Adapting the role-playing game of the same name (which also has an anime version and two spin-off games in different genres), Persona 5‘s first volume is remarkably accessible. Yes, it helps if you know the basic way that Persona games function – the idea of an alter ego and interior worlds based on someone’s inner thoughts and worldview and dear old Igor – but it isn’t strictly necessary to enjoy reading this book. In part this is because there’s a standalone nature to the story (and the games, even if that isn’t entirely true) that allows for jumping in with minimal issues, but it’s also because this particular story tells a tale that we’ve seen countless times before across myriad series and genres: at its heart, this volume is about someone who can’t just stand idly by when he sees people doing things that are objectively wrong.
In this case, that would be high school student Akira Kurusu, and it’s already come back to bite him in the ass. Previous to the story’s opening, Akira was out walking when he heard a woman screaming for help. Presuming (probably correctly, based on the images) that she was being physically harmed by the man she was with, Akira punched him. The man then turned around and prosecuted Akira for assault, with the woman staying silent, which isn’t an unrealistic reaction for some abuse victims. Because the woman didn’t back Akira up, he was found guilty and expelled from school, forcing him to start over somewhere new on probation. Despite the fact that the “crime” happened in the country and this new school is in Tokyo – not to mention the supposed confidentiality of the juvenile court system – everyone seems to know what Akira did, from his new landlord to his teachers to the kids at school. That everyone blames him without ever hearing his side of the story is evident; his new homeroom teacher is particularly awful because she’s an adult who ought to know better and also is only looking out for herself rather than her student. But the point is that Akira doesn’t have a chance; even people who express surprise that he looks so “good” have stacked the deck against him.
With that in mind, Akira comes off as a stronger character than you might expect. Although he is initially more invested in keeping his head down, the strange transportation to the mind castle of one of the teachers at school on his first day quickly changes that. Within the castle, which he’s taken to alongside another alleged school troublemaker named Sakamoto, Akira sees the “king” torture boys in the uniforms of school sports teams – and despite the fact that when he was last seen in the real world the teacher had a girl with him, there are no girls to be found, which raises the disturbing question of what he’s doing with them. When Sakamoto reveals that the teacher is physically abusing the boys’ teams he coaches, Akira finds that he cannot sit by.
This being a Persona story, that naturally leads to him meeting with Igor and finding his own supernatural power in the form of a Persona version of (fictional) master thief Arsène Lupin. But what’s more interesting, and unsettling, is that he’s clearly uncovered a major cover-up going on within the prestigious halls of Shujin Academy – one that Sakamoto already knew about and was labeled a bad kid for trying to stop. This immediately draws an interesting link between Sakamoto and his own Persona, Captain Kidd, a real historical figure who began his seafaring career as a licensed privateer but was later labeled a pirate and thrown to the wolves by his former political backers. As far as Kidd knew, many recent sources agree, he was only doing what he was supposed to, as dictated by his Letter of Marque; similarly, Sakamoto, by reporting what Kamoshida is doing, is acting as he’s supposed to. But as Kidd was hanged for his actions, Sakamoto is also strung up because his words are reporting something that those in power don’t want to hear. This puts Sakamoto in the same basic position as Akira, whose decision to do what he thought (and perhaps was told) was right landed him in hot water. Both of these boys’ actions justify the use of “noble thief” characters for their Personas, and the fact that the third we meet in this volume is Zorro all seem to indicate a theme of doing the right thing while displeasing those in power. That’s an intriguing plot thread to work with, and it raises the question of whether or not the boys themselves – as well as any others who join them – will find the redemption that only came for Kidd hundreds of years after his death.
As you might reasonably have guessed, there is some disturbing content implied by the villain of this story. Kamoshida’s metaphoric torture chambers in his castle are borne out by the fact that most of the boys’ teams he’s involved with are sporting major injuries, and he makes a comment that strongly implies that he injured Sakamoto’s knee, preventing him from running. Likewise we’re all but told that he’s forcing the girls on the female teams to sleep with him, explaining all too clearly why we didn’t see any girls in the torture chambers and raising some awful possibilities for where they were. Although this is all shown off-screen, it is still upsetting and the reactions of the kids themselves says a lot about the level of terror they’re feeling, meaning that this may not be the series for more sensitive readers.
If you don’t mind that brand of terror, however, this is a solid volume. Hisato Murasaki‘s art does a good job capturing the look of the game art and the heavy reliance on dark grays and blacks really works with the tone of the plot. Persona 5‘s first volume is a good horror/mystery hybrid, and it’s worth checking out even if you’ve never touched a game in your life.