Squinting Through a Dusty Window: On "Boycott Atlus" and Narrative InterpretationA column article by: Jay Hutchison
The beautiful thing about humanity's penchant for giving and receiving tales is that, in most cases, there is no one true meaning to any story. There is always The Story, but The Message is never existent within it; it is a concept created by The Story in the mind of the audience. It is up to the individual to find The Message for themselves in whatever stories they come across, in reality as well as in fiction, and use The Message to further their progress within life. Much of the time, one gains knowledge from The Story that its original author did not intentionally create. Even when The Story seems awful, promoting something that goes against our beliefs, our morality, there is often a lesson to be learned there, a Message that can break the shackles of its poorly-realized or evil prison.
Without the individualized nature of The Message, The Story would be frail and meaningless. It becomes a mere statement without engagement or resonance.
However, this creates a problem when criticizing the morality of a story.
Individual interpretations of the themes make it nearly impossible to condemn the morality of any story, as the lesson the audience takes away from it may be positive or negative. It is difficult to fully gauge this.
Atlus' increasingly-popular JRPG Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 (now with an anime, manga, two stage adaptations, a spin-off fighting game, and psuedo-sequel light novel) is, for better and for worse, one of the more infamous examples of how individual interpretation of a narrative can sharply divide the audience's interpretation of how morally justifiable it is.
Much of the controversy around the game circles around the character of Naoto, a teenage detective grappling with their gender identity in a culture dominated by masculinity. I have written dissections of my interpretation of their character before, most fully in a comment on this article, but Persona 4 is a game that relies heavily upon the player's individual interpretations of the characters. Its narrative, dealing with how society at large perceives people and pressures them to fit certain roles, places the audience in the position of a catalyst that can change the cast, in positive and negative ways. Naoto, due to their desire to work in a field that is dominated by men, believes that they must act and appear male in order to fit in. This leads to them becoming confused over what their actual gender is, due to their desire to fit into a masculine world overriding their perception of self. One may end up treating Naoto as being a good person for who they are, without their gender mattering, or one may end up sweeping Naoto's gender under the rug and forcing them to be more feminine, which causes Naoto visible discomfort. Most of Persona 4's character arcs play out in similar ways, where you can only help someone by letting them be who they want to be, regardless of societal pressures.
What message does one gain from Naoto's story? For me, I learned that, when you truly care about another person, their gender shouldn't matter; love is love. (I like to think of this as the Guitar Wolf Lesson.) From seeing Naoto's discomfort at being forced to meet the standards of others (those of both the male-dominated police force and the main character, should they choose to force Naoto into being feminine), I learned that gender is something that shouldn't be affected by outside forces, it is something that should be solely determined by the individual, without others driving them into being something with which they are uncomfortable.
Of course, as I said earlier, this is merely my individual Message that I created out of Persona 4's Story. Many people have gleaned similar messages from the game, but there are several others that viewed the story as insulting towards transsexuality. This has led to the creation of a boycott against Atlus USA, which cites Naoto's treatment as an example of Atlus Japan's transphobia, as well as transphobic jokes found in Persona 3 and Persona 2 and the treatment of the character Erica in Persona Team's latest release, Catherine.
I do not fully agree or disagree with all of Boycott Atlus' points. The transphobic remarks inPersona 3 and Persona 2 are awful, and, though I have not played the game, Erica's treatment inCatherine definitely appears to be very poor. My perception of Naoto's arc, however, keeps me from supporting the boycott, despite the fact that there are many parts of Naoto's arc I find objectionable.
There are many people that came away from Naoto's arc in Persona 4 with positive messages learned, there are many that viewed the arc as insulting and derogatory towards the trans community, and there are very many, I'm sure, who played it and didn't come away with much of a message at all. And what message did the person at Atlus who made Naoto's arc intend? Did they want me to come away with more respect for trans people and a better understanding of the great teenage struggle of self-discovery? Or did they want me to disbelieve in the existence of transsexuality and disregard anyone who didn't fit the cissexual ideal as immature? I don't know, and it doesn't really matter, because I gained a positive message from the experience.
I am glad I'm not alone in that, because whenever a story can bring me to a message as positive as Persona 4's, I am thankful for it.
