The Spring 2018 Anime Preview Guide
PERSONA 5 the Animation
How would you rate episode 1 of
PERSONA 5 the Animation ?
What is this?
How was the first episode?
I have no experience with the games on which this series is based, so I am evaluating this premiere entirely as a standalone. Based on that, the first episode is essentially establishing the origin story of a character with superhuman thieving ability. We see him in action in his prime, then he gets caught, then we flash back to how he got his powers as he is questioned in the present. It's an entirely functional approach for conveying the basic premise, but unfortunately the storytelling dallies around enough other establishing elements that the first episode doesn't paint a full enough picture on its own, leaving a lot of uncertainty about what's going on at the end of the episode.
At least it tells its story in a flashy enough way. I found the editing of the opening sequence involving the casino heist a little too choppy, and all the extra voices with no apparent sources were more of a distraction than an enhancement. However, the whole sequence still looks visually impressive, with lots of sharp colors and dramatic staging. By comparison, the later interrogation room scene drops off, with a weird effect plaguing one of the interrogator's eyes; this whole series is probably going to have some odd visual affectations. I can't say I'm particularly a fan of the character designs either, especially the gnomish individual in the dream sequence toward the end.
On the story front, this is a pretty familiar setup. Our protagonist did something in the past to stop an apparent crime that was considered over-the-top violent, and that's ruined his life going forward. Japan isn't a very tolerant place for people who take rash criminal actions, so the social pressure and degradation he faces may seem extreme by Western standards. Even with that understanding though, I still found it annoyingly over-the-top. But what would a true hero be without some kind of foundation in suffering? The episode ends on the cliffhanger of his powers emerging for the first time, so we'll have to wait until next week to see what he can actually do. The opener indicates several other characters will also be involved, but none of them make more than brief cameos here.
Overall, this debut leaves me ambivalent. There's some attention-catching flash and a decent enough setup that I can give the episode a middling score, but nothing about this episode reached out and grabbed me. It's just not compelling enough to get me to watch more.
It's a tricky thing adapting a videogame into a more traditional narrative medium. The stories that are best-suited to being told through games tend to naturally fight against adaptation; after all, if player agency was key to their emotional impact, how can they work with that agency removed? Games must prioritize clarity to give their players something to grasp onto; stories tend to minimize direct information dumps, preferring to create a kind of “player involvement” of their own through the audience discovering what's happening. Games are built around core payoff loops involving player actions; stories possess no such loops, and must make do with the embellishments games use to disguise those skeletons. If a game truly makes the most of its nature as a game, that makes it even harder to turn into an equally compelling anime.
And yet, here we are. I've been pretty excited for Persona 5's anime adaptation for two major reasons: I loved the game, and this adaptation's director Masashi Ishihama is an absolute genius. Having demonstrated his talent through the terrific From the New World and a wide array of smaller projects, I was eager to see his attempt to put this square peg in this round hole. So how does the adaptation fare?
So far, I'd say moderately well. Ishihama's strong grasp of visual contrast and fondness for wild color filtering mesh extremely well with Persona 5's stylish aesthetic, meaning segments like this episode's first scene are a real treat. That segment also demonstrates precisely how a game's strengths might be tinkered with for anime: instead of a focus on player movement and dialogue, this segment now prioritizes light and color, creating the same tone through visuals that the original affected through gameplay and dialogue.
Unfortunately, things slow down from there. The inescapable problem is that Persona 5's first act is extremely slow and methodical, jumping across several points in the protagonist's timeline while also setting up a variety of game systems for the many hours to come. The anime rushes through this setup period as quickly as possible, but the end result is that there's little to grab on to emotionally (a problem the game also had at this point), and things feel dramatically lethargic and narratively rushed at the same time. On top of that, the nature of the game means we're front-loaded with fantastical, unexplained contrivances like Ren's spectral assistants and the Velvet Room, concepts that I have to assume will trip up viewers who are just picking up the story here.
All that said, Ishihama's understanding of color and layouts still lends a new and welcome sense of grandeur to Persona's narrative, meaning I enjoyed this episode in a “your old friends, now on the big screen!” sense, even if I had issues with its pacing and structure. I'm guessing this episode will still come off as rushed and disjointed to new viewers, but this is a stylish and intriguing narrative, and much of that still comes through in animation. If future episodes can break away from the game's occasionally convoluted structure, this could end up being a fine story in its own right.
