Investigating the Themes of Persona 4

Heavy Persona 4 spoilers follow.

Persona 4 is a story about an Ordinary High School student, who, together with his friends, must solve a series of murders that begin occurring upon his arrival in the small town of Inaba. That’s the premise I was sold on when I went through Persona 4 for the first time: a murder mystery JRPG, with some social sim elements. And yes, while that may technically be an accurate summation of the game, upon examination it doesn’t really get at the heart of the experience. Several hours into Persona 4 and you’ll find that not too much attention is given to this big murder mystery. It’s a definite motivation for the characters and its specter looms over most of the game, but Ace Attorney or Danganronpa this is not. You won’t spend most of your many hours with Persona 4 snooping around crime scenes and sorting through pieces of evidence as you interrogate witnesses. In actuality, the mystery and even fantasy elements of Persona 4 are ultimately much less of a focus for the game than the exploration of its cast of characters, their insecurities, and their relationships to each other.

As I’ve played Persona 3, 4, and 5 I’ve noticed each of those three games have a strong, dominating central theme that ties together all of their disparate elements. Persona 3 concerns itself with explorations of death and finding meaning in the face of it. Persona 5 concerns itself with injustice and finding the will and the means to rise against it. Persona 4’s main theme is the pursuit of the truth. This makes sense with its plot being a murder mystery. However, the solving of this mystery is only one of the many ways that this theme of truth manifests itself. For the most part, the truths being pursued in Persona 4 are more personal or interpersonal.

Seeing things clearly is a repeated motif throughout Persona 4, from the often too hazy to parse warnings on the Midnight Channel, to the perpetual, mystical fog that pervades the TV world and only the protagonists are able to see through. On a more metaphorical level, however, this theme also manifests with the frequent rumors that sprout up throughout the story. The majority of the people kidnapped throughout the game are the subjects of rumors that ultimately misrepresent them on some level. Rather than inspecting bodies and spraying down crime scenes with luminol, the only real investigation you actually do in a gameplay sense involves going around town, trying to get to the bottom of who these people really are by gathering anecdotes and talking with the people who knew them best. 

Instead of L.A Noire-ing your way through Inaba, you go through dungeons that represent the characters’ personalities. Persona 3 through 5 have a fairly episodic monster of the week (or in this case month) structure that sees you fighting powerful shadows every month in 3 and corrupt people in power in 5. In 4, you fight bosses that represent insecurities that the characters have, such as Yukiko’s feelings of imprisonment or Kanji’s struggle with his sexuality and masculinity. The dungeons end when the characters accept the aspects of themselves that they are insecure about. From there, they join your personal circle of friends and you assist them as they mature and continue to grapple with their issues.

This heavy focus on characters and their internal lives is indicative of the fact that, at its core, Persona 4 is less a murder mystery and more a slice of life anime. A teen drama. A coming of age story. It will gladly spend time following the characters doing something that isn’t at all important to the plot, like a trip to the beach, a visit to a ski-resort, or an excursion to the supermarket with your friends and surrogate sister, even if it comes at the expense of more tangible and consistent progress on the ongoing investigation plot. This focus on high school hijinx and character relationships applies to 3 and 5 as well, but I think 4 goes further than even those two on showcasing intimate moments with the cast, and centers large amounts of narrative and gameplay time on making you directly interact with or at least find out more about them.

Seeing as it’s largely a coming of age story, seeing the characters grow is a large part of the appeal. In the case of Persona 4, growth usually comes with achieving clarity of some sort. As I’ve stated, a lot of the clarity that characters achieve is of a personal, or at least interpersonal variety. Yukiko, for example, begins to see her surroundings and her family less as a prison and more as a gift and Kanji becomes more comfortable with not necessarily conforming to stereotypical ideas of masculinity. But Persona 4 also alludes to a more existential truth. Understanding it brings us to the character at the center of Persona 4’s mystery: Adachi.

When the investigation team finally deduces that Adachi is the killer, they’re confused about why he would do such a thing. When they finally corner him, his explanation is simple. Because he could. Once he saw it was interesting, he kept on doing it. It’s an answer that doesn’t answer much of anything, but it makes a lot of sense when you consider Adachi’s world view.

