Spiritual Heritage

The Shared Spiritual Themes of Persona 5 and The Wind Up Bird Chronicle

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Peter Graham is a writer and stand-up comedian based in Seattle, Washington, who has also worked as a game developer at Riot Games, Camouflaj, and Bungie. When he’s not consuming and creating content, you’ll find Peter checking out live Jazz and House music and escaping into the mountains.
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Content Notification: References to sexual violence

After Persona 4 received widespread critical acclaim and built a large, passionate fanbase, Persona 5 (P5) became one of the most anticipated games during the many years it was in development. While the game was exceptional by conventional standards for game releases, the general consensus tended to be slightly underwhelming as a follow-up to one of the most critically acclaimed and beloved games of all time. But what sets P5 apart is its culturally specific social commentary that blends in a spiritual delineation between good and evil with its clear tear-down of corporate and political social norms.

Right when P5 came out, I happened to be finishing up Haruki Murakami’s The Wind Up Bird Chronicle (WUBC). As I played through P5, the direct parallels in both plot points and thematic elements were ever-present. P5 and WUBC were released twenty years apart from one-another, and yet they center around the same theme as it relates to modern life in Japan: The spiritual heritage of Japan existing in direct conflict with the hyper-capitalist society built after World War II.

Although Japan saw a historic economic boom in their emergence from the ashes of World War II (Sayle), the social and psychological costs have been well documented. Japan has seen alarmingly high suicide rates throughout even the strongest periods of economic growth (Wakatsuki and Griffiths). The birth rate has continued to fall off, making Japan the oldest population in the world as of 2019 (Weller). Thriving within the capitalist economy in Japan requires participating in one of the most grueling work cultures in the world, resulting in frequent occurrences of young people working themselves to death (Lane).

High suicide rates and brutal work culture have been well documented since before P5 or WUBC were released, and have persisted through the twenty year gap between the two works. Through all of this, the same conservative political party, the Japanese Liberal Democratic Party, has remained in power through legitimate democratic elections since its inception in 1955 (Crespo). With a run like that, any Japanese citizen that hopes for a diversion away from the current status quo would be right to be pessimistic about attaining change through conventional institutional means. This leads us to P5 and WUBC and their respective takes on where true evil lives in Japanese society.

WUBC follows an unemployed legal assistant named Toru Iwada, who has become disenchanted with corporate life and is struggling to find a place for himself. After his wife mysteriously vanishes, he begins working with spirit mediums to try and find her, suspecting some sort of foul play. This pursuit eventually grants him the ability to engage with an alternate universe that has murky but tangible ties to the real world. Initially, Toru senses that he may be able to use this spiritual power to discover the causes behind his wife’s unsettling and unexplained departure.

In P5, the protagonist is expelled from school over false criminal charges after trying to stop a sexual assault being carried out by a powerful politician in his home-town. He’s sent to a new school in Tokyo, where numerous adults in positions of influence are abusing their power and harming students. The protagonist is contacted in his dreams by a spiritual guide named Igor, and discovers that he has the power to access an alternate reality that manifests the desires of these corrupt adults as palaces that must be breached and conquered.

With the introduction of interconnected spirit realms in both P5 and WUBC, both works create a similar trajectory for the protagonists to find answers to their real life problems via spiritual means. As an American experiencing these stories who has only had exposure to westernized adaptations of spirituality, these premises may have seemed as simple as magical fantasy set-ups for engaging surrealist fiction. But taking them in back-to-back, and recognizing they are both written and set in Japan, made me engage with their shared thematic elements as a direct reflection of a persistent conflict at the heart of Japanese culture.

A major consideration for a non-japanese reader/player engaging with these works is the religious makeup of Japan. Over 80% of the country identifies most with Shintoism, a form of indigenous spirituality wherein it is believed that every part of the natural world contains kami or gods (Japan-guide.com). According to Shintoism, humans are believed to be naturally good, and evil is caused by malicious spirits.

The two narratives become even more ideologically inseparable when the primary antagonists are fully revealed. In WUBC, Toru is forced to engage with his wife’s brother, Noboru Wataya, due to spousal family obligations. Noboru is a powerful up-and-coming politician whose primary characteristic is his complete lack of interests outside of attaining social and political power. Importantly, he is guilty of committing a sexual assault against a young escort. Toru describes the utter disdain he and Noboru have for one another when detailing their interactions at family gatherings early on in the novel.

In P5, the main antagonist is revealed to be Masayoshi Shido, another politician on the rise, looking to become the leader of the Japanese Diet (comparable to the American Senate). At the start of the game he attempts to assault a young girl and the protagonist intervenes, leading to his aforementioned expulsion from school.

As Americans go through our own reconciliation process for the sexually abusive power structures built into the fabric of our culture, it’s fascinating to see these Japan-centric works created twenty years apart attach sexally abusive behaviors as defining character traits to their respective villains. These antagonists suggest that the most power-hungry among us give up some portion of their humanity in the pursuit of political and financial dominance. It’s impossible for them to relinquish the relentless domination of others once they succumb to the capitalist power structures at play, and the same monstrous domination carries over to the treatment of their victims.

It’s worth noting that both stories were written by men who chose to use sexual violence against women and children as a storytelling bludgeon to convey the evil of their antagonists. However, the overriding evil of the villains in both stories seems to be much more focused on their exploitative use of political and economic power structures to subjugate the general population at large. It’s disappointing that both stories use sexual violence as a crutch when there likely could have been a more creative and thematically relevant way to comment on the evil natures of their respective villains.

