The Shin Megami Tensei series is no stranger to mature content. Over the past 20 years, the series has seen teenagers fight manage wars between gods and mankind, face the deepest corners of their psyches, and kill their best friends in order to restore peace to the world. It’s fitting that they are also one of the few series in gaming that can create a character who is not defined by his or her sexuality, but who uses them to grow as a person. Persona 4’s Kanji Tatsumi may be the most believable not-entirely-sexual-or-gender-normative character we have seen thus far in a Japanese made game.
Early in Shin Megami Tensei Persona 4, the mere mention of Kanji’s name strikes fear into the hearts of policemen over town; he decimates gangs single-handedly while keeping justice and fear rampant in the school district. Despite his reputation, he is a hard worker and loyal son at his family’s textile shop and is quick to challenge anyone who sullies his name or family’s reputation. The main cast is all about ready to abandon hopes that Kanji may lead them further in their investigation until he ends up on the Shadow Channel. This alternate reality program, the only link between a series of murders and its victims, shows Kanji donning nothing more than a bath towel, prancing around muscle men, farting rainbows and sneezing glitter. While the kids at school find this hilarious, Kanji flips out and goes on the hunt for the head of whoever fabricated the broadcast.
Of course, because Japan can never have their teenage protagonists not have absurd levels of psychological “problems”, we rush into Kanji’s alternate reality, a sleazy bathhouse where everything just seems a bit too gay. By the time I found Kanji at the end of the maze, I was expecting him to be belting out Bette Mittler in mink coats while trying to cut out these components of his personality. Persona does something that very few games have ever managed to accomplish thus far; it allows a character to confront and explore the issues of sexuality, gender, respect, and honesty without resorting to a black and white dichotomy of any aspect.
Kanji never comes to a concrete definition of what his sexuality means to him. If anything, much of his struggle is trying to prove his masculinity amongst those who question it. His fondness for making dolls and avoidance of girls could be triggers, but I felt that he is much more concerned with trying to define what it means to be a man. Maybe learning to break away from the abrasive personality he’s adopted is the first step to gaining acceptance of whatever issues of sexuality are present, but the fact that he’s willing to discuss these concerns with the protagonists shows a much more realistic portrayal of identity conflicts that are more universal than exclusively homosexual or heterosexual.
Yes, there are definite underpinnings of sexual identity in Kanji’s story. He is afraid of being reduced to a hyper-sexual, feminine stereotype and berates Yosuke for being an awkward and immature jerk about his potential homosexuality. His relationship with another late-game character combines and expands his own struggles with those of gender identity, shame, and finding honor and acceptance in an unforgiving environment.
It’s not that Kanji’s sexual orientation defines his character or our interest in him. It’s that his journey, sprouting from his inner conflicts between risk and security, masculinity and femininity, duty and self-actualization, and just opening himself to new experiences starts through questioning his upbringing, identity, and purpose It’s somewhat ambiguous where Kanji ends up at the end of the game, but regardless of how much you use him, he has acquired and nurtured a new group of friends, sense of confidence, and maturity that most likely would not have happened without facing the darker, scarier questions in his life. While many Western players have placed Kanji on the pink team, he is one of the few characters in all of gaming where his sexuality merely a part of him, rather than an all-consuming character flaw. Gay, straight, bi, or just ambivalent, Kanji is a major stepping stone for the relatively conservative range of video game characters.