If any game deserved to be turned into an anime series, it is Persona 4. And as it it happens, it was turned into an anime, and it’s one of the finest anime ever made.
One of the most complex game narratives ever made, Persona 4 is the kind of title that earns the right to be compared to the other artistic greats in literature, film and music thanks to what I like to think of as “approachable complexity.” On the one hand it’s a game that is easy enough to work through without thinking too hard; it’s got a fun story that’s littered with humour, and the turn-based JRPG action is of sufficient depth and complexity to keep even the most committed fans happy.
But that’s just the surface. Diving deeper into the narrative and doing some critical analysis reveals a game that’s also dripping with an intelligent and uncompromising engagement with various philosophies. I highlighted one area of analysis in a recent theory piece, but it is only one – search around the Internet and you’ll find all kinds of academic analysis of this game.
Because it straddles the line between entertainment and meaningful art so well, Persona 4 has become an enduring title that continues to make the top 10 lists of both critics and fans. What’s especially impressive about the anime is that it captures that exact same core values of the game. This is one of those rare anime versions of a game where, regardless of whether you play the game or watch the anime, you’re getting the same depth and entertainment value. It might not be interactive this time around, but it’s possible to watch this series and come away from it having felt the same emotional and intellectual impact that you would have if you spent the same time playing it.
In capturing the tone of the Persona 4 game, the creators behind the anime have done the wise thing and focused on the relationships and characterisation of the group of friends at the core of the story. Though Persona 4 is considered to be a JRPG, in practice that’s only around half the experience. A full 50 per cent of the game more closely resembles a dating simulation, where the main characters need to interact with one another in order to better understand each other, as well as themselves.
We’re talking about some seriously interesting character arcs here, all revolving around a common theme; the characters need to come to terms with the less pleasant sides of themselves. At heart, Persona 4 is a coming of age story in which all these teenaged characters learn about themselves, their strengths and weaknesses, and come to terms with who they are. There’s a character that is struggling with his homosexuality. There’s an idol that is rebelling against her fame, even as she is jealous of other people taking the spotlight. There’s even a cross gendered character. Each of the main characters is ultimately on a quest for identity, and while this creates some very dark moments within the narrative, it never ceases to be fascinating.
And that’s not to say the game lacks a sense of humour. On the side, Persona 4 is also a story of teenage life, and with that comes awkward romances, school trips in which everyone acts a little crazy and a kind of youthful bonding that only really happens to teenagers. The anime captures the sense of nostalgia that is core to the game’s atmosphere perfectly, and thanks to the delightful performances from every voice actor, it’s very easy to become emotionally involved with what’s going on. When the story called for me to feel sad or angry, I did. And, the sense of comic timing has had me in stitches at other points, despite having watched the series through for three times now. Leading man, Yu Narukami, has a deadpan sense of humour down just perfect.
I have to highlight the nightclub scene midway through the series for a special mention. It’s downright hilarious as the characters all manage to get drunk on non-alcoholic drinks and get up to the standard kind of high school boy-girl hijinks, but at the same time it also represents the nostalgia for high school. There’s a longing in the way that Persona 4 tells its story – a longing for a simpler time where relationships could be straightforward and fun. Where it was okay to be silly and a teenager. When we would feel like we were behaving like adults, when the reality was anything but. Most of us who are well into our adult years (I feel old now…) have fond memories of these kinds of experiences, and it’s those memories that pull us into the narrative. I have a constant smile on my face when I’m playing or watching Persona 4, no matter how many times I do play or watch it, and that’s a surefire sign of a successful story.
While the focus is firmly on the characterisation and narrative there is still action in Persona 4: the Animation. As with the game, once a character has come to terms with their “inner selves” they earn the ability to use their “persona” monsters in battle. These persona are a reflection of the individual’s personality, and their powers in combat are different in kind. Unlike many anime, Persona’s combat is short and to the point – more interested in emphasising the danger that the characters are in than being the focus of any scene, but it is effective in breaking up the drama. Unlike, say, Bleach or One Piece, Persona 4: the Animation’s approach to action is more mature and well-paced, and I appreciated that the animation avoided common tropes to the genre such as action-anime’s obsession with the quest for power and “ranking” one fighter against the next.
Special mention needs to go to the animation and art direction, which is a cut well above the norm. The warm use of colour and the vibrancy of environments helps to reinforce the nostalgia atmosphere that the story calls for, and the character designs are all quite genuinely perfect. I mean, Persona 4 is the story with Rise and Yukiko, after all.
With regards to the DVD quality, there’s some nice special features, including a director’s cut of episode 1, and some additional segments that help to fill out the fantasy world of Persona 4. Trailers, textless songs and TV spots round out the features, but even if the Persona 4: the Animation collection offered nothing beyond the episodes it would be essential stuff; anime just doesn’t get better than this.
– Matt S.
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