Hopefully the examples I’ve provided illuminate just how much the game has warped the ideals that Persona is supposed to represent. Or maybe Sessions’ follies reveal problems that had always plagued the series in one way or another. Whatever the case may be, this much is clear: there’s a mismatch at the game’s heart between what it claims to be achieving and what it actually achieves.
Far from giving us a story that confronts reality, Tokyo Mirage Sessions represents a retreat from reality. Consider how the Mirages work. Broadly speaking, they continue Persona’s dubious legacy of tying depression to otherworldly sources. This implies that serious psychological issues are only ever the result of outside interference rather than of events from within our own world. As such, our attention is turned away from whatever problems that world might reveal to us. But even earlier Persona games were able to avoid these implications by explaining their otherworldly enemies (the Shadows) as manifestations of humanity’s psychological state. The Mirages have no such excuse: as marauders from another world, they don’t allow the narrative opportunities to address (much less confront) deep personal issues.
Other changes Sessions introduces, like the utter lack of urgency in the quest, further reinforce this retreat. Any system that provided previous Persona characters the impetus they needed – the inexorable march of time, the intricacies in the Social Link system that forced you to be aware of how you were treating others – is completely absent in this game. The characters can exit dungeons at will without suffering any negative consequences, and they can socialize with their friends (either within the group or outside it) at their leisure. In fact, the world even bends to meet those desires. How else could you explain Maiko and Kiria, two senior members of a major agency, flying to Guam for a photo shoot in the middle of the Mirage crisis? Fortuna’s position is one of comfort and privilege; of being able to separate one’s self from the world to enjoy a life of secluded luxury. The main cast can nonchalantly treat the Idolasphere as a training ground for their own self realization because if things ever get too hectic, they can always retreat to somewhere these problems won’t affect them. Even when the world is threatening to collapse around them, their careers as performers take precedence.
Alternatively, we could consider how the game elevates its particular circumstances to a universal level. Every feeling, no matter how mundane, is seen as the height of emotional expression, and any problem that threatens the world of entertainment must surely threaten all of human existence. This is also why we see so little of the protagonists’ lives outside their capacity as performers, and why are there so few conversations that don’t involve either the entertainment industry or something directly related to it (the Idolasphere, the latest episode of Dia Witch Iroha, etc.). To introduce outside material would risk shattering the illusion that what we’re being shown is the totality of their existence.
The irony, of course, is that this only further highlights how limited the game’s perspective really is. After all, how are we supposed to see the characters use fiction to overcome the challenges they face in their own lives if we never even see “their own lives?” (Sessions’ response is to give the characters relationships outside Fortuna but still only ever in the larger context of the entertainment industry, preserving the game’s illusion while shutting down any potential criticism that the characters aren’t well rounded.) Sessions’ response is to give the characters relationships outside Fortuna, but given how those relationships still exist in the larger context of the entertainment industry, it’s an unsatisfying response. Lacking any other answers, the game finds itself extremely limited in its ability to extend its messages to anybody outside this narrow context. Any lessons the characters learn, any bravado they display comes across as hollow, unearned, disconnected from reality but unwilling to admit as much. Textual depth is sacrificed in the name of lazy literalism.
Looking at this in greater detail, the heroes’ determination to save the world means very little if they’re only fighting for the world’s continued existence. Their vague wish to restore the world to what it was before the Mirages tampered with it assumes there were no problems worth addressing in this previous world, and thus nothing to fight for once the Mirages are taken care of. The heroes’ willpower, then, is easily deconstructed as a willful disengagement from reality. What’s more, that willpower is easy to manipulate for malicious ends: characters fitting themselves to fictions instead of the other way around.
The first of these fictions comprises two almost contradictory premises: not just anybody can be a hero, but you’re not just anybody. This is where the major concepts lead us, at least if we examine the questions they leave unanswered. Are there prerequisites to becoming a Mirage Master? If so, what are they? How does one use Performa in their everyday life? Tokyo Mirage Sessions never shows interest in answering these questions, since it holds nothing but contempt for the common masses. Its interest lies in the exceptional, the superstars, the people who have earned their individuality. Unless you’re one of them or can prove useful to them, you will only ever be depicted as just another faceless figure in the crowd. But because the game isn’t willing to confront these unconscious feelings, it instead masks them beneath the language of Hollywood Stardom and the American Dream. Ability names like “Waste Not” and “Determined Energy” suggest that the game’s interest is justified because anybody can become a star if they put in the work. However, it overlooks the inconvenient fact that some people may not want to become a star in the first place.
The solution? Problematize that lack of desire. In some ways, it’s the only option available to the game. Sessions assumes (without ever going out of its way to prove) that any problem a person has assimilating into the entertainment industry must be a deeply personal problem that will follow that person throughout life. This way, the main characters can appear benevolent even as they’re acting out of pure self interest. I think other writers have elaborated on this problem as it’s shown up in previous Persona games – why is Kanji’s latent sexuality a problem that needs to be fixed where Yosuke’s homophobic reaction to that sexuality isn’t – but Tokyo Mirage Sessions‘ specific circumstances make it more apparent. A few character analyses will suffice to illustrate this point:
If there’s one factor that defines Tsubasa’s character, it’s the demands other characters constantly make of her. Often these demands will come from the most recent antagonist, whom the protagonists know for certain is under the Mirages’ sway. Yet rather than tell Tsubasa that she doesn’t have to meet their unnecessary demands, the others help her to meet those demands. After all, they argue, they contribute to her maturation as an artist and therefore as a person. This has the unfortunate (and unexamined) side effect of encouraging her to participate in a system that may not have her best interests at heart. In addition, because her maturation is something she never fully realizes, they may be teaching her the lesson that her worth as a person is constantly in doubt; that this doubt is justified (meaning she must never dispute it); and that it is Tsubasa’s responsibility to prove her worth wherever and whenever the challenge arises.
