In February 2017, due to unforeseen circumstances, I ended up alone in an Airbnb in Shibuya for a bit over a week, an unintentional flâneur isolated in a city far from home. I began to develop a routine, seeing the same people and places at different times of day. I had my local coffee shop, the places I’d like to eat dinner after a day of exploration. Part of me began to feel like I actually lived in this little part of the world. This, of course, is not the same as living as a local, with a nuanced understanding of the culture and day to day living. Even with a decent grasp of the Japanese language I would still find myself an outsider—there was an inevitable sense of disconnect.
Within a month of arriving back in the UK, I was able to return to a different Tokyo – that of Persona 5. A Tokyo created by people working and living there for years and decades instead of weeks. This time around I was once again a stranger to the city, the game casting me as someone from outside of Tokyo who has found themselves living in an attic in the fictional district of Yongenjaya. Could spending a virtual year living in this version of Tokyo give me a glimpse of life as a denizen of the real Tokyo?
A virtual nostalgia for a city that does not really exist
The Shibuya intersection is a postcard image of Tokyo. It is constantly moving, alive and buzzing. Sounds erupt from every shop front and billboards animate skyscrapers while anonymous masses churn like quicksand. Every space is a choice to make, an opportunity to get lost, a collision of different parts that don’t fit neatly together. The first time Persona 5 lets you loose in Shibuya, it tells you “Find the Ginza line”. You are running late for school, commuting from your new home in Yongenjaya and are forced to change subway lines at Shibuya Station. As a transfer student from out of town, trying to settle into your new home, you loop back on yourself and lose all sense of direction. You try and follow some signs, feeling you’ve found a solution to this conundrum, then, suddenly spotting grey clouds and smelling crisp morning air, you find yourself outside in the main square of Shibuya with no more signs in sight, only flashing billboards and perspective-bending skyscrapers.
In this iteration of Shibuya, you can peek around corners as cars pass through the intersection, glimpse parallel streets down alleyways, and are given tantalising hints at a full city that exists around you, however you are restricted to what amounts to a corridor of movement with pockets of shops and activities to partake in. This is a microcosm of how the game renders Tokyo as a whole, with city districts chosen to represent a multitude of the city’s many, many faces.
Amongst these districts is Yongenjaya. A location based on the real world Sangenjaya (Replacing the 3 (San) with 4 (Yon) in it’s name meaning “four tea houses”) that represents the smallness of Tokyo—the scale of Tokyo that exists in the details of building fronts at ground level. Residential houses line up next to amenities such as baseball practice cages, supermarkets, or my personal favourite, a strange bath-house and laundry hybrid, hidden in-between an outhouse made of corrugated plastic and metal. This part of Persona 5‘s Tokyo feels like the Tokyo I got to experience away from the lights of Shibuya, Shinjuku or Harajuku. The entrance to Persona‘s Yongenjaya is just off a road that sits below a concrete highway, it feels tucked away and hidden, literally overshadowed by other busier parts of the city. There are a few people milling around but nothing compared to Shibuya. People seem to idle and linger for longer, moving at a more leisurely pace with less purpose and the kind of conversations you hear shift. An elderly man sells second hand goods from an extremely small storefront and sunlight is filtered through intersecting, tangled and intertwined electrical cables, phone lines and foliage. Services are exposed through Japan’s archetypal air conditioning units, exposed ventilation systems, gas pipes and rooftop water towers.
An archipelago of places, metabolising organically from each node
Yongenjaya is firmly based on the Tokyo behind the theatrical curtain of Shibuya’s front facing glitz, it represents a space of Japan where, as Hidenobu Jinnai explains in the interview and essay anthology Small Tokyo, “important activities stay hidden, confined to interior spaces.” Jinnai contrasts this with spaces like Shibuya crossing: “Big urban spaces do not have a real significance here, nor do they develop that charming character of Italian piazzas. People prefer to withdraw to izakaya, or the narrow lanes.”
The architectural elements that each of Persona 5‘s districts chooses to focus on highlight what kind of spaces they wish to be portrayed as. The air conditioning units and electrical services presented in Yongenjaya versus the neon and flashing lights of advertisements in Shibuya, for example, convey the functions and sensations of experiencing these spaces. Shinjuku is represented as a seedy red-light district and Akihabara as the maid cafe and tech-lined alleyway it is known across the world as. These are postcard images of these places—we know that living in a place like this reveals the true depth below the surface—however, part of revealing this is first becoming desensitized to the overriding architectural signatures of each area before being able to revel in and explore the minute details that separate each.
Growing up in London, I assigned and understood the city in relation to each tube station. My understanding of the city directly correlated to the visible space around each station and the routes I could witness between whatever shop or landmark I was travelling to. My understanding of space was so distorted I once travelled from Leicester Square to Trafalgar Square using the tube system, turning what could have been a pleasant 1 minute walk into a miserable 10 minute tube journey. It is with this understanding of Tokyo, Shibuya and Yongenjaya are presented to us. The protagonist of the game exclusively travels around Tokyo using the subway system. A moody transitional scene shows the shapes and shadows of people holding onto rails and hanging rings in train compartments as each space is loaded. The first space you witness of each area is the subway platform, as a metallic voice rings out “YONGENJAYA. THIS IS YONGENJAYA.” and you are unceremoniously dropped off by a subway cart, released as part of a crowd of anonymised city dwellers.
