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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Ann Takamaki From 'Persona 5' Was Exactly Who I Needed to See

When playing Persona 5, I was instantly drawn to Ann Takamaki: biracial transfer student and fashion model by day, secret undercover superhero by night. Trapped between not fitting in at Shujin Academy and trying to save the world with a new power, Ann goes on a journey to discover herself, confront the labels society has placed upon her, and press the limits of her abilities.

Upon first meeting Ann, the player immediately sees other female students gossiping about her assumed promiscuity (Americans can sometimes be stereotyped as aggressive and lewd in Japan). Soon, the player learns that despite her traditionally Japanese surname, Ann is blonde, has green eyes—and is only one-quarter American. When the other students whisper about Ann and make assumptions about her due to her Western appearance, they never remember that Ann is mostly Japanese, like them. Her family remains out of the picture, traveling the world as fashion designers and hardly checking in with her, assuming Ann will somehow adjust to her new surroundings in Japan. Aside from one friend at school, Ann seems despondent and has no allies in her corner—until she meets a small group of other students who’ve been pushed out, just like her.

This group of teenage misfits soon discover they can enter a cognitive dream world called the Metaverse, which represents the greatest fears and desires of humanity. As the group explores nightmarish dungeons generated by the psyches of nefarious or cruel people, they find that they can steal treasures that cause the person to have a change of heart and confess their crimes in the real world. Dubbing themselves the Phantom Thieves, the crew embarks on a journey to reform a wide range of criminals, from art forgers to corrupt CEOs.

On the surface, I had almost nothing in common with Ann. I was a 39-year-old, geeky freelancer living in suburban New Jersey, far from the glitz and glamour of Tokyo. I was long past the carefree attitude of a high schooler and was a very, very far cry from ever belonging on a runway. Still, what struck me about Ann was that due to her mixed heritage, she’s frequently mistrusted and judged by students in her high school who make assumptions about her based on her background. The other female students accuse her of sleeping with the game’s protagonist and even a teacher at the school, when she barely knows them. One male student crassly calls her the teacher’s “bitch” just because he saw the two of them walking together, then asks if he might be able to get lucky. Her best friend, Shiho, tells the player, “They say terrible things about my friend, all because of the way that she looks.”

Ann lacks confidence from being teased at school and instead places her energy into her modeling career, her way of coping with how she’s treated because of her appearance. Even then, she remains self-conscious, flustered when men ogle. In the funniest scene of the game, she waddles into an artist’s studio wearing several outfits layered on top of each other when Yusuke Kitagawa, a future member of the Phantom Thieves, asks her to model nude. Despite being a model, she doesn’t really want to be seen, at least in a way that’s not on her own terms.

This lays the groundwork for Ann’s redemptive arc. When Ann becomes a Phantom Thief and learns to summon her persona in battle for the first time, she ends up with Carmen, the glamorous and seductive opera heroine still hailed today as a critical example of a femme fatale. She comes to terms with the degrading whispers about her bad reputation as a promiscuous outsider and is armed with Carmen, a powerful fire elemental, complete with a dominatrix catsuit as her new outfit.

This all felt too familiar. Twenty years and several dress sizes ago, I also donned a catsuit—as a regular go-go dancer for nightclubs in San Francisco. Friends thought I had confidence to dance in a cage once a week, but it was the opposite. After years of being called ugly and “half-breed” at school due to my mixed features, go-go dancing was a way for me to rebel and control how other people perceived me, just as Ann did when she transformed.


In what might sound like a bad 1980s comedy that aged poorly, my blonde, Midwestern father married my mother, a mail-order bride from the Philippines. The two families were culturally and politically opposed, and both of my parents struggled financially. For this reason, my paternal grandmother became my primary caretaker when I was 6, and I spent half of my childhood living in Kansas with her until she died when I was 14.

After my grandmother’s death, my dad’s side of the family didn’t stay in touch anymore. Like Ann’s. I’d moved to New York as an adult and hadn’t heard from them in over a decade. My very first Thanksgiving in the city, I went to a diner and, while poking at a gelatinous cranberry puck, wished someone would call me home. As if by fate, I received a random phone call from my elderly aunt on my dad’s side. She said she’d been reflecting on life and had heard from my mother that I moved to New York without knowing a single person there. She said she spent many days thinking about how the family hadn’t spoken to me in so long and felt sorry that I lived in the Big Apple on my own, and that she’d like me to come to a family reunion. Without saying the word racism, she apologized for “how the family had treated me.”

It wasn’t a perfect apology, but it meant a lot to me that someone nearly a century old could humbly acknowledge their mistakes. I packed for a trip to Kansas, curious about what it would be like to see the white side of my family again. Soon I was sitting in a cab from the airport, going to a chain hotel in Overland Park.

When I entered the hotel, my white relatives excitedly reached for my hand. I was taken aback when they started speaking to me slowly, with exaggeratedly open mouth motions as though they were speaking to a deaf foreigner.

“Would. You. Care. For. Some. Stir. Fry?” asked a long-lost cousin. I felt confused. I was born in America. I had never lived abroad or known any other language then English. This must have been how Ann felt when other students thought of her as American, when really, she was Japanese too.

“Oh, I don’t really like stir fry,” I said, laughing politely. “I remember from living at grandma’s that the best hamburgers and fries come from the Midwest. So I’d like a burger with all the fixin’s.” I’d hoped by cheekily adding in a bit of the local vernacular, they’d understand I was unremarkably American and not exotic at all.

We ended up going out to a typical bar and grill, which was just what I wanted. As we ate together, I batted away questions such as “Do you live in a neighborhood with other Filipino people?” and I felt disarmed, unsure how to respond.

I finally had my answer at the end of dinner when a cousin suddenly said with no warning, aloud, “I feel bad for biracial people, they shouldn’t be born. They’ll never know who they truly are or have a real identity, all because their parents decided to have one selfish night of passion.”

The entire table was quiet. I thought about how I’d lived on my own in New York with no help and little contact with my family, how I’d come out at a young age and survived it all without their support.

“I know who I am,” I said, quietly. “And I am happy.”

My elderly aunt looked embarrassed, flustered. Her attempt at peacekeeping had failed. In a desperate bid to change the conversation, she suddenly said, “What happened to clawfoot bathtubs? Do people use them anymore?”

After that awkward dinner, I didn’t receive an invitation the next year. I thought they’d forgotten to invite me. One didn’t appear the year after that, and I knew I’d been quietly uninvited. I wondered what I’d done wrong. Eventually, much like Ann, I accepted that the problem wasn’t with me—it was with the family members that couldn’t accept me for who I was. That moment, albeit painful, finally gave me closure from the years that I was ignored by my white family. I was able to reconcile the two parts of myself: the part that was second-generation and the part that was undeniably American.

I came to accept that I’d never fit into my dad’s side of the family, and that was OK. Like Ann, I didn’t need to live up to anybody else’s expectations anymore, only my own. Although I never summoned a supernatural Persona from another world after reaching this realization for myself, it feels a little like it every time I press the X button in battle and Ann summons hers.

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