Games Criticism · Gendered gaming · Sexuality in gaming

Reach Out to A Particular Contextual Version of the Truth

Right so last night Riot Games researcher and smart guy Davin Pavlas and I had a discussion about Kanji Tatusmi, one of the main characters of Persona 4. Specifically we discussed some of the ways in which his personal story is interpreted along both sexual orientation and gender presentation lines, and along the way I aired a particular grievance I have with the way that Kanji is interpreted as a character.

If you want to skip this entire blog post you can get the gist from this Twitter thread of my convo with Davin but if you’re here for my typically verbose breakdown of something that gets on my nerves, grab some popcorn and let’s start.

(Spoilers for Persona 4 and Persona 4 Arena to follow, FYI)

Now, I am pretty sure most people with an interest in the topic of Kanji and P4 have seen this video:

What I want to tell you is: this video makes me want to punch a wall until my hand falls off. Here is why:

Okay so let me start by saying this controversial statement: I don’t think Kanji is “a gay character” note quotes. I don’t think he identifies as gay, and I especially don’t agree with the Extra Credits people in that his gayness is what “makes him a compelling, multi-dimensional character.” In fact I think Kanji is at the top of the list of characters that are trotted out as a “SEE THE GAY CHARACTERS CAN BE NORMAL THEY DON’T NEED TO BE LIMP-WRISTED SCREAMING QUEENS” and much like the character who delivered that line in the movie Jeffrey, played masterfully by Patrick Stewart, my response is: “Ooh, get her.” Also way to slip in a shot of the penis demon as you’re discussing this “compelling multi-dimensional character,” Extra Credits peeps. Well played.

Now, hear me out before you make your determination, because I’ve got a lot of complexity to cover on this ground. Also while I don’t have plans to talk about Naoto Shirogane specifically, Mattie Brice has already written two great pieces on that character for the Border House and Mattie’s own personal blog if you’re interested in reading about another character besides Kanji who represents some interesting gender politics.

So in the off chance you’re reading this and know nothing about Kanji as a character, here is, in the immortal words of Spaceballs, the short, short version: Kanji is a rough and tumble character, a strong and aggressive “street punk” type who beat up an entire biker gang despite being a high school freshman. Early in P4 the Scooby Gang (SORRY) headed by your main character thinks he might be the next target for whoever is throwing people into an alternate world inside TVs where people’s insecurities and doubts are turned into hellish labyrinths reflecting those issues (and where the people thrown inside are promptly killed/consumed by “Shadows,” monsters born from human fears etc).

In the process of investigating Kanji they begin to see tiny fractures in his facade of perfect, impenetrable, violent masculinity. The characters find out that Kanji likes to sew, enjoys cute things, and gets embarassed/shy when faced down with detective Naoto Shirogane, who has also shown an interest (and who presents as “male,” leading the characters to conceive of Naoto that way and by extension of Kanji as possibly interested in a same-sex relationship).

Lo and behold, they turn out to be on the money: Kanji gets thrown into the TV, prompting the following scene to happen (skip to 1:45 if it doesn’t auto-cue):

So, you know, it’s reassuring that Yosuke Hanamura — the “best friend” character who is designed to be an everyman Japanese high school teenage boy, like Junpei was in Persona 3 — leaps right in there with the gender-policing homophobic jokes, jokes that he will continue to make for the rest of the game because why not. The party heads into Kanji’s personal dungeon and they find that it is, in fact, a bathhouse. Not, like, Steamworks in Chicago or whatever but a Japanese steamy bathhouse with screen walls and wooden benches and steam and whatever.

Upon entering and then proceeding through the dungeon, these scenes happen, proving again that Yosuke Hanamura is a total asshole (skip to 00:35) —

Sidebar: These are from the game, but if you’ve seen the anime version, Persona 4: the Animation (it’s on Hulu+ if you have that), you know that not just Yosuke but also the main character act like total douchecanoes in this situation. Makes me so angry. ANYHOW.

