I recall an IRC exchange with Matthew Gallant when Persona 4 released. This was during perhaps the more prolific part of my writing about games career, and I was covering a lot about sexuality. His excitement was that Kanji seemed to address sexuality at all outside the norm. It was a game I constantly meant to come back to. Approximately two years ago I started an earnest attempt to do so. Of course, it was punctuated with a lot of putting the game down and coming back to it. At the very start of the year I finally finished it! Yay!
Naturally, I was rather curious as to the depiction of Kanji and how his dungeon is explored. A steamy bathhouse, where he constantly discusses his lust for men, it seemed obvious what his sexuality would be. The answer to whether or not he is interested in men sexually seems rather more ambivalent, though. Having a crush on Naoto, a male-presenting detective who later comes forth as a woman, seems to further confuse him later. Exploring his social link also seems to play with the idea of feminine and masculine.
You see, Kanji is more interested in feminine pursuits, such as making dolls. He has a sensitive side that he seems to cover with a brash, rebellious exterior. In many ways, it seems to expound on the ‘we all wear a persona when interacting with people.’ In fact, when dealing with Adachi at the end, I was struck by how one of the messages that I took away is that in a world increasingly connected, it can be easy to slip into having one unified persona across multiple platforms, rather than accepting that we contain multitudes. However, it felt like Persona 4 was very confused as to how to approach gender.
What did not aid this in particular is that Yosuke is constantly teasing and mocking him about it. Asking his opinions on how a guy looks. Making comments about how he’d be uncomfortable with Kanji sharing a tent with him if Kanji did actually, y’know, like the D. Yosuke seems obsessed to a point that were his character given a slightly different glance, one could surmise his own homophobia could well be rooted in issues with his own sexuality.
When I started coming out to people in my past, after a full year of having been out, one of my male friends confessed to me that he watched gay porn at times, because he wasn’t quite sure what he liked. There is room to explore such, and I feel like a lot of our media, Persona 4 included, fails to fully explore how confusing sexuality can be as a male teenager. Kanji ultimately feels to me that he is mostly interested in pursuing his traditionally considered more feminine pursuits, and has a thing for more masculine-presenting women. Which would be fine in and of itself to explore, though it is confusing that both his and Naoto’s plotlines start off seeming to explore instead queer plotlines.
Naoto is a character I similarly felt confused by. This is a character who is very obviously presented as male at first, with titles like the Detective Prince, and whose dungeon encounter expressed bodily transformation desires when finding out ‘Naoto is really a woman!’ What this eventually boils down to is that everyone finds out she’s a woman, that she adopted a male persona as a mapping on to her favorite detective novels, and that it was a way for taking her seriously, how she saw the ideal detective (and seemingly saying that she felt it would be easier to be taken seriously as a man in that field).
Again, parts of this actually sound worth exploring: the need for women to adopt more masculine traits to make any headway in certain fields, how feminine aspects are undervalued, and the general professional hazard of being a woman who wants to be taken as exceeding at her job. With Naoto, none of this seems to actually gel, though. Instead, everyone suddenly feminizes her, sometimes to a discomfort that she seems to express. In couching it in the introduction of maybe this character is trans, it seems like the intent was to make this edgier! And then back down and make it all more ‘palatable.’ Again, rather than ambiguity, we seem to be presented with ambivalence about how to present Naoto to the audience.
Which means that in general, I enjoyed the larger strokes that Persona 4 was trying to paint with: we all have varying masks we don dependent on the situations we find ourselves in. Our ‘true selves’ are more complicated than a single vision, and this means we choose what would be more successful. As it regards exploring gender and sexuality, it feels like there could have been a good base to explore what a confusing mess it is to be a teenager, especially when you may feel isolated from everyone else’s experiences, but that is not what the game goes for. While it seems people maintain there is ambiguity in Kanji’s sexuality, it feels like ultimately they might leave it open for him to be bisexual, but do conflate his feminine interests with being responsible for the majority of his confusion (I don’t understand how this conflates into a bathhouse, as I don’t see that as necessarily in the same vein).
One last thing that did strike me, and seems like it will be a central theme in Persona 5 going forward, is that we have reason to suspect and question our authority figures. Adachi flatly admits his reasons for becoming a police officer have little to do with justice, and more with holding a gun. It is a sober reminder that we can have a tendency to project a persona on a profession, sometimes forgetting the very real, complicated, messy, and flawed (some much more so than others, even murderously so) humans behind the mask of a profession.