Persona Anime Review
Persona ~Trinity Soul~
US Release By
26 25-minute episodes
2008-01-05 - 2008-06-28
What's In It
- Shounen Action That Isn't
- Ghostly Summoned Monsters
- Addiction to Soul-ripping
- Shadowy Conspiracies
- Men In Black As Main Characters
- Violence: 3 (significant)
- Nudity: 1 (mild)
- Sex: 2 (moderate)
- Language: 2 (moderate)
Ten years ago something terrible happened in the quiet port town Ayanagi City. Nearly everyone lost family that day; among them are three Kanzato brothers, who lost their parents and the twin sister of the youngest. After ten years apart, middle brother Shin and youngest brother Jun--now of high school and junior high ages--have returned home to live with the eldest, Ryo.
But what should be a happy reunion is tainted by a new tragedy underway in Ayanagi City. In what have been dubbed "Reverse" killings, high school students have been turning up literally flayed by something apparently beyond human. Others have fallen victim to Apathy Syndrome--a near-comatose state of unknown cause that leaves them vacant shells of the people they once were.
But, while Ryo is heading the investigation--and possibly cover-up--of these gruesome murders, Shin is happily unaware. Until, that is, a friend at school has him try Shadow Extraction--an apparently harmless game that exposes a ghostly avatar known as a Persona. And, hidden somewhere among them, are the Marebito--people who intend to use the power of the Personas in some dark plan.
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Persona: Trinity Soul is simultaneously better than it should have been and worse than it could have been. Better in that it takes the setup of a summoned-monster action series and twists it into a dark, introspective musing on loss and grief. This singular focus combined with a lot of subtly creepy atmosphere and well-realized, very likable characters make for some powerful, understated drama. At best, the quiet tragedy and orphaned kids with no one but themselves to turn to for support are memorable and affecting. Worse in that it is so focused on its emotional core that the plot is something of an afterthought; it spends a lot of time dropping hints and setting things up only to drop multiple sub-plots and never bring the big picture into focus. The lack of explanation of the supernatural mechanics is particularly frustrating; it borders on religion, but once you introduce pills that have an effect on your supernatural abilities and mad scientists trying to control it, you've pretty much obligated yourself to give some details. On the plus side, there's an unexpected lack of big, flashy showdowns and climactic battles. The artwork is also beautiful--gorgeous character designs and subtly lovely backgrounds accenting the story with a seasonal palette.
In the end, Persona: Trinity Soul comes very close to being something great. It succeeds at breaking free of its genre and establishing a strong emotional connection to the characters, not to mention some particularly creepy moments, but its single-minded devotion to the central theme of loss ends up relegating the plot to a frustratingly under-explained afterthought. A visually beautiful, understated series with something to say, it ends up wandering across the finish line with a lot of unfinished business. How much of an issue this is will depend on whether you care more about plot or atmosphere.
Full ReviewSwitch to Quick Review
Persona: Trinity Soul takes the setup of a summoned-monster action series and twists it into a dark, introspective musing on loss and grief. It's uncommonly successful at affecting, understated emotional drama and full of creepy atmosphere, but is so focused it ends up overlooking its own plot in the process. The result is methodical, heavy, and memorable, if somewhat unsatisfying.
Persona is about what happens when we lose loved ones, both as a supernatural allegory and a literal character study. This isn't just the emotional hook, it is the purpose of the entire series. Nearly everything in it, when you strip away the supernatural trappings, is built around this core.
As a result, it's simultaneously better than it should have been and worse than it could have been. Better in that it does memorable and unusual things with a generic framework. Worse in that it takes a while to get going, and it's so preoccupied with this emotional core it fails to take the large-scale plot anywhere.
The basic setup--high school kids able to summon avatars to do battle with each other, fighting against bad kids and a shadowy conspiracy--sounds like a fairly standard shounen-style action series. So do the component parts: The haunted school episode, the vacation episode, the training. Yet the understated execution and pervasive mood of menace and wounds-not-yet-healed turn the series into something entirely different, and twist those individual cliches to the point they're barely recognizable.
