Persona 3 the Movie 04: Winter Of Rebirth – Review
Since I never had a pet, I assume that’s a normal thing to say to your dog, isn’t it?
Persona 3 the Movie 04 – Winter Of Rebirth: The world is about to end! And while everybody suffers from a little end-of-the-world-blues, Makoto has to make a decision. You see, only HE can decide what should happen with the world. It isn’t like we’ve gone over this three times already how life is worth fighting for and there certainly was no drama accompanying that message which would help Makoto remember that. But thankfully after a couple days of moping somebody reminds him of what happened in the other three movies and the story can go on to the saving-the-world-part.
That makes it sound like they’ve been fighting space-monsters the whole time.
The fourth and last movie of the Persona-3-Movie-series puts out all the stops visually and tonally to feel like a satisfying finale. On one hand you got all the doom and gloom of fighting against desperate odds and for seemingly unachievable goals. And on the other hand you got a parade of visually stunning moments to stylize the final battle for the fate of the world. If you’ve gotten this far and have gotten this far due to your experience with the game, this is certainly the best movie of the four. For everyone else, the only reason to watch the movie would be to see the great visuals of the movie.
The Persona-3-Movie-series (and this applies to the Persona-4-animes, too) have been dogged by one central problem: They aren’t good videogame-adaptations. Let me clarify: The problem is adaptation alone here. I’ve finally played Persona 4 Golden, so now I have a better understanding of what the adaptations try to do. It crystallized all the reasons for me that explain why no Persona-Anime-adaptation has really worked so far: No one seems to care about making these adaptations fit the framing of movie-storytelling.
The way the Persona-3-Movie-series tried to adapt the game was by slavishly adhering to elements of the game that make absolutely no sense in the movies. One big example is the calendar: In the games there’s a daily routine of gameplay consisting of pursuing social links or fighting in dungeons (or doing other RPG-esque stuff). There’s a limit to how much you can do each day and so big events happen with a lot of time between them. In the games this makes sense as it accounts for the grinding and RPG-busywork you do. This is why this movie brandishes around weird deadlines like “So, make a decision on December 31st and then fight for it on January 31st.” You never hear movie-bad-guys say before the finale: “Do this or you and your friends die! You have time until the end of next month – or else I will fight you at the end of the following month!”. Narrating time in a movie is all about how you transition from one scene to the next. But the calendar of the videogame is there to create transitions between major story-events and the normal gameplay-routine. That transition doesn’t work in a movie, though. Therefore you’re left with these calendar-moments where it just announces the passage of time without being an actual scene-transition in a normal sense. The scene happens. It ends. The calendar jumps forward. The next scene begins. There’s no elegance to this and just makes you wonder what happened in all the time it skips this way.
The movie-adaptation has nothing to fill this time with and the game does, of course. But since the movie has refused to reconfigure the time-line of the movies, the final movie’s first half is as mopey as it is boring. The movie opens with Ryoji giving mission-parameters to Makoto (while ignoring the perfect-ending-route, of course). This is another very game-y moment as Ryoji is very straightforward in explaining what is happening and what the protagonist has to do when. There’s no sense of intrigue or mystery in this moment. It’s all laid out and instead of ramping up the tension, the tone is more akin to a homework-assignment. Makoto gets a task and a deadline. And as always the deadline is pretty far into the future. And of course it’s weird how Ryoji ignores the other characters that are present. In the game, of course, this makes sense because Makoto is you and it’s up to you to fight for a good ending. Naturally everyone who has followed the movie-series knows what kind of character Makoto is and so I certainly had a “Aw, fuck…”-moment when Ryoji decided that only Makoto could decide the fate of the world.
Naturally, what follows is 20 minutes of despair that amount to an absolute snoozefest.
