So I was gonna do a weekly round-up, but unfortunately this season hasn’t miraculously stopped sucking, so I though I’d write instead about a series I just finished watching and actually kinda liked. I know it’s nearly two years old now, but screw it, it’s more stimulating to write about than anything this season.
In case the inclusion of “The Animation” in the title didn’t tip you off, the Persona 4 anime is an adaptation of a popular JRPG from the Megami Tensei franchise. It is well known for blending the traditional JRPG with elements of visual novel gameplay, and while I am not a fan of visual novels, I’m all for experimentation. I have played the game, albeit not all the way through, but this review will focus primarily on the anime itself.
Narukami Yu is to spend a year in the country living with his Uncle and cousin. He meets various friendly people at his new school, but a string of serial murders begins and it starts to become apparent that it is related to a local piece of folklore, the “Midnight Channel”. The face of the next victim appears on the midnight channel on rainy nights, and when Narukami finds he has the power to go inside TVs to an alternate dimension of sorts, he and his new friends decide to use this power to investigate the serial murders and their relation to the Midnight channel. Inside the TV, they are each forced to face a side of themselves they would rather pretend didn’t exist.
The elephant in the room when discussing any adaptation is faithfulness to the source material, and from my own experience of the game and other sources, Persona 4: The Animation hits the ball out of the park on this one. It’s not perfect, but for the most part this is exactly what a game adaptation should be, faithful to the source material, but injecting enough creativity for it to better function in a different medium.
The trickiest part of this lies with the main character, who, in the game, is voiceless, and named by the player. The various dialogue choices throughout the game only complicates how one might adapt the protagonist to a character in a non-interactive medium. Courageously, Seiji Kishi and the team from AIC decided to give the protagonist both a name and a voice, and even a distinct personality. You may think a character who is, in the game, largely a blank slate for the player, and who only gives any evidence of talking when dialogue choices come up would come across as a bizarre, stoic, somewhat schizophrenic personality in a non-interactive medium, but most brilliantly of all, the adaptation staff decided embrace this side of it and a lot of the show’s comedy revolves around this.
What’s more, they inject just enough coherence and personal struggle to make the protagonist, Narukami Yu, memorable and associable outside of his comedic persona.
In general the characters are one of the strongest points about the game and its adaptation, and this leads into my central thesis on Persona 4. It uses a formula we’re very familiar with, but it adds enough complexity and pulls it off with enough style to feel fresh and enjoyable. Almost all the characters are, at first glance, your standard cliche archetypes. There’s the tomboy, the Yamato Nadeshiko, the delinquent, the idol, the mascot etc etc. However, the plot forces each of them to face their baser desires, and while the archetypes are basically left intact, there’s definitely a level of deconstruction here, exploring the darker sides of these archetypes, while lending the characters much needed complexity and sympathy.
Unfortunately, no matter how well they may have executed an old formula, it is still an old formula, and Persona 4 can’t quite escape the taint of the usual high school antics or its quasi dating sim roots. What’s more, they don’t get the adaptation all right, and the pacing is a bit schizophrenic. Sub-plots that were, in the game, running concurrent to the main story tend to get compressed into a single episode, so we often get large chunks of plot followed by large chunks of filler. I have to give Persona 4 a big fat gold star for actually making its filler episodes funny, but I feel the whole thing would have felt a lot more organic had the sub-plots been interspersed in smaller chunks, more evenly throughout the main story.
Also rare for the setting, Persona 4 is actually quite thematically ambitious. The implications of the midnight channel and the TV world, particularly in consideration of later revelations are never really directly brought up, but are left to linger at the back of one’s mind, and I appreciate that it decides to respect its audience’s intelligence in this way. As a long time reader of Nietzsche, I was happy to spot some familiar themes and ideas, such as the connection between the will to power and the will to truth. What’s more, it’s his actual philosophy, not all that awful stuff he usually gets pinned with. The themes also tie in with Japanese Mythology and Shintoism, neither of which I know much about, and thus shan’t expand upon, and the Arcana, of which TV tropes gives a great, though spoilerific rundown.
For all this praise, Persona 4 seems to stop short of greatness in almost every regard. The animation is nice, well directed at points, but nothing particularly memorable. The characters are complex and interesting, but ultimately fail to escape the archetypes from which they’re born. Some interesting issues like gender identity are explored, but it all stops short of subversive. The serial murder case is more interesting than your standard save the world JRPG plot, but it still uses many of the usual contrivances. The sound direction is the only thing I could say is great without needing to qualify. The themes are subtle and draw from multiple inspirations, but the show just doesn’t have the balls to say anything that doesn’t fit into its very optimistic mindset.
Kafka once said that a book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us, and while Persona 4 is certainly entertaining, it fails to challenge or engage on any more basic level. If entertainment is all you’re looking for, then Persona 4 certainly won’t disappoint, regardless of whether or not you’ve played the game. It’s one of the more multi-faceted pieces of entertainment I’ve seen in some time.
Overall Score: 8