Anime and Manga — Reviews and Previews
Hello, and Happy New Year! Welcome to 2012, and welcome to the new Armchair Madcap! I decided to start the new year off right with a show I knew I would like, so I caught myself up on the latest episodes of Persona 4: the Animation. For those of you not in the know, this is the anime adaptation of the successful videogame of the same name, which came out late in 2008 on the Playstation 2. It’s part of the Shin Megami Tensei series of games, and even the anime sports that series’ particular visual and story-telling style. Simple, striking character designs; bright colors; smooth animation; a convoluted mystery with straightforward tales of friendship at its core; inventive summoned creatures that do battle in a parallel world… I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.
Persona 4: the Animation (hereafter referred to just as Persona 4, for convenience’s sake) is the story of Yu Narukami, a transfer student from Tokyo who is replanted in the sleepy country town of Inaba when his parents go abroad for work. Left under the care of his busy uncle Dojima, a detective, and living alongside Dojima’s grade-school daughter, Nanako, Yu quickly finds himself embroiled in a bizarre series of murders that shatter the quiet peace of the town.
That all sounds simple enough, but it wouldn’t be a Persona property if things didn’t get weirder from there. Yu and his newfound friends quickly deduce that the murders are related to a supernatural phenomenon known as Mayonaka TV – a blurry program that only shows if you watch a powered-off television at midnight on a rainy evening. Stunned that the rumors of the program are true, Yu approaches the television only to nearly be sucked inside of it, where a dangerous new world awaits. It’s within this world that Yu and friends are able to summon personas, or powerful mythological creatures, but only after overcoming the darkest aspects of their own personalities, phobias, and desires.
Primarily, this show is concerned with the outward faces that people show to the world as well as the fragments of personality they’d rather keep hidden. Jealousy, ennui, sexuality, gender identity, baseless hatred, sociopathy – all of these are on display throughout Persona 4. Everything comes down to the “true self” as opposed to the “perceived self,” and everyone is hiding something even from themselves. Someone could probably write a very successful paper on the show/game and all of its psychological theories, but that’s a subject for another time.
Looking briefly at the cast of characters, one would be forgiven for thinking it runs a pretty standard gambit through anime tropes: the strong, nearly-silent protagonist, Yu; the class clown who wants to be a hero, Yosuke; the sporty girl who’s more comfortable beating up boys than playing dress-up, Chie; and the effeminate but fragile popular girl, Yukiko. (There are just as many others but, sadly, spoilers…)
What becomes abundantly apparent as one watches the show – and even more so when one plays the game – is that these are all individual people who take every opportunity to rise out of their stereotypes. Chie, for example, isn’t as comfortable in her skin as she seems: she’s secretly jealous of Yukiko’s easy popularity, and she enjoys it when Yukiko needs her to scare off the more persistent suitors. Yukiko, meanwhile, despises feeling like her fate has already been decided, but is too terrified to break away from her chains and fly the coop on her own.
Every character has a number of very human weaknesses, and the show handles these carefully, only occasionally lapsing into all-out melodrama in its attempt to make us see the inner struggles of each character. In fact, Persona 4 is far more likely to use humor to draw attention to the tragedies we inflict on ourselves by forcing ourselves into the molds provided for us. This is not kiddy stuff, but it’s presented in such a straight-forward manner and is laced with so much slapstick comedy that it doesn’t really get terrifying until you allow yourself to dwell on the implications. It’s a good bit of nuance that’s often missing from shows with such deep themes.
You can’t talk about anything Shin Megami Tensei without talking about the art, and Persona 4 is no different: the show borrows the game’s bright, pop-y color scheme and its heavy emphasis on yellow. The titular monstrous personas are directly copied from the game, but they are animated with crucial attention to detail and lose nothing – may, in fact, gain quite a bit – from the translation. That attention to detail was also turned towards the lighting. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a show put some much emphasis on the interplay between light and dark, especially to such a striking effect. Fitting for a show whose emphasis is all about the light and dark in peoples’ lives. Nearly every frame is a visual treat.
The character designs are also eye-catching in their simplicity. They stand out in particular against the typical moe default that seems to have arisen in recent years. There’re no eyes here that take over the whole face; no Technicolor hair; no ridiculously over-sized breasts and well-developed bums.
Speaking of breasts and bums, fan service is definitely present in Persona 4 but is refreshingly light. Furthermore, nearly all of the instances of it are directly tied into the story – a character dealing with their sexuality, for example. I can think of only a handful of instances (a well-endowed adult character, and a short-lived and tasteful bathing suit scene) where the show started sliding into some of those fan service tropes. Both of those aforementioned instances were in the game as well, and neither feels particularly egregious.
I want to take the chance to talk about one of the instances of sexuality that comes up about halfway into the series. I won’t be talking spoilers here, but I think it’s important to note when a series takes a risk. Persona 4 goes out on a limb by having an ambiguously gay character, and not one who gets shoe-horned into the comedic side-kick role. This is a character who is honestly struggling with the notion and consequences of being homosexual. I won’t say that the show completely avoids the usual flaming-homoerotic traps that a lot of shows fall into, but it’s at least willing to go the extra mile to make the homosexual character an actual, well, character. The show (and the game before it) back off of its stance a little towards the end by muddying the waters with the introduction of another character (any further explanation would be a pretty major spoiler), but Persona 4 should be applauded for the effort.
Hm… Sounds like another good paper topic… Moving on.
Action scenes are usually brief but display decent choreography and animation. There aren’t a lot of instances where one is confused during the fights. As a highlight, the boss fight in episode 10 is a particular treat, since it shows off Yu’s singular skill to summon a number of different personas in quick succession. It’s a fast-paced fight that doesn’t let up, and it’s amazingly fun to watch.
Lastly, one cannot discuss Persona 4 without talking about its bizarrely magical soundtrack. It’s a mish-mash of electronic-pop-hip-hop-rock weirdness, but it works so spectacularly with the visuals that it becomes very much a part of the experience. These shouldn’t be the sort of songs one wants to listen to outside of the show, but for whatever reason, they stick with you and cause you to do that very thing. I kept the Persona 4 game soundtrack in my car for months and only retired it once it had become scratched beyond repair.
I suspect this show was made with fans of the game firmly in mind, with newcomers warranting secondary importance as an audience. There’s a huge nostalgia factor when it comes to Persona 4, since it borrows a number of things directly from the game. The aforementioned soundtrack will be instantly familiar, as will be the character status screen that the show uses to frame commercial breaks. Most prominent, though, is the time-change screen that the game used to show the passing of days and months. It’s a quirky throwback to the game that old fans will love, but that new fans will probably take a little getting used to.
Not having the benefit of watching the show blind, I can’t speak to whether or not the story is difficult to understand for beginners, but the first episode did seem a little fragmented to me, and there were other jumps later in the series that would make less sense if one had not experienced the game beforehand. Nothing that breaks the series, certainly, and perhaps not even as difficult as I’m making it out to be, but it’s something that warrants attention nonetheless. As of the posting of this article, the series still has a few episodes left to run, so I’ll amend my opinion on this if things get more convoluted as the series runs headlong into the final stages.
If you’re deciding between watching the show or playing the game first (because you should definitely do both, time allowing), then I recommend playing the game. If you don’t want to put in the time to play 100+ hours of RPG-goodness, then the anime is an adequate substitute. Note, however, that if you have played the game and made it all the way through to the end, then watching the show lets you see the machinations moving in the background even at the earliest stages of the show. Knowing who the bad guy is reminds you just how complete his or her deception really is.
Final verdict: see this show, even if you’ve never experienced anything Persona-related before.