[Warning: this article contains spoilers for Persona 4 and Persona 4: The Animation (up to episode eight, but events that will occur later in the series are mentioned), as well as discussion of homophobia and sexism, so if you haven’t played the game/watched the show or are made uncomfortable by discussion of either of those subjects, you should stop reading here.]
I really liked Persona 4: The Animation at first. It clung closely to a lot of the game’s aesthetics and style, Yu (the anime version of the MC) was as decent a replacement for a player avatar as could be produced, and the overall thematic material of the original game was done justice.
Until they reached the Kanji arc, that is. One of the things that I love about Persona 4 (and one of the things that makes it my favorite game) is that it managed to handle touchy subject matter like sexuality, gender roles, and gender perception well, something that’s difficult to pull off in any medium, especially one so focused around profit and universal appeal. And the anime adaption… has failed at doing that. If anything, it’s done the opposite, purporting homophobia and misogyny and filling the originally good thematic material with hypocrisy.
Kanji is one of my favorite videogame characters, for many reasons; he’s well-rounded, goes through a lot of issues that I can relate to, and is generally just a really nice and entertaining person. In the game, the arc focused around him deals with his confusion over his sexuality and what it means to be a “man”, both of which I could definitely relate to when I played that game for the first time. That’s what Persona 4 is about: accepting your “true self”, learning who you are, and living your live the way you want to live it, not adhering to the pre-defined roles that society puts upon you.
Kanji’s struggle is shown through his dungeon in the TV world, a bathhouse (referred to in the game as the “Bad Bad Bathhouse”) filled with steam and blaring club music, and his shadow, a ludicrously stereotypical homosexual version of himself. When the team reaches the end of his dungeon and defeats his shadow self, he learns that the shadow part of him (the stereotypical homosexual) is just a manifestation of his fears about what it means to be a “man”. Kanji doesn’t fit the role of that gender that society purports; he likes sewing and art and “cute things”, but he keeps these interests of his secret because he’s so used to being shunned by others (mostly women) due to his interests, being referred to as a “queer” and “strange” because he doesn’t fit the role that society wants him to fit. So he hides that all beneath a mask of masculinity and roughness, beating up gang members and, as he puts it, trying to get people to “hate him” because he’s so fearful of being rejected. He believes that he can’t be either of the people society wants him to be; he’s not a stereotypical homosexual (and, depending on your individual interpretation of his sexuality and of Naoto’s gender, which we’ll likely get to later, he might not even be homosexual), he just likes Naoto and has stereotypically “feminine” interests, and he’s not a stereotypical heterosexual man because of those interests and because he likes someone who, at their first appearance, is a transgender man. The main character helps him see that he doesn’t need to adhere to either of these. He just needs to be himself.
It’s an extremely difficult subject to handle well, and Persona 4 did it beautifully, for the most part, and it did a lot for me when I was younger and still coming to terms with what my sexuality and gender were. There were a few parts in the game where Yosuke does act homophobic towards Kanji, but the main character is never given the option to be part of it, and, in fact, you’re more often given the option to rebuff Yosuke’s homophobia and support Kanji. One of the best moments of rebuttal comes when Yosuke makes a joke about Kanji liking Teddie’s new outfit because “hahaha Kanji’s gay he wants to do gay things with Teddie”, after which Kanji threatens to kick Yosuke’s ass in one of the most well-delivered lines in the game, and your options regarding it are “support Kanji” or “be neutral”, so you can’t even be homophobic about it.
The camping trip event had another one of those moments where Yosuke is homophobic, and it was definitely one of the worse moments for that character. (It was basically where I really started disliking him.) Kanji leaves the tent he’s staying in since he creeps out the other guys in it and moves over to the one the MC and Yosuke are staying in, and, when they’re about to go to sleep, Yosuke starts asking Kanji if “they’ll be safe” because, as I’m sure Yosuke’s thinking, “We can’t say in a room with a homosexual man; he’ll try to have sex with us because all gay men want to have sex with us, and they’ll force it on us like they’re forcing their ‘agenda’ on us.” The MC doesn’t get any options here, but Kanji flees the tent to go to the girl’s tent to prove “he’s a man”. At least here, the lack of choice didn’t leave the MC at fault, and later rebuffs of Yosuke’s homophobia and the progress of Kanji’s social link all indicate that they didn’t support Yosuke here, so it’s not that bad of an event.
So, the game did a very good job of this. The anime didn’t. At all.
In the anime, Yu and Yosuke repeatedly try to leave Kanji’s Bathhouse, saying that “[they] should just leave him,” because their desire to save this guy’s life is heavily outweighed by their “no homo” sensibilities. Jokes are made about Kanji trying to have sex with his shadow. The shadow and his minions are horribly stereotypical, but, as they’re supposed to represent what society perceives stereotypical homosexuals to be, that makes sense, but they went much further in making jokes about his minions’ homosexuality, such as having them grab Yu and Yosuke’s rears (after which they are knocked out because oh no gay people) and having them insult Yukiko and Chie’s outfits, to the point where it just started getting grating and unnecessary. In the end, though, Yu seems to accept Kanji for who he is, and Kanji accepts his shadow self. And then there are the jokes where Chie and Yukiko fall over in the puddles of water, and Yu/Yosuke act like complete chauvinists about it (“Did you bring a video camera?” Yosuke asks as the screen takes a creepy shot of Chie’s wet legs tripping over themselves in the water), but those don’t really affect the treatment of Kanji’s character, though they, once again, show the creepy, new traits that the writers are impressing upon Yu.
Then the camping trip arc comes up, and the supposed “acceptance” that Yu gives is shown to be wrong. When Kanji is in the tent, Yu repeatedly supports Yosuke’s inquiry over their “safety”. When Kanji pleadingly asks, “I thought you accepted me?” Yu responds with, “Not at night.”
This isn’t what Persona 4 is about. It’s about showing people how to accept themselves for who they are, and it’s about “finding your true self” (that’s in the opening music, goddamnit). How is Kanji supposed to do this when the society that constantly insults him are the same people that are supposed to be his “friends”, the same people that are supposed to “accept” him? Yu said he did, but he’s just another homophobe, like Yosuke always was.
I understand that with making an adaption like this, you have to give traits to the ex-player-avatar, but you’ve given him the wrong traits. You’ve made him into a chauvinist, you’ve made him into a homophobe, you’ve made him into someone who can’t do what he was put here to do: help people.
My perception of the original game isn’t changed by this, though. The game did enough to show that the MC was a good person who could help people that I’ve come to regard Yu as completely separate. He’s not the MC at all; he’s just this terrible person they’ve stuck in his place.
And it undoes all of the great thematic material that made Persona 4 good. Despite all of the references to the game, Persona 4: The Animation has missed the most important part of what makes an adaption good: the themes. They’re gone, replaced with hypocrisy, blatant, homophobic, chauvinistic hypocrisy.
Expect to see a follow-up to this when we reach Naoto’s arc. If the chauvinism and idiocy keep up, it’s likely they’ll completely screw over that character’s development as well.