Persona 5 takes pains to remind you of two things every ten seconds: that you, as protagonist Joker, were expelled, and that you are a “prisoner of your own fate.” There’s dramatic irony imbued in the latter, in that most people in the game fail to realize that Joker is the leader of Japan’s most ambitious vigilante troupe. However, his role as a criminal — and as subsequent prisoner — is at the core of what makes Persona 5’s entire narrative work.
Early in the game, when Joker first occasions the illustrious Velvet Room, he meets Igor, the oddball who enables him to take on various personas (basically types of Pokemon except they’re deities and piles of slime instead of chunky electric thundermice). The Velvet Room reflects the heart of the person to whom Igor permits access, and Joker’s reflection takes on the form of a prison. Although Igor doesn’t know it yet — and nor does Joker — this already lines up with what differentiates our masqueraded protagonist from every other character in the game.
There are two prisons in Persona 5: Joker’s in the Velvet Room, and the prison ensnaring society’s collective unconscious in the darkest recesses of Mementos. Persona 5’s narrative can’t function without the necessary tension between the two, and Joker’s status as a criminal is ostensibly insignificant when compared to his identity as a hero — ostensibly, but not accurately. Let’s talk about Mementos.
In Prison Notebooks, Marxist critic Antonio Gramsci coined the term “hegemony,” which he defined as “the spontaneous consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group.” Basically, people are naturally inclined towards following the leader, without necessarily recognizing that that’s what they’re doing. In terms of Persona 5, this is why innocent bystanders flock to corrupt political powerhouses like Shido, the baddie who gets you arrested and expelled in the first place. It’s also why nefarious schemers on a more divine scale like Igor, or (spoilers) Yaldabaoth (the Old Testament’s version of Evil God) are able to exert absolute control over society’s most ordinary, whose hearts are eternally confined to live and die in the unseen but deeply felt Mementos prisons.
So what happens when people’s unconscious desires are imprisoned behind iron bars built deep within a supernatural and mostly inaccessible world, all the while continuing to go about their ordinary lives none the wiser?
To quote Karl Marx, “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their social being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.” This explains the perpetual nature of twinned existence in Persona 5, of mundane worker and unaware prisoner. But the effect is best described by a thinker from George Orwell’s fiction: Winston Smith.
“Until they become conscious they will never rebel,” Smith writes in his diary in 1984. “And until after they have rebelled they cannot become conscious.”
Let’s talk about the actual layout of Mementos’ prison cells. Percy Shelley’s sonnet “To the Republic of Benevento” discusses the authoritarian impulse to “shepherd those herds whom Tyranny makes tame.” Like sheep in pens across a wider farm, each cell in Mementos contains several inmates while being intentionally detached from the rest. The resulting structure serves as the perfect design for perceived powerlessness. Eventually, these embodiments of trapped subconsciousness become entirely rejected by those to whom they are attached — and thus Persona 5’s imprisoned collective unconscious is born.
Joker’s dual identity as both hero and criminal isn’t anything new. In many ways he’s a traditional anti-hero, and he’s far more invested in the latter half of that compound term than the former. He’s got nothing on Mewtwo.
The trajectory of Joker’s specific grade of anti-hero is actually pretty easy to track, too. As the Victorian period was usurped by the wonderful miscreants of 20th century literature, the refined and innocuous detective narratives of Sherlock Holmes and C. Auguste Dupin were left behind. People didn’t want armchair detectives anymore: they wanted complicated people, who were morally grey and easier to relate to.
The results were interesting. Protagonists in crime fiction were now more neatly connected to the baddies of old than the supposed heroes. For the first time in the history of the genre, they emphatically became the antagonist of the counter-narrative, understood by focalizing the point-of-view of the unvoiced Bad Guy.
It’s no surprise that the incompetent police force in Persona 5 actively inhibits the progress of the vigilante Phantom Thieves, who are the only people willing and able to save society. The trajectory of events in Persona 5 is carefully designed, to the extent that we can assume it could easily be reversed into serving as the counterfactual narrative of a more conventional detective story. This isn’t detective fiction. It’s crime fiction.