I'm in a weird position where I feel like I know both everything and nothing about the Persona franchise. I haven't played even one second of the many JRPGs in the game series, but I have a few close friends who are Persona fanatics, and I've edited a ton of copy about the games and their various anime spinoffs here on Anime News Network, so I've never been confused by the dream-world mechanics or the various in-jokes that pepper a Persona entry. I'm also well aware that Persona-based anime from the Persona 3 movies to the Persona 4 the Golden TV spinoff have a weird history of only making sense to those who have played the games and facing wildly diverse personal reactions based on what that audience wants to see from an anime adaptation. In any case, it seemed like the kind of thing I was barred from understanding until I made time to play the games first.
That said, it feels like we've been in the throes of Persona 4 remakes and reduxes for years now, and the release of Persona 5 brought several millions more fans into the fold of this franchise by making it fresh and accessible again. Persona-lly (hurr hurr), I was hoping that this appeal would also carry over to its unbelievably glossy anime adaptation. Surely I knew enough about Persona secondhand that I could jump into this anime and finally be able to appreciate a Persona story on my own for once, right? Well, the answer was both a resounding Yes and Nope.
While Persona 5 the Animation is extremely easy to watch thanks to its sharp direction, unique art design, and infectiously jazzy soundtrack, even my fairly extensive secondhand knowledge of the franchise's universe and concepts didn't help pull me into the story much. For example, this episode jumps from Joker's future as a master thief of "hearts" back to his past as a delinquent on probation, stuffing several months of intrigue into just a few minutes by blitzing through several character introductions and psychedelic dream sequences in rapid succession. Now I already know what personas are and how they work, I already know the basic structure of the game going forward, and even setting that aside, I couldn't begin to process the sheer volume of information and animated spectacle this episode was throwing at me. It's funny, because there's plenty of exposition in this premiere, but it's "as you know" dialogue in service of explaining to our tight-lipped hero why he's staying with a friend of his parents on probation. It never mentions the concept of personas, why the show places so much emphasis on Igor or the red-eyed phone app, or why Ren responds so strongly to the guy he just met getting attacked by the dream-world evil king (that we also just met). I pity anyone trying to walk into this show blind and get invested in the action beyond "damn, this is pretty". It's kind of a fever dream experience.
Basically, Persona 5 is bound to absolutely tickle prior Persona fans with some of the nicest animation and sharpest presentation of the franchise, but this is not going to be the anime that breaks the "fans only" curse that follows Persona anime adaptations either. At best it's possible to "understand" what you're looking at, taking mental notes of stuff that hasn't been explained yet, but at this point in the game, players were emotionally invested in what was happening, and that's something this eye-catching anime doesn't seem likely to capture.
Since I have no familiarity with the JRPG this series is based on, my review will have to approach it as a standalone story. Please forgive any inaccuracies or confusion that may arise from this.
Persona 5's first episode seems torn between being weird for its own sake and fascinatingly complex. Framed within a brutal jail interview after high schooler Ren Amamiya is nabbed by the cops for his part in some sort of mysterious thief group, the story seems to be leading up to what's really behind both his capture and why the cops are so brutal with him – those bruises on his face and hands do a fine job of telling us what's been done to him without having to actually depict the beatings. By the end of the episode, we know that Ren can manifest a persona known as Arsène, presumably a nod to French mystery writer Maurice Leblanc's famous thief Arsène Lupin, so there's going to be a clear theme of classic mystery characters running through this piece.
The café run by Ren's new guardian is called “Leblanc” for Lupin's author, and on the train in the morning, Ren sees a newscast about a teen detective known as Akechi – a dual reference to Edogawa Ranpo's serialized detective Akechi Kogoro and his work with the boy detectives. With the mysterious app with the creepy red eye design on it and the impressive heist in the opening part of the episode, this is shaping up to deliver a good blend of both classic mystery characters and elements, which is a nice break from the Alice themes we more frequently see in this sort of surreal storyline.
The major problems are the excessive use of red, which is terribly stylish and symbolic but at times difficult to look at for long, and an odd choice of timeline depiction. It took me a while to figure out that this is the April before the November from the opening rather than after it, and it isn't entirely clear what's happening in which world. Is November Ren trapped in the app's world somehow? That seems likely from a couple of lines and the fact that he's not wearing his glasses, but the lack of clarity as a deliberate choice takes you out of the story somewhat. Apart from the redness, the art is interesting in its use of background and costume details, although the interrogator's “smoky eye” looks a bit more like “bruisy eye,” an awkward detail. Despite these issues, I'm officially intrigued. There's enough here that it could turn into a very interesting mystery/dark caper, so if that's your bag, definitely check this out.
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