They call it a crush for a reason.
It’s the unbearable weight of desiring and wanting to be desired. Crushes have long been reserved for that fumbling, end-of-the-world teenage kind of love where vulnerability is reserved for under the streetlights of a convenience store past curfew. Who cares if there’s a rumored pop quiz in Ms. Kawakami’s class when your crush maybe, just maybe, looked at you in the hallway before school.
And Ryuji from Persona 5 definitely has a crush on Joker.
At least, that’s how it seems for any one playing through the game. It’s certainly been brought up before, in articles, on message boards, in fanfic. But the two frustratingly can’t actually date in-game, pointing to what many believe is yet another example of Persona’s problem with gay romance. It’s even more frustrating when you think about how Persona 5 sells itself as a game that rails against social injustices. Ryuji and Joker have the richest relationship in the game, with a deep, emotional connection, tons in common, and a clear need for each other. It’s just not one we ever get to fully realize as players, and that lack undermines Persona 5’s themes and its relationships.
Ryuji + Joker 4ever
Persona 5 is a main title installment in Atlus’s Persona role-playing series. The game follows Joker, a high school student wrongfully charged with assault who is sent to Tokyo to serve out a probationary period. He is quickly thrown into the Metaverse, an alternate dimension formed by the cognitions of an unhappy society. With the help of his friends, The Phantom Thieves of Heart, they aim to change society for the better by going into the Metaverse and fixing the corrupted hearts of the harmful adults in their lives.
Ryuji Sakamoto, in all his bleach blonde glory, is Joker’s first friend upon his probation-sponsored move to Tokyo. Ryuji is already an outcast at Shujin Academy with his regulation-breaking uniform and disgraced removal from the school’s track team at the hands of gym teacher Mr. Kamoshida months earlier. Joker’s arrival at Shujin at the start of the new school year is shrouded in a swirl of rumors. Ryuji recognizes a kindred spirit in Joker immediately. Not to mention they both get whisked away to the Metaverse together and forge a warrior-bond type of friendship with one another.
Throughout the events of Persona 5, Ryuji displays textbook crush behavior on Joker. There’s the texting Joker late at night when inhibitions are low, making himself available at a moment’s notice for Joker to scheme with him. There’s the countless beef bowl shop dates and bringing Joker to quiet pockets of Tokyo to have heart-to-heart conversations in. It’s easy to read Ryuji and Joker’s relationship as strictly platonic, bordering on a “bromance” if you’re more open-minded. But if you’re enlightened, Ryuji and Joker are totally crushing on each other.
Persona 5 rarely gives us real love in the romantic sense, let alone offers players a queer romance, but Ryuji is a huge exception. Well, almost. Ryuji is set up to be Joker’s ideal partner—but Joker isn’t given the option to date him.
Persona 3 introduced the idea of Social Links, which let you build up meaningful connections between the characters. Persona 5‘s version is called Confidants, and it’s the primary game structure outside of Palaces, the dungeon-style areas culminating in big boss fights. The game encourages deepening bonds with characters not only to advance plot and get to know their interior lives, but to gain new abilities, bonuses, and Persona fusion options.
There’s also a dating mechanic. Choosing the right dialogue options, bringing the correct gifts, and spending extra time with certain characters opens up the option to dating them. And by certain characters I mean a select few female characters, and zero male ones.
The dateable women Joker can choose from are not all as richly complex as Ryuji. Romantic interactions with them are as shallow as a puddle during Tokyo’s rainy season, maddening given that characters like Ann and Makoto are already your friends. Other options are just wildly inappropriate, like Takemi the neighborhood doctor who is twice Joker’s age, or Futaba who basically becomes Joker’s adopted little sister.
When I’ve actually pursued a romantic link in my playthroughs of Persona 5, I can’t help but roll my eyes at the cheesy pick-up lines lacking any real intent behind them. Sure, Joker is a 16-year-old boy and won’t have the dating chops of someone more experienced. But compared to any other romantic prospect, Joker and Ryuji reach an emotional depth and earnestness Joker doesn’t get with anyone else.
Instead of dates with Ryuji, you go on a series of incredibly tender hangouts loaded with confessions that are uncharacteristic for their age. During these, you’re stuck with flirty dialogue options with zero payoff. One of many examples of this happening occurs when Joker brings Ryuji to his favorite beef bowl spot.
RYUJI: Ahh…Super freakin’ good, down to the last drop. This stuff’s worth eatin’ no matter the wait.
