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The Troubled Mind of Kanji Tatsumi: A Video Game Close Reading.

A close reading of the portrayal of gender and sexuality in Persona 4, and how the story of Kanji Tatsumi reveals how people are defined by their society, rather than defining themselves.

Matthew Kessler, Blogger

November 6, 2009

13 Min Read

There are so many wonderful characters in Persona 4: the energetic Chie, who will do anything to protect those she loves, the awkward Yosuke, who dreams of a more exciting life, the innocent Nanako, who doesn’t understand why her Father works all the time, and the whipped Dojima, who can’t find the courage to tell his daughter that he works all the time to protect her. Even within the confines of Japanese game storytelling—which doesn’t often have the luxury of subtle, quiet storytelling (with rare exceptions) – Persona 4 creates a cast of compelling, interesting characters who do, indeed, have genuine, human characteristics at their core. The kids and adults of Iniba are flawed people, as flawed  and compelling as anyone in Liberty City. It makes the ridiculous murder plot of Persona 4—which has the characters jump into Television sets to fight shadows created by the insecurities of the town—actually seem somewhat plausible. Persona 4 is a rich, fascinating universe, with one of the greatest ensemble cast of any video game I have ever played.

The character who I found the most interesting of the whole group—the character whose psychological dilemma really touched me the most—was none other than wannabe biker, roughneck, and textile master Kanji Tatsumi. Kanji is brazen, reckless, and incredibly loyal. He isn’t afraid to call out other characters on their bullshit, and he, more than any other member of the Investigation Team, realizes that dealing with your shadow is, in fact, incredible beneficial to those whose minds are so troubled. 

And yet, under that tough-as-nails exterior, Kanji, emerges as one of the most complicated and interesting characters in the game;  raising serious questions about the way society handles and understands gender and sexuality. 
 I was so connected to the character, and felt that his characteristics and message were so clear, that I was more than a little angered by the way Kanji was interpreted in a recent video on Destuctoid.com. The video in question was a rant, written and performed by site editor Anthony Burch, in which he argued that video games desperately needed homosexual characters that didn't conform to obvious stereotypes. It's a pretty standard video about a topic that has come up a fair number of times; we've all read something like this before, where progressive game writers bemoan the obvious and infuriating stereotypes about minorities that appear so often in games. 
What shocked me, about the article, however, was that Mr. Burch called out Persona 4 as an example of a game which handled homosexuality extremely poorly.
As P4 players and  Endurance Run viewers remember, Kanji Tatsumi's main struggle is to come to grips with his own sexual orientation. The battle that leads Kanji to understand himself is one of the great moments in any video game to date, period. It provides-- or, at least, I thought it provided--a clear and profound explanation for the character.

Apparently, this is not the case.
With the character of Kanji, Mr. Burch thinks that  Atlus, “sotra half-assed it. Is he gay? Is he not gay? You can argue that this is because of different definitions of sexuality in japan vs. here, and that (sexuality) is not as clear cut as that, but the game still made me feel that that was a cowardly move, to make a character, and actually explore what it’s like to be gay in high school when that’s not really the accepted norm, and then refuse to say whether he’s gay or not."

I  was shocked by the like. I think Mr. Burch is a pretty smart guy in general, but his analysis of Kanji character constitutes, in my mind, a pretty serious misinterpretation of the character. More surprising still, several people in the comments also wrote that they too were disappointed/upset that the game seemed to duck around the issue of whether or not the character was gay. Clearly, there's a large group of Persona 4 players who either missed or didn't understand why Kanji's sexuality was never fully and clearly stated in the game. 
The desire for this kind of explanation is, in my mind, proof positive that some P4 players, straight up, don't understand the issue that's at the core of Kanji's character.

First off, let's get the obvious out of the way, Kanji probably isn’t gay.

Probably not.

As Kanji says inside the T.V, after finally sedating his shadow self, “It ain’t a matter of guys and chicks….”.

The game certainly makes it SEEM like he’s gay. His interaction’s with the “boy” Naoto and, of course, his shadow on the Midnight Channel are all designed to make it look like he’s gay. Persona 4 really goes far to make you, the player think that Kanji is, in fact gay.

And so many people WANT Kanji to be gay. The reason that  Burch included Kanji on the list is specifically for that reason. So many other game players WANTED Kanji to be gay, because video games are in desperate need for those gay characters who are not stereotypes. If Kanji did come out in the game and say hewas gay, it would provide some really interesting interactions throughout the game, just as Burch said; it would allow the game to show interactions of a gay teenager in high school. And that would be just the kind of insightful, meaningful representation of homosexuality that gaming needs.

But Persona 4 doesn’t make the issue of sexuality so simple, and, as a result, Burch punished the game for what it wasn’t; a sophisticated, heartfelt, and honest interactive experience involving someone coming to grips with their homosexual urges.

The problem, though, is just that; Burch punished the game for what it isn’t, instead of understanding what the game actually is.

Persona 4 does have a message about Kanji, and it has nothing do with whether or not he’s actually gay.

Persona 4 doesn’t care if Kanji is gay.

Persona 4 doesn’t care if Kanji is not gay.

The game is not interested in Kanji’s sexuality in and of itself.

No, Persona 4 is interested in Kanji for a different reason.

The key to understanding Kanji isn’t sexuality. It’s Gender.

Now, you may think I’m crazy. You may think that the game puts a ton of time into portraying Kanji as gay, particularly with his near-naked, heavily lisped shadow inside the T.V. The game, you say, seems to want to have Kanji be gay, and doesn’t go through with it.

