Anime has changed. It’s no longer about creativity, storytelling, or artistic expression. It’s an endless series of adaptations made by Koreans on computers. Anime – and its consumption of time – has become a well-oiled machine. Anime has changed. Adapted characters speak adapted dialogue, in adapted settings. Laziness in the writers dilute and simplify their material. Video game adapations. Light novel adaptations. Manga adaptations. Visual novel adaptations. Everything is adapted and copied from another source. Anime has changed. The age of moeblob has become the age of adaptation… All in the name of flooding the scene with highly marketable properties. And he who cranks out adaptations the fastest… prints money. Anime has changed. When the market is totally filled with adaptations… anime becomes routine.
And yet, sometimes, there’s lightning in the rain. Persona 4 is an adaptation, but it doesn’t feel like a waste of time. I think a unique set of circumstances came together to make P4 not only a watchable adaptation of a video game (rare enough in itself), but a show worth watching even if you know everything about the game. It draws on the rich lore of Playstation 2’s Persona 4 while cutting out the rather large time commitment, and presents the game’s core ideas in a more accessible manner.
Mainly this is accomplished by removing antsiness. Gamers, for better or worse, get impatient when there’s too much story getting in the way of gaming. Persona 4, being a JRPG, had a very clear delineation between story sequences and gameplay. The bright side was that the story was excellent – complex, original, and meaningful. I felt that maybe people would be more willing to experience the story if there wasn’t the expectation and anticipation of gameplay – maybe if the story stood on its own, gamers wouldn’t let things like dungeon crawling, grinding, and brutal difficulty turn them away from Persona 4. For the record, I saw the game through to its true ending so I’m not coming from the perspective of someone who thinks “this game sucks, there’s too much talking!”
The basic setup of the story is that Yu Narukami, a city kid, goes to the rural town of Inaba for a year to live with his uncle. During his stay, a series of murders occurs that completely baffle the police. At the same time, Yu discovers the Midnight Channel, another world to which televisions act as a portal. There he can summon Personas, powerful creatures that help him battle the malevolent denizens of the TV world (the Shadows). Yu also discovers that there’s a connection between the Midnight Channel and the serial murders, and decides to catch the killer with help from his friends.
With a basic summary, you might think the story isn’t all that outlandish for an anime. What makes Persona 4 unique is its heavy allusion to Jungian psychology, using it to give some context to its main ideas. Lots of anime deal with self-deception in some form, from something as common as the inability of any tsundere character ever to openly admit her feelings, to Shinji’s Third Impact world in The End of Evangelion. Persona 4 views this impulse for self-deception as a product, at least partially, of a collective unconscious – very unsubtly represented by the Midnight Channel. The series is a journey undertaken by Yu and his friends (the investigation team) to understand and overcome the desire to believe in the deception – the “fog in men’s hearts” that must be lifted.
“Persona” and “Shadow” are themselves Jungian concepts, represented consistently as such in the anime. The very idea of a Persona is embodied by Yu, someone who presents a different facet of himself in all his friendships. As his relationships grow deeper, Yu himself grows, thus causing his Personas to become stronger. Shadows lurk in the unconscious, the TV world, representing the fundamental desire to give in to self-deception (in order to hide from your life’s problems). Each member of the investigation team faces his/her own Shadow, and by growing strong enough to face the difficulties of reality, they gain their Personas. This is the primary conflict that underpins the story: the desire to believe a pleasant lie versus the will to seek out an unpleasant truth. It’s a meaningful subject to examine, I think, and Persona 4 does it with a compelling narrative and insight.
The show gets pretty heavy with these ideas at the end, but for the most part breaks it up with comedic or dramatic filler. The filler’s actually really good, drawing on the side stories featured in the game’s Social Links. Even when not much is going on, the boisterous cast keeps the episode afloat. More importantly we see Yu becoming a stronger individual, growing into his role as the leader of the investigation team. I could probably write a dozen essays on how I feel about Persona 4, but generally I was happy with the pacing and structure.
If there’s anything I didn’t like, it would be the animation direction. I’m a huge fan of Persona 4‘s pop aesthetic but the characters themselves can look crudely drawn at times, and the battles rely too much on Gundam-style beam spam. It’s not so much a problem of not conveying what the game’s like, more just a problem of it not being very nice to look at.
The only thing that gets lost in translation from the games is the role of the Tarot. To be fair, this isn’t all that clear in the game itself (it’s explained in Persona 3 though). I feel like the arcana of the Tarot adds too much obfuscation with too little story reward. While the show is self-consistent even in this regard, does it really matter that Yu is collecting these arcana? It sure doesn’t change the outcome of the story, yet we spend an inordinate amount of time discussing it in the Velvet Room.
I don’t have much else bad to say about this series. Even though it’s an adaptation, I feel like anime was always the right medium for Persona 4. With the show you don’t have to worry about your character stats being high enough to start a particular Social Link, or having the right set of Personas equipped for an upcoming battle. Those things provide a different kind of excitement, but the anime puts all your focus on the story. In the end it’s a story that stays with you – it certainly has stayed with me since 2009 – and you can come away from it feeling like you’ve learned something nontrivial.
I’m struggling with the notion of labeling this series a “masterpiece” and yet I don’t know that it’s anything less. We think of masterpieces with a certain reverence and gravitas, and maybe that has conditioned us to think that works without gravitas, and aren’t super serious all the time, can’t be important. Persona 4: The Animation is important though. It takes an excellent story about a fundamental conflict of the human experience, and makes it work as an accessible, enjoyable 26-episode television series.