The Persona series is one of the franchises that defined my childhood. And Persona 4, with its cozy town and diverse array of characters, many of which are deep and well-written, made me a lifelong fan. But it’s not a series without serious flaws. One of the most prominent issues in Persona 4 is its approach to queer-identifying or queer-questioning people. The queerbaiting you’ll see in Persona 4 Golden still sucks today. And the homophobia that accompanies that queerbaiting is a kick in the teeth for what should be a nostalgic, light-hearted, murder-mystery romp.
Reminder: Persona 4 Golden’s Kanji and Naoto Queer-Baiting Still Sucks
It likely comes as no surprise that Kanji Tatsumi is the first on the examination table if you’ve ever played the game.
Kanji’s arc is inherently tragic. At a young age, Kanji discovered a love for sewing and cooking, likely because of his mother, who works in textiles. But before Kanji’s father died, he told Kanji that he “wasn’t like a man” because of his love for these hobbies. This wound created the foundation for much of the complex that Kanji would bring into his adolescence.
His continued interest in feminine-coded hobbies led to him facing a significant amount of ridicule and rejection from his peers. This led to Kanji hiding his hobbies and contemplating whether his interest in those activities (and his dislike for women, who bullied him) made him queer.
But it’s here that we hit our first moment of dissonance with Kanji’s arc. Kanji does everything possible to hide his interests in cute things, like sewing and cooking, and overcompensates by being violent and aggressive. But his interactions with male-presenting Naoto makes it clear that his attraction to men is not something he’s attempting to hide. The first boy who asks to speak to him in private is immediately given a “yes”, and Kanji admits to the group that his interest in Naoto was because Kanji believed Naoto was a boy.
This combination of insecurities and personal confusion culminated in a Shadow Dungeon, which fixated almost exclusively on Kanji’s sexuality. And it’s this dungeon that’s created so much conflict and anger in the fanbase. First, the dungeon is explicitly played for laughs, and there’s a significant amount of homophobia from start to finish from the male companion characters.
Second, if Kanji’s arc were really about his coming to terms with liking feminine-coded activities and not his sexuality… Why would his dungeon be purely about embracing men? Even in Yukiko’s dungeon, which is also fairly ridiculous, we have dialogue that makes it explicit that she wants to be saved from a life that feels like a prison. Kanji doesn’t receive a similar dialogue about accepting the fact that he likes cute things and should accept that about himself.
After Kanji is rescued from his dungeon, Kanji is “reformed” and becomes explicitly heterosexual. At best, it feels like bad writing. But Kanji and Naoto aren’t the only characters which are done dirty in Persona 4.
One particular pairing frequently goes unexamined. Chie and Yukiko are one of the first friends our Protagonist meets in Inaba and another explicit example of queerbaiting. And if you think I’m talking specifically about Chie, you’d be wrong. Not all pixie-cut tomboys with an intense devotion to their best female friend are queer.
You’d be forgiven for assuming, however. When Chie saw Yukiko on the Midnight Channel, she was flummoxed that a girl could be her soulmate. But it was a feeling of bewilderment (and not denial) that lasted briefly before she moved right along.
No, Chie isn’t who’s baiting us. It’s our high-femme Yukiko’s Shadow that explicitly states that she thinks of Chie as her Prince. For those who haven’t played Persona 4 in years, the first dungeon you’ll tangle with is Yukiko’s Castle, an eight-floor dungeon that, on a surface level, seems to be about her desire to “score with a hot stud.” But as you ascend the castle, Yukiko’s true subconscious desires and insecurities reveal themselves.
More than anything, Yukiko wants freedom. Freedom from the responsibilities hoisted on her by her family, freedom from the inn that she seems to be life bound to, and freedom to pursue whatever passion and love that she wants. And when you finally encounter her on the top floor, she makes note that there are three princes there to save her.
There is some debate in the character group about who the third prince was – Chie or Teddie? But Yukiko clarifies it herself, saying that Chie is her prince. That Chie has always been strong, leading the way for her, but even Chie can’t save her. It’s a heartbreaking confession that truly reveals Yukiko’s feelings for Chie. While it might not be outright romance, it skews heavily away from your standard platonic relationship. After all, when was the last time you looked at your best bro and thought of him as your princess?
It’s also when Shadow Yukiko points out how Chie is unable to save her, causing Chie distress, that Yukiko picks herself up off the floor to protest. This confrontation leads to the final boss battle and the eventual reunion between Chie and Yukiko. The girls apologize for not seeing each other’s struggles and true selves and promise to be better to each other.
After this, the relationship between Chie and Yukiko is never touched on again. That makes sense, as there are other characters to consider. But a clear part of Yukiko’s struggle is her desire to be true to herself and emancipate herself from the expectations foisted on her by family and the town she lives in. And Chie is a pillar within that desire.
In many ways, Yukiko only serves as a placeholder for the “demure, elegant, perfect” female trope seen in countless animes, video games, and other media throughout Japan. And like Ann Takamaki in Persona 5, her dungeon serves primarily to get laughs and promote adolescent fantasies. This is a shame in more ways than one, not only because of Persona 4’s message of accepting who you truly are, but because we came within a hair’s breadth of Yukiko, actually developing a fully fleshed-out character beyond intense laugh attacks.
Queer women often struggle to find any sort of representation in media. Chie and Yukiko’s relationship is so tragic, and such a thorn in my side, because of how close it comes to being a fantastic representation of either bisexual or lesbian women in love and discovering that love in high school. And while this is a port of a game initially released in 2008, the queerbaiting sucked then and it sucks even more now.