MASSIVE spoilers for Persona 5 Royal ahead. You’ve been warned!
Jumping back into the world of Persona 5 with Royal was a great experience – a lot of quality-of-life changes and additions made the vanilla game even better. One of my favourite initial changes was to the Justice confidant, Goro Akechi. The progress of your relationship with this character (who I lovingly refer to as Light Yagami, because, come on now) used to be tied to story progression, but in Royal, he’s now a confidant like any other. You get to hang out with the games’ most contentious anti-hero – you can play pool, grab a coffee, or unwind at the bathhouse. I’ve always been fascinated with Akechi’s character – he’s presented as clever, charismatic, and endearing. A gentleman, and a scholar. However, in one of Persona 5‘s final twists, Akechi is revealed to be the culprit behind dozens of murders, and the “mental shutdown” cases. Though acting at the behest of would-be Prime Minister, Masayoshi Shido, Akechi is a villain in his own right. Since his story has been changed significantly in Royal, I thought a discussion was in order – namely, how does Persona 5 Royal set up Akechi’s redemption arc? And is it handled well? The short answer, in my opinion, would be no (the long answer being absolutely not). Persona 5′s writing fails to execute a satisfying redemption arc for the games’ chief anti-hero, and in doing so, creates an oddly unearned sense of tragedy for his character.
What is a redemption arc?
Starting with basics: in writing, the premise of a ‘redemption arc’ is the element of a narrative that (loosely) takes a certain character from being one of the ‘bad guys’, to one of the ‘good guys’. This doesn’t have to be a complete 180 – a villain can still be a villain, perhaps just making a singular choice to aid the heroes, or a decision that seems at odds with their (evil) characterization. There’s a basic flow to these kinds of arcs – the mistake, the enlightenment, the atonement/punishment, and of course, the resulting redemption. But there are different degrees to redemption – as we see in countless examples of popular media. The purest form of redemption would be the aforementioned 180 situation – as in Avatar: The Last Airbender, where Fire Nation prince, Zuko, abandons his throne and his pursuit of capturing the Avatar, to instead help Aang and his friends restore balance to the world. Then, you have the other side of the spectrum – where the villain is never quite ‘good’ but finally decides to make a good choice, and usually dies before the narrative concludes. We can see an example of this kind of redemption in Star Wars, with Darth Vader’s sacrifice – though not wholly redeemed, his decision to help Luke by turning on the Emperor ultimately changes the course of events for the story. Even if he cannot erase the evil he’s inflicted on the world, he does, to some degree, redeem himself.
So where does Akechi fit on this spectrum? In the original Persona 5, he’s definitely of the Darth Vader variety – he spends the majority of the narrative hiding behind his false Detective Prince mask, before eventually betraying the Phantom Thieves. He reveals himself to be the culprit behind the mental shutdown cases, and tries to kill our merry band of heroes. After triumphing over Akechi in Shido’s Palace, the story takes another twist – Akechi sacrifices himself to save Joker and the Phantom Thieves, and is killed in the process. I would argue that his arc in the base Persona 5 is fairly well-written, with a satisfying conclusion. Akechi has experienced a hard life growing up, and molded himself into the Detective Prince, to strike back at his neglectful father and satisfy his own need to feel wanted, and successful. In other circumstances, Akechi may very well have been the hero, rather than the villain. Though he (in my opinion) is beyond redemption, his death offers the only fitting conclusion to his story. He pays for his mistakes with his life, and in doing so, is redeemed. So how has this changed in Royal?
