I’ll be upfront and honest about this. I’ve never played Persona, not so much as a single second. My first real experience of the franchise is with this inaugural instalment of the third movie, so I’ve come at it from the point of view of a consumer, rather than fan, and reviewed it as an anime film in its own right.
It’s fitting that Persona 5, the latest instalment in Atlus’ perennial role-playing franchise, has been mired with delays and setbacks, given this movie concerns itself with time. It forces us to consider our own mortality, but for fans, I’m sure, it’ll be a reminder that the game is still tantalisingly out of reach.
Here, we have Makoto Yuki, a so-called “normal” transfer student, lost in his childhood trauma. He’s another high school stoic, whose fatalistic attitude and casual cool leave him lost in a blur of dreary leading boys. Annexed from reality with his headphones and music, he walks through a phantom realm apparently unperturbed. There he arrives at the Iwatodai Dormitory and is confronted by a spritely lad, who asks him to sign an ambiguous contract. Of course, Matoko obliges, setting this whole thing into motion.
He later learns that there is a phantom time that presents itself to those with “potential”. The Dark Hour is a kind of combination between the superstition of the witching hour, and the hour of the wolf that’s tormented insomniacs and the heavy-hearted for centuries. The abstract given form, Yuki and the other potentials are the only ones able to exist in this realm, with the rest of humanity locked in coffins. That’s not to say they’re alone in the dark, with shadows skulking around. Any normal person attacked by the shadows suffers “apathy syndrome” – a thinly-veiled metaphor that makes dementors look nuanced in comparison. Our front-line defence is SEES – Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad – on paper a school club (but of course) though in truth dedicated to defeating shadows. It reminded me of Devil Survivor 2, or Blood Blockade Battlefront, or any other anime with a bunch of powered young’uns fighting off monsters.
As for the eponymous persona, that’s a physical manifestation of the ways in which we confront trauma; a facet of the ego and perhaps a truer image of the individual. It struck me as a dramatic device similar to the way a mask overcomes inhibition, so that the wearer might act more freely. You have to use an evoker to unleash your persona – a gun that basically splats that bit of your personality out of your head. Though personas are basically a special attack, it’s something SEES all seem to ignore, firing off shots left, right and centre.
Clocking in at ninety minutes doesn’t immediately make a movie, and Persona 3 struggles to shake its gaming roots, whether by design or by failure. The Velvet Room sequences are framed like those you’d expect to see in an interactive narrative, while the calendar cuts look like a menu, inevitably making the film feel like vignettes. Its inherently gamified, and every time Matoko emerges from hardships, he gains a new power. Without interaction and the conversational choices of a video game, the characters fall flat, and settle into tired archetypes. The only character I found myself connecting with was Fuuka Yamagishi, and even then, only because I’m a sucker for the dandere type.
Even a Persona virgin such as myself can tell that the characters are a big selling point, though it seems to this schmuck that stylistics take centre stage. The Dark Hour is reminiscent of the anarchic art of Madoka Magica’s labyrinths, but with more painterly skyscapes and lurid colours, it sets itself apart. The soundtrack, meanwhile, is perhaps its strongest asset, bouncing between hip hop and synth with some cool rock tracks thrown in.
The overarching story seemed to be centred on fixing the fractured relationship of two high school girls, whose characters were both underplayed in amongst the creepy pasta contrivances of the plot. While I wouldn’t rush into the next instalment, I am left wondering what becomes of these characters. More than that, I found myself in anticipation of Persona 5 along with everyone else.
Extras: Collector’s packaging; dual format disks.