Persona 5 Takes Its Historical Inspirations Literally

As an adult, playing video games is a reward for 40 hour work weeks and paying bills on time. Persona 5 is the game I’ve been saving up all my free time for. Who wouldn’t want to go back to high school and fight manifestations of broken psyches without having to also do homework? Little did I know, however, just what lessons Persona 5 had in store for me. And no, I’m not talking about the stat-boosting multiple choice questions. As I spent more time with the game, I couldn’t shake the feeling that Persona 5 was trying to give me a history lesson.

The first time I saw Ryuji summon his Persona Captain Kidd, I became suspicious. When I saw Morgana summon Zorro, I really started scratching my head. Was Atlus trying to tell me something? Ryuji’s Persona could have been any pirate, so why the Kidd? A few Google searches later and I was down a rabbit hole of historical deep cuts. The names and designs of these Personas were not just references to the developer’s favorite childhood stories. They are deeply connected to the lives and stories of Persona 5’s cast of characters. They also all tie neatly into Persona 5’s overarching themes of rebellion and defying expectations.

A warning, though: mild spoilers ahoy.

Ryuji Sakamoto: "Captain Kidd”

Ryuji Sakamoto is the first person to befriend the protagonist in Persona 5. Ryuji is no stranger to being an outcast. Early in the game, the protagonist learns that Ryuji was once a star track athlete before suffering a debilitating injury. Torturous training regiments at the hands of their coach Kamoshida lead Ryuji to take a stand. Though his fellow teammates endure the same abuses, they are afraid to speak out against their coach. Branded a “traitor” for costing their shot at nationals, Ryuji leaves the track life behind, unable to prove Kamoshida’s wrongdoing.

This makes the choice of pirate Captain Kidd as Ryuji’s Persona all the more fitting. Rebellion and thievery are the lifeblood of Persona 5, and a pirate’s life is no stranger to either. However, the history of Captain Kidd in particular seems to resonate with Ryuji’s mutiny at the hands of his teammates. Before he was hung for piracy in 1701, Captain William Kidd was a privateer; a sort of maritime mercenary.

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Hired by the newly appointed Governor of New York, Kidd set sail for the Indian Ocean to defend English ships from enemy privateers in the Red Sea. After several years with little success, Kidd and his crew aboard the Adventure Galley set their sights on the Quedagh Merchant, an Indian ship carrying gold, sugar and guns—Gold, Sugar and Guns is the name of my next metal album. While laws at the time permitted privateers to commandeer ships and their valuables as payment, it was later learned that the Quedagh Merchant was helmed by a British captain. Oops.

Charged with piracy, Captain Kidd eventually turned himself in, hoping his connections in New York would aid in his defense. Rather than face the embarrassment with England, Captain Kidd was offered as a scapegoat and convicted on all counts. Many speak of Captain Kidd and the vast treasure he left behind. Others tell the story of a man wrongfully accused by his peers in order to save face. Ryuji’s fate at the hands of his teammates may not have been as a dire, but the parallels are obvious.

Ann Takamaki: ”Carmen”

First impressions of fellow classmate Ann Takamaki paint her in a sketchy light. Rumors of her involvement with a male teacher are exacerbated by the protagonist’s own account as he watches her hitch a ride with said teacher. However, this is a game about misunderstood teens fighting against the systems that misunderstand them, and as such the protagonist quickly learns that Ann is just a girl trying to do the right thing by her friend. When Takamaki’s Persona finally awakens, it is a vivid representation of emboldened sexuality and the power it wields over men. It is also wearing a flamenco dress.

The name “Carmen” sounds seductive and exotic, no doubt the result of its literary origins. A French novella adapted into an opera (where it gained its popularity), the story of Carmen is one of a Gypsy woman who refuses to be bound to anyone. She is fiery; at one point she cuts a woman’s face with a knife during a quarrel. The men around her are initially disgusted by her, only to be drawn to her further – much like how the boys in Ann’s class comment on her harlotry in disgust, only to follow up with how much they would like to date her. Carmen uses seduction to her advantage. So too does Ann, using coach Kamoshida’s attraction to her as a means to boost her friend’s position on the team.

The plight of Carmen and of Ann Takamaki is one of freedom in a man’s world. Both are subjected to expectations based on their foreign and exotic nature (Ann is a quarter American). They cannot help that men are drawn to them. They also refuse to be bound by them; Ann’s Persona awakening is the result of standing up to Coach Kamoshida’s lustful desires. The Persona Carmen wears its influences on its sleeve. Or around its finger.

Morgana: ”Zorro”

More than just a mascot (or is it mascat?), Morgana serves as the protagonist's introduction to the Palaces that inhabit people's hearts in Persona 5. Morgana is knowledgeable in all things Persona and what it means to steal someone's "heart." While felines are inherently known for their enigmatic personalities and sneaky sensibilities, Morgana's Persona takes inspiration from the world of pulp fiction.

Zorro may have been a stain on Antonio Bandera's acting career, but the character was immensely popular in the beginning of the 20th century. Be it paperback, radio or film this Robin Hood of the Southwest has captivated the hearts of many (something Persona 5 interprets literally). A champion of justice and a defender of the common people – as well as a fondness for black masks – the Persona Zorro is another perfect embodiment of the game’s overall theme of fighting against a corrupt system.

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One interesting thing of note: Morgana, much like Zorro, possesses an identity that is initially hidden from the audience. In the world of pulp fiction, it is known that Zorro is actually the nobleman Don Diego de la Vega. Given the game’s tendency to lean hard on its inspirations, one must wonder if this serves as a clue to Morgana’s true identity. Tune in next week to find out!

Protagonist: ”Arsene”

The protagonist, the hero of Persona 5, the choose-your-own-name leader of the Phantom Thieves. After a run-in with the law, he is sent to Tokyo to finish school. Like many of the characters in Persona 5, the protagonist is falsely judged by those in charge as a menace. With his criminal record already on the lips of every student at Shujin Academy, the protagonist decides to embrace this new life he has been given, and makes a deal with the Persona Arsene.

Arsene Lupin, gentleman thief, is another product of early 20th century pulp fiction. A master of disguise, Lupin uses his guile and charm to elude the authorities whilst in pursuit of wealth and fortune. He is the French equivalent of Sherlock Holmes with sticky fingers. Previous Persona games have allowed the protagonist to wield multiple Personas. However, Persona 5’s nod to Lupin’s reputation as a master of disguise is fitting for both his character and the themes of the game.

During combat, the protagonist can “wear” whatever “mask” (read: Persona) he sees fit. Masks and hiding one’s true self are central to Persona 5’s plot. What is real, and what is hidden is a cornerstone to the entire Persona franchise.

Persona 5 is a story about misfit kids giving the finger to a world that rushed to pigeonhole them. Persona 5 is also a tribute to the literary and historical misfits of the world, whose stories we still share as examples of sticking it to the man. While the game can certainly be enjoyed without it feeling like a high school English lecture, understanding its inspirations opens a deeper appreciation for the work that went into it. Also, I heard telling your friends the story of Captain Kidd earns you a “Knowledge” point.

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