Review: Persona 4: The Animation

Just a typical day in the life of Yu Narukami.

Background

Persona 4: The Animation is one in a long, long line of game-based anime.  The base of the narrative, Persona 4, is an excellent JRPG and many argue it as one of the few recent JRPG games to meet critical praise in and out of Japan (side note: I highly recommend playing Persona 4 Golden if you are one of the six or seven people on earth with a Vita).  In fact, it launched the Persona franchise into mainstream popularity out of Japan despite the reasonable popularity from Persona 3.

So I guess the obvious happened: AIC, best known for adapting anything and everything under the sun (I went half crazy reading the number of “based on” and “adapted from” on their anime list), brought it to the animated scene.  It’s not like they were taking chances here as they’ve got a good number of hits.  Heck, they even grabbed Seiji Kishi almost right after his adaptation of Angel Beats! and gave him the exact same role as director.

Story

Welcome to the quiet town of Inaba in some unspecified rural part of Japan.  Almost nothing of relevance happens here.  Murder count is at a nice fresh zero most of the time.

In comes Yu Narukami.  His parents, for reasons unknown, send him to live with his detective uncle in Inaba for the year and have him attend the local high school, Yasogami High.  The next day, things go from boring to horribly confusing for this sleepy little town as police find Mayumi Yamano, a newswoman recently finding herself in the headlines for cheating with a councilman, dead and hung upside down from a telephone wire.

Oh shut up, spoiler freaks. This happens almost right away.

Not exactly her best day.

Another murder occurs soon after.  Same style of death: hung from a telephone wire.  This attracts the attention of all of Japan (at the least), leaving the small Inaba police department scrambling to solve and close this case ASAP.  Parallel to their investigation comes the adventure of Narukami and his friends.

At the same time all this occurs, Yu finds out that he can enter a different world.  One that he can only access through TVs.  For some reason.  He can’t understand why either.  I promise it gets explained…kind of.  Anyways, one thing leads to another and he finds out, along with his classmates Yosuke Hanamura and Chie Satonaka, that the pair of murders directly tie into this other world.  But that’s not all this “TV world” offers them.  In that world, they gain the power to generate supernatural creatures…avatars…things called persona.  The exact nature of these personae are not explained, but they enact the will of their controller, or something.

Though Izanagi is still impossibly badass. No matter what it is.

Tell you what: you find a better description and I’ll use it.

One sticking point on those persona though: only those who face and accept their shadow may wield one.  What’s a shadow you ask?  Well, continuing with their Jungian philosophical tour, a shadow is an aspect of the self that the conscious self doesn’t recognize.  The series takes it a step further though and the shadow of an individual is a different physical entity than themselves.  This world takes the part of the mind that they don’t recognize, that they don’t associate with themselves, and makes it a living creature. And this creature hates its lack of recognition.  It tortures and accuses its creator, telling them things they do not wish to hear.  And upon seemingly inevitable rejection, it turns violent.

Characters gain their persona only after defeating a shadow (read: beating it over the head with personae) and having the creator accept that the shadow is a part of themselves.  I know the rules of this universe are a lot of take in…but basically it comes down to: person sees a physical representation of themselves they don’t recognize, person refuses to acknowledge that it’s them, the other part of them attacks, loses, and person gains the ability to wield a persona.  It’s got very loose ties to Jungian psychology if that helps.

I should use this time to mention that shadows range from creepy to weird. Very weird.

I should use this time to mention that shadows range from creepy to weird. Very weird.

Anyways, the point being that it’s up to Yu and his group of friends to go to school, solve the murder mystery, and defeat shadows along the way.  All while hiding the detection of the police, who would probably frown on the idea of people investigating a mystery for them.

