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Anime Reviews: Persona 4: The Animation
CAUTION: Contains minor spoilers.
I’ve never really understood why tweencoms are so popular among kids today. They’re all exactly the same. It’s always about a bunch of kids going to school, hanging out, making corny jokes in front of a canned studio audience, and learning the same life lessons about not cheating on tests and obeying your parents and whatnot. Maybe one of them is a puppet or a child prodigy or has a singing career on the side, but that’s about as different as they get. And we already see specific characters hang out together, they’re obviously having fun, and they clearly enjoy each other’s company—so why do the writers feel the need to remind us that they’re best friends every thirty minutes?
Going into Persona 4: The Animation, a TV spin-off of the popular series of role-playing video games that focuses on groups of teenagers summoning physical alter egos of themselves to do battle in alternate dimensions, I did notice the friendship angle present. The principal character (i.e., the first kid we meet) is moving in with his uncle for his second year of high school, so of course he’ll be going to a new school and making new friends. After this, the show drops us into a murder mystery involving the bodies of victims gruesomely hanging from TV antennas, a portal to another dimension in the TV display of the local department store, and a “Midnight Channel” that comes on television every night revealing the face of a person who disappears the very next day. And one by one, the friends he makes become part of a small investigation team who travel inside this TV world to rescue whoever vanishes inside it in hopes of tracking down the murderer.
The main cast is at first glance pretty run-of-the-mill, covering many of the teenage stock character personalities. There’s the normal everyman (our hero), there’s the girl-crazy pervert, there’s the Peppermint-Patty-and-Marcie pairing with the tomboy and her pretty best friend, there’s the bad boy with a soft side, and I guess you could assign the “brainiac” trope to the androgynous junior detective who is assigned to investigate with the police and later joins the group. And if you’d like to go into Disney Channel territory, there’s the student who’s also a famous pop singer. Rounding out the main cast is Teddie, a bear-faced mascot character who helps the kids during their battles in the other dimension, spouting bad bear puns along the way.
While the murder mystery is front and center to the story, episodes focus more on the kids traveling inside this mysterious TV world and rescuing whoever the Midnight Channel tells them is trapped inside. The victim is held hostage by a manifestation of their deepest fear and anxiety, and only by accepting this as a part of himself and herself is this deity defeated. Plus, he or she gets their own Persona to use in future battles and becomes a member of the team. (Even Teddie gets one.) I can’t comment on how faithfully the plot is adapted from the original game, since I hadn’t even HEARD of the game going into this show, but that’s pretty much how most episodes go, so this is a series that relies somewhat on formula. To its credit, however, each journey into the TV world fleshes out each new team member’s background, with some interesting angles that include gender identity and the sexualization of pop icons, so character development isn’t too big an issue. Plus the visual layout of the TV world is refreshingly different with each visit, and we get a few decent action scenes out of the deal as well.
Plus, ordinarily where most shows with continuous plots suddenly grind to a halt whenever they break into filler, Persona 4’s stand-alone episodes feel more like slight breathers. They don’t stray too far from the plot, the gags are pretty funny, and the main cast is pretty likable anyway so I didn’t mind them as much. Of particular note are episodes about a school camping trip, a two-part summer festival side story based on a mini-game, and a game of lots in a private room at a nightclub.
However, I am left wondering who exactly this series is targeted to. Obviously teenagers, of course, but a lot of the subject matter is pretty dark and it IS a series that starts out with grisly shots of corpses strung up on people’s roofs. One red herring in particular featured an emotionally disturbed young man who claims to be the killer as a cry for attention. And then of course, there’s the infamous scene in the nightclub… The best I can do in this matter is tell you that it’s not a series for younger kids and in some cases is best watched with discretion.
Persona 4 could have been a series that drops friendship lessons on your head like anvils, but thankfully the plot is a lot more than that. The standalone episodes that don’t focus so much on the main plot were pretty fun, the seemingly cookie-cutter cast aren’t particularly dull, and we do get some action out of it. It’s a series more entertaining than I thought it was going to be. I’m glad, because if I want to watch a series where all the kids do is just hang around school all day being friends with each other, I’ll stick with AzuDai or Paniponi Dash. At least they’re funny, AND they don’t drill any life lessons into your skull.
Engaging plot; minimal understanding of the game required; some funny moments scattered throughout; action scenes visually unique
Characters only minimally developed; some genuinely dark moments