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August 7, 2017

Persona 5: Waifus all Night (FINALE)

I just love how this series’ title has taken on a whole new meaning with the reveal of two new dancing spinoffs for the Persona franchise.  On that note?  Hard to believe that there are two instead of just one, but I’m down for it.  Seeing the Phantom Thieves bust a move put a smile on my face, especially when Ryuji and Ann dropped in to pop and lock.

Oh, by the way, Ann’s my Persona 5 waifu.  That was obvious weeks ago, but you know.  Might as well make it official, eh?  Let’s discuss why -- WITH ULTIMATE SPOILERS.  But first…


Ann is best girl, your waifu is trash, your waifu is shit, your favorite anime sucks, I want to protect that smile, don’t talk shit about mai waifu, your waifu doesn’t exist, this is mai waifu there are many like it but this one is mine, and other assorted memes on the subject of waifus/anime.  Pick and choose the ones that suit you best, and apply as needed.

Now that that’s out of the way, here’s the real question: do beautiful people have it rougher than most?

I wouldn’t know, for obvious reasons.  I mean, I’ve wondered what it would be like to be beautiful or handsome, but that ship has sailed.  I have offhandedly expressed a hope to be reincarnated as a show-stopping model in my next life, though; having min-maxed an Intelligence build in this life, I’d want to start fresh with a Charisma build and see what sorts of broken abilities I can get.  If that really came to pass, though, then what would it mean?  Would I be facing all sorts of prejudices and stigmas just because I’d be a looker so gorgeous that heads would spin clear off necks when I passed by?

I ask this, because seeing Ann in P5 got me thinking.  Thanks to her position in the story, you pretty much can’t talk about her without talking about the way she looks -- which would be a real essay-maker if she was nightmarishly ugly, but this is Quasi-Anime Land we’re talking about.  She ain’t gonna be ugly.  So instead, we’re given the most physically attractive (in-universe) character that Shujin Academy has to offer, to the point where she’s dramatically different from everyone else.  She’s a natural blonde with blue eyes, taller and curvier than most in her age bracket, and you have to strain to make out her school uniform amidst her stylish wear.  She’s got a spotlight on her the size of a small galaxy. 

So by default, everyone assumes the worst of her.  She’s trouble; she’s easy; she’s Kamoshida’s girl.  Like everyone else in the Phantom Thieves, she’s ostracized -- but more than any other character, she’s kept at arms’ length because of the way she looks, and for the most part there’s very little she can do to change her appearance.  Granted she could dye her hair or wear colored contacts, but this is Ann “My Persona Will Threaten to Burn You Alive” Takamaki we’re talking about.  She’s not exactly one to buckle under pressure.

Social graces and traditions in Japan, as far as I know, mean that anyone who’s too far outside the spectrum of normalcy is in for a rough time.  The nail that sticks up gets hammered down, as my Japanese teacher once said.  It wasn’t just a pearl of wisdom, either; she not only took heat for being above average in height (relative to her gender and ethnicity), but actually got sent home in tears by her school for having wavy hair.  Naturally wavy hair.  Ann might be a fictional character, but I can’t imagine her having an easy time among the Shujin ranks.  The hate does die down after the Kamoshida arc, but it’s a safe bet that the damage has been done and she’s put up a wall between her and the student body.  Just as well, though; you can’t be a Phantom Thief without being an outcast.

You can’t have Ann without having her looks figure into her character, and her role in the plot.  In terms of the former, it’s the first step towards proving what she’s all about -- a sort of springboard for the sake of assertion and self-expression.  Not only does she not care about how she looks (or how others perceive or shame her), but she actively embraces them.  She’s the one that chose to do model work.  She’s the one who cares about fashion and style.  She’s the one that opts to put on brazen bikinis.  That’s more than just worthy of respect.  That’s rad.

Buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut then the problems start cropping up.

I can’t help but sweat over Ann’s implementation in the game.  It’s not as if I think there’s a problem with the character; I have a problem with the way P5 treats her.  The character says “I’m my own woman who’s confident, bold, and stalwart no matter what I do.”  Meanwhile, again and again the camera -- and the game, by extension -- says “Yo, let’s creep on this hot girl.” 

