When I finally got a PS4 in December 2019, there was one game I was desperate to play above all others: Atlus’ Persona 5. Considering my personal and professional love for anime is on par with my love for video games, P5 felt like an obvious personal home run. However, a wise friend counseled me to withhold myself from immediately purchasing my JRPG white whale. “A new, updated version is coming out March 31st,” he said. “I’d definitely wait for Royal.”
This was a big ask, because on that very date, I was slated to embark on a three-month, grant-funded trip to Japan to study tsugaru shamisen (for those who have never heard of tsugaru (shamisen, behold). However, both the shamisen and Persona 5 Royal were worth their places in my projected 2020 timeline – so I figured I’d wait.
Of course, lots of things happened between December 2019 and March 31st, 2020.
After a nail-biting series of “will they / won’t they” emails lasting weeks, my trip was officially postponed on March 14th. And, like so many others, I suddenly found myself without a steady job, too.
So I surprised myself when Persona 5 Royal came out on March 31st, and I couldn’t quite bring myself to open it up. On April 1st, I posted a picture of myself with the title screen and the caption, “Was originally planning to fly to Japan yesterday. Obviously, with the world as it presently is, that didn’t happen. About to visit Tokyo digitally, though.”
That visit to Tokyo was more detailed and true-to-life than I expected. I could lose myself in Shibuya station, ambling around and hoping I was following the green JR signs correctly (very true-to-life). I could wander down Shibuya’s iconic Central Crossing and into my favorite store in the world, Don Quijote (or Donki, if you’re In The Know). I could go to a low-key diner (which is, in fact, a “family restaurant,” or fami-resu) and hear my accompanying friends speak of the endless possibilities of the all-inclusive beverage station.
Even Cafe LeBlanc – the protagonist’s home base – captures the absolutely quintessential feel of an old-fashioned Tokyo coffee shop: the wood paneling, the limited menu, the grumpy older man running the entire place by himself, the ‘60s American jazz playing overhead… Okay, the jazz isn’t heard in the game, but it totally would be there.
As we were all navigating what the ongoing COVID pandemic would force us to give up or shift in our minds, Persona 5 forced my most immediate, huge adjustment right in front of my eyes and under my thumbs. At that moment, I was supposed to be able to wander into a real-life Donki any time I pleased. Instead, I was forced to have Joker pick from only… what…. five items? Out of possibly a million options in a single Donki store? Without even the song to constantly serenade and annoy me? The Yakuza games at least get the song, damn it!
Not being able to travel to Tokyo was a frivolous loss compared to what so many across the globe continue to go through. But, as I guided Joker into bathhouses, karaoke rooms, and hole-in-the-wall ramen joints, the vividness of P5R’s Tokyo made clear I was indeed mourning a kind of loss. To put it into Maruki-sensei’s term, I quickly realized Persona 5 was exacerbating a pain in my heart. And so, I stopped playing. For a full year.
I only picked P5R back up very recently. Not-so-coincidentally, my re-engagement coincided with a new Tokyo travel date, which was beginning to be very tenderly tossed around between myself and my grant organization like a glass ball that could shatter at any moment. But at least that metaphorical ball is metaphorically tangible.
And, as I get deeper and deeper into my game, the more the insane detail of P5R’s Tokyo comes into even starker light. I can now walk beneath the garish, ever-entertaining lights of Shinjuku’s red light district or cruise down Harajuku’s stylish Takenoko Avenue. As I discover new locations, the quintessential circle of the Marunouchi subway line becomes clearer and clearer on my map.
Who knows when travel to Tokyo will become truly feasible again. But, at least the love and immaculate eye for the city built into P5R now reminds me less of loss and more of visiting an old friend.