On one hand, the narrative is very good.  It reveals itself in manners which hide the deepest secrets until the final episodes (and extra episode in releases).  Minor twists and turns keep the narrative progressing at a fairly brisk pace.  Coming in with a completely blank slate creates quite a fascinating and gripping narrative in this sense.  There are very few “pauses” in the flow of the story (whereas you could have weeks in story (hours of gameplay) between points in the story).  Those which do exist often come in the form of amusing comedic adventures also known for populating the Persona universe.  This aspect certainly becomes more of a mixed bag as the side events sometimes carry a small bit of narrative, making all the filler episodes difficult to miss for fear of losing out on part of the mystery, but also generate tedium if your goal is squarely on a mystery.

I mention it previously but it deserves multiple statements: this narrative is fascinating if you walk in without spoilers.  This is a surprisingly difficult task as Persona 4‘s popularity breaks internet searches and litters fan forums and other such sites with walking spoilers.  I’ve tried to avoid such a problem myself but I might slip one or two in by accident.  Regardless, I again should describe this nature of the narrative that works well here: the progress despite continual restarts.  The mystery aspect finds an extremely small niche of playing both the frustration of having to begin again, a notion seem several times throughout the narrative, and slowly diminishing the list of possible suspects.  It espouses tenacity and optimism.  It’s not difficult to spot either of these as a primary motif of the narrative boils down to turning away from the ugly reality versus facing it head on.  Well, kind of.

Finally, as mentioned above, there are filler episodes.  They are probably some of the funniest and entertaining parts of the series.  It inadvertently pulls the same humour strings as the game by typically drawing humour on more of a slice-of-life level.  Focus on character exaggeration is the order of the day.  It’s a nice break from watching these characters trudge through a serious series but it’s certain that it won’t fit the desires of all viewers given this major genre shift.

Given all this though…I’ve got a serious love-hate relationship here.  On one hand, this story quite faithfully follows the narrative of the Persona 4 game.  It’s intriguing, full of some obvious (and not so obvious) turns, and has an ending you probably can’t predict.  There is high calibre material without a doubt.  So why the love-hate instead of pure affection?  Well, it breezes by at such a fast clip at times that major plot points do not receive proper treatment nor do certain aspects really build up.  This sometimes comes from just a failing of the series as a whole; Persona 4 did not adequately explain several plot points even in-game and this simply transfers over to the anime adaptation.  It simply becomes something that you must accept of the world you’re watching.  The series ties up most loose ends by series end, but you have to scour every single line very carefully to make sure you catch it all.

To further this, the comedic effect sometimes contrasts far too greatly with the serious character side.  This often funnels back to the commentary I stated I’d later give on Yu alone but it stretches into each character at some point or another.  Serious scenes inexplicably become comedic.  Sometimes it works, sometimes it just falls flat.  For example, there’s an entire episode which feels like it should be serious but gets played for a string of laughs.  And this sometimes drains the fun out of the episode as it certainly got the “serious” treatment in the game (for the most part).  An excellent description I heard of the animation is that “every character is now the comic relief”.  A thought which is mostly true the more I think about it.

Probably the most egregious issue stemming from both the anime and the game is serious lack of development for the final antagonists.  The antagonist is hinted barely in the game…it’s very easy to forget that the reference even happens.  In the animated version?  Even worse.  This might be because the series intended for a single ending (whereas this unhinted antagonist comes from one of many endings in the game)…but it still feels strange watching the bonus episode since it comes out of nowhere.

Ultimately, Persona 4 is optimistic.  The mystery gets solved, etc.  It’s neither dark nor gritty and you shouldn’t go in expecting such a piece.  I guess though that this is typical given the narrative focuses on high school students who are solving mysteries the police can’t.

Characters

The series focuses around Yu Narukami and the friends he gathers along the murder investigation.  It’s very difficult to distinguish between characters and plot spoiling at this point so I’ll focus more on the series’ effectiveness in expressing characters.

Personally, this area is a strength of the series.  It’s certainly much, much compressed (and I’d even say to a slight detriment of the series) but some key aspects get by which make interesting characters within the realm of the world they inhabit.

