Idle Observations about Japanese Pop Fiction
If you were to ask me which figure in the game design industry I most admire, I would--without hesitation--answer Katsura Hashino. Hashino is a game designer at Atlus, a mid-sized company known primarily for making highly conceptual JRPGs. Atlus is one of the most consistently strong game design companies currently active, and although there are many great creative minds working for the company, much of Atlus's recent success stems from Hashino's work. Hashino is best known for directing 2003's minimalist, cell-shaded JRPG Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne, along with the three most recent entries in the Persona series. His current project is a game inspired by traditional fantasy novels (as well as tabletop role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons), moving away from his past focus on Science Fiction and Urban Fantasy.
There are many things about Hashino's games that make them excellent offerings, but one common thread that tends to appeal to me is his tendency to draw from classic literature, modeling aspects of his games off of more traditional storytelling media. 2016's Persona 5 (which, incidentally, is what I consider to be the best overall game I've played), makes its literary influences crystal-clear: each main character is directly associated with a character from classic fiction (via the "persona" concept that gives the series its title), with figures ranging from the title character of Bizet's opera Carmen to the heroic monkey king Sun Wukong from the classical Chinese novel Journey to the West. The game as a whole is modeled after picaresque fiction--particularly French picaresque fiction--and the protagonist, who is associated with the gentleman thief, Arsène Lupin, lives in the attic of a cafe named after the Maurice Leblanc, the author who created the original Arsène.
Persona 5's usage of classic lit is simultaneously straightforward and clever, both using an established literary tradition as a strong foundation for a thoroughly modern story, and also playing on certain expectations in order to surprise players familiar with the literature on which the game is based. I could go on and on about the topic, but I'll save that for another day--instead, I'd like to point out some of the less-obvious ways Persona 4 does much the same thing.
Unlike in Persona 5, it's quite easy to miss many of Persona 4's literary inspirations. There are a few points that are rather obvious--Hashino has said that the game's mystery elements are meant to call to mind the works of Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and it shows--but Persona 4 is full of less straightforward parallels and references to classic lit. Some of these are clearly intentional--Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is mentioned by name, and there are a few characters whose names are taken directly from the novel--but others are less direct. Even if you write these parallels off as coincidence, they're interesting to think about, and Hashino's well-documented usage of classic lit elsewhere (paired with a scene I'll bring up later) lead me to believe most, if not all, of this is entirely on-purpose.
This Sounds Kinda Familiar
Persona 4 has several striking parallels to William Shakespeare's Hamlet. The game opens with the protagonist forced to leave his home and school in the city to live with his uncle in a small town. Shortly after arriving, he learns of a recent murder under strange circumstances, hears a rumor from a friend about visions of the deceased appearing to people in town late at night, and goes to investigate. Although the rumor is not exactly correct, the protagonist does indeed have a supernatural experience as promised and that experience leads him to investigate the strange state of his new home.
Hamlet's opening is almost identical. Main guy leaves his school to live with his uncle in a relatively secluded location? Check. Someone's been killed? Check. Potential ghost sighting? Check. There are differences, sure--the victim in Persona 4 has no direct connection to the protagonist, for example--but parallels keep popping up as the game goes on.
One of my personal favorite examples is the character Kinshiro Morooka, an obnoxious and aggressive schoolteacher who tends to earn the derision of those around him, including his students. He's treated much like a fool, although (if you can get past his colorful language) much of his advice is actually quite valuable in the context of the game's story, and some of the things he warns against, such as illicit romantic relationships, are exactly what get certain characters into trouble. In true Shakespearean fashion, the fool is the wise man--it's just that nobody likes him enough to listen to him. Morooka suffers a violent death at the hands of someone other than the main antagonist about halfway through the game, and although he is quickly replaced by a new character who fills roughly the same role (albeit with less personality), his death marks a notable shift as the game starts to unravel some of its mysteries and build towards its climax.
Morooka finds a perfect counterpart in Hamlet's Polonius. Polonius is an advisor to the king--a teacher, in a sense--who offers good advice in a bad way, and the play's characters tend to ignore his advice, largely to their detriment. He is killed halfway through the play, his death sparks a sequence of elevated tension and action, and he's replaced in function as assistant to Claudius by another, less memorable character (Osric) shortly after.
Speaking of Polonius, the lyrics of one of Persona 4's main musical themes, "Reach Out to the Truth," are strangely reminiscent of Polonius's famous "To thine own self be true" monologue. Although the language itself is drastically different, both consist mostly of advice that relates to the themes of their respective works. Polonius gives Laertes such advice as "Give thy thoughts no tounge, / Nor any unproportion'd thought his act," which foreshadows Laertes's impulsiveness in attacking Hamlet later in the play, while "Reach Out to the Truth" includes lines such as "Do not waste your time," which is major theme in all three of Hashino's Persona games. The "To thine own self be true" line is also directly applicable to Persona 4, as one of the game's major concepts is the suffering caused by denying or repressing aspects of one's self.