RYUJI: Ain’t you totally fallin’ for this soy sauce flavor too!?
PROTAG: I’m in love.
RYUJI: Right!? Tokyo guys are all over this stuff. You’re one of us now.
RYUJI: Anyway…thanks for askin’ me here today. I’m all cheered up now ‘cause of you!
Additionally, Ryuji is so desperate to be loved—there’s such a resonant loneliness to him. Having been cast out from the track team, isolated from his peers, and also bullied by his former teammates, Joker showing up in Tokyo is a karmic gift for Ryuji. Through Joker’s friendship, Ryuji learns that he doesn’t need to change who he is in order to fit in with his new group of friends, and in fact, the ultimate freedom is just being himself.
Ryuji says as much to Joker: “Thanks…Y’know, it’s kind of embarrassin’ to say this, but I’m real glad I met you. I guess bein’ free is like…It’s like how I feel when I’m talking to you, man,” in a raw moment in the courtyard of the school.
Commit to the bit
Despite all of the groundwork Persona 5 lays out that makes Ryuji and Joker’s bond so much more poignant and special than any other one in the game, it can’t fully commit to Ryuji’s vulnerability, or their relationship.
This is ultimately unsurprising. Persona 5 is unable to make a poignant statement about fighting injustices enacted by the dominant socio-economic group, even though it’s the main theme of the game. One of the most hypocritical instances of this is with Ann. Her whole character arc is about escaping from the trappings of the male gaze, only for the game to frequently put her in spine-breaking, sexualized poses and make her endure raunchy comments from her male friends.
It’s easy to figure out why Ryuji isn’t a romance option: The Persona series has a longstanding homophobia problem that stems from a deep fear of male intimacy.
Within Persona 5, there are only two gay couples, both of which are written as predatory and handsy toward Joker and Ryuji. These harmful depictions of gay men do nothing more than perpetuate outdated stereotypes. Though the scenes were later revised in Persona 5 Royal’s localization, they should have been omitted entirely as they could not be spun in any other way besides malicious.
The last time the Persona series had a proper gay romance option was in Persona 2, a game that is virtually inaccessible without a PSP or PS Vita. After Persona 2, Atlus had a staffing overhaul for the Persona team where Persona 1 and 2’s director Kouji Okada was replaced with Katsura Hashino. Additionally, character artist Kazuma Kaneko left the creative team during this transition period as well. The correlation of the staffing change and the stark decline in Persona’s progressive ideals has been acknowledged by hardcore Persona fans for years. Since then, themes and plots have gotten decidedly regressive.
Meanwhile in Persona 4, Yosuke’s confession scene and option of romancing him as a male protagonist got completely scrapped. Watching the remains of what was supposed to be the confession scene is incredibly damning.
The fear of male intimacy clouds any moments of honesty between Ryuji and Joker. There are so many vulnerable moments between the two of them, especially within their Confidant rank scenes. When scenes like Ryuji trusting Joker with information about his abusive father are juxtaposed with Ryuji’s frustration at spending time with Joker instead of with girls, it feels like the game is admonishing us for daring to think Ryuji could ever be a romantic prospect for Joker. Additionally, Ryuji seemingly cannot let one day go by without hounding Joker about his love life and fabricating schemes to get some attention from girls.
Persona 5 cannot expect to be a credible piece of commentary about societal injustice while having a homophobia problem. While Persona 5 aims to punch up, the marginalized get punched down on. There is no justice for the marginalized, no chance for a better society without rooting the story in love and empathy. Persona 5’s overall message, and by extension its romance plots, falls flat because it can’t commit to love.
When thinking about the failed potential of Ryuji and Joker’s relationship, I keep returning to culture critic and poet Hanif Abdurraqib’s thesis on Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Your Type” which is “Tell a friend friend you’re in love with them tonight.” Their relationship is fumbling and teenage, I choose to read Ryuji’s allergy to romantic sentimentality as admitting his feelings would make it too real instead of it stemming from Persona 5’s fear of male intimacy. I wish Persona 5 wasn’t afraid of love between men, even platonically. It would make their games richer and braver.
Joker changes Ryuji’s life. Ryuji says as much on one of their final in-game beef bowl dates: “Hey, this ain’t like me, but I managed to change ‘cause you were here helpin’ me. I got you all wrapped up in this shit but you stayed with me ‘til the bitter end. You didn’t abandon me.” To this sentiment Joker can respond with “It’s all because of you.”
Tell me that’s not romantic.