Helen McCarthy tries to avoid getting sucked into the screen
There's nothing new under the sun. The idea of people caught inside a TV screen isn't new, even in anime: Video Girl Ai did the same thing back in the days of cassette tape. The idea that in another reality, you have special powers and a vital purpose, has been exploited by shows from Sailor Moon to Vision of Escaflowne. The displaced teen hero is found in myriad places, from Princess Mononoke's early Japan to Fullmetal Alchemist's Nazi Europe. The sentai concept, the teen-led team with its mix of strengths and mutual respect goes all the way back to the 60s, with Osamu Tezuka's puppet adventure Galaxy Boy Troop predating 1966 anime Rainbow Sentai Robin.
Where Persona 4: The Animation scores is in spinning this handful of old tropes into an interesting pattern. A 26 episode TV series aired in Japan from October 2011, and released in the USA and UK from September 2012, it's based on a game from Atlus. Japanese teenager Yu moves from Tokyo to a quiet country town to stay with his police detective uncle, and becomes entangled in a weird world of murders, changing weather patterns and a TV show that's trying to pull him into its universe. Yu and his new friends must find their Personas – their "other halves" inside the TV screen – and prevent more destruction in their own world.
Game-based anime have some complex constraints. They have to stay faithful enough to their origin to please game fans, but be coherent as standalone stories to win new, non-gamer audiences. They also have to compress many hours of gameplay into much shorter screentime. Happily, senior writer Yuuko Kakihara has plenty of experience as a story-planner, including a key role in Disney's Japanese Stitch!, while director Seiji Kishi's rap sheet includes tense human drama in Yugo The Negotiator, strange powers in Magikano and game-based stories in Ragnarok The Animation. All the key elements of the game are present and correct, although much compressed, and there are only a few moments where newcomers to the concept will be momentarily baffled.
The stylish, striking designs and colour palette wielded by art director Kazuki Higashiji are a major plus. The opening credits play up one of the show's key features, the difference between the TV world and the real. The mix of 2D and 3D is a tricky one to pull off in anime, but lead 2D house D-Station was supported by some of the top names in the TV anime business, including AIC, GAINAX and Sunrise. Shoji Meguro adapts his music from the game to good effect for TV. There are a few problems with the animation, an occasional over-reliance on still frames, but not enough to spoil your enjoyment of an otherwise entertaining show.
Persona 4: The Animation is out in the UK from Manga Entertainment.