. The Black Rabbit is effectively the species’ grim reaper figure. Or, as the book’s author, Richard Adams, puts it:
“When the snare is set in the gap, the Black Rabbit knows where the peg is driven; and when the weasel dances, the Black Rabbit is not far off. You all know how some rabbits seem just to throw their lives away between two jokes and a theft: but the truth is that their foolishness comes from the Black Rabbit, for it is by his will that they do not smell the dog or see the gun…But the truth is — or so they taught me — that he, too, serves Lord Frith and does no more than his appointed task — to bring about what must be.”
I don’t want to make myself out as some badass, or someone who’s obsessed with death. I’m a small, non-threatening person. I like T-shirts with sugary-cute things on them. But I’m kind of fascinated with the cycle of life and death, which I think Adams describes brilliantly through the voice of the Black Rabbit:
“There is not a day or night but a doe offers her life for her kittens, or some honest captain of Owsla his life for his Chief Rabbit’s. Sometimes it is taken, sometimes it is not. But there is no bargain, for here what is, is what must be.”
I don’t want to die. I don’t want anyone I live to die. But I accept that I will, and that they will. What happens afterwards? Fucked if I know. That’s not important. What’s important is that I won’t be the first to die, and I probably won’t be the last.
Personas are not controlled by their users. Rather, a contract is forged. I suppose that mutual understanding would serve me well if I partnered with the Black Rabbit, since he’s very much a figure that can’t be controlled or bargained with.
Um, I also kind of want to see what the Black Rabbit of Inle would look like with a bunch of crazy anime shit stapled to him.