Originally conceived as a spin-off of the Megami Tensei series of video games, the Persona series has blossomed into a full-fledged series able to stand on its own. In the minds of many, it has surpassed its sister series to become the tentpole franchise of developer Atlus’ numerous video game properties. And of the four main games released in the series, the most recent, Persona 4, is likely the most popular and most beloved. Which is why this game in particular has received numerous spin-offs of its own. From the fighting game Persona 4 Arena, to the rhythm game Dancing All Night, the Persona series, through Persona 4, has managed to touch multiple genres across several consoles. This is pretty impressive considering that Persona 4 is already eight years old. As a very late entry on the Playstation 2 console, it would not have been surprising for the game to make little or no impact considering many gamers had already moved onto newer consoles, but Persona 4 persevered and three years later found renewed life on the Playstation Vita in the form of Persona 4 Golden.
The game itself is an excellent example of what a modern Japanese Role Playing Game can offer. More importantly for the series, it introduced a wonderful cast of very likable characters that drive the story along. It’s because these characters proved so endearing that Atlus spun the series off into an anime. First released in Japan in 2011, Persona 4 The Animation largely stays true to the source material and tells the game’s story in anime form. It was because I enjoyed the energy of the game so much that I decided to check out the anime, even though the great mystery of the game was already known to me as a result of playing through it multiple times.
The Animation is a standard anime series consisting of 26 half hour episodes. The voice cast for the game is largely retained for the anime, and in the case of the english dub, is nearly identical to the cast from the Golden version. The only notable difference is the character Naoto, who is voiced by May Elizabeth McGlynn, who actually brings a deeper tone to Naoto that works better for the character’s secretive nature early on. The role of Kanji Tatsume is at first handled by his video game voice actor, Troy Baker, but he was replaced midway through by veteran voice actor Mathew Mercer. I don’t know what the reason was for the switch, but had I not told you about it you probably wouldn’t notice as the two gentlemen sound very similar. The voice acting of the english dub in the game plays a huge role in making the story fun and engaging and the cast brings the same energy to The Animation. I know in the world of anime fandom there are many purists who won’t watch the english dub, but for this series, I think you would be doing yourself a disservice by ignoring it.
The Animation is an adaptation of the original Persona 4 released on the Playstation 2 and features the same cast of characters as that game. Fans of The Golden version may be a tad disappointed to find out that there’s no Marie or ski trip sequence but what is here is the meat of the original game. Now, anyone who has played the game may be wondering how the anime handles the main character. That’s because in the game the main character is your typical silent protagonist that the player names at the start of play. For the anime, the main character has been given the name Yu Nakamura, and I am sure the name “Yu” is selected for the very obvious reason that it’s pronounced the same way as the word “you” which is how virtually every character refers to him in the video game. Yu is voiced by Johnny Yong Bosch, which fans of the game may recognize as the voice of Tohru Adachi, another character in the game. Bosch voices both for the anime, and in a confusing turn of events, his version of Yu sounds a lot like Adachi from The Golden version of the game with his Adachi for the anime speaking in a much higher register. It took me awhile before I stopped hearing Adachi every time Nakamura spoke, though that’s no slight on Bosch whom I consider a fine voice actor. Nakamura in the game is fairly confident and also sarcastic. This worked for me as I often opted for such a personality for my version of the character in the game whenever I was given dialogue options. For instance, when the boys are all signed-up against their will to compete in a drag contest Nakamura embraces the challenge and seeks to win while his buddy Yosuke is mostly horrified and embarrassed.
The general plot for Persona 4 is that Yu has left the city to stay with his uncle Dojima and his daughter Nanako for a year while his parents are away. Dojima lives in the small town of Inaba where he’s a detective and almost right when Yu shows up in town a weird string of murders starts taking place. Yu makes friends with another transplant student, Yosuke, as well as the meat-obsessed girl Chie and her best friend Yukiko. Yu and his friends think the murders are tied to this weird rumor spreading around school about a secret Midnight Channel. On rainy nights, people appear on the Midnight Channel and then wind up dead a few days later. Yu discovers he actually has the power to enter the television, and upon doing so awakens his “persona” powers. He soon shows his friends who all must face their other self in the TV world before awakening their own personas. The plot unfolds with people appearing on the Midnight Channel before disappearing, at which point our heroes enter the TV World to save them. It’s there they battle shadows and befriend a strange looking bear named Teddie. Their group expands as they save people to include the loner Kanji, a newly retired idol named Rise, and a young detective named Naoto. Their investigation into who is behind these murders often forces them to cross paths with Dojima and his assistant Adachi which creates tension between Yu and his uncle. The story unfolds as a mystery with numerous red herrings placed in the way before the mystery is finally solved.
