When the trailer for Atlus’ Catherine remake came out, one notable aspect of it was new character Rin. Aside from being a new and third romance option for protagonist Vincent Brooks, she drew attention in one scene for being - as the scene composition, Vincent’s reaction and the trailer’s play icon design on the Japanese Catherine: Full Body website heavily suggest - a transgender woman.
Some viewers think Rin may be the kind of dude that's easily mistaken to be female instead (a common anime trope), but unless the use of the trans sign on the website is meant to mislead, that’s not likely to be the case.
What drew criticism to Catherine: Full Body’s trailer wasn’t the fact that the new love interest was a trans, but the way Vincent reacted - which some pointed as being a typical surprised/shocked look for the guy, even in the original game. The usage of his head to censor crotches was nothing new either. For Kotaku UK’s Laura Kate Dale however, the reason for the shock seemed closer to the fact that he had unknowingly slept with a trans woman, and not so much about the fact that he was cheating on his girlfriend Katherine (Catherine is… someone else).
Now, this is - as Dale herself noted - indeed just a trailer, and things in the game itself may play out differently. But she also noted that Atlus’ past track record doesn’t quite inspire hope.
As much as they’re known for and loved for their games, it seems that the company’s representation of LGBT characters has been less praiseworthy. Persona 3 had a scene where a trans woman - after having a strand of overlooked hair on her chin discovered - sighs and bemoans losing the chance to snag “a little boy-toy”. A Neogaf thread - and several websites - pointed out that Persona 5 presented a couple of gay characters in a less than favourable light. And the trans status of character from Catherine - Erica Anderson - is used as a punchline when a young guy she sleeps with finds out and demands his “V-Card” back. The attitude of the characters and the game itself are also seen to be transphobic.
But at the same time, the same Neogaf thread that talked about the gay characters from Persona 5 also pointed out that the character of Lala - who seemed like either a trans or a drag queen - was quite well-depicted, if imperfectly so. And the Catherine wiki points out that Erica is a character whose portrayal is both praised and criticized. In fact, Dale considered her to be a “generally well-handled character” despite her grievances with other aspects, while trans male Kazuma wrote on Twitter: “As odd that this sounds, the game treats Erica as a very real person despite the transphobia directed towards her.”
I stumbled upon Kazuma’s Twitter profile thanks to - ironically - a website that protested against “SJWs” criticizing Rin’s direction, saying that demanding change would interfere with Atlus’ creative vision. The tweet which received the attention of said website had expressed a desire to see: “gaming outlets speak or consult Japanese people who are part of the LGBT+ scene… because watching people who are unfamiliar with this constantly gloss over the issue of representation of LGBT+ in popular Japanese media is exhausting.” Thus, I decided to speak with him.
Kazuma himself has penned his thoughts on Catherine: Full Body for two websites. The articles are likely to be up by January, he tells me. But he was more than happy to answer my questions, and his answers were informative and enlightening.
Take Persona 4 for instance. Two of its characters - Naoto and Kanji - were thought by some (outside of Japan) to be trans and gay respectively; others - including a couple of friends who’d played the game - never saw them as being thus. As it turns out, the latter was actually right.
“It's about gender conformity and gender roles in Japan, not about gender identity and sexuality,” Kazuma told me via Twitter’s direct message service. “Kanji is worried about people perceiving him as gay or feminine because he likes knitting, which is traditionally a woman's hobby or job. Naoto male presents because she wants respect from male peers due to police work being a male-dominated force and in order to be respected you have to be a man.
“A lot of people misinterpret this as Kanji being bisexual or homosexual and Naoto being trans.”
That said, the Japanese culture and norms that had people misinterpreting Naoto and Kanji to be LGBT do pose difficulties to LGBT representation. In Japan, homosexuality is seen as a lifestyle option, and a “highly pervasive shame culture” means that talking about sexuality, in general, is frowned upon. Trans-people who aren’t celebrities or wealthy are treated as unseen, which makes Erica’s mere existence actually impressive.
That’s why having Atlus change its representation of LGBT characters isn’t as simple as asking them to do so. While Dale is right to be skeptical of Catherine: Full Body, it’s Japan’s rooted culture - not the company’s track record - that should be the main reason.
“Japan will need to change as a society and more reform will need to happen in order for proper representation of LGBT+ relationships and people to arise in AAA games or large-scale media,” said Kazuma.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. As things are now, LGBT media in Japan is not taken very seriously and, outside of some exceptions, are mainly produced for consumption and “pure fetishistic value”. Taking LGBT representation - or anything actually - too seriously would be considered めんどくさい (“mendokusai”), the word itself translating roughly to "troublesome" or “bothersome” in English. Is this perhaps similar to the attitudes of western writers and commenters who tend to protest against what they perceive to be SJWs kicking up an unnecessary fuss?
“I couldn’t say for sure. Mendokusai is more of a cultural attitude that is part of Japanese society - it's more of a loose term regarding expression but can be used to describe those who are ‘too serious’ about social issues,” Kazuma responded. “This kind of attitude and proper LGBT+ rights and representation will rely on social reform.”
There’s also another attitude called しょうがない (“shouganai”), which means (again, roughly) “it can’t be helped”. According to Kazuma: “Some people take this attitude because they realize that well, we're never going to get the representation we want so why bother. But a lot of people above the age of 27 aren't crazy concerned with media representation in video games or media made for the youth. When you hit a certain age you're supposed to accept certain responsibilities so your focus changes.”
Considering that both Dale and Kazuma consider Erica to be actually well-handled as a character, it’s not unlikely that Catherine: Full Body’s depiction of Rin won’t be a complete train wreck. Kazuma even said that Erica was a fan favourite in Japan and was handled with realistic treatment, particularly with the way Vincent and several other characters who have knowledge of her pre-transition view her, so perhaps the same might apply to Rin.
Still, Atlus’ (and Japan in general) attitude toward trans characters has also been far from exemplary. With everything considered, it’s likely that Rin will prove to be a mixed bag at best, especially to critical minds from the Western audience. One can hope for something better, but it’s probably too early to have those hopes as expectations.