It’s a trap to adapt silent protagonists. Well, in my opinion, anyways. After all, when you play the game, you assume the role of the silent protagonist. You provide the voice. You guide the actions. You ultimately decide the silent protagonist’s fate. The silent protagonist isn’t exactly you, but at the very least, it’s some reflection of you. What makes it even worse is when the adaptation itself doesn’t come out for years. Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 was released back in… 2006, I believe? I really enjoyed the game, by the way. I’m not one to replay most of my video games, especially nowadays when I’m just too busy to even play games to begin with. Still, I’ve gone through Persona 3 at least twice. Well, it’s hard not to when Atlus keeps milking the Persona series with remakes, but you get my drift. So after seven years, the film adaptation finally comes out. Seven years is a long time to spend on a character.
No, I never obsessed over the game’s silent protagonist or anything like that, but after all this time, I kinda had an idea how he would sound, how he would act, how he would live out his life in the Persona 3 universe, etc. All of a sudden, the film adaptation wants to compare notes. The film adaptation says, “Hey, check this guy out! This is our take on Yuki Makoto!” Yuki Makoto, huh? Is that what he’s called nowadays? I guess so. I thought Arisato Minato had a better ring to it, but I digress. All I’m saying is that it isn’t fair. Oh no, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that it’s unfair to me. My feelings don’t really matter. I’m saying it’s not really fair to the people behind the film adaptation. AIC ASTA, I think? Yeah, them. I mean, look, the silent protagonist had been a reflection of me for the past seven years. Some other person’s conception of the hero is never going to live up to what I have personally created.
Having said all of that, how is the film’s take on Persona 3‘s silent protagonist anyway? Eh… Obviously, he’s not quite what I expected, but let’s pretend as though I had never played the video game of which the movie is based upon. Would I like this Yuki Makoto character? I don’t think so. It’s early on in the story. In fact, the adaptation only takes its audience right up to the part where Fuuka officially discovers her Persona and moves into the dorms. As such, there’s some drama we have to concoct in order to keep the character interactions… interesting, I suppose. Granted, Yukari and Junpei had their doubts about the silent protagonist early on in the game as well, but due to the film’s accelerated pacing, everything gets amplified a bit too much. To be specific, I think the way Yukari reacts to Makoto’s indifference is a bit histrionic. Still, I get where she’s coming from, because the adaptation’s take on the silent protagonist is rather off-putting.
I previously mentioned that Makoto is initially indifferent, but that doesn’t quite capture the film’s hero. He’s almost autistic in the way he interacts with the world. At one point, our heroes need to stop a runaway train from crashing into another train ahead of them. Obviously, they’ll die if they don’t. It’s one thing for Makoto be “too cool for school” in this situation, but it’s another thing for him to ask, “Oh, you want to stop the train?” Really? Of course his teammates do. Even if Makoto doesn’t personally care about his own life, I never expected him to be so oblivious to the point that he would fail to understand why others do care about their own lives. We’re not even talking about a difference in how different people might approach a mundane social situation either. In such a case, okay, maybe Makoto is too awkward to realize how his peers might act and feel. But no, we’re talking about a situation in which a runaway train may very well end all of their lives, and Makoto’s first reaction is to ask, “Oh, you want to stop the train?” That’s not even sociopathic; that’s just idiotic.
But yeah, yeah, Makoto’s character will grow over the course of the adaptation’s many films. There are other ways in which the adaptation is less than satisfying for me, but I can’t really blame the people behind the film. I just don’t think the story can adapt itself very well to the new medium. A lot of what I found enjoyable about the game was that I could control the pacing of the narrative. In the story, our heroes’ school transforms into a giant, multi-storied dungeon every midnight. Nevertheless, you’re not allowed to climb the structure in one go. Every full moon, a big, bad boss shows up, and our heroes have to defeat it. When they do — or rather, when you do — higher levels of the dungeon open up. So what I often did was this: at the start of every new moon, I would grind as much as the game would allow me, then unwind until the full moon by participating in the game’s more “casual” aspects, i.e. talking to people and strengthening your Social Links. If you haven’t played the game or watched the Persona 4 adaptation, I’m sorry if this sounds confusing. Nevertheless, this is what made the game enjoyable for me.
Obviously, the film adaptation has to split its attention right down the middle. We need to see Makoto lead his team through Tartarus, but we also need to see the social side of his journey as well. But the film is a film, i.e. an adaptation that takes up just a little over 90 minutes of runtime. Meanwhile, your first time through the game itself might take you around 30 to 40 hours of gameplay. It’s a daunting task to say the least. I know what I want as a fan: I want the adaptation to somehow translate my enjoyment of the game to the new medium. At the same time, I know it’s just not possible. The film covers neither the dungeon-grinding nor the social bonding with very much depth. Instead, it focuses on the main storyline and rightfully so. There’s really no other alternative for a film adaptation to take. Nevertheless, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed. But in every adaptation, we must discard parts of the old and adopt the new. As a medium, video games have their strengths, but they also has their weaknesses. The same can be said of the film medium. So what strengths can the new medium lend to Persona 3?
Well, I can’t complain about the production values, that’s for sure. Granted, it’s a film with a theatrical release, so it’s going to be allotted a sizable budget. Even so, the film looks nice. I think it’s silly that Makoto’s right eye is often covered by his hair. The same can be said about Mitsuru as well. On the other hand, Yukari’s hair looks less like a mullet on the big screen, so that’s nice. Some of the enemies are goofy in action, but then again, they were goofy in the game as well. It’s part of the charm of the Shin Megami Tensei universe, anyway, to find yourselves fighting some odd-looking shadows every now and then. As solid as the animation is, however, AIC ASTA aren’t risk takers. There’s no visual symbolism here to interpret or fascinating scene compositions to decode. The adaptation is very straightforward, and while there’s nothing wrong with that, AIC ASTA’s safe approach should nevertheless be noted. For what it’s worth, however, there are a lot of detail in the backgrounds, and the film makes good use of colors.
I don’t believe the adaptation has done much to the game’s original soundtrack, and AIC ASTA probably didn’t need to. After all, reusing songs from the game is the best way to score nostalgia points with the film’s target audience. Plus, I can’t say it wasn’t nice to listen to some familiar tunes throughout the film. I even got one of the songs stuck in my head the following day. It wasn’t “Burn My Dread” though, if you were wondering. As for the voice acting, I don’t really have any complaints about it. Sure, Makoto’s voice is a bit off-putting for all the reasons I’ve already mentioned, so I won’t get into that again. Nevertheless, the game was already voice acted, and in my opinion, rather capably as well. Just to provide a bit of context, I’ve gone through both the dubbed and undubbed version of the original game. As a result, hearing the characters on the big screen offers up nothing new or unique. The film does a solid job, but nothing about it will blow you away.
In the end, that’s all I can really say about the first film in the series. It’s solid, but not spectacular. If you’re not already a Persona 3 fan, I don’t think it will seduce you into the Persona universe or anything like that. Without the interactive elements, the story just feels like your run-of-the-mill anime series, albeit decently animated. At best, it’s a nice diversion for about 98 minutes, then you’ll probably forget most of what you had just watched. And if you are a Persona 3 fan, the film feels more like a supplement than a complement to the original story. This isn’t the destination of some holy pilgrimage. This isn’t some long-awaited deliverance. It certainly won’t give us any new insights into the Persona universe. It’s just… nice. For a film, that’s a little disappointing. Why not just do an anime series instead?