It's as if the creators were given a stock framework and decided to build an entirely different sort of series around it. Aside from a couple of bits a little too broad to be comfortable in the otherwise-realistic setting, this is where Persona most surprised and impressed me. It's also the lesser of its two weak points.
The issue is that the visible remnants of the concept--the ghostly Personas, which look like large, somewhat abstract robots or monsters--seem out of sync with everything else. Yes, they're unsettling by summoned-monster standards, just nowhere near as unsettling as everything else in a series full of subtly creepy things. The occasional battles seem superfluous, and could have been handled in a more abstract, less "monster with big gun" way.
On the positive side, the series seems to know this, keeping the perfunctory fights to a bare minimum. Indeed, the big showdowns you might expect never materialize at all--the vicious, psychotic antagonists are mostly a sidelight slowly consumed by their own malice. There is, technically, a villain, but even he is more a catalyst than someone for the heroes to vanquish. This leads to something unexpected: What is functionally the climax, apart from an overkill final showdown, comes with several episodes still left. It ends up spending most of the closing episodes in a series of extended flashbacks, finally showing the audience the roots of the central tragedy underlying the lives of the characters.
Even more unexpected, there is a quiet tragedy prior to this extended retro-prologue that has more emotional impact than either climax--powerful and truly affecting. Tragedy is almost the wrong word; in anime terms "Tragedy" usually refers to capital-T, shoujo-style melodrama, whereas this particular loss is personal and understated--simply sad, more than anything. The simplicity of the final actions as death is approaching unavoidably are more powerful than swelling soundtrack or histrionics, and the subtle, poignant image of snow falling silently, not melting on skin growing cold, stuck with me long after the series was over.
Several other episodes feature effective chunks of drama, not all of it so heart-rending. Among them is one that comfortably fits the mold of "This week, on a very special episode of Persona," with Shadow Extraction--a kind of supernatural version of schoolyard choking--standing in for drug addiction. By adding a strong overtone of sexuality (it's closer to nymphomania than drug addiction), having the victim so cheerfully willing to debase herself, and backing it up with sincere emotion, Persona makes something memorable and effective of an after-school-special plot. Enough so that the only message you walk away with is about the support of friends when you have no parents to turn to for help.
That's an underlying theme for the mostly-orphaned cast; they have no one to rely on for guidance or support but each other. At the same time, the kids don't act unrealistically precocious, and the adults act like adults, handling most of the investigative work in the story.
This very likable cast--each with something dark in the past coloring their lives--is one of the strongest points of Persona, and the reason the emotional drama works so well. They're uncommonly believable as people, sidestepping their hip, urban look and the apparent stereotypes they fit on paper. They also avoid becoming brooding, plot-driven machines--the kids reasonably balance normal activities with comparing notes on the weird supernatural goings-on and fighting the battles the adults can't. Speaking of which, it's a welcome relief that the characters actually talk to each other--when weird things happen, they discuss it and try to figure out what's going on.
The Japanese voice cast (only--no dubs from NIS yet) does a uniformly solid job giving personality to these people. In particular they breathe some life into cerebral, low-key dialogue that easily could have devolved into depressed monotone. There's less strong emotion than you'd expect, but the most potent episodes are handled with nuance and force. Young Jun's gender-ambiguous fragility also works well thanks to Miyuki Sawashiro. The closest thing to a weakness is Nobuhiko Okamoto, who is a little flat as main character Shin, but that has more to do with the way the character is written--as an observer--than the acting.
Augmenting the personalities is attractive character art and some of my all-time favorite character designs--the girls in particular remind me of Yasuomi Umetsu's sharp, minutely-detailed style. The character animation is expressive, and the short bursts of action certainly look nice. The only possible complaint are occasional slips in the quality of the character art and animation.
