Ryuji Sakamoto is the first friend you make in Persona 5, a fellow 16-year-old outcast at Shujin Academy. He’s loudmouthed, thoughtless, and has been the recipient of a significant amount of fan hate. I love him.
I spent the first third of my Persona 5 playthrough waiting to hate Ryuji. I’d been watching for it to come, like listening for the “but” after the “I’m not racist.” The general consensus caused me to hold myself back from unabashedly loving him, certain that the moment I did he’d pull something reprehensible which my affection would blind me to. But 80 hours in, I finally decided to stop worrying and love the Phantom Thief.
Yes, Ryuji is brash, loud, and has no sense of subtlety. He neglects his schoolwork. He can be a horndog to women. He seems incapable of thinking ahead, is easily riled up at the slightest provocation, and dismisses Morgana. Everywhere we go, he practically yells at the top of his lungs that we’re the Phantom Thieves.
It’s aggravating. Sometimes I wish he’d just shut up. I can understand why he might rub people the wrong way.
But Ryuji is also straightforward, honest, loyal and willing to speak up against injustice even when it would be more comfortable to remain silent. He looks out for Ann before they even really know each other. He befriends the new delinquent student despite his own situation being so fraught. He helps his track teammates even after they turn on him. He’s kind, even though that kindness can be a bit rough and clumsy.
My affection was strained when Ryuji's brash attitude aggravated Morgana’s insecurities. But the core of the issue was Morgana’s self-worth and jealousy, rather than anything Ryuji had said or done. I was annoyed at him, but I wouldn't condemn him for inadvertently stepping on a sore spot.
I’m not a big proponent of the “jerk with a heart of gold” trope. Often said jerks don’t so much have a heart of gold as occasional less-jerky moments which dedicated fans can cling to: “Look, he’s not all bad!”
But Ryuji is not a jerk. He is, at worst, a thoughtless teenager who tries his best but often falls prey to his own exuberance. And I can’t bring myself to fault him for that.
Ryuji's polar opposite, Makoto Niijima has received a lot of love amongst fans. The studious student council president and nuclear-powered biker joins your team later in the game, so doesn’t have as much time to integrate herself into the player’s affections. Yet she has stolen many hearts, inspiring bold declarations such as, “I would give my life for Makoto and her supernatural motorcycle.”
Some fans theorise that Ryuji and Makoto are opposing personalities, and that if you hate one you love the other.
Indeed, I disliked Makoto at first. I found her too cold. A follower rather than a rulebreaker, Makoto is diligent in her studies but has no real concept of life outside high school. She is book smart but world naive, and awkward in her way of trying to learn about it. Her mind is always working - she sees angles and thinks strategically, and doesn’t allow herself Ryuji’s directness. Quiet and polite, and maybe a bit too trusting of the wrong people.
I admire a quick mind and respectful demeanour. But it seemed Makoto believed herself to be better than me and my friends, speaking down to us, wielding authority bestowed upon her by adults like a pair of brass knuckles. Sure, the principal was threatening to refuse help her get into a good university. But rather than correct or at least mitigate an unjust situation, Makoto enforced it.
She had all the self-control that Ryuji lacked, but was without his warmth, openness, and conviction to fight against and expose injustice whatever the odds.
I was further irritated by Makoto’s foolish and uncharacteristic decision to confront a known gangster, even going so far as to get into a car with some strange men to do so. Of course, she only made the situation worse. Yes, Ryuji was reckless at times, but not to this magnitude. I couldn't understand the outspoken devotion many players expressed toward her.
But while Makoto made mistakes, I was eventually forced to acknowledge that she recognised them and was trying to better herself. She actively sought to broaden her world view, and considered that she may have something to learn from people unlike her.
I won't fault Makoto's efforts, and I won't fault Ryuji's. They are both good kids, trying their best to turn into good adults, and learning what that means along the way.
By the end, having played for 200 hours and maxed all my relationships, I discovered an appreciation for both Ryuji and Makoto.
I don’t think they're meant for each other (I want Ryuji and Ann to hook up, which is a whole other thing). But they help one another. Ryuji pushes Makoto outside her shell, and Makoto brings Ryuji back to earth.
I bear a stronger similarity to Makoto, but it’s because of this that I need Ryuji. Makoto and I would theorise and strategise in circles. Ryuji would rush in and do.
Ryuji and I would rarely cross paths in real life, and if we did our relationship would be temporary. Our personalities are such opposites that it would take an event such as the awakening of Personas to cause us to band together.
Yet, I think Ryuji is the type of friend that a lot of people need. He has no subtlety or tact, which can cause trouble. But he is open, honest and genuinely enthusiastic. Ryuji wears his heart on his sleeve, and it's a good one.
Relationships are a significant factor in Persona 5. Forming relationships with the people around you can unlock special abilities and perks, which assist the player in everything from time management to battle.
The perks offered by a friendship with Ryuji aren’t anything special, so my Confidant link with him stagnated around level three for a significant portion of my gameplay. I figured he’d always be there, hanging out by the school steps, waiting for me to go and train with him. There was no rush. “Not today, Ryuji, it’s raining so I want to study.” “Not today, Ryuji, I want to grind up experience in Mementos.” “Not today, Ryuji.” Not today.
Ryuji would never do that. Ryuji would say, “Screw studying. Mementos can wait. I want to hang out with my friend, because I like spending time with them.”
He doesn’t apply himself at school, his attitude toward women needs some adjustment, and he definitely has some growing up to do. But in some ways, Ryuji is too good for me.