This past weekend granted us a special preview of upcoming JRPG Persona 5 with the single-episode special Persona 5 The Animation The Day Breakers. With high school protagonists that battle using physical manifestations of their subconscious personalities, the anime is filled with much of what you’d expect from the newest iteration of the series. But what you might not expect are a group of heroes whose actions are, to word it delicately, morally questionable.
The Day Breakers follows two groups of thieves. The first group robs bars and upscale restaurants in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, taking everything from cash to choice cuts of meat and liquor. The second group–i.e., our heroes–steal something much more personal: parts of people’s souls.
From what we see in the The Day Breakers, The Phantom Thieves of Hearts, as they are called, are teenaged persona users. On their message board, they take requests from the hurt or abused and then use their powers to one by one slip into the physical representations of the various perpetrators’ hearts. There they battle these villains’ own personas–personas born from the dark sins that drive them.
Upon defeating said dark personas, the villains permanently lose that major aspect of their personalities, changing who they are on a core level. For example, imagine that you believe you’re better than other people to the point where you feel no guilt for hurting those you deem below you. In this case, the loss of your pride would cause your personality to collapse as you are faced with all the wrongs you have done and yet no longer are able to examine what caused you to engage in those behaviors or, at the very least, to rationalize away your actions.
At first glance, it seems that The Phantom Thieves of Hearts are doing good work. After all, making someone change his or her behavior sounds like a great thing on the surface. But if you take a step back and think about it, what they’re really doing is somewhere between a lobotomy and mind control.
Evil these people may be, but The Phantom Thieves of Hearts are going outside the law to administer a devastating punishment. In a very real way, they are murdering people–that part of their personality that makes them who they are–and replacing them with altered versions that conform to society’s norms. And in the case of The Day Breakers, at least, this is followed by the arrests of the perpetrators, which results in an additional layer of punishment–punishment for crimes that were, when you think about it, committed by different people than the ones who now live post-persona theft.
You might contend that negative thoughts or emotions are a bad thing and that we would be better off without them and their consequences. But does negative always lead to bad or even evil choices? Jealousy and envy, for example, can drive you to be a better person–to beat out the one you are jealous of, though by legitimate means. But The Phantom Thieves of Hearts are taking away any chance of people using their negative emotions constructively. In a very real way, they are robbing people of free will.
The anime realizes this. While he only has a few lines in The Day Breakers, high school detective Goro Akechi is quick to condemn The Phantom Thieves of Hearts for this very reason: “Twisting other people’s hearts by force…that’s the worst thing any human could do.”
And he’s right. What they steal is far more valuable than a possession: They steal part of what makes you “you.”
Persona 5 The Animation The Day Breakers can be viewed for free and with English subtitles on Crunchyroll.