The detailed, atmospheric backgrounds are beautiful. They're also not as dark as you'd expect; instead of gloom and shadow, Persona uses an understated seasonal palette to accent the emotional tone. The first season takes place entirely in winter, with constant visual cues to the cold mirroring the chilly emotions of brothers reunited after years of separation; the soft, snow-muffled landscapes accent the suppressed emotions that underly the story. The seaside setting adds a nice additional twist, with the icy water (which is both literally and symbolically linked to the plot) calm yet uninviting. The second season moves to the warmer months, with seasonal cues contrasting with with the increasingly dark events, finally wrapping back around to winter for the low-key finale.
Persona, sadly, has a rather pervasive and glaring flaw: The plot is an afterthought. Significant sub-plots are either dropped entirely or so ill-explained that I missed the follow-through, the end leaves a bunch of minor characters in effective limbo, and none of it makes much sense.
It's not illogical; we're just never given enough information to figure out what the heck is going on, because none of the characters have any idea, either. On the rare occasions it offers some exposition, it's usually vague and unnecessarily metaphysical-sounding.
Now, when you're dealing with things that are touching the domain of religion, that sort of out-of-focus picture isn't inappropriate. However, once you introduce pills that have an effect on your supernatural abilities and mad scientists trying to control it, you've pretty much obligated yourself to offer some specific explanation of the mechanics to the viewer, even if the characters never get it.
Worst are a few scenes where we see a Persona doing something very specific and plot-relevant, but never get enough explanation to understand what, exactly, happened. Scenes like, say, the big denouement, which seems to be missing an exposition-filled epilogue.
This all could have been avoided. One option would have been to cut out most of the plot and stick to a single season instead of two. This is, effectively, what Boogiepop Phantom does--focus on the personal drama and leave the big conspiracy in the background. Alternately, with a little less time spent on vague hand-waving and a little more on concrete explanations, the plot could have been developed satisfyingly. Instead, it spends enough time setting things up and dropping hints for you to want a framework for the puzzle, but it seems to be too focused on the emotional core to care about follow-through.
How much of an issue this all ends up being comes down to personal taste; if you're the type who isn't bothered by vague plots, or if the emotional end grabs you enough that you don't care, you may end up being a lot less frustrated than I was.
The music is the other minor disaster. Most of Taku Iwasaki's background score is what you'd expect--quiet, introspective pieces when there is any music at all, with eerie, operatic vocalizing to match some of the creepiest moments. And then the growling, hip-hop-ish metal "action" theme kicks in--utterly out of place compared to everything else in the series, it unfailingly sucks the drama out of the scene. I can only assume it was created with the same shounen-action intentions as the battling monsters, and it's used sparingly enough you get the feeling the production team knew it sounded ridiculous. The initial rock opening theme is almost as bad; the second opening is darker and accompanied by fittingly unsettling imagery, although it's still disappointingly generic.
In the end, Persona: Trinity Soul defies expectations and comes very close to being something great. It succeeds at breaking free of its genre and establishing a strong emotional connection to the characters, not to mention some particularly creepy moments, but its single-minded devotion to the central theme of loss ends up relegating the plot to a frustratingly under-explained afterthought. A visually beautiful, understated series with something to say, it ends up wandering across the finish line with unfinished business.
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Boogiepop Phantom is a series with a lot of similarities. Among them is a pervasive, ominous atmosphere and sense of something wrong. Persona lacks the puzzle-like construction and bewildering cast, but makes up for it with appealing characters normal enough to get attached to. The result is a stronger emotional connection and less of a brain-teaser (had Persona chosen to reduce the amount of plot, it might have been merely different, not weaker on the whole). Shadow Star Narutaru also features a similar foundation of kids with supernormal abilities using them to do frightening things, but its message is blunt, even darker, and far more bleak, and the production values are a fraction of what Persona has to show off. Finally, Nazca is another show that takes a shounen action framework and spends most of its time focusing on low-key character drama, much less successfully.
