There is a long-running video game series in Japan known as Shin Megami Tensei that, until only recently, was almost entirely unknown to Western gamers because of its highly controversial themes. However, in 2007, a spin-off of the sprawling metaseries managed to gain major critical acclaim in the US and brought a surge of popularity to the entire franchise. Persona 3 defined its identity through its high school setting, mixing traditional RPG dungeon crawling with dating-sim elements and an engrossing storyline, in contrast to the dark, occult, cyberpunk themes of the main series. The game was an explosion of creativity compared to the tired medieval settings that plague the stagnant JRPG genre.
As the game featured stylish anime cutscenes with a pop art style, fans naturally clamored for an anime adaptation of the game. What was ultimately produced, however, was Persona: Trinity Soul, a sequel to Persona 3 made by Aniplex's young studio A-1 Pictures with developer Atlus's blessing.
I admit to never playing Persona 3, so I may have missed some subtle references here and there. However, I did play both Persona 2: Innocent Sin and Persona 2: Eternal Punishment, which had a much different flavor from more recent installments. Interestingly enough, Persona: Trinity Soul actually shares more in common with these earlier installments than the game it's supposed to be a sequel of.
Let me explain further as I examine the first thirteen episodes of this flawed, yet worthwhile anime.
Persona: Trinity Soul
Set ten years after the events of Persona 3, Persona: Trinity Soul is the story of brothers Shin and Jun Kanzato, who move back to their childhood home to live with their brother Ryo, the chief of police. Ryo has been investigating not only a mysterious illness known as Apathy Syndrome that leaves its victims braindead, but also a series of murders characterized by the victims' complete lack of skin. Shin and Jun are drawn into the mystery behind these events, starting with the drug-like "Shadow Extraction" game at their school that leads to the emergence of Personas, powerful representations of the inner psyche.
Though it's a sequel to Persona 3, it assumes no prior knowledge of the Persona universe and features almost no returning characters from the games. This is great for newcomers to the franchise, but fans of Persona 3 may be put-off by the disconnect in this supposed sequel. The tone is markedly different from the little I've seen of the game too. Gone are the bright colors and sometimes light tones inherent with games featuring dating sim elements, replaced by a somber atmosphere draped across winter scenery. Colors are more muted, especially compared with the almost garish pop art elements of Persona 4's presentation, and there is an overall feeling of slight dread akin to Darker than Black. This means that the J-pop soundtrack of recent Persona games is also out, replaced by dramatically appropriate orchestral soundscapes. Trinity Soul should actually appeal more to fans of the first two games than those of the second two.
If this is indeed its inspiration though, then it's hard to explain the disinterest I felt at times while watching the first half of the series. I found Persona 2 to be surprisingly intriguing: a compelling plot that centered around questioning the nature of the collective subconscious and how what we believe can directly affect reality, supported by well-rounded and endearing characters. Unfortunately, there is nothing that carefully crafted to be found in Trinity Soul.
As intriguing as the original premise is, it quickly begins to devolve into a main plot that is little more sophisticated than the bad-guys deciding that they "gotta catch 'em all" - "'em" being Personas in this case. This continues for most of volume one until the last couple of episodes, where the plot finally decides to get moving and important events begin occurring. Many more interesting plot hooks are dropped, including mysterious disappearances, ethereal white feathers, and a mysterious woman in red, but frustratingly they are never really addressed, only occasionally brought back into the picture to attempt to add intrigue to the main plot.
Of course, anyone who has played Persona 3 knows that dealing with enemies is only half of the experience - you spend the rest of your time living an ordinary life, going to classes, and enjoying the company of your friends. Trinity Soul decides to do this to, focusing on Shin and Jun's high school life whenever not addressing the mysterious events. However, these parts of the story are significantly less interesting than the main storyline. Instead of providing necessary downtime between fighting through dungeons in order to keep gameplay fresh, they only serve to make you feel like you could be watching a more interesting part of the story. Discussion about the Shadow Extraction game and its addictive tendencies tries to stand in and keep things related to the supernatural, but it come across as tiresome when the characters react to the game in exactly the same way every time it is brought up.
This brings me to my main concern with Trinity Soul: the characters simply can not hold up the weak plot. Shin comes across as a typical relatable protagonist, almost as undefined as the unnamed protagonists in most of the Shin Megami Tensei games. There are no personality quirks, no hang-ups besides an aversion to ghosts (mentioned in one episode), and nothing to distinguish him from numerous other one-dimensional main characters. His younger brother Jun has more going for him, due to multiple personalities, but still comes across as just "the cute, quiet one." Police Chief Ryo, however, is the worst offender. Compared with police officer Katsuya in Persona 2, Ryo has no personality whatsoever beyond grim stoicism. Even when placed in humorous or unusual settings, he fails to exhibit any emotion whatsoever. Only in the final episode of the volume does he threaten to change his facial expression.
The supporting cast is similarly weak. There are some interesting interactions between classmates Takuro and Megumi, but nothing that hasn't been seen before, and when not talking with Takuro, Megumi comes across as flat. Only Kanaru, a girl obsessed with Shadow Extraction, seems to have more to her than meets the eye. Overall, the characters simply aren't compelling, especially when compared with NISA's other initial offering, Toradora!, which also revolves around high school life.
It's a shame, because the series is generally well directed. Scenes play out with a cold grace fitting for the winter landscape, and the atmosphere is intriguing. Similarly, A-1 Pictures does an excellent job adapting character designs by Persona 3 artist Shigenori Soejima and animating the ghostly Persona battles. And while the J-pop soundtrack of the recent games is absent here, the musical themes present fit the mood much better than uptempo jazz-pop could.
And I would be remiss if I didn't note the love and care NISA put into the release of the first half of the show. As a release intended to be sold primarily online, the outside box features two attractive depictions of the main characters with no blocks of text explaining the series. Inside the box are two Thinpak DVD cases with the art of the first two Japanese DVD volumes. Also included is a hardbound book, featuring the remaining DVD art, illustrations, character profiles, 4koma, and staff interviews. Flipping the book to the other side reveals a full printed version of A Whale's Feather, a children's book featured in several episodes written and drawn by the Kanzato brothers' parents. An amazing amount of love and care has been put into this release, and as someone who appreciates well-designed packaging and cool extras, I want to applaud NISA and encourage them to continue such endeavors with future releases.
So why do I still kind of recommend Persona: Trinity Soul, even with all of its flaws? For me, the show's wonderful atmosphere and promise of a deeper plot were able to keep me going, despite mundane events and flat characters. Even though it was far from the clever ideas found in Persona 2, the mystery is still intriguing enough for me to want to find out how it ends, and from the last few episodes, I can tell the series is going in a stronger direction. If the characters manage to gain some more personality after recent events in the last few episodes, I can see this series still being of interest to those who enjoyed Darker than Black or the Persona series as a whole. Just don't go into it expecting anything close to Persona 3, or you'll be sorely disappointed.
[Editor's note: Some customers have reported ghosting issues on their discs, resulting in a loss of visual quality. Having watched the discs myself on my PS3 hooked up to my Samsung 32" HDTV, I can can confirm some ghosting, most noticeably during any strong movement. However, I'm an admitted videophile and even I didn't notice it most of the time. I highly doubt the average viewer will notice any issue without pausing and looking at certain frames. If it does bother you, NISA is generously offering a temporary replacement program for free.]
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