But, before we get to the crux of the matter, let's explain who Naoto is. Naoto is first introduced to the game as something of a loner - a private investigator known as the 'Detective Prince', snooping around the school to get clues to the identity of the serial killer in Inaba. A year younger than most of the main party, Naoto is measured in temper yet arrogant - impetuous to the point he lands himself in grave danger when the killer traps him in the Midnight Channel. He is rescued by the main party after the revelation he is a biological female and joins their investigation. We'll go into the story from there in the rest of the article, but this seems like a good point to talk about the use of pronouns. There's something of a debate in the community of Persona about Naoto's true gender identity - something which, I suppose, as a fictional character, is open to some interpretation by the audience. Many see Naoto's admission to the group as a declaration to no longer identify as male. With the lexis used, I can see where they're coming from; "I will never change from a woman to a man." This is a more-than-slightly problematic view of what gender really is, but Naoto follows it up with, "My sex doesn't fit my ideal image of a detective." Again, this is worded in a problematic way, although it does, at least, give us some insight into Naoto's true identity. I would argue the most important part of Naoto's personality, to him, is the fact he is a detective and a male one at that. When considering his gender identity, let us not forget this game is called Persona. Naoto still presents as male and many of the group continue to use male pronouns and the male honorific 'kun'. The personas of the characters lie within and, it would appear, the identity lying inside of Naoto is male. That said, it should be noted that the handling of both of the characters on the LGBT*IQ spectrum is never entirely outward facing, presumably to make the game more palatable to a straight audience. It would have been fantastic for these characters to be down to more than audience interpretation, however at least the game included characters aside from the usual straight-white-male. In short, this is a way of saying I will be using male pronouns for Naoto in this article.
So, why exactly is Naoto Shirogane the real hero of Persona 4? Well for anyone who caught my article about heroism in video games it might seem obvious. Simply, Naoto, the Detective Prince, is the one who solves the case and discovers the identity of the murderer. This might seem like a bold claim seeing as the player, as the silent protagonist, has to pick the identity of the killer from a list of suspects. But, who provides the list? Naoto. Whose deductive skills lead the group to this outcome? Naoto. Put simply, had the group failed to save Naoto from the Midnight Channel, then the killer would never have been stopped. You see, there's a big difference between a hero and a protagonist. The story is told from the perspective of the silent protagonist and, a man of action and consequences, he lands the final blow on the villain, however, in an investigation, in a battle of wits, surely the hero is the one who solves the case? In this case that is Naoto Shirogane. He is the key to everything - the link from the solving of the crime to the justice dealt by the silent protagonist. Quite simply, without Naoto's suspicions the killer would have escaped.
Following on from this, Naoto is essential to the audience's understanding of the killer's modus operandi. Once the player picks the correct suspect, it's Naoto who explains how it could only be them. While many players may have worked it out before, this is a focal point of the story, and, for any who may have missed the clues, having no explanation could have been very jarring. Naoto, in his inimitable style, explains who the killer is, why only they could be the killer, and sets in motion the journey to catching them. Without Naoto this exploration could come across as patronising. 'Yes, of course they're the killer - I'm not a bloody idiot.' However, the Detective Prince is a gripping orator, explaining with the aplomb and charisma of Sherlock Holmes or Poirot and making this revelation a delight.
So Naoto, in many ways, is the crux of the story and the audience's understanding of it. But is there perhaps more to him? In many ways, yes. Though his gender identity is handled poorly at times (and entirely ripped apart in some of the sequels) it is still uncommon to have a trans* character in a game at all. Persona 4 has many points for which it should be applauded, however chief among these is definitely its ability to legitimise the emotions and experiences of its teenage cast. At an age where any form of angst is ridiculed, despite its abundance, a game such as Persona 4 is a powerful thing in giving its audience agency. While many would have been helped by the admission of Yukiko's anxiety over her familial duties, Chie's need to be useful to those around her and Yosuke's fear of loneliness, many may have found sanctuary with Naoto's gender identity. In any case, at an age as vulnerable as our formative teenage years, having characters grapple with issues that the audience may also be struggling with is very empowering and, even playing the game in my early twenties, it certainly helped me come to terms with parts of my personality.
Naoto Shirogane, to me, is the real hero of Persona 4 for many reasons; some of these come from literary analysis of what a hero is, and others are more social or personal. While we cannot get away from the fact that the developers shied away from having an entirely openly trans* character in Naoto (or an entirely openly gay character in Kanji for that matter), he remains a fantastic example of characterisation in terms of his depth and complexity. I hope the Persona series continues to explore the themes it did in Persona 4, but also to take those steps it failed to take with Naoto - it is well documented that video games need to be more diverse. However, until that day comes and probably even long after, Naoto Shirogane, to me, will always be a hero.