Persona 4: The Animation is by nature very focused on fleshing out characters; they have “shadows” which they reject and must accept in order to progress in narrative.  This exercise by definition pretty much requires exposition of character by a description of a shadow.  I’ll spoil part of Episode 2 to make an example: Yosuke’s shadow claims he absolutely hates his life.  He hates the fact that it’s boring here and went on this adventure because it was merely exciting.  Very basic application of the rules of the universe (pretty much presented during the monologue) means we learn something Yosuke.  Actually, the game and series both throw it pretty hard in the observer’s face that it’s part of the character they know.  So, naturally, we learn a lot through the initial shadow battles about the characters who witness their shadows.

But it certainly goes beyond that.  The characters themselves have subversion wired right into them, making a very unique experience.  Chie, probably the easiest to spot “tomboy” type of character you’ll see in a long time, is quite uncomfortable with that type of position.  And you find this lack of confidence permeates into other aspects of her personality even going as far as being surprised when everybody seems to agree on her theory being correct.  The design of the entire series focuses and highlights these striking distinctions between the character stereotype and the written personality.  This interesting and fairly unique decision (when mixed with the concept of shadows) provide a surprisingly deep set of characters in the length of time given for characterization.

Not only are the characters deep and subversive but they also deal with topics rarely seen in such anime.  I don’t want to ruin anything but later “shadows” deal with subjects rarely spoken of in such situations.  Almost everything in this regard becomes interesting and stand out very heavily because of it.

But unfortunately the series also suffers from lack of time, simply put.  Characterization is typically a Persona franchise strong point as the series gets older and older.  Starting with their third main game (that is, Persona 3), an element occurs known as a “Social Link”.  It’s nearly a dating game aspect where the protagonist (in our case, Yu) gets to spend time with other protagonists and NPCs.  A great deal of in depth characterization occurs in these events, often tying well in with the main theme of the game.  This is no different in Persona 4, where I’d argue is about half the game in a similar way to Danganronpa having half-Free Time, half-murder mystery.

I mention this aspect because Persona 4: The Animation attempts to replicate parts of Social Links to a net negative in my mind.  They often deal with one early Social Link (out of 10 stages) and one late stage event.  It is certainly ambitious to even consider adding these as they would consume great deals of time from start to finish.  However, the scenes rarely, if ever, hold the same weight or value as they do in game and is little more than time filler without the amount of interest or emotional investment.  I understand that they wanted to showcase the aspects shown in the game (I’m very partial to a couple selected scenes myself) but they come without warning or real context and the flow of the episode often shoehorns it into a side aspect of a greater episode narrative, making any character revelation secondary to the ongoing narrative.  As a result, it becomes little more than fan service for the fans of the game and little else to first time viewers of the animated version.

The other issue I have with the general tendency towards more exaggerated characters.  Characters in Persona 4 are more rounded and realistic than their animated selves.  This really does feel like an issue with the amount of time available as oppose to real director issue since there’s not enough time to keep the more subdued scenes in and more extreme characters results in more viable comedy scenes, something leaned on heavily in this adaptation.  This leads to more silly and over the top characters.  Like a version of Chie which seems to solve any problem by kicking.  Or a Yosuke which has no value other than comic relief whereas he acted as the strong secondary leader and an emotional driver of the investigation in Persona 4.  It’s less notable for viewers of the series only but may leave them confused as to why characters receive so much adoration for their game equivalents.

Boss needs beating? Galactic Punt. Yosuke bothering you? Galactic Punt. Yosuke ticks you off? Galactic Punt again. You get the idea.

