[In Atlus' RPG Persona 4, Kanji Tatsumi confronts his sexual identity in an engaging and meaningful manner, and in this Gamasutra analysis, we talk to Atlus staffers and commentators about the character's flamboyant in-game alter ego in the recently released PlayStation 2 RPG.]
Persona 4's Kanji Tatsumi is one of the first video game personalities to confront his sexual identity in an engaging and meaningful manner.
His struggles and their outcome may not be politically progressive enough to dub him the Harvey Milk of gaming, but his unique existence in Persona 4 is a small and positive move forward toward a more socially diversified gaming universe.
First introduced as a rough-and-tumble teen with antisocial leanings, Kanji is feared by the locals and maintains a confrontational machismo toward the other characters throughout the game. He is a loyal son and employee at his family's textile shop, and it's not until the debut of his alter-ego Shadow Kanji that we are made aware of his inner sexual turmoil.
Shadow Kanji inhabits a steamy bathhouse dungeon inside The Midnight Channel, an alternate dimension inside the TV where the main characters must battle their alter-egos in order to save themselves and their friends.
The alter-egos manifest aspects of the main characters' psyches that they are trying to hide from others and deny from themselves. Once the alter-egos are defeated in The Midnight Channel, they are validated by the characters accepting them as necessary parts of their real personalities.
Shadow Kanji's scanty attire, flamboyant lisp, and over-the-top homoerotic banter shed light upon Kanji's hidden identity, but it is his remarks stating sexual preference for the male gender that directly support the notion that is Kanji is gay.
Once Shadow Kanji is defeated in the game, Kanji accepts that his gay alter-ego is an essential part of his personality, but he does not make any outward declaration or revelation that he is gay or remotely bisexual. As the game progresses, Kanji must deal with jokes regarding his sexuality and un-manly artistic hobbies, in addition to his crush on a male character, who turns out to be a cross-dressing woman.
Intentionally and perhaps tellingly, especially when we examine homosexuality within a greater social context in Japan, there is no concrete conclusion provided by the game regarding his true orientation.
So Is He? Or Isn't He?
"We would like everyone to play through the game and come up with their own answers to that question; there is no official answer," says Yu Namba, Atlus USA's Persona 4 Project Lead. "What matters is that Kanji's other self cries out, 'Accept me for who I am!' I think it's a powerful message which many, if not all of us can relate to.”
Nich Maragos, Atlus USA's Persona 4 Editor, agrees with Namba that it is up to each individual player to draw their own conclusions, but his personal opinions sway toward a gay Kanji. "At the end of Kanji's Social Link, should you choose to advance it that far, he does say specifically in reference to his Shadow self, 'That 'other me' is me.'”
Atlus Japan, the original developer of Persona 4, was not available for comment.
"Most American gamers will assume he is gay, especially if they are not aware of Japan's cultural differences and the subtleties of their interactions," says Colette Bennett, Japanese RPG enthusiast and editor at consumer weblog Destructoid.
Brenda Brathwaite, game designer, professor, and author of Sex in Video Games has an altogether different perspective: "It would have been amazing if they would have made a concrete statement that he is gay. That we could play as a gay main character in a video game would be a big deal."
Says Brathwaite, "I can find twenty things that I didn't like about how Kanji was portrayed, such as the game's juvenile nature in dealing with his sexuality, but there is a part of me that is thrilled there is a gay character in a game and that a game would portray how they are dealing with their inner struggles and interactions with friends."
Homosexuality In Japan
That Kanji's character comes to American gamers through a Japanese game is not surprising. Japanese attitudes toward sexuality and homosexuality are incredibly different than those of the West, even though the general assumption from Westerners is that the Japanese are a repressed people.
Because there is no legislation relating to homosexual sex, it's not a hot-button social or moral issue in Japan like it is in America. Many Japanese gay men resist the Western notion of "gay rights" because sexuality is not thought of in terms of what is right or wrong, but rather as play or something people may choose to engage in if they wish.