Now I feel the need to step in here and say: remember that Japanese pop culture’s vision of male homosexuality is different than the US’s. Here, we associate feminized behavior with male homosexuality, e.g. gay men are “more like women” and engage “traditionally feminine” things. In Japan it’s the other way around: gay men are associated with hypermasculinity; the idea being that because they’re attracted to men they embrace every aspect of hegemonic masculinity. Hence the hyper-muscled physique focus, etc. Ref Cho Aniki for the Jungian archetypical example there.

So when people read Kanji as gay, I don’t think that’s necessarily an irrational leap, especially since P4‘s personal dungeons are supposed to reflect a hidden side of these characters that they don’t show to others, and because the idea of hiding your true nature from others in order to avoid persecution is a fundamentally relatable idea for most queer individuals in the modern world. I get that! I think it makes sense as a first impression, a reaction to things put in evidence.

That said I think the problem is people stop there. They do the dungeon, they hear Troy Baker doing the most ridiculous lispy queeny voice I’ve heard in a long while (for a comparative case, you hear his original Japanese actor in this video, and I will say that his tone of voice is high-pitched and “girly” but you’ll notice he still uses the masculine forms of stuff like “boku” — someone more able to identify the nuances of the Japanese acting, I’d like to hear your thoughts on this compared to Baker’s performance). But I think the problem is that the conflict that is going on in Kanji’s head has a lot more to do with both gender performance and our gendered expectations of sexual orientations than on whether or not he finds particular genitalia sexually attractive.

Consider this video of the “battle” with Kanji’s Shadow — the “other self” version of Kanji that represents everything about himself he rejects — from the anime version, Persona 4 the Animation, which in the absence of game mechanics to show ratchets up the squick factor on homophobic and gender policing behaviors and makes the enemies literally sexually assault Yu and Yosuke because THAT’S WHAT GAY GUYS DO AM I RIGHT FELLAS:

I just… ugh ugh UGH so ICKY. That said, I think it also highlights a great part of Kanji’s coming to deal with his shadow. He doesn’t say “YEP YOU’RE RIGHT I’M GAY” which… has problems I’ll come back to in a second. Instead he admits that what he’s really afraid of is that people will see beneath his facade and reject him when he doesn’t meet their expectations. His resolve isn’t to explore his identity more, but rather to acknowledge his fear and try to overcome it… to let people see the parts of him he hides away.

Now, that right there is a great queer narrative! Having pride in the part of ourselves that society says we shouldn’t is a thing. But there’s a big gap between that and “Kanji is gay ’cause he struggles with his gender expectation. To be honest, as I told Davin, I think if we let ourselves read Kanji as gay this way, it does more harm than good: it reinforces the idea that behind every person who presents as male but keeps the female-coded things they do bottled up for fear of rejection is secretly gay because you can’t be a man and have feminine traits without wanting dick. I just… that’s not my experience. I mean, of course they’re related. I think my identity as a gay man helps me to be more at ease with the “feminine” parts of myself, because I’m used to not entirely meeting expectations and my understanding of myself as a queer person highlights how constructed these norms are. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on in Kanji’s case.

At about the 3:57 mark of that Extra Credits video they say “But here he is, in a society that tells him homosexuality is unmanly.” And that’s true, I guess, but it’s also cart before the horse. Kanji’s problem isn’t that he’s physically attracted to men, it’s that he can’t resolve the conflict between his gender performance as a tough, self-sufficient hegemonic male with honor/pride/etc., and his interest in cute things, liking to sew and cook, and the like… activities that culture has coded as being “for women.” And this is the real conflict that defines Kanji’s sauna dungeon. It’s not about being gay; it’s about Kanji’s belief that his interest in non-hegemonically masculine things means he must not be a man, in a world where “being a man” and “heterosexuality” are synonymous. This is likely also the root of why they pair Kanji, romantically, with Naoto Shirogane: because Naoto is in many ways Kanji’s conflict flipped around, and as Mattie mentions in one of her pieces, Naoto’s “destination” is to become more “traditionally feminine,” a thing that consequently makes Kanji’s almost gay panic about finding Naoto attractive/interesting suddenly disappear. You’re not gay! She’s really a girl, it’s fine! Aiyah.

