WARNING: This editorial will definitely contain spoilers for Persona 4! Generally, there won’t be too much about the main plot of the game, but it’s almost impossible to discuss Naoto’s character without spoilers. If you haven’t played the game, read on at your own risk!
If there is one thing that Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 does well, it is its characters, with game mechanics that lend themselves to fantastic character building. Not only are the dungeons built around exploring the psyche of a specific character, each individual must also face their insecurities in order to obtain their persona. On top of that, the benefits of social links encourage you to get to know not only your party members, but other minor characters as well. With such a focus, there are a ton of great candidates for a Building Character editorial. I’ve chosen to focus on my personal favorite: Naoto Shirogane.
For those who haven’t played the game (and for some reason have no aversion to spoilers), I’ll give a brief summary of the necessary plot details. The player character (Yu Narukami) and his friends investigate a series of kidnappings/murders occurring in the small town of Inaba. Whenever a victim is kidnapped, they are thrown into the “TV world” and confronted with their “shadow”, a manifestation of their inner psyche. Yu and the rest of the self-proclaimed “Investigation Team” use the power of their personas (a power that is generally gained by facing one’s shadow) to rescue the victims and to try to get to the source of the kidnappings.
Now, let’s get to the good stuff. Naoto is introduced as the mysterious “Detective Prince”. The Investigation Team encounters him early on, but it isn’t until later that Yu actually gets to interact with him. Once Naoto transfers to Yasogami High, he becomes a major player in the story. When he first arrives, he’s suave and mysterious. Naturally he attracts a lot of attention from his classmates, but he makes it outwardly clear that he’s uninterested in them. He’s aloof and antisocial, building up the mysterious air surrounding him. Even though his classmates desperately want to get to know him, Naoto pushes them away and seems uninterested in everything but his detective work. He even goes so far as to criticize Yu and the rest of the Investigation Team, suggesting that the investigation is only a game to them.
After questioning the devotion of the Investigation Team, Naoto shows his true devotion to solving the case, and his belief that he doesn’t need help from anyone else. Frustrated with his inability to make progress with his investigation, and the fact that no one will believe his assertions that the case is not truly resolved, Naoto uses himself as bait. He deliberately gets himself kidnapped, and, as per usual, it’s the Investigation Team to the rescue.
Naoto’s “dungeon” manifests itself as a secret sci-fi laboratory… hideout… thing. This seems pretty contrary to Naoto’s presentation of himself as a mature adult, and Yosuke comments, “I guess our proper boy detective isn’t as grown up as he looks”. The team presses on through Naoto’s dungeon until the pinnacle moment when we encounter Naoto’s shadow face to face, and finally meet Naoto on a deeper level. Naoto has made a distinct effort to play himself up as an adult who has it together and doesn’t need to rely on anyone but himself. When we meet his shadow, however, we find something totally contrary to this façade.
Naoto’s shadow reveals to us how alone Naoto feels. He’s frustrated with the fact that none of the adults in his life accept him for who he is. He is useful to them only as an “ace detective”, and is cast aside when he is no longer needed. Naoto desperately wants to be recognized as a human being with feelings instead of as a mere child who is only valuable due to his intellect. He feels that as a child he will never receive this kind of recognition, which is why he tries so hard to emulate the “’strong’ and ‘cool’ men who populate detective fiction”.
Major spoilers beyond this point guys! It’s not too late to turn back!
However it is not only Naoto’s status as a child that prevents him from being the “cool manly detective” that he wants to be, but also his sex. It is at this point we find out that Naoto is actually a girl, and it is here that she becomes a truly compelling character. Naoto feels trapped by her body, and thinks the only way to gain the recognition she wants is by emulating the same “mature” men who cast her aside. Persona 4 is touching on some pretty hard hitting issues in taking on both gender identity and societal gender roles. Naoto’s shadow suggests that Naoto undergo a “body alteration procedure” in order to become the ideal man she wants to be, so that she can compete and be respected in the male-dominated society in which she finds herself.
It’s pretty hard not to feel for Naoto at this point. Until now, she has separated herself from everyone, immersing herself in her detective work and believing that opening up to others and relying on them will destroy the image she’s been trying to create. Naoto attempts to deny that she needs recognition for anything other than her work as a detective, when what she wants desperately is to be recognized for who she is. She uses her devotion to her work to distract herself from her loneliness and frustration.
Naoto makes it abundantly clear that she is unhappy with herself. While it’s initially unclear whether Naoto’s desire for a body alteration procedure stems from her frustration with her inability to be recognized as a detective or from fundamental gender confusion, this issue is fleshed out a bit more in her social link. In Naoto’s social link, her grandfather (also a famous detective) reminds Naoto how she used to feel, when all she wanted was to be a detective, before she was forced to deal with a society that wouldn’t accept her. In her social link, Naoto admits that she wanted to solve cases to be accepted and to be needed, and she remembers the original reason she wanted to be a detective: because she loved solving mysteries, and by doing so she could help people. Throughout her social link, and the rest of the game, Naoto is able to accept herself for who she is, as both a woman and a detective. Through her relationship with Yu and the others, we get to watch Naoto become comfortable with herself, and learn to appreciate who she is.
The thing I appreciate most about the handling of Naoto’s gender identity is the game’s refusal to label her or make it into a cut and dry issue. Never in the game is she referred to as “transgendered” or stuck into any type of category. Why? Because these issues are complicated. In this way, the game is able to build Naoto into a relatable and believable character. Like all human beings, she’s too complex to be labeled and categorized. This is part of the reason I love Naoto: everyone can relate to her. Even if you’ve never struggled with the specific challenges Naoto is facing, everyone struggles with finding their place in society and wrestles with their own identity.
As such an interesting and complex character, there is no way that I could do Naoto justice in any number of words. I’d highly recommend Persona 4 to any gamers interested in characters and plot who haven’t picked it up yet.