I played Persona 3 FES at a time when I started losing interest in gaming. From the opening intro, right till the end of its short post credit scene Persona 3 rejuvenated my interest in video games. While Persona 2: Eternal Punishment made me a fan of the Persona series it was Persona 3 that made me into a Shin Megami Tensei addict. Persona 3 FES was heavy on the exploration of death, the lore setup in the world was fascinating, the music was good, and finally the gameplay (while repetitive in design) kept me hooked for around the 84 hours it took me to beat it. Regardless if it’s in film, or in a tv series format anything based around video games generally end up being down right awful at worst, and just barely average at best. The amount of watchable video game adaptation can be counted on a single hand. Now, you think the film adaptation of Persona 3 would easily please a fan of the video game. Sadly, that is not the case as certain choices make the film a hindrance to see. The video game storyline was not adapted into film format properly, nor were the necessary changes made in order to create a good film. Even with my single-minded love of the video game this film ended up being average at best, and boring at it worst.
Persona 3 The Movie: No. 1, Spring of Birth follows Makoto Yuki, a transfer student at Gekkoukan High School, suddenly awakened with the powers to control a Persona (a demon like manifestation of one’s personality). First order of business if you have never played any incarnation of the video game Persona 3, or know anything associated with the game you’re completely out of luck with this film. Not only does it required multiple films to solve its main course of conflict, but doesn’t offer a story that can stand alone without supplementary material to understand it. Like the fact there is no film adaptation of the first, or second Persona games in the series, nor are all the games within the series connected together to weave a single narrative. With the inclusion of No. 1 in the title should give the uninitiated an idea of what to expect. If not, the short version is a main conflict that doesn’t get resolved, characters that are underdeveloped, story elements that are underused or lack explanation, and a series of questions that serve to bait viewers instead of intrigue. Newcomers will be left in the dark on anything going on in the film.
In general, the writing ranges in good decisions, and delivery as it introduces characters, and certain story elements, but does very little with them. For example, in the film you get a random scene in what’s called “The Velvet Room”. An elegant blue colored elevator constantly going up where our protagonist, Makoto Yuki, is told by long nose proprietor Igor the power of friendship by building bonds will unlock more Persona/Demons. Within the film context, this is a pretty cheap plot device since it basically means our protagonist can be given any Persona/Demon simply through the film loose definition on the power of friendship if the plot demands it. Before that though, you’ll be wondering how in the world did Makoto Yuki entered “The Velvet Room” since the first time he enters “The Velvet Room” we last see Makoto riding on a train. The next time Makoto goes into “The Velvet Room” it’s after he fights demons referred to as Shadows on a roof top. The next time is when he’s on a train, with two of his friends fighting a powerful demon. It is explained that “The Velvet Room” is a place between mind, and matter. A place within dream, and reality. Between WTF, and helpful explanation for how Makoto enters “The Velvet Room”. Every time Makoto enters “The Velvet Room” what happened in the previous scene is different. When witnessing Igor give Makoto Yuki a key it’s natural to assume it would come into play in the film somehow. If something as minor as this key was not properly used for anything than the chances of it actually succeeding where it counts have been lowered.
Pacing is episodic like treating each act in the film as a mini-arc. The first half hour attempts to set up a normal life routine with some element of something otherworldly. Its intention is nice setting up a mystery, but when one of the first things you see is Makoto Yuki walking on a sidewalk with coffins just outside it fails immediately. This odd scene it chooses to open with only begins the series of unanswered questions. For instance, there’s a mention of Makoto Yuki parents being dead, and a couple of flashes of Makoto past that hints at a tragedy. That’s about as far as it goes in exploring his backstory.