Then again, there’s a good chance none of this would negatively impact Tsubasa’s life, given her uncanny ability to recover from even the most severe personal crisis. One instance sees her overcome her social anxiety (which is very explicitly stated to be a major obstacle in her career) over the course of a single afternoon.
Ellie’s character is similar to Lisa Silverman’s character from Persona 2: Innocent Sin in that both are insecure about their biracial heritage.Itsuki and the others are there to help her process those feelings, but only insofar as it affects her abilities as a performer. How her racial identity affects her life in any other context is never brought up for discussion, leaving me doubtful that her friends have prepared her for life.
Because of his stoicism and his status as a senior actor, Yashiro is treated as a god in human form. As such, his character arc (at least in his side stories) sees him learning to be human and his confusion at what other people recognize as normal. Most of the time this manifests as Yashiro struggling to socialize with others. Other times it takes a more dangerous form: his first side story begins with him starving because he doesn’t know how to feed himself. A later side story sees him offhandedly mention a time he gained and lost 44 pounds in an implausibly short amount of time. His career as a top actor has clearly enabled these self-destructive habits, but because those habits also enable him as an actor, none of the other characters confront these problems for what they really are: serious mental/physical health issues.
Tiki is a special kind of Mirage. She can’t survive without the Performa her fans give her, meaning she only exists insofar as her fans will allow her to exist. It’s the precarious sort of existence that would no doubt breed anxiety in its subject. The self is bound to the whims of another and is thus prevented from truly and completely expressing that self, lest she violate it and risk giving up her life. These finer points of Tiki’s existence are never brought up, nor is the obvious profit motive Fortuna Entertainment has in writing and distributing her musical software (the means by which she gains her Performa).
Barry Goodman is a deeply flawed character, although these flaws are never directly confronted, much less overcome. In one sense, Barry is the exaggerated fanboy of the group, who wears his love of anime and pop idols on his sleeve. He’ll buy the newest limited edition box set the minute it’s on shelves and watch the latest anime the moment it airs.
And in another sense, his attitude toward Mamori is paternalistic and objectifying. Judging by a gift he gives her in one of the later side stories, Barry wishes Mamori was a preschool child, somebody who both needs his protection and who will allow him to bond with her at his leisure. The moment she violates this image by reaching out to Itsuki for advice (thus asserting her independence from him), Barry lashes out at this other male figure who threatens his relationship with Mamori and proceeds to endanger himself his worth to her, despite her neither asking for nor wanting him to do anything so reckless.
But since these problems enable him to continue working in the entertainment industry, nobody ever challenges him on them, regardless of whether or not they’re healthy for him or the people around him. At best, these traits make Barry the comic relief. Even as we admire his heroic determination, we’re supposed to laugh at his ignorance and his shallow materialism. Parallel to this is the idea that because these traits are most strongly expressed in Barry’s character, we presumably have no reason to worry about them in any other character.
Itsuki Aoi, as Tokyo Mirage Sessions’ inexplicable protagonist, is the hammer that shatters Kaneko’s vision of Shin Megami Tensei. He’s not an ordinary character; that much is clear from his status as a Mirage Master (not just anybody can be one). Yet unlike the other Mirage Masters, Itsuki’s extraordinary status is built into the narrative’s structure. His perspective goes completely unexamined and is assumed from the start to be the default. He’s the only character whose flaws are never explored, who never develops or grows as a person. (I suspect this was done in the interest of making him more relatable, but it’s easier to relate to the other characters, whose specific flaws may resonate with you and show you that you’re not alone.)
In addition, Itsuki is centered above other members of the group. Sessions attempts to explain this away by telling us that it’s the faith his friends place in him that gives him power, but it glosses over why this wouldn’t apply equally to all members of the group. Given the absence of evidence for why he’s earned that position, we’re forced to conclude that there’s something special about him, something that separates him from other people, that justifies his special treatment in the narrative.
Still, I find this explanation insufficient. It’s not enough to say that these traits make Itsuki special. We should also keep in mind that they’re deployed in service of depicting him as an average everyman. Strip away his narrative position and you’d be hard-pressed to think of any reason why Itsuki should be the hero. He’s completely unmotivated; the only reason he works for Fortuna Entertainment is because his friends (Tsubasa and Touma) work there, so he never thinks about his own career as an entertainer. Likewise, it’s difficult to interpret him and his actions as the sole force driving the plot forward, or as driving the plot forward at all.
As ill-suited as these traits are for helping Itsuki meet the demands the story makes of him, they’re perfect for comforting the player, whom the game assumes is just as average as he is meant to be. It’s an average everyman hero sort of comfort, one that doesn’t encourage people to look for meaning in the everyday and the regular, but rather affirms their desire to transcend that condition. Itsuki is there to show that one doesn’t need to put in the effort to achieve great things, since by virtue of one’s existence, one has already achieved that greatness. We see this at its most ludicrous in the ending, where despite his obvious lack of qualifications, Itsuki is ushered in as the new president of Fortuna Entertainment.
Before I bring this piece to a close, I want to add one more reason why this game might have gotten a pass from critics and players alike. It’s a more generous reason: a backlash against cynical (usually dystopian) works of art. The argument goes that because such works encourage a resignation to our inevitable fates, what we really need are idealistic works that imagine happier possibilities. It’s an admirable stance, but naive if left at this. Cynicism doesn’t necessarily lead to resignation, and idealism is just as capable of fostering that attitude. Optimistic or pessimistic, what we need is less wish fulfillment and pacification from our media. What we need is fiction that isn’t afraid to challenge the status quo and encourages us to do the same. Tokyo Mirage Sessions isn’t that. It’s not even close.