Home > Episode Reviews, First Impressions > Persona 4 Episodes 1 and 2 – To Thine Own Self Be True

Persona 4 Episodes 1 and 2 – To Thine Own Self Be True

Given the close relations between the Japanese anime and video game industry, it’s sort of curious that so few games (that aren’t visual novels) get an anime port. This goes double for games like the popular Persona series, which seem tailor made from a tv adaption. With the games sporting cut scenes that basically are anime clips, and the voice cast for Atlus games often staffed with A-level voice talent, porting the games over entirely seems like the most obvious thing in the world.

Until this season, however, the only Persona anime made was a spin-off of Persona 3, which had only a tangential connection to the original game. That is clearly not the game with Persona 4: The Animation, whose very title tells you this will be a direct adaption of the most recent entry in the franchise. Given the Persona series, and software producer Atlus more generally, has always been respected on the story front, this shouldn’t be a bad thing.

At the same time, watching the first couple episodes makes me wonder if the creators of Persona: Trinity Soul didn’t have the right idea. That series, as I said, was a loosely related spin-off, but that gave the story a freedom to be better aligned with the needs of a tv format. Persona 4 isn’t ditching any of its heritage. And that could wind up being the albatross around the show’s neck.

Thanks to the needs of the story, transfer student Yuu Narukami (right) has no trouble making friends with Yousuke Hanamura and Chie Satonaka. Hanamura's excessive friendliness eventually gets something of an explanation; we'll see if that proves true in the second case

Persona 4 centers around Yuu Narukami, who had to transfer from Tokyo to a small town to live with relatives while his parents took a work project overseas. He arrives just in time for everything to go a little crazy: a string of bizarre suicides that may be murders have hit the town of Inaba, and as luck would have it, Narukami gets pulled right into the middle of that.

Aside from the deaths, the other big talk of the town, at least among the younger generation, is the “Midnight Channel” which appears on the tv set late at night whenever it’s a foggy day. Supposedly viewers will see their true love, but Narukami promptly figures out that the person on the screen is actually about to die.

The murders are supposedly grizzly, but the show relies on discretion shots to avoid being too shocking. At least for now

Having become friends with a small set of classmates at a suspiciously fast speed, Narukami leads an expedition (inadvertently at first, and then deliberately) into a parallel world accessible when one falls into a TV set, Alice through the Looking Glass style. There he discovers how the people are dying: when in the other world, interlopers are confronted by “shadows” made from their own self-doubt and loathing, which overwhelm and kill anyone who crosses over. He also learns that someone has been deliberately tossing people in, effectively murdering them.

Narukumi survives and keeps his friends alive through an odd set of coincidences, namely that he is able to summon a “persona” to fight for him. As he aids classmate Yousuke Hanamura against the latter’s inner demons, Hanamura develops the same ability. By the end of the second episode, the basic outline of the show is clear: Narukumi will lead a team into the other world, save those at risk of death, and then empower them to join in the fight, all while he seeks out whomever is responsible for the breach between worlds in the first place.

The show tends to have Narukami take the lead on everything, but here, it's sort of understandable. Neither of his cohorts were crazy enough to think of doing what he does

That’s a workable premise; a bit outlandish perhaps, but one which makes sense within the context of Persona’s world. The show is a bit unforgiving about introducing its setting, really. The opening scene for each episode is a point of view conversation with creepy looking Igor (a regular in the series), with no background information about what any of that means or what or even where the “Velvet Room” Igor occupies really is.

Not all the references to the original game are bad. Making the mid-episode eye catch a shot of Narukumi’s (slowly increasing) stats is clever, and the wholesale theft of the calendar screen, including a list of which days are clear skies and which aren’t, is genuinely helpful. Overall, this show doesn’t strike me as being aimed for a general audience so much as for those who have played the game before.

Along with keeping Igor around, the show also preserves the role of "Kuma" (lit. bear), the requisite mascot character. He's just as annoying as he looks

That’s an odd choice of target audience, given the show by nature will lack the RPG development and player controlled combat that made the game, well, a game. Thus far the anime hasn’t figured out how to make the battle scenes lively or engaging, possibly due to a lack of material to base the scenes on. Trying to depict the battles as they appeared in the game would to time-consuming and silly, but the animators haven’t figured out what to replace that with.

Frankly, if Persona 4 succeeds, it will be on the strength of its story. The show has a built in dramatic hook with the “shadows”—each character in turn will have to confront his or (as will be the case next episode) her personal demons, and having overcome them will be empowered to help others do the same. Given the story of the game and the integration of character development with level-up mechanics was uniformly praised by reviewers, Persona 4 would seem to have a leg up here.

The visual design of each persona is stylized for each character. The show sort of assumes by its set up that Narukami doesn't have any mental hangups, which is a) why he can access a persona immediately and b) why he's so flat and uninteresting

Yet I don’t think the show has proven itself on this score, either. Narukami is generically helpful, but a bit of a blank slate, the side effect of being the extension of the player in the original game. Likewise, Hanamura’s challenge seemed fairly weak, a simple case of youthful insecurity. Perhaps the later characters will provide more grist for the drama mill, and the show has some top level voice actors who will be able to milk whatever dramatic potential there is for all it’s worth. At least, one can hope.

“Hope” is not the same thing as “know.” Right now the anime makes a good entry point for those (like me) without a PlayStation, or for those who would prefer to take an 60-80 hour game and distill it down to 8 or 9 hours, with all the level grinding and perhaps a few extraneous story elements removed from the picture. For anyone else, however, I suspect that the game itself might be the preferred way to take in the story. There, at least, the player can inject a life into the protagonist, providing a spirit that our current lead seems to be lacking.

Classmate Yukiko Amagi is the last person we see being filmed. Given the other people we've seen filmed have all wound up dead (and given that Yukiko is obviously a main character), I'm guessing she's next of the list of people to save

Persona 4 is streaming on the Anime Network and on Hulu.

  1. October 23, 2011 at 6:56 pm

    Honestly, the first several hours of the game were pretty slow, too. Things don’t pick up until the core cast all has their Personas, and they’re ready to investigate.

    I’m not entirely convinced anyone can do justice to what made the game special in only 24 episodes, though. So much of Persona’s charm is in the little asides and the short character-focused side stories that make the world and characters come alive, and I fear that will get thrown aside in the rush to get through the game’s long, tedious, and eventually disappointing main story arc.

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