You see, Makoto has to make a decision because he’s the “chosen one” (the movie literally opens with how Aegis had chosen Makoto to be the vessel for Ryoji/Nyx). But the rest…? They’re characters who can’t do anything and do nothing! And we follow them for twenty minutes! They mope and fall into despair… which is understandable but boring to watch. There are three things which make characters sympathetic to an audience: 1. They’re very active. 2. They’re competent. 3. They have a relatable motivation. You need to check at least two of these boxes and sadly in those first 20 minutes none of the characters do anything, seem competent or have any motivation (they just give up after all).
The whole thing becomes more frustrating after that.
Since Makoto is supposed to decide what happens next, it would’ve been interesting to see some discussion happening between the others and Makoto. But instead THIS is about the extent of the discussion that happens.
Even if you like all the characters in Persona 3, I can’t imagine this movie to be a pleasant experience in its first half. All the character-growth from the previous movies simply disappears in those first 20 minutes. It isn’t like there’s some character-development-process happening there. The characters simply have a plot-convenient case of amnesia and nihilistic depression. Since despair’s on the menu for this movie every idiot and his dog (literally in this case) fails to find anything but despair in their current situation. Despite Makoto being the focal point here, most of those early twenty minutes is about the other characters falling into despair on their own – while ignoring Makoto (who also isolated himself – like usual). Only after Makoto has made a decision and has “summoned” the sun all these other characters remember the lessons they had learned in the previous movies. Suddenly every character had a “Wait a minute…”-moment where they remembered their characterization again and their motivation. It’s baffling to understand why I have to watch characters who should know better mope for twenty minutes while nothing happens – and then suddenly they’re all their usual selves again because the plot demands it. This section doesn’t add anything to the story or the character-development. It’s a waste of time, frankly. You could easily cover the events of the first 20 minutes in a small montage-sequence.
But there are montage-sequences in this movie and they overstay their welcome. When it becomes time for Makoto to make his decision, two montage-sequences are there to show his depressed attitude at the beginning and his happy attitude after the revelation. The whole thing enters the “We get it already!”-territory pretty quickly. Even though, the presence of the blue-room-lady offers some necessary levity at that point (after all the boredom and gloom) it’s blatant what it tries to get at and the ending of that section is as unsursprising as its flashbacks and montages feel overlong.
The reason for that is a general problem of this movie: It never offers any revelations about its story or characters the series hadn’t covered before. What in the game is consistency has morphed into tiresome repetition in the movie-series. While plot-wise the series has raised the stakes and now finally has arrived at the fate-of-the-world-portion, story-wise the series’ beats have remained consistently uninspired and utterly undeveloped. If you have understood what the first movie had tried to say, you already know what this movie tries to say.
No developments, no actual revelations: All the movie offers is characters rediscovering what they had already learnt previously or they just finally crossed the same finish-line the audience had already crossed during the first movie. Every movie has Makoto moping alone only for him to learn the value of friendship and socializing. And in every movie we see characters despair only for those to rediscover their love for life. And the plot has always only challenged this theme (with the death of characters who weirdly enough have always switched sides prior to their departure) to reaffirm what the good guys think. Again, while this makes somewhat sense in a 60-hour-videogame, in the movies it doesn’t. While the game consistently tries to build up its themes, the audience experiences the story in separate chunks. And those chunks try to amount to a coherent story for a movie. The movies don’t work on their own by faithfully clinging to the script of the game as each movie fails to offer much of value as an individual episode of the narrative.
What differentiates this movie from the others is its focus on spectacle, though. The personal drama gets side-lined in the second half as the visual fireworks of the final battle take over – and it’s exactly what makes this movie-series come alive finally. Aside from the pull of popular source-material, this adaptation had little of value to call its own. Visually recreating cool moments in a cool manner should’ve been the goal of this movie-series. They certainly tried – but the truth is that this movie-series mostly hasn’t offered much more than your average battle-shounen-series. The stuff that would explain the popularity of Persona 3 and what differentiates it from other shounen-stories gets buried here. What gets focused on is superficial melodrama coupled with familiar shounen-action-storytelling. The movie-series never tries to make any discoveries or offer salient insights.
