Persona 5’s postured values of fighting for those suffering injustice is just a platitude the game seldom practices. Anyone who’s played the game and its spin-offs knows that.
Despite fighting a known sexual harasser and abuser in the RPG’s first dungeon, that abuser’s victim is objectified throughout by the same men who helped save her. While claiming to be about fighting to escape the shackles of societal expectations, Persona 5 uses gay panic for humor’s sake and then doubles down on it again later in the game.
But one thing Persona 5 also uses for comic relief is physical comedy, and that is almost exclusively directed at Ryuji Sakamoto, an established victim of physical abuse.
Much of Ryuji’s story in Persona 5 is tied to a troubled home life that extends into delinquent behavior in his school life. His absentee father was abusive, so he looked to become a track star in school to make his mother proud and to excel for her sake. However, the track coach Suguru Kamoshida ruined that for Ryuji through physical abuse that left him with a broken leg. The incident resulted in the disbanding of the track team, but the impact was more far reaching for Ryuji. After everything he’d been through, his hopes of being an athlete were shattered and his sense of place with his teammates was taken from him.
By the time that we meet Ryuji in Persona 5 proper, he’s lost a lot, and it’s because people who were in positions of power above him took it from him. They exerted this power through physical means, and it robbed Ryuji of both his childhood and his future.
In theory, or at least as much as Persona 5 would like you to believe, this is all undone by the Phantom Thieves defeating Kamoshida’s Shadow, which makes him confess to his crimes in the real world. The track team gets back together, and Ryuji is able to find a new home within the Phantom Thieves. But trauma and the longstanding effects it has on a person are not as neatly undone and discarded as Persona 5 would like you to believe, but unraveling that would require this game and its spin-offs to drop one of its running gags, which is to inflict harm on Ryuji for comedic effect.
Between Persona 5, its animated adaptation, and spin-offs like Persona 5: Dancing in Starlight, Ryuji is the Phantom Thieves’ punching bag. Late in the original game when Ryuji is feared dead after heroically saving the rest of the group, the Phantom Thieves decided to express their relief by beating him up and then promptly making dinner plans. There’s a point in Ryuji’s Confidant conversations where he, in desperation to be forgiven for what happened with the track team, says his old teammates can beat him up if they want. Which, to Ryuji’s surprise, they do without hesitation. Ren (or Joker as you might know him) the protagonist, just watches it happen. It almost always happens under the guise of comedy, but when this treatment is exclusively directed to the character who is a known victim of physical abuse, it becomes another example of Persona 5’s making light of the same injustices it claims to be fighting for.
There are two Persona 5 projects in the works right now, and both of them are not only refusing to cut this shit out, but are even using it in promotional art and trailers.
Persona 5: Royal, the enhanced edition of the game coming out in Japan next week, already appears to have a target on Ryuji’s back. This is seen in smaller details, like how in the snowball fight scene in the opening cinematic he’s the only one who gets visibly hurt, while everyone else gets through the scene scot-free. But it also is the basis of new interactions like Ryuji and Makoto’s tag team attack, where she gives him a jab to the ribs for seemingly no reason.
— Persona Central (@Persona_Central) August 2, 2019
With Persona 5 Scramble: The Phantom Strikers, a musou style game coming to PlayStation 4 and Switch next year, you don’t even have to play the game to see how little respect it offers to Ryuji, because it’s right on the box art plain as day. While the official art gives every other Phantom Thief their due, each with a cool action pose that fits the composition of the cover, Ryuji is getting socked in the face by a shadow. For…comedic effect? I assume that’s the intention here. But all I see is a piece of art being intentionally thrown off balance at the expense of one character’s dignity.
That’s assuming Ryuji has any dignity left in the eyes of Atlus, who stopped respecting the gravity of what he’d been through the moment his abuser was behind bars. But that’s becoming standard fair for Persona now. Not just for Ryuji, but for many of its characters it once held to a high regard just to undermine it all for the sake of a joke.
For all of Persona’s holding up its own characters as these precious, iconic things, it never seems to be willing to keep its end of that deal long enough to give them the thoughtful stories they deserved. Not one that lasts a whole game, at least. But if it can squeeze a canned laugh out a few times in each piece of media it throws out, it’s more than willing to let your friends beat you up, or at least capture when an enemy’s right hook lands on your jaw then plaster it on the cover of its next big game.