Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
I happened to watch the heist movies Ocean's Eleven, Ocean's Twelve, And Ocean's Thirteen last night, and they're every bit as fun as ever. While watching them, though, I couldn't help thinking of Persona 5's take on heists. Each of Persona 5's eight main dungeon-crawling sequences is modeled after a type of heist (and one is even a casino heist that seems to be in some respects an homage to the Ocean's films). This would be plenty enjoyable in its own right, but Persona 5's heists go a step beyond a standard heist movie setup in that each one is constructed around thematically symbolic ideas that feed into the overall narrative.
Persona 5 is ostensibly based on French Picaresque fiction, and more specifically gentlemen thieves like Arsène Lupin. While the game's primary influences are French, it draws from other literary traditions as well, with allusions to everything from Robin Hood to his Japanese analogue Goemon. Heist films like Ocean's Eleven are almost certainly influenced by this literary tradition as well, even if indirectly. The main plot of Ocean's Thirteen in particular--stealing from a corrupt rich man and giving the proceeds to the poor--is completely traditional gentleman thief fare, and the rogueish-but-honorable Daniel Ocean fits the Robin Hood role to a T.
In light of this, I thought it'd be fun to go through each of Persona 5's heists one-by-one and break down their symbolism. Each of the game's heist targets takes the form of a "Palace," which is a real-world location distorted by the perception of an individual in a position of power. The heists take place literally within the minds of corrupt individuals, and stealing the source of the indivudal's distorted view makes the corrupt individual realize that they're wrong and reforms them (at which point they usually make a public confession). In this sense, the heist locations symbolize the thoughts and perceptions of the target, which is the first layer of symbolism.
Beyond that, each of the heists represents one of the seven deadly sins, with the addition of Vanity, which was historically counted among the deadly sins but have since been lumped in with Pride. This structure, additionally, bears some similarity to Dante's Inferno. Each of the "Palaces" is essentially a circle of hell, where people are tormented by the sin represented. Counting the outer area Mementos (which roughly corresponds to the first circle in the Inferno), there are nine of these circles, and most of the heists end with a boss fight named after one of the princes of hell. Additionally, while the sins represented by Dante's circles of hell aren't quite the same as the seven deadly sins, the ones that do match up are in roughly the same order as Persona 5's heists, and Persona 5's protagonist is guided through the heists by a character named Morgana, who fills a roughly similar role to Dante's Virgil.
With that background in place, on to the individual dungeons.
King, Queen, and Slave
The first heist is an infiltration and robbery of an old, European-style castle, complete with a dungeon escape, secret passages hidden behind paintings, jumping across rooftops, and swinging axes guarding treasure. The owner of the castle is an Olympic-medalist-turned-gym-teacher who uses his position of authority to physically abuse and sexually harass his students, and the castle is a corruption of the school at which he teaches. He sees the school as his castle, himself as the king, and his students as his slaves.
This whole story arc feels even more relevant two years later, now that the Me Too movement has spread as it has. Persona 5 predates the Me Too movement by about a year, and yet the castle's owner's use of authority to pressure female students into giving him presumed sexual favors could easily be a fictionalized representation of the kinds of stories that have emerged in the past year. The deadly sin represented by this heist is Lust, though not so much carnal lust (although that component is addressed) so much as lust for power. Everything about the castle (which, again, is actually a school) is designed to glorify its owner and to encourage submission to his authority.
The best example of this, I think, is the castle's chapel. About two-thirds of the way through the dungeon, the phantom thieves encounter a massive chapel dedicated to the castle's owner, a place where students would come to literally worship him. The "chapel" is a corruption of the school's gym. The castle's owner views the gym as a place where students should respect and pay homage to him, as he is a remarkable athlete and a highly effective coach. In his view, his past accomplishments give him the authority to do as he pleases, and he rules tyrannically over his students in order to make himself feel powerful and important.