Another is the creation of Tartarus (a giant tower filled with demons/shadows), and why Gekkoukan High School transforms into it is skipped over. At most, there’s a reference to a specific event that might have caused it, but the film doesn’t go into that detail either. Withholding information in this case makes no sense since the characters whom participate in stopping the shadows/demons should question their cause for fighting for SEES (Specialized Extracurricular Execution Squad) who are against these creatures. The heroes never do which seems odd when one of the main characters, Yukari Takeba, states her dislike for the protagonist fighting on missions just because, but not question herself for the cause she fights for.
Aspects in the world like “The Dark Hour” is explained by continuing a theme of vagueness in its creation which is also only referenced. One example of vague explanations being within the same scene establishing technology doesn’t work in “The Dark Hour” viewers will be shown Mitsuru Kirijo (a member of SEES) riding on a motorcycle during “The Dark Hour”, and the only explanation for it functioning is “It’s specially made”. Also in this scene, it makes sense for the newcomers who are Junpei, and Makoto not to know this fact, but Yukari who has been in SEES longer barely learning vehicles don’t work in “The Dark Hour” is questionable on character consistency.
One aspect that is done away with quickly is our main three characters Yukari, Junpei, and Makoto learning to use their abilities for the first time. Even though it’s their first time fighting, and the audience is told it has a toll on their psyche the action on screen goes against the information given. Makoto in his first time fighting against a powerful shadow in Tartarus beats it virtually by himself. Action scenes are animated nicely, but the context, and the plot armor prevents them from being exciting. The only real consequence in these battle is shown the first time Makoto fights against the Shadows resulting in him losing consciousness for several days. It shows Makoto waking up from a hospital bed which sets up the idea there is actual consequences to using your Persona. Afterwards the physical, and mental toll that can result in using a Persona become absent for the rest of the film.
This film adaptation only adapts the first three full moon incidents, which in the game is three months’ worth of story material to work with which probably equals around 20 hours of gameplay. To further highlight this problem, progression of time is shown through a calendar that goes through dates in linear fashion showing stills, or animation without dialogue of what occurred on those days. What this doesn’t get across is the characters are bonding like it wanted since every time it cuts back into telling a story there’s something upsetting the group of characters the film follows. With so much on it plate the struggle between balancing saving the world, and having a school life is ignored. During the opening sequence several characters are shown most of whom don’t make an appearance in the film. Serving as foreshadowing for the answers you’re not going to receive in the film.
Protagonist Makoto Yuki characterization in the film is a transfer student loner who learns the value of friendship, and showing more emotion. Beside the typical dead parents background, Makoto expressions is limited to being uninterested through the entire film. The journey leads up to a smile, and in terms of interaction the film decides to end before seeing the result his journey had on him. So throughout the film Makoto doesn’t have a personality, and his past is only briefly discussed. While Makoto arc is written in a typical way without surprises it’s handle competently. His lacked of any distinguishable trait from an overpowered emotionless lead makes him uninteresting as a protagonist, but his transformation is steadily done not falling victim to being an unnatural one-eighty change.
Yukari Takeba fares the best of the supporting cast. She gets developed, has an arc that gets completed, and contributes to the story. Having scenes interacting with Makoto helps develop Makoto, and herself. Her inability to trust Makoto with her life because of his lack emotion is touched on. However, she tells the strongest member of the group she doesn’t want him to go on a rescue mission because he doesn’t have an emotional input in it. If Makoto wasn’t overpowered Yukari outburst wouldn’t be idiotic. That’s not the case so Yukari looks like an idiot in this scene by being fully aware of this fact, and voicing her opinion to make SEES rescue operation more dangerous. Aside from this very plot point, Yukari develops competently as well.
Junpei Iori is delegated to being comedic relief without doing much comedy. Why the film made this decision is up in the air for debate. In the film, maybe Junpei class-clown attitude could have been used as a way for him to hide his discontent self-image, but it’s not. Junpei develops an inferiority complex at one point in the movie out of nowhere, and gets resolved minutes later. Then later on in the film, Junpei wants to redeem himself for acting irresponsibly on one of the team’s operation. What exactly his arc was trying to accomplish is sketchy. Fuuka Yamagishi who has less screen time then Junpei has a simple arc of being bullied by one of her friends, but not letting that get in the way of her friendship. Or Fuuka just has low self-esteem too. She’s not developed much as a character beyond what’s introduced about her, but her arc also gets completed even if Fuuka remain largely unchanged.
