Reaper's Reviews: 'Persona 4: The Animation'

Updated on December 23, 2018
Ilan XD profile image

Ilan is a huge fan of anime and video games since he can remember himself. He is also an aspiring author who wishes to write fantasy novels.

Production: AIC A.S.T.A.
Genre: Action/Comedy/Drama
Format: 25 episodes + 1 OVA
Release: October 7, 2011 – March 30, 2012
Source: Game

I never played Persona 4.

If this little fact bothers you, I’m sure there are plenty of P4 fans who have experienced both the game and its anime adaptation. I tend to follow a rule described by Youtube anime reviewer Arkada that an adaptation can be enjoyed without experiencing the source material.

Like the man himself said (though he does seem inconsistent about it): an adaptation should stand on its own. It should take the source material and build on its original concept and story to transition well into a new medium. And this is something that I would like to keep strict in my reviews: to be able to discuss about a series or a movie or an OVA without comparing it directly with its original form.

As for my history with the Persona series, the first installment that I played in the series was Persona 5, and due to the fact that I lack both a PlayStation 2 to play the original game, or a PSP to play the updated Golden release, I decided to head straight into Persona 4: The Animation to have my first dip into Persona’s anime side.

And you know, I got to admit it could be a lot worse. Could be also a lot better, though.

Story & Setting

To be frank, the main story is not the reason you should watch this show; the overarching arc concerning a series of mysterious murders in the countryside town of Inaba is not bad by any means - on the contrary, it can be pretty interesting - but in the end it’s nothing particularly remarkable or memorable on its own.

As far as murder mysteries go, it’s fairly decent: the story uses a great deal of red herrings, foreshadowing and twists to keep things engaging enough, and despite the surprisingly upbeat nature and tone of the series, Persona 4 can punch the viewers with some genuinely shocking revelations and bold decisions (even if it does revert some of them in the end).

It is up to the new transfer student Yu Narukami to solve the crimes, in an adventure which steadily sees him making friends with several other students. Part of their quest takes place in a bizarre world located inside television screens, which is said to be connected to the murders as the victims are shown during a special program midnight shortly before finding their corpses.

One of the biggest elements of the story is the titular Persona; a manifestation of one’s feelings, check and under control. Persona users can then use their Personas to fight against other Personas as well as “Shadows”, demonic representations of a person’s negative emotions.

As Yu gains new friends, said friends have to confront their own Shadows, which represent a part within them that they dislike and refuse to accept, before, usually by the middle or end of a second episode, become Personas for Yu’s friends to wield and use.

This is where the writing often shines; when Yu and his friends question their own feelings, thoughts and ideas. Persona 4 deals heavily with accepting your less desirable self, including the flaws, fears and mistakes, and for the most part, it portrays these moments of acceptance and growth very well.

Be it whether you dislike your dependence on someone else or question the second identity you’ve created for yourself years ago, the small character-driven plotlines in Persona 4 are engaging and relatable, at times even quite touching. Some of course are done better than others, like Kanji’s story arc which more or less gave plenty of unfortunate implications and then some.

Once these short arcs are done, the majority of the story focuses on the main cast hanging out with each other. Some may disregard it as mere distraction, but it’s in those episodes where we get lovely interactions and amusing scenarios that flesh out both the main and the supporting characters more, rather than just rushing to the conclusion. The time spending with events like a drunken Yu commanding his female friends to sit on him, or an episode focusing on the series’ token child character Nanako acting like a magical-detective girl hybrid, is endearing and memorable simply because of how genuinely fun it was, not to mention how it helps giving the setting more personality through its residents.

Now, aside from that brief remark about Kanji’s story arc, I do have some other grievances with the writing; the most obvious one would be some of its dialogue choices. At times it can be very apparent that Persona 4 is an adaptation of a game, specifically one that involves dialogue choices. This often comes in the form of Yu throwing out some dryly-delivered joke answer out of the blue in an attempt at comedy, but such moments end up feeling more distracting and off-putting than actually contributing the plot or enhancing Yu as a character.

This issue is also manifested in the form of the Velvet Room, a special location seen at the beginning of each episode to explain new elements regarding the Persona. Now to be fair, those scenes are rather interesting and boast the series’ best soundtrack, but their inclusion doesn’t mesh very well with the rest of the series; Yu is apparently the one who experiences the Velvet Room, but he almost never mentions its existence nor its inhibitors to any of his friends. It really just exists to explain what would otherwise be just some deus ex machina, and I just wish it would have been integrated more naturally than what we got.

