What They Say:
When Yu Narukami moves to the country town of Inaba to stay with his uncle and cousin, he’s expecting a lot more peace and quiet than he’s used to in the big city. What he isn’t expecting is for his uncle’s job as a police detective to spill over into his own life, or for the murders that are occurring across town to be somehow linked to Yu’s own strange experiences, odd local weather patterns, and a mysterious TV show world that seems to be attempting to get Yu to enter it! Now, together with a new group of friends, Yu must plunge into a bizarre alternate reality where he gains unique abilities that will either help him solve the riddle of the mystery killer… or lead him to his doom.
The release of this television series contains two language options- English and Japanese- though both tracks are limited to only a stereo mix likely due to the materials only being available to Sentai in that manner given how the original Japanese track was constructed. For the purpose of this review the Japanese track was selected and it is a solid representation of stereo tracks as splits the dialogue and other sounds nicely in such a way as to give a decent illusion of depth. The track also works well to provide directionality when appropriate and it covers the low sounding effects as well as the higher pitched ones in a way that provides a nice balance. On top of this the dialogue is presented clearly and there were no dropouts or distortions noticed during playback.
An additional note here is that the bear character in the series (Kuma in Japanese and Teddie in the English) has a verbal eccentricity in that he ends his sentences with “kuma” (Japanese for bear). In order to accommodate this, the subtitles often try to work “bear” somewhere into his speech either directly with puns or by referring to “grizzly.” This isn’t perfect in execution as there are points where it feels like the attempt is being forced and overstretched but for the most part this decision works far more often then it fails with a fair amount winding up being somewhere in between. In addition to this decision the series uses on screen translations for the (limited) kanji that appears during attack screens and it also features translator notes to explain some of the items or concepts that appear in the series which may be unfamiliar to the majority of viewers, though usually this is only for things that have no easy English equivalent.
Originally airing in late 2011 to early 2012, Persona 4 the Animation is presented here in its original 16:9 aspect ratio and comes complete with an anamorphic widescreen encode. Visually the series is a bit stunning as the production clearly spent a lot of money to make characters that looked sharp and detailed and also close to as realistic as possible while also reveling in some of the absurdity that animation allows and using visual representations of emotions that one might find in manga (or in the case of one where a light bulb appears next to a character even more Western cartoon fare). Largely the colors used in the series reflect the effort that went into the designs as they bring quite a pop of their own causing characters to really stand out though there is the odd presence of an odd colored line that appears on characters faces (generally but not always around mid face) when they are on screen (almost but not quite like some severe banding) as the faces have a different color from top to bottom which takes a bit of getting use to.
While the colors are sharp and often stunning and the blacks rich that will thrill many, there are an abundance of visual ticks found on the DVD presentation that may prove to be a bit distracting to certain viewers including some minor video feedback static in some colors, minor noise, some dot crawl, some background bleed through on some foreground characters at certain times, some CGI that stands out from the animation, minor ghosting, some banding, a bit of quick combing in some of the fast dissolves and frenetic action scenes and a bit of color bleed with strong pink, as well as an instance of moiré that really stands out in one episode. None of this makes the presentation anything close to unwatchable but it feels like it mars a bit what should have been a spectacular presentation and one can’t escape feeling like the issues shouldn’t be as prevalent given the set is stretched over 3 discs rather than being forced onto just 2 discs.
The packaging for the release is eye grabbing and space saving while also providing room for the episodes to have space as the 12 eps and the director’s cut of episode 1 are spread across 3 discs rather than 2 which is a more standard practice while being housed in a regular DVD sized case that includes a hinge insert that has space for a disc on either side with the final disc being stored in the back of the inside of the case. The cover for the release feature main character Yu Narukami on the front in profile wearing his school uniform and glasses from the TV world with his Persona in the background to his left against a mostly black and gray patterned background with the top left and bottom of the cover image using a yellow diagonal slash that includes a small rainbow.
The back cover reverses the color balance of the front with the yellow diagonal slashes at the top and bottom dominating the space with the series write up in between the two while 7 stills from the feature are present on the lower yellow slash just above the listing of the Extras, Tech specs and copyright info. Also present on the back on the far right is an image of Chie Satonaka in the foreground wearing her green coat and Yosuke Hanamura who is located behind and to the right of her as he is wearing his school uniform with both are also being shown in profile while also wearing the TV world glasses, though their images are much smaller than Yu’s on the cover. In addition each of these three characters anchors one of the three DVDs with their image, though they get more personable images there. For the discs themselves the breakdown is that episodes 1-3 (director’s cut of episode 1 being present on the main menu and TV version being an extra) are on the first disc while the second disc contains episodes 4-7 and the third disc has episodes 8-12.
The menus use a fairly basic mechanic in that they use static images featuring different characters from the series as background images with the image being present against the same black and gray pattern from the cover with the Main Menu listing the options vertically with episodes being listed on top while the disc’s Language Option (and Extra on Disc 1) are listed under that in a yellow splash with rainbow as found on the front while a portion of the theme plays for background music. The menus themselves are static affairs that are on the simplistic yet effective side as they are quick to respond to changes in selection and also respond promptly to whatever option was chosen.