Then finally leaves the remainder of the underutilize cast. Mitsuru Kirijo has little to do in the film. Her small contribution is feeding the team information on the environment during operations. In a routine setting, she is simply in the background. It’s hinted Yukari doesn’t like Mitsuru, but that goes nowhere. Shinjiro Aragaki is only used to deliver exposition in two scenes, and helping the main cast out of trouble in one scene. Akihiko Sanada is just in the film. He’s a fodder character regardless if the film attempts to paint him as an important member of SEES. Then the oldest character in the film being Shuji Ikutsuki who is only important in one scene where he explains “The Dark Hour”, and the purpose of SEES. Beside that one scene he’s in the background not doing much either. There’s Natsuki Moriyama who is the bully/friend of Fuuka whose change is telegraphed by this description. That’s a lot of wasted room for characters who mostly do nothing in the film, and that’s not including three supernatural characters that serve as deus ex machina, and info dumping on an impending catastrophe.
Persona 3 The Movie: No. 1, Spring of Birth was animated by AIC A.S.T.A. Art direction captures the game’s dark atmosphere perfectly. The usage of lighting is key since most of the film takes place in the dark. Thanks to the clever usage of moonlight, the action in the film is easy to see while the lighting still manages to keep the setting looking ominous. Locations from the game are brought to life, and given a vibrant new look, whilst also retaining the same details that any fan of the game will remember fondly. Plenty of foreboding compositions, oppressive shots, and generally solid direction help to keep things aesthetically impressive. Animations such as the school turning into Tartarus are rendered beautifully (even if the 3D in the scene is weak), and many elements of movement and action that were previously left to the imagination are now visually stunning. Action scenes while lacking excitement are nice eye candy. One thing the film fixed about the characters’ designs were the long necks from the games. All the characters look more natural in the film with some minor touches like adding more line details to the hair to update the game arts style.
Shoji Meguro returns in his role to produce the soundtrack, and as usual his work is stellar. Crazy techno/hip-hop soundtrack creates a unique tone. The game’s soundtrack is largely reused in the movie, and fits perfectly well. If anything, the movie does a special service to the soundtrack by not playing the same tracks for several hours like in the video game. As a fan of Shoji Meguro in general, the best part of the film was the opening credits with a remixed version of “Burn My Dread”—complete with an added strings section. This film does not provide many new materials worth looking into in terms of music, but the rearrangement of familiar tracks makes it a nostalgic trip for fans. The original Japanese voice cast from the video game returns to reprise their role, and are just solid in the film adaptation. In particular Akira Ishida gets allot more to say besides some grunts and demon names. While limited in dialogue, Akira Ishida grim voice fits the broken character of Makoto. Unfortunately, with the sloppy writing grants no one else the opportunity to deliver much of a noteworthy performance from the character they play. As of this moment, there’s no English dub even though it’s licensed for North America distribution by Aniplex of America. Take that as you will if you liked the English cast from the video game.
Persona 3 The Movie: Chapter 1, Spring of Birth is a movie that I wouldn’t recommend seeing, including fans of the video games. The production side of things capture the aesthetic of Persona 3, but the writing doesn’t emulate what made fans hold the video game in their heart so dearly in the first place. For newcomers, it’ll leave them in the dark with too many unanswered questions, and the inability to work as a stand-alone feature film weakens the narrative when divided in segments. Fans of the video game might be able to enjoy it as whatever doesn’t get explained they’ll still know what’s going on. However, I would just rather say replay the video-game for a better experience. As an adaptation it’s not a train wreck since the story is interesting, and some character arc are handle well, but not enough was changed to make it work in a different medium.