Persona are the power of embracing who you really are and accepting the consequences
Awakening a Persona is not a pretty picture in PERSONA5 the Animation. It’s essentially a brief mental breakdown as the protagonist and, later, his friends are forced to witness the vilest aspects of reality while coming face to face with their own weakness. A Persona is one’s “rebellious spirit,” or their true inner self that strives to fight back against the cruelties of the world rather than accept them as something they cannot change. In PERSONA5, the process involves materializing a mask – an accessory used to hide one’s real identity – and then violently ripping it off, revealing a mask of blood. It looks painful and truly agonizing, but in the end grants the power to change the world.
But why would awakening to such power be a violent struggle? Simply put, there was a lot of pressure on the newly formed Phantom Thieves to not rebel. Societal expectations and their own perception of their self-worth – which isn’t exactly high at the start of the series – had them convinced that they were worthless and powerless. Ren Amamiya, the protagonist, is a high schooler with a criminal record for a crime he didn’t commit, which causes him to be an outcast at his new school. Ren had fought back against cruelty before, and it’s what cost him his reputation. Perhaps that’s why he was the first to awaken to his Persona: he’d already rebelled once, so he knew the ropes. He also had fewer connections at his school holding him back.
The awakenings of his first two friends at his new school are much more interesting as a result. Ryuuji Sakamoto is a disgraced track star. His actions against an abusive coach, no matter how justified, caused the entire track team to be disbanded and cost him the one place where he felt he not only belonged, but thrived. Just like Ren, he had rebelled once before and it cost him everything. But unlike Ren, his rebellion hurt his classmates, and they won’t let him forget it. The example he had to follow was all around him: play along with the abuse of the adults and ignore the injustice of it, and be praised and successful. Ryuuji couldn’t do that, but he also felt powerless to fight back against it. He was forced into a role he couldn’t see a way out of – that of the fallen track star turned outcast, someone teachers thought of as a bad influence and that his peers ostracized as a traitor.
Then there’s Ann Takamaki, a stunningly girl scorned by the school for her beauty. Like Ryuuji, Ann felt like an outcast, with one key exception: she has a best friend, Shiho Suzui. Ann would do anything for her best friend, to the point of putting her own happiness at risk by playing along with Kamoshida’s lust for her. If it meant Shiho would be a starter on the volleyball team, Ann would put her comfort second and play to Kamoshida’s ego, even as it earned her the scorn of her classmates and a spree of vicious rumors. She convinced herself her actions were best for her friend and for herself, despite knowing, deep down, that the entire situation with Kamoshida was inherently wrong. She didn’t yet have the strength to rebel against the coach, and convinced herself that she was doing the best she could. In a jarring scene, Ann would be forced to accept that she was only addressing the symptoms of Shiho’s suffering, not the cause – she would be forced to accept that she was just playing along with what Kamoshida wanted, rather than fighting back.
It’s within the Palaces of their abusers that the Phantom Thieves are able to awaken to their own power. When Ren Amamiya and Ryuuji Sakamoto find themselves accidentally transported into one of the Palaces, nothing about them changes. They had already suspected their gym teacher, Kamoshida, of being a predator. By entering his cognitive world, they witness firsthand how he sees the school and his students. They’re forced to witness just how distorted his view of reality truly is. But it’s not enough to simply become aware of the cognitive world. They have to decide to reject Kamoshida's twisted desires before they are able to awaken.
In PERSONA5, the violent awakening to your Persona is an act of rebellion rather than resignation, like it was in the earlier PERSONA4 the Animation. In PERSONA4, you had to accept the parts of personality you’d rather ignore, such as jealousy or pride, to become a Persona user. In PERSONA5, Ren, Ryuuji, Ann, and the others become Persona users by becoming so fed up with the world that they choose to rebel against it. They hit rock bottom, their most defeated point, and decide it's time to fight back rather than give in and be crushed. They aren’t forced to accept their inner feelings like the PERSONA4 cast had to, but instead they have to reject the false selves they had been up to that moment.
Ren has to reject that he is content to quietly be falsely labeled a criminal and treated as a social outcast; Ryuuji must reject that he’s powerless to fight back against a man who has ruined his and his teammates' high school track career; and Ann must decide to fight back against a man who has sexually harassed her and endangered her best friend’s life. In short, to become Persona users, the cast of PERSONA5 must reach a breaking point where they decide they can no longer bear the unfairness of the world and risk everything to rebel against it. If they’re forced to accept anything, it’s that society is in dire need of defenders who will stand up to those who wish to control it at the expense of others. All of them were already aware that the world was unfair. The change is in them refusing to submit to it like their classmates.
Ren, Ryuuji, and Ann always had to act keeping in mind what society expected of them. It didn’t matter that society’s beliefs hurt the most vulnerable: they couldn’t change their classmates or the adults’ perception of them, which trapped them into a false identity. By rejecting societal expectations they not only become Persona users, but also acknowledge that they were living some type of lie. Throughout the course of their friendship with Ren, all of the Phantom Thieves grow into their own by choosing to work towards being their ideal selves. Instead of covering themselves in an identity forced upon them because it was easy and expected, they choose the harder path of becoming self-confident, genuine people. Their Personas gave them the strength they needed to grow by forcing them to break free and proving to them that they have the power needed to fight. By acknowledging they were trapped by society’s false perception, the Phantom Thieves can work to dismantle it by going after the adults that have helped shape it.
For many people, coping with unfairness means hiding your true feelings. The protagonists convinced themselves they were powerless as a means of accepting their lot in life. They believed that it was just how things were, that there was nothing they could do, that they just had to endure. A major point of growth for each of them is acknowledging that those are lies and resolving to face the uncomfortable truths of reality head-on rather than ignoring or meekly accepting them. Society forced each of the Phantom Thieves to wear a mask, but by tearing off that mask the PERSONA5 protagonists can begin to grow into the people they want to be, rather than who they’re expected to be.