It’s like there was a mandate from the heavens themselves, with holy orders carved into a mountain face with bolts from the blue.  Thou shalt stare at this girl as she sweats in her white shirt and exposes her bra.  Thou shalt pan down this girl’s body as she exposes a leg in her kimono.  Thou shalt zoom in on her lady parts when she’s in her swimsuit.  Thou shalt include a subplot where she must deal with an artist who comes off as a stalker at first glance.  Thou shalt have an additional subplot where she will get blackmailed into posing nude.  Thou shalt find an excuse for her to get back into a swimsuit while exploring the mental sanctum of the up-and-coming prime minister.  And so on, and so forth.

Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if she was willing to play along with it every time, but she’s not.  She’s clearly annoyed by it or expresses her reservations whenever it’s time for her to be used as a weapon of mass distraction.  And, okay, yeah, I get it -- she has every right to be angry when it crops up, especially because it’s not something she gets to choose of her own free will (bikini selection aside).  It’s just something that’s forced on her by the camera work and the whims of the script.  Fine.  But as anyone who plays the game knows all too well, this is a character that appeared in the initial arc as the lust object of a violent, lecherous teacher.  And her reward from then on is to be treated as the lust object of the player. 

I’m getting some mixed signals here, is what I’m trying to say.

To be fair, pretty much every time the fanservice crops up, it comes off as a joke, and one that Ann sometimes plays along with.  Viewed in a positive light, you could say that it’s a way to have players acclimate to beautiful bodies (fictional or otherwise); by using it as less of a tool for arousal and more as a laugh-happy fact of life, it could be that the developers’ intent was to disarm players and teach them that it’s okay to be beautiful -- and show off your body while you’re at it.  But that’s a hell of a reach, even for me. 

If I was the one behind P5, then I would’ve done one of two things: scaled back on the Ann-service so that it doesn’t reach the point of me going “Time to creep on Ann some more” with every anime cutscene, OR rejigger those scenes so it’s less about Ann being forced into situations she’s uncomfortable with and more about Ann jumping headfirst into the role of “the hot one” and then getting laughs out of her that way.  Agency should always be a top priority; even if fictional characters by definition aren’t real, you can take steps to make them feel real.  Not just tropes.  Not just cheap, pandering masses of attributes.  (Remember this for later.)

That does make me wonder how well Ann was received by gamers across the board, though.  I was under the impression that most people were going after Makoto and Futaba as waifus.  Do people even like the character?  Or did the stigma she bore in-universe leak into our world?  I mean, I remember the Hawaii event and the choice of “what kind of girl you like”.  Even if choosing “someone with a hot bod” would have put you on the fast track to Ann, could you really say that in lieu of social graces and an effort to come off as more than just a shallow, perverted louse?  Are we hardwired by default to put beautiful characters -- including, if not especially, those who deal in fanservice -- under greater scrutiny because we assume that they’re only there for fanservice?

…I’m probably overthinking the shit out of this.  If you’ve got something to say on the subject, feel free to.  For now, though?  I’m about to explain why Ann is my favorite girl of the bunch.  To put it simply, she feels the most real to me.  And part of the reason why she feels the realest is because she feels the funniest.

No, scratch that.  She is the funniest girl.  Full stop.

Even if it does involve the prospect of Ann-service, good old Panther earns some pretty hearty laughs along the way -- like when she appears for Yusuke “Lobsters” Kitamura’s nude painting session in enough layers of clothing to make Rufus look like a featherweight.  Then you get to find out that she’s a terrible actress when the Thieves need to con info out of someone; she’ll either move into some stilted improv, or break out an uneven British accent for no reason.  And then there’s her Confidant route, wherein she decides that she’s going to become an action movie star on a whim.  Yet just as quickly, she decides that she’s going to become a model for real -- mostly because up to that point, she’s only been winging it, relying on her natural beauty, and inadvertently taking a big dump on models who work ten times harder to maintain their looks.