Also there’s the case with the ending, which feels a little rushed, and doesn’t exactly explain all of the strange phenomena that occurred throughout the series. On one hand, this is where everything finally comes together with a finale that feels generally conclusive and satisfying. On the other hand, you will need to give it a rewatch a few times and maybe even read the Shin Megami Tensei wiki to truly understand everything.

The same goes to the bonus episode “True End”, which expands on the final episode and even gives a rather solid pay-off to all those previously mentioned Velvet Room sections. At the same time, however, it does introduce an element that is somewhat hinted earlier in the series, but chances are you’ll either miss or ignore it. That said, either ending left me with a pleased mood; it fails to make a complete sense to me as an anime viewer, but at the very least it provides a decent closure to the stories of Yu and his friends.

The Characters

The characters of Persona 4 are great, although this is moreso because of how they work together as an ensemble, rather than each individual character standing on their own merits, although there are a handful of exceptions.

Each one of the main characters falls into a specific archetype, but often with a little twist to it; for example, Yukio is the seemingly innocent and upstanding traditional young lady who is also surprisingly upbeat and childish, while Rise is the hyper-popular idol girl who, despite earlier implications, is a clever and insightful decent girl.

This wonderfully ties back to Persona 4’s concept of hiding bits of your true self, and admittedly, each one of the main cast grows decently as a person with the conclusion of their arc and their actions in their friends’ later struggles. All this happens without losing their initial personality quirks, the very ones that drew me towards them in first place.

This what makes them so endearing and affable when the series finally brings all of them together as a unified group. Their chemistry is phenomenal and lets drama and comedy flow smoothly into the scene. Watching them often feels like just hanging out with some good friends; this is why episodes that would normally be disregarded as “fillers” in other shows are the most enjoyable in Persona 4.

It’s just pure joy to have them all either having fun in the hot springs, playing King’s Game while presumably drunk or having school trips. While some characters such as Naoto or Kanji are extremely great and relatable on their own, it’s definitely when they all act as some Friends-esque group when they shine. And this is even more apparent in some of the more serious scenes, when you can see just how close they have become, regardless of morality differences or backstories.

This also extends, albeit in a lesser way, to the supporting cast, which is fairly large but still individual members get just enough screentime to be recognizable. Some of their interactions range from comical to disturbing, to surprisingly heartfelt, particularly Yu’s young cousin Nanako who is just an incorruptible ball of pureness whose kind, innocent heart is one of the aspects that really give Yu much needed depth as the main character.

It is clear, however, that a lot of these stories are just condensed version of much longer and elaborate narratives. Most of the supporting characters get just one episode at most, with some even have several characters at once. To the series’ credit, what we got is still solid; these are characters that I found genuinely intriguing, but you will feel that their personal stories are a tad brief.

Also, speaking of Yu, he is undoubtedly the show’s weakest aspect in my opinion. P4A tries to make Yu that stoic yet sarcastic oddball of a protagonist, but he just comes off as awkward and off. As I said earlier regarding the game-like vibe of the script at times, some of his replies to other characters feel like those bizarre joke answers that you have every once in a while, and when it comes as an attempt at humor, it just feels jarring and makes Yu look even more off-putting.

And when he does show emotion beneath his apathetic demeanor, it simply comes off as more out of place and ingenuine. That weird silver-haired boy with robotic mannerisms suddenly shows emotions out the blue after a dozen episodes as a stoic badass with a reply box of a Final Fantasy character; bland as he may be, Yu’s more sentimental moments are too sudden to appreciate.

This issue comes from the fact that Yu is based on a playable character that was a little more than a blank plank, something that many game/visual novel-based anime protagonists tend to suffer from. From what it looks like, the writing team tried to give him a substantial personality of his own, but at the same time was too afraid to tweak things too much out of uncertainty of how well it will blend with the existing story, which resulted in a semi-stoic character with sudden dry jokes and jarring emotion expressions, as well as lack of consistency or even an actual personality…. If that makes any sense.

And I’m disappointed by it, because there was great potential here to make a memorable protagonist in his own right, but due to either laziness or reluctance on the studio team’s part (or refusal on rights owner Atlus’ part; we may never know), Yu stands as the weakest aspect of the main cast, and it’s a damn good thing that we have the rest of them to keep the series going.

Animation & Art

As far as animation and artwork go, Persona 4 looks pretty good. The slick art style and vivid color choice hold up particularly well in a way that always gives the series a crisp, fluid and detailed look. Backgrounds are lovingly crafted ranging from the bright-looking yet menacing television world to the relatively lifelike town of Inaba.