The second arc of the game is a museum heist, with security lasers, pressure sensors, and an entire room that's an homage to M.C. Escher. The owner of the palace is a painter named Madarame, and the museum is a corruption of his own studio. The "catch," if you will, is that the exhibits in the museum are not works of art, but rather Madarame's many pupils. The painter takes on many students, raises them in excessively harsh conditions, and then falsely claims their work as his own and basks in his reputation as a brilliant and flexible painter.
The dungeon represents Vanity. Almost everything about Madarame's projected image is false, and he goes to extreme lengths to preserve that image, to the point of ruining the lives of others. When his students get tired of being taken advantage of, Madarame abandons them to the streets, and many of them turn up homeless around the streets of Tokyo during this story arc. During the heist, Madarame himself wears exceptionally gaudy women's clothing, representing his ownership of a more comfortable house under a woman's name while falsely claiming to live an ascetic life with his students in his barren studio.
The third dungeon is a bank heist, culminating with the infiltration of a massive, futuristic vault. The bank replaces the entirety of Tokyo's downtown Shibuya area--the bank's owner, a gangster named Kaneshiro, sees Shibuya as his bank, and its people as walking ATMs. In the outer sections of the bank, there are a number of ATM-people waiting to give Kaneshiro their money, and those that run out simply fall over and die, unwanted.
This heist represents Gluttony, or over-consumption to the point of hurting others. Kaneshiro's gluttonous intake of cash from the people of Shibuya ruins people even though Kaneshiro himself has no need for the excess cash. Kaneshiro has fly-like features (playing on his association with Beelzebub), and in his boss fight he pilots a giant mechanical piggy bank, tying the bank concept to the gluttony of pigs.
The Days When Mother Was Here
The fourth dungeon is a grave robbery, set in a pyramid. Unlike the first three dungeons, the owner of this palace is not evil but rather depressed. The palace's owner, Futaba, is what's called a hikikomori, or someone who never leaves home. The hikikomori phenomenon is a serious issue in Japan right now--in recent years there's been a pretty severe uptake in people developing agoraphobia and refusing to leave their homes or their rooms. In Futaba's case, the sealed-off state began when her single mother committed suicide two years before the events of Persona 5. Futaba now lives with Soujirou, the owner of a coffee shop and a good friend of Futaba's mother's--Futaba's biological father is never mentioned. Futaba believes her mother's suicide was provoked by the pressure associated with working and raising a child alone, and Futaba feels deeply responsible for her mother's death, to the point where she has recurring nightmares in which her mother's ghost appears and blames her for being too demanding as a child.
As a result of this stress, Futaba seems to be borderline suicidal, and so her home becomes a pyramid--a grave. Outside the pyramid is a very small portion of a town--a representation of what little Futaba can see from her window--and beyond that is an empty desert. As Futaba knows nothing beyond her own home, the world as she perceives it does not exist beyond her own small sphere of influence. The pyramid doubles as a grave for Futaba herself (implying her home will be her grave) and for her deceased mother, and the heist represents Wrath--specifically, the wrath Futaba imagines her mother bearing her. The climactic sequence of the dungeon centers on the thieves helping Futaba face down her perception of her mother in order to move on.
This is also the first heist where the treasure itself--the source of the owner's distorted views--is especially important to understanding the heist. In this fourth arc, the treasure is Futaba herself. The source of Futaba's distorted worldview is her own thinking and her assumptions, not any outside event or force. Futaba's mistaken assumptions about her mother's death (which are corrected in plot-relevant ways later on) led her to seal herself off, and the thing the thieves have to remove from Futaba's mental tomb--is Futaba. This opens the way for her later character development, in which she gradually becomes more comfortable with leaving home.
The fifth arc is a sci-fi space station heist, sorta like Rogue One. This is, I think, the least thematically obvious of the heists, which is probably part of why it tends to be relatively unpopular. With the first four dungeons, it's fairly clear how the setting of the heist connects to problem that's being solved, but it isn't readily apparent how a space station relates to the owner of this palace, a greedy CEO who treats his workers poorly.
