Thursday, March 12, 2015

Anime review: Persona 3: The Movie - #1: Spring of Birth

Following the release of the anime adaptation of Atlus’ well-received Persona 4, film trilogy was announced adapt the story of its predecessor, Persona 3. The first of these films, titled Spring of Birth, serves primarily to set the stage for all that is to come, introducing some of the major characters, teasing the eventual inclusion of others, and familiarizing viewers with the concept of the Dark Hour and Tartarus. While it may cut out a great deal of the content that falls between major plot points, this first installment in the movie trilogy does a solid job at hitting all of the important notes, though its pacing is admittedly a bit odd.

The story begins much like its video game counterpart, with the mostly-silent protagonist (given the name of Makoto Yuuki for the purpose that other characters will constantly be engaging in conversations with or about him) moving into co-ed dorms near Gekkoukan High and experiencing some strange phenomenon. Every night at midnight, clocks, vehicles, and all manner of machinery stop and most people are sealed away in coffins, entering a sort of stasis during a period known as the Dark Hour. The Dark Hour is effectively an hour-long span of time that is only perceived by those with special potential, namely individuals who can all upon Personas to aid them in battle against otherworldly monsters known as Shadows.

On the night of a full moon, these Shadows become notably stronger and more aggressive than usual, breaking out of their natural territory within the fortress of Tartarus, and taking to the streets of the outside world. It is upon one such night that protagonist Makoto Yuuki finds himself in the company of his peers and classmates Mitsuru Kiriho, Akihiko Sanada, and Yukari Takeba, as the Shadows are bearing down upon their dormitory building. Not fully understanding the nature of these Shadow monsters or his schoolmate’s operations with the Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad (S.E.E.S. for short), Makoto almost instinctively reaches for an Evoker, a gun-shaped device that the S.E.E.S. members rely on, and uses it to summon his first Persona.

What follows, naturally, is an action-packed beat down of the Shadows by Makoto’s Persona, dubbed Orpheus. But there is seemingly something sinister that lurks within his Persona, as – shortly before Makoto passes out from exhaustion – it transforms into a menacing creature that appears to bear some sort of skeletal face and spreads its coffin-shaped wings. Not long after, Makoto recovers and is formerly inducted into S.E.E.S. His peers make a point to bring up that relying too heavily on one’s Persona can be problematic, yet Makoto’s visits to the ethereal Velvet Room make it apparent that his ability to summon multiple Personas makes him an anomaly among Persona users.

From there, the movie takes on two very different approaches to crafting the world and characters or Persona 3 – when highlighting new party members like Fuuka and Junpei, the story’s pacing slows significantly to explain their importance to the operations of S.E.E.S., as well as give viewers a strong impression of their character traits and personal values. This makes their inclusion all the more meaningful, and is one of the film’s greatest strengths, and should provide some relief for any Persona fans who were concerned that this three-film adaptation might attempt to do too much in too brief a time span. Even Shinjiro sees some inclusion in the film, helping to solidify his inevitable recruitment to the S.E.E.S. cause in the second film, while Koromaru and Ken both make brief cameos during the opening credits.

On the other hand, the film barrels past the everyday school studies, athletics and club activities, and time spent out on the town. The anime adaptation of Persona 4 similarly kept its focus on the major story points, but still slowed down every once in a while to explore the Inaba locals and the small yet personal rewards Yu Narukami and his teenage crew of investigators earned as a result of their setting aside time to tackle minor requests. In this first Persona 3 film, the most direct involvement with teachers, classmates, and non-S.E.E.S. peers comes in the form of brief montages. While these sequences do show Makoto taking part in some school activities and even meeting up with Junpei for an afternoon at the arcade, it doesn’t offer as solid an immersion in Gekkoukan High or its surrounding locales.

The animation is solid throughout – arguably better than the Persona 4 anime, in most cases. Character renders have seen significant updates in terms of their level of detail and fluid motions from the cutscenes that played out during the original Persona 3 video game. The splotchy dark watercolor look of the invading Dark Hour on previously-established environments does a great job of presenting these areas as both familiar and alien. Meanwhile the few portions of Tartarus that are shown present it as a labyrinth fortress, with elegant floors, arched windows, and dull lighting emanating from wall-mounted candles. The soundtrack brings back a number of the video games’ upbeat and peppy tunes, as well as some of the more dire, heavy rock-influenced songs, with remixes sprinkled throughout (some significantly altered, others with more subtle tweaks).

Spring of Birth is not a perfect adaptation of the Persona 3 story, and its hour-and-a-half runtime begs the question as to how successful the two following films will adapt the later legs of the video game source material. The material that the film does cut out may not have left a major impact on the core plot of Persona 3, but it does rob the film of some of the video game’s unique quirks, as well as any connections between the S.E.E.S. members and their non-Persona-adept classmates. The major points that it does focus on, however, are handled quite well, and go a long way in establishing connections between the S.E.E.S. members, as well as painting the Shadows of Tartarus as an ever-looming threat, even if one scene late in the film is drawn out to an agonizing length and almost laughably bad presentation.

My rating: 7 (out of 10)

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