Persona 2, Persona 3, Persona 4, and Catherine aren't the only examples of Atlus games with non-cissexual, non-heterosexual characters, as well. Shin Megami Tensei: Digital Devil Saga 2 features an intersex character and an androgyne character, both of which are well-developed and treated the same as the straight characters. DDS2 was made by Atlus R&D 1, who would go on to be Persona Team, the developers of Persona 3, Persona 4, and Catherine.
My main issue with the boycott is that they do not recognize any interpretations adverse to their own. They do not see that what makes Persona 4 unique is that there are many ways of interpreting its characters. Naoto's gender is never told to the player. You do not know whether they are actually trans or not. Instead, because their interpretation of Naoto is trans, they must be trans in everyone's interpretation. In many ways, this is similar to the cissexist protagonist who can force Naoto into becoming feminine or the career that would only accept a masculine detective. Boycott Atlus does not understand the individual nature of The Message.
I believe that, in the right situations, boycotts are a great method of combating oppression. Look at the most famous boycotts, such as the Montgomery Bus boycotts and the ones organized by Gandhi; they all managed to fight off oppression by hitting it financially. However, these movements had more concrete foundations, there was more reason to support them, and they did not have as much moral grey area surrounding them. With Boycott Atlus, what they describe as their most damning evidence towards Atlus Japan's transphobia is perhaps the least concrete of their examples.
A boycott, by its very nature, has to convince others to join it because of a moral ideal. Otherwise it becomes analogous to not buying a bottle of fruit juice at the supermarket because you just don't like fruit juice. By citing a heavily subjective narrative as one of their primary motivations, Boycott Atlus has made an important mistake. For the people who gained a positive message out of that narrative and did not see it the same way as Boycott Atlus' intends for them to, the movement appears to be a joke. The same goes for a few of the other examples listed on their blog, especially their belief that Funky Student, a jive-talking, afro-wearing side character inPersona 4, is a stereotype of the African-American community, despite the game never referring to his race, the character having the same skin tone as most other NPCs, and the existence of Yuko in Persona 3, a dark-skinned character who was perhaps the most down-to-earth person throughout that entire game.
But, on the most basic level, Boycott Atlus is not a logical movement because they are only boycotting Atlus USA, a localizer and publisher. Atlus Japan's games, especially thePersona series and Catherine, games the Boycott Atlus campaign is largely based around, sell extremely well in Japan. Atlus USA localizes them and produces as many copies for the North American market that they believe will sell. This amount of copies is quite low in comparison to the soaring Japanese sales numbers, so much so that Atlus has yet to create a European branch to sell games there because overseas sales don't matter to their company enough. Damaging Atlus USA does not hurt Atlus Japan very much. All it does is put a good localization team and publisher of niche games out of business. If anything, with the region-locking of PlayStation 3 copies of Persona 4: Arena (the fighting game spin-off), Atlus USA seems more like a liability for Atlus Japan, due to the possibility of Japanese customers buying North American copies of their games at a cheaper price. Since the cost of games in the US is much lower than it is in Japan, and now that localizers are putting original Japanese voices in their games more often, reverse-importing allows for Japanese gamers to wait and pay less for games, while still getting a similar experience. This means that companies like Atlus USA and NIS America could end up hurting Japanese sales figures, especially since the region-free PlayStation 3 is the primary home console in Japan.
Currently, the Boycott Atlus blog is on hold because their "calling out" of the treatment of trans characters in Atlus games offended members of the trans community. The only reason I can conceive of why they would be offended is because they, like me, had different interpretations of Naoto and didn't like to have a person speaking for the entire community on how Persona 4 is transphobic.
If your interpretation of Persona 4 does paint the narrative as transphobic, that is perfectly reasonable, just as reasonable as the non-transphobic interpretations. That is how stories work. And if you don't want to buy Atlus games, don't do so. However, if you interpret their stories in such a manner that you are gaining positive messages from them, and you are comfortable with buying games from a company based out of a transphobic culture (like every other Japanese company) but also a company that manages to tell positive stories about those issues at times, then you should buy them.
Don't force your views of The Message upon others. Buy games you like with Messages you like. It's as simple as that.