Adachi mentions this once or twice in the base game and it’s reiterated in Golden when you go through his social link: in his youth, he focused exclusively on studying. He went to a good school and did all he could to get good grades. He mentions it’s the only thing his parents really cared about. You get the sense that Adachi has had a lonely life where he didn’t have many friends and he and his parents didn’t have a particularly warm relationship with each other. Prior to coming to Inaba he took his education and career pretty seriously because that’s the only way he could really get approval. And even though the cause is never fully revealed, what we do know is that, according to him, all he made was one mistake and a lifetime worth of effort went to nothing. He got relegated to the boring, nothing town of Inaba, where he spends his days getting yelled at by his superiors, finding cats, and attending to lonely old ladies. This causes Adachi to discover what he believes is a fundamental truth: nothing matters. Some people are born with luck and talent and some aren’t and nothing you do will ultimately change that. There is no reason to care about anything at all.

The thing about what Adachi says, is that while the game obviously disagrees with his actions and worldview, it does acknowledge that there’s a kernel of truth to what he says. Life is often discouragingly random and unfair. After all, your own circumstances are not that much different from Adachi’s, winding up in Inaba due to things beyond your control. But more than the main character, who is an obvious foil to Adachi, Persona 4 also illustrates Adachi’s point with the character of Yosuke.

Just like Adachi and just like the main character, Yosuke is also a city kid who wound up trapped in Inaba due to bad luck. Like Adachi, he’s also very bumbling, and deep down has a burning resentment of his situation and of Inaba. He has to take on a lot of responsibility, including handling unreasonable employees at Junes. He has a crush on someone who doesn’t return his feelings and who is later found dead. Progressing through his social link highlights his isolation and the fact that people resent him and his family for managing a large store which is negatively affecting local businesses. All in all, Yosuke has all the same ingredients to end up similar to Adachi. So what makes him different? His relationships with other people.

Adachi is someone who is resistant to the idea of forming close relationships with other people. During his social link, he is doted on by an old lady who becomes attached to him because he reminds her of her own son. While there may be hints that Adachi enjoys the attention somewhat, it’s on an unconscious level if it’s there at all. Outwardly, he resents it. Even with people like the main character and his family, who Adachi does care for to some degree, he keeps a level of distance. He seems genuinely unsure how to react when the main character offers to have dinner with him.

Yosuke is different. Even before meeting the protagonist and becoming one of the founders of the investigation team, Yosuke still has relationships with the people around him, most notably with Saki Konishi. Finding the reasons for and avenging her death are two of his primary motivations. Once Yosuke becomes friends with the main character, he begins to see Inaba and himself in a different light. He self-reflects and realizes how much he’s motivated by the desire to be special. There’s even a notable moment at the end of his social link where he reveals that he used to resent the main character for the ease at which he adjusted to his life in Inaba and became leader of the investigation team. It would’ve been very easy for Yosuke to let that affect his relationship with the main character, but he doesn’t. Yosuke never takes it out on you. He recognizes those emotions for what they are and ultimately choses to continue trying his best, in a surprising act of maturity.

The idea of bonds with other people providing strength is not new to Persona, anime, or media at large. It’s one of the core messages at the heart of each Persona game, yet each Persona game provides a slightly different take on that concept. In Persona 4, the relationships people share are the ultimate answer to the nihilistic philosophy adopted by Adachi. The idea of succumbing to all of your darkest impulses, killing people, and attempting to convert humanity into unthinking, unfeeling husks is the type of mindset that only someone closed off from humanity could have. Because Adachi never took the time to forge a close relationship with someone else, he isn’t able to see the inherent value in life. He doesn’t have the ability to connect, have fun, and struggle with other people. If he had gotten close with someone, it may have given him the impulse to self-reflect, as Yosuke did, and contextualize his resentment in a more healthy way.

Persona 4 is part murder mystery, but mostly, it’s a study into the psychologies of various characters. As you get close to all the various characters in the game and see their stories, two different facts begin to reveal themselves. Firstly, facing the truth, either about yourself, other people, or the world, is often difficult. But second, you’ll see that it’s ultimately worth it, if it enables you to get closer to others and live a happier life. Persona 4’s a (mostly) rosy picture of small town life and teenage maturation. However, it’s one that holds a message that’s applicable to anybody, at any stage of life.

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