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Themes of Fear and Courage in Personas 3, 4, and 5

MAJOR SPOILERS FOR PERSONA 3 and PERSONA 4, as well as light spoilers for PERSONA 5

Death looms over the Persona 3 protagonists.

The Persona series is known for delving into psychological details usually skimmed over or vaguely referenced in other major JRPGs like the Final Fantasy series or even the mainline Shin Megami Tensei games. Sometimes while playing the Persona series, the player feels like they are in a psychology classroom, with social links and shadow-battles replacing lectures and case studies. Heck, in Persona 4 Golden there was even a feature where Edogawa-san from Persona 3 actually put on lectures for the players interested in the further nuances of Persona’s psychological influence beyond what the base game’s storyline provides. The Persona series, in other words, names outright what other games only reference, using the vocabulary and trappings of Jungian thought and psychoanalytical mysticism as its mythology and world-building. One particular instance of this comes from the themes of fear and courage found in the latter three main Persona titles, especially in regards to the way in which the protagonists of said games awaken to their personae.

Some light Saturday night reading, no?

Before I continue on to that, I feel I should concisely explain the journey of the man who coined the term “persona” as the games use it, Carl Jung, into his own psyche and the results of that expedition. In his Liber Novus (“New Book,” more commonly referred to as “the Red Book” because of its red cover), Jung details a trippy, dreamlike sequence wherein he falls further and further down the rabbit hole of his mind, eventually leaving it altogether and finding himself in what he terms “the collective unconscious” or “the sea of souls” (which is the name given to the concept in the Persona games). Along the way, Jung-as-narrator has to overcome multiple fears and the challenges inherent to those fears. First he must overcome the fear that comes with leaving the individual, conscious mind behind, which in a way is the fear of death. To leave behind individual identity is to acknowledge the dissolution of that identity. What is death but the dissolution of an identity, the terminus of a personality? Overcoming this, he finds himself face to face with his shadow and other aspects of himself outside of his conscious mind, and after accepting that these are parts of himself and not enemies to destroy, he is able to move on to the greater unconscious common to all humanity. After this time, he comes face to face with his true self, the self that is, for lack of a better term, ideal. But this in itself brings fear, because upon realizing one’s true self, one understands that that self may not be appreciated by others in the reality of waking life. What is ideal for one is not for another. It is only by overcoming this fear of the freedom that the true self brings, or the fear of authenticity and its consequences, that Jung-as-narrator is able to come back from his psychological odyssey intact, but changed for the better.

Talk about guerrilla thematics.

Is all of this starting to sound familiar? In Persona 3 the protagonist is faced with death on the roof of his new dormitory when a shadow attacks. Seeing his new friend Yukari about to be hurt by the shadow, he instinctively grabs her evoker and raises it to his head, shooting himself and thus awakening his persona, Orpheus. In Persona 4 the protagonist’s friends awaken to their personae only by accepting their shadows, which represent and are comprised of their secrets and hidden thoughts or insecurities, said shadows then incorporating themselves into their identities as a personae, brought into battles by tarot cards the arcana of which are associated with specific characters. And now, with Persona 5 there is a new way for the protagonists to awaken to their personae: ripping off masks, their personae ask them to realize their emotions, and to accept their true selves and the consequences of those true selves. When the P5 protagonist is captured with his new friend Ryuji by their teacher’s shadow and said shadow is about to attack Ryuji, the protagonist hears a voice saying ““What’s the matter? Are you simply going to watch? Was your previous decision a mistake then? I am thou, thou art I. Call upon my name, and release thy rage!” (translation and quote via the SMT wiki). This voice is his persona Arsene. The previous decision that Arsene mentions is the protagonist’s stepping in and putting a stop to a violent scene that ultimately resulted in his exile to Tokyo at the start of the game. Arsene is asking the protagonist if he is just going to ignore that part of himself, the part that fights, out of fear, or if he is instead going to embody the true self that shone through before and in so doing protect his friend. This is symbolized by the protagonist ripping off a mask to expose a bloody and crazed face before summoning Arsene and, generally, whooping ass.

Overcoming the fear of freedom is painful, as symbolized by the bloody mess left after ripping off the mask.

Like Jung-as-narrator of the Red Book, when faced with the prospects of death, of their shadow selves, and even of their true selves, the protagonists of these Persona games have to overcome their fears in order to harness the power within themselves. For Persona 3's protagonist, he has to overcome the fear of death, culminating in his sacrifice to become the great seal at the end of the game. For Persona 4's protagonist and his friends, they have to overcome their shadows (the protagonist’s shadow, while absent in the main game, is nevertheless conspicuous in said absence. By this I mean that his shadow may in fact be that selfsame absence, reflecting his hidden emptiness that is overcome by befriending others throughout his time in Inaba, the growth of his relationships and personality affecting the growth of his abilities), culminating in the protagonist’s summoning of his ultimate persona Izanagi-no-Okami. And Persona 5's protagonist has to overcome the fear that his true personality as a mischievous trickster with a heroic streak will not be accepted by greater society, culminating in his formation of the Phantom Thieves of Hearts with his friends and their attempts to reform society through criminal means. He rips off the mask, and shows the world who he is really, not as a day-to-day student, but as the phantom thief, Joker.

Not so Clark Kent now, huh? Notice that with the mask on he is more himself than he is with it off.

This is not to say that the fears these protagonists go through go away after they overcome them. For Persona 3, the fact that an evoker is needed every time someone in the party (barring Aigis) wants to summon their persona is a testament to how they have to continually overcome their fear of death to harness their power. For Persona 4, the members of the Investigation Team are still insecure in regards to what their shadows revealed about them, but still use said shadows in their new forms as personae. And the most compelling case for the fear of freedom still affecting the protagonist of Persona 5 after he has successfully awoken Arsene (besides hiding his identity as a phantom thief when at school or during everyday life in general) comes from the song “Beneath the Mask.” If you click that link and pay attention to the lyrics, you’ll see what I mean, especially in the refrains which have the final lines of “Please don’t take off my mask, my place to hide/reveal in dark/my disguise.”

Reach out to the truth, indeed!

From all of this, it seems that the Persona series is trying to say something about fear: that while it is ever present, it is through the courageous and continual overcoming of it that human beings can harness the power within themselves. Whatever fear may be holding you back, don’t let it stop you from burning your dread, reaching out to the truth, and waking up, getting up, and getting out there!

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