In addition to the similarities between antagonists, the casts of allies that the protagonists in both works associate with are societal misfits who have chosen lives that keep them on the fringes of the social fabric. In WUBC, these include spirit mediums recovering from traumatic upbringings, veterans that have been disillusioned by the horrors of war, and a mysterious latchkey child who can’t seem to function in a normal educational environment. In P5, the protagonist’s team is made up of students dealing with parental abuse, sexual assault, false criminal charges, and more, that are all forced to fight back against these abusive power structures.

The similarities don’t stop there. In both WUBC and Persona 5, the conflict with the villains play out primarily as battles in the spiritual realm. Throughout WUBC, Toru is faced by a dark presence in his dream realm. After a violent conflict defeats the dark presence, Toru’s evil brother-in-law is hospitalized by a mysterious illness, and Toru is finally able to contact his wife in the real world. In P5, the protagonist and his team of allies fight monstrous reincarnations of their real-life antagonists within their spirit realm. Upon defeating them, the power hungry, amoral villains experience awakenings that cause them to repent.

In both stories, trying to impede the real-world antagonists through conventional institutions and tactics proves completely ineffective. The supernatural excision of evil from the spiritual world is the only way to stop malicious forces from winning out in real life. The twenty year gap between the authoring of these two stories would suggest that the spiritual rot at the core of the political and economic institutions in Japan has remained ever-present. And based on the journeys of the protagonists in both narratives, the authors would argue that this rot won’t go away until everyday citizens are awoken by those outside the system.

These protagonists, who are willing to sacrifice the comforts of a normal life to engage with their respective spirit realms, are the only ones able to prevent malicious supernatural forces from conquering society at the hands of politically powerful villains. As the teams of misfits attempt to combat the evil presences plaguing their worlds, the narratives make it clear that society continues to plod along, unconcerned and even supportive of the villains’ rise to power.

P5  goes so far as to build out an entire system through a social media awareness rating that polls the citizens of Japan as the protagonist and his team of “Phantom Thieves” effect change. The unified support and awareness of the heroes’ exploits causes an increase in their powers, and the main villain does everything in his power to encourage apathy and erase the memory of the Phantom Thieves as a result. In this way, the normal citizens of Tokyo that choose to succumb to the necessities of thriving in capitalism are dulled to the point of empowering the evil at the top of the power structure.

Both works hone in on this dichotomy through the protagonists as well. In The WUBC, Toru narrates his previous mind-numbing job routine, as well as his uneventful life of searching for work while unemployed. Until his wife vanishes, the tedium of his existence is well documented. Throughout P5, the protagonist must still go to class, join clubs at school, study, and participate in the normal day to day life of a Japanese teenager. These more mundane moments live in contrast with the spirit world trials both protagonists face in order to maintain the balance between good and evil.

This is the greatest uniting factor of all for both works: they both contain vivid realizations of supernatural conflicts that serve as metaphors for the struggle to maintain spiritual balance in the face of a society that operates in stark opposition to that pursuit.

The delineation between good and evil in these stories makes it clear that subverting societal norms and breaking free of the institutional shackles of Japanese society are key elements in defeating the antagonists. Before any of our heroes can reach their spiritual potential, they first have to realize that the system they are being asked to fit into is corrupt and unfulfilling. Toru and the P5 protagonist don’t jump off the page or screen as anti-establishment, rebellious figures, but rather as normal people worn down by abuse at the hands of their seniors or simply by the continuous grind of a meaningless job.

In these Japan-centric alternate realities, killing off evil spiritual presences leads to the defeat of real life villains. The influence of Shintoism, wherein evil spirits are the cause for human deviation from good, is prevalent in both works. And even twenty years apart, the respective authors both argue that political, economic, and social power structures are intertwined with the evil spirits causing inherently good people to deviate from their path. When capital is the primary guiding principal, deviating from morality is unavoidable.

So despite the legitimate criticism that could be leveled against both works, they have a strong appeal for any readers/players like me that goes beyond a captivating supernatural conflict. Since WUBC was released, our access to global perspectives has grown exponentially. Anyone who chooses to can read unending stories of corporate exploitation and political corruption that seem to have no end in sight. And with our institutions continually failing to offer concrete solutions, the struggle to live a “good” life is turned inward. How does one find peace in a system designed to abuse the individual? P5 and WUBC suggest a return to spirituality to right the ship.

And while these stories are set in Tokyo, a similar tale could be told in the next great RPG set in one of many American cities. Places like San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles, and more have seen rapid corporate expansion transform the fabric of society at a shockingly fast clip. As the original denizens of these cities are priced out and pushed away by a wealthy class of wildly successful capitalists, we too are left with an absence of cultural roots. As such, I will continue to appreciate that some of the leaders of their respective mediums in Japan continue to try and tackle these universal ideas through works like Persona 5 and The Wind Up Bird Chronicle.  

References

Sayle, Murray. “The Social Contradictions of Japanese Capitalism.” The Atlantic, Atlantic Media Company, 2 Oct. 2014.

Wakatsuki, Yoko, and James Griffiths. “Japan’s Youth Suicide Rate Highest in 30 Years.” CNN, Cable News Network, 6 Nov. 2018.

Weller, Chris. “Japan Has a Major Population Problem: It’s Falling.” World Economic Forum, .

Lane, Edwin. “The Young Japanese Working Themselves to Death.” BBC News, BBC, 2 June 2017.

Crespo, José Antonio. “The Liberal Democratic Party in Japan: Conservative Domination.” International Political Science Review, vol. 16, no. 2, 1995, pp. 199–209., doi:10.1177/019251219501600206. (PDF)

Shinto.” Japan-Guide.com.