Yes and it’s the “hopeful message”-part she hadn’t recovered until now. What a coincidence!
Ultimately what the adaptation reveals is what the industry thinks Persona 3 should be. Teenage-angst, superficial fights and the boring theme of celebrating friendship and optimism: That’s what the movie-series seems to care about. But the much darker underlying themes (the guns alone…) get buried and forgotten. There’s so much more to what this series’ story hints at and is never taken serious. The conflict with Strega quickly devolves into an argument of the bad guys whining á la “What’s the point?” and the good guys arguing “Life is great! Because friendship!”. What the story here does is to hide itself behind cheesy idealism instead of confronting the reality behind the questions it raises.
It’s only when the movie stops trying to be moody and/or preachy that the movie works. The visuals of the final battle simply work. It alludes to classic films like 2001: A Space Odyssey while also entering this abstract stage of absurdity so many Animes in the 90s did. Makoto argues with the universe essentially. And it looks cool. What more do you want? Thematically the series has never offered any salient points about the reality of daily life. So what really counts is how entertaining this series can be. Good visuals are one way to do that certainly. You can excuse a lot of boring drama when it happens between cool-looking battles. Or you could just let the action happen while the meat of the story gets buried in metaphors and allegories. Anyway, what the second half is doing works much better than what the series has offered up to this point.
It’s the second half that makes this movie the best one of the series. Sadly it’s paired with the worst 20 minutes of the entire series. This movie couples a 20-minute-long waste-of-time with an epic 80-minute-long battle. It has great visuals and the actions is satisfying for a shounen-series. I mean, let’s face it there are animes with better fighting-choreography out there (the recent Fate/SN:UBW, Fate: Zero series are good examples) and live-action offers so much more, of course (like Ong-Bak, the Raid, Oldboy (2003), just for example…). This movie may be the best of the series but the series never dares to look closer at what topics it’s actually dealing with! The seeds for an awesome story are there! And that’s partly the reason why the Persona-franchise is still so popular! If you look at the barebones of this series it’s about characters becoming so depressed they’d rather kill themselves but by diving into this well of depression they find a new calling and from there they slowly discover the value of friendship and love. That would be a good story! But it’s sad to see how generic this adaptation makes this story feel. Unique moments in this movie-series are truly unique and mostly happen despite the adaptation’s interests. After all, this movie proves how this adaptation has no fucking clue what to do with its characters for 20 minutes while they figure out what to do next. And only after a deus-ex-machina has happened, the plot actually starts in this movie!
This movie nails what it tries to do and exemplifies all the failings of the series in equal measure. Seeing Makoto decide to fight for the universe (because he finally gives a shit) and deal with such abstract and absurd enemies/battlefields is what makes that second half fun. What lacks any sort of fun is wasting time by rehashing shit we’ve seen already in the movie-series. Every character’s arc in this movie is essentially re-discovering what they’re learnt in the previous movies. Only Makoto goes a little bit further because he literally is the ‘chosen one’ (yes, literally…!).
But in the end, the series remains superficial within its battle-shounen-constraints. What the adaptation cares about is making Persona 3 look like Naruto or Bleach. It’s all very serious – but the actual storytelling is frivolous, at best. Of course, you can still sell a good story with that formula – but this movie-series isn’t that. No movie in this series actually offered any argument for why you should play the game. The adaptation has essentially failed on convincing the audience that Persona 3 is worth playing. What the movie-series has offered is a perspective on Persona 3 that is colored by the need to offer a product to sell. Clearly what has mattered in this adaptation isn’t what makes Persona 3 special but what it shares with other battle-shounen-series. Ultimately what we’ve gotten is an adaptation that makes Persona 3 look ordinary.
Rating: 4/10 (First Half) 6.5/10 (Second Half)