Persona 4's department store Junes (pronounced June-ess) mirror's the role of Norway in Hamlet. Both Norway and Junes serve as distractions--or, perhaps, scapegoats--from the true problems of the stories. In Hamlet, Fortinbras's impending invasion of Denmark is mentioned early in the play and is a recurring concern, drawing attention away from the corruption within Denmark itself. In Persona 4, much of the population of the small town of Inaba is concerned about the recent arrival of the chain department store Junes, as its size and convenience has been gradually wearing down old family businesses, drawing attention away from the two actual problems within the town: a serial murderer, and a populace with a tendency to believe what they would like to be true instead of what is actually true. (As a side note, Persona 4's treatment of the theme of truth feels strangely prophetic 10 years later in light of the issues we've had with fake news and the like in the past two years).
To add to the Norway-Junes comparison, Persona 4 uses some language to refer to Junes that is odd for a department store but fitting for a country. Yosuke, the son of the store's manager, is on occasion referred to as "The Prince of Junes," which creates a curious link to Fortinbras (although the similarities between the characters largely end there). Moreover, towards the end of the game a particularly change-resistant older man claims that "Inaba is being invaded by the country of Junes!" While this reads initially as an amusing symptom of the mass hysteria taking over the town (due to a combination of bad weather and circulating rumors), it also calls to mind the end of Hamlet, when Norway does, in fact, invade Denmark. It could be a coincidence, but the wording is odd enough that reading it as a nod to Hamlet strikes me as the most sensible interpretation.
Scarlet and Gold
Hamlet is, of course, not the only classic literary work to influence Persona 4. The game also has some symbolic similarities to Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne's novel centers around a woman found guilty of adultery in a small town and forced to stand on a scaffold in front of the people and then to wear a letter A sewn to her clothes in order to publicly shame her. The woman chooses to wear the letter proudly, opting for a striking gold-embroidered, scarlet letter A.
Persona 4 borrows this general concept and some of its symbolism, with a slight twist--the modern-day scaffold is a television. The game's major premise is that looking into a turned-off television at midnight while it's raining shows whoever has currently captured the interest of the townspeople. This supernatural program (called "the Midnight Channel") seems to reveal whatever negative aspects of a person's personality he or she might want to conceal--although we ultimately learn that the channel only reflects what the viewer wants to see, not what is actually true. The Midnight Channel, like The Scarlet Letter's scaffold, is a public forum for displaying perceived moral wrongs to the small town as a whole, and the program's color scheme is scarlet and gold, just like Hawthorne's letter.
If that isn't enough to convince you Persona 4 borrows intentionally from The Scarlet Letter, the first person displayed on the Midnight Channel is a woman accused of an adulterous relationship with a resident of the town. Again, it could be coincidence, but the parallels are a bit too clear to write off.
The Play's the Thing
Hamlet and The Scarlet Letter aren't the only classic works Persona 4 parallels, but this post is plenty long already and the point is mostly made. I'll end this with one last moment from the game that leads me to believe this is all done intentionally: the play.
Persona 4 has two characters named Kou and Daisuke, school friends of the protagonist who are largely interchangeable (mirroring Hamlet's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern). At one point in the game, the main characters' school holds a festival. As part of this festival, Kou's class puts on a play, which, according to Daisuke, is titled Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. It's just a single line in passing and it's likely meant as a joke, but it also strikes me as poking fun at Persona 4 as a whole. With its literary influences taken from multiple unrelated works, Persona 4 is, in a sense, just as much of a mish-mash as the hypothetical Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet. Just as there is a play within Hamlet that is a symbol for Hamlet itself, there is a play within Persona 4 that is, again, a symbol for Persona 4. Moreover, that one line is apparently considered significant enough that the play made a brief appearance in the game's animated adaptation, complete with a unique musical cue with the same title as the fictional play.
There are, of course, any number of possible explanations for all these parallels and call-outs, but I think they're all intended to further the game's thematic ideas. Persona 4 (and its superior remake, Persona 4 Golden), is a long game--probably 80-120 hours depending on reading speed--so it certainly isn't lacking for time spent exploring its concepts and ideas in detail, but using works such as The Scarlet Letter (for public enforcement of and attitudes toward morality) and Hamlet (for truth) as thematic springboards allows Persona 4 to move more quickly into unique and specialized aspects of its thematic realms. For example, the game does not need to establish a baseline exploration of public opinion, judgment, and shaming in a small town because Nathanial Hawthorne already has, so the game can take The Scarlet Letter's interpretation of that theme and then move into the more specific concept of how preconceptions and expectations color public reaction to scandals.
Building on the shoulders of giants (to borrow an idiom) lends weight to Persona 4's attempt to qualify as "serious" lit in the vein of the classics it emulates, and--beyond that--the usage of classic literature allows Persona 4 to reach a more nuanced (if less universal) take on thematic ideas that have been around for ages. Persona 4 takes concepts of truth and public opinion as they have been examined for hundreds of years and applies them to problems in our present-day society, resulting in an exceptionally strong work that is at the same time highly enjoyable.
A Japanese Lit major and aspiring game designer with a passion for storytelling and music composition