How Royal shifted the narrative
Well, the main problem in Royal, see, is that Akechi doesn’t die. Sort of. Where the vanilla version of Persona 5 begins to wind down, and Sae asks Joker to turn himself into police, Akechi appears instead – claiming he will take Joker’s place and pay the price for his crimes. However, the narrative in Royal continues. In the new third semester, with the appearance of an unknown Palace in the real world, Akechi rejoins the Phantom Thieves in their quest to defeat Maruki. Dr. Maruki, school-councillor-cognitive-psientist-turned-God, has created a new reality in which everyone is happy, and all their secret wishes suddenly made real. Ryuji is back on the track team and headed for a scholarship, Wakaba is still alive, and so is Okumura, Haru’s (now extremely kind) father. It’s here that Akechi makes his reappearance – the police have let him go, and he’s determined to return to the true reality, offering his help to Joker. Though it’s fairly obvious that this might not be the “real” Akechi, he’s present nevertheless, and with his dark persona, Loki, now usable. Akechi’s true nature is the new norm, and though it’s fun from a gameplay perspective, from a narrative standpoint, this left a sour taste in my mouth. His presence is problematic, for the plain and simple reason that Akechi, as a character, is beyond redemption. Because his arc remains incomplete in Royal (as he survives the events of Shido’s Palace) he never atones for his crimes. The writing fails him. But why is Akechi beyond redemption?
The story makes it clear, via dialogue, that Akechi approached Shido on his own, offering his service in manipulating the metaverse in order to further Shido’s political career. Though Shido would outline targets, Akechi carried out the murders, and mental shutdowns by himself. All to get back at the father that had abandoned him and his mother – Akechi wanted Shido to acknowledge him, presumably before he killed Shido himself. His motivations are selfish, and more importantly, extremely calculated. Akechi is clever – brilliant, even – which the narrative takes care to highlight. His intelligence indicates that he knows exactly what he’s doing, and that’s it’s wrong – he simply doesn’t care. He never shows any reluctance, nor regret when making his confessions to the Phantom Thieves. His only change comes when he is (almost literally) backed into a corner, and even then, this change feels forced, rather than a conclusion that Akechi would have come to on his own. He’s confronted by the Phantom Thieves, having his own philosophy challenged by theirs, but he never accepts that his vision is warped.
Both Persona 5 and Persona 5 Royal try to add this nuance, but fall short. Akechi’s troubled upbringing and his youth obviously make him detached from the true consequences of his actions. Akechi and Joker are often presented as two sides of the same coin – their rivalry highlights the fact that, had circumstances been different, Akechi might have been a similar person to our main character. However, this is where all the character-building and setup for redemption comes to a screeching halt, and the wheels fall off the catbus. The main issue stems from Akechi’s motivations, and ideology; though the heroes challenge this, he never really changes. He never acknowledges that what he did was wrong, nor does he show any remorse for his actions. He is never presented as uncertain, reluctant or fearful. He’s certainly influenced by the adults in his life, but when left to his own devices, it’s unconvincing that he isn’t just as twisted.
This all culminates in the battle between Akechi and the Phantom Thieves in Shido’s Palace – we get a glimpse into Akechi’s true nature, via his dialogue, and the form of his persona, Loki. Akechi is revealed to be ruthless, and indifferent. This allegedly brilliant character is so blinded by his anger he can’t even see that Shido is using him, and plans to dispose of him once he’s expended his usefulness (this revelation seems to be the catalyst that ultimately pushes Akechi to save the Phantom Thieves). Akechi is cold, and downright unhinged – he expresses that he cannot abide their views of justice, teamwork, or their sympathy. However, despite seeing the depths of his depravity, once Akechi has ‘sacrificed’ himself, the narrative tries to highlight the tragedy of Akechi’s situation. Certainly the death of a teenager is tragic, as were his circumstances, but given Akechi’s actions, this sense of tragedy feels unearned. The Phantom Thieves have a few conversations, where some forgive him, and others (Ryuji) say they cannot. For me, once you’ve killed the father of one of the main characters, there’s just no coming back from that.
