A year ago I was playing Persona 3 (FES edition) for the first time during the summer, and while playing the game, I got the distinct impression that the developers of the game have created a compelling portrait of how teens transition into adults within Japanese culture. It involves creating a social network for yourself, creating a multi-faceted approach to relationships, and oddly enough, beating the crap out of monsters. I’m going to go into some of the details of how Persona 3 demonstrates how the experience of growing up in Japan is in some ways quite different, and in other ways quite similar to the experience of growing up in North America. I’ll try not to get too academic here, but I think it’s important to take some time to acknowledge the effort put into this game.
One of the big things to keep in mind is that since Persona 3 takes place in Japan, that distinctly puts it in the realm of a collectivist culture. That is, it primarily embodies the values of society which place the welfare of the group ahead of the individual as opposed to western cultures which are individualistic and have the opposite perspective. There’s no reason to assume one is better than the other, but for the sake of context, it’s important to make the distinction.
Now, Persona 3 starts off like most RPG’s, you name your character and get thrust into the middle of a world to explore. Of course, there’s some important differences. Naming your character in Persona 3 is a little different than naming your character in most other games. For one thing, the main character has no name (Minato Arisato doesn’t count manga fans). This places you as the main character, your direct avatar and proxy in the game world as opposed taking the role of someone like Cloud or Vyse. The world you inhabit is also a big city in Japan, another connection to the real world. This places you in a very real context. I won’t belabor this much further, but you can see the trend that’s developing. You go to school, make friends, date girls, and basically live the life of an average teenager.
So, Persona 3 is a reflection of the real world, and making a very real statement about growing up. But how do the shadows fit in? Well, aside from being an RPG convention to beat the crap out of monsters to advance the plot, the shadows represent the doubt and fear that must be combated in one’s mind. Specifically, the doubts and fears that place teenagers under specific pressure. These aren’t really real fears, as anyone who has been an angsty teen might be able to tell you, so it’s logical for them to be unreal creatures. This is why they are fought in the midnight hour, a space in between the regular reality. A specifically unreal place where you and your friends face your fears and doubts.
In most RPG’s you tend to play as a youth who must experience personal growth to overcome an obstacle. You get stronger in body in mind, and smite the evil around you. Persona 3 isn’t just representing this conflict though, it’s also representing the difficulty of developing a place in society through a a uniquely collectivist point of view. For example, the social links you create are a reflection of what it means to be an adult in Japan. For the best results, you can’t just forge your own character in someparticular fashion who praises or admonishes as he sees fit, you must take account of the individuals you interact with. The ideal answers in Persona 3 seem to have you act as someone who isn’t a stable personality, rather someone who tries to appease others, such as complimenting the slimy television producer who hangs around the mall. This is very much in line with behaviour in Japanese society. Being able to act differently in variety of situations is a symbol of maturity. What might be construed as being disingenuous in an individualistic culture is actually quite valuable in a collectivist one. In fact, you’re creating different personas (aspects of your personality) for your character, so it’s no surprise that there’s a direct link between powering up your battle personas and forming relationships that use interpersonal personas.
Another aspect of the game that piqued my interest was the use of gun-shaped summoners. Each character places it to their head and simulates suicide before calling upon their personas in battle. But how can this represent personal growth? For one thing, it’s an obvious symbol for teenage suicide, a growing concern inside of Japan. While it’s easy to assume anyone who kills themselves is suffering from some sort of mental disorder, a more apt approach would be to take the perspective that a person’s situation is just as, if not more likely, to be the primary cause of their decision to take their own life. This would obviously be the favoured position of those in a collectivist society, more likely to place blame on social forces rather than personal fault. So Persona 3 is making a statement about growing up in Japan, juxtaposed with simulated suicide, and by doing so it makes a metaphor about the sometimes overwhelming demands of society that might lead someone to commit suicide.
So how does this all fit together? Quite simply, the meaning of the guns becomes inverted. They imbue strength rather than symbolize submission, and this is only achieved in the unreal world of the midnight hour. By using that strength to fight doubts and fears, the main character and his friends are able to serve a higher purpose, one facilitated by forging strong social bonds and becoming a valuable member of society.
Persona 3 is about more than fighting monsters and a supernatural plot. It’s attempting to display the trials of growing up in Japan, and the difficulties of coming to terms with an approaching adulthood. Even with the encroachment of an unreal world, like having a robot join your group of friends, you’re encouraged to soldier on. Regardless of the difficulties you may face, hard work and perseverance will ultimately be rewarded. But a major caveat to that is the game’s ending, where the main character dies. This, in essence, is the greatest sacrifice in a collectivist culture and the ultimate example of embracing its values. The main character literally acts as the gate protecting the world from destruction, a visual symbol of a barrier between a threat and a society. This sacrifice is the ultimate expression of putting your society ahead of yourself. Placing the safety of your friends above your own serves as the perfect ending to a game which has primarily focused on transforming a friendless main character into someone who has a place within a larger group.
To sacrifice yourself for the greater good, to use your power for th benefit of others, and to establish yourself in society. These things aren’t really so different from what is deemed valuable in a western culture. In a very real sense, these values are shared and deemed admirable in a very global way. Persona 3’s statement about growing up in Japan can be applied to anyone going through that shaky transition from youth to adulthood. It’s a very eastern perspective, but with the knowledge of these differences, the similarities might be even more salient. Perhaps, after reading, and maybe even noticing some aspects on your own, it might be easier to realize that we’re not so different after all, and that the difficulties of growing up is an experience we can all share.