When Persona 5 was teased all those years ago, my first thought drifted to another thief of Japanese media: Lupin the Third. Lupin the Third is a descendent of literary gentleman thief Arsène Lupin (we’ll get back to that later). He's also a tall, handsome goofball. He’s the hero of manga, and countless anime (the best of which, actually, focuses on his on-and-off again lover Fujiko Mine). And, most importantly, he’s the world’s “greatest” thief. Travelling all across the globe with his companions, leaving calling cards ahead of the thieving crimes he plans to commit, forever eluding the inspector hot on his tail. The Lupin name is one cemented in not just thievery, but a righteous spirit.
And so brings us to Persona 5’s Phantom Thieves, a gaggle of mistreated teenagers pushed around in life by corrupt adults of a corrupt society. The teens eventually form the vigilante-like Phantom Thieves, stealing the hearts of perceived evil-doers and seeking to reform society. In our recent interview with director Katsura Hashino, Hashino noted the purposeful moral ambiguity for the game’s anti-heroes. “As the story progresses, the characters—and the player with them, hopefully—begin to wonder, ‘Who are we to punish these people?’ ‘What, exactly, drives adults to dark desires?’” he said. “We wanted to leave these moral implications open to player interpretation, without presenting clear answers.”
These are the types of questions that have always plagued gentlemen (and gentlelady) fiction in the centuries since their inception. Is it good to be a vigilante? And what makes people deserving of such crimes against them? How do you even begin to quantify evil intent? The Phantom Thieves battle this, just as their primary influence Arsène Lupin did. But Lupin got his start long before video games existed. Back in 1907, he was crafted in relation to another famous literary figure, Sherlock Holmes. Lupin was a counterpart to the famous honorable investigator. And Lupin, a rogue master of disguises, couldn’t be more different. Lupin had many adventures over the years, ultimately inspiring the subgenre of "phantom thievery" in fiction in the East. (A gentle renaming of gentlemen and gentlelady thieves, essentially.) And, of course, a stately fictional grandson.
The sneaky acts of Persona 5’s Phantom Thieves might feel a tad familiar if you’ve played anything of the Sly Cooper series. Sly Cooper, spanning from Sucker Punch’s PS2 trilogy to Sanzaru Games’ one-off on PS3, is a series about a trio of animal thieves. Sly, a raccoon from a family of famous thieves, leaves a calling card ahead of committing a crime—much like Lupin the Third and the Phantom Thieves of Persona 5. They all have "moral" reasonings for their doings, justifiable or not. In essence, being a thief in their lines of work is all about punishing the bad people in power. And in a Robin Hood-like way, empowering others to maybe do the same.
In Persona 5's battles, the main character summons his persona. The persona takes the shape of that very famed gentleman thief, Arsène Lupin. (Albeit, an exagerrated imagining of him.) Your companions summon their own literary-inspired (and beyond) personas in the heat of battle. At night, the main character rests in his home, the attic of Cafe Leblanc—the name spawning from Lupin’s author, Maurice Leblanc. Persona 5 peppers in more digestible influences, and blends them into a phantom thief tale wholly of its own.