Blu-Review: Persona 4: The Animation – Volume 1

A cult favourite and arguably one of the greatest, most unique role-playing games of all time, Persona 4 has found itself given an extra lease of life over the past year. Along with an improved, perfected port to the PlayStation Vita in the form of Persona 4: Golden and an unusually story-driven beat-’em-up spin-off in Persona 4: Arena, the game also got its very own anime adaptation with Persona 4: The Animation. Like its video game inspiration, Persona 4: The Animation melds monster-smashing action, surreal murder mystery and quaint, small-town slice-of-life comedy to fantastic effect, even if a few things don’t quite suit the jump from game to TV show.

As city kid transfer student Yu Narakami moves in with his detective uncle Dojima and young cousin Nanako, he does his best to adjust to life in the sleepy town of Inaba. But what first promises to be a quiet, boring year for Yu quickly grows more exciting as a ghostly urban legend starts to sweep the school. According to the kids around town, if you turn a TV to static on a rainy night at exactly midnight, you’ll be greeted with ‘The Midnight Channel’, which will reveal the face of your soul mate.

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While checking it out for himself, Yu finds himself pulled into the TV, discovering a surreal, dangerous world filled with deadly creatures called ‘Shadows’ and awakening a power within himself called ‘Persona’, which allows him to summon a giant, destructive, monster-killing personification of his inner self. When The Midnight Channel turns out to be linked to a series of grisly murders and disappearances, Yu sets about unraveling the mystery and stopping the killer, enlisting an unlikely group of new friends to help him: goofy, fun-loving sidekick Yosuke; feisty, tomboyish Chie; shy and reserved Yukiko; misunderstood delinquent biker Kanji and former teen idol Rise.

As adaptations go, Persona 4: The Animation is as faithful as it gets: Everything from the story and dialogue to the soundtrack, the visual style, the town layout, and even the between-scene calendar and statistic updates are pulled directly from its video game counterpart. For the most part, that’s fantastic and fans will undoubtedly be in geek heaven seeing one of their favourite games so lovingly retold in a different medium. But the creative folks behind Persona 4: The Animation often forget that this is a different medium, neglecting to shape the story to suit the narrative strengths and weaknesses its new TV home. In the rush to be rigidly faithful to the video game, the series occasionally short-changes some of the more important story elements in favour of things that don’t really work well outside of video game trappings.

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At its heart, Persona 4 is a riveting, kooky little murder mystery – the kind of story perfectly suited to TV. Sadly, at least in the first few episodes, some significant, if subtle chunks of that mystery plot fall a little by the wayside. TV shows and news reports that showed up in the game and offered up early clues to a pattern emerging in the murders are absent here, leading to lots of clumsy, hurried “Hey, isn’t that the guy who…?!” and “Didn’t we see her at…?!” catch-up exposition later to fill in the blanks.

There’s also a lot that feels lost in translation in the jump from game to anime. Having Personas correspond to Arcana Tarot cards and be powered by a character strengthening their social bonds made great foundations for RPG video game mechanics, but while that all still takes up a large amount of screentime, none of it really works well when dropped into a purely story-driven TV show. The writers make no real efforts to explain much of it to newcomers beyond some obtuse basics, adding to the ‘fans only’ vibe the show often exudes.

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The nature of the main character, Yu, makes an awkward transition from game to TV show, too. In the game, your actions and dialogue choices ultimately shaped who the silent protagonist was – he was a blank cipher for the player to give life and direction to. That worked well in a video game, but it means there’s no real concrete character for the TV show to work from when giving him a voice of his own – he’s got an often funny non-committal deadpan humour, but he’s ultimately a vague non-entity with no real depth or development.

Thankfully that’s not true of the rest of the cast, and the series’ shot-for-shot adaptation structure has the rich, well-written and incredibly likeable roster of characters brought to life again to wonderful effect. Each character’s journey to unlock the power of their Persona sees them facing their inner demons to overcome and control their darker ‘Shadow’ self – the part of their personality everyone’s ashamed, afraid or embarassed to acknowledge or confront, whether it’s jealousy towards friends or confusion about their sexuality. It’s a structure that leads to a slightly repetitive feel to the early episodes as a character per week goes through ultimately the same experience, but it leads to each of them feeling three-dimensional and well developed in an incredibly short space of time as the show tackles some surprisingly deep psychological and emotional content for each of its cast.

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More importantly, they’re a hell of a lot of fun to spend time with, and like the game it’s based on, Persona 4: The Animation does a wonderful job of blending its surreal character-driven action elements with those of a slice-of-life comedy. There’s breather episodes between the action centered on the group hanging out on school trips and such in the downtime between monster battles, and sharp writing, fun characters and a ridiculously effective sense of humour make those lighter episodes a great highlight.

Once things get back to the kinetic, ass-kicking action, while those battles feel slightly rushed, the shows benefits massively from using the vaguely Beetlejuice-ish monster designs of the game. It lends the series a great signature visual style for its weird and wacky enemies and gives fans plenty of fun moments of recognition as familiar adversaries pop up. There’s a tonne more of that fanservice, too, and gamers will undoubtedly have a nostalgic blast spotting all the little minor nods to and recreations of familiar Persona 4 moments, but perhaps the ace up the show’s sleeve is nabbing the game’s soundtrack and voice actors.

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Persona 4′s selection of infectiously peppy Japanese hip-hop/pop/funk fusion tracks made it one of gaming’s greatest, most memorable soundtracks. So it’s awesome that, along with a few new additions from the same team (including a stellar, addictive little opening theme), those tracks are all reused here to phenomenal effect and Persona 4: The Animation’s music is an absolute delight for the eardrums.

When the show was released on Blu-ray in the US, there was a minor fracas over publisher Aniplex not being able to include the series’ Japanese language track. Despite the fan uproar, Persona 4: The Animation is one of the rare instances where the English dub might be the better option anyway; with a series that’s so innately geared around being a loving recreation of a fan-favourite videogame, most viewers will likely prefer to watch the show with the game’s cast providing their familiar vocal talents anyway. It doesn’t hurt that they’re incredibly talented, too (the anime uses the Persona 4: Golden cast, which kept everyone else and swapped out the original Chie for an actress with less stilted, more natural delivery), making it one of the more impressive and enjoyable English dubs around for fans and newcomers alike. Still, for those who love having the option, this UK release from Kaze includes the original Japanese audio, unlike the US version.

Some awkward moments of game-to-series translation mean that Persona 4: The Animation isn’t always as satisfying an experience as its video game counterpart, especially for newcomers. Despite that, it’s a wonderful animated series that yoinks some of the best elements from the game and delivers a unique, funny and surprisingly deep character-driven show with an enticing murder mystery hook and an absolutely dynamite soundtrack. While long-time Persona fans will get the most out of it and love seeing familiar faces and places, it’s sure to hook its fair share of new fans, too.

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As mentioned above, the Volume 1 Blu-ray put out by Kazé in the UK, which includes the first 9 episodes, offers both the English dub featuring the video game’s cast along with the Japanese audio track and English subtitles. Again, considering the ties to the game, I personally felt like this was a rare occasion where the English language dubbed track was a much more enjoyable choice, but it’s great that the option’s there.

There’s also the obligatory anime home video stuff: You can view the “clean” opening and ending sequences by themselves with the credits removed, along with five trailers and a teaser. There’s also a director’s cut version of the first episode (which doesn’t really aid any of the rushed pacing issues, but is a nice addition) and an animated ‘Jikken-kun’ comedy short.

The Film:

The Blu-ray:

Persona 4: The Animation – Volume 1 is out on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK now.
Click here to order the Blu-ray from