A collision of different parts that don’t fit neatly together
This is also a tidy reflection of the way in which the real world Tokyo itself developed. Tokyo has always been multi-nodal: there has never really been a center as in a typical European city. It is constructed more like an archipelago of places, metabolising organically from each node. It is within this framework in the game that we get to experience the city. This is how Persona 5 manages to express that there is an incredible amount of architectural diversity in Tokyo. The language of the city changes drastically and stylistically from one subway stop to another. As Kengo Kuma, also in Small Tokyo, says “A foreigner gradually, step by step, gets involved with Tokyo. He begins to understand the difference between those many ‘Tokyo’s’ that constitute this city.” he adds “in the beginning, the foreigner would know only certain landmarks, most likely the big railway stations, eventually getting to those small spaces in between.’
That is to say, that whilst, as a foreigner you may not be able to fully comprehend, spatially, the full expanse of a city, this comprehension also applies to locals. As Kevin Lynch puts it in his seminal urbanism study The Image of the City, when asking interviewees about their experiences navigating the cities they live in: “it became apparent that none of the respondents had anything like a comprehensive view of the city in which they had lived for many years. The maps were often fragmented, with large blank areas, concentrating most often on small home territories.”
This comes back to the ways in which we all understand our home cities, how we memorise and familiarise localise territories. In truth, this process is not unfamiliar to the experience of a foreigner visiting a place, and settling into a particular part of that city over a longer period of time. The experience of a visitor may be one that is extremely compressed, but it is not entirely disconnected to that of someone living as a local. What is significantly different are the types of spaces which people end up inhabiting and familiarising ourselves with. If you are visiting Tokyo on holiday, why would you choose to visit a high school in Aoyama-Itchome every week day? Why would you choose to work at a 7/11 in the evenings?
An opportunity for repetition that familiarises you with its space
Being a foreigner in virtual spaces, such as in Persona 5, manifests itself in a number of ways. From the aforementioned ‘Find the Ginza line’ section, making navigating oneself around Shibuya station an urgent and non-trivial task to the ways in which sections of the city are unveiled to you. You have no real comprehension of the spaces that will become accessible to you as the game develops. Areas such as Akihabara, Shinjuku and Harajuku are unlocked through characters suggesting you visit or reading pamphlets and books about the city. You begin to discover and unfurl the city in a way which is reminiscent to that of a visitor. These are not pieces of inherent knowledge that your character is expected to know.
However, as you stay in the city for the 100+ hours the game asks of you, spaces become intimately familiar. You begin to be able to navigate side streets and short cuts like a local and your understanding of the space as a player begins to change. This is further expressed in the game by being able to fast travel between visited zones, reinforcing an image of a native city dweller who moves on autopilot around their city, from node to node.
In his contribution to Small Tokyo, editor Darko Radovic says that “comprehension of cities is about balancing rooted knowledge and impressions. Locals have their invaluable lived experience. Lived experience is not only knowledge, it is something that is possible to learn and understand. It is about osmosis, about all of our senses, about slowness, time, touching and feeling. Lived experience of a foreigner is very different from that of a native, but it exists and can be very deep.” Persona 5 compounds this osmosis through its daily routine structure, creating an opportunity for repetition that familiarises you with its space. Though it is not done often in Persona 5, game designers can use this illusion of familiarity to play with how you feel about areas in this city, for example, by moving shop locations, blocking off paths or opening up new pathways. Even something as simple as meeting a character in a space you wouldn’t expect them to be can have a devastating impact on how you feel about a space or how you perceive said character. Disruption of the routine the game settles you into is as important as establishing it. It helps to crystallise what values you assign to a space.
Tantalising hints at a full city that exists around you
As the game makes you, as a player, more comfortable with its representation of Shibuya, is there a possibility that when you visit the city in real life you might feel more comfortable than you would normally? Not quite a complete foreigner, but a pseudo-informed foreigner with a virtual nostalgia for a city that does not really exist. After all, this is something that literature and film has given us for years. What British person doesn’t feel like they have some understanding of New York merely through watching Friends, Sex and the City or Seinfeld? Persona 5 elicits feelings of warm nostalgia, comfort and often makes you feel like you understand a place that you may have never been. It is in adjusting to, settling into, and feeling familiar with a space, that videogames can elicit with even greater potency than a TV show, film or book, because you inhabit and navigate the space directly.
Persona 5 is certainly not the first videogame to have elicited these feelings, I felt a sense of recognition looking at spaces in Venice after having played Assassins Creed 2 and Nicholas Rush talks about the same feeling people had when visiting Chernobyl after playing Call of Duty Modern Warfare in his Videobrains talk, Exploring the Zone. The pronoun used when describing how you experience the narrative is also significant. You can view Shibuya from different points in space, on different days, which presents the feeling that you are choosing a routine for yourself. Having even a small amount of agency over what you wish to do in this fictionalised version of a real city is overwhelmingly powerful, especially for evoking feelings of familiarity. This highly curated portrayal of a city is a touristic vision, but in the case of Persona 5 it is curated by locals, through the lens of their lived experience and knowledge of the city. The ultimate question is whether these feelings of recognition and nostalgia are completely imagined, our comprehension based on falsehood, or can video games like Persona 5 allow us an insight beyond a touristic gaze?
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