Character designs are distinctive and rather polished with not only each of the main characters having their own unique appearance, but also the dozen of supporting characters appearing throughout the series. I love the mixture between fairly mundane ones like Chie or Yukiko, to the more anime-esque approach seen with the white-haired Yu, for example. And it’s impressive with how unique every character - even supporting ones - look and feel when many of the teenage characters wear similar school uniforms.

Overall, it’s a pretty-looking series. It’s not the pinnacle of animation, but AIC A.S.T.A. has done a considerably good job back in a year that saw the releases of some beautifully animated shows such as Madoka Magica, Fate/Zero (review) and the reboot of Hunter x Hunter.

The only actual criticism I have against the series’ aesthetics is less about the quality, and more about the content, because I feel that the action sequences could have been done better. They are slickly animated and the Persona designs are great and varied, but the choreography is somewhat lacking. It’s nothing deal-breaking, but it is something that I found disappointing when all is said and done.

Audio & Sound

I will admit right now that most of the soundtrack did nothing to me. For what it’s worth, it’s catchy, upbeat and lively in a way that compliments the characters and visuals rather well and changes accordingly to the situation in hand. However, for the most part I wouldn’t exactly call it memorable or worthwhile on its own, which I know will get me crucified by fans of the original game, but hey; it’s my opinion. If you don’t like it, write your own review.

That said, aside from the opening themes which we’ll touch on in about a moment, there is one particular track that I absolutely adore, and it is “Aria of Soul”; it’s the track that plays in every Velvet Room scene, and it’s a slow-paced opera-like melody occupied by gentle piano music and gorgeous vocals that is just… beautiful. There is no other word to describe it, it’s just so beautiful.

The first opening theme, “Sky’s the Limit” by Shihoko Hirata is by far my favorite out of Persona 4’s offerings, with its low-key first half and its surprisingly good English vocals. That said, the second opening “Key Plus Words” by Version B is no slouch, either, although I personally favor its predecessor more. The same goes for the ending songs used, as well as an insert song or two, which are normally not my jam, but it’s hard to deny that they are just so catchy and enjoyable.

Now, as for the English dub; it’s competent, but unremarkable. The cast is made of some pretty big names in the voice acting community, especially the main characters; you have Yuri Lowenthal as Yousuke, Laura Bailey as Rise, Amanda Winn Lee as Yukiko, Erin Fitzgerald as Chie, (the legendary) Mary Elizabeth McGlynn as Naoto, Troy Baker as Kanji, Sam Regal as Teddy and of course, Johnny Yong Bouche as Yu. It’s literally an all-stars cast.

And yet, it just doesn’t feel that right. There are many times where the actors either exaggerated their lines or hammed up their performances when there was no need to. It simply feels off and rough at times. Not to mention those damn annoying bear puns the English script shoved to Teddy’s character, which become worse as the series goes on. If you prefer watching your anime English dubbed, you will be fine managing through this one. Although if English dubs do nothing to you, this one won’t convince you otherwise.

Final Verdict

Persona 4: The Animation is a solid anime series held back by its roots as a video game adaptation. Despite some game-like elements that made for some jarring situations here and there, it is a surprisingly entertaining and consistently rewarding show with a great dose of comedy, drama and action all tied up in a fairly decent package from a production standpoint, boasting vibrant visuals and a funny - if somewhat disappointing - English dub.

It is a popcorn anime, one that may lack a certain amount of polish or depth when it comes to its writing, setting and vocal performances, but you can’t stop enjoying yourself because the characters (sans Yu) are an absolute joy to watch and the occasional brilliance shines in the script just at the right moments. I am sure Persona 4: The Animation may come off as a disappointment for some fans of Atlus’ highly acclaimed and well-regarded game, but people with little knowledge about the game will have a damn good time with this series.

The Good:

  • Great character ensemble with natural chemistry
  • Fantastic character-focused episodes that are both hilarious and touching
  • Solid production values and unique designs

The Bad:

  • Odd game-like dialogue that doesn't blend well with the story's anime series format
  • Yu is a bland, inconsistent protagonist
  • The Velvet Room, while vital to understanding world mechanics, feels out of place for the series

& the Ugly:

  • Everything anime-related Persona thing went downhill after this series

Well, as far as recommendations go, you might want to try out the ever-popular JoJo's Bizarre Adventure franchise, specifically the third part Stardust Crusaders which introduces the Stand power, which can draw many similarities to the Persona's mechanics. Although I personally feel JoJo utilizes its gimmick to greater effect than Persona 4.

However, if you're more into mystery stuff, you might want to try Studio Bones' Gosick, a rather obscure supernatural mystery anime that is sadly not as smart as it believes itself to be, but remains a decent watch nonetheless.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Raziel Reaper

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