By Briana Lawrence
I’ve been following the Shin Megami Tensei universe since the early 2000s, back when video rental stores and curious college roommates were how I got ahold of video games.
Shin Megami Tensei III: Nocturne was my first dip in the pool, and I, admittedly, was only interested because Dante from the Devil May Cry series makes a guest appearance. Little did I know that this unique apocalyptic world would lead me toward one of my all-time favorite franchises: Persona.
The characters. The battle system. The art and, phew, the soundtrack! All of that combined with themes of not suppressing your emotions and fully accepting yourself make for a wonderful series of video games, manga and, of course, anime!
I am thou, thou art I
A Persona is that voice that tickles the back of your mind, the one you’ve been pushing aside because you’re trying to deny that it’s there. The rage. The insecurity. The feelings you try to wholeheartedly deny.
Instead of working through them, we’re often encouraged to ignore them, or worse, maybe we’ve addressed them but have been belittled or told that speaking out makes the issue worse. A Persona embodies the “do not reveal” parts of ourselves and the satisfying results of finally letting it all out.
You tear off the mask you hide behind, the blood seeping into your skin as you stand face-to-face with your true self. I’m not exaggerating. This is literally what happens in PERSONA5 the Animation. Masks form around each character’s eyes and they rip them off via lots of screaming because…the masks are superglued to their faces? Not really, but they’re on there real tight, and pulling them off is painful, yet necessary.
Did I mention this franchise loves its symbolism?
When one of our heroes reaches their breaking point, their Persona calls out to them. If they fully accept them (more on that later) a bond is made between the two. Afterward, the Persona can be used against the source of their master’s torment. That’s why the Personas in PERSONA5 are manifestations of “the spirit of rebellion.”
In the case of one of PERSONA5‘s main characters, Ann Takamaki, she’s able to wield the fiery Carmen after her predatory, skeezy, a-hole teacher, Kamoshida, gaslights her one too many times.
Reach out to the truth
It’s important to note that the principal of the school Ann and friends attend clearly knows that this dude is as rotten as warm, chunky milk, but since Kamoshida’s an Olympic champion, his toxic behavior gets overlooked.
Ann awakening Carmen isn’t just a product of rage, it’s a product of Ann not having any other choice and taking matters into her own hands. This is a major theme of the series. The Phantom Thieves (the vigilante supergroup of this series, if you will) are a product of corrupt adults and the result of their victims’ voices going unheard.
In a way, these kids “stealing their hearts” is a form of protest. It’s not just about defeating the scummy teacher, it’s about making him change so he apologizes for his actions and never does it again so no one else has to suffer. If no one is gonna step up and take action, a bunch of stylish high schoolers with magical monsters will.
But that can only be achieved by accepting their Persona, with acceptance being another common theme in the entire franchise.
PERSONA5 the Animation deals with being pushed into a corner, accepting your feelings, and getting that much needed release. Persona4 The Golden ANIMATION does something similar…except it also shows what happens when you don’t accept your feelings.
While there is a main antagonist of the series, the main adversaries are shadow versions of people who refuse to come to terms with their feelings. These feelings are revealed to anyone who stays up late enough to tune into the “Midnight Channel,” but instead of coming to terms with them, each person who appears on the channel continues to deny them. This leads to their Shadow Selves lashing out and transforming into a twisted version of who they really are.
In the Persona4 The Golden ANIMATION adaptation, this is more centered on newcomer, Marie, but the entire team has been through the “Shadow Self” ringer. Through acceptance (and giant flashy battles) comes their Personas. Insert Thou art I…and I am thou speech here.
The friends we make along the way
With people being found dead on power lines (Persona4 The Golden ANIMATION) and kids being wrongfully put on probation for stopping a sexual assault (PERSONA5 the Animation), it might be surprising to learn that Personas are powered up by friendship.
With all the harshness that surrounds these characters, you might expect these kids to get stronger through hours of dungeon crawling. Technically, at least in the video games, that’s part of it. The other part? Establishing bonds with the people around you. As each relationship you forge grows stronger, your Persona levels up, gains new abilities and a sleek new form.
That’s because the main theme of these games (and the anime series) is about facing yourself and being yourself. Of course, that will lead you naturally to hanging out with friends that have either been through the same thing or encourage you to be that better person. The gameplay mechanic comes full circle.
And these kids go through a hell of a lot…after all, Kamoshida is the FIRST adversary the Phantom Thieves face. Meeting a girl who’s dealing with a sexual predator and child abuser during your first week of school is…a lot, especially when you’re on probation for *checks notes* trying to protect a woman from a drunk dude who can’t take no for an answer.
It makes sense for your inner self to grow stronger via creating your own support network. In a way, this group you cultivate is the only thing that makes sense in the world. With the help of the people you value most, you can get through each of life’s monster-filled palaces.
And the world? Will never see it coming.