Noir is important here, too (not Haru, though, the actual noir genre). While we largely associate crime narratives with authors like Dashiel Hammett, crime fiction designed with noir in mind is more introspective — and not just in terms of stream-of-consciousness waxing poetic. The psyche is spatially present in noir, usually through the linguistic mapping of evocative, internalized mental landscapes, and in Persona 5 it’s actively given a physical representation: The Velvet Room.
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The Game of Life and Death
The French academic Michel Foucault had a particular interest in crime fiction, most notably contributing Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. In this text he wrote that in crime fiction, “There is a whole aesthetic rewriting of crime, which is also the appropriation of criminality in acceptable forms.” This forms one part of the cohesive whole that ultimately empowers Joker.
Joker’s suitability as the protagonist in this story can be attributed in large part to Foucauldian thought. For example, Foucault wrote, “there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.” It’s almost as if his exclusive awareness of the Metaverse affords him a degree of power inaccessible to those who are unknowingly imprisoned in Mementos!
Another of Foucault’s works, Fearless Speech, goes further, explaining the concept of parrhesia: “Parrhesia, then, is linked to courage in the face of danger: it demands the courage to speak the truth in spite of some danger. And in its extreme form, telling the truth takes place in the ‘game’ of life or death.”
Truth is a vague term, but a useful tool in understanding storytelling. What is Joker’s truth in Persona 5? At the beginning of the game, he saves a woman from Shido and is berated by the police due to false testimony — and yet he owns that he did the right thing throughout. After being gifted the ability to change hearts, he targets the corrupt in order to make his country safer for its defenseless citizens under hegemony. And after realizing Igor’s true identity as the Evil God of the Old Testament, he absorbs Hell itself in order to destroy Heaven. Is one of these his truth? Or are all of them? (It’s all of them)
In fact, Joker’s trump card is his singular ability to recognize his imprisonment, and to speak simultaneously in both the Metaverse and the real world. This unique case is so inherently powerful that it serves as the basis for Persona 5’s entire Thanatos Gambit — a plot device where a character manipulates the terms of their own death — which is arguably the game’s best narrative section. But back to parrhesia: Joker can act in the real world and in Mementos, and occupies the unique centre of a Venn diagram encompassing parallel realities.
Words and Worlds
The psychoanalytic scholar Jacques Lacan once wrote that “there is no such thing as a pre-discursive reality. Every reality is founded and defined by a discourse.” Or, more simply, realities exist as a result of language. The academic movement this is derived from, at its most base level, ponders things like why we recognize a chair as… well, a chair (because that is the word with which we associate an object upon which we sit as an individual, as opposed to a bench intended for multiple people, or a table at which we sit at, or a tree which is a tree and not a chair). It’s complex but interesting, and it helps to understand why Joker’s influence actually works.
There is no linguistic disparity separating the Metaverse from the real world — at least in relation to the Phantom Thieves. Their perceptive abilities are the same in both worlds, and they are able to fully retain what happens in each case. If anything, their power in the Metaverse is increased, affording them even more agency in the area within which they already hold, in Foucauldian terms, the upper end of a power relation.
So what happens when, ultimately, they use their hidden language, their secret knowledge, to educate the herds whom Tyranny once made tame? At first they would be deemed insane — how could a world possibly exist without our knowledge? I would surely know if my heart was imprisoned! Their results stand to their claims, though — and almost all of a sudden, during the ultimate showdown with Yaldabaoth, it becomes alarmingly clear that it is possible for a society to band together, to shake their unseen but vaguely felt shackles to the ground, and move forward in unconscious but unstoppable unison.
“In moments of supreme crisis the whole nation can suddenly draw together and act upon a species of instinct,” George Orwell wrote in “The Lion and the Unicorn.”
And thus the message is unanimously received, despite being, at the same time, unanimously unrecognized (at least consciously). All it takes is one hero with a clear view — must be hard to see through those tinted shades, though.
Persona 5 tells the story of a teenager who thinks he could potentially end up in juvie if he ditches school one too many times. But, actually, it also tells the story of a roguish thief imprisoned by a deific monstrosity seeking to induce the apocalypse. It’s the fact that Joker is the protagonist of both strands, without ever losing sight of either, that allows him to become both prisoner and hero, and two assimilate both of those identities into one.
Foucault had something to say about this too.
“It is the affirmation that greatness, too, has a right to crime.”