Anime Expository: Persona 4 the Animation

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I finished the True Ending episode this evening in its semi-raw form (Sorry, I cannot read Chinese.) and it has left me feeling a little ambivalent about the whole series.  I must begin by saying that I am a horrendous Persona, and by extension Shin Megami Tensei, games, some of which I own across multiple platforms.  If you haven’t played any of the games, I highly recommend them for some very thought provoking games that elicit a fair degree of emotional investment (Yes, I did cry at some points) from a jaded man like myself.  Persona 4 is one of my favorite games in the franchise and holds a special place in my top 5 games of all time.  Naturally, when I heard about the anime, my roommates wanted to strangle me after my fanboy zeal about the project.  Now that it has ended, I scratch my head and wonder if it was all worth the subscription I bought to Hulu just to share it with friends.  It has had its ups and downs, and rather than doing a traditional review, I want to highlight just a few things that struck me on journey.  Keep in mind that I am not here to persuade or dissuade you from watching, rather I am going to catalog observations of the video game to anime conversion process.

The Good

  • Yu Narukami, THE NON-SILENT PROTAGONIST!:  I understand that silent protagonist with dialogue wheels assist in the process of immersion for some players, but it is an overdone trope that often leaves me feeling distanced from a game.  Also, as an aside, silent protags often suffer from some weird form of flattened affect, which often makes them as emotionally robust as kitchen sponges.  However, in the anime, YU TALKS…A LOT!  In fact, he oddly gets a lot more characterization in the anime from the sheer fact that his fixed dialogue gives him dimension.  I do enjoy how many of his lines act as the smartass dialogue options from the game.
  • Boss Battles Translated Correctly:  In most games, boss battles represent small climatic pushes to the narrative designed to keep the momentum of the story moving forward.  Persona 4’s boss battles often contained a strong story element that enhanced character development, and in the anime, the battle screen and turn-based combat, have been replaced by stylized combat and a strong emphasis on the audience investment.  The anime bosses are some of the most poignant moments in the entire series and often fill out details absent from the game.
  • Mechanics and Music:  In translating most video games to a film/television medium, most directors often reference the mechanics and music of the game through either subtle nods (place names in Silent Hill) or sheer brutality (1st person perspective in Doom).  P4A usually opts for the former, with the town of Inaba filled in slowly through the series through the development of the plot.  The persona sequences and battles again reflect a movement away from the traditional JRPG model to one of more fluid storytelling.  Music has also been an important feature for setting the tone of the games, and the anime not only uses music from the game, it also features new songs, as well as remixes of the original soundtrack.

The Bad

  • Social Link Shrinkage:  Personas 3 and 4 introduced the Social Link System, wherein the protagonist spent time with various people in the game, such as other party members and side characters, and developed social bonds of friendship and romance with them.  Mechanically, this served to provide in-game bonuses to creating other personas to use in battle, but in terms of the story, the system worked to fill in backstories and details referenced in the main plot.  Due to the time limitations of the anime, many of the social links are truncated to between one and two episodes, trivializing the depth of the social interaction and creating the sense of filler rather than purposeful exposition.
  • Episode 26 – The True Ending:  I reference this episode in particular because it is the most egregious example of a distinct problem with the anime:  narrative flow and timing.  The social link translation is only the tip of the iceberg, as the narrative really collapses toward the end, as the developers seemed frantic to finish the anime within the allotted amount of episodes.  Ergo, when the series nears its end, which coincides with some of the most memorable and tense scenes in the game, the pacing tears through any emotional connection from the audience, leaving them exhausted and unable to see how the entire narrative fits together.  Here is some unhelpful math to illustrate the point:  Game [~60 Hours or 3600 Minutes] > Anime [~13 Hours or 780 Minutes] = Narrative Collapse.  The last episode illustrates this problem with uncompromising elegance, as it manages to squeeze what should have been a three-episode ending into one convoluted nightmare that lost much of the meaning from the original game.  Furthermore, in their efforts to address absent information necessary for understanding the true ending, they substitute another event (being spoiler-free sucks) that has absolutely nothing to do with the ending to smooth it over.  The overall effect of this compression process is that if we decided to draw a narrative line, it would appear like a first-time driver hitting that brake just a little frequently, except in the home stretch, where it is both feet on the gas.

The Facts…of Life?

If you have no desire or time or system to play the original PS2 version of Persona 4 or the upcoming PSVita Person 4 the Golden, the anime will fill in the story, but leave some unanswered questions.  If you seek out answers, I recommend watching a Let’s Play on Youtube for the Social Links and the True Ending Final Battle and Dialogue, which are a little less aneurism-enducing.  If you intend to play the game at some point, I would suggest playing the game first, and then watching the anime.  The game is definitely worth it and makes the anime feel much more like an extension of the experience.  If you have played the game, then you have to realize that a lot is lost in the translation, but there are a lot of great scenes in the anime that are worth watching alone.  If you do watch the final episode, find some way of holding back the rage…it is very palpable when you watch.

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