Present on the release are the somewhat industry standard clean open and close but that is far from the only extras on the release as Disc 1 also contains the on air version of episode 1 and across all three discs is an extra audio track that contains the Japanese commentary tracks in which people from the series are brought in to talk about the episode, though those who have seen a number of these releases won’t be surprised that the actors/director sometimes go beyond just talking about the episode to taking about some inanities as well.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Based off the video game of the same name that was released for the Playstation 2, Persona 4 the Animation follows the adventures of Yu Narukami, a second year high school student who has been forced to change schools from his previous home area of Tokyo to the high school in the small town of Inaba where his detective uncle Ryotaro Dojima and Ryotaro’s young daughter Nanako live as his parents have left the country due to their jobs. While Yu feels a bit odd about the new living arrangement Ryotaro attempts to put him at ease as his job demands odd hours and having Yu around will give Nanako someone to be with as it had been just the two in the house since the death of Ryotaro’s wife which leaves Nanako alone when duty calls. As somewhat disconcerting as the arrangement is, Yu seems to be settling in about as well as could be expected- or maybe he would be if he hadn’t had a strange dream on the train ride to town in which an unusual man introduced himself as Igor and mentioned that Yu’s life was attached to a strange fate that somehow connected him to the odd room in a stretch limousine knows as the Velvet Room which is staffed by Igor and his assistant Margret.
While attempting to settle into this new town the usual feelings of disconnect that people living in new towns and going to a new school can get is magnified as the sleepy little town seems to be experiencing some bizarre phenomena recently as there have been some odd occurrences which seem to relate to an unusual television show that is known as Midnight Chanel that appears at the time the title suggests on rainy nights and features a person from the town which urban legend says is the soulmate of whoever sees the show…though the urban myth is shattered when the people that appear on this odd show start wind up dead shortly after with their bodies being left in places that the police can’t readily explain. When Yu sees the show after being told about it after class, a sudden pain in his head as he watches the screen causes him to lose balance and he falls into the small TV in his room- literally- as his hand falls into the screen but rather than it breaking it seems to vanish into somewhere unknown though when he falls backwards the hand is still attached.
The next day as he talks with his new friends Yosuke Hanamura and Chie Satonaka at the large department store in town he decides to touch the large panel screen there only to find that his whole arm fits in. As he is trying this and contemplating what he might do about this his two friends start to panic which leads to them falling into Yu and all three then falling into the TV and finding themselves having been transported into another world. In this fog filled world they meet a strange mascot costume looking bear named Kuma just as they are attacked by odd creatures known as “Shadows.” As they are about to be killed by the creatures Yu hears a strange voice proclaiming itself to be him and when an odd card falls before him he calls upon that voice, uttering the word “Persona,” and his call is answered as a large and powerful creature appears behind him that proceeds to dispatch the Shadows with ease.
After the encounter Kuma leads them to the exit and it seems the groups odd adventure will be just a memory but when a friend of Yosuke’s is found murdered after appearing on Midnight Chanel Yu and his friends surmise the strange world they visited is connected to these events. As Yu and Yosuke explore the alternate world a horrifying truth becomes apparent- the world has the ability to bring out part of people’s personalities that they hide from view and imbue them with the power to destroy the original person when that person rejects these dark aspects of themselves. Only through a combination of fighting this manifestation through the use of a Persona and the person admitting that this splinter is a part of them will the Shadow self be tamed and turned into a Persona of its own that answers to its other self. While this truth is bad enough as the danger it represents is sizable the group of friends soon learn that someone has been throwing people into this world to have them killed and they then dedicate themselves to using the powers that they have through their Personas to try to save those placed in the other world, a mission which becomes especially important when some of their friends and schoolmates appear to be on the killer’s list. With a dangerous world on the one side and a mysterious killer on the other will Yu and company find the power to tame their Personas and fight this horrible fate or will they find themselves to be just more victims in this twisted game being manipulated by an unseen hand?
The marriage between animation and videogames has at least a 3 decade long history as animation companies and television broadcasters have long looked to capitalize on the popularity of the arcade properties by drawing in the fans who have spent hours playing their favorite game while also hoping to lure in the fan who had never heard of these games with the colorful characters that the games spawned. Of course any one old enough (or who has plundered the depths of You-Tube) to have sat through the various Pac-Man cartoons or the Saturday Supercade block that included such shows as Q*Bert and Frogger can attest that this partnership wasn’t always stellar. As the years passed and games got more complex and moved away from the arcade to home consoles the level of storytelling had a chance to improve (sometimes) over the primitive tales that were available a quarter at a time in the standup cabinets located wherever businesses thought they could separate consumers from their pocket change efficiently. This evolution introduced some new problems though as the built in fandom still hung like prizes in front of the eyes of those who would adapt them but the now more complex and deep options available in the games often could make translations to a new format perhaps as hard-or harder- as inventing story dynamics out of whole cloth.
