Reviewby Caitlin Moore,
PERSONA 5 the Animation
Ren Amamiya was an ordinary high school student until he was framed for assault and convicted. Now he's labeled a criminal, on probation for a year and stuck living in the attic of a coffee shop in Tokyo, far away from his family and friends. On his first day of school, he and another student find that instead of their campus, they've ended up in a castle ruled by one of the teachers! This is how Ren learns of the existence of palaces, and how to wield the power of personas to change the hearts of those who have them. Together, they form the Phantom Thieves to take down all the rotten, corrupt adults.
To be honest, PERSONA 5 the Animation was probably doomed from the start. To take a story-driven, 80+ hour game and try to adapt it into an anime a fraction of that length is an impossible task, the most foolish of fool's errands. Foolish though it may have been, this is exactly what director Masashi Ishihama attempted at CloverWorks. The resulting show can at best be described as “passable,” emphasizing all the weaknesses of the original game's narrative while retaining few of its strengths.
To make it clear where I approached the show from, I'm a big fan of the Persona series. I've played Persona 5 all the way through several times, meaning I've clocked multiple hundreds of hours into the game. I'm well familiar with the narrative beats and character arcs, and have well-formed opinions on what I like and dislike about them. If you're like me, you probably won't enjoy the show because you know everything that's missing, and how the breathless pace does a disservice to all those elements. I asked people who watched the show first, and most of them said they could tell that it was moving too fast and just wished they'd played the game instead.
Everything seemed fine in the first episode, which was beautifully animated and storyboarded. All the environments from the game came to life, especially the softly-lit Cafe Leblanc, with its stained-glass lamps and shelves of coffee. While Ren was very much a blank slate protagonist in the game, the character animation brought him to life as a soft-spoken boy who has been abandoned by his family and sent to live with a stranger. Everyone around him treats him like a criminal and assumes he's a troublemaker, and he's feeling alone and lost. He's full of wide-eyed stares and halting responses, up until the end of the episode, when he awakens to his persona and grins, wild-eyed, at the camera. “What a good first episode,” I said to myself, excited to see a version of the story with an actual character for the protagonist
I regret setting myself up for such disappointment. This is one of the areas where a change in medium necessitates a change in approach, but once the cast started filling out with all their big personalities, Ren slipped back into anonymity. He spent most of his time on-screen staring into space, uttering a line or two when necessary but not really having any meaningful interactions with his teammates. So many things don't translate from games to anime; why keep the protagonist as bland as possible? It can't have been that hard to give him some kind of personality.
The abbreviated pace may have been necessary, but doesn't do the story any favors. The palaces, which in the game took hours to navigate and were full of environmental storytelling that revealed more and more about the mentalities of the Phantom Thieves' targets – and what about society made them like that – are cut down to about an episode and a half apiece, breezing past all the little details. Even the parts that remain whiz through, with none of the weight or impact they once had. In terms of story, the adaptation is workmanlike in the worst sense of the word, treating story beats as checkboxes to be marked off, rather than events that build upon each other to create a bigger picture.
With so little time for the story, is it any wonder the characters and themes suffered severely as well? The confidant relationships, which in the original game were optional side-stories meant to build the world and reinforce the story's themes, are mostly reduced to little more than cameos. Poor Iwai, one of my favorites in the game, didn't even get a single line. Other great character moments are elided, like any time Makoto acts like a stone-cold badass, or reinterpreted in a way that misses the point, like the Phantom Thieves having a great time on their school trip instead of feeling disappointed and disillusioned. Akechi also spends a lot more time interacting with Ren, which I have no doubt many people will appreciate, but to be honest, I really hate Akechi and think any time the anime spent on him is time that could be put to better use.
On the other hand, they found plenty of time for the camera to point itself right at Ann's shiny latex-clad breasts and butt, retaining one of the worst parts of the game that was squarely in opposition to the overall themes. Whoever thought it would be a good idea to write a character who had been othered because of her appearance and blackmailed into sex with a teacher, and then make her the object of frequent fanservice, deserves a good smack.
Not that the story was ever really consistent in its themes, which becomes even more clear with the removal of so much of what made the game engaging. Without getting too much into spoiler territory, it falls into the too-common trap of attributing human corruption to some kind of supernatural force instead of systematic societal ills. Its vision of revolution fails to consider truly marginalized groups, limited by the privilege of its primary creative voices. With so much of the story-driven forward by the characters standing still and talking, its shortsightedness is even more apparent than ever.
The art direction would leave a lot to be desired, even if it weren't being compared with one of the most stylish games of the decade. The art looks good in closeup, but once things zoom out past head and shoulders, their features start to melt. They'll spend entire minutes standing still and talking with their poorly-drawn little mouths wiggling open and shut. The backgrounds are beautifully rendered, which only makes the juxtaposition with the little doodle people even more hilarious. There are some moments of decent storyboarding and animation, but these are few and far between. Similarly, there are a few moments where the game's humor and charm come through, but they are massively overshadowed by the episodes that are just slogs.
The anime's best qualities are mostly inherited from the game. Shoji Meguro stayed on as the music composer, which was the best possible decision, composing all the openings and endings, and retaining most of the background music. The second opening, “Dark Sun,” is on a level with the game's best songs, and its accompanying animation is the best the show ever looks. They also keep the voice cast, which is excellent in both English and Japanese. This is one of those cases where I encourage people to pick whichever language they prefer, for whatever reason, because both deliver an equally strong experience. Hearing those familiar performances were really the only thing that kept me grounded and made it possible for me to tap into my love of the story.
I have a bit of the imp of the perverse in me, so I can't help but chuckle at the choice in stopping point for the original 26-episode run. It was a gutsy move, and one that apparently made a lot of newcomers upset before they knew that the story would be wrapped up with two TV specials that would come later.
Aniplex has, as usual, put out a handsome release set. The solid chipboard box incorporates a number of design elements from the series, including the stark red and black color scheme, phantom thief logo, and star motif. The six discs are held in two cases, with large closeups of each character in their phantom thief outfits, though the extras are pretty barebones, with just clean OPs and EDs. It also contains several art cards of the characters going about their daily business in moody lighting, that could be a nice thing to, I don't know, stick up on a bulletin board.
This review may seem harsh, but all told, I didn't hate watching PERSONA 5 the Animation. Sure, I spent a lot of time texting my friend and hollering about all the baffling decisions the adaptation team made, but at the best of times, it was a semi-decent way to revisit some of my favorite moments from the game. On the other hand, no matter how you look at it, it's by far the inferior version of the story, guaranteed to disappoint old fans and newcomers alike. If you want to experience Persona 5, just get the game. Even if you don't have a PlayStation 4, it costs about the same as this set so maybe just go with that.
Overall (dub) : C
Overall (sub) : C
Story : C+
Art : C
Music : A
+ Excellent music and vocal performances; occasionally looks nice; solid physical release
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