Ann’s antics -- or Ann-tics, if you will -- consistently put a smile on my face.  Again and again I found myself thinking “AHAHAHA, what a doofus!”  But instead of shoving her aside for more time with Little Miss Kamen Rider, it actually made me like her more.  She’s a giver of jokes, as well as a prime target for them -- even if it’s because her mind tends to go to some strange places.  And you know what? That’s cool.  Being easy to laugh at (or with) means that the devs were willing to make her be more than a perfect polygonal specimen.  As the butt of many a joke -- and again, the deliverer of them -- she’s allowed to be more than a waifu.  But of course, it goes way beyond that.

Looks aside, Ann is surprisingly normal.  Low-key, even.  As good as Makoto, Haru, and Futaba are, they still have some marked roles, archetypes, and tropes rolled into their very beings.  Ann, in contrast, does not -- or at least she has less of them.  She wants to shop, hang out with her pals, look good, and eat as many sweets as her stomach will allow without bursting Aliens-style.  That’s a lot more relatable to me than flawless ace student council president, cinnamon bun heiress who can hijack an amusement park, or meme-slinging hacker who could singlehandedly shut down Japan on a whim.  Her words, actions and reactions feel decidedly more down-to-earth, partly because she isn’t necessarily chained to her archetype.  She’s allowed to have moments of brilliance and buffoonery, of resolve and reticence, of fury and fancy.  What a paradox it is, knowing that the character typecast as “the hot one” is the best at moving past her role in the plot.

It goes without saying, but among the P5 girls in your party, Ann’s Confidant route is my favorite.  It gave me a lot of the funny moments I mentioned earlier, but also put in the work to develop her character.  In a sense, you can think of her as formless; she doesn’t hold a title like Makoto, doesn’t have major financial ties like Haru, and doesn’t have some god-tier skills like Futaba.  Coupled with the expected teenage ennui, she’s desperate for a purpose in life.  Or, to be more precise -- given that she’s a swindler of metaphysical desires -- she wants to find the strength to be more than just some dumb high school girl.

The Kamoshida arc hit Ann hard -- maybe the hardest of the whole cast.  Except maybe Ryuji, but the pervy teacher was done with him once he ruined the track star’s leg; meanwhile, Ann was the perpetual target of his “affections”, not to mention that Kamoshida’s antics pushed a broken-down Shiho to suicide.  If not for her work as a Phantom Thief, Ann would’ve been powerless and victimized from start to finish.  It’s not hard to imagine that at some point, she would’ve become the next Shiho -- but since we’re talking about what actually happens in the game, we can’t exactly overlook the rooftop dive that leads to Shiho’s hospitalization.

Ann decides that she needs to become a stronger person to prevent anything like that from ever happening again.  And beyond that?  She figures that it’d just be better in general if she opted for self-improvement.  The problem is that she has no idea how to improve herself; that’s not the best state for her, given that she wants to present Shiho with good news about how she’s progressing and evolving even without her only friend by her side. 

Luckily, that’s where Joker comes in.  As much as I would have loved for Ann to go down the path of the action movie star (complete with explosions and car chases throughout her Confidant route), I’m okay with her settling on being a model.  The crux of her decision is that despite her natural good looks (even though she eats like a pig with a full trough) she hasn’t put any thought or effort into modeling.  And it shows; she gets a rival named Mika who ends up flabbergasted over how little work Ann has done with her job -- something she sees as a “well, whatever” offhand thing -- while Mika practically warped her whole life around being photoshoot-ready.  And eventually it catches up with Ann; Mika shows her up, to the point where the cameramen basically tell Ann to buzz off.

Thanks to Joker’s coaching and support, Ann gets right back in the fight.  But it’s not solely through Protagonist Power that she’s able to face the cameras (and Mika) again; having been dealt a decisive loss, Ann has a fire lit inside her belly.  She may not have her future fully decided, but in the present she knows where she is and what she can do -- and what she can do is level up her modeling game to prove something important.  She can beat Mika.  She can be just like the bold, sexy villainesses she once idolized.  She can gain strength and inner fortitude.  She can show Shiho that even if they’re not side-by-side -- even if one or the other has been hurt near-irreparably -- they can still soldier on.