To break into this one, it's helpful to work backwards, starting with the "treasure" the thieves need to steal. The source of the CEO's corruption is a toy spaceship his family couldn't afford when he was young. His desire to be able to afford things for himself and his family led him to prioritize wealth above all else, which makes the theme of this heist Greed. The fact that the CEO views his company as a space station relates to that toy spaceship he couldn't afford when he was younger. His company is, to him, a representation of that goal that he worked for, which was unattainable when he was young but now is under his control.
There also may be an element of him viewing his company as a "toy" or a "model" and thus dehumanizing his employees, but I'm not completely sure that tracks.
The Whims of Fate
The sixth dungeon (which is my favorite by miles) is a casino heist. The whole thing is built around a central goal of needing a large number of casino credits to move to the high-rollers' rooms where the casino's owner, a prosecutor chasing down the thieves, is waiting. The heist involves rigging a number of the games in the casino in favor of the thieves while gradually moving forward, and the climactic sequence is super Ocean's Eleven. I'd love to go into more detail, but if you've played the game you probably know what I'm talking about and if you haven't I'd rather not spoil it--the twist is just that clever, and it's one of the central plot points for the overall game.
The casino is the prosecutor's distorted view of a courthouse, implying she views trials as games of chance to be won or lost rather than an avenue to find the truth. Much like Futaba, the prosecutor is not a bad person despite being the enemy of the thieves, and the distorted view represents cynicism and frustration on the part of the prosecutor rather than any innate evil or corruption. The heist symbolizes Envy, though it's not especially obvious why, and this heist has more to do with the game's overall plot than with the prosecutor's perceptions of the world, so her envy is not explored much.
The seventh heist is a cruise ship floating through a flooded version of Tokyo. The cruise ship is a distorted version of Tokyo's Diet Building--Japan's parliamentary center--and the palace's owner is a populist politician with authoritarian impluses who's running for prime minister of Japan. As with the first heist, this feels somewhat prescient in hindsight given the wave of populist sentiment that swept many of the world's nations (including the US) in 2016 and on.
The dungeon is a representation of Pride, symbolizing the politician's belief that all those who choose to ally themselves with him will be successful, while those who do not will fall behind as the world floods. The ark-in-a-flood image implies the politician is comparing himself to the biblical Noah, as if he has a God-given directive to rule and to guide the people onward. This is, of course, horribly arrogant of him, especially considering his willingness to take power by any means necessary.
Freedom and Peace of Mind
The final heist is a prison break, from a prison buried deep underground where individual will is kept in chains by the will of society, This Rousseau-esque idea is foundational to Persona 5, and it informs the whole game, but nowhere is it as blatant as in the Prison of Sloth.
It's significant, I think, that the final (and by implication most severe) of the deadly sins in the context of Persona 5 is not Pride, but rather Sloth. The overall message of the game, which culminates with this final sequence on Christmas Eve, is that while corrupt individuals abusing their power and hurting people is bad, watching this happen and not doing anything about it is even worse. Persona 5 uses its dungeon design and its eight heists in order to argue that Sloth is the worst of the deadly sins, and that it is pivotally important to stand up to injustices in order to right them. In the game's climax, the Phantom Thieves of Hearts steal the Holy Grail, which is the "treasure," or the source of distorted thinking, for humanity as a whole.
The grail's mysterious and miraculous powers (in its various interpretations throughout the years--Persona 5 does not assign explicit abilities to the grail) serve as a sort of license to be slothful. In the context of Persona 5, the grail embodies the idea that problems can be magically solved by an outside force, without any personal effort or intervention. The goal of this final heist is to reform all of humanity, to change peoples' thinking and make people stand up and speak out against corruption and evil whenever they see it. This is, of course, a herculean and drastic effort, and even after the thieves win we aren't really given examples of this happening, but the idea itself is the important part.
It isn't directly stated anywhere in the game, but the ordering and themeing of Persona 5's eight heists, in conjunction with the thematic ideas and concepts that show up throughout the game's plot, indicate that the primary message of the game is, "Stand up for what's right, even when societal pressures make it difficult to do so." The way the game approaches this idea through the usually fun-but-flat story trope that is heist narratives is quite impressive, and it makes Persona 5 as accessible and enjoyable as it is thematically rich.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition