***Although I have seen the animation, this will be mostly about the game version of Naoto as I know it better*** Also minor Naoto SPOILERS I guess… I mean it’s pretty obvious but whatever…
Do you guys know Naoto Shirogane? If you haven’t had the pleasure you should really meet. Naoto is just freakin lovely. Also one of my favourite and most frequent cosplays. Did you know that persona 4 came out over a decade ago? In Japan which is known as a pretty conservative society.
Why does that matter? Because Naoto is quite the convention shattering character, and the break with tradition wasn’t always that gentle.
As a reserved and generally mysterious character, Naoto isn’t the easiest to get to know. Luckily, the game forces us to face Naoto’s demons so we at least get a glimpse of the character background and motivations.
When we meet Naoto we are told that they are a genius prodigy detective trying to unravel the recent string of rainy day murders happening around town and not much else. A tiny, stoic little genius archetype. These tend to be fairly popular characters so it’s no surprise that the game decided to add one in along with the rest of the traditional character types that make up the main cast.
However, there’s a twist….Naoto’s actual a girl! OMG!!! WHAT!??! Who would have thought!??! Well pretty much everybody actually. Sure, her character model is a bit more androgynous and she does use male pronouns but to me, Naoto’s gender was never an issue and the reveal left me rather indifferent. It was played for slightly tone-deaf laughs as homosexual misunderstanding ensued but what can you do. I like androgynous looking characters a lot, so I was keen on the design, but I can’t say I cared much either way about the reveal. At least at first.
You see, what was interesting about Naoto was never that she was a girl but that maybe she wasn’t. Transgender issues and rights have progressed a lot in the past few years. It was quite a different story when Persona 4 was released, especially a decade ago.
Naoto doesn’t just wear male clothing and affect a macho stance. In fact, Naoto doesn’t even embody traditional tomboy traits such as aggressivity, brashness or tendency towards the physical. If anything, Naoto is quite gentlemanly and delicate. But they are clearly uncomfortably with the notion of their own femininity and naturally gravitate towards a masculine…well…persona.
Now the game isn’t exactly adept at treating these delicate issues in the best possible way. Naoto is given a cheap Freudian excuse for their dysphoria. If I remember correctly it was a question of winning daddy’s love and being taken seriously as a detective (a very male dominated field). I guess it’s a bit unfair of me to call them cheap. They are legitimate concerns that have plagued many women in their lives and perfectly valid. The only problem I have is that you can pursue Naoto as a romantic interest and this brings out a more feminine side of them, leaving you with the impression that the it was merely an affectation to get to an ends, rather than an actual question of identity.
However, the character’s own behavior doesn’t support that. Being called by feminine pronouns and having to wear feminine clothing makes Naoto visibly and physically unwell. They fidget and stutter and seem to be on the verge of a panic attack. This is not a character we had seen in such a mainstream game as persona before. Naoto isn’t some type of deviant and choosing to represent themselves as a boy isn’t scorned by the rest of the cast. For the times, that was pretty progressive and a small step that should get some credit.
And then, there’s the clumsy handling of potential homosexuality. Kanji, the tough guy with a heart of gold archetype develops and instant crush on Naoto which, to put it mildly, freaks him the f out. As far as he knows, Naoto is a boy so you know…. Hilarity ensues and there’s a huge relief when he finds out the truth.
Some scenes haven’t aged well at all and were probably a bit rough even at the time. But when you take a step back for the hysterics, there were a couple of genuinely interesting concepts to take into account. For one, Kanji was in fact attracted to Naoto regardless of gender and before discovering the truth was slowly starting to come to grips with the idea of being homosexual.
Even after the reveal, Kanji was more than happy with Naoto as they were, never trying to force a more feminine ideal. Although never explicitly stated, I really got the impression that Kanji just liked Naoto for who they were and would have been fine if Naoto turned out to be a guy.
My point is that the cannon got a bit nervous about embracing a fully transgendered main character or a fully homosexual one, in what was still marketed as a pg game over a decade ago (apparently the violent murders were all good though) but it was still a first step in mainstream representation. And one that went pretty smoothly all things considered. No cries of outrage from fans or parents. No snide remarks. Everyone just went with the flow. That’s pretty cool, isn’t it?
So for being a pioneer, today I salute Naoto for whoever they chose to be and Kanji for keeping an open mind!