Worse than this is the absolutely mixed situation of Yu Narukami.  Yu is, by nature, a silent protagonist in-game.  This lets you filter whatever personality you want into him and, by extension, let you immerse yourself through his eyes.  Parts of the personality are set but much of it open.  The animated Yu, on the other hand, takes on a whole new personality instead of adopting some bland presence.  He’s somewhere between socially awkward, eccentric, one step out of reality, and professional troll.  There’s no better way to describe him honestly.  He keeps a fairly deadpan personality yet makes constant confusion and humour.  He even pulls this card during the most tense situations.  It’s very much another case of extreme hit and miss.  He’s sometimes the funniest character on-screen and makes the scene incredibly funny.  Other times…no so much.  It’s not that his antics aren’t funny.  They typically are.  But he feels so far out of the world he’s in that he is basically an imported character from another series; it’s easy to lose your sense of immersion due to this character.

Animation

I…don’t want to put it this way…but I don’t think I have any other option.  The animation for this series is heavily inconsistent.  There are some lively, beautiful, and breathtaking scenes.  They hold up today about 5 years after release.  And I absolutely love these scenes due to obvious love and affection in its creation.

Yet…the same series carries some incredibly poorly animated sequences.  There is no joke when I state that there’s about 20 seconds a single frame.  Stills and characters filling the empty void with dialogue.  Older series could get away with this…but this is pushing the limits.  Actually, it crosses it when you mix in the fact that there are great numbers of cost saving animations.  Poorly rendered characters, lots of distance shots, “side mouth”, and smaller cost saving measures.  There’s in fact a sequence where’s it’s extremely obvious the animators animated a small set of cells for Yosuke and cycled sequentially, completely ignoring whatever dialogue it supposedly represents.  This begins leaning heavily on the willing suspension of disbelief.

Let’s look at the positives first.  Some sequences are incredible.  It’s unfortunate that I can’t really provide examples as they almost always occur in spoiler heavy situations.  However, I almost always note a large jump in animation quality.  Detail are quite notable and honestly feel a step above what the series provides elsewhere.

Crazy Yu

Unfortunately, the negatives are just as painful.  Character’s mouths are “just” off-screen too often, letting the animation get away with showing the character’s eyes for multiple seconds on end and animate a single frame.  Characters get placed in wide pan shots frequently to prevent having to animate mouths.  Or if they do receive animation, the mouth is incredibly small so detailed lip flapping becomes non-important.

I’m not one to typically concern myself with animation but I did notice this vast difference based on scenes.  It’s alright to have difference between scenes.  It’s not always alright to have individuals look like the same character between scenes.

Sound/Music/Voice Actors

Much of the soundtrack for this series comes from the original game.  It’s hard to not love the music…the Persona series is well-known for its excellent pieces, something carried through all the mediums it inhabits.  Part techno, part pop, part rap…there’s probably a little bit for everybody.  The series undoubtedly leans on carried over feelings from the game to secure this since it copies the same soundtrack this heavily.  There are new pieces and they work well…such as I’ll Face Myself – Reincarnation.  Actually, I find the new pieces fit a model of this grander stage with the use of more classic instruments such as piano and violin.  The comparison being the heavy use of guitar and synthesizer in the Persona 4 game

The anime utilizes two openings and two closings.  Kind of.  The series typically uses two openings and two closing pieces.  The opening changes a couple times…primarily, incredibly serious episodes get treated with no opening and simply a title card.  Episode endings also revolve around two piece but change for some special episodes.  Almost all the pieces are written by Persona series favourite Lotus Juice, who writes most of the series’ battle lyrics…almost all raps.  They work strangely well and it’s an interesting experience.

The first main opening is sky’s the limit and the second opening is keys plus words, performed by Shihoko Hirata.  The former is much calmer and less pressing while the latter is quite upbeat and intense.  It makes sense for this duality at some level since the series does pick up in intensity as the episodes pass.  Neither are really outstanding but the mix of that plus the animation really do reflect the concept that this series isn’t fully intended for “new” fans.  The openings outright spoil which characters are protagonists.  Which is too sad since this would be a terrific series for “evolving” opening credits.

The first closing song is Beauty of Destiny and the second is The Way of Memories.  Both are one again primarily produced by Shihoko Hirata.  I cannot claim to know the exact thought process for developing these pieces but they do not really fit the anime as they are both relatively calm pieces, the latter far much more so.  They are nice pieces to listen to but don’t do a tone for the series.

