Otaku Queer: Kanji Tatsumi & Naoto Shirogane

This time for Otaku Queer, I'd like to redirect our attention from anime and instead to games. With Persona 5 finally finished and coming to US stores soon, I figured I should strike while the iron is hot and discuss the franchise a little. Persona is wildly adored in queer circles for its aesthetics and actual attempts to try and discuss queer topics, and Persona 4 really helped me figure out my own sexual orientation. But it's also a series widely criticized in queer circles, and with good reason. Persona 4 is the part of the series that deals most heavily with the subject, so we'll be focusing on two of the franchise's most popular characters, Naoto Shirogane and Kanji Tatsumi.


For those unaware, the Persona series is an easier spin-off of the long running Shin Megami Tensei series, latter which follows people rising up in the apocalypse with demonic armies to either kill god, Lucifer, or both. Unlike SMT, Persona sticks with a high school setting twisted by gods of the week popping up and ruining everything. By Persona 3, this was done with shadows, creatures that represent the true nature of humanity, taken to the most logical extreme in Persona 4 as shadows are fine tuned into the hidden thoughts and feelings of society and individuals. Persona 4's plot deals with a serial killer using a world hidden in the TV to commit their crimes, and a few teens who happen to get the power of Persona (daemons that represent their persona they present to society) trying to track them down. Most party members you gain in the game need to be rescued from the TV world, which shapes based on the people who enter it. The goal is to get people out before the fog rolls in, or else the shadows go nuts and converge into a reflection of the victim's hidden thoughts and feelings, killing them and dumping the body in the real world.

Persona 4 was apparently supposed to be more overtly queer earlier in development, including a supposed subplot revolving around supporting character Youske coming out as gay to you, but outside some subtextual teasing, the queer content is limited to Kanji and Naoto. Kanji is an obnoxious punk who fights bikers, while Naoto is a boy detective working with the police department to track down the killer, occasionally interacting with the main cast before joining the party proper. Both enter the TV world, and both are revealed to be pretty confused about their sexuality and gender identity.

The major running theme of the game is truth, specifically not letting filters cloud you from truth while you use them to find it. The game is very interested in gossip and the modern news industry, along with how we make simplistic impressions of people on first view. Everyone in the game is hiding something that comes out in their social link, or in your party's case, when they meet their shadows. For Kanji and Naoto, it's mainly their feelings of abnormality. Kanji is coded either bi or gay, and the game is NOT subtle about it. His dungeon is a ridiculous bath house filled with large muscular man-like shadows, and his shadow is a flamboyant powerhouse that flaunts its sexuality. Kanji's arc is based around his frustrations with trying to keep up his tough guy persona while he has more feminine interests he learned working in his family's textile store, like sewing and making stuffed animals, and his awakening sexuality ends up creating a powder keg when combined with this. His shadow portrays both aspects of his personality interpreted as a gay stereotype that Kanji had taken in from society around him, it's only the truth in the sense that it's how Kanji honestly thinks gay people are like and thus how he might actually be like. His social link has him mellow out and embrace his hobbies, deciding that he just doesn't know if he's gay, straight or something else yet, but is fine for the moment as he figures it out.

Naoto, on the other hand, deals with gender confusion. They were born in the female sex, which hampers them as a detective. Police departments have inherently sexist culture surrounding them, putting Naoto at a disadvantage, so they chose to present themselves as a guy to avoid any sexual harassment or unfounded judgment of their abilities. Naoto also is constantly frustrated by their age, which they can't hide, and is trying to be what they saw their parents as. Naoto is effectively living out a child's idea of what a detective is, unable to accept their insecurities and weakness because they believe they must always be strong or right. Their TV world is like an evil base from a children's anime, with a shadow self that's presented as a mad scientist with an overly large lab coat that turns into a robot that's made up of different famous kids anime robots. Most telling, their shadow wants to give them a sex change operation. Naoto's social link is less interested with their gender confusion, and more with them stepping back and remembering why they became a detective, helping them deal with their feelings of self loathing, weakness, and lack of a true self, which in turn helps settle some of the gender confusion.