In trying to adapt Persona 4 the production staff had to try to whittle away the game’s events and battles to create a story that could work for veterans of the franchise as well as those brand new to the series while fitting into a TV series length episode count. In order to do this they had to decide just what was going to make the cut as the Persona 4 game mixes the typical game battle mechanics one finds in many RPGs with a social mechanic used to strengthen the main character’s abilities and it is this mix that really helps the series reach its lofty heights. Because of this split in how events take place the staff had the ability to chose what to focus on and in large part that falls on the interactions between the various characters with the action points playing an almost secondary role to that, though the role isn’t completely subservient to the social part as the combat parts still show up to help provide a splash to underscore the characters and their growth. Because of this set up the series is free to establish how characters act in the “real world” while then being able to use the alternate world to explore some depths to their psychology that underlies their actions to a degree that other series would be unable to pull off as well in large part because of the freeing nature that the alternate world provides.
One of the more positive things that the story does though is to use the (admittedly very well worn) technique of having the viewers entry point into the events be in the form of a transfer student which allows for both a sense of familiarity (at one point almost everyone has been a new student in a school, transfer or not as they advance grades) while also providing a perfectly natural reason for the people around that focal point to introduce themselves and the important pieces of the environment without using exposition that catches the viewer up but which wouldn’t be natural to have happen in a real setting. On top of that the series has a really good feel for how to use humor to show that the characters aren’t just some sort of stoic battle wizards in this alternate world as it displays a tendency to let the viewer know that while the events on screen are displayed as serious the series isn’t above using some of that humor on itself to prove it hasn’t lost its way and taken itself and its bizarre set up too seriously.
Of course this set up isn’t without some drawbacks as the formula of “see someone on Midnight Chanel, learn a bit of them then in the “real” world then dive into the TV and watch them deny their shadow which then runs amuck until it is beaten up by Personas and the person accepts that part of them” grows old shockingly fast and it is only through some clever and smart (though at times probably borderline offensive to some) displays of weirdness from the Shadows that supports this increasingly tired pattern and adds a reason to look forward to what is ahead rather than face it with a sense of dread at the redundant nature of the setup. The other issue though that really raises its head is that at times it feels like only the surface of a good deal of the potential power of the series is explored as things move at a rather rapid pace which leaves the impression that the impact of some events appears to be glossed over (though at times some are brought up for humorous results) and it can feel like the bond that would develop through hours (upon hours) of gaming is truncated, forcing the series to wring as much as it can from every moment on screen which deprives the viewer to an extent of having time to decompress and simply absorb some of the things that were just thrown at them.
On top of that the rapid progression of Yu as seen both from the Velvet Room prologue of episodes to the final episode where he uses some powers the animation skipped over to tell its tale undercuts a bit the effort that the game would stress that went into establishing these powers and it has the effect of somewhat marginalize the efforts that the group goes through as if saying that the struggles shown in the series aren’t as necessary as they seem since powers can just manifest seemingly out of the fog. In addition as events play out some of the side characters barely get time to show their problems before the story moves onward making one wonder just why the animation staff didn’t excise the character if they couldn’t figure out what to do with them. Still most of these negatives are the price one pays for having a series with a set run of episodes rather than the kind of shonen series that runs seemingly in perpetuity to capture all the subtleties and side stories that can be found in a large modern game. On the other hand, long running series (and unfocused shorter series as well) have the potential to lose themselves in the other extreme of always focusing on the battles and forgetting that the main reason many people watch is the characters. In that regard Persona 4 the Animation seems to find a fantastic groove to operate in as it brings some warm and very human characters with all their flaws to the screen in a way that helps sell them to its audience and which makes them likable despite their deficiencies like few other series can.
Persona 4 the Animation is smart, slick and engaging as hell as it introduces some very likeable characters with some very real flaws that is explores (and occasionally exploits) as they attempt to stop a murder who is using a fantastical power to commit their crimes which drags the focal characters into a suspenseful mystery that blends both the frailties of people with their ability to gain strength through connecting with others while throwing in a good deal of humor to charm its audience. While based off a video game from a now rather lengthy franchise, new comers need not feel left out as the series explains most of its mechanics in a way that won’t leave them feeling lost but also in such a way that veterans of the franchise won’t feel that they are being talked down to either. With its wit, high production visuals, bizarre atmosphere and compelling story this title is a great entry into the Persona franchise that will leave viewers waiting in anticipation for the next volume of the series and perhaps going to track down a copy of the original game to experience more with this group if they don’t already own it. Recommended.
Japanese Language, English Language, English Subtitles, Director’s Cut Episode 1, Japanese Commentaries, Clean Opening Animation, Clean Closing Animation
Content Grade: A-
Audio Grade: B+
Video Grade: C+
Packaging Grade: B+
Menu Grade: B
Extras Grade: A-
Samsung 50″ Plasma HDTV, Denon AVR-790 Receiver with 5.1 Sony Surround Sound Speakers, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080.