This series has pretty fantastic dubbing voices.  The names on both English and Japanese ends are well recognized and typically fit their role well.  There are some struggles with work schedules (that is to say, honeymoons) which make Troy Baker’s character suddenly shift in tone halfway through the series.  Additionally, fans of the original game will find that Chie Satonaka and Teddie have changed voices too.  There honestly is a very large carousal of changing voice actors and voice actresses for the English side of this franchise over the years and this might make the Japanese version more palatable.  But that’s not to say the cast for this anime are bad, per say.  Actually, Laura Bailey and Amanda Winn Lee both do excellent jobs in their respective roles.  I’d probably recommend you take a listen to the characters and decide for yourself.

Synergy

How this series floats itself depends purely on the episode.  One episode might use the main story to pull you in.  The next might have a nifty battle.  The next could get you laughing.  It’s very much a beginner friendly series in this sense as it offers a little to everyone but not enough of most of these traits to really dominate.  Except for the mystery.  That part is absolutely an overarching idea…it’s just that you might forget that it even exists from time to time as the episode demands a different pull.

Why to Watch

All the slagging I give Persona 4 doesn’t mean it’s bad.  It’s actually a decent recreation.  You want a compressed version of the narrative and it gives it.  It’s quicker and involves far less monster bashing than the game.  You get to focus purely on the narrative and some silly side adventures.  That’s simply it: you get to watch the mystery come forth and recede in ~10 hours what you’d take 60 hours to see in a game while involving no button pressing.

Why Not to Watch

It’s very easy to see why not if you have a Playstation 2, 3, or Vita in addition to a bit of time on your hands.  The game does a much better job telling the narrative.  The characters are more cohesive, the engagement higher, and the world building comes together much better in-game format.  Like my many comparisons to Danganronpa: The Animation, it’s a case of either needing massive, massive episode blocks (probably to a level of twice as many as given) or having a series which doesn’t quite match the game.

Finding the series might be a bit pricier than the games too as you’re looking at DVDs or a similar distributor.

Personal Enjoyment

I love the Persona franchise.  Plain and simple.  Recent editions of the franchise engage itself deeply with character psychological issues (coming to a front with the “Shadows” in Persona 4).  I re-watch Persona 4: The Animation routinely despite my issues with it.  That should tell you exactly how much I ingrain myself with the franchise.

Summary

Persona 4: The Animation presents a real conundrum.  On one hand, it represents the problems with compression of expansive games into a short ~10 hour viewing.  Even stripping away all the level grinding leaves far too much to tell in far too little time.  Some of the intriguing aspects of the series fall to the cutting room floor and the series well-known as the gold standard for character writing feels a little incomplete, living with character exaggerations.  It’s also a bit of a shameless re-creation designed to appeal to its core fans since key parts of the narrative are either left obvious from the start or skipped over with haste.  And it’s hard to recommend it because there is such an impressive alternative.

But what’s left is still decent, enjoyable, and you’ll likely leave a viewing happier than if you left the series alone.  It’s good in a world with no comparable source material and I’d still recommend watching it provided you’re either done with the game or just short on time getting into the franchise.

I guess the easy way to put it is that it’s good, but saying it’s good is a letdown when the source material is just that much better.  If you have the time and a Vita or a PS2, play the game.  If you don’t, watch the anime.

Overall Rating

Persona 4: The Animation has a 7.01/10 for me.  Given I use 5 as average, this ranks as a solid anime.  I would personally place it as an excellent series to put on your “to watch” list and keep it in mind, despite the flaws I list above.

This series, as an obvious carryover from the game itself, scored strongest in the character section.  This means that it manages to reflect the unique characters from the game, even if they lose some of their depth.  The music also help quite well.  It’s unfortunate but the real limiting factor became the lack of episode count and cramming far too much into far too few episodes, leaving out many details which made the original game great.

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