And as much as that Extra Credits video still makes me rage-y, I want to mention that part of their point, expressed around the 4:15 mark, I do think is spot on: the game reinforces that it is outside forces putting tremendous pressure on him to act a certain way that creates this distorted and self-destructive vision of who he is that the TV dungeon simply puts into a visual, highly symbolic form. The dungeon is unsubtle because the language of emotions and self-concept is often symbolic and unsubtle.

But they go on to talk about Kanji as an example of how Persona 4 is just so great and smart about sexuality, and that’s just… I think that ignores plenty of facts in evidence, such as this really famous camping scene that happens after Kanji is rescued and, presumably, reaches some sort of inner equilibrium on the matter (skip to 3:43):

GOOD OLD YOSUKE AM I RIGHT? No game that is “good about sexuality” would have a character soul search, then have him not come out, and then throw this sort of shaming/completely weird gay panic nonsense at him. And again, as I’ve said, Mattie Brice wrote plenty about how they way they approach Naoto as a possibly trans character (and one who also definitely struggles with gender identity) is all kinds of wrong.

It doesn’t help that toward the end of that video the Extra Credits folks pull out the “He’s not defined by his sexuality! It’s just part of his character!” argument which… I both agree and disagree with. I totally support the idea that queer characters are also people and so they need more than just their sexuality as defining characteristics, but it’s not an additive/subtractive thing. It’s not like you just POUR ON other stuff and then go “He’s not just gay! He’s allergic to corn and really likes Daft Punk too!” because wow, what does that even mean. And I think most queer people would tell you that their queer identity is not cleanly sectioned off from the other parts of their selves. Things intermingle, affect each other, and mix. There’s also the fact that this “the character can’t JUST be about their sexuality” is a logic deployed to really mean “We can’t think of anything interesting to do with this so we’re gonna say the character isn’t ‘authentic’ or ‘deep’ enough and scrap them.” In other words, because people can’t think of “interesting, deep” things to do with a queer character, they just don’t add queer characters. That’s nonsense. To put it in a more vulgar way than I did on Gamasutra: fucking do the work you lazy sod.

To wrap this up: I don’t want to shut down interps of Kanji as gay. I think there’s probably enough there so that reading him as gay isn’t an irrational interp. But I would like to argue that Kanji’s story has more meat and is more satisfying as a commentary on gendered expectations than it is as a “coming out” story. I actually think, trans/homophobic content that follows it in P4 aside, that Kanji’s story is actually a great look at how societal pressure forces us to adhere to labels or categories when reality is much more fluid and interesting than that. If we let ourselves get trapped in saying “Well Kanji does girly things so it makes sense that he’s gay” we’re feeding into problematic, stereotyped views of the links between gender performance and sexual orientaton. In short, our need to label Kanji says more about what we, the players, think than it does about what the game tells us, and that’s actually sort of great.

But please, please don’t trot Kanji out as the Prototypical “This Is How It’s Done” for gay characters in games. P4 does so much wrong with him, AND Naoto, that I’m just not comfortable following its example.

6 thoughts on “Reach Out to A Particular Contextual Version of the Truth

  1. I tend to run a fairly balanced party in these sorts of games and give everyone some screen time. But Yosuke definitely became my least favorite character in the scenes in question. I’m rather disappointed to learn that the protagonist joined him in that in the anime. I know I told him off whenever I had a dialogue choice on the matter.

    1. That was the peril and the promise of P4: the Animation. You can’t just leave the main character as a player-defined avatar that doesn’t talk, so “Yu Narukami” came into existence. And because P4 Arena is based on the anime, he’s what got carried forward into that, though I would argue that Yu is actually less of a problem in the fighting game than in the anime.

      In fact, there are a lot of moments in P4 the Animation where Yu is actually quite clever and even engages in some gender play etc., which makes the moments where he goes along with Yosuke’s “everyday guy” homophobic/gender policing to be particularly annoying.

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