But take another look at the dialog in the game, particularly from Kanji and Shadow Kanji inside the T.V 

Just before the fight against Shadow Kanji begins, he utters this very interesting line;

“What does it mean to ‘be a guy? What does it mean to be ‘manly?’ Shadow Kanji

Shadow Kanii hits upon one of real Kanji’s sorest spots; for all of his tough guy shenanigans, his leather jacket and “shouting at Media”-itude, Kanji, according to his hearts, true desire, doesn’t understand what it means to be a ”guy”….and, more importantly, why he isn’t a guy.

Yes, Kanji has that air of overcompensating manliness that we always link to heterosexuality, but his heart tells a different story…a story about the real reason his shadow has manifested.

“Oh, how I hate girls……

(The girls say)’You like to sew? What a queer!’

‘Painting is so not you!’

‘But you’re a guy! You don’t act like a guy! Why aren’t you manly?’

“They look at me like I’m some kind of disgusting freak, and say that I’m a weirdo!” Shadow Kanji.

“The girls of Yasogami High reject him. They call him queer. Why? Because Kanji likes to sew. He’s good with textiles. He likes to do crafts, He enjoys knitting. He does things that are “queer” for a guy to do.

Kanji, in the opinion of the town of Inaba, has to be gay, because he doesn’t do the things a guy is “supposed” to do. THIS is the key to Kanji.


For the people of Inaba, a person’s sexual preferences are not dependent on what sex an individual actually likes. It doesn’t have anything to do with attraction. Heck, it doesn’t have anything to do with sexuality whatsoever. Because Kanji doesn’t act like a ‘man”, he is not engaging in things that are “male”. For the people of Inaba (and, I would absolutely say, the people here in America) you can’t be a man, like to sew, and still be straight. Kanji likes to do girly things, and not manly things. Therefore, he must be gay.

And this gets to the heart of what Kanji represents in Persona 4, and why he’s such a wonderful character; Kanji, as a character, represents the way that society(Japanese society, and, I would say, American society) handle Gender and Sexuality.

People, in general, need to characterize things, separate items and people according to differences. You are gay or straight. You are a Democrat or a Republican. You are Rich or Poor. If you are male, you like to have sex with women. If you’re female, you like to sew and do arts and crafts. If you’re a man, you like to do “manly” things, like play sports or get into fights.

YOU, as an individual, do not make these choices. YOU, as an individual, do not choose whether or not you like guys or girls, whether you like sports or crafts. Society, that all seeing eye, determines what you SHOULD like, what you SHOULD enjoy doing. Your reality, your existence; it’s socially constructed. Society determines what you are supposed to be.

For the kids at Inaba High, because Kanji is a guy who likes to sew, he HAS to be gay. That’s all he’s allowed to be. That’s all society allows him to be.

Kanji has to be gay, because society deems him to be gay, not because he is actually attracted to other men.

Kanji Tatsumi is a character with a startling, and true, revelation: We are trapped in the roles we are given by society, We HAVE to fit into the categories that define people.

In Kanji Tatsumi, we see that sexuality is defined by others, towards us. We don’t choose our sexuality, instead, we have it assigned based on what we are “supposed” to be.

Think I’m still crazy? Good! But I’m not done yet! There’s one final piece to Kanji’s puzzle!

I have no sense of whether or not you made it to the end of the game( and by that, I mean the very very all the way super true super true ending) because the very end of the game provides a final twist on the Midnight Channel.

Remember, at the beginning of the game; the Investigation Team THINKS the mysterious Midnight Channel is a representation of people’s deepest, most secret desires and beliefs. The Shadow bosses are representations of what the individual on the Channel wishes they could be, or yearns to be, or actually is. Denying that truth makes the shadows stronger.

We all believed that interpretation, but the "True Ending" of the game provides a final, important twist. The final final boss actually reveals the actual truth of the Midnight Channel: the mysterious shadows figures are not the representations of the captured student’s greatest fears and desires.

In actuality, the image on the midnight channel is generated by Inaba’s perception of whoever had recently showed up on normal television. The shadow Kanji, almost totally naked and with Heavy Lisp, wasn’t generated inside his heart; it was what the town THOUGHT Kanji was, what Inaba THOUGHT was Kanji’s true self: a closeted homosexual.

Kanji’s story isn’t about what was inside his heart. It’s slyer, sneakier than that: it’s about what Inaba THINKS Kanji is supposed to be.

And we can all relate to that, right? Did you ever have a hobby, or an action, or a habit that others construed as “gay”? Do you have reactions that aren’t considered manly? Well…..why aren’t they manly?

For Persona 4, society limits us; it breaks us down into categories, stereotypes, roles and characters. We are SUPPOSED to act in certain ways, and conform to certain standards.

“What’s the matter with doing what I want to do?” Shadow Kanji

Kanji does things that mean, for society, that he has to be gay.

Kanji isn’t allowed to be the person that he actually is: a guy who enjoys “feminine” pursuits, like sewing and painting. He doesn’t want to be rejected by the people around him. For being something he’s not “supposed” to be. He doesn’t want to have his pursuits laughed at. He instead wants to be respected for who he is, not what he is supposed to be.

“Won’t someone….anyone…..accept me for who I am?!” Shadow Kanji.

“I’m just scared shitless of being rejected….” Regular Kanji

Kanji's story is the story of what it means, and what if feels like, to have a generalization assigned to you.

Burch judged Kanji because he was supposed to be gay. He was supposed to be a meaningful  homosexual character in a video game. When Kanji didn’t easily fit into Burch's group of positive gay characters, he chastised him and the game, and cut him down to size. Burch didn’t see, or respect, the person that Kanji actually was, or the game that Persona 4 actually is.

Sounds familiar? 
Persona 4 is a game unafraid to present a complicated character, and trust that it's audience is smart enough to think about it.  It's the reason Persona 4 is one of the best RPGs ever made.

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