Persona, as a series, has always been about a group of high schoolers rising up to defeat evils beyond their understanding, defying authorities of all sorts in order to do what they know is right. The main cast faces their inner demons, all the distorted emotions that dwell within them and take control to find their inner power. At their core, the games are about how friendship, confidence, and spirit can save the world. Persona 5 embraces punk culture and weaves it into the narrative and characters.
Even prior games had the spirit of punk. Persona 4 has that sort of small town pop-punk feel, homely and personal, with Yosuke going as far as the “I hate this town” side of things. The games are filled with the spirits of the youth, with Yukiko and Chie conquering the prejudice against them and choosing to become their own person, while Rise escapes the idea of empty fame for a more meaningful existence. There are lots of ways to look at it but Persona 4 has that energy and personal emotion that pop-punk embodies.
The most recent entry into the series, Persona 5, takes this trend and turns the punk influence up to 11. Persona 4 embodies the pop-punk reminiscent emotions and the group of friends fighting to understand themselves and each other while helping each other overcome their innermost turmoils, but Persona 5 takes on a different approach. The game is brought to a world where it’s frighteningly blatant that the 1% control the systems of authority. The cityscape is a perfect backdrop to a landscape of corruption and dismissal, and perhaps one that is all too relevant in the modern day. There’s the idea of rebellion against the powers that unfairly control, the punk spirit of resistance, and the end goal of reforming society.
The plot revolves around the spirit of the young, where there’s constant talk of oppression and tyranny from adults. There’s widespread corruption in systems of authority, from the school board and teachers to politicians and celebrity figures. The Phantom Thieves offer their abilities to change the hearts of these figures, choosing to take wider issues into their own hands in order to actually achieve change, aiming to bring courage to the masses. The focus in this Persona isn’t on building their own courage and determination, but instead on bringing those traits out in the general public, creating an uprising of sorts against corruption. This focus contrasts greatly with other games within the genre. Instead of a constantly looming evil force that the group is growing in order to defeat, or a clear and concise end goal of saving the world, Persona 5 sees the cast actively searching for ways to spread their influence, to rally the people, and to save all of those that they can from the serious issues that surround us every day.
Punk is often blunt, efficient, and characterized by quick and high tempo tracks, and the nature of the palace heists can be seen to reflect this. The group finds their target, then finds the information they need to begin their infiltration, and here is where the track begins. Despite their stealthy approach toward the treasure, inevitably the final confrontation is short, fast, and loud. The Phantom Thieves risk everything they have in order to incite change, and to ‘bring courage to the people’ as Ann Takamaki describes it, just as bands like Anti-Flag, Against Me! and Propagandhi dedicate their lives and their talents to sending their message out, rallying people together, and giving a voice to those that need one.
There’s a particular focus on inclusion, the misfits band together despite their incredible differences in personality and class to attain a common goal, and find out they really aren’t so different deep down. There’s the pretty part-foreigner model Ann Takamaki, who spends almost the entire game becoming best friends with the student with a criminal record in the MC, and the rebellious Ryuji Sakamoto who is widely seen as a constant failure. And, whilst the early days of punk were arguably rather exclusive, there’s been a conscious effort to make everyone feel at home in the culture, a place to turn to when there’s nowhere else that will take you. The Phantom Thieves make every effort to fight against the labels put on them, all whilst searching for the place where they want themselves to head in life.
The game forms a modern infusion of the Western punk ideals that Japan takes great influence from in their own punk cultures, and the sense of honor and concerning oneself with personal problems, whilst leaving others to do the same. The group has inner struggles at times with whether or not their actions are right, whether their supernatural strong-arming is in fact the best method of change, and the constant talk of ‘brainwashing’ that also came from those opposed to punk’s uprising, does little to quell their doubts.
This unique mix of ideals sets a contrast against the general depiction of justice in the West, rather than determination, followed by a moment of indecision and contemplation before the righteous path is chosen, Persona 5 has a constant sense of self-doubt. The group understands what they need to do, and that they’re the only ones that can bring courage to the people, but also fully understand that their methods may have serious backlash in other areas, and that the greater masses may be affected by the removal of negative forces that may still be foundations of society. Ultimately their indecision does not lead to inaction. They make sure they’re all comfortable in what they’re doing before bringing their righteous message of courage to the masses.
Even the dialogue positions itself firmly in the anti-establishment punk culture, with Igor describing the group as such: “They have all been unfairly labeled by society and are standing up against such fates.” You could use that sentence to describe practically all of punk, from the bands, to those embodying the culture in other ways. Makoto Niijima, student council president turned Phantom Thief of Hearts, also gets into the memorable quotes with; “Evil adults are nothing more than garbage, and I am no better…” Maybe very loosely reminiscent of a certain “No Good” from Knuckle Puck.
In the earlier days of punk, and even today, there are adults who worry about the influence of such strongly opinionated and political movements as punk on the youth, and on the general populace in more wide instances. Persona 5 captures this essence excellently in how the media and the corrupt adults see, react to, and retaliate against the Phantom Thieves. They are referred to as ‘morally corrupt’ and as seeing to their own selfish ideals rather than the greater need of the people.
There’s a few broader examples possible through this line of thinking, such as the great importance in the meaning and feeling of art (especially in Madarame’s palace and Yusuke’s S-Link), to the fairly obvious such as the alternate fashion typical of punk culture: skull motifs and studded chokers amidst a mixture of purples and blacks. There’s also quite directly ‘Punk-Rock Woman’ as the descriptor for the owner of the medical clinic in Yongen-Jaya before you get to know her. The game oozes style, and that style mixes different influences from anime to comic books, however there is an overarching presence of punk within it. There’s the color scheme of red and black, from the Dead Kennedys to Black Flag to the Misfits. Their logo becomes a sign of rebellion, a distinct icon of a movement, just as in punk bands. Whether you see the Misfits skull, or Bad Religion’s crossbuster, or the “TAKE YOUR HEART” logo found on the Phantom Thieves’ calling cards, they represent change and a social movement in their own way.
Persona 5 is a fantastic look into Japanese life, a slice of the nation offered to be explored. It’s an incredibly well realized world where real connections are made between characters, and it’s a layered JRPG with an insane amount of things to do in the world. From fighting, to exploring, to going to the batting cages, to seeing a movie with a friend. The game is all this, and so much more, perhaps appropriately being hailed so early as “the most important JRPG since Final Fantasy VII.” Looking at the game through a different lens, such as through the view of punk culture, can reveal an impressive and intricately woven experience.