If Persona 4 was just one game, I'd like what Atlus did with the two. Kanji's story really spoke to me when I needed it most, while Naoto is one of the rare examples of a non-cis character being treated as more than a joke or stereotype. The game still has a lot of issues in other areas, though, especially a crossdressing pageant segment and making jokes of those outside the norm if they're not apart of the main cast (there's an ongoing series of fat jokes with one character that never manage to be funny once). Perhaps the biggest issue is that Atlus never really went full in with Kanji and Naoto's queerness, as the company still encourages fan interpretations while staying silent to this day. While there's some justification with Kanji, as he is still figuring things out by the end, Naoto's arc feels unfinished – and then it becomes insulting with the many, many spin-offs.

Persona 4 was an unexpected hit for Atlus, especially for a game on the tail end of the PS2's lifespan, and it got an endless stream of remakes and spin-offs as a result. They sound really fun on paper, but each and every one of them added something that distilled and weakened the original game's narrative in confounding ways. Even the remake, Golden, undercuts a lot with a tacked on epilogue and the incredibly obnoxious Marie. What was done with Kanji and Naoto was easily the most insulting part of all this, alongside gross othering and making jokes of new queer characters.

Kanji got off light, barely getting any significant change to his character – which is the problem. With so many extra works in the canon, the single most important element of his character, his sexuality, was constantly ignored. It's a huge missed opportunity, not even using the ambiguity of his sexuality to comment on anything. He never figures things out for himself, only figuring out that there's nothing wrong with being a more gentle person and saving himself from toxic masculine ideas of violence and posturing. That's fine, but it also ignores the rampaging gay body-builder giant in the room. After you've had an entire dungeon filled with symbolism screaming (sometimes literally) “I'M SEXUALLY ATTRACTED TO GUYS,” you don't get to just dance around the subject you brought up. It's insulting to those enjoying your stories, and to the character you've written. It's especially insulting to those of us who saw Kanji as a genuinely important character in our lives. Not giving him proper closure out of fear of alienating his appeal is just cowardly.

Naoto, on the other hand, had their queerness constantly downplayed or outright erased. Naoto's later appearances all had them wearing feminine clothing, embracing femininity and ignoring their masculine qualities. If this wasn't the case, you could expect gross boob gags for the otaku audience. This was especially horrible in the Persona 4 Arena series, which were mostly handled by Arc Systems Works, the company behind BlazBlue and Guilty Gear, and the last game company that should be in charge of a narrative. Trying to understand BlazBlue is like trying to understand astrophysics, except more pointless because everything that happens in BlazBlue never actually happened in continuity. The group have shown some really questionable portrayals of queer characters before (just look up Bridget), and Naoto was not immune. Their gender dysphoria is ignored in favor of cheesecake fanservice, but said games pretty much ignore EVERYONE'S development in exchange for cookie cutter character interpretations. What they did with the serial killer in the original game, a character portrayed as grossly realistic, misogynist, and self centered is easily one of the worst character turns I have ever seen, and I used to read superhero comic events. Dancing All Night might be the worst offender, though, because while it lets Naoto dress masculine again, it's all in the favor of the male gaze. That game also makes a ton of jokes with offensive transwomen stereotypes, not helping matters.

The Persona 4 sub-verse is one of the most insulting endeavors in gaming history, sacrificing a rare example of queer exploration in the Japanese gaming scene for gross fetishization and pointless, empty fanservice that spat on everything the games before tried to do (Persona 3 got dragged into this mess as well, do NOT get me started on what they did to Junpei). But that original game still exists, without the extra otaku pandering trash, and is well worth remembering for what it did and failed to do. A more in-depth article is needed to really get into the meat of P4 (it's 100 hours, for god's sake), but Kanji and Naoto are a good example of the franchise's biggest strengths and flaws.

Let's hope the ridiculously gay looking Persona 5 doesn't fall in the same pitfalls. Though I heard mumbling of human sex trafficking in that game, so it looks to be continuing the long tradition of the series of being everyone's cult problematic fave. But we'll see. Unless you've already played it, then don't spoil it, please. I avoided Oddworld: Stranger's Wrath spoilers for a decade, I'd like to do the same here while I wait to be able to afford a PS3, thanks.


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