PERSONA 5 the Animation
by Christopher Farris,
How would you rate episode 28 of
PERSONA 5 the Animation ?
Christmas comes late (or incredibly early depending on how you look at it) in this PERSONA 5 the Animation finale special (that's not even the last anime we're getting). Those of us who played through the game can see how this adaptation handles everything that happens at the end, and those experiencing the material for the first time get to see how the story generally wraps up. Either way, it's a question of how much loyal fans will be rewarded after waiting all this time.
The good news is that after two cours and a poorly-paced previous special, ‘Stars and Ours’ finally seems to have a handle on executing its material in anime form. There are obviously a ton of last-stage revelations to get through, but the episode never feels like it's rushing through the big important information. There is one major case where a huge moment misses the mark enough to lessen its impact that I'll cover later, but at least the show still moves by smoothly in the process. This episode has a little bit of everything Persona 5: dungeon crawling, fights with monsters, existential dialogue, and even a few real-world antics with our team of kids just being friends at the end. It's all juggled well with almost no scene wearing out its welcome.
I say ‘almost’ because there are certainly some structural stumbles. The biggest issue with this special episode stems from how all the Phantom Thieves besides Ren are portrayed. Since their personal character development was already covered in past arcs, they're reduced to surprisingly little personality for this last outing. Even their particular quirks and tics seem extremely reduced in favor of taking turns sharing exposition or reflecting on the story's themes of thinking for yourself. It's an ironic message given that everyone sounds like they're trading off the same lines for this episode.
Anyway, the ultimate reveal of Persona 5's ending ties back into the cliffhanger from the previous special, where society struggles with a seemingly irrational inability to recognize the crimes committed by the likes of Shido and definitively "cancel" him for it. There are definitely shades of where our own culture stands on ousting public figures who fail a trial in the court of public opinion, though my knowledge of how this affects society in Japan is limited compared to the examples I know about in America. The trickier issue with this plot point in-universe is how one of the first revelations of this episode lays the blame for these shortcomings not at existing societal structures, but rather at the hands of a tangible antagonistic force. So, the societal problems in the story that mirror our own are here caused by the presence of an actual supernatural villain.
That's a difficult conceptual pill to swallow, depending on how you approach Persona's particular brand of escapism. On the one hand, I can see this fitting with the general fantastical teen power fantasy Persona 5 has traded in from the word go. Just as in this game, you have the ability to forcibly reform corrupt authority figures and magically make them confess their crimes, it would seem cathartic and liberating to do battle with an actual presence that could make society less frustrating once defeated. The main problem is that Persona 5 doesn't offer any real-world analogue for overcoming the corrupt God of desires that's causing its world's issues, beyond basic platitudes about free-thinking individuality.
The reveal of that supernatural villain is also the big stumbling point of the episode that I need to talk about. There are many layers to the story's endgame ‘Fake Igor’ reveal, tying back to recognizing Igor's personality and character from previous games in the series and playing on the audience's meta-knowledge about recasting his voice actor. It set the stage for an absolutely mind-blowing reveal in the game's version of events, but the anime version comes up short by comparison. I feel like it spends too much time focusing on explanations from Caroline and Justine and their subsequent fusion back into Lavenza, with the fake Igor stuck standing in the background not communicating the proper level of malice or threat. On top of that, the anime version has seen viewers spending much less time with Igor, Caroline, and Justine than players of the game, so people experiencing this version exclusively aren't going to be as invested in them. This revelation already depended on how familiar you were with Igor in the Persona franchise, so being even further removed from that context dilutes it more.
The final fight against the revealed Yaldabaoth at least hits the mark as suitably epic. The design and direction makes great use of this boss' CGI model. It's got real impact and just looks cool as hell. I'm thankful that the final Persona battle of this show ended up being one of its few good efforts, impressively illustrating just how a fight against something of this massive scale would even look in real-time (compared to the game's turn-based attacks). And it would be difficult for even the most struggling production to miss the massive cool factor of Joker's final attack: summoning Satan to shoot God in the face to save Christmas! It's another important moment the anime absolutely nails.
But then after that grand finale, we have to come to the epilogue of Persona 5, which has more of its own problems. The big issue is how things get resolved: Sae convinces Ren to turn himself in for his crimes, so he can testify against Shido and have him brought to justice. The insidiousness of this development is how easy it is to shrug off, because it fits into our ideas of how society usually works, but the problem is that the message of this story was always that society shouldn't have to work like that. For all their trials and efforts, the Phantom Thieves don't get to be hailed as heroes, the system is trusted to bring down Shido instead, and Ren happily sacrifices his own freedom ‘If it'll help reform society’. He gets out of juvenile hall just a few months later, of course, a reward for assisting prosecutors and owing to the efforts of all his Social-Link friends on the outside, but even that keeps speaking to the unfairness of this ending. "Everything can work out just fine, so long as you work with the system and have connections in all the right places!" It flies in the face of the societal upheaval the Phantom Thieves were working toward all this time, as they pass the baton on to ‘responsible adults’, like their teenage rebellion was just a passing phase.
I should make clear that I still have a lot of fondness for the original Persona 5 game's story, but its ending has always been one of the least interesting things about it. This anime version, for better and worse, retains all the issues of that ending. This finale overall looks great and moves its story well, only dinged in structure by most of the main characters not having room to express their individual personalities, and missing the punch of one of the story's biggest revelations. But the bigger issues with Persona 5's ending lie at the heart of its source material. Like the fleeting fires of youth it was portraying, the final takeaway from PERSONA 5 the Animation seems to be that the journey is much more interesting than the destination. Just one more reason why this story made a better video game than a TV show.
PERSONA 5 the Animation is currently streaming on Crunchyroll.
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