"The Japanese see homosexuality as a lifestyle choice, very different from the actual homosexual activity," explains Dr. Antonia Levi, author of Samurai from Outer Space: Understanding Japanese Animation.
"There is an understanding that you can play with fantasies that you might not want to live out in your normal life," Levi says. "Americans see things in very black and white -- you're either gay, or you're not. The Japanese are more comfortable with the concept of being gay and not being gay at the same time. In this case, it makes sense that, in the end, the game is not telling you what to think about Kanji or even if he is gay."
Because outward unorthodox behavior is frowned upon in Japanese society, many people who engage in homosexual activity see it as a world separate from their day-to-day lives. Upholding respectable outward behavior would mean being married, having children and having a respectable job, but what ones does in their sexual lives is not harshly judged.
For Kanji, working at his family's textile shop was a very traditional and respectable job, one that could have been at risk had he made a lifestyle choice to have an openly gay relationship with another man.
Japan scholar Dr. Mark McLelland says, "Even though homosexual characters are very prevalent in the Japanese media, its visibility in comic books, women's magazines, TV dramas and talk-shows, movies and popular fiction has not created the space for individuals expressing lesbian or gay 'identities' to come out in actual life."
"Yet, as recent research has shown, the notion of 'coming out' is seen as undesirable by many Japanese gay men and lesbians as it necessarily involves adopting a confrontational stance against mainstream lifestyles and values, which many still wish to endorse."
In Kanji's case, remaining ambiguous and undeclared about his sexuality is not necessarily a rejection of its existence or the developers displaying homophobia, but rather as a comment on homosexuality in a greater Japanese social context.
In translating the game for a Western audience, Atlus USA's goal was to retain as much of the original content as possible in order to accurately portray the Japanese culture.
Namba explains, "We did encounter a small number of sexually oriented instances which we decided to make more subtle, but the meaning of everything is still intact."
For instance, keeping Shadow Kanji's over-the-top flamboyance was important. "That flamboyance was also what the viewers of the Midnight Channel wanted to see: a typical gay person on TV that people would laugh at. The TV station broadcasts what the audience prefers to watch -- it's a stark portrayal of modern society."
More Kanjis In Games?
The response to Kanji's character has been generally neutral or positive among players of Persona 4. Google for any forums on threads about Kanji and you'll see comments such as: "I really love how brave Atlus was with releasing a game with with stuff like this in North America." and "Kanji. I love Kanji. He is all that is adorable. However, it would have been nice if they'd just gone ahead and made him gay."
Whether more characters as complex and socially relevant as Kanji's will appear in more games available in America is really up to American developers. User-created characters aside, one can count on a single hand the number of playable LGBT characters that have entered into the gaming world.
"From a ratings standpoint, when you're a game designer, you are so incredibly aware of the ramifications of the M rating. Putting any sex in your game, would potentially limit the market," explains Brathwaite. (Persona 4 carries an M rating.)
"There is also double perception that games are for kids. But eventually, we will want to tell more complex and mature stories. For example, Braid had an incredibly adult storyline, even though it didn't deal with sexuality."
So far, not many developers have chosen to tackle topics such as a character's sexual orientation in their titles. ESRB ratings, a risk-averse market, and lack of diversity in the developer pool are all factors that contribute to the slow social evolution of games.
"I don't think American developers have evolved to the point where they are comfortable with portraying characters like Kanji," says Destructoid's Bennett. "For the most part, any characters that are bisexual, gay or transgendered are either horrible stereotypes or their sexuality is just referenced on occasion."
"I would like to see more characters like Kanji in games, and what I mean is not just characters struggling to cope with their sexuality or inner demons, but characters who face more complex emotional, human struggles than just how to get the princess or fight some ultimate boss at the end of a game," she adds.
"I feel that the closer games bring us to reality the closer they come to evolution, where we play games not just for fun and entertainment, but to have compelling, resonant experiences as memorable as those in our real lives."