With all these characters trying to justify Akechi’s actions (through blaming Shido, or professing that they forgive him), it feels like the writers trying to help his character squirm out from beneath the weight of his actions. Even Maruki comments to Joker: “Selfish adults abused his weakness to do horrible things, culminating in his confrontation with the Phantom Thieves.” All this mental gymnastics that the narrative requires for the audience to be “okay” with Akechi is too much – since they went the distance, far enough to make his character utterly despicable, there is no coming back, but the game wants to have it both ways. To have their pancakes, and eat them, so to speak. The game wants Shido to take the fall for Akechi’s twistedness, but doesn’t do enough with Akechi to make this believable – there’s no sense of remorse, or growth. Though Akechi seems to acknowledge his wrongdoing in a logical, objective way – that he broke the law, and he’ll do his penance by turning himself in to police – he never displays any kind of emotional remorse. He never admits his guilt, or seems to feel bad about what he’s done. It’s possible that he simply isn’t capable of feeling the weight of this emotional guilt, which is probably the most frightening aspect of his character.
The end, and the means
One of the more nuanced elements of a redemption arc is what said arc asks of the audience – namely, does the narrative expect the audience to forgive that character? If the answer is yes, then the writer has to ensure that the former villain has not been presented as irredeemable. As in the earlier Zuko example, though Zuko has pursued Aang and co, he’s never killed anyone on-screen, or taken any other extreme measures against their crew. He manages to rise above his indoctrinated hatred, betray his father, and acknowledge his mistakes. Before his revelation in Book Three, he even shows sparks of promise and humanity in earlier seasons; he takes actions that either help a member (as when he saves Aang in the Blue Spirit episode) or help the world (as in the Book One finale episodes). Whereas, in the Darth Vader example, though he is redeemed at the end of Star Wars, the narrative doesn’t, in my opinion, ask the audience to forgive his previous actions. He’s simply presented as having made the right choice, in the end. And the fact that the arc ends in his death makes this redemption easier to accept.
This is my other main issue with Akechi’s story – because he doesn’t die in Royal (as indicated by his appearance in the final cutscene), his redemption arc has shifted. The tragedy, and fixation that Joker has with ‘keeping his promise’ to his rival, presents Akechi as a tragic figure. Akechi’s actions, and role in the narrative, are too extreme for his character to be viewed this way – and yet, the storyline presents him as a character that should be forgiven (hence, why he rejoins Joker in the third semester). By highlighting the adults who abused and took advantage of him, the writers present Akechi as a hapless victim of circumstance. The audience is asked to forgive this character, who, by the way, still hasn’t been redeemed – he’s made the mistake, but failed to truly acknowledge his actions, or atone for them. He avoids punishment for his actions (at least, on-screen, as his final fate is left uncertain) and this is where the narrative fails him. The lack of nuance in Akechi’s characterization, and his heinous crimes push him past the point of no return.
I think Persona 5 Royal simply suffers from a case of misguided good intentions – Akechi is a popular character. It’s pure fanservice, to shift the narrative so that he remains a playable character, and honorary member of the Phantom Thieves. In doing so, however, the quality of writing suffers, because Akechi no longer has a satisfying redemption arc. In fact, he’s barely redeemed at all, because redemption implies some kind of penance paid. Akechi, however, avoids the consequences of his actions, and is essentially forgiven by the heroes – they agree to work with him at the very least. He’s treated like any other team member. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy being able to play as Akechi, especially with his unique persona, and he was in my party all the way through the final Palace. I just couldn’t stem the sense of wrongness, or discomfort every time he finished a group of shadows, and made one of his more sinister comments. Persona 5 Royal sacrificed good writing for fanservice, and while I can’t say I hate Akechi’s presence in the end (he’s fun to play, I’ll admit that) it doesn’t sit quite right – especially within the scope of the Phantom Thieves brand of “justice”.
Though Persona 5 Royal fumbles his redemption arc in a big way, there’s no denying Goro Akechi’s magnetic personality (hats off to English voice actor, Robbie Daymond) and his presence adds a dynamic element to the final Palace that I would miss, had he not been there. It’s perhaps this magnetism, his ability to pull the audience in despite his objective awfulness, that makes Akechi one of the strongest characters in the game. Despite his lack of nuance, he still remains one of Persona 5’s most interesting characters. So, maybe he’s not the kind of guy you want to take out for pancakes, but he’s a strong ally; though I can’t overlook how the narrative fails him, Akechi is no less compelling for his villainy.