And the best part?  She can do it all with a smile.

As if to reward Ann for her efforts, Shiho does manage to make some semblance of a recovery by the end of her Confidant route.  When all’s said and done, the whip-lashing Panther ends up getting a new Persona -- the wicked Hecate -- as a means to face life’s hardships once more.  In turn, the player’s reward -- more so than Joker’s -- is the opportunity to go from Ann’s cheerleading coach to genuine lover.  And you know what?  I went for it.  No reservations, no regrets; she was the first of the ladies I maxed out, after all, so I didn’t have any excuses.  I wanted to see what I’d been missing out on all these years.

I have to be honest.  Rank 9 and 10 of Ann’s route -- especially Rank 10, once you opt into a relationship -- left me positively floored.  Seeing Ann cuddle up next to Joker in the midst of a Ferris wheel ride, cheeks rosy and eyes aglitter, made me feel something.  But hearing her speak directly from the heart and say “You’re my light” genuinely, legitimately made me breathless for a few seconds.  It made my heart, metaphorically if not literally, skip a beat (and I hope it was the former, for fear of cardiac issues).  In that moment, Ann became something more to me.  Not just a waifu; not just an achievement; not just a reward; not just a character to analyze; not just a mass of polygons to put in my party; no, Ann became Ann.  The girl that I thought of as a victim, a doofus, a natural-born sadist, a closet otaku, a glutton, a firebrand, and more throughout the story became…just Ann.  Just special.

So you can imagine how it felt for me to say goodbye to her at the end of the game. 

Yup.  I actually started to cry.

Like, there were other opportunities to let the tears start flowing prior to that final goodbye.  Knowing that I’d hurt Ann by hiding Joker’s impending imprisonment made me want a runback harder than I ever thought possible, for example.  And of course, I’d long since reached a point where I never wanted to take her out of the party (though I did from time to time; my bro Ryuji, however, was non-negotiable).  But having to say goodbye to Ann -- itself after a Valentine’s date that in hindsight probably existed to help twist the knife -- got me good.  It was thanks to her that I realized how much she, Ryuji, the Phantom Thieves, and Persona 5 in general meant to me.

And after a few seconds of standing there in stunned silence, I had a thought.  “No, wait!  I don’t want to say goodbye!  Let me keep playing this game!  Let me keep hanging out with my pals!  Please, don’t let it end!”  But I did end it by my own hand eventually, despite my mini-episode.  And thanks to the antics of Yusuke “Lobsters” Kitamura while on the road, I managed to plaster a smile on my face…only to start getting teary-eyed again once the credits rolled.

So where does that leave us?

I’d like to think that I’ve conclusively proven why I prefer Ann over the others -- but to be clear, it’s not as if Makoto, Haru, and Futaba are wastes of data.  All four of the female Phantom Thieves have pros and cons going for them, and any given gamer has every right to pick one above the others as their beloved waifu.  But in writing these posts, I think I’ve come to a conclusion.

Persona 5 -- and indeed, all of the modern Persona games -- is waifus.

Persona 5 is many things.  It’s about a lot of things.  It’s about rising up against the corruption of institutions small and large.  It’s about having the courage to seek and define one’s own sense of justice.  It’s about the damning effect that societal pressures and expectations have on citizens young and old.  It’s about the perils of seeking, obtaining, and maintaining fame.  But you know what?  None of that shit matters in the end, even when it’s buttressed by stylish battles against demons set to catchy acid jazz tunes.  At its core, Persona 5 is about hanging out with a bunch of freaks, idiots, and madmen -- and learning to cherish them along the way. 

So it doesn’t matter what waifu you choose.  All that matters is that you walked that path with them together.  Hand in hand, with smiles on your faces.

And in the end, isn’t that’s how it should be?

Thanks for reading.  See you next time.

But seriously, Ryuji best girl confirmed.  For real.  FIGHT ME 1V1 IRL, SCRUBS.  I DARE YOU.

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