Through the 26 episodes, just as there were through the video game’s 40+ hours, the characters take time out to be high school students who have regular high school problems. The boys, particularly Yosuke, tend to be motivated by women which leads to many humorous situations. There’s plenty of instances of more sophomoric humor that largely works because the characters come across as so genuine and naive. I imagine it’s quite easy for people to identify with some of the stuff that goes on and it certainly takes me back to my own high school days. The anime also makes an effort to capture all of the various relationships Yu forms in the video game outside of his core group of friends. In perhaps one of the more creative episodes from the show, we follow Nanako around as he spies on Yu to see why he’s so busy during the summer. It’s through her we see familiar faces from the video game such as the old woman who refers to herself as Death, Sayoko from the hospital, and Shu, the boy Yu tutors in the game, among others. The following episode retreads the same ground but from Yu’s perspective. It was a clever way to try and work a lot of material into the anime that occurs in the game.
The hardest aspect for the anime in adapting the source material relies really in its scope. As I mentioned before, the game unfolds over roughly 40 hours, depending on your pace of play. It’s not at all uncommon to log twice that many if you’re really thorough. It’s really too much for one season of television and the anime is forced to pick and choose what it considers most important, and for the most part, it does a good job. What really gets short-changed the most is the TV World where the battling feels rather rushed. I feel if I had not played the game first the TV World would just confuse me as it’s not always clear how the characters fight with their personas. Some of the investigation tedium in between characters disappearing also gets condensed with the series moving at such a brisk pace. There’s not always time to indulge in the mystery and I really didn’t feel a part of the investigative process like I did with the game. More disappointing to me though was a lot of the scenes between Yu and Dojima were either condensed into fewer scenes or omitted from the anime. I felt their relationship wasn’t conveyed as well which is a shame because it was one of the most well constructed parts of the video game.
Likely, your enjoyment of this series will largely come down to how familiar you are with the video game. This series feels like it was meant to supplement the game. It’s 26 episodes of fan service. Visually, the show looks fine though there are many instances where there’s little animation occurring on the screen, likely to save money. Some episodes look better than others, an often trademark of anime where more money is sunk into the most important episodes. It’s largely on par, or better, than the anime sequences in the game and the characters all look how you would expect. The music should also be familiar to those who played the original game, though some new compositions were made for the anime. It’s all quite good and the added songs kept the soundtrack from feeling as repetitive as the game sometimes would get.
Persona 4 The Animation is basically what I expected. It allowed me to spend a bit more time with the characters I loved from the game, even if I was just experiencing a more condensed version of the game’s plot in a more hands-off kind of way. If you’ve never played the game, I really would not recommend you check this anime out as I don’t think you’ll be getting full value. The anime is hard to come by in the US so I had to resort to amazon.com in order to acquire it. The Blu Ray release is split into two volumes, or sold as one large collector’s edition. It’s way overpriced so I opted for the DVD collection which was still a bit pricey compared to how much a season of a typical television show often costs. The visuals are not this anime’s selling point, so I don’t think I’m missing anything by getting it on a lesser medium such as DVD, but having never viewed the DVD I obviously can’t be certain. A 12-episode Golden season was released a few years later to add the sequences from Persona 4 Golden. Right now it’s even more expensive than the normal run and I can’t justify the cost to check it out. It would be nice if they had released a reasonably priced collection that merged the two into one cohesive story, like the game, rather than try to switch back and forth between the two to get the full story in the proper order. Still, it’s kind of cool they even bothered animating the Golden sequences and if it ever comes down in price I probably will check it out. The video game is still the way better experience, but I found Persona 4 The Animation worth the price of admission.