Notes and Trivia
Persona: Trinity Soul is, to a degree, the sequel to the Persona 3 PS2 game; the TV series is set ten years after the events of the game. However, almost all of the characters in the anime are different, the mood and mechanics of the world are somewhat different, and it doesn't seem to assume any particular knowledge of the game series. According to the official fan guide of the game, the anime isn't considered an official part of the same timeline; the actual sequel to the game is Persona 4, of which there is also an anime adaptation.
Even on the Japanese release the full title of the anime is written in English, "Trinity Soul"; it's "spelled out" in phonetic Japanese underneath. It does not include the "Shin Megami Tensei" moniker of the video game series at all.
Persona, along with Toradora, marks NIS America's first foray into anime. The company is better known for video game localizations.
US DVD Review
NIS America's DVD release is one of two that mark the video game localization company's first foray into anime. They take an interesting tack with the premium edition box set--accepting that bootleg copies are readily available on the Internet, they instead focused on giving buyers of the physical version something special. (The series has since also been released in a "regular" edition that comes in a more traditional DVD case with a small leaflet at a reduced price.)
The set includes the first of two seasons on two DVDs in thinpack-style cases along with an accompanying hardcover book and a very classy, very attractive artbox to hold it all.
The DVDs are straightforward, but some of my all-time favorites. The basics are what you'd expect: Pleasant-looking anamorphic widescreen video and stereo Japanese audio, plus a soft subtitle track that is quite accurate. The only extras are some Japanese TV spots and a promotional video. Given the relatively high episode-per-disc count there aren't any significant encoding artifacts, although given the price it'd probably have been nice if they'd spread it across three discs. What makes the production so good, however, is what it doesn't have: Annoying pre-video junk. You stick the disc in and you get literally five seconds each of the FBI warning and two company logos--on one track that you can skip--and then it's on to the video. It even bypasses the menu, although there is one, including appropriate chapter stops in each episode.
I want to repeat that: Not only is there only fifteen seconds of junk at the beginning, but you can skip it. I can't remember ever being able to skip the FBI warning. Thank you NIS--I only hope future productions are so friendly.
The book is also nice--quality printing and a beautiful cover. The inside includes a spoiler-free character guide, a brief episode guide, a variety of artwork, and a collection of 4-panel comic strips poking a bit of fun at several episodes. Flip it over, however, and you get something really neat: A Whale's Feather, the illustrated children's book that the Kanzato brothers' parents wrote. This is particularly cool because it plays a central role in the plot. The semi-abstract illustrations are quite nice, although the story is sort of creepy (you find out why in the flashbacks near the end).
Since the sale price isn't much higher than a regular DVD set, it's even a pretty good buy. The only problem is that the set doesn't fit on your shelf; the book is two DVDs wide, which looks neat but prevents the box from going on a shelf with your DVDs, and since the box is part of the package you can't even shelve the book elsewhere and put the DVDs on a media shelf. Relatively speaking, though, minor complaint.
Though large sections have little in the way of objectionable material, significant mature themes and periodic flashes of bloody violence push it into the 16-up range, possibly 13-up for lenient parents; NIS calls it "teen."
Violence: 3 - While most of the most gruesome violence happens off-camera, what you see is strong and what is implied worse.
Nudity: 1 - Little past incidental bits surrounding bathing.
Sex/Mature Themes: 2 - While there's not much explicitly shown, there is a strong undercurrent of mature themes and some brief sexual violence.
Language: 2 - Some strong language in NIS's subtitles.
Available in North America from NIS America on two regular and Premium Edition subtitled box sets of 13 episodes each; the regular edition comes in a traditional case, while the Premium Edition includes a high-quality box and a hardcover artbook of bonus material.
Amazon doesn't stock the sets, so you'll need to go to RightStuf or a similar specialty retailer to find them. RightStuf has them in stock at a pretty good discount at last check: Set 